For a couple of years I have been lurking on PEL’s Facebook group, biding my time for the perfect moment to pounce on this blog. Recently I got to thinking about the philosophical ramifications of social media. Especially as we’ve just been looking at Jacques Lacan, for whom a central concern was to highlight negative aspects of language and by extension, social interaction.
On 5/16 the regular foursome recorded a discussion of The Sense of Beauty (1896) by George Santayana. What is “the beautiful?” Do we have a “sense” by which we grasp it comparable to what Hume describes as the moral sense?
Where most pre-Humean philosophers considered beauty an objective quality in objects that people then can grasp (think about Plato’s equation of the truly beautiful with the good, which can be grasped by someone in the right frame of mind), Hume thought that finding something beautiful was a natural phenomenon comparable to the sense of taste for food and drink. Santayana (who was also very familiar with Kant and Schopenhauer in this area) has a similarly naturalistic approach, but tries harder to be true to the experiences involved and so has a more complex theory.
The entirety of my band’s recent (3/23/13) CD Release Party is now posted on YouTube:
This combines footage from two stationary cameras plus a couple of iPhones that my friend Glenn walked around with. He did some editing to remove the dead air. The audio is open-air in the club, so it’s not stellar, but you can hear anything, and if your computer plugs into your stereo, you can crank your bass EQ to get a good representation of what it was like there.
The performance was probably our best, though some of the songs are really played substantially faster than I’d like. For somewhere between half and a third of the songs, this was our first time playing them in public, and our first gig in over a year regardless, so it went quite well given that.
[editors note: Daniel was our guest on the Deleuze episode recently and will be posting a bit in our blog over the next couple of weeks]
Since I discovered Deleuze in grad school, he has pervaded in various ways my teaching, writing and thinking. My dissertation proffered a model of rhetoric and specifically the trope; its final chapter focused on Deleuze.
And so when I began teaching the Intro to Rhetoric at at UC Berkeley (where I also earned my doctorate), I delivered a highly Deleuzian view of rhetoric (even though we never read Deleuze in that course —an intro lecture is no place for Deleuze). The texts included Barthes’ “Death of the Author,” JL Austin’s How To Do Things With Words, Nietzsche’s “On Truth & Lie” and Plato’s Phaedrus. I taught that for the sophist a text is never right or wrong, true or false. It’s our job as readers to maximize what’s interesting in a text, to articulate its performance (not just what it says but how it says). This, alas, is how Deleuze and Guattari argue we should assess philosophical concepts: Not whether they are true but whether they are interesting, remarkable and important.
[Editor's Note: Hillary S. has been good enough to lead the Not School "Introductory Readings in Philosophy Group" earlier this year and then again this month, and will be doing so again for June, so we asked her to write a little something about it. Maybe you might want to join up?]
Introduction classes, done university style, tend to be selling plugs for the subject as a whole. In true Not School style, our Intros are a bit different. I was very excited by the response to my first class featuring Common Sense (Thomas Paine). It worked as a wonderful platform to dig in to political theory, exploring philosophy from the inside out.
Trashing Celebrating the theory, function and design of that piece led to an exploration of common philosophical categories and terms, and a discussion of the key elements in developing our own personal philosophies.
On Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s What Is Philosophy? (1991).
How is philosophy different from science and art? What’s the relationship between different philosophies? Is better pursued solo, or in a group? Deleuze described philosophy as the creation of new concepts, whereas science is about functions that map observed regularities and art is about creating percepts and affects. Just reading or writing about past philosophers is not enough; you have to actually create concepts, and to create or understand a concept requires a “plane of immanence,” which is something like a set of background intuitions that is not private to a particular mind. Such a plane constitutes an image of what thought is and determines what questions will be considered legitimate, so trying to evaluate a past philosophy without grappling with the plane means you’ll inevitably misunderstand the philosopher and your critiques will just talk past him or her. Likewise, if you yank a philosophical concept out of its plane and try to turn it into a proposition that you can evaluate, it’s inevitably going to seem weak, like “just an opinion,” because propositions are not what philosophy creates. As for a pragmatist, “truth” for Deleuze is something defined within a plane, not some transcendental standard used to judge planes or concepts.
End song: “Tolerated” by New People, the new album Might Get It Right. Read about it.
When we interpret a text, are we uncovering a hidden meaning? Or are we imposing a meaning from the outside? Film scholar David Bordwell’s book Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema confronts this question head on in a rigorous and analytical way. His chief question is: how are interpretations made? Although on the granular level the book deals with issues specific to cinema, its broader arguments (the ones I’ll be focusing on here) are more or less equally applicable to literary interpretation.
