Category: philosophy

Ballad of lemons

Trump’s former associates should fear Putin’s ire more. Trump retaliates with childish nicknames; Putin uses chemical weapons.

The White House released a picture of a Putin puppet and opioid addict playing golf.

One can’t be a Republican politician without also being a hypocrite. What this lot have added to their list of official positions is “Russian agent.”

Sarah Sanders’ soul is predestined for the hot place for lying like the Devil.

Journalists are not astute thinkers.

They’re limited by very short term thinking (tomorrow’s front page, tomorrow’s A block) and an obsession for the “scoop” as opposed to the truth. Big news events like Russia-Trump collusion are simply beyond their pay grade.

In 50 years, no one will know who Brian Leiter was.

Metall auf metall

To paraphrase Kant: English is the language of commerce; German, the language of philosophy; French, the language of poetry.

MDMA is making a comeback. It’s safe to bring out your pacifier and glow sticks.

The most dangerous drug is monotheism.

It’s no surprise that Mr Trump stiffed the Veterans, got caught, and was forced to pony up.

The law & order, family values Republican Party is throwing its support behind a twice divorced harlequin, who is also a grifter and a cheat.

We are not even close to peak Bond watch. It’s time for a non-binary Bond.


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)

Being alive

Munich is the Austin of Bavaria.

Madonna has been accused of “cultural appropriation.” However, none of the critics are aware that so-called cultural appropriation is otherwise known as life. In the sphere of popular culture, it is otherwise known as late capitalism. There’s nothing remarkable about it.


New information has surfaced about Sartre’s refusal of the Nobel Prize for Literature:

A letter sent by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in 1964 declining the Nobel Prize for Literature came too late to avert one of the biggest debacles in its history, Swedish media reported Saturday.

Sartre’s letter arrived nearly a month after he had been picked as the top choice by the Nobel Committee, the daily Svenska Dagbladet reported, based on archival material made available at the end of a customary 50-year period of secrecy.

The report throws light on the sequence of events leading to Sartre’s decision to become the only person to willingly turn down the world’s most prestigious literary prize.

Perhaps Sartre was prescient: his “literary” works are hardly read anymore. Even worse, his philosophical texts are now antiques from the bygone age of existentialist Marxism.

For example, in Search for a Method Sartre asserts “we are convinced at one and the same time that historical materialism furnished the only valid interpretation of history and that existentialism remained the only concrete approach to reality” (1968, p 21). Who today would have the courage to embrace either of these claims?

Universal and particular


Apropos Monique Wittig (d. January 3, 2003), my comments on a paper by Linda Zerilli, “A New Grammar of Difference: Monique Wittig’s Revolutionary Poetics.”

The discursive resources available for theorizing the relationship of the paired concepts of the universal and the particular, elaborated variously as the relation of dominant identities to forms of difference, of dominant to subordinate cultures, and of generalized principles to concrete forms of life, have grown rich in the wake of a wave of postfoundationalist projects.  Many political and cultural theorists now almost reflexively counter any claim to a collective identity, a general interest or universal subject with the question: “In the name of what project of power?”  At stake in the ongoing disputes centering on the necessity for, and impossibility of, the universal is the question of whether our preferred vision of normatively binding social and political relations can be construed as a purely normative or epistemological matter, or as always being bound up in relations of force (symbolic or physical, cognitive or empirical).  Of particular interest is the way in which the relation of the universal and the particular is construed and the analytical and prescriptive strategies that are employed to render this relation less prone to manifestations of force.

I interpret Linda Zerilli’s paper as having much to say about an alternative vision of a postfoundationalist conception of politics which does not risk becoming a new instance of social closure. She begins with several startling questions: “How does one start from zero? How does a new world begin?”. How does one imagine an event “that would not be what Kant called ‘the continuation of a preceding series [?]’”. Based on a close reading of Hannah Arendt and Monique Wittig, Zerilli attempts to move beyond the discourse of “‘resignification’ or ‘recitation’ of gender norms” to define a type of agency that overcomes what Arendt termed “the problem of the new.” This is the problem of founding a new way of experiencing freedom that is not somehow premised on a preceding political epoch (a golden age or era of domination) or that does not become a new foundation. Again, quoting Zerilli: “The question of creatio ex nihilo…concerns not the imaginative power of the artist to begin anew but the political space of freedom and founding that [Wittig’s] texts at once make visible and celebrate”. Zerilli’s pairing of Arendt and Wittig shows more than the commonality in their thinking; it is intended to highlight the political register of Wittig’s “fictional text” Les Guérillères.

I’ll discuss two aspects of Zerilli’s argument. The first is its critique of the conception of freedom as the product of consciousness and cognition. She draws on Arendt’s distinction between the idea of freedom as the property of the individual will and the idea of freedom as the political practice of doing and acting. Quoting Arendt, Zerilli writes “Unmoored from its origins in the political sphere of doing and acting, modern freedom ‘ceased to be virtuosity…and became sovereignty, the ideal of a free will, independent of others and eventually prevailing against them’”. Zerilli finds Arendt’s assertion that “If men wish to be free, it is precisely sovereignty they must renounce” echoed by Wittig, who renounces sovereign subjectivity in the form of normative heterosexuality. Hence Wittig’s text attempts to break with the category of sex not merely by deconstructing it, but by “re-starting time,” as Zerilli puts it. Zerilli draws out the limits of a deconstructive or skeptical response to the naturalization of gender/sex categories: “What persists once sex difference as an object of knowledge is destabilized, however, is sexual difference as a question of meaning, a question we do not stop thinking about once we know that sex difference is a contingent social and historical construct. It is in this space of meaning…the space of politics, action, and judgement – that sexual difference emerges for feminism as a question of freedom understood in terms of the power of spontaneous beginning”. Based on this reading of Wittig, we see that the foundation of normative heterosexuality cannot be thought away by an act of sovereign subjectivity. Zerilli reads Wittig’s statement that, “‘[T]he category of sex is a totalitarian one’” as having the following implications: (1) “sex as truth and necessity is at odds with freedom”; (2) however, “to counter the totalitarian category of sex with counter-truths” which as truth would function in a totalitarian manner, “is also at odds with freedom.” Hence, Zerilli identifies the import of Wittig’s “revolutionary poetics”: they illustrate the “free act that eschews truth in the search of meaning, a new grammar of difference”. This new grammar of difference stands against the category of difference construed as a claim to truth.

