Month: November 2009

Johnston’s Book on Badiou, Zizek, and Political Transformations

I’m writing an essay in the next day or so, with a deadline to have it done before the holiday. The surgery early this week gave me the chance to finish up the book, albeit while taking Vicadin (especially during the Badiou sections). It’s good, and it’s one of those great, contemporary reads where I spend quite a bit of time writing in the margins. I have some questions, but overall I think I’m lucky to be coming up in an era where a certain type of precise philosophical analysis is prized over poetic invention. I can think of quite a few others in my generation or thereabouts that fit this description. I’ll probably post here some extra thought I have that won’t work for footnotes or fit into the text. One thing immediately:

Johnston mirrors a shared critique among Hallward, Srnicek, and a few others on a lack of a coherent account of the pre-evental in Badiou. I’m not a defender of Badiou, so I would appreciate someone steering me correctly on this one, but it seems to me that this critique is based on a thinking of pre / present / post “statist” time that Badiou himself critiques. In other words, if Badiou provides an account of a disciplined “fidelity” to the event after the event, this does not mean simply what we should take to be literally “after” the event, like gearing up to be faithful to the event of the French Revolution (that bourgeois affair!) on July 15, 1789, the day after the storming of the Bastille. No, the point is to think a step out of time such that one is faithful to the event that one could then, by discipline, redeem in the past. This strikes me as quite a different claim, and one not amenable to Johnston’s critique. In other words, I think ultimately this is about right in terms of its emphasis on the “pre-evental” (in fact, I would have argued such this past weekend at the Sartre Society had I been able to go), but since Badiou is rethinking the temporality of political transformation we can’t fault him for not considering how to bring about the event. Rather, he’s saying, stop putting off the event to the future, to the “to-come.” Bring it about not just now, but in fact make it have happened, by disciplining oneself to bring about the revolt from events that have already occurred. I think Johnston accounts for this in his own way, but by the end of the book, even though he stipulates exactly this kind of temporality, he says it’s missing Badiou. I’m not sure.

But what if I agree?

Harman writes about dogmatists:

Here’s a good litmus test for deciding whether you are too dogmatic or not… How many people do you admire despite disagreeing with them completely? A good, healthy mind will have a long list of such figures.

But will a good, healthy mind have a long list of figures that one likes despite “agreeing with them completely”? I don’t know who would qualify under this mode, but I should say that when I’m reading someone and I’m agreeing, I tend to find the work more simplistic that it probably really is (after all, I get it) and then I start trying to find room for disagreement. In the end, I think this is one way that I try out various positions that I adhere to, even those that I adhere to implicitly. So I wonder how many people have a list of figures with whom they “agree”—completely or not.

Philosophy Quizzes

Like many of you, I came back to my email this week after undergoing surgery to find the Philosophical Survey. I keep get implored to do it, as if somehow that a certain quantity of people would make this a good sample set. (What is the set supposed to be: American and British working philosophers? Tenure track and tenured philosophers? Is this going to be set off against non-tenured and non-tenure track philosophers?) Here, I take it, are the questions. I love the simple yes or no style of this. How many papers can be written simply on the false choices below? I was going to post some cool, snarky answers but I’m not feeling up to it…

A priori knowledge: yes or no?
Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism?
Aesthetic value: objective or subjective?
Analytic-synthetic distinction: yes or no?
Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism?
Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will?
God: theism or atheism?
External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism?
Knowledge: empiricism or rationalism?
Knowledge claims: contextualism, relativism, or invariantism?
Laws of nature: Humean or non-Humean?
Logic: classical or non-classical?
Mental content: internalism or externalism?
Meta-ethics: moral realism or moral anti-realism?
Metaphilosophy: naturalism or non-naturalism?
Mind: physicalism or non-physicalism?
Moral motivation: internalism or externalism?
Moral judgment: cognitivism or non-cognitivism?
Newcomb’s problem: one box or two boxes?
Normative ethics: deontology, consequentialism, or virtue ethics?
Perceptual experience: disjunctivism, qualia theory, representationalism, or sense-datum theory?
Personal identity: biological view, psychological view, or further-fact view?
Politics: communitarianism, egalitarianism, or libertarianism?
Proper names: Fregean or Millian?
Science: scientific realism or scientific anti-realism?
Teletransporter (new matter): survival or death?
Time: A-theory or B-theory?
Trolley problem (five straight ahead, one on side track, turn requires switching, what ought one do?): switch or don’t switch?
Truth: correspondence, deflationary, or epistemic?
Zombies: inconceivable, conceivable but not metaphysically possible, or metaphysically possible?

