Wednesday, October 22, 2008

After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency

Or, An Introduction

Back when I was first beginning to read Martin Heidegger, my first question was about the world before Dasein, or human existence. A badly formulated question, of course, and it was treated as such; I was simply told, and I quote, "You can't ask Heidegger that question."

At the time, it seemed like a complete cop-out of an answer to me. However, I did eventually come to see that the question was a bad one, and I dropped it. To ask on what day, in what year, did Dasein first "appear" makes no sense; it forces the ecstatic clearing into a vulgar conception of time. The "world," defined as the totality of that which appears, has no "origin" as such. If we are speaking about the date of the origin of matter, the proper answer is "The origin of matter can be placed at 14 Billion years ago, for humans."

I learned to re-forumulate or set aside other standard philosophical questions, such as causation. Hume's problem - that we cannot observe causation - is dissolved. If causation is not itself a phenomena, then it is a secondary issue for philosophy.

Now along comes Quentin Meillasoux, for whom none of this is satisfactory. His target is the old, pre-Kantian question of "things in themselves," apart from any appearance to humans. A startling project, one usually only attended to by people who are, not surprisingly, pre-Kantian dogmatists in their philosophy. Kant, of course, set up the dogmatic-skeptical-critical distinction. A dogmatist sees the world as a whole, without any antinomies or paradoxes. A skeptic simply claims that all stability and knowledge are fleeting. The critical stance, which is what all post-Kantians aspire for, is the attempt to declare which sorts of things can be properly known (the phenomena) and which can't be (the noumena).

Meillassoux is actually searching for a way to leave behind these distinctions; he wants the things-in-themselves without the dogmatic world that goes with them, and the critical stance without its kernal of skepticism. An ambitious fellow.

Meillassoux's style is very much argumentative, which means it is possible to engage with his concepts and movements in a way that it is very difficult to do with many other writers (Martin, I'm looking in your direction). So, that's what I'll do. It's a fun book, even if he calls me a creationist.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Quentin Meillassoux: After Finitude

"But then it is as if the distinction between transcendental idealism - the idealism that is (so to speak) urbane, civilized, and reasonable - and speculative or even subjective idealism - the idealism that is wild, uncouth and rather extravagant - it is as if this distinction which we had been taught to draw - and which separates Kant from Berkeley - became blurred and dissolved in light of the fossil-matter. Confronted with the arche-fossil, every variety of idealism converges and becomes equally extraordinary - every variety of correlationism is exposed as extreme idealism, one that is incapable of admitting that what science tells us about these occurrences of matter independent of humanity effectively occurred as described by science. And our correlationist then finds himself dangerously close to contemporary creationists: those quaint believers who assert today, in accordance with a `literal`reading of the Bible, that the earth is no more than 6000 years old, and who, when confronted with the much older dates arrived at by science, reply unperturbed that God also created at the same time as the earth 6000 years ago those radioactive compounds that seem to indicate that the earth is much older than it is - in order to test the physicist`s faith. Similarly, might not the meaning of the arche-fossil be to test the philosopher`s faith in correlation, even when confronted with data which seem to point to an abyssal divide between what exists and what appears?"

Well fuck you too, Quentin.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Obama, the Weathermen, and the American Left

Once again, I'm out of the country during a Federal election. This is starting to become a habit.

Much more interesting is the current American campaign. It has become increasingly nasty these last few weeks; google around for some of the videos taken outside McCain campaign events. The American popular right is slipping into insanity, and it is a great deal of fun to watch.

However, that is not the most fascinating issue. One of the common McCain campaign attacks against Barack Obama is his association with William Ayers, a former member of the Weathermen Underground. The Weathermen, these days, are simply called "terrorists" and as such lumped in with al Queda and other such criminals. Barack served on a board together with Ayers, and so the attempt has been made to tarnish him as a friend of terrorists.

The response by the American left has been to downplay the association; they point out that the link is tenuous, and that Obama himself has condemned Ayers' old radicalism.

In terms of calculating and promoting Obama's electability, this is the politically "necessary" response. The actions of the Weathermen are simply too far outside the realm of public acceptability for any association with them to be politically viable.