The second aspect of Zerilli’s argument I’ll discuss is its critique of a conception of freedom tied to form, the universal treated as a pre-political foundation. In the case of the form of heterosexual normativity, she argues that it is “all but impossible to locate a time when the two sexes did not exist”. For Wittig, the concept of sex difference, which is the product of what she calls the “straight mind,” and the division between women and men, are presented as form: “universality, necessity, and causality…”. The need to surmount form is fulfilled, according to Zerilli, in Wittig’s effort to “re-animate time”; that is, the “re-animation of the contingent”. Again, quoting Zerilli: “The new form or universal that Wittig would found, however, is actually an ongoing event: spontaneous acts which have no cause, no origin, and which do not in turn become a cause of whatever follows them. Les Guérillères narrates the process of universalization as a mode of action, reversal (renversement), which reactivates the contingent…”. Such reversal is not simply a “literary strategy,” it is a “political practice” that “creates the time-space of freedom: it founds (and re-founds) not Rome anew but a new Rome”. Hence, it is “in the space of difference between the ‘no-more’ and the ‘not-yet’” that the “genuine problem of beginning” emerges: ”the abyss of freedom”.

In Les Guérillères, Wittig’s warriors accomplish the re-animation of the contingent in the following ways. Oriented toward a conception of freedom understood as a “desire not to be dominated”, the warriors “say they have no need of myths or symbols. They say that the time when they started from zero is in the process of being erased from their memories…When they repeat, This order must be destroyed, they say they do not know which order is meant”. For Zerilli, the “return to beginning” is not a return to myth or foundations, it is a “new beginning, an invention, a creation”. Freedom is not tied to “rememoration of the past” but to the “act of spontaneous beginning”.

The warriors are not sovereign subjects acting outside history; they are situated in a political community. Yet the universality of this community is “not one” but many. This is so because the warriors are constantly on the move, telling stories, never resting. Zerilli writes, “Les Guérillères is a motley collection of stories, told about every imaginable event or object and from every imaginable angle. The storytelling is a performance, a form of excellence or virtuosity in Arendt’s sense of free action”. Thus Zerilli concludes, the problem of universality is not resolved by Wittig through the erasure of difference; nor do the warriors form a pre-given unity. Rather, they realize freedom in community as “the power of spontaneous beginning,” a freedom that does not have “recourse to form, the realm beyond appearances”.

I’d like to offer a few critical remarks on Zerilli’s subtle and insightful argument. First, a few critical questions: Wittig’s warriors are virtuosos, they do and act, but does “spontaneous beginning” describe the nature of their action? Is it not still dependent on form? Is the virtuosity of the warriors not still structured? And if their political-aesthetic practice is structured, how might it still admit freedom on the terms described by Arendt (freedom without sovereignty)? Consider, for example, the recurrent return to a new beginning. Narratively, this event lies between the no-more and the not-yet. Consequently, its meaning depends on its narrative framing between these moments. Why does the impossibility of escaping narrative form establish a limit on spontaneous beginning? Because narrative is the discursive form for expressing interaction between the self and others and between the self and itself. Rather than asking, as Zerilli does, how can Wittig “sustain contingency and thereby save freedom,” we might ask how can we enable narrative or symbolic interaction that also sustains contingency?

Moreover, might the insistence on this event, the demand for the perpetual renewal of the new, not itself become equally totalitarian? Freedom might also be construed as the freedom to experience limits positively, as enabling, rather than negatively, as merely constraining. The warriors appear not to value interaction or intersubjectivity as an aspect of their political community and political virtuosity. Each warrior writes her own story but she does not write stories together with others. Such freedom without interaction might be construed as virtuosity within a suspended zone of textuality, of free writing, that bears the mark of the social but which lacks the social’s symbolically mediated connections between subjects. Such freedom would properly be described as an abyss.

Finally, a third way of envisioning freedom is available that does not fall back on a linear depiction of universality, causality and necessity, but which also does not require the circular recurrence of the new found in Wittig’s text. This third way might be termed relational freedom. Such a model of freedom, which can be distilled from the work of theorists like Ernesto Laclau or Pierre Bourdieu, breaks from the notion of the sovereign subject: in this model, the subject’s freedom is defined in relation to others within fields of practical interaction. Additionally, a concept of relational freedom would not require the distinguishing of truth and meaning as realms of heteronomy and autonomy. The allergic reaction to the phenomenal (visible in Arendt’s conception of freedom as virtuosity) would not arise if the truth we derive about the social world is viewed as the contingent outcome of practical interactions rather than as the outcome of the monocausal projections of a sovereign subject or collectivity. If we also view meaning in a relational way, then the meaning of doing, acting, and narrating would not have to be canceled in acts of willful forgetting such as those carried out by Wittig’s warriors. Meaning and truth, cultural creation and memory can then be viewed as co-constitutive moments in the construction of temporally binding, yet politically contingent, symbolic relations between subjects. In other words, another way to realize freedom without sovereignty is to recognize the practical limits on the subject, not in the form of a naturalization of the necessity of limits but rather as a means to enabling the subject’s openness to the perpetual discovery of difference.