Category: knowledge

Love in a void

External governmental interference with free intellectual inquiry must be quashed, not accommodated.

MAGAstates are states of hate.

One has to decide which dictator one will back: Maduro or Trump.

Must be deflating for Robert Kraft to have to apologize again. He’s truly sorry he got caught, like all perps.

NY Mets are a failed franchise. Even the penny pinching Rays locked up their ace.

This empirically thin argument makes me miss David Carr.

Made of stone

As any astute Marxist knows, the working class has not always been progressive (the example of their support for Brexit and Trump is the latest evidence). Also, this Marxist would know that the mode of production in capitalism does not stand still, but is constantly revolutionised. Consequently, the industrial mode of production (most highly rationalised by Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor) could only be a time limited affair. Moreover, the skills and aptitudes needed for work under these labour conditions would also have a relatively short life span. In other words, industrialism as a mode of production would never last forever; thus the towns which built themselves around a mode of production that would become obsolete are similarly doomed to go the way of weavers and steam powered locomotives.

This process of obsolescence was hastened by the battering down of “all Chinese walls” (Marx): not only were “foreign” markets opened to the mode of capitalist consumption, they were opened to mode of capitalist production (industrial production). If capital follows “cheap labour,” then it was also inevitable that industrial production (manufacturing) would migrate across borders to more hospitable climes for the maximum profit extraction/labour exploitation. The spirit of socialist internationalism, that workers of the world share a common plight and a common struggle, is thwarted by national populist tendencies. The effort to restore Chinese walls in the form of new Hadrian’s Wall against the EU or neo-mercantilist policies (Trump) is anachronistic.

Finally, there’s the issue of climate change. The romanticised vision of industrial production, which runs counter to the satanic mill, The Jungle, and the workhouse of its reality, does not comport well with efforts to curb the degradation of the environment. Here, one can turn to an auto-critique of Marx himself: his Grundrisse is brimming over with anti-ecological statements. In other texts (such as the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844), the great man holds that the essence of the worker is bound up with “his” ability to work on nature, i.e., to destroy nature. The worker’s alienation from nature (both internal and external) is premised on “his” loss of the object of labour in a system of private property; “his” alienation is not premised on the filthy waters, toxic air, and superheated atmosphere that results from “his” labour in industrial capitalism. It is not surprising that the states inspired by Marxist thinking (the old CCCP and DDR, and today’s China) were/are global leaders in pollution, no different from their non-Communist brethren in “the West.”

ddr-museum4-smog

2018

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Looting museums to meet the emotional needs of the present is foolish and dangerous to art. To treat culture as property is philistine.

Nationalists instrumentalise art to embellish their power. Museums are a bulwark against such abuse of art.

National populism is an international menace.

Bernie Sanders will push 80 in 2020 and is damaged goods politically (dismissing southern primaries in 2016). Moreover, he should run as an Independent to avoid the charge of opportunism (i.e., using the Democratic Party when it’s convenient, ditching it when it is not).

Opportunism: After losing the nomination in 2016, Mr Sanders renounced his membership in the Democratic Party and was soon busy raising funds for his revolution on YouTube.

The nineteenth-century bases of industrial capitalism are no longer the leading edge of liquid capitalism (to paraphrase Zygi Bauman). The social disruption caused by AI and the “flexible” labor arrangements of the twenty-first century capitalist economy is not addressed by Trumpist and Sandersite ideas (neo-mercantilist protectionism and “socialization,” respectively), which remain locked in a nineteenth-century perspective of the nation state and labour-capital relations.

Consumers are primarily concerned about quality of service and consumer rights, not ethics and workers rights. The twist is workers are also consumers.

Smart twentieth-century Marxists used Freud’s work. Dumb ones didn’t.

Althusser liked Freud. Zizek is also cathected

Freud’s essay on group psychology explains the craving for the love of a strong leader among the populist masses.

Smart socialists are never motivated by envy. However, the dumb ones are.

There’s no litmus test for holding office other than being elected or appointed. To apply one to “wealth” is undemocratic and discriminatory.