Even more than this, it shows just how far behind we have left the glory days of the left. The Weathermen were certainly extremists and radicals in their day, but they were a part of the discussion. The left's strategy of defending Obama by attempting to erase the Weathermen is an indication that any concept of radical leftism is now excluded from the discussion, by both left and right. What we are left with is the fashionable liberal humanism, whose only resource is to shriek about "choice."

So who were the Weathermen? Old school revolutionary bomb throwers. They were the extreme end of the upheavels of the 1960s; dedicated to the violent overthrow of the United States Government, they bombed banks and police stations. They organized riots (in rich neighborhoods) and even a few jailbreaks. They engaged in armed robberies. They fought for civil rights, allying themselves with the Black Panthers and worked against the war in Vietnam. In short, they represented one of the few points in American political history when a handful of people stood up and refused to play by the rules.

In the early 1960s, a grouped called the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was founded, based upon the non-violent model of the civil rights movement. Near the end of the '60s, internal disputes (whose dynamics very much mirred religious schisms; every community of believers faces this pitfall) tore the group apart. The Weathermen kind of staged a coup; they took over the SDS apparatus and went national. A very messy period that produced all sorts of acrimony and resentment.

From there, they took off. They attempted to form essentially military communities, disciplined and regimented. This in itself is fairly fascinating; rarely do North Americans attempt any sort of true discipline (outside the actual military, of course).

The left was always ambivilant about them. Even the Black Panthers eventually disowned them. They found themselves alone and in crisis; after several years on the run, living in ramshackle conditions, the group fell apart.

Their main insistence was that any passivity at all was itself a violence; all the failings and violence of capitalism could only exist when the people participated in it, actively or passively.

They had all sorts of failings. Their attempts at sexual liberation seemed to mostly fail in misery and tears. They considered monogamy to a primary building block of the social order. In this, they agree with current conservatives arguing against gay marriage. Whoever is correct, the Weathermen met many problems surrounding their sexual project. Another failing is the occasional element of misplaced rhetoric; at least one member publically called the U.S. the "most violence nation in history."

So I really just want to say two things in this post: first, the left needs to remember the Weathermen. Their utter willingness to sacrifice everything for an Idea is all but absent these days. Secondly, it is an utter shame that the link between Obama and Ayers isn't stronger.

Watch the Weather Underground documentary at Google Video.

Monday, October 06, 2008

The More Things Change: The New Philosophical Stylistics

Once upon a time, Rene Descartes insisted that truth consisted in clear and distinct ideas. This is pretty intuitive; a true statement is a true statement. It corresponds with some state of affairs in the world.

Then the 19th century happened. Herr Hegel found isolated concepts to be useless; Herr Nietzsche began to speak of mobile armies of metaphors and a multiple subject. Ideas were no longer so clear and distinct. The critique of identity was underway; Hegel found negativity to be the engine of change, while Nietzsche insisted that only becoming had being, and being was becoming.

Ok, let's make this clear and distinct. Take your average logical syllogism:

A = B
B = C
A = C

See all those cute little signs of equality in there? Step three of a syllogism confirms the identity of all three elements. That's pretty useful in daily life. Except what does it tell you? Nothing new. A = C. Whoopy. Dialectics offers a way of introducing something new; B negates A, producing C (technically, C is the truth of A). As I said above, negativity is the engine that produces something new, allowing us to move beyond the logical syllogism. Just... take my word for it.

The twentieth century ran with that. And this is the important thing: when you leave behind identity and the syllogism, how do you write? In dense, complicated prose that attempts to allow pure difference, or negativity, or multiplicity (take your pick of terms) to diffuse into your writing. This makes for some wildly difficult texts. This attempt at having one's writing style actually enact one's ontological concepts is the reason lurking behind the reputation of "postmodern" philosophy's total impenetrability. Let's take Richard Dawkins' own example of "postmodern nonsense," a quote from Felix Guattari:

"We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticized previously."

It is fairly rare to find "clear" arguments or statements in a lot of contemporary philosophy, because most ontology since Hegel (or historically since Kant's critiques of finite reason) simply does not allow for logical statements which depend upon unthought-out conceptions of identity.

