Month: November 2011

Bad Student Writing

Via Leiter and some Facebook posts, there’s this blog for bad student writing. I tend not to like the politics of picking on certain students’ writing: it’s fine around the so-called water cooler, but are things really worse than during eras of huge illiteracy? Are we hearkening back to some era in which student writing was good?

Anyway, speaking of a previous era, when I was an undergraduate, there was supposedly an annual competition called the Dick Hart awards in the SUNY SB philosophy department for worst student writing (awarded anonymously). The story goes that a confused prof of modern philosophy was wondering who was this scholar Dick Hart that was cited numerous times in a lengthy student paper. You can see the punchline coming (it was Descartes) but yeah it’s important to read the texts you’re writing about.

Resigned to It…

This week has brought the American newscaster Keith Olbermann demanding the resignation of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, then we have Nathan Brown’s call for U.C. Chancellor Linda P. B.Katehi (last seen here being shamed while on a perp walk to her car) today.

I wonder about the history of resignations. One imagines it goes back to court courtesies, and the roots are in the the Latin resignare. But in these cases, it’s not like asking a CEO to resign (in lieu of firing); it’s an statement of one’s own powerlessness: I must ask you (a mayor or Chancellor) to resign since only you have the power to take you from that office–it won’t come from elsewhere. Thus instead of impeachment proceedings in New York or a similar move by the Regents of the UC system, you have to rely on someone to fall on his or her sword. In any case, there must be an interesting history of this technique since it’s akin to prompting a confession of one’s failure (as opposed to simply removing from office) as more powerful indication of that failure’s truth.

While I’m at it, Glenn Greenwald is up with a post that captures a lot of what I’ve been thinking about this–it’s all of a piece with the militarization of local police forces, including campus police–all in the name of the safety and security of a populace to be cowed into submission. Thus we have the state of sovereignty as it operates today.

Scu hates people

He posts the following:

I went to a lecture yesterday on Levinas, Kierkegaard, and Locke. I asked the speaker a question about potential limits of the phenomenological basis of Levinas’ ethics in regards to beings who are not yet (the ethics of fighting global warming for those who do not yet exist), and also I asked about what happens when there is a disagreement about being called by the face of the other, specifically about animals. The speaker began his response this way:

“A French philosopher, I don’t remember whom, once said that loving nature is really hatred of humanity.” And the answer went downhill from there. A few things: (1) I assumed the speaker was referring to Luc Ferry, but when I checked, I realized Luc Ferry is quoting Marcel Gauchet. (2) I am honestly shocked every time I run into an educated person who does not believe in global warming. (3) This seems like a good time to remind people about this post.

I can’t tell whether the person is reacting to the bit about global warming or, more likely to me, the discussion of animals. First, that’s a great rhetorical trick…just drag out the “Famous French philosopher said (whom I, uh, can’t remember right now)” as a way of a put-down.

But even weirder: this is standard fare for discussions of Levinas. He wants to say both that the Other as such is wholly other, unique, and non-subsumable under a form of knowledge, and he wants to say the other is human. But there is no a priori rule one can put into place, given his radical claims for alterity, that would have one always already identify otherness  as human, as non-animal, and so on.

This is a good time to raise a general hermeneutic point: if you want to see where a philosopher’s own discourse must efface itself, one usually can do no better than try to pin down where they place the human/animal distinction, which is one that they can make stick only by wounding the heart of their work.


Too Bad It Wasn’t Beyond Tolerance Tuesday…

As we’ve seen at Berkeley this week and now at U.C. Davis, we have administrators who both want to be liberal and also, you know, permit the police to pepper spray UC students. One pictures the following life itinerary: in the 60s/early 70s, you battled the man, then you got a teaching post, then worked your way up the administrative ladder, then wanted to still talk like you’re battling the man, even if you are the entrenched power calling in the police.

Chancellor Linda P.B. Kahtel’s most well known initiative to date was her “civility project,” which includes “Beyond Tolerance Tuesday” (that just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?) The Wendy Brown critique just writes itself, doesn’t it?

