Monday, December 21, 2009


I got my first two chapters back from my advisor with annotations today. I'm now grumpy. I knew handing it in that there were some considerable problems. I knew the form was bad, and that the points were not reached with clarity or even always purpose; and I'm trying hard to bear these things in mind while I mull over his recommendations. I cannot help but think I've significantly diminished myself in his eyes. Ultimately that doesn't matter, since the final product will redeem me (or I won't get a degree, I reckon).

But as seems always to be the case lately, I went home and the first thing I read applied directly to my worries. Here is Adorno from the second section of Minima Moralia:

[epigraph:] "Where everything is bad it must be good to know the worst." --F.H.Bradley

Memento -- A first precaution for writers: in every text, every piece, every paragraph to check whether the central motif stands out clearly enough. Anyone wishing to express something is so carried away by it that he ceases to reflect on it. Too close to his intention, 'in his thoughts', he forgets to say what he wants to say.

No improvement is too small or trivial to be worthwhile. Of a hundred alterations each may seem trifling or pedantic by itself; together they can raise the text to a new level.

He goes on to make several more good points, and I'm a little happier knowing much of my poor writing is my fault, rather than a result of my faults; that is, I don't think this is a problem of inadequacy but a sort of inattention.

And I didn't say anything nasty in that whole post! :)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Goodness, two posts in one day is terribly unfashionable. I should wait an hour and a half.

I was talking to a brilliant friend of mine today about religion and lingering narratives. We talked about the problems with marriage, and the exchange economy that surrounds it, the pressure to conform and perform a gendered role, the appropriation of individuals in the interest of tradition, and, especially, the devaluation of lifestyles that do not involve participation in this sort of economy--whether by judicial force or personal choice. OK we didn't talk about all that, but it's all implicated in what we did discuss.

We talked about the mysterious pleasure of religious ceremony: the reverence of a cathedral, the community of the call to prayer, etc. It made me think of a cute song I had thought of posting without commentary. I initially decided against putting it up because I had little to add to it, and because I get a little trigger happy with the facebook links. With the added context of today's conversation, it seems more worth the time.

Now almost all my friends are non-theists, either because they've thought about it and feel it's the position that best lets them be honest with themselves, or because they have not thought about it and it is simply who they are. My coffee conversation is one of my few Christian friends, which face allows me the delightful opportunity to explore in dialogue experiences that I otherwise overlook. In spite of my recent ramblings on religion, I hadn't thought much of late on what role religion may still play in my life. Because I don't spend any time with Christians in a context that allows faith as an appropriate topic of conversation, I don't get asked why I celebrate Christmas.

Tim Minchin is Australian, so Christmas comes for him in the summer. He is also usually funnier than this:

I think this has something to do with why non-theists still have a stake in marriage, too. The mysterious community of ritual is not merely religious (anthropologically speaking, it casts religion in the light of an accidental appendage). Indeed, in addition to extending beyond the reach of religious discipline, it would too seem to surpass the proprietary structure of the traditional family. The ritual that Minchin sings about is a singularity of support, the bare trace of a religious experience stripped of its judicial baggage. If there is a thread of this in marriage, then there is some hope for divorcing that institution from its sordid past; better put, given this hypothesis, marriage in and of itself needs no help, it simply needs to be let free.

It surely goes without saying that so long as religion remains a negative theology it will not know how to do any good in this arena.

Dresden Codak

I cannot adequately express my admiration for this author. No one else leaves me feeling quite so warm, yet I know I will have trouble sleeping tonight because of it. Here is his latest piece:

The rest of it is also well worth exploring. It is a very good idea to read the entire Hob series.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

OK, so years and years ago, back in my Santa Cruz days, an Indian artist called Panjabi MC had a song on the charts in the US called "Beware of the Boys." Jay-Z got ahold of it and did a few verses over it, and the first time I heard it was when my alarm went off at some obscene hour; I was in one of those hazes where you're half asleep and sorta dreaming whatever you hear.

What I thought I'd heard was Jay-Z blaming Ronald Reagan for September Eleventh (which is a pretty strong political statement, especially for a less political rapper like Hova). I was pretty jazzed, so I told a friend or two about how rad that was. Then when I heard the song later I never found section I'd heard when half asleep. I concluded that I must have completely dreamed it. After all, an NY mc as mainstream as Jay-Z isn't likely to start making aggressive claims about 9/11 only a year after it went down. So from then on I would tell people the funny story about how I dreamed Jay-Z hated Reagan.

Now I'm not sure if I just missed it every other time I heard the Jay-Z version of the song, or if it was censored on American Radio. I never bought the CD, and was never a particularly big Jay-Z fan, so it's possible I just never payed close enough attention at the right time to catch it. Pandora is using the full version, and I was taken aback to find that my dream was a reality. Here's a transcription of verse two found online:

Ma, I ain't gotta tell you but it's ya boy Hov
From the U.S., you just, lay down slow
Catch ya boy minglin' in England, nettlin' in the Netherlands
Checkin' in daily under aliases
We rebellious, we back home, screamin' leave Iraq alone
But all my soldiers in the field, I will wish you safe return
But only love kills war when will they learn
It's international Hov, I been havin' the flow
Before Bin Laden got Manhattan to blow
Before Ronald Reagan got Manhattan to blow
Before I was cappin' it then back before
Before we had it all day, poppin' in the hallway
Cop one offa someone to give you more yey
Yea, but that's another stor-ay
But for now mami turn it around and let the boy play (Jay)

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Healing Salve for my Temper

A website that you love as well as I prompted me to read up on the Salvation Army, courtesy of their own website.

Here is what they have to say about homosexuality:


The Salvation Army holds a positive view of human sexuality. Where a man and a woman love each other, sexual intimacy is understood as a gift of God to be enjoyed within the context of heterosexual marriage. However, in the Christian view, sexual intimacy is not essential to a healthy, full, and rich life. Apart from marriage, the scriptural standard is celibacy.

Sexual attraction to the same sex is a matter of profound complexity. Whatever the causes may be, attempts to deny its reality or to marginalize those of a same-sex orientation have not been helpful. The Salvation Army does not consider same-sex orientation blameworthy in itself. Homosexual conduct, like heterosexual conduct, requires individual responsibility and must be guided by the light of scriptural teaching.

Scripture forbids sexual intimacy between members of the same sex. The Salvation Army believes, therefore, that Christians whose sexual orientation is primarily or exclusively same-sex are called upon to embrace celibacy as a way of life. There is no scriptural support for same-sex unions as equal to, or as an alternative to, heterosexual marriage.

Likewise, there is no scriptural support for demeaning or mistreating anyone for reason of his or her sexual orientation. The Salvation Army opposes any such abuse.

In keeping with these convictions, the services of The Salvation Army are available to all who qualify, without regard to sexual orientation. The fellowship of Salvation Army worship is open to all sincere seekers of faith in Christ, and membership in The Salvation Army church body is open to all who confess Christ as Savior and who accept and abide by The Salvation Army's doctrine and discipline.

Scriptures: Genesis 2:23-24; Leviticus 18:22; Mark 2:16-17; Romans 1:26-27; Romans 5:8; I Corinthians 6:9-11; I Corinthians 13; Galatians 6:1-2; I Thessalonians 4:1-8; I Thessalonians 5:14-15; I Timothy 1:15-16; Jude 7

One ought to expect that when an organization begins its commentary on homosexuality by claiming a positive view of sex that the remainder of the commentary will reveal just the opposite. I am confident that the contradictions in the above are clear enough for an attentive reader.

Here is an excerpt from their stance on abortion:

It [The Salvation Army] is opposed to abortion as a means of birth control, family planning, sex selection or for any reason of mere convenience to avoid the responsibility for conception. Therefore, when an unwanted pregnancy occurs, The Salvation Army advises that the situation be accepted and that the pregnancy be carried to term, and offers supportive help and assistance with planning.

The Salvation Army recognizes tragic and perplexing circumstances that require difficult decisions regarding a pregnancy. Such decisions should be made only after prayerful and thoughtful consideration, with appropriate involvement of the woman's family and pastoral, medical and other counsel. A woman in these circumstances needs acceptance, love and compassion.

Neatly bundled, this passage carries all the apologies of sexism and the dislike for women as intellectual and moral beings. First, "the responsibility of conception": one does not ovulate with premeditation. Given the persistent efforts of christian organizations to limit access to birth control (for example, cutting funding to and protesting Planned Parenthood; and advocating for abstinence-only education), equating conception with responsibility--and limiting this, too, by physiological necessity, to the responsibility of women--is at best patronizing, certainly and flagrantly underestimates the complexity of pregnancy, and at worst constitutes a violent appropriation of the bodies of women by the church. This holds even if the Army does not itself actively discourage birth control; objective political reality denies any scrupulously made argument which equates responsibility to conception.

