Month: March 2010

The Pope and the Step Too Far

There’s an Op-ed in the Times today by John Allen about Ratzinger’s place in the pedophilia scandals: “Nobody at the Vatican did more to confront abuse than the future pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.” Given the nature of the charges, I’m loathe to say anything without looking at this quite a bit more. (It is notable how this is seen in Europe as a great crisis for the Pope, but it’s not much of a conversation thus far in the U.S.) But one can say that Allen goes a bit too far that somehow the pope was someone braving the tide of history around him and thus should be congratulated for his role. Invariably there was bound to be an article like this, but then you end up with quite unCatholic paragraphs like this:

What we are left with are two distinct views of the scandal. The outside world is outraged, rightly, at the church’s decades of ignoring the problem. But those who understand the glacial pace at which change occurs in the Vatican understand that Benedict, admittedly late in the game but more than any other high-ranking official, saw the gravity of the situation and tried to steer a new course.

“Those who understand”–what a classic phrase for ethical relativists. Why not just say “everyone was doing it”? Or “he was just following orders?” Also, why not confront that common surmise is that the Pope reacted only once the “glacial pace” was being outpaced by public outrage–and his “new course” was reaction less to moral duty than public relations? I raise this because as the crisis deepens in the coming weeks, we’ll see this strange dynamic at work: writers like Allen will have to suggest (implicitly)–the glacial pace that no one expects in the face of our moral duties–that the structure of the church was rotten to its core in order to begin to absolve the current Pope.  I don’t have much to say about the particular cases involved in the current crisis and Ratzinger’s own responsibility, but I do know what “responsibility” means and it isn’t the case that one can claim one was good simply since one wasn’t the worst of the bunch. Hopefully, we’ll see writers on this who do much better.

Fight Clubbing

I haven’t seen the movie in a while, but when I did see Fight Club, I thought it was pretty darn good. (This is a great post that reminded me of this.) I remember one of my friends in grad school said they thought it was “fascist,” which then turned out to be something people said often enough about the film. If this was a movie about the wonders of fighting as such, and how the men of our time had to become vigilantes, then I could begin to see its problematic plot (though not that it would fascist, which is just a way of saying “I’ve given up on my political tools for analysis”). But generations now of my students have really liked the movie, so it’s better to address how it does depict marshall values as a form of insanity.

Larval Two-Step

Larval is up with a post responding to the use of narratives in works of realism. This is great time to raise this question, since it’s come up in my SR class and after Harman, we turn to some of Levi’s work. For what it’s worth, I have other arguments that I would use regarding the question of language and I find Levi’s argument here (but not elsewhere) less than convincing. Correlationism isn’t using a two-step, but actually has a more complicated dance with reality. That doesn’t mean I agree, but one can’t just make correlationists into magical thinkers. Levi writes:

This two-step consists of 1) pointing out that x is a necessary condition for y (the signifier, narrative, signs, etc), and that therefore 2) there is no y (in the ontological sense), without x. Move 1 is perfectly legitimate. It’s move 2 where all the problems begin.

But of course, from Kant on down, no one seriously argues this, and even Hegel can’t be brought in here, since there’s much more conceptually going on in terms of asking about the speculative movement itself. But no one argues “there is no y (in the ontological sense) without x.” Ok, maybe somebody at some point does, but the claim is that “there is no y (in the epistemological sense) without x.” That’s quite a more respectable move, and that’s why Larval is critiquing philosophies of access, and is ultimately right to do so. But they’re about “access,” and thus they’re not arguing that there is only y with some given x; they are saying that when we discuss y, how we access “y” inherently filters through the mode of access, just as I don’t expect the pasta to get through the drainer: I get only water. Now, we can then work through the moves that Nancy uses in Sense of the World in his essay on the “différance of the real,” or Meillassoux in After Finitude, to work from the fact of access itself to ontological statements about the real, but I don’t think we can simply be done by suggesting that correlationists think they are creating being by naming it, which is the worst form of nominalism and magical thinking. In the end, Meillassoux reifies the phenomenal realm (the “stability” thesis of After Finitude), but that’s another matter. But it’s the fact that the correlationist argues precisely that they are not making ontological statements (the in-itself is left alone) that allows Meillassoux’s project to begin.