But the bigger picture is this: we have seen in the “no touch torture” and water boarding discussions of the mid-aughts how American leaders talk like sadistic, abusive husbands: as long as it doesn’t leave a mark, it’s apparently okay. Thus we get the pepper spraying and then, of course, the protesters are “resisting” and out come the batons…


Society and Space posts on the Occupy Movement

Some prominent theorists have weighed in…

ANANYA ROY “Occupy the Future”

EDUARDO MENDIETA “Occupy: to dwell in the space of attentive solicitude”

JULIET FALL “Translations in the city”

DEBORAH BIRD ROSE “Convivial Activism”

CYNTHIA WEBER’S short film from the early days of Occupy Wall Street “Occupylujah”

More will be published soon at

Clojure Docs:

Usage: (/ x) (/ x y) (/ x y & more) 

If no denominators are supplied, returns 1/numerator, else returns numerator divided by all of the denominators.

Birmingham on Kahn’s book on Schmitt and Sovereignty

I’ll lift this from the comments since I didn’t notice it down there for a few days. Peg, from whom I’ll always be learning, sends this in about Paul Kahn’s comments (he had a response up at Immanent Frame over criticisms of his Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty ), to which I responded more or less viscerally, rather than, you know, on the actual merits:

I think you mischaracterize Kahn’s response to his critics. Yes, he begins with a critique of those who in his mind have misquoted him and thereby attribute to him positions that are not his. Fair enough. He also goes on to respond to those who in his view read him carefully and whose critical remarks he takes very seriously. He explicitly responds carefully to Ward Blanton and Peter Gordon. To my mind, Kahn’s response to his critics is a model of how this is done. I especially like his response to Blanton and his consideration of the role love might play in imagining a new political beginning. I have been allergic to love in politics, but Kahn’s response makes me willing to at least reconsider it. Certainly one can’t ignore it given the immense influence of Rousseau and the amour propre.

I have been following Kahn’s work for some time now and find it provocative, well-argued, insightful, and among the very best in grappling with the difficult issues of sovereignty, sacrifice, violence, international law, human rights, and so on. Kahn is a serious thinker and deserves to be taken seriously. I haven’t read the book yet, but expect to learn loads from it. Of previous books, I especially like “Putting Liberalism in Its Place.” I don’t agree with everything of course, but always learn a great deal.


What is Continental Philosophy?

I don’t know. Todd May, one of my philosophical heroes as activist and thinkers, has a post up about removing himself from the Pluralist Guide and writes:

I find it ironic that those who accuse analytic philosophy of logic-chopping would resort to such a rhetorical strategy…. It is the continuation of a siege mentality that becomes more anachronistic by the day.

I couldn’t agree more on the point about the anachronism. (The rest I won’t comment on.) I came out of two heavily Continental schools (SUNY Stony Brook and DePaul), and I remember well the siege mentality some profs had. But I think this is purely generations–and in fact was localizable to a certain era of people working on Heidegger, Derrida, and a few others. But none of that has been true for at least ten years, not because Anglo American (the word analytic is itself anachronistic by many decades) philosophers have found an abiding love for SPEP-type programs, but because I haven’t heard any continental-type person under a certain age even use “logic chopping” as a phrase for supposed “analytic” philosophy.

What was the last article you read in epistemology or philosophy of mind that was logic chopping in the old sense? Moreover, when two dominant subsets of what gets called Continental philosophy involve those studying Badiou and his use of set theory and the other being the speculative realism inspired, in part, by his student Quentin Meillassoux, it’s hard to maintain with a straight face that Anglo American philosophy involves a certain mathematical and/or scientific mindset and Continental doesn’t. This is all the more the case since the most prominent “Derridean” of my generation (more or less), Martin Hägglund, writes consistently on evolutionary theory, while Adrian Johnston, the Lacanian heir-apparent, works through recent neuroscientific work and is as apt to quote Stephen J. Gould as he is some obscure German idealist.

That’s not to say there isn’t some “divide,” but I think the discussions of teams and logic chopping, etc., is an anachronism, not because people still use old ways of thinking about this, but because it’s not something that concerns anyone of my generation and younger. “Logic chopping” belongs up there with “groovy” for being able to identify the age of someone without need of a license or birth certificate.

(I was going to stop there, but some anecdotal (lack of) evidence: when I was coming up through DePaul in the 2000s, it had passed from the era of focusing on studies of Heidegger. By the middle of the decade, most doctoral students were working on the history of philosophy, critical race theory, and/or feminism—and thus practiced a “plague on both your houses” approach to both previous incarnations of continental and Anglo American philosophy. That has receded a bit at DePaul since I left, but the point is made: the siege as often as not comes from within.)