The second maneuver that acts to cut women off from agency with respect to their bodies is played softly here; while it is true that I may be over-reading, the point I would like to make here is surely applicable to other anti-choice arguments. We may notice that, after patronizing the woman whom they fully intend to speak for, she is directed to be sure to seek first the council of God and her family, pastor and doctor. Two of these people are men, one of whom likely doesn't exist and likelier still will not answer even the most sincere calls for help and advice, and the other is bound already to a dogmatic and unsympathetic refusal of consideration. The other two are surely great resources (I ought not to sell pastors short in advance, but I'm being polemical, so indulge me) and I would of course suggest to anyone considering (and I mean that term strictly) and abortion to turn to just such people for sought-after advice. But to suggest to know that a woman is incapable of deciding for herself what best to do with her body, after you yourself have already told her there is only one legitimate option (bearing the child) reveals the unspoken assumption that women--especially those irresponsible enough to have sex before first offering themselves up as a man's property, I mean getting married oops--lack the capacity for intelligent moral deliberation, and more specifically are stupid enough to hear you say "no never do this" and then take you seriously when you follow that up with "but if you want to anyway, be sure to ask for advice first" (This followup ought more properly to read: but be sure to give me enough time to guilt you into doing what you already have decided is wrong).

I recognize that my tone is a little strong; I'm cranky today and this is a good way to cheer me up. I will happily acknowledge that the Salvation Army has done a great deal to help a great many, and that the policy stated on their website is to aid even those whom they feel behave immorally (like by having sex with the loved ones you won't let them marry). There are surely better targets for my anger and frustration, and I will gladly indulge in being mean to them--I'm looking at you, Mark Driscoll, you misogynist, ignorant tool--and I apologize for making a charitable organization the object of my ridicule...though I'd be much happier if they'd also apologize for being bigots. The ethical dilemma, dear reader, is yours to resolve: do you withhold your funding on the grounds of principle, or do you compromise by funding the good actions of an unethical organization (we all pay taxes after all). I have the advantage of being too poor to worry about whom I give my money to.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Responding to ethics.

This is sort of about two things that I've been pursuing the last few days.

This morning I read part of a thread on Reddit reminding us of the common place claim on the part of theists that non-theists cannot account for ethics or morality in either their origins nor their content. The leading comment thread at the time disrupts this accusation by pointing out both that it is not the purpose of non-theism to define ethics either historically or structurally, and that a theistic construction of ethics does not itself serve as a defense of theism. Put slightly differently, the validity of a belief in a higher power does not validate the subsequent claims to moral truth, nor does the truth or falsity of a moral claim retroactively validate a belief in a higher power. To claim that God must exist or else we are lost to moral relativism is a sad reflection indeed upon the strength of one's faith, and rather oddly subordinates belief to pragmatics, in a way that one might suppose most theists ought to find repulsive. It seems, contrary to the theistic argument, that if faith indeed is the virtue in question then the question of ethics itself ought not to arise until after the question of God's existence has been resolved; to point to ethics as a reason for belief is to rather greatly discount belief itself, and ought to be regarded more properly as cynical, in the spirit of Pascal's Wager.

This says nothing whatever of the claim itself that religion (and implicitly this is Christianity, at least here in the US), and more specifically God, is the origin of ethics. Now let us even be so bold now to leave aside the fact that any sophisticated and compassionate European/American theory of ethics is inevitably supported by a rich history of writers whose argumentation self-consciously avoids specific recourse to an originary text (read: The Bible). Too, we shall leave behind the question of whether or not these men and women were theists, and whether or not there was even the possibility for them, culturally, of being avowedly non-theistic and heard at the same time. We can instead explore the possibility of deriving ethics from The Bible.

(Now this is a tired point by now, done to sleep if not death, so I will be brief.) Presuming for a moment that The Bible is the (adultered or not) word of God, we are immediately faced with the question of how to resolve a seemingly impossible and lengthy set of contradictions, and not of the merely factual or historical sort, but of the sort pertaining directly to ethics. The often bizarre dictates of Leviticus seem at odds with the terse list of generally pragmatic rules put forth in Exodus, though these, along with Numbers, etc., are superseded when Jesus tells us to put aside complex rules and merely love others as we love ourselves. Why then the earlier books? If God wrote the Book, why put in a passage that tells us not to listen to much of it?

Kierkegaard gives us a troubling answer, and this leads me to the second thing on my mind. In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard closely reads the story of Abraham and Isaac, in which God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on the mountain, and at the last second rescinds the order. Kierkegaard remarks, as many others have, that if we ever found a modern-day Abraham, he would at best be shunned from decent society, and more than likely would face charges. His conduct, in short, is unethical.

But K. won't leave this alone; there is something else going on here, and it goes by the name of Faith. Derrida, reading Kierkegaard (in The Gift of Death) points to silence, reminding us that Abraham told no one what he was about, or what God had told him (it is a little unclear in Derrida's text which points are his and which K.'s, and it's been too long since I read Fear and Trembling to sort out the different points, so I'm going to allow these authors to drift together). Abraham's silence (K.'s pseudonym for F+T was Johannes de Silencio) is an indication of the conflicts of two different sorts of responsibility: to the universal and to the absolute.

In Hegelian (and Kantian) ethics, the ethical is determined by one's responsibility to the universal (in Kant this manifests as the categorical imperative): one submits one's actions to the universal collection of humanity for judgement, and when one's choices are disclosed, we, collectively, can see if they are ethical. Further, we can judge their ethicality by determining whether or not the agent behaved responsibly with respect to the universal. Responsibility is meant in all its senses. In order to be responsible, to respond, to the universal, Hegel argues that we must practice full disclosure. Secrecy is anathema to responsibility, and thus to ethics.

And yet Abraham is silent. This is due to the difference between the universal and the absolute. Abraham's responsibility is not to the universal--he is not behaving how he would have everyone act, nor in a way that is "universally intelligible"--his responsibility is to the Absolute, to the divine. And while responsibility to the universal requires full disclosure, responsibility to the absolute precludes it. The absolute is unrepresentable, which places it outside the reach of language. To speak one's responsibility to the absolute is to make it universal (see, for example, Hegel's preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, as well as Adorno's "Sacred Fragment"). As such, in order to be responsible to the absolute, one cannot be responsible to the universal. In other words, acts of faith, religious acts, are a priori unethical, in the strict sense. For Kiekegaard this amounts to a new category; Abraham was unethical, but not wrong, because his faith superseded the ethical.

Now for a non-theist it is tempting to leave this here. The story of Abraham, for those of us with no faith in God's existence, is rather abhorrent, and a chilling reminder of the length's to which faith can drive people. And if faith is seen as a choice, then Kiekegaard's reasoning would point us rather clearly away from theism. I can say with conviction, however, that my non-theism is not deliberate or optional; I do not believe, and have the option of owning that fact or lying to myself about it. Others do believe, and presumably they are being honest when saying so.

The sticking point is this: if faith is not optional, but if religious behavior (responsibility to the absolute) is unethical, what is the proper stance with relation to theistic behavior? In some senses, this is clear; where religion leads one to oppose gay rights, safe sex practices, and the right to abortion (etc.) its actions must be opposed--the ethical question with respect to these religious organizations is secondary at best; stopping them is the first priority. But in all cases, the question of whether or not those who behave in accordance to a non-optional faith in the divine can properly be said to be wrong is complicated. For Kiekegaard, this is clear (he was a theist): the religious supersedes the ethical. For the non-theist, unethical religious behavior is symptomatic of a non-optional condition of faith, but while the actions themselves may or may not be condemned as unethical, the source of the decision lays outside the realm of choice, and cannot then be the object of ethical judgement: one is not responsible for one's faith, since faith is not a response.

I do not mean this as an apologia for what problems faith has wrought, but more of an exploration of some of the problems of the intersection of faith and ethics, and primarily as an illumination of why it is absurd and unsound for theism to make claims to ethics, particularly when what passes for ethics in religious discourse avoids responsibility itself--that is, responsibility to origins, responsibility to reason, etc.


Monday, November 2, 2009

Gift Exchange

I've just finished the first section of a book called The Gift of Death, and want to put a few things down on keys before I forget what it's about. Since I've been dealing a bit with religion here, I figure this is as good a place as any.