But the times, they are a-changing. We are just now beginning to see what appears to be a return to the old school style of arguments and logic. The two most notable examples are Alain Badiou and his former student, Quentin Meillassoux. Their writing certainly resembles old-school philosophy - the synthesis of emperical facts and syllogisms.

Does this mean that the byzantine writings of the 20th century are now being repudiated? That we need to return to the classical argumentation style of everyone from Aristotle to Hume? Let's not be so hasty.

To rephrase what I've already said, the texts of the 20th century were so difficult because they were trying to present that which is by defition is un-presented - pure difference or multiplicity. Alain Badiou has by no means given up on this project; he has simply shifted the focus. It is Badiou's startling (and frustrating and scary) thesis that true ontology is performed only with math.

It's scary, because he is basically telling philosophy departments around the world, "you know that project you've been devoting your life to? Forget it... it's the guys in the math department that are doing the serious ontological work."

He is a philosopher himself, of course. Exactly what role he offers philosophy is unconnected to my point here. What I want to say is that because Badiou places pure multiplicity in the realm of mathematics, it is now possible to use identity in meta-ontological works once again. Reading Badiou's work is like reading a text from the 18th century; he offers clear axioms, then logically works out their implications.

I think such a shift was inevitable. The Marxist streak of much the the philosophical world has always required serious philosophical thought to support it, and Deconstruction and Schizoanalysis have not necessarily proven themselves as adequate tools of emancipation. Which is of course not a criticism of either; I am merely locating an empirical impetus for the shift in writing styles.

Clear writing is back... now we all just have to learn trans-finite set theory in order to actually do ontology. Yeah, right, that'll happen.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

I Blame the Patriarchy

I'm going to start doing a series of blog commentaries, as well has spring cleaning of my blog roll. I think blogs are fairly valuable things for offering insight into the popular versions of left and right ideas out there today; sure, Slavoj Zizek might be the cutting edge; but Amanda Marcotte is closer to the ground.

The commentaries will run in alphabetical order, so the first on the list is I Blame the Patriarchy (IPB). This is one of two feminist blogs on my list; I actually read others, such as Feministe, but Feministe is part of a trio of big feminist blogs along with Pandagon and Feministing. The three of them have many of the same concerns and many of the same perspectives. I'm not looking for a bloated blog roll, so I've simply linked to Pandagon, it being my favourite of the three.

IBP, on the other hand, has a flavour all its own. Inspired by the classic American feminist polemic The Dialectic of Sex (which strangely enough contains no dialectics), writer Twisty Faster persistently makes a case that world culture - not just western culture, or American culture, but world culture, is based on the oppression of women as a group. One of her mottos is "men hate you."

Most feminist blogs are based on the insistence that the task of feminism is incomplete, that all the of the implications have yet to be drawn out. They are concerned with shifting the status quo, or defending the parts of it that have been affected by feminism (ie Roe). IBP, however, goes much farther; Twisty wants to change everything. This, in itself, is fairly interesting. It sets her apart from a huge proportion of the feminist blogosphere, as well. Other feminist blogs spend a lot of time debating whether porn and blow jobs can be feminist activities; Twisty insists they are just variations on sexual oppression.

This post is fairly typical. The argument is that women are set up as non-human, and that femininity is about accepting this inhumanity in order to appease males. It is arguments like this that I tend to think of as "good enough for practice, but not good enough in theory." Specifics aside, this leaves me sympathetic to her project, but in disagreement on issues I consider fundamental.

I certainly don't have a problem with insisting there is an antagonism at the root of human life. Twisty insists that the root antagonism is that of sexual oppression; I'm convinced that it revolves around class. This, along with my admittedly slowly eroding suspicion of gendered concepts, is why I cannot call myself a feminist in any meaningful sense. Though maybe what Zizek has said about Marxism and Christianity is true of myself and radical feminism - we're on the same side of the barricades.

Blood Meridian

I had to admit something about fiction: I'm not a very rigorous reader. I'll sit down and hash out a philosophy book closely and carefully, working as hard as I can at it, but not so with fiction. So while I love reading something monstrous by Heidegger, I'm not sure I'll ever get around to reading Beckett.