Bordwell is first and foremost a historian of film, and so his book takes a historical approach. Looking at both intellectual and social factors, he charts how and why various interpretative methods fell in and out of fashion at the times they did. But he is also a cognitivist, and he organizes his study not chronologically, but rather as a sort of taxonomy of the mental tools that critics use to find patterns, draw analogies, and build interpretations.
He starts by challenging the language we employ when talking about interpretation. We may talk of “uncovering” or “pulling out” meaning. Or we may even make analogy with archaeology, treating a text “as having strata, with layers or deposits of meaning that must be excavated.” Bordwell thinks this way of talking obscures what interpretation actually does. Interpretation is a process of building up, not digging in. “Meanings are not found but made.”
I’ve been leaking tunes from this album on episodes 64, 68, 69, and there’ll be another on ep. 76, but now it’s available in its entirety. You can download a few mp3s for free from newpeopleband.com, and buy the CD or mp3s there as well.
I’m also making the album entirely free for PEL Citizens (on the Free Stuff page), so go sign up and you’ll get it and the previous two albums. Yes, you can also get the mp3s on iTunes and CDBaby, and since CDBaby farms it out to Amazon and Spotify and a couple dozen other places, it should be widely findable within a week or two.
I’ve often thought of education – my chosen field – as applied epistemology. This was a conceit. Education does not explore or enact the subtle, rich, body of epistemological thought. Education has an epistemology, a vulgar blunt-object affair that is, essentially, the product of the limitations of the structures of traditional schooling.
The problem can be seen if one looks at the act of assessing knowledge. As a teacher, you’re expected to assess the knowledge of the kid in front of you continuously through the learning process. What does the kid know when he or she comes to you? What do they come to know from your lessons? What do they know at the end of the unit? What do they know at the end of the year? What do they know while walking the stage in their cap and gown? This should all sound familiar. These reflect basic questions of epistemology. What is it possible to know? How do you know? How do you know what they know? How do they know what they know?
Brushing up on your epistemology won’t help. In its most abstract form (if you’re talking about “neutral monism,” for example) epistemology provides no comfort to the teacher trying to determine whether or not the kid in front of her “gets” the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Every teacher knows you can’t directly access the kid’s knowledge. We recognize that typical school tests are a proxy for such direct knowledge. We recognize that with our assessments we are constructing epistemological “if-then” statements. We are setting up a condition with an outcome that would only be possible if the student held such knowledge. If the student can answer questions about the French Revolution on a test, then, it is supposed, they know about the French Revolution.
As mentioned at the end of one of the recent episodes, Genevieve Arnold, who’s been good enough to do art for us both in last year’s PEL site redesign (like this and this) and for all of our recent episodes, is available if you’d like to hire her to do some art. For instance, she did my most recent album cover, was able (and more importantly, willing) to work with existing material (Ken Gerber’s “brain guy” picture) to create many of the images on this site (she even managed to match Ken’s style to add Dylan to the caricatures picture), and has a pretty vast range both stylistically and in terms of materials. Check out her site, www.genevievearnold.com, to see her sewing/stuffing/drawing (she does clay too!).
We’re honored that she’s helped us out so much, and she should be getting paid a lot to do this.
As folks probably know, we’re an Amazon affiliate, which means that one easy, free-to-you way to support PEL is, whenever you’re buying anything off of Amazon, to start on an Amazon page linked to through this site, like the one in the sidebar. This routes around 6% of the cost of whatever you put in your cart during that session to us, at no additional cost to you. This is not just good for books, but for whatever weird-ass stuff you buy, and note that though your purchase is recorded on our affiliate records, we can’t see who made the purchase, so we can’t mock you for your purchasing habits (or thank you, for that matter, so consider this your thanks). Several folks have bookmarked our Amazon link as their Amazon home page and so do all their holiday shopping and all that to our benefit, and for that we are extremely grateful.
Thanks to Peter Hardy bugging me repeatedly about it, I’ve finally set up an affiliate account for us for Amazon.UK as well.So hey, you British ladies and gents, start your purchasing sprees by clicking this hyperlink. Perhaps you could start off with some traditional English vegetarian black pudding or read Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain or order Benny Hill:The Complete 70′s Annual [DVD]. Get cracking now!
You needn’t keep track of this post, of course. We’ve added our sponsor link to Amazon.uk on our shop/donate page.
Thanks to all of you for your continued support.
We’ve come again to a new month, which means it’s time to figure out what you want to read next, and the best way to read is with company, so go join Not School (read about it!) to have some people to read with.
