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Human Competence: Achilles On the Mend

 

Carl at Dead Voles wrote a pair of ruminations that flowed from an all-too-honest confession of how to write a philosophy paper by Graham Harman (apparent Graham linked to the comments, and then deleted the link, finding the criticism out of bounds). First he critiqued Graham’s very helpful suggestions on how to structurally spruce up a paper, things like breaking it up into sections, identifying tensions with positions other than your own, and then mixing in a Classic thinker, drawing our attention to how as a historian Carl finds this process (expanded into a prescription for how to read books, and dovetail papers with talks) to be painfully different from the kinds of closer examinations he must carry out. Then in “Shopping at the Black Box Store” he draws heavier consequences from this kind of text and thought production, summing up the problems with the Latourian proposal that Theories operate primarily as Black Boxes, calling for perhaps a better, more lucid metaphors (linking parts of Metaphors We Live By), ultimately pointing towards the Black Boxes of Marxist thought:

This is an interesting metaphor to me, because in my dissertation I used it to characterize marxist approaches to revolutionary consciousness and suggested that its darkness contributed to enabling some pretty serious errors and atrocities. Perhaps a more transparent and reflective sort of thinking (not to mention a more glassy set of metaphors) might have contributed to a more humane revolutionary practice?

Part of this response falls at the feet of philosophy itself, with a real mourning that Graham Harman’s lessons how how to produce and package philosophical ideas does describe the requirements of a real environment for philosophy production. One really must roll one reading into another talk. One really should through in a Classical thinker every now an then. I mean, there is a brand to keep up. Distinct from the real sense that theories can be seen as Black Boxes that can indeed be opened up to see how they work, there is also in Latour (and Harman’s celebration of the same), the sense that the way that a theory succeeds is by Black Boxing itself, keeping its hidden mechanisms opaque to the viewer.

Two Kinds of Magic

Arthur C. Clarke said brilliantly in his Third Law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  There is the sense that any theory that is to be successfully put forth has to operate as a kind of magic, and a magic that happens when we don’t quite know how they did that. This is distinct of course from the kind of magic one feels when we “see how they did that,” when we see how things connect and manifest. There seems to be a fundamental tension between these two kinds of magic.

Graham Harman’s behind the scenes “tricks of the trade”  benevolent advice to up and coming thinkers perhaps invests in both kinds of magic. This is how it all connects, what Carl calls the glimpse behind the curtain: this is how you can create the illusion of deep and analytical thinking, and gather momentum in your profession and your brand. And there is a beautiful magic in “How to be a Successful Philosopher” perhaps in the same way as magician in training would feel relieved to know now how to saw the lady in half. Much of Graham’s professional insight seems to fall into this category of “there is no mystery for how to make the mystery appear”.

But as I read it, Carl’s problem isn’t with Graham’s successful procedures, but with the very social conditions which reward and reinforce just these habits of reading and paper building. Do theories only become accepted through a kind of magical allure, a seduction into a willing-suspension of disbelief, a refusal to let others look under the hood? I believe that what flows from Carl’s objection to skim reading and antique philosopher insertion is something of the same objection to mass-produced objects of consumption. There is the sense that yes, you can do it that way, but perhaps I want something hand-carved. When philosophy bases itself upon idea and text production of this sort, does it not take as its very material that which is most malleable to such a process?

Achilles Contra Odysseus

With these thoughts in mind throughout the intermittency of morning I found my mind turning to a comparison which was somewhat prevalent in Athenian society, the contrast between Achilles and Odysseus. There is something to Carl’s appeal for a glassier set of metaphors, and his dissatisfaction with Graham Harman brand-building Black Box stores that for me invokes this antique difference. Odysseus was he man of many turns, polytropos. The word is rich in meanings. Because clever he can turn in any direction, he is a swiss-army knife of mentality and action, full of devices. Yet because of this, his life (despite the homecoming at the Odyssey’s end) is also in quintessential Heideggerian and Holderlinian fashion, a life of wandering, turn upon turn, endlessly thrown into and against the world. He is thought to be in many ways the essentially modern man. To some degree he embodied both the positive and the negative values of contemporary Athenian citizen ideas.

But Achilles was a different sort of figure, a man of a different sort of Age, someone who the Athenian Greeks often felt put the Odysseus of tricks to the pale. A man perhaps who no longer it seemed could exist. Contrary to Odysseus’s adaptability, Achilles was someone who exerted the pure force of his ability to act and manifest itself directly (even it its absence). He was something like a direct radiation of Being. His story in the Iliad told of how man is to act amid social injustice, when one’s nominal leaders lack the community of values which are required to lead. It is told that he is both a rhetor and a doer  in such a way that we understand that speaking is a kind of act and not something readily separable.

There is a very real sense that as the history of Western philosophy, particularly in its modern form, turned to the Greeks for their blueprints of questions and answers, the wrong, or least desirable Greek ideal was absorbed. People like Heidegger rejoiced over the alienations of Odysseus, his homeless machinations, and did not see the simplicity of force found in Achilles. A man conditioned by his loves (Briseis, Patroclus, Thetis, the Myrimdons, then lastly affimed custom, reconsiliation and mercy), and driven to personal yet mutual justice, someone who bent the rules of the very discourse available to express his dissatisfaction, and through a combination of refusal and action morally shaped both his community and historical events. Achilles was man before Man, something that could manifest both itself in surplus of the