Derrida hangs his first chapter on a reading of Jan Patočka's Heretical Essays on the History of Philosophy. Patocka is telling the story of the journey from the ancient demonic orgiastic, through Platonism, into Christianity. This is the history of responsibility, which is written as identical to freedom (that is, you cannot be responsible for your actions if you are not free, and you cannot be free to choose unless you are made responsible for your choice.) Platonic philosophy incorporates and subordinates the orgiastic by theorizing the "soul" (which we might read as a subject separate from the body, or desubjectified), which is introduced to responsibility by its relation to "the abstract Good," a similarly extra-objective essence. Christianity in turn reverses and represses (and therefore also retains) the Platonic model by introducing the mysterium tremendum, the terrifying mystery of God, whose gaze arrests us, but who is always outside our own vision. The gaze of God (strangely Derrida avoids the term "God") arrests us not from without, but internally, and replaces (incompletely and in excess) Plato's "Good" (it exceeds the Good both in its capacity to elude witness and in its ability to judge).

It is with the Good that we become immortal, or rather that we gain death as a gift. Patocka says "Platonic 'conversion' makes the gaze upon the Good itself possible. This gaze is immutable, eternal like the Good... It is, for the first time in history, an immortality of the individual, since it is interior, since it is inseparable from its own fulfillment. The Platonic doctrine of the immortality of the soul is the result of a confrontation between the orgiastic and responsibility." (114, 12 in Derrida) Immortality is granted through identification with the Good. Christianity retains immortality, but the direction of the Gaze is reversed: we, our souls, are the objects.

Too, Plato's constitution of the soul, and Christianity's borrowing of this constituted concept, amounts to a new relation to death, a vigilance over and anticipation of death, and as a result the soul, the subject, becomes a philosopher: "Philosophy isn't something that comes to the soul by accident, for it is nothing other than this vigil over death that watches out for death and watches over death, as if over the very life of the soul. The psyche of life, as breath of life, as pneuma, only appears out of this concerned anticipation of dying." (15) This comes as a result of the responsibility/freedom afforded the soul by its new relation to the Good, and later to the gaze of God.

Now for Patocka, the point of this exploration is to uncover the reason for the decline of European civilization. Tacitly taking a cue from postmodernists, Patocka points to WWII, where we lost so much (Patocka was born in 1907, so this means quite a bit more for him than it possibly could for me). The loss Patocka is interested in is the front, the zone of combat where two opposing sides meet and become one: "the loss of the frong [:]...the disappearance of this confrontation which allowed one to identify the enemy and even and especially to identify with the enemy. After the Second World War, as Patocka might say in the manner of Carl Schmitt, one loses the image or face of the enemy, one loses the war and perhaps, from then on, the very possibility of politics." (19)

This is disturbing indeed. On the one hand, I am sympathetic; we can read the above quotation as identifying a change in government technology, in the sense that changes in the manner of conducting war--conducting war without fronts--prevent the domestic population and members of the army from identifying with the enemy (though I suspect this is more a question of creating a mythic history of the front than about identifying a substantive change in our ability to relate to those for whose deaths we vote). On the other hand, this hypothesizes our mode of warfare as determining the moral quality of civilization, rather than supposing that our capacity for war--rather than the style in which we conduct it--indicates an inadequacy in our politics of morality.

Patocka's solution is equally disturbing: he suggests that the decline of European civilization can be stemmed not simply by a return to or resurgence of Christianity, but by a more complete thematization of it, which is to say by actually becoming Christian (which to date, he seems to say, we have not quite yet done). Derrida explores the implications of this call by examining the paradox of responsibility, since Patocka's claim is that Christianity, through the mysterium tremendum, is the ultimate avenue for responsibility. Now on the one hand, responsibility is necessarily a question of knowledge, "For if it is true that the concept of responsibility has, in the most reliable continuity of its history, always implied involvement n action, doing, a praxis, a decision that exceeds simple conscience or simple theoretical understanding, it is also true that the same concept requires a decision or responsible action to answer for itself consciously, that is, with knowledge of a thematics of what is done..." (25) However, because the link between theory and practice is irreducible, responsibility will always function outside of knowledge: "It will have to decide without it, independently from knowledge; that will be the condition of a practical idea of freedom. We should therefore conclude that not only is the thematization of the concept of responsibility always inadequate but that it is always so because it must be so." (26) I'm getting a little muddled down in the text, but we might summarize by saying that responsibility relies on knowledge to function, but must operate independently of knowledge (which is theoretical, not empirical--this is a Kantian distinction, and runs contrary to certain more conventional definitions of knowledge), or else our actions become pre-programmed, a mere result of circumstances and therefore neither free nor responsible in the sense meant by Patocka.

It is bed time, so I won't track down the last bit of this thread--though I expect it would do better to read the next chapter and see if Derrida himself elaborates it further. I will end with a tangentially related quotation that Patocka takes from Durkheim:

The aptitude of society for setting itself up as a god or for creating gods was never more apparent than during the first years of the French Revolution. At the time, in fact, under the influence of the general enthusiasm, things purely laical by nature were transformed by public opinion into sacred things: these were the Fatherland, Liberty, Reason. (22)

Monday, October 26, 2009


I thought I'd write a brief followup, followed by a lengthy excursus, to the atheist/agnostic distinction, largely because my position has changed a bit. I think it is important to acknowledge the mutable and sometimes contradictory possible uses of any single word, and these two, politically charged as they are, are exemplary.

While there are surely as many forms of atheism as there are thinking atheists, we can usefully suppose them to fall into two broad camps: those who believe there is no god, and those who don't believe there is a god. Both camps can be described as not believing, or as being a-theistic. Agnostics too have two similar sects: those who do not know if there is a god, and those who have not decided if they think there is a god. Again, both follow from etymology: members of either camp would say they do not know, they are a-gnostic.

It follows then that there are both gnostic atheists and agnostic atheists, and that there are agnostic atheists and agnostic fence-sitters. This is what I think Mike means when he says that atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive. Using this rubric, it would be accurate to say I am an atheistic agnostic--I do not believe there is a god and I do not know. For me, this non-knowledge is a structural inevitability (as is the non-belief), and I, in my more arrogant moods, occasionally go so far as to suppose that this inevitability is a result of the human condition--that is, we are all atheistic agnostics, but some of us lie to ourselves better than others. This last position is fairly weak (and often insincere) and requires something like a stable intellectual identity from which to divine a "real" belief (or lack thereof).

OK, that was the brief part. Now I'm going to irritate you a little, if you'd like.

The day after Mike posted his response, I happened upon a fun little book by Lyotard called The Differend. Here is the book's first sentence: "As distinguished from a litigation, a differend would be a case of conflict, between (at least) two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgment applicable to both arguments." My reasons for writing about this now are immediately apparent.

Lyotard discusses the structure of these parties in terms of modes of discourse, or phrase regimens. A given regimen dictates what can or cannot be logically said, and when different regimens come into contact, contradiction or conflict is inevitable. In such situations, if a member of one party feels she has been wronged but cannot express or support this claim in terms acceptable to the other party's phrase regimen, she becomes a victim; whatever harm done her is invisible to the party that inflicted it. Lyotard's favorite examples are holocaust deniers (who construct their phrase regimen in such a way that proof becomes impossible) and labor disputes (in which case the language of capitalism prohibits the thinking of the individual as anything but a commodity). A feminist might just as easily have talked about rape (the case of Haliburton, and other contractors who oblige employees not to sue in the event of rape, comes to mind), and in the present discussion we could talk about atheists or Christians.

Now this touches on a few things, and I fear I won't be able to address any of them adequately yet. Here are a few of them.

As far as I've made it in the book (which I'm afraid I'll have to conclude a degree or so later) there are few ways indeed to avoid the victimization that comes from a differend. One is to have an arbitrator, whom both parties agree will resolve the difference fairly. This amounts to subsuming both phrase regimens under a third. A second possibility is for both parties to act in good faith to resolve the difference (Lyotard's example is Socrates). Now the problem with both of these solutions is convincing a party with a disproportionate advantage to accept a mediator, or conversely for a weaker (but not too weak) party to refuse to act in good faith (think Republicans).

From the outset this problem is seen as insurmountable. Thus the books "problem": "Given 1) the impossibility of avoiding conflicts (the impossibility of indifference) and 2) the absence of a universal genre of discourse to regulate them (or if you prefer, the inevitable partiality of the judge): to find, if not what can legitimate judgment (the 'good' linkage), then at least how to save the honor of thinking."

Much of this, as presented here, is rather cliché; I don't mean to be revealing tremendous truths. Anyone with a little common sense will notice that schools of thought clash with one another and that resolution, especially on a large political scale, happens at the expense of someone who often cannot tell you all about it. But I am drawn tot his particular presentation for two reasons: one is the ease with which Lyotard allows us to link (in terms of power relationships) fascism, capitalism, misogyny, and certain forms of theism; the other is its deliberate distancing of ethics (which is essentially the context for the book) from humanism.

