Sunday, February 18, 2007

ToR Part 3: God, Alienation, Cannibalism

Part 1
Part 2

This animated world inevitably has a divine flavor to it, but it is still immanence. There is still the indistinct flow of being into being, water in water. The animated, divine world, however, coupled with objects, results in a particular object being elevated over all others. This is the supreme being, distinct from the flow and limited like a thing; the attempt is to create value, but it is actually a loss of value. A particular thing - which is inevitably a finite thing - is intended to be the repository of all value.

Now, Bataille puts forth a theory about why the Abrahamic God has attained so much prestige in the world; other attempts at developing a personal God occurred in places and times in which the sense of continuity was still too strong. The fact that there are degrees of continuity remains important, though, since it is in contrast with the discontinuous world that the continuous world becomes the fascinating sacred. It is a world that is closed off to us, and this creates both fascination and horror. Horror, because it is a threat to the profane, utilitarian world of work and subjects.

The partly continuous, partly discontinuous world of animated objects becomes a hierarchy of spirits. This hierarchy is based on how much a given spirit depends on a body, in other words, how much it depends on an object. God, being pure spirit, is highest. The spirits of dead humans, animals, plants, etc, all find their places in such a hierarchy.

So, we have a hierarchy of spirits, and a world of objects. It is at this point that two things happen. First, the mind is recognized as being connected to spirits, and so the body is relegated to being an object. The mind/body split. With this new emphasis on mind, objects that were previously seen as animated subject-like things, are also quickly reduced to objects. The animated world begins to give way to a more mechanical view, a world of objects that can be controlled. This is the emergence of the real world, the final fall from a world filled with the continuous.

With the loss of this animated world, the animated objects, like animals, simply become objects. This view of animals as objects cannot be complete, of course, because they need to be domesticated or dead in order to be eaten — animals in fact only become objects to be eaten and negated when the are cooked, when humans have performed work upon them, fashioning them. To kill and alter is not to change from an animated object to a simple object, but rather to assume an animal is an object in the first place. To kill and cook is to implicitly affirm that the food was never anything but an object; hence our trouble with cannibalism. It needs to be remember this is a world with spirits, and that man is partly body, partly spirit. When a human dies, their spirit is more present than ever before. We can’t take humans to be objects that easily. After all, who does cannibalism hurt? If your soccer team crashes in the Andes, what on earth is the problem with using a permanant marker to divide up cuts of meat on your pudgy coach like fattened cattle?

An additional consequence of this fall is an alienation from this world of things created by humans. To subordinate nature into tools and utility is not only to alter the subordinated element, but to change oneself. Nature becomes subordinated to man, but man is tied to nature; it becomes property, but only on the condition that it is closed off; it ceases to have any immanence at all. It can only be utility; the river is not a river but a power source to be manipulated. But in order to this positing to take place, in order for the world to be in man’s power this way, man must forget that he is a part of this world.

Objects are compelled to have a utility, a purpose that is alien to it. The utility of a plow has nothing to do with its reality. In order to eat a cow, it has to stop being a cow; it can’t be the thing that it is. There is a chain here, of things being what they are not; the cow is not a cow, it is a head of livestock, and the human involved is a stock raiser. The head of livestock is a thing, but so is the stock raiser, during the time that they are working. A thing, a person; alienated from what they are.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

ToR Part 2: Animality

Bataille's Theory of Religion basically covers a series of themes in turn, so I'll divide up my presentation according to theme. The first is immanance and animality.

So, animality. This is the word for a state of pure immanence; no distinctions, no contrasts. It is the state of animals; they have no subject/object distinction. Because of this lack of distinction, animals are not capable of submission, domination, desire, recognition and hence not self consciousness. When two animals fight, one is killed and eaten. Neither the eater nor the eaten is recognized in this; there is no qualitative difference. Neither animal is a subject. Neither do animals exist in time; nothing is given in time for them. They only have duration; there is only the present. This will obviously be an important point in the book’s conclusion.

An apt metaphor for this state might be a single note continuously humming; no past notes, no future notes, no alternate notes to contrast with so that the constant note can find some kind of individual identity. Another apt metaphor, one you might have come across when you read the book, is “water in water.”

Now, the next development is the creation of the profane world, of the stirrings of consciousness and discontinuity. Remember, in the imminent animal world, there is total continuity; not contrast. A droning hum.

What initially disturbs this flow is the positing of the object. The developed tool is what is initially recognized as discontinuous. Unlike the eaten and eater, the tool is subordinate to the one who uses it.

Now, the end of the tool and the tool’s use are different things. The tool’s use is its “in order to” – the endless chain of references; if the tool’s use is confused with its end, this results in the idea of an end which itself could not serve another purpose. This “true end” would either reintroduce continuous being, or, if this true end was itself a distinct entity, this entity would have to be found in utility, and then would not be a true end anymore.

The tool’s end is for itself; this is why it breaks the flow. It is alien to the subject, even as the subject subordinates it. The tool is posited as a separate entity with its own way of being.

Because the object is external to the subject, the knowledge the subject has of the object is external. We have knowledge the objects characteristics, and can reproduce it; this reduces our distance from the object; these objects become what is nearest and most familiar to us, despite the irreducible difference.

So this object, known clearly from without, creates an entire world of objects and things; this also opens up the possibility of a type of being which cannot be known clearly from without. Here we have animals, plants, other humans, and the subject. We needed the alternate vantage point of the external world of externally known things in order to see ourselves as subjects.

Now, by putting onto the plane of things those beings that cannot be clearly and externally known - beings like the subject - is never complete. All of these beings, we perceive as both continuous with ourselves, and as objects - as appearance in consciousness, and as objects.