Another way of putting all of this is that I don’t think the linguistic turn was a dead end in Continental theory (just ask Lacan). That’s not to say that we make, as simplistic thinkers leftover from that turn tend to do, the claim over and over that by talking about something, we disturb the fragile flower of the real. But when we introduce language, we introduce other relations (this is a Latourian point) and ultimately, the reason why there’s not “something more” in Latour’s work to each “thing” beyond its relation is his fear that it’s only in a relation to language that a thing is said to be a chair (instead of a set of relations) or something else. In other words, once you remove the signifying act (or the intentional act in Husserl for that matter) it needs to be made clear just what makes a thing a thing. It’s notable that Heidegger writes the Thing essay and quickly runs into this problem and throughout the 1950s works on ever great ways of saying “language is the house of being.” I don’t think we need to go there, but there’s no denying that there is a performative power to naming, that a thing unrelated previously gets related through and in language. This is Latour’s whole reasoning for Pasteur’s work on bacteria and its non-existence prior to his discovery. Now, I think that’s wrong (bacteria don’t just have a linguistic relation and obviously had relations prior to 1864), but in doing a realism, one must not dismiss language’s role (this is not pointed at Levi, who does exactly this in numerous places); otherwise you’re likely simply to have a descriptive physics.


Scu asks, and he receives:

A. adj.

1. That feels or is capable of feeling; having the power or function of sensation or of perception by the senses.

1632 J. GUILLIM Heraldry III. xxiv. (ed. 2) 250 Forasmuch as God would that the faculties both intelligent and sentient should predominate in the head [etc.]. a1676 HALE Prim. Orig. Man. I. ii. (1677) 56 This acting of the sentient Phantasie is a presence of sense, as the Horse is under the sense of hunger, and that without any formal Syllogism presseth him to eat. 1733 CHEYNE Eng. Malady I. viii. §3 (1734) 71 The Nerves..propagate this the intelligent or sentient Principle in the Brain. 1846 GROTE Greece I. xiii. (1862) I. 197 [The legend] ascribes to the ship sentient powers. 1865 TYNDALL Fragm. Sci. (1879) I. ii. 73 Thus is sentient man acted on by Nature. 1879 LEWES Probl. Life & Mind Ser. III. I. 8 We can define it [the relation of Mind to Life] by analytically distinguishing certain functions as sentient from other functions as nutrient.1632 J. GUILLIM Heraldry III. xxiv. (ed. 2) 250 Forasmuch as God would that the faculties both intelligent and sentient should predominate in the head [etc.]. a1676 HALE Prim. Orig. Man. I. ii. (1677) 56 This acting of the sentient Phantasie is a presence of sense, as the Horse is under the sense of hunger, and that without any formal Syllogism presseth him to eat. 1733 CHEYNE Eng. Malady I. viii. §3 (1734) 71 The Nerves..propagate this the intelligent or sentient Principle in the Brain. 1846 GROTE Greece I. xiii. (1862) I. 197 [The legend] ascribes to the ship sentient powers. 1865 TYNDALL Fragm. Sci. (1879) I. ii. 73 Thus is sentient man acted on by Nature. 1879 LEWES Probl. Life & Mind Ser. III. I. 8 We can define it [the relation of Mind to Life] by analytically distinguishing certain functions as sentient from other functions as nutrient.

b. Conscious or percipient of something.

2. Phys. Of organs or tissues: Responsive to sensory stimuli.

3. Characterized by the exercise of the senses.

B. a. absol. That which has sensation or feeling. b. n. One who or something which has sensation.

Hence {sm}sentiently adv.