I should elaborate what I mean in the first case. We are now all to familiar with the anger and bigotry of the religion of love. Many of our more wrathful religious compatriots delightedly malign even the most well-meaning non-theists, as if the anticipation of God's vengeance were too much to bear. Still others, who hide their disgust behind a mask of liberalism, condescend to pity our empty lives, and wonder at how we can even get up in the morning, much less appreciate beauty and joy, without His Helping Hand. When in discourse with these folk, there is naught but the differend; every utterance from either party passes those of the other like so many flying Dutchmen. But it really is "every" from "either." We must take care, as I have not necessarily done here, not to act in bad faith ourselves. There are some religious phrase regimens that function fully outside of the rationalism many non-theists hold in common, and we do well to remember that this does not, in itself, delegitimate either religion or these specific phrase regimens (though it also does nothing to legitimate them). There is instead a structural dissonance between many theists and many non-theists that cannot be resolved. The battle should remain (and for many is) against an encroaching theism, one that creeps up on our schools and courthouses. (This is not written with anyone in mind, though now that it's written, it calls to mind, but does not fairly characterize, some of Hitchens' more vitriolic outbursts.)

The last point I'd like to make is in relation to humanism. Humanism remains, for many marxists and non-theists, a critical ideology, but Lyotard, amongst others (Althusser has some interesting fairly early writing on the subject, and Deleuze is where I'd send anyone looking for something far-reaching) does a good job of claiming ethics for anti-humanism. Here is a portion of the "Stakes" of his book: "To refute the prejudice anchored in the reader by centuries of humanism and of 'human sciences' that there is 'man,' that there is 'language,' that the former makes use of the latter for his own ends, and that if he does not succeed in attaining these ends, it is for want of good control over language 'by means' of a 'better' language."

Lyotard means this mainly in defense of the working class, and I draw attention to it for two reasons. One is highlight the importance of atheist agnosticism for feminism and marxism. The agnostic position is an acknowledgment of both the limits of knowledge and of discourse; there will always be something outside our experience, and we must not try to speak for it.

The other reason is almost an apologia for theism. The inability to articulate one's position, either in one's own phrase regimen or (especially) in someone else's, does not amount to a failure of mastery. Language is not a tool used by humans, it is part of what humans are (eliding questions of ontology). Some truths (and I use the word mistakenly) do not translate, and it is not incumbent upon those who submit that they have been wronged to explain to us in our terms what the wrong was.

I am getting dangerously close to a position I do not espouse. I do not mean to say that there is an oppressed religious majority in the US, or that allowance must be made for I.D. with respect to evolution. Indeed, most of what I've said is much more pertinent when the non-theist is in the position of the wronged--people don't often get fired or receive death threats for being christian, and when they do it's not from non-theists. What I mean to say is that we must take care not to become what assails us, and that Lyotard's work to move beyond humanism provides a beneficial support against this possibility.

I apologize too for any (logical or otherwise) inconstancies. I compose these things stream of consciousness, and reserve my editing for things that might end up in ink. :)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Hitch

I've been watching a bit of Christopher Hitchens lately. I was slow to warm to him because up until a few days ago I'd only seen a few sound bites--most of them from QandA sessions or open-form debates--and his overly aggressive rhetoric turned me off a bit. In my experience the closer someone strays to the ad hominem, the less likely they are to be useful. However, I came across an extended lecture followed by a non-threatening set of questions, and I was won over a bit.

Pardon the strange file format.

I watched it a few days ago, and I'm trying to recollect some of my impressions. If I'm off a bit, I apologize.

First I'll say that a large part of what drew me in was his disciplinary background. Unlike Dawkins--who too can be a bit more abrasive than is helpful (that is, the strength of the position speaks for itself, and those who fail to grasp it won't be helped along by abuse)--who is a scientist, and who I believe teaches something like science education; Hitchens' grounding is in philosophy. He was at Oxford or Cambridge or some such during 68, and belonged to a Marxist group, and knows a fair thing or two about Hegel's and Marx's critiques of knowledge and religion.

So his approach to critiquing religion has some similarities to my own, and as such it is easy for me to like him. The thing coming to mind now that bothered me a bit about his discussion is the question of Agnosticism. Like many so-called militant atheists, Hitchens sees agnosticism as giving too many concessions to religion. Atheists, again if I'm piecing this together correctly, see that there is no serious evidence pointing to the existence of the divine, and conclude that lacking evidence the most reasonable thing to presume is non-existence. There is something safe about this (and I suspect something both too easy and too timid), and exploring it by analogy lends it support, if of an only weakly logical sort: there is no evidence that lettuce sings and dances when unobserved, and so we are inclined to believe it does not.

However (and here is where I would unfetter myself from Hitchens' fundamentally humanist moorings), each analogic comparison elides an important distinction when discussing the divine, and that is divinity. The divine as it is often defined occupies a different category from the formal and material. (Though we do need to take care: we are talking about the divine as it is defined. When we say "divinity" we have to acknowledge it as always already not divinity itself, but a more or less reified and entrenched construction. But we will leave this problematic aside for now.) Popular synonyms include the infinite (Kiekegaard, particularly) and the supernatural.

So we can say we know that lettuce does not sing and dance while we're away because when we do see it it is constantly and consistently vegetative. Any other conclusion leads to paralyzing absolute empiricism (and backgammon). But the divine, as supernatural, is not something we observe most of the time and not others, but something we observe not at all. As a category it is something for which we have no sense-able experience. either positive or negative.

Indeed, where we to encounter the divine in an empirical fashion, were the divine to become quantifiable or qualifiable, the breach of category would dissolve divinity into materiality. The supernatural would be merely natural, and ostensibly science could take care of the rest. Divinity, or the infinite in this loose sense of the word, is not only illusively unvarifiable (like the singing lettuce), but structurally so (which gets into some serious problems regarding omnipotence).

If the atheistic thesis is correct, then the unvarifiability of the divine, which is a categorical necessity, demonstrates its non-existence (or at least impels us to claim non-existence). But knowing non-existence violates unvarifiability, which in turn disintegrates the category of the divine (this is the equivalent of saying that science claims as its domain not only all knowledge, but everything; those categories which operate outside this particular economy are not merely problematic but invalid). In effect, those things which elude empirical verification are removed from the equation not merely on the ontological level--which is problematic to consider already, given the conflict between, to use our current example, the divine and formed matter--but categorically: we cannot explore the existence of the divine because we are denied the condition of possibility.

But agnosticism of the sort I practice takes this double-bind to heart. We have, for better or for worse, a concept of the divine. Because the logic of divinity operates outside that of scientific empiricism, it can be correct neither to claim a set of religious beliefs nor to assert the non-existence of God. Simply put, if we are going to continue to use the category of the divine (and saying "atheist" does just this) we cannot too say that the divine does not exist due to lack of empirical evidence. This is a category error, just as surely as we are in error to look upon the beauty of nature or the cosmos and proceed from there to wax religious.

Monday, October 5, 2009


So we've all seen, probably, the Dove Self-Esteem Fund ads.

These are a good thing, that I'm going to nit-pick.

I don't like the name. Self-esteem? The message seems not to be "you're beautiful," but "it's ok that you're not as pretty as the girls in the ads." Since that standard is synthetic (computer enhanced, with the aid of a specialized makeup team and quite a bit of time), you shouldn't feel bad about not being as good as the girl on the billboard. After all, even the model isn't that good.

It seems to me the tack should not be that the popular standard of beauty is unattainable, but that it's undesirable. If this is our focus then "self-esteem" is no longer the central issue--focusing on self-esteem is too close to saying "you're not pretty enough, but it's not your fault, so it's ok to love yourself anyway." The focus ought to be on beauty and health, with the former understood as non-normative.

It is disconcerting that the image we pressure women to mold themselves to is impossible. But it is equally disconcerting that we basically have only one image. Surely there is something to be said for difference.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Nate Silver over at has a post up on Glenn Beck as a Post-modern Conservative. Because I have enough on my plate as it is with postmodernism, I won't comment either way on this claim. What caught my attention was this:

Nor is it so clear that traditional (circa 1980-2006) American conservativism is particularly more self-consistent -- why, for instance, does it tolerate government intervention in the bedroom, if it considers it so imperative that government stay out of the boardroom?

In the comments thread, someone points out that progressives simply reverse the paradigm: bedrooms should be free while boardrooms should be regulated. Thus if Silver really values freedom in both settings, his position is much more libertarian than progressive.

The implication here is that progressives are no more concerned with freedoms than are conservatives, but I don't think this is quite right. The problem is in the rhetoric, not the superstructure. Conservatives define government intervention as bad, and rally against government regulation of business, multi-lateral diplomacy (where presumably negotiations interfere with the will of the American people), and even a federal presence in the healthcare industry. This last reveals the rhetorical rather than structural nature of the position when we find multiple people at right-wing rallies carrying signs that say things like "Keep your government off my Medicare." But this rhetoric fizzles when it comes to the bedroom or the body.