If you like family dictatorships:

Hafez al-Assad 12 March 1971 – 10 June 2000
Bashar al-Assad 17 July 2000-

Putin aims to restore the glory of the Russian Empire. His ideology is neo-imperialism. Externally, he found a useful idiot in Trump, whom he plays like a balalaika. His investment in Brexit appears to be paying off as May and Corbyn unwittingly (or wittingly) do his bidding against the EU. Internally, the economic outlook for Russia remains bleak, as its leading exports — orphans, mail order brides, and political violence — have remained unchanged for at least a decade.

The civilised world will have to come to terms with the Black Hand of Donetsk sooner than later. One observes that what appear to be relatively small slights (see Pussy Riot’s stunts and WADA’s ban of Russian athletes) are more of an affront to his fragile ego than the threat of military reaction. Like Trump, Russia’s Eternal President can be played.

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Lebhaft

The New York Post is frequently seen on the floor of NYC subway cars, soaking up some unidentifiable liquid.

Unions carrying guns = organized crime.

Derision of Freud’s ideas is a sign of resistance.

The unconscious is “visible” (the privileged criterion for naive empiricism) in its neurotic manifestations: dreams, memories, physical symptoms, compulsions, repetition, Fehlleistungen, etc.

The weakness of the theory is its starting point: the assumption of a “normal sexual aim.”

Montaigne

If doctors want to know how to cure syphilis it is right that they should first catch it themselves! I would truly trust the one who did; for the others pilot us like a man who remains seated at his table, painting seas, reefs and harbours and, in absolute safety, pushing a model boat over them. – Montaigne 1595 (2003: 1225)

Michel de Montaigne’s (b. 28 February 1533) Essays (1595), a set of personal meditations notable for their earthiness, concern with common matters, and aphoristic style, stand in stark contrast to the formalism, and logical reasoning, of the Schoolmen that had been perfected over the course of three centuries. This contrast is no more apparent than in the concluding book of the Essays, in which Montaigne writes at length about experience as leading closer to the truth of things than scholastic reasoning alone. “Of Experience” opens with the declaration that “No desire is more natural than the desire for knowledge. We assay all the means that can lead us to it, when reason fails us we make use of experience.” Although, in comparison to logical rigor of scholasticism, experience is “a weaker and less dignified means,” the search for truth is “so great a matter that we must not disdain any method that leads to it” (Montaigne 2003: 1207). Experience is recommended as a means to knowledge because reason can fail and because, according to Montaigne, truth can be made accessible by several methods. Therefore, experience – which lacks dignity in comparison to scholastic reason – has a legitimate contribution to make to human knowledge. One indication of the failure of reason cited by Montaigne is the burgeoning number of commentaries on topics ranging from law and ancient philosophy to matters of divinity.

We have doubts on reading Ulpian: our doubts are increased by Bartolo and Baldus. The traces of that countless diversity of opinion should have been obliterated, not used as ornaments or stuffed into the heads of posterity. All I can say is that you can feel from experience that so many interpretations dissipate the truth and break it up. Aristotle wrote to be understood: if he could not manage it, still will a less able man (or a third party) manage to better than Aristotle. By steeping our material we macerate it and stretch it. […] Can anyone deny that glosses increase doubts and ignorance, when there can be found no book which men toil over in either divinity or the humanities whose difficulties have been exhausted by exegesis? The hundredth commentator dispatches it to his successor prickling with more difficulties than the first commentator of all had ever found in it. Do we ever agree among ourselves that ‘this book already has enough glosses: from now on there is no more to be said on it?’ That can be best seen from legal quibbling. We give force of law to an infinite number of legal authorities, an infinite number of decisions and just as many interpretations. Yet do we ever find an end to our need to interpret? (Montaigne 2003: 1210)

This embarrassment of riches of multiple and diverse interpretations and opinions on a multitude of topics fails to achieve what is sought after – certainty in knowledge – and, consequently, debilitates knowledge rather than enhancing it. Montaigne refers to a question posed by Socrates to Meno, “what is virtue?,” to illustrate this point. “‘There is,’ said Meno, ‘the virtue of a man, a woman, a statesman, a private citizen, a boy and an old man.’ That’s a good start,’ said Socrates. ‘We were looking for a single virtue and here is a swarm of them.’” (Montaigne 2003: 1213). If opinions are necessarily diverse, and if interpretation and commentary macerates the material to be understood, then the possibility of generalizable knowledge is put into question.