Life’s Questions

One of the things that I like about the best philosophical works is that they don’t seem allergic to commonplace questions of existence, those that come up often in my introductory courses, but do get left behind in grad school in the search for the best theory. I’m not critiquing how grad school or the academy works, but it’s true that you don’t find courses, as I would assume the unschooled would expect, in “the meaning of life,” or “PHL 560[b] the second in an ongoing course in transcendental meditation on our true selves,” or some such. And it does amaze me the number of colleagues for whom philosophy is, it seems, simply an activity akin to figuring out the best rules for chess. Recently, I was reviewed and a colleague thought that in one class I didn’t go over Nietzsche enough in terms of traditional arguments over determinism. (This was actually covered earlier in the semester, but no matter.) I should note that I’m always happy to get comments both critical and not, since it’s hard to judge how one is doing from one’s students (and their evaluations)—in person none of them will ever tell you that you suck. But in going over the eternal return of the same, the class discussed (well, I thought) what this meant for their engaged practice of life, and what the Nietzschean notion of affirmation would be one they could live up to in the shadow of such a recurrence. This, I guess, was too much about “feelings” or some such, but while I think it’s too narcissistic to think the universe just revolves around us and our quest for meaning, questions about determinism are silly unless one recognizes that the impetus for the question, especially in Nietzsche, is specifically about (the transvaluation of all) values.

Thus, grading today, I’m happy to see my students engaging Hamlet and King Lear in terms of these “existential” questions. Yes, I want them to work out proper definitions and quote the text to good effect, all while making a proper argument. But the worst papers to read are those that simply find Hamlet too “depressing” and thus ignore the questions at issue in order to broach other topics. And one doesn’t need to go in for Heidegger’s analysis of everydayness to wonder if there’s no something similar going on when philosophy is made only about esoteric arguments in value theory or some such, but can’t even figure out the value of such questions. So, bring to class you’re supposed “naive” questions: they’re good ones! I worry more about the chess players tinkering at the edges of the philosophic machine, wondering what pulse there is left if they think all their students just ask dumb and naive questions about human (or other types of) existence.

An ancillary point would be about the philosophers who go to conferences, argue for a given set of ideas, and then in other areas of their life, go in for new age or religious ideas that make no sense in terms of their philosophical positions. Sartre would call this bad faith (I guess of a more literal kind) and I’m not picking on people who proclaim a faith. I’m just suggesting that if you spend your time getting your chakras removed (is that what you do with them?) perhaps you shouldn’t argue for a materialism…

Ok, enough procrastinating: back to grading.


I have four students taking part in our upcoming Spring colloquium. Basically students who have done research with me present their “findings” in terms of a poster presentation at an afternoon event in just under a month’s time. But I wish I have Levi Bryant’s gifts for diagrams-–they always take me far longer than they should to make—and so it’ll be interesting as I meet with the students soon (come see me in the coming days if you are one of those students) to see how I diagram a comparison of Latour and Foucault, for example, or Fanon on race theory, or Heidegger on Aristotle. Good thing my layout skills are pretty good… but it’s also a good thing that we present papers at our conferences instead of doing, as in the social sciences, poster presentations.

Levi Returns

With this post on objects without a correlation to human meaning-giving acts. I think it’s a helpful explainer of his work, though I do have just one question. He writes, “The whole problem lies in the use of the “merely” [that things “merely” act when outside human domination] and with the focus on significance (the focus on significance being the reason that I claim that only a rhetorician could interpret the show in such a way).” Why is significance a question of “rhetoric”? I mean that as a real question—and perhaps I missed in his post his explanation. Why leave significance to the rhetoricians? I think the line between rhetoric and philosophy is less obvious the more one thinks about it (which is why, for example, the Apology is so effective, since even in Plato the latter is a parasite on the former, a point made more and more as Plato advanced in his dialogues). But leaving that aside, why is “significance” about rhetoric. This seems to accede to thinking all value as linguistic, and if there is a “democracy of objects,” as Levi claims, perhaps we’ll need a few rhetoricians and sophistic objects around…

One More Heidegger Post

I’m trying to stick to one idea per post, so as to keep them shorter. But I don’t want to go use several posts to discuss Heidegger. But I can’t help myself in quoting once more from Gordon’s review:

On Faye’s view, therefore, Heidegger furnished the theory which necessarily reached its ultimate realization in the Holocaust. (I have italicized the language of necessary entailment, above.) Now, it would be tempting to imagine that Faye does not mean to take it this far. But we must resist qualifying his argument for him. On the contrary, in what are perhaps the most shocking passages in the book Faye implies that Heidegger may have been a secret speech-writer for Hitler. After all, Faye observes, we know that Hitler did not write all of his own speeches. And we also know that Heidegger nourished the ambition “to lead the Führer” (den Führer führen). We know, furthermore, that Heidegger was “close to Goebbels’s circle” and that he even spoke on one occasion of “Hitler’s admirable hands.” Finally, the most damning evidence is that, while “we do not know precisely what Heidegger’s activities were from July 1932 to April 1933,” there is at least one speech by Hitler from December 1932 which is “in conception, terminology, and style, particularly close to Heidegger’s proposals found in his speeches and seminars of 1933-1934.” It is therefore possible — Faye calls this a “hypothesis” — that Heidegger wrote at least one of Hitler’s speeches (148-49).

How did this get past an editor? Forget Heidegger for a moment, but a high schooler knows the difference between 1932 Germany and 1939, and we must recall how many future victims of the Holocaust remained in Germany unable to take in the enormity of what was to come: the unprecedented evil was, after all, unprecedented. This is not to absolve Heidegger in the least—we get it, he was a fascist bastard—but this leads to thinking about how polemics like this one and Richard Wolins’ execrable Heidegger’s Children are used to slam any person who had any influence from Heidegger. Wolins’ work got wide play when it was published, and in that work he managed to essentially accuse one homosexual and two secular Jews (Arendt, Foucault, Derrida—I’ll let you figure out the order) of collusion with Nazi ideology, while also in the chapter on Arendt managing to shoehorn in every patriarchal trope he could muster. Htiler’s speech writer? Really?

Heidegger’s Politics

Following up on the last post, it always amazes me the subtle political machinations that Heidegger is said to utilize in Being and Time. Does Heidegger have an ontology that opened him to fascist politics? I don’t think any easy causality exists, but let’s have that debate. But the suggestion that Heidegger, perhaps the least subtle major philosopher of the past century (who else would analogize the death camps and the agriculture industry just after World War II, at a time when he’s trying to distance himself from his Nazi past?), somehow intended a Nazi politics to be felt through the analytic of Dasein presupposes a skill that Heidegger by all accounts never had: he simply didn’t have an ear for politics in every sense, including, of course, the ability to see from the point of view of the other, which is the condition for concealing one’s political program in order to make it more palatable. From Peter Gordon’s NPDR review of Faye’s book (cited in the last post):

[Faye’] ambition in this section [on Being and Time] is to show that Heidegger, by means of a “destruction of the individual,” was making room for “the communal destiny of the people,” a task which was (writes Faye) “in neither intent nor approach a purely philosophical undertaking,” but was in fact a “political project,” the ground-laying for an anti-individualistic ideology that lay “embedded in the very foundations of National Socialism” (17-18).

This last part suggest two anachronisms at once: that Heidegger provided for the foundations of National Socialism, despite Mein Kampf, despite the pre-1926-7 writings of future Nazi officials; then he is supposed to also be so forward thinking that he could foresee what was needed to enhance the Nazi political program, all to better, I suppose, its electoral chances in 1932. I’ll make an Arendtian point, which is even more suitable in this context: we give in too much to Nazism and the philosophies of the will to think any of them, yes including Heidegger, as so sovereignly in charge of their projects. It’s less comforting, in certain ways, but no less true, that we have in view here a stupid politics, a politics for the stupid, who can only understand force and power and decisionism—and yes, yes, so much more, of course—and, as Arendt argues, can’t “think”: they can’t see from the vantage of the other, and this was no less true for Eichmann as it was for Heidegger in the mid 1930s. These were idiots in the original Greek meaning of term: they were idiotes who should never have been able to leave the home to enter politics. To suppose such a cunning on their behalf strikes me as an overly and strangely heroic view of history.