Progressives, on the other hand, organize their rhetoric around...progress. It's not good (enough) how it is now, so let's fix it. The driving force behind this rhetorical stance is that of humanism: through the application of reason and communication humans can improve the situation of all members of society. Because humanism's aim is inclusive of all humans, it looks for betterment for all those considered human. This means staying most of the way out of the bedroom (drawing the line at consent rather than normativity), but it also means staying in the boardroom, if for no other reason than to observe (with the possibility of intervention) those who wield power over the disenfranchised.

Progressives will use the language of liberty and freedom, but in the service of human progress, not as a point unto itself. The ideal of humanism is a state in which we are all free, but a responsible humanist is not so naive as to believe that absolute freedom now will beget absolute freedom tomorrow. As such progressives (think Jimmy Carter here) are more likely to talk about sacrifice and hard work and helping hands, while conservatives will talk about self-reliance while they release the dogs on the poor.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Form Matters.

I'm reading Patricia Carpenter's "Musical Form Regained," which is a response to an article I haven't read by Joan Stambaugh called "Music as a Temporal Form."

I'm going to skip almost all the particulars; they're quite specific to Stambaugh's article and as such not worth engaging without recourse to the earlier paper. I do want to pause on one idea Carpenter alludes to. It's fairly novel, and perhaps, from most folk's point of view, worth remarking upon at all, but it is a useful reminder, and I like it for that.

Stambaugh, it would seem, has arrived at a theory of music in which form is achieved through pure materiality. The feminist in me impulsively rejoices: in the Platonic system, matter is the always already subordinate, playing the part of the silenced domestic matron (whose etymological root is surely not coincidental), while the double pincers of form and content dominate the spoken domain. A theory of music as purely material, or even as totally subordinating form to matter, is alluring (shades of Kristeva make one balk).

But Carpenter chides Stambaugh for overreaching. "But as a picture of music, it is one-sided: form, structure, and objectivity are slighted." (37) This is not a reactionary rebellion against giving matter its due, but a reminder that matter cannot be given the place of form at the total expense of the latter. Reversing the imbalance is not the same as redressing. In Irigaray's terms, the feminist project is not, cannot be, about replacing a phallocratic system with a gynocratic one.

Let's be sure: Carpenter is not talking about feminism, but only aesthetics and philosophy. I'm over-reading as a way to remind myself against extremism.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I just had the greatest Star Wars dream ever. It's all narrated by Leia, talking to Han. While the allianace is working to take down the death star, she uncovers documents about a fanatic religious organization that is taking steps at the same time to get rid of the Empire. The cult has a plan to assassinate crucial heads of state (planetary governers and key military figures, including Darth Vader) in order to bring about a New World Order with messianic implications. Although toppling the Empire is nice and all, the sinister aims of the shadowy cult are too grave to risk, and the rebels are the only ones who know its secret. In order to save the galaxy, they have to put a stop to assassination plots, but put pieces of the puzzle together too late: key political figures have already started turning up dead.

And then I woke up.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Gigantic plug

I want to take just a second to plug a movie I saw that I liked. Lately I've noticed that I don't really like very many movies, and a large part of this is because of the rather silly and plain ways they nearly uniformly treat romance. With few exceptions, a movie's narrative is driven by a man and a woman discovering their love for one another, and also nearly always this requires both of them to mold their behavior better to suit our collective prescriptions for how a couple ought to behave (which is why these stories inevitably end with the beginning: once domesticated, the dissonance between the couple and society at large is resolved). "Gigantic" is something of an exception.

But only something. I will avoid spoilers as best I can, since it's unlikely any of you've seen it. What seems to've captivated me is that although the story is told from the male lead's perspective, he is not the protagonist. It is Zooey Deschanelle's (sp) character who must overcome her hurdle, and while almost no narrative time is spent on her concerns (you only meet four of her acquaintances, as opposed to nine for the man) (I forget the male actor's name, and it's omitted only for this reason)--while almost no narrative time is spent on her, all the dramatic tension, all the dissonance, ultimately is hers to resolve. The rather sneaky way the movie works her into the viewer's focus is quite surprising, when it finally comes to bear, and emotionally quite successful.

One thing that irks me a little--though maybe this too is positive from some perspectives--is how boring the two are as a couple. One gets the impression that the only thing they see in each other is a mutual awkward- and hotness. Maybe this is on purpose, to make them easier to relate to and to allow them more easily to be representative, but the simultaneous effect is irritation. One almost wants them to fail, since seeing them together offers no charm. It nearly says that physical attraction is the only arbiter in mate selection.

But it's a cute little indie film--and I do not generally like independent films any more than dependent films--and worth your two hours. The homeless guy is a fun twist.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Miss representation.

Found a useful article on Reddit:

It's an anecdotal account of journalists willfully or ignorantl--but obviously, either way--misrepresenting academic research. In this case, the beginnings of a dissertation project on the behavior of intoxicated heterosexual men was reported under the title, "Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped, claim scientists." This was printed in spite of the facts that the study had no statistically significant data to support this quesiton, the lead researcher had made no such claim, and (in someways most significant for me) the research in question was the preliminary phase of an unpublished (read: not yet peer reviewed) dissertation project.


But there is a second, less obvious problem. Repeatedly, unpublished work – often of a highly speculative and eye-catching nature – is shepherded into newspapers by the press officers of the British Psychological Society, and other organisations. A rash of news coverage and popular speculation ensues, in a situation where nobody can read the academic work. I could only get to the reality of what was measured, and how, by personally tracking down and speaking to an MSc student about her dissertation on the phone. In any situation this would be ridiculous, but in a sensitive area such as rape it is blind, irresponsible, coverage-hungry foolishness.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Kantian humility

I'm listening to a podcast I found of Dr. Susan Stuart giving undergad lectures on Kant. In her first lecture, she mentions something called "Kantian humility," which is apparently not Kant's term. Some background, as I understand it:

We might poorly summarize Kant by saying there are three kinds of stuff. There is reason, which is a purely internal process of intellectual activity; there is the sensible world (sensible in that we sense it); and there is the noumenal world. Reason, the domain of a priory judgments and such, cannot happen without interaction in with the sensible world. First one senses, then one understands, then one can reason (the middle term here does not correspond to the above triple). A priory reason is possible, but is also always rooted in some encounter with the sensible. The nouminal world is off limits.

Now apparently Kant's work (or at least the Critique of Pure Reason), serves two polemical purposes: it refutes rationalists and empiricists. The former, typified by George Berkeley (though the more popular Descartes is amongst their number) skeptically discount all sensible encounters, supposing that the eye can deceive you, and you shouldn't trust it. Kant argues counter to this that we cannot begin to reason purely without sensible event (how can I count if I've never seen discrete objects?). The latter set, the empiricists, include Locke and Hume. Pure empiricists argue that while we can see what looks like causality, experience does not logically lead to axioms or principles. Hume says that though we may see the sun rise every morning, we cannot logically infer from that that the sun will again rise tomorrow.

Stuart summarizes by saying that Rationalists believe that the world is fundamentally disjunct from the mind, while empiricists believe that the world shapes the mind through experience. So on the one hand the mind and experience are disjunct (the latter may not even truly exist), and on the other hand the mind is wholly contingent upon experience.

The Kantian revolution is this: it is not so much that the world orders and shapes the mind, but that the mind orders and shapes the world.

Oh yes, but what about humility? By Kantian humility Stuart means the refusal to claim knowledge over the noumenal. Locke, apparently, errs in this respect, and rather brashly claims to know objective but non-experiential attributes. Kant says we cannot do this; the noumenal is marked off.

This resonates with my approach to agnosticism, but not in a way that makes me wholly pleased. On the one hand, I agree in principle that it is irresponsible and dishonest to make claims, totalizing, moralizing or otherwise, about that which is permanently extra-experiential. On the other hand, I am disquieted by the fundamentally theistic origins of this prohibition.

By saying that we must be humble, or meek, and not make claims for the noumenal (or the real, or the Ideal, or what have you), we presuppose that there *is* a noumenal world; agnosticism based on this prohibition is perhaps not really agnosticism after all, but rather a sort of overly reverential theism (though perhaps a pleasantly antisocial one).

Now I can't offer here any solid reason to distrust theism (presuming humility). Also I need to sleep so for now I won't go on any further I think. Suffice it to say that a certain poststructural critique of the situation would, I expect, undermine the assumption of the noumenal itself. Provisionally, I'd say that saying there is a noumenal world always already prohibits the sort of humility that Kant is supposed (by Stuart) to be advocating (though this may be a result of the epistemological limits of his time).