Part of this must have something to do with a lack of experience. After having read a half dozen or so of the major works of philosophy, I now have a feel for structure, for the movement of text. I see Nietzsche in a whole new light these days; when I first began reading, all I saw was the polemical fireworks.

Maybe all I've ever needed with fiction was someone to introduce me to the more serious stuff, to give me a running start at it. Cormac McCarthy has certainly built himself a reputation, garnering high praise from the likes of the canon's most fearsome defender, Harold Bloom. Maybe McCarthy's vaguely Nietzschean fireworks will be a path into "literature" for me.

So, Blood Meridian. The tale tracks a group of roughnecks along the Texas/Mexico border as they gather and sell Indian scalps. Make no mistake, this books reputation for violence is well earned; the posse rampages across the landscape, slaughtering even those they are working for.

The ostensible protagonist is simply known as the kid. The story begins with him, but soon enough he fades into the background, largely being replaced by the judge. If you've read the book or seen the movie No Country, then you have a small hint of who the judge is in Anton Chigurh - a force of nature. The characters do not repeat each other, however; Chigurh is more of an unthinking force of nature, while the judge outright revels in evil.

My praise for the book: there are several passages that were so extraordinarily fine, so evocative, that I couldn't help but compare them to some passages in Lord of the Rings. These passages appeared on a fairly regular basis, as well. Instead of blathering on, I'll offer a few of them up.

Here, the group is camped in a rocky desert area. The judge, who is all things to all men, has been examining some of the rocks in the area. Punctuation is intact, just so's you know. McCarthy has his own way of ordering the world.

"In the afternoon he sat in the compound breaking ore samples with a hammer, the feldspar rich in red oxide of cooper and native nuggets in whose organic lobations he purported to read news of the earth's origins, holding an extemporary lecture in geology to a small gathering who nodded and spat. A few would quote him scripture to confound his ordering up of eons out of the ancient chaos and other apostate supposings. The judge smiled.

Books lie, he said.

God don't lie.

No, said the judge. He does not. And these are his words.

He held up a chunk of rock.

He speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things.

The squatters in their rags nodded amount themselves and where soon reckoning him correct, this man of learning, in all his speculations, and this the judge encouraged until they were right new proselytes of the new order whereupon he laughed at them for fools."

The bones of things? Ordering up of eons? So, so good. This is the judge at work: he nothing is true unless he says it is, nothing is allowed to exist without his permission.

My other favourite passage takes place as the group is hunted by a band of Indians. The group here is out of ammunition and food; they are chased like dogs. They encounter the judge, and he offers them salvation by showing them how to make explosive powder. Just before this, the group marches across particularily rugged ground.

"The malpais. It was a maze. Ye'd run out upon a little promontory and ye'd be balked by the steep crevasses, you wouldnt dare to jump them. Sharp black glass the edges and sharp the flinty rocks below. We led the horses with ever care and still they were bleedin about their hooves. Our boots was cut to pieces. Clamberin over those old caved and rimpled plates you could see well enough how things had gone in that place, rocks melted and set up all wrinkled like a pudding, the earth stove through to the molten core of her. Where for aught any man knows the locality of hell. For the earth is a globe in the void and truth there's no up nor down to it and there's men in this company besides myself seen little cloven hoofprints in the stone clever as a little doe in her going but what little doe ever trod molten rock? I'd not go behind scripture but it may be that there has been sinners so notorious evil that the fires coughed em up again and I could well see in the long ago how it was devils with their pitchforks had traversed that fiery vomit for to salage back those souls that had by misadventure been spewed up from their damnation onto the outer shelves of the world. Aye. It's a notion, no more. But someplace in the scheme of things of things this world must touch the other. And something put them little hooflet markings in the lava flow for I seen them there myself."

No sics there, you understand. It is passages like these where the utter uncanniness of McCarthy's world shines through. I must admit, I shivered when I read this; this single paragraph matches anything I've read elsewhere for horror.

It is a terribly rich book. Ultra violence mixed with uncanny magical realism mixed with wonderful turns of phrase. What with the The Road move coming out, this one will probably be next. We'll see.