Month: November 2009

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.

Hyper Chaos

Stuck in San Diego doing some intermittent blogging before getting the appendix taken care of (hopefully).

Harman writes:
True, the archefossil is not nearly as important for Meillassoux as people think. I don’t blame them for the misunderstanding, though, because I think even the other three Speculative Realists all zeroed in on that part more quickly than Meillassoux intended, and since the book was published he has clarified that to some extent he is sympathetic to correlationism. That is a way in which he differs from the rest of the group.

Hyper-chaos is the whole linch pin for any future system that Meillassoux is working on. But this means he’ll always need to keep in place correlationism, since he must keep the phenomenal (that which is decidedly ordered in some way) from the transfinite possibilities of the chaotic in-itself.

Oh Brother

Yes, it is strange that perhaps (I always remember that it wasn’t conclusive given how common the names were) that Plato references two of his brothers in the Republic. Graham Harman writes, “Is it not utterly preoposterous that Plato included two of his own brothers as characters in the Republic?” I always point that possibility out when I teach it, but then I’m one of those Continentals too caught up in style and I should be diagramming the arguments. But yeah, portraying your brothers as tools is pretty age-old.

Oh…and what I would have said…

My point on Sartre was simply that I think he explains the pre-evental in a way that I find Adrian Johnston and others (Nick S. has written on this, too, as has Peter Hallward) have all wrestled with in Badiou’s work. Adrian Johnston in his new work points out that Badiou doesn’t really have an account of desire that would be a condition within a given set such that one would act for the event in question. Now, I think one could in a sense use the language of scarcity in Sartre, much derided, as but another way of speaking of lack, and thus I actually think in this way Zizek is more of Sartrean than Badiou, since he sides with Sartre on history, the void of the subject, and a certain freedom at the heart of any given structure. That’s a bit broad, of course, but I figure for a blog post, it’s better to be simplistic and provoke more than subtle and dusty about it. Of course, in Sartre, organizations such as the group in fusion are post-evental, too, and I think Badiou was wrong to stipulate in his move away from Sartre that for him the political was reducible to the historical. And in any case, Badiou never satisfactorally bridges the metapolitical and the situated worlds in Logic of Worlds and Being and Event. It’s a subtraction procedure, to be sure, but in the end I find Sartre tells me more about, say, hunger, than set theory does. That’s simplistic, but again, the first thing one thinks when one reads Badiou is something just this snarky, and I don’t know if that’s really ever answered, except through a lot of steps wind in too many circles up to an air too rarified.


Arggh. I have to pull out of the Sartre conference this weekend since the CT scan yesterday said I have appendicitis, which means I’m missing on one of my favorite conferences. Freelancer Extraordinaire was quite bullish on not letting me on a plane, even though I’ll have to wait until next week for the surgery (unless something happens in the mean time). So, with my tonsils out, this will mean that I’m be out of my unnecessary organs. I’m hoping they’ll let me have a friend read my paper.

But at least now I know I wasn’t dreaming up the stomach pain…