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


This is somewhat long, but an interesting listen. Žižek is a widely-read (and in most circles well-respected) Marxist intellectual, talking here about what Marxism should be busy about. He seems to have stage fright.

If you get to the joke about the Mongolian and are put off, stick around until the last few minutes; he offers a useful explanation. I don't think I'll go in for a large-scale commentary, in part because I'm not really equipped to, and in part because he's all over the place. The two main points I take away from this are the need for solidarity on the left (not uniformity, but an acknowledgment that most of the problems confronting leftism in its various forms--Marxism, feminism, etc.--are systemic); and the need for suspicion in the face of stop-gap measures and partial solutions (capitalism w/ a human face, he says). These are both closely tied, and are talking points not only amongst Marxists, but feminists as well. The point of view, which I believe stems form Adorno (and probably others, but Žižek starts there too), is that the problems--violence, e.g.--are systemic in their current manifestations to capitalism (or patriarchy), but too that capital and patriarchy don't offer a facilely homogeneous superstructure which can be either easily conceived of or easily toppled.

At any rate, I like the energy, and the pessimistic optimism.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Today I'm wearing my The Watchmen T, which has as yellow smiley face with a blood splatter to the left of the eyes.

The barista at my favorite too-christian café commented on how I must having a kind of nice day (but not quite because of the blood); he did not seem to recognize the logo. I thought about explaining, but did not:

It's from a movie, and does not necessarily advocate violence against Walmart. Personally, I believe non-violent action is sufficient to take on the W, but it must take the form of both abstinence and activism. I do my part in the former: I do not shop there (easy for me, since it's 30 miles away). Activism?

My activism has been voting for Obama, which my turn out not to be enough. We will see. I voted for Obama in part because he advocates for nation-wide public health care. Offering a publicly funded health insurance option might be the most popular thing the government could do to combat large business like Walmart. Low-income consumers would have larger budget constraints, and small businesses would be more competitive in the marketplace, since they wouldn't have to bear as much of the cost when it comes to benefits. These two factors, in my naive mind, combine to allow Walmart shoppers the option of shopping elsewhere. Maybe. It's a nice shirt, though it's a little small for me.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Nos, II

Robert Morris's "Notes on Sculpture" parts I and II are a pair of analytical essays from 1966 concerned with producing an art of wholeness. Part II engages intimacy, size, and detail; Morris asserts that sculpture ought to be public rather than intimate, and that small scale and detail disrupt publicness (and foster intimacy).

Here are the consecutive sentences that I want to work through:

"One is more aware than before that he himself is establishing relationships as he apprehends the object from various positions, and under various conditions of light and spacial context."
"Every internal relationship, whether it be set up by a structural division, a rich surface, or what have you, reduces the public, external quality of the object and tends to eliminate the viewer to the degree that these details pull him into an intimate relation with the work and out of the space in which the object exists."

I'm bothered by what seems to be a bit of a contradiction here. In the first excerpt, Morris argues for a new sculpture that encourages active viewer participation: the viewer circulate through the object's space, establishing (bodily) relationships between the space, the viewer, and the object. This seems to me a pretty intimate scenario. In the second excerpt, the structural, internal relationships of the object itself pose an artistic problem because they create intimacy with the viewer and (as is clarified earlier) pull the sculpture apart.

The provisional resolution would seem that Morris understands intimacy much differently than I do. For Morris, intimacy-producing objects are seductive and lead to the disruption and disillusion of the art object into its component parts. Intimacy is scary. Intimacy is castrating. I think I'll stop there and get back to reading.

EDIT: Morris clarifies his conscious (that's a dangerous word) intentions (that one is too!) toward the end:

"While the work must be autonomous in the sense of being a self-contained unit for the formation of the gestalt, the indivisible and undissolvable whole, the major aesthetic terms are not in but dependent upon this autonomous object and exist as unfixed variable that find their specific definition in the particular space and light and physical viewpoint of the spectator. Only one aspect of the work is immediate: the apprehension of the gestalt. The experience of the work necessarily exists in time. The intention is diametrically opposed to Cubism with its concern for simultaneous views in one plane." (234)

Why is intimacy bad? Why is wholeness good? Why is it now important for the viewer to take time to view the piece from multiple angles? Because now we're making Real American Art! Abstract expressionism, David Smith, Anthony Caro... they're all just cubists in new clothes. NOS I and II are Morris's argument for his art being the real first American art. Cocky?

Friday, June 19, 2009


So I was using this restroom in this cute little café in Greenwood, and I found a spider in the corner, sitting in its web. I balled up a very small scrap of TP and dropped it from above into the web, taking care to not hit the spider. The first dashed expectation was that it would just fall right through; on the contrary, it stuck right in front of the little critter. My second dashed expectation was that the spider would ignore it, since it wasn't struggling or a bug. But just as I prepared my second volley, the spider started biting the wee wad over and over, and then started turning it over. I'm not sure whether the the spider was clumsy, the paper was too slippery, or if my friend simply got wise to the ruse, but in about a minute, the TP had escaped, though was a little drowsy from all the venom.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

This is Not My Beautiful House,

Have you ever driven up to a crowded red light, were there are lots of cars in every lane but one, and that one lane is a turn lane, and it's your turn lane, so you pull into it, and you wonder, What am I doing with my life?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

D and G music factory

So I'm lying awake at night, thinking about what sort of questions I'll have to field at my defense... like 98 years from now.

"Why don't you talk more about A Thousand Plateaus? Especially the question of the refrain, with relation to the high degree of repetition in minimalist music."

Thank you for asking that question, Jon. This is something I considered doing, but ultimately decided against.

A talk was given a couple of years ago at a conference dedicated to minimalist music, that quite articulately warned against the facile conjunction of minimalism and Deleuze. The first stimulus for this reflex is Deleuze's old book, Difference and Repetition, but several other moments in D.'s output suggest the same connection. One of these, is the Refrain, which is featured in its very own plateau.

What needs to be born in mind about Deleuze's work--and this goes for many of his contemporaries as well--is that they're almost never talking about what they look like they're talking about. Falling out of the philosophic tradition, Deleuze (as well as Derrida, Irigaray, and quite a few others) finds the language of the tradition itself to be part of the problem. The result of their critique of phallogocentrism (the privileging of the engendered subject and the primacy of meaning) is that language itself--particularly philosophical language--is radically problematic. An attempt at the beginning of a solution leads us to what is sometimes called ecriture, critical theory, or postmodern criticism. In Deleuze, as elsewhere, this often takes the form of a displacement.

Or metaphor, in the colloquial sense of the word. The refrain is such a displacement. What D+G are really talking about here is identity, but Heidegger has already shown us that deconstructing identity leads into an abyss. Deleuze and Guattari can't look closely at how identity is constructed through disciplined philosophical language, because identity forms prediscursively--we're always already subjects. The displacement, from identity to the child singing in the dark, opens a space for play; D+G can talk about identity in creative and useful ways, all the while seeming to be discussing music.

That's more or less why I don't use D+G to talk about minimalism. Though I suppose it might be interesting... I am going to be talking a bit about subjectivity... Maybe I can use them to refute Jameson?

Monday, May 18, 2009

I'm not a pheasant plucker, I'm a pheasant plucker's son
I'm only plucking pheasants 'till the pheasant plucker comes.

Me husband is a keeper, he's a very busy man
I try to understand him and I help him all I can,
But sometimes in an evening I feel a trifle dim
All alone, I'm plucking pheasants, when I'd rather pluck with him.

I'm not a pheasant plucker, I'm a pheasant plucker's mate
I'm only plucking pheasants 'cos the pheasant plucker's late !

I'm not good at plucking pheasants, at pheasant plucking I get stuck
Though some pheasants find it pleasant I'd rather pluck a duck.
Oh plucking geese is gorgeous, I can pluck a goose with ease
But pheasant plucking's torture because they haven't any grease.

I'm not a pheasant plucker, he has gone out on the tiles
He only plucked one pheasant and I'm sitting here with piles !

You have to pluck them fresh, if it’s fresh they’re not unpleasant,
I knew a man in Dunstable who could pluck a frozen pheasant.
They say the village constable had pheasant plucking sessions
With the vicar on a Sunday ‘tween the first and second lessons.

I'm not a pheasant plucker, I'm a pheasant plucker's mum
I'm only plucking pheasants 'till the pheasant plucker's come.

My good friend Godfrey is most adept, he's really got the knack
He likes to have a pheasant plucked before he hits the sack.
I like to give a helping hand, I gather up the feathers,
It's really all our pheasant plucking keeps us pair together.