The inability of philosophical reasoning to arrive at certain statements of truth lies at the basis of Montaigne’s skepticism and his resulting turn to, and rehabilitation of, the idea of experience as a guide to living and acting within the world, as an additional method for the apprehension of truth. To be sure, Montaigne’s examples are drawn primarily from the areas of justice and morality, rather than the study of the empirical world. One could argue that judgments of right and wrong behavior and action are necessarily indeterminate,[1] whereas statements of fact about what is the case are not.[2] Nonetheless, Montaigne only lends credence to knowledge found in his own experience, and not to the lessons offered by the experiences of others: “there is enough, I find, in my own experience to make me wise.” Thus, he asserts

I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics; that is my physics. […] I, unconcerned and ignorant within this universe, allow myself to be governed by this world’s general law, which I shall know sufficiently when I feel it. […] Scientific investigations and inquiries serve merely to feed our curiosity. They have nothing to do with knowledge so sublime: the philosophers are very right to refer us to the laws of Nature, but they pervert them and present Nature’s face too sophistically, painted in colours which are far too exalted, from which arise so many diverse portraits of so uniform a subject. As Nature has furnished us with feet to walk with, so has she furnished us with wisdom to guide us in our lives. (Montaigne 2003: 1217, 1218)

Montaigne refers to a “Platonic paradox” to illustrate the inadequacy of philosophical reasoning: “those who know do not have to inquire since they know already: neither do those who do not know, since to find out you need to know what you are inquiring into” (Montaigne 2003: 1220).[3] Those who know have no need of philosophical reasoning for they already have knowledge; Those who don’t know have no use for philosophical reasoning, since they would already have to know that about which they would deploy such reasoning. The discussion in “Of Experience” of Montaigne’s bodily constitution, his physical debilities (in particular, kidney stones), his preferences with respect to food, wine, sleep, and the quality of his mattress, is an exemplary model of self-reflection that dispenses with, and shows the limits of, philosophical reasoning (i.e. scholasticism) in favor of the experiential and the bodily knowledge of human life.

Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays [1595]. London: Penguin Books, 2003.

[1] “Now laws remain respected not because they are just but because they are laws. That is the mystical basis of their authority. They have no other. It serves them well, too. Laws are often made by fools, and even more often by men who fail in equity because they hate equality: but always by men, vain authorities who can resolve nothing” (Montaigne 2003: 1216).

[2] “1 The world is all that is the case. 1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things. 1.2 The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts. 1.12 For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 5).

[3] The superiority of self-knowledge derived from experience extends into the scientific field. According to Montaigne, experience is the “proper dung-heap” of medicine. “Tiberius said that anyone who had lived for twenty years ought to be able to tell himself which things are harmful to his health and which are beneficial and to know how to proceed without medicine” (Montaigne 2003: 1225).

il n’y a pas de hors-texte

In “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”, Jacques Derrida comments on problem of interpretation. The epigram from Montaigne that introduces this essay is curious, a sort of anti-Thesis 11 (Marx):

We need to interpret interpretations more than to interpret things.

We can stop our reading here and ask, why? Why not interpret things? Doesn’t study of human society involve the interpretation of things, the things of society?

Perhaps Derrida answers this question in Of Grammatology, where he discusses the relation of writing and reading:

…the writer writes in a language and in a logic whose proper system, laws, and life his discourse by definition cannot dominate absolutely. He uses them only by letting himself, after a fashion and up to a point, be governed by the system. And the reading must always aim at a certain relationship, unperceived by the writer…” (p. 158)

Now Maurice Blanchot in The Space of Literature:

The writer belongs to a language which no one speaks, which is addressed to no one, which has no center, and which reveals nothing. He may believe that he affirms himself in this language, but what he affirms is altogether deprived of self. (Space, p. 16)

Back to Derrida: What, then, is the “task of reading”? Reading involves a doubling commentary, which is unavoidable but is never really a reading of a text; the reading of the text does not involve reaching beyond language to a referent external to the text:

To produce this signifying structure obviously cannot consist of reproducing, by the effaced and respectful doubling of commentary, the conscious, voluntary, intentional relationship that the writer institutes in his exchanges with the history to which he belongs thanks to the element of language….Without this recognition and this respect, critical production would risk developing in any direction at all and authorize itself to say almost anything. But this indispensable guard rail has always only protected, it has never opened, a reading. (Of Grammatology, 158).