Derrida and Grammatology

Graham and Levi are up with posts on Derrida. Since I’m spending part of the day reading Levi’s recent paper on time and Derrida, let me make a couple of notes:

1. It’s true that Of Grammatology is not your go-to source on Derrida and realism. But it’s also not your go-to source on directions for your fridge or how to light a fireplace properly (two other themes of my day, come to think of it). It’s an immanent reading of Saussure on language and, I think, knock-down. Let’s not confuse issues here about the metaphysics of presence. Here’s what Derrida does: he notes that Saussure argues that all signs (thus the coupling signifiers and signifieds) are nothing but the differences from other signs, which are also embedded in different socio-cultural languages such as French.

But Saussure then says, that’s all true, but it’s also the case that there is consciousness, which is outside of any particular language group and whose presence to the spoken word gives it its vitality (thus the langue/parole distinction). But Derrida notes, isn’t “consciousness” another sign? And “speaking”? How can Saussure make this exception for two signifieds, when he has said this is true of all signs? Well, it happens, Derrida notes, that this meets up with a notion of unmediated self-presence one finds elsewhere in the Western tradition.

Does anyone disagree with this reading? Does anyone disagree that Saussure is forcing an argument and in fact, by his own logic, proves the historicity of concepts that he wants to put out of play?

Also, this talk of “metaphysics of presence” confuses things: I don’t think Graham or Levi believe in the unmediated access of self-to-self, which is the avowed discussion of the first part of Of Grammatology. This is the theme of Derrida’s reading of Husserl in Speech and Phenomena of the same year, and it’s true that Derrida doesn’t issue a program there, à la Zizek or Badiou, since deconstruction for him parasitically works through the forced contradictions inherent in texts that try to prove one thing (unmediated self-presence) and end up proving another (helpless mediated through difference/deferral).

I just reread Of Grammatology to teach it last week and I, too, as someone arguing for the realism of time in relation to Derrida can find it …well not helpful. But that’s a tick of conflating what’s he demonstrating (the unworking of self-presence in Saussure and Rousseau) with what it’s not (realism, etc.). Unless one wants to say the real is unmediated self-presence—the most powerful example is the God of onto-theology–then I don’t see the problem.

2. Derrida, though, is also offering a political text through and through, as Levi notes. And here is where I find Derrida’s work really good–thus the reason I discuss it at length in The State of Sovereignty. Rousseau doesn’t just argue for self-presence but, to put it very simply, for a natural self underlying the tricks and appearances of civil society, which also includes the institution of writing. Levi rightly notes the use of “nature” as a political cudgel, and here Derrida identifies the use of nature as a political category that premises an outside that is produced from within a society–something Rousseau himself warns about but can’t help but repeat.

Does anyone want to follow Rousseau in identifying reality with a modernist conception of nature? I take it Graham and Levi and especially Tim Morton don’t. And does anyone want to repeat Levi-Strauss’s and Rousseau’s ethnocentric accounts about so-called natural beings corrupted by language?

So again, what’s the problem?

This isn’t to defend Derrida just for the sake of defending Derrida, but it’s to point out that if one wants to critique correlationism (the idea that what is real must be indexed back to the conscious subject, an argument that entails the correlate that what is most real is the consciousness of self, since in the self relation there is not even the distance of a correlation) or the political effects of an idea of nature, well Of Grammatology is a good place to begin.

(As for Derrida’s reading of Aristotle, his respect for Aristotle on his own thinking of time is noted in “Ousia and Grammê” among other places, which is more telling on these points than jokes made in “White Mythology.”)

(Also, thanks to Levi for sending me his article…a helpful read, where he nicely lays out the multiple directions of his work.)

Departmental “Shadow Figures”

A few days ago, Eric Schliesser had up a post at APPS about those profs who are widely influential even if they don’t publish a lot:

I call them “shadow figures,” because characters like this don’t tend to be noticed outside–they are not cited much and their influence is diffuse. (When I was a student [undergraduate and PhD] the name “Dreben” was bandied around by folk-in-the-Harvard-know, but I had no clue who this could even be.) Moreover, due to an otherwise sensible peculiarity of the Leiter rankings — where folk are not allowed to vote on the department from which they received their highest graduate degrees — they also rarely impact public ranking.

Let’s add this to the list of reasons to be question why anyone takes Philosophical Gourmet or any other rankings absolutely seriously, as in students who won’t go to a #7 school even if it fits their interests perfectly if they get into a #6 instead. I can think of a great list of people who have influenced me but who may not be well-known, though I wouldn’t mention them here since it would come off as a back-handed compliment. But surely those “shadow” figures are more influential than someone pumping out numerous monographs read by just a few people….