I'm not a pheasant plucker, I'm a pheasant plucker's friend
I'm only plucking pheasants as a means unto an end !

My husband's in the forest always banging with his gun
If he could hear me half the time I'm sure that he would run,
For there's fluff in all my crannies, there's feathers up my nose
And I'm itching in the kitchen from my head down to my toes.

I'm not a pheasant plucker, I'm a pheasant plucker's wife
And when we pluck together it's a pheasant plucking life !

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Ah me.

I've been reading Kurt Vonnegut's Bluebeard, looking for bits that have to do with my dissertation project, and I think I've found the best quote:

'It [abstract expressionism] was the last conceivable thing a painter could do to a canvas, so you did it,' she said. 'Leave it to Americans to write, "The End."'

'I hope that's not what we're doing,' I said.

'I hope very much that it is what you're doing,' she said. 'After all that men have done to the women and children and every other defenseless thing on this planet, it is time that not just every painting, but every piece of music, every statue, every play, every poem and book a man creates, should say only this: "We are much too horrible for this nice place. We give up. We quit. The end!"'

254, emphasis in original.

This is directly on the heals of the protagonist, Rabo Karabekian, telling a few of his war stories to his former lover, Marilee. Just prior to that, she had dressed him down smartly for the part he's played in all the crimes of men--most recently, of course, the second World War.

I'm not sure this will be useful from a substantive point of view, but Vonnegut's book as a whole seems quite preoccupied with the problem with humanism after WWII, which is also, of course, part of the problem abstract expressionism, and later, minimalism, was sorting through. And also of course, this last was also faced with reconciling "the end" with what was clearly now becoming a beginning of something quite different: long-term, stable, violent, global capitalism--the confluence of Vietnam and leisure society.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


People occasionally remark on the ideological sympathies between Adorno and Derrida. For a while I thought this was because people are stupid (I hadn't read any Adorno and very little Derrida--I was stupid). The reason I thought this was because of the importance of "authenticity" to Adorno's writings on music. When authenticity is read more carefully, as Jameson reads it, Adorno becomes both more palatable and more consistent with certain strains of post-structuralism.

A work is authentic for Adorno not because it adheres to the strictures of a cultural tradition, or because it remains uncorrupted by capitalism, but because it pursues its own contradictions. Jameson talks about Adorno's "implacable identification of authenticity...with contradiction as such, in its most acute and unresolvable forms." (Late Marxism, 201) Art succeeds--is authentic--precisely when it acknowledges the impossibility of success; this is why modern art--of all genres--has some element of the ugly. It is with this in mind that Jameson suggests that Adorno's aesthetic is "an aesthetic of scars."

Scars--gashes, cuts, gaping chasms--are very important to Derrida. Moments when coherence dissolves, when the margins show through. Spivak makes much of these moments too, and (negatively) characterizes the rationalist opposition to disruption, to scars, as "crisis management": the smoothing over of crises, the elision of the subaltern.

I suspect that Marx is whats at the root here, and that Adorno, Derrida, and Spivak are showing commonalities in this moment because they are concerned with the grasping, covering apparatus of capitalism.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

All out of context.

"If material reality is called the world of exchange value, and any culture whatever refuses to accept the domination of that world, then it is true that such refusal is illusory as long as the existent exists... [yet] in the face of the lie of the commodity world, even the lie that denounces it becomes a corrective. That culture so far has failed is no justification for furthering its failure." - Adorno, Minima Moralia, 44. As quoted by Jameson in Late Marxism, 47.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A kick in the pants.

"The Church fights passion with excision (Ausschneidung, severance, castration) in every sense: its practice, its 'cure,' is castratism. It never asks: 'How can one spiritualize, beautify, deify a craving?' It has as all times laid the stress of discipine [sic] on extirpation (Ausrottung) (of sensuality, of pride, of the lust to rule (Herrschsucht), of avarice (Habsucht), of vengefulness (Rachsucht). But attack on the roots of passion means an attack on the roots of life: the practice of the church is hostile to life (lebensfeindlich)."
Nietzche, from Joyful Wisdom presumably, quoted by Derrida in Spurs, 93. Emphasis in text, and the German, again presumably, is Nietszche's. I'm not sure if this is the a direct translation from the German or from the French translation quoted by Derrida.

This is pretty harsh, and surely a little too totalizing for me to be comfortable with it. I think it can be helpfully contextualized twice:

1) Bear in mind the aim (or one of them, at least) of Nietzsche's anti-Christian polemics. In On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche analyzes Christianity as a mechanism of discipline implemented to subvert any attempt by the down-trodden to gain any sort of power. By focusing on meekness as a virtue that operates in conjunction with a pay-off in the afterlife, the ruling class--the priesthood in much of Nietzsche's more poetic moments--create a situation in which subordination is the only ethical choice. Strength, intelligence, creativity, and passion have no moral value. In the aphorism above, Nietzsche is suggesting that the Church is largely to blame for an unhealthy reservedness, for a society with no balls, we might say nowadays. Now, of course we ought to take issue with the overtly masculinist gesture there, and a large part of Spurs is Derrida trying to makes sense of that, so I'll leave off on that. The main point I'm trying to make here is that aphorisms like the one above are aimed not at defamation for its own sake, but are rather a part of a larger discourse on emancipation. (To be sure, I'm misreading Nietzsche a bit when I suggest his main project was about emancipating the poor. More candidly, I think he was simply interested in emancipating men generally--and Derrida comes awfully close to suggesting that this includes emancipating women from the social economy that impels them to roles that Nietzsche derides.)

2) Why is Derrida interested in this? There are several reasons, but I'll focus briefly on one that's not directly addressed (as directly as Derrida ever says anything) in Spurs. It would be a little silly for a French intellectual in 1978 to be too caught up attacking the Church. I think what's going on here is a broader critique of the role of "castratism" culturally and academically. For one, we do well to recall that Lacan (hiss!) is one of Derrida's nemeses, and that for Lacan, theories of lack and castration are quite important (formative, even). Derrida, like several of his contemporaries, would like to develop an epistemology or even an ethics that denies castration this central role (this is important for feminists, since castration has served since Freud [at the latest] to justify institutional misogyny.) When Nietzsche says "church," he at least in part is serious, and to a secondary degree is talking about the ruling class and the genealogy of morals. When Derrida says "'church,'" it caries with is our individual complicities--we are all complicit!--and serves as a critique of negative (onto)theology generally.

3) I'm apparently not using my other blog anymore. I'll admit, I just picked it because the name is funny. I'll let you know if that changes. For now, you can just ignore the long, boring and pretentious posts you find here.

Friday, April 3, 2009

My prejudices

I would like to thank this Frat for doing something to combat my anti-frat prejudice:

You go, boys.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Nice weather today.


Here's a comic about why feminism is important for men too:

Friday, March 13, 2009


I would like just to announce that Kate Beaton, who is an awesome cartooner, has a much nicer website now:

Read it!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


I'm reading part of Feminist Interpretations of Theodor Adorno.

This bit made me think a bit, and I think I can briefly sum up: "In Patriarchy, women are conceptually interchangeable. Concretely [?], they are not. Conceptually, woman refers to an object of inquiry. Concretely, that object comes diffusely apart as critical attention is paid to the terms of its existence and its particularity." (2)

My now-canned response to this line is "same with men." The difference is, I think--if you'll let me oversimplify--, that men are allotted a dual role: an object of inquiry, and a subject inquiring. As liberal society embraces feminist ethics, this becomes increasingly true for women as well (bear in mind that this is a critique of theory more than practice), but the "object of inquiry" part will remain problematic for all genders.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Whose side am I on?

I'm beginning to think that there something to the claim that intellectual honesty and political action are exclusive to one another. I'm concerned about a few points made by a guest author in my fave political blog.

The gist of the article (though you ought to read it in its entirety) is that Obama has a moral code concealed beneath his rhetoric, and it is a code of American progressivism. Now it would be difficult to argue with this thesis; contrary to the author's implications, I think this is true of any progressive--Obama is different primarily in his sophistication. I'm ot worried with this claim, though, but only with the author's willingness to accept at face-value the manufactured image of Obamidealism.

One way of expressing my reticense to stand alongside Professor Lakoff's position is his perception of conservatives--or the conservative part of conservatives--as radically ideologically or epistemelogically different from progressives. (Aside: I'm mildly concerned with the turn away from "liberal" and toward "conservative." I'm not convinced that the best way to counter the conservative slandering of the word "liberal" is to abandon it.) My main concern is with Lakoff's claim that progressivism is about empathy while conservatism is about greed. This is alternatively voiced as social versus individual responsibility.