Language defines the category of subject/object; with language, the subject can be considered objectively, like something known from the outside, like a thing. But this kind of objectivity, that separates subject from object, remains inevitably confused. The object that is the tool is perceived as having an affinity with the subject The object can be perceived as something that acts and thinks; the world is an animated place. My pen falls not because of a mechanistic rule, but because of an action on the part of an object.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Ethics: Seriously, Who Cares?

To the left you see (a link to) Alain Badiou's Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. I'm not ready to discuss that book just yet - I've only read about half of it - but between this and some other Badiou material I've read, I'm wondering if he's not going to become my philosophical nemesis. Even if I ultimately want to distance myself from his ideas, the general thrust of his book is quite thought provoking. He's setting up a view of ethics that is essentially creative - creating or maintaining a new kind of situation. His complaint about other views of ethics is that they are dedicated to simply protecting the status quo; making sure everyone is nice to one another; in a kind of waking ethical sleep. I'm fine with that, especially because of the parallels with Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals.

For several years now, it's been one of my mantras that moral laws don't exist. It's always been something quite difficult to explain; often I'm accused of being one of those generic, yet mythical relativists that thinks morality is arbitrary.

After an extended and frustrated merry-go-round flame war on the blog Vox Popoli, I thought it was time to actually start writing about ethics rather than just bashing them. But it's hard, it is. So I've decided on a method. First, I'm going to put forward some themes, then spend a few posts speaking of other ethics. For example, Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics. Kant's Groundwork for a Metaphysics of Morals. Foucault's care of the self. Spinoza's Ethics. And yes, Badiou's Ethics. After that, I'll write a post or two with some positive thoughts. Good, yes? Yes.

The first idea that I want to critique is the idea of moral laws. In a nutshell, this is the idea that there is a metaphysical legal system. That particular actions have particular metaphysical moral qualities. I think this is the basic idea that a substantial majority of ethical thinking is reducible to; by whatever means and on whatever basis, either revelation or by reason, that we can grasp this metaphysical legal system.

I would say this is neither possible nor desirable. It isn't possible because actions are physical; to give them metaphysical importance is necassarily the work of a mind. If it is the work of a mind, it is necassarily perspectival and finite. Yes, even if a God declares the rules. To speak of a perspectival, finite metaphysical law is oxy-moronic; it can never be anything more than a redundant ratification of desire or power (redundant because desire and power ratify themselves).

It isn't desirable, either, since these laws would also necassarily be impersonal. They would never be anything other than excuses - making necessity out of contingency. For example, claiming that your lack of sexual activity has a moral justification, rather than your own simply inability to get some. Or, claiming that fighting an enemy has a similiar kind of moral justification, rather than an amoral exercise of desire or power.

The second important theme is the quesiton of whether or not there are circumstances under which human life is best lived. Is the good life based on external circumstances, or an internal disposition towards the world? Or a mix of the two? This theme I'll develop in later posts.

So, next time I'll write about the Nichomachean Ethics.

Georges Bataille's Theory of Religion Intro

This past Friday, I had to deliver a lecture on Georges Bataille's book Theory of Religion. This was an utterly fantastic book, perhaps the best I've ever read on the subject. I'm going to simply repost my lecture notes wholesale. If you haven't actually read the book, it might all come off as a bit obscure. This was all written for people that have already read the book, and who have a bit of familiarity with a few other authors.

The book deserves a great deal more commentary than appears in my notes, but I can't say as I have time to do it. I have a half finished post on ethics that has been sitting in my drafts section for two weeks now.

I'm going to divide my notes into ten parts, of roughly one typed page length each. This first part is just my opening remarks, framing how I would speak of the book.

So with no further ado, here's part one.

Here we have a book called Theory of Religion. I think both the title and the book leave open a certain ambiguity - is this a theory of the genetic, historical origin of religion? Or is it an ontological account? Is it the story of the development of human consciousness through history, a la Hegel, or a sort of explanatory myth like Freud’s murdered father? The way this question is answered will affect the way you critique it. Not that I’m offering a critique, but I think this question places the first two sections, especially, in perspective.

The first section begins an important theme - there is a boundary to cohesive knowledge; one who “reflects within cohesion realizes that there is no longer any room for him.” The second section is also related to the finitude of thought. Thought remains finite; never complete. It is always differed into the future. This inevitable incompleteness is not an excuse to throw up one’s hands and say “Vanity, vanity, all thought is vanity;” it is simply a critique all reason must submit to.

Discursive thought, then, never concludes; it is always projecting into the future. However - and this is what makes this an ontological musing rather than an epistemological one, Bataille notes the simple fact that no one can “be” independent of an understanding of being. We always already exist understandingly; this is not discursive knowledge that can be differed. Any and all research or accumulated knowledge may alter this understanding, but it can never be pretended that the understanding is not prior. Our perspective is limited, and therefore necessarily mobile. Knowledge of course needs to be formulated, but an end state - a final, exhaustive interpretation of being into discursive thought, is not possible. Several times through the book, he repeats this point; intimacy can only be approached poetically. It cannot be articulated... but of course we’ll all try anyways.

So I answered my own question there. This is a book of ontological, not a history of religion. This point is important to keep in mind later in the book, when Bataille comments on animal behavior; to bring up observational data from the animal or human world would be to miss the point; these are ontological issues, issues of being as such, not Discovery channel style ontic observations. This also indicated by the pains Bataille takes to show that we cannot engage in anything other than idle speculation about a world without human consciousness. To whatever degree that this book can be mapped onto an actual past is a contingent matter. Bataille uses temporal language, of course, and so does my presentation, and this makes it seem like a historical progression, but I still think the best way look at all of this is as a series of structural moments.

I'll begin post my summary of the book itself tommorow, with one part following each day thereafter.