Yet if reading must not be content with doubling the text, it cannot legitimately transgress the text toward something other than it, toward a referent (a reality that is metaphysical, historical, psychobiographical, etc.) or toward a signified outside the text whose content could take place, could have taken place outside of language, that is to say, in the sense that we give here to that word, outside of writing in general. That is why the methodological considerations that we risk applying here to an example are closely dependent on general propositions that we have elaborated above; as regards the absense of the referent or the transcendental signified. There is nothing outside of the text [there is no outside-text; il n’y a pas de hors-texte]. (Of Grammatology, 158).

Back to the epigram, “We need to interpret interpretations more than to interpret things”: What does this mean for the human sciences? Don’t the human sciences attempt to reach through interpretation to the things themselves? Isn’t language really just a tool used to reach the things of reality? Or is Derrida correct to remind us that language, as a system of signs, has its own materiality, its own force and play, its own energia? Should we not see that the contradiction between our concepts and the reality out there (the dualism that haunts Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Gadamer, and numerous others) does not arise at the level of reality but rather at the level of language itself, in the space of textuality?

Or is Foucault’s criticism of Derrida correct:

Today Derrida is the most decisive representative of the [Classical] system in its final brilliance; the reduction of discursive practices to textual traces; the elision of the events that are produced there in order to retain nothing but marks for a reading; the invention of voices behind the texts in order not to have to analyze the modes of implication of the subject in discourse; assigning the spoken and the unspoken in the text to an originary place in order not to have to reinstate the discursive practices in the field of transformations where they are effected. (Harari, p. 41, Histoire de la folie, p. 602).

I read Foucault to be saying the following: whereas Derrida thinks force resides in the text, I (Foucault) think force resides in the field of forces in which the text has its effectivity. If Foucault is correct that Derrida’s emphasis on the text and play within the sign or structure of language leaves behind the play of language in practice, is there a way to reinsert Derrida’s critique into this field of transformations? Or should we agree with Derrida, who might have argued that the field its only possible through language?

Perhaps Josué Harari  can provide some clarity: speaking of deconstruction he writes

Deconstruction implies an operation involving the dismantling of something into discrete component parts and suggests the ever-present possibility of putting the object back together in its original form. This is clearly not the case with, nor the aim of, Derridean deconstruction, which consists more of the tracing of a path among textual strata in order to stir up and expose forgotten or dormant sediments of meaning which have accumulated and settled into the text’s fabric. (‘A text always has several epochs and reading must resign itself to this fact’ [Of Grammatology, p. 42]) Thus, deconstruction is really more of a technique of de-sedimentation…a technique of de-sedimenting the text in order to allow what was always already inscribed in its texture to resurface (Harari, Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, p. 36-37)

This makes sense (I think) when speaking of written texts; what does it mean for the possible de-sedimentation of social action? If we treat social action as a text, as does Ricoeur, does deconstruction, de-sedimentation, makes more sense: social scientists would then “stir up and expose forgotten or dormant sediments of meaning”? Is this analogous to stirring up the forgotten – the repressed – social unconscious, that arises from action itself, action qua text?

All that, and we’ve only just finished with the epigram…

Jacques Derrida, “Structure, sign, and play in the discourse of the human sciences,” Writing and Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 278-293

Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974)

Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1982)

Theses on popular film criticism

Re “American Sniper” and “Selma”:

Asking whether a fictional film is historically accurate has to be one of the silliest questions ever. And yet it is posed repeatedly by today’s popular film critics.

All bio-pics are fictional! Do people who read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando find it lacking because it has “fictional elements”?

One has to beware of naive realism (and even the more erudite mimetic theory of art) vis-a-vis the visual arts.

What a film sells itself as is bunk. It doesn’t dictate how one theorizes the film, which is narrative fiction.

However, one should acknowledge a distinct danger (which Ava DuVernay, the director of “Selma,” too hastily elides): because many Americans are not historically educated, they take films that are “based on a true story” to be the historical truth. But the antidote to this would be to make it very plain that Hollywood films are not documentaries (which are also narrative constructions), no matter what the filmmaker proclaims about his/her film. One can learn valuable things from narrative fiction, but it should neither be expected to be, nor taken as, the mirror image of reality.