Firm groups for May are as follows:
1. First off, everyone contemplating some philosophy reading who has yet to really make the plunge should join the Intro Readings in Philosophy group, which established and well praised Hilary Szydlowski will be leading (she ran it in February) to cover Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Sections II and VII. The text is free, the reading is manageable, the instruction will be a bit more hands-on than in other groups (in which there’s really no “instruction” to speak of, this being Not School), so there’s no excuse not to get in there and participate.
Zizek! is one of those documentaries centered around one really, really interesting person. For that reason it’s more like Crumb or Bukowski - Born Into This than more famously philosophical movies like Waking Life. Zizek!’s structure is simple: The director and a small crew simply follow Slavoj Zizek as he goes about his daily business, which pretty much amounts to him walking around his apartment and traveling to lectures. It’s an entertaining film about a figure of whom most philosophically minded people are aware without knowing much about him. For the people already familiar with him, don’t worry, all of the “Zizek-tropes” are present: weird anecdotes, facial ticks, and self-deprecating humor, etc.
This is not an educational film. I probably know as much about Zizek’s philosophy after watching this movie as before, and this is despite the fact that the director intends to be pedagogical. This is because the film’s quick summaries of Zizek’s work are basically just factoids, full of vague phrases that do not accomplish much illumination, like the statement that claims Lacan was considered “a return to Freud.” I have no idea what this means and I feel 99 percent of the people who watch this film will feel the same. For the most part, Zizek himself struggles to communicate anything of philosophical depth and clarity in the shortish interviews. But this is forgivable because he might be one of the most interesting people alive to observe (he communicates plenty of his salty charisma and humor though). Throughout the film I watched his face, transfixed, asking myself what many people have asked about him: is he on coke? Does he have ADD? Why does he always have phlegm in his mouth?
Since it became known that the Boston Marathon bombing suspects are Muslims, there has been a predictable celebration by a chorus of right-wing commentators for whom the evil of Islam and the collective guilt of Muslims in such cases are tenets of faith.
More subtle but equally pernicious are the reactions of blogger Andrew Sullivan and political entertainer Bill Maher. While they say they reject Islamophobia and routinely acknowledge that the vast majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are not violent extremists, Sullivan and Maher believe that the left’s defense of Islam from right-wing attacks is overzealous and devolves into “liberal bullshit” at the point where it attempts to deny a) that “jihad” is the primary motivation of the Marathon bombings, and is generally a serious threat; and b) that Islam has certain features that make its religious extremists more violent and dangerous than those of other religions, such as Christianity and Buddhism. These views, they say, are motivated by a dedication to the truth, even when such truth is unpalatable and doesn’t fit well with the bleeding hearts and fuzzy heads of liberals.
While I’m generally a fan of Sullivan and Maher, these positions, far from representing a kind of fearless rationality, are really solid examples of the bullshit they think they stand against. In fact, they’re spectacular attempts to pawn off primitive free association and fuzzy thinking as truth-seeking.
On Sunday, 4/21/13, we recorded our discussion on chapters 1-3 of What Is Philosophy? (1991). Gilles Deleuze was a recent French philosopher (he died in 1995) who has probably been requested as much or more than any other figure by our listeners. His style is highly idiosyncratic: difficult somewhat in the manner of the other recent French figures we’ve covered, but frankly, quite a lot more fun; his work with Lacanian psychotherapist and political activist Felix Guattari in particular is very creative and riddled with jokes.
The main task of What Is Philosophy?, the pair’s final work together (Guattari died not long after) seems to be setting up a new conceptual framework for understanding what philosophy is and how it differs from science and art. What is philosophy? It’s the creation of concepts, specifically complex and interesting ones, that enable us to see the world in a different way. No concept is simple: each contains as components other concepts, meaning that they tend to be created in batches. It’s a very anti-foundationalist view: concepts are active creations performed on a “plane of immanence,” which you can think of as a pre-philosophical field of intuitions and sensibilities.
Jon was the guest on our terrorism episode, which has unfortunately become timely again. In light of the events in Boston he was asked to write about the nature of modern terrorism in the Huffington post; read the article here. As he did in our episode, he stresses in the article the need to rationally understand the nature of modern terrorism in order to respond to it effectively:
Several fundamental concepts should guide anti-terrorist policies. When not used as a tactic in guerrilla war, terrorism is essentially a problem for law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Military force should be used sparingly and in support of law enforcement. There is no psychological pattern of a terrorist and no single path to radicalization. Rather, all types of people follow multiple trails to terrorism. One of the best tools in the anti-terrorist arsenal is to develop law enforcement agencies that act as extensions of neighborhoods. These agencies can root out all types of problems before they happen, including terrorism… Finally, it would be helpful if the mass media, especially cable news, would spend time explaining the complex background of modern terrorism. This would be much more responsible than breathlessly awaiting the next stage in a terrorist drama.