I think it's unempathetic to suggest that conservatives--social conservatives seem to be the target here--are unempathetic. Indeed, I think the distinction here ought to be between empathy and sympathy. It is a mistake--clearly an enabling and strategic mistake--to presume that one can understand what it is like to be in someone else's shoes. I think that conservatives *do* see social issues from multiple positions, but that these positions are based on fear, not sympathy. Gay rights typifies this for me: it seems that the most vocal homophobic leaders are the most likely to be found sneaking in a little gay love. Clearly these men have no trouble seeing the world from a non-heterosexual position (I will avoid calling them gay; there's a lot more to same-sex sex than homosexuality); the difference between how Ted Haggard empathises with gay men and how I do is that he's scared and angry and I am sympathetic. In other words, the difference is between viewing difference as positive or negative. The conservative (read: misogynist, homophobic, racist, etc.) position is that difference is disruptive and distructive, and in so far as empathy is involved, it manifests as fear and violence. Progressives, on the other hand, view difference as positive and generative, and our empathy manifests as sympathy and acceptence--and sometimes condescention. Both--all--forms of empathy are misreadings.

There are a few other points I would touch on (like Lakoff's strange claim that "Every major patriotic term has a core meaning that we all understand the same way."), but if this gets much longer, it would have to bounce over to my other blog. I'll close with a few comments on intellecutal honesty.

Lakoff's piece is put forward as an intellectual exploration of Obama's presedency, but what is really going on is something quite different (Lakoff's structure parallels his reading of Obama in this respect). The piece is much more a call to action. And this in itself is no problem for me: everything is written, I suspect, with the intent of coersion of some sort, and Lakoff's politics are, I think, quite positive. What troubles me is his rather hasty and dismissive over-simplification of conservatives as focussed on greed and individuality, while progressives can lay sole claim to community and empowerment. A crucial enabling step here is a lack of differentiation between economic and social conservatism--social conservatives are very much concerned with community and long-term stability; they just seek this aim at the expense, rather than the inclusion, of minority positions.

I don't think that trivializing--and ultimately dehumanizing or de-ethicizing--conservatives does anything productive toward subverting their programs.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


I've been puzzled by the intensity of my distaste for this band for some time. It's playing right now, and I think I'm edging my way closer to understanding.

So far there are three things.
1) The musicianship, in terms of the quality of the notes produced, is affectedly poor. One comes away with the sense that the singer and trumpet particularly are deliberately avoiding producing a euphonous sound in favor of creating a "quirky" atmosphere. Bad intonation and unsteady tone production work to great effect in this venture, turning the ensemble from a well-knit body into a haphazard coalition of armchair tunesters.

Which has something to do with my second point:

2) The success of this venture of stylized incompetence relies, at least in this case, on a condescending valorization of the colonized. It is not coincidental that the rhythms and harmonies, as well as the instrumentation, mime a non-specific Eastern European Gypsy-ness. But the reason this is hip is not because of its geo-historical origin, but because the music itself struggles. There are any number of very good (and hard-working) groups that play in this general ideom, but Americans--particularly left-leaning, well off Americans--eat us Devochka because they're so bad at making pretty music that you can practically hear the (post)colonial struggle. But of course, the struggle in the music is fake. It is a banal placation of affluent guilt, a cheap trick.

3) The third point is less theoretical. It bothers me that a band so dependent for its identity on ideosyncratic rhythms cannot play them in time. Everything is wonky and late, and with an awkwardness that reflects the above, not with any sensibility.
This is part one in a Demetri Martin routine:

He's a pretty funny dude, but the autobiographical character of this particular routine makes this something different than just funny to me. Just sharing.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Piss and vinegar

I got a new coupbla books Tuesday. One of them is part of a marvelous series, of which I am already privileged enough to own two. It is called Feminist Interpretations of G.F.W. Hegel. I've read only the introduction so far (though I've read two of the chapters in their original publications), and already there's a substantial difference in my thinking. Not because I've been exposed to new ideas (indeed, I've thought these thoughts before) but because I'm back in feminist theory. woooooo. So back to politics of lack and difference and sameness and normativity. I get to be insuffereable again :).

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The worst thing I have ever heard

A friend of a friend of a friend of mine is pregnant. When she went in for the sonogram last, the doctor discovered her child is not growing brain cells, and will die immediately upon being born. She will carry the child to term because late-term abortions are illegal.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Maybe I am Fried

So I've been rereading Michael Fried's Art and Objecthood, and keep coming across interesting little gems. I wrote at some length about one elsewhere, but would like to say a few short words about a new one that is more appropriate for the rants I like to put up here.

"'All judgments of value begin and end with experience... the arguments themselves [arguments for or against value] will not be binding." (18)

I get asked a lot why I don't like music, and I have, I flatter myself to think, a reasonably wide array of interesting, if not necessarily always compelling, responses. But it is dishonest (I think I agree with Fried here) to claim that the reasons precede or supersede the judgment; they exist only ex post facto, and, whether they are dismissed, dismantled or diseminated, they ultimately are only justifications for the truth--they are not the truth itself (I feel more comfortable saying "truth" here than elsewhere, since I don't mind saying that when I say "Beirut sucks" it is true).

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


So you've all heard that high-fructose corn syrup is bad. And many of you have seen commercials sponsored by the corn lobby that say the opposite. The Washington Post says that high-fructose corn syrup contains mercury about half the time, and a third of the 55 foods containing high levels of high-fructose corn syrup contain mercury.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Seeing things.

This is something some of my brothers might be more likely to post about. I found an article, via Jeff Rowland's Overcompensating, that describes in quite understandable terms the possibility that the universe is a hologram. Apparently--and I've done just enough extra research that I'm fairly confident that this isn't a joke--a facility in Germany designed to study gravity has stumbled upon noise predicted by the now head of Fermilab.

Now, they seem to mean hologram in the science sense, not the science-fiction sense. A hologram is n-dimensional information stored in n-1 space; most commonly this is a 3-d image on a plane. It's been demonstrated that the surface of a black hole's event horizon emits, in a spherical 2-d space, the information about it's 3-d interior. The story goes that our universe might actually be information encoded on the universe's event horizon. As a result, the minimal quantum of information would be significantly larger than previously thought... like 10^-16 instead of 10^-35. The significantly lower resolution of the universe is what some think (though they won't go so far as "theorize") the German research station is picking up.

The metaphysical implications are not broached.

And this awful hipster music they're playing at Verite is awful.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


So I'm watching (watching!) This American Life, and the intro part is about these science types who isolate a chemical that lets you store memories. Apparently, and the details are brief, when the chemical is blocked, rats lose all their memories. Like, all of them.

The scientists get published, and then get a bunch of letters from ptsd sufferers who want their memories erased. The scientists were a little freaked out, on account of they were just doing research, like to know stuff, and people thought, hey! we can use that!

So what if we made a chemical weapon out of that? Bomb a city, and all the citizens just completely forget everything ever. Like what a sink is.

Not quite long, but surely boring and pretentious.

My fave political blog has a new post up on the Bailout. The gist of it is that quite a few of our congressional representatives are switching sides on the issue; several pro-bailout republicans are now against it, and several democrats--who campaigned against the bill just this last season--are for now for it. Mr. Silver quite rightly criticizes those pundits who see this as the instant corruption of our representatives ("sell out" is the term floated). Instead, Mr. Silver proposes the much simpler answer: political expediency. If Obama wants the bailout instead of Bush, it's pretty clear why the party lines are reversing on the issue.

But there are two things I want to take up from this article:

1) While it's true that corporations are not people, but rather collections of people, that doesn't make them equally likely to be greedy or untrustworthy are the rest of us. We would do well to remember what spurs people towards greed--leaving aside the popular populist rhetoric of personal obsession, which may hold sway in certain instances but is a poor assumption when modeling the general case. If we take the rather drastic step of assuming homogeneity of utility in the general population, then it is left only to ask what elements of an individual's professional situation informs that individual's actions. In this case, the desire for job security--and for a better job--might well inspire those individuals who make corporate decisions to be greedier. There's no reason to append a moral condemnation to this; if a CEO doesn't behave ruthlessly to advance a corporation, then the well-beings of those depending on that CEO are at risk. (There are certain naïve assumptions omitted here that I'll leave the reader to pick through.)

2) I (of all people) think that Mr. Silver might be being a little too cynical when he argues that the vote swap is informed only by political scheming. When he points out that the bill lacks oversight (to an astounding degree), he omits that, as of Tuesday, those not being overseen won't be Bush and Paulson, but Obama and whoever (I'll admit to being quite ignorant about Bernanke's future; Greenspan sat for so long that I've got it in my head that it's a permanent position, but that doesn't seem right). So the vote switching might simply be because democrats believe Obama will use the $700 billion well, while they believed that Bush was just going to right Dick Cheney a check and send him to the mall.