History’s Trials

This post from Brad Delong reminded me of the David Irving trial, which had ensued in Britain when he sued another historian for libeling his holocaust denial as “lying.” What was striking at the time was the number of British historians who defended Irving. I think historians have to put up with quite a bit from us philosophers, constantly looking over their backs for implicit ideological assumptions as many of them go through the back-breaking work of just simply putting names and dates to things. But on the other hand, this is just depressing (along with much else that Delong details):

After Irving lost the trial, diplomatic historian Donald Cameron Watt believed that Irving’s work had been subject to excessive scrutiny and held to an excessively high standard: “five historians with two research assistants… querying and checking every document cited in Irving’s books.” “Show me one historian,” Watt demanded, “…who has not broken into a cold sweat at the thought of undergoing similar treatment.” On the witness stand Watt asserted that “there are other senior historical figures… whose work would [not] stand up to this kind of examination” (see Evans, 2000, pp. 245-6).

To which I would say, I would hope that anything I published could stand up to such “rigors.” I mean, given that these historians in question have research assistants and presumably have another couple of people at the publisher reviewing their MS before publication, one would assume that most books face some query of this type. But no, it would not break me into a cold sweat to know that people might, you know, check my facts if I’m writing a history book.

Tom Brockelman on Zizek and Heidegger

His book on Zizek and Heidegger from Continuum is really good. Here he lays out Zizek’s reading of Heidegger (and the book argues for the centrality of a certain Heidegger to Zizek’s project) in a book review of Alejandro A. Vallega’s Sense and Finitude: Encounters at the Limits of Language, Art, and the Political about the lack of continuity in Heidegger’s work:

I would propose the contemporary argument of Slavoj Žižek, who would have us believe that the appearance of continuity in Heidegger’s work, Heidegger’s continued use of language and categories of finitude from the earlier period, is misleading.

It is misleading because the very meaning of finitude changes in a fatal way after 1934. For Žižek, finitude as it emerges in Heidegger’s earlier texts, from Being and Time through Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, is a specifically modern and radically subjectivist concept. What Žižek means by this can be seen in Being and Time where the analysis of Dasein’s finitude leads inexorably to the theme of an irreducible decision — that of “anticipatory resoluteness” as articulated in section 62. The insight Žižek finds there is a doubling of the merely “existentialist” ideas according to which, as finite, mortal beings, we can never know the truth about our reality. For Žižek, on the contrary, “anticipatory resoluteness” — as an act of decision — is a kind of praxical knowledge of reality, one affirming that the world “is not”, that it has no totality or fixed order. As a knowledge only available in acting, Žižek takes it as radically subjective, as self-consciously produced by the subject precisely in affirming the impossibility that one might discover any normative measure in the world. In other words, a sufficient understanding of the earlier Heidegger requires that we take Being itself to lack truth, to lack another, broader horizon to which one might appeal for the way “things really are”. This means that the ontological horizon doesn’t primarily indicate “something else/more/beyond” beings which organizes them as a whole, but rather the immanent “finitude” of the world itself, a finitude beyond which there is, literally, “nothing” — only Dasein itself in its subjective nullity.[4]

By way of contrast, the “finitude” of the Beiträge and later texts is an effort to re-ground the human being in a more encompassing order — even when that order is conceived in terms of radical historicity. We are finite, over and against what is — not Being. The inevitable symptom of such a neo-medievalism is the demand to abandon an imagined “hubris” of modern self-assertion in a response to it that emphasizes “letting be” or attunement. That’s why in, for example, “The Question Concerning Technology”, any intervention in the destiny of Being is conceived as a kind of mimesis, a reflection and extension of the poietic structure of Being itself.