Jon was also gracious enough to get permission from his publisher to share about 20 pages from near the beginning of his book Terrorism and Homeland Security where he deals with the definition of terrorism. Note that he does, here, discuss states that use terrorism, and not just individuals. There’s even a section titled “Another Perspective” about Noam Chomsky. Jon gives some historical definitions and then also gives a tactical typology that places various actions on a spectrum from simply criminal activity to political activity with a corresponding type of response (i.e. law enforcement, law augmented with military force, military).
On Jacques Lacan’s “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’” (1956), Jacques Derrida’s “The Purveyor of Truth” (1975), and other essays in the collection The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida, and Psychoanalytic Reading.
How should philosophers approach literature? Lacan read Edgar Allen Poe’s story about a sleuth who outthinks a devious Minister as an illustration of his model of the psyche, and why we persist in self-destructive patterns: we are driven by “the symbolic order,” which tells us our place. The letter, which in the story is an embarrassing but unspecified message to the Queen that has been stolen by the Minister and used to blackmail her, is for Lacan a symbol for the power of the signifier, which dictates the roles of the various characters in the story, as first one then another is pushed into a passive, vulnerable state by gaining possession of it, driven by the logic that moves the letter inexorably back to its “rightful place.”
Derrida thought this reading not only imposed a bunch of psychobabble onto the story, but demonstrated that Lacan just didn’t know how to read a text. Per Derrida’s deconstruction, you have to look at not only the themes the author presents, but at the technical aspects of the work and how they betray the author to serve up a different message. Lacan thinks he’s getting at the meaning of the text, but Derrida disavows the whole picture whereby such a meaning, or truth, can be revealed in this way.
As both essays are tremendously obscure, who the hell knows if Derrida’s assessment of Lacan even gets Lacan right, and the other authors in the collection have different takes on whose interpretation holds water, whether the Jacques are really more similar than they admit, and about how weird it is to be pouring criticism onto criticism of criticism. Mark, Seth, and Dylan do their best to wade through this morass and eke out a bit more understanding of Lacan (building on ep. 74), Derrida’s view of language (see ep. 51), and how not to read a text. Read more about the topic and get the book.
End song: “Came Round” by Mark Linsenmayer, from 2010. Read about it.
We briefly referred on the episode to the fact that, as for Marx, for Lacan, all ostensibly theoretical talk is really tainted in some way. Whereas for Marx, we’re really just repeating, or perhaps reacting to in some more complicated way, the ideology of those in power. Lacan, following Freud, looks for a psychological explanation, for an underlying meaning or meaning structure that is in some way responsible for what we’re really saying, whether we know it or not.
Fink deals with this in Ch. 9 of his book “The Four Discourses.” These are:
1. The Master’s Discourse. This is discourse ruled by the master signifier, which has no literal meaning. From p. 131:
[Editor's Note: Wayne here is currently leading one of our Not School groups on Deleuze. Being well-versed in this area and having made some helpful comments on this blog, we asked him to clarify what he took to be Lacan's ontology. Thanks, Wayne!]
Jacques-Alain Miller once asked asked Lacan, “What is your ontology?” Lacan replied saying that we should read both Badiou and Zizek to find out (guess he deferred to philosophers for ontology). While their ontologies are illuminating, I’ll try here to extract Lacan’s ontology from his own system as much as possible, continuing with Fink’s groundwork in The Lacanian Subject.
Phenomenological Ontology: Subjectivity
Lacan appears to closely follow the Freudian/psychoanalytic concept that the Real represents a psychological time prior to the symbolic (linguistic) order, prior to linguistic consciousness (before language). However, Lacan says that the unconscious is “pre-ontological.” The Symbolic (language) “cuts into the smooth façade of the Real creating divisons, gaps . . . sucking it into the symbols used to describe it, and thereby annihilating it.” (Fink, p. 24) Lacan is presenting the limits of language and experience as symbolic representation in the face of the Real.
1. Choose liberty over security.
2. See events like the Boston Marathon bombing — by virtue of their rarity — as evidence of our relative security, not as one more reason to feel afraid.
3. Understand that our relative security is guaranteed on the whole not by guards and guns, but by basic human psychology, which involves the remarkable nonviolence of the majority of human beings in ordinary circumstances. The exceptions to this rule, far from being minimized by repressive or violent acts, will only be multiplied by them.
4. In the name of both liberty and security: Whatever the ideology of the perpetrators of a terrorist act – right wing or left, Islamist or otherwise – do not make one event an excuse to clumsily demonize a large swath of largely peaceable humanity: conservative or liberal, Muslim or other.
– Wes Alwan