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The Analogy of Philosophical Wealth

Graham Harman makes an interesting analogy by which the philosophical Zizeks and Derridas of the philosophy world are like the Warren Buffetts of the economy. Unlike the somewhat rather weathy Republicans, the ultra-rich are actually liberal minded and generous, not sweating the small stuff, like the 80 million they lost in the market yesterday. These philosophers are prolific because they are asked to do books are the time. Their very name is a brand that sells ideas. But so many other philosophers are locked in mere Dukedoms and Principalities, where they exact the small pleasures of dominance:

If you’re one of the world’s most exciting philosophers (such as those mentioned in the previous post), then you have a lot of work to do, and no one writing a letter out of the blue needs to be put in their place. But those who might feel like they’re not getting their due will need to enact a number of micro-dominance rituals when you meet them, just to leave no doubt as to who is boss. These are all among the worst memories of a lifetime, but it will pay off in the end if I can eventually write a scathing article classifying the various types of such rituals.

Everyone who has suffered in the “office” knows of which Graham speaks, but what came to mind for me immediately was the rather universal complaint that someone like Zizek isn’t really doing any more real work. While making his stamp upon society, so to speak, he himself finds deep dissatisfaction with his book. And attentive readers tire of his retread of the same five ideas brought to ever varying subject matters. K-punk, who apparently has slipped into a lethargy of repeat-social-comment, put it beautifully, comparing Zizek’s intellectual output to a DJ who just keeps putting remix after remix of the same old song. The banality of it is painful.

Graham’s work seems centered on breaking through the fiefdom paralysis of local university and college powers, a dullness of thinking which is rather by-and-large blamed on either the tenure system, or the journal system. If we could just change the politics/economics of ideas, then all these brilliant minds could be set free, one feels. But, if one of the Warren Buffetts of philosophy, Zizek, a man who has escapes this emprisonment of minor cruelties, himself feels deep dissatisfied with what he is making (as do many of his readers), the question is not perhaps that of escape, or radical transformation. To-be-like-Zizek (only more happy), cannot be a philosophical aim.

Could it be that the kinds of minds/characters that excel in academic settings, those selected by those Darwinian environment, are simply less brilliant, less significantly profound, than they are supposed to be by the societal statis of the texts that they teach? To be sure, there are the amphibious types, minds that can perform outside of the bounds of their narrow selection (we read that enviroments do not so much select what is there, but rather what is not; and then, not even that, that organisms feedback); but what is selected for is not brilliance. That is, the “dominance rituals” are not an accidental by-product of the system(s), but its very acme.

There is the sense that the creativity of teaching minds is somehow squeezed out, and in turn squeezes out the creativity of the minds below them, in a mad kind of inverted Aristotlean habitus  and imitation toward ideal, but I find it notable that Graham in a certain sense weighs freedom in a register of productivity. The super-rich are more productive than the Associate Professor because they are asked to write books, to spin out an article. They are not fundamentally different, their position is different. But is this not an odd register for the philosophic? Have we not already acceded to the brute fact that the aim of contemporary philosophy is text production? Brilliant ideas succeed, when they do, because they produce more texts in response. They are virtual text fountains.

In some way thinking about the philosophy that gets produced in academia is like thinking about the philosophy that got produced in monestaries on the Middle Ages (I know, not an original comparison, “nook dwellers”). The point of the monestary is not that of idea. The idea is there only to restablize the function of the network, so to speak. The brutalities of soured, or embittered professorial corners of the world, the violences of the bureau, are not accidental to text and text producer’s factories, they are the point. Only the tortured flesh of the professor/student can produce a text so indifferent so as to rise to the level of the Beautiful.

Alternately, when I have encountered a wise academic philosopher (rarely; I have not had the privilege to mix with the heavy weights, perhaps they are different), it is not the case that I get the sense that their wisdom flows out of their brilliant ideas, that is, it is n0t what they have seen by virtue of their ideas, but comes out of their character. It is their character, in superabundance of, and engagment with, their environments, that saw them through. One gets the sense that they would have been wise if they had become a plumber, or a waitress. One could no more gain wisdom by adopting their positional philosophy, than by driving their car. This seems quite far from the ethical aim of philosophical origins.

All in all, it seems that it is not only creativity, but the purposive witness of the idea, its transformative effect, that is missing from what can be done with Philosophy. Graham Harman is committed to a change in this mould, to creating spaces where the “intellectual gambler” is given a more rightful place, where metaphysics can become properly speculative and inspiring. I deeply applaud this, but suggest that in the change of space we cannot simply think of an army of brilliant minds which have been put in bondage by an uncaring system. Professors excel at professing. Its a bit, but not exactly like, asking literature professors to write the great American or Parisian novel. Not impossible, but perhaps sometimes a question of genus.

If we are to return to the analogy if wealth, its not just that we could turn all of those conservative Republicans into loving liberals if we just found a way to make them all super rich like Warren Buffett, there would be no economy to thought. And it doesn’t even work to suggest to individual Republicans, “take it easy, one day you might be like Warren Buffett,” publishing books and articles left and right, with ease. I think one really has to uncover that essential, transformative brilliance does not occur at University, any more than essential, transformative faith occurs at seminary. The “stuff” of brilliance, in a Harmanian sense, is forever in retreat from is qualities, in those houses. But the world is not a university. The stuff of brilliance is more an artifact of nature, like a stone that you find when walking and paying attention in a way you don’t often, at the side of the path. It winks at you…or gets stuck in the shoe.

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