Of course, the reason for both Heidegger’s own flight from modernist subjectivism and for later critiques of such a modernist residuum lies in politics, in the politics of Heidegger’s Nazi period. Žižek argues, contra-Habermas and numerous Heidegger critics, that the problem in 1933 was Heidegger’s increasing ambivalence about the modern subject, his subtle retreat from a language of extra-personal and extra-communal “will” to a discourse of “the volk” and its analogue in the isolated individual (See “Why Heidegger”, pp. 230-25). In other words, for Žižek, Heidegger’s failure wasn’t that he went too far in his modernism. Rather, for him Heidegger didn’t go far enough in his subjectivism — to an insubstantial subject and to a collective irreducible to any substantial identity.

Solidarity and Sartre

Larval Subjects has a post up today on Sartre (responding to my “brief” post on Sartre’s political philosophy). This part is crucial and I think that whatever reworked thinking of community one has, this is what draws me to the Critique of Dialectic Reason:

My love of it has always been because of the manner in which it conceptualizes groups in fusion and the practico-inert. With neo-Marxist theory, especially that coming out of the Althusserian school, I’ve always felt that there’s too little focus on group formation and too much emphasis on critical breaks and whatnot. I’m not sure how social structures are to be changed without flourishing group formations or the formation of subject-groups. But if you begin paying attention to questions of group formation, then all sorts of questions arise as to how groups are formed and maintain themselves. I don’t see these questions really being posed at all in contemporary theory.

I think that is exactly right. What philosophers do is shine a light on something that people previously hadn’t paid attention to. I was teaching Foucault this week and he stands out for thinking non-juridical notions of power. Agree with him or not, you at least have to agree that at best most political theory is pretty trapped in old discussions of legal forms of power. (This works even for the newer work of Badiou, which slides often between state ideology and actual state power… an equivocation that is difficult to defend.) And I should say that when I first started reading Sartre, I was in a class with Bill Martin at DePaul, who talks early and often about notions of solidarity. I worked on the notion of community (inoperative communities in the work of Derrida, Agamben, and Nancy, for example) but that didn’t mean giving up on all group formation. Group praxis is not, contra some in so-called postmodernist circles, inherently totalitarian or something. (I’m not speaking of the primary sources but people who seem to think it means abandoning all politics as too dirty or situated or something. You form a group or sign a petition or whatever and suddenly it’s group terror.) All groups aren’t “immanentist,” to use Nancy’s early phrase. And it’s not as if Sartre wasn’t aware of “group Terror,” since in fact it’s central to his account. And he was aware of the need not to ‘naturalize” groups. In other words, the missed task for some time has been to think the notion of solidarity. I’m not saying that is done early and often in activist circles and other work in anarchist circles, but actual group formation as Sartre teases out (forever it seems) in the two volumes of the CDR is good stuff and is ignored at our loss if indeed we are to think “politics at a distance from the state.”

Also, it’s work that is not, contra some that haven’t read it, simply his early voluntarism + Marxism. It’s rethinking Marxism from below and from above in terms of the unpredictability of group praxis (or in Badiou’s terms, from before and after the event). And so, it’s not simply a voluntarism appended to historical necessity, since I don’t know what that would mean.

Oh and for those keeping track at home, yes, I have that weird “I made up a cool panel with friends and I’m missing it” guilt, even though, frankly, I was told not to fly. But still. If you’re near Memphis, there are going to be some good papers Saturday morning. And at the rest of the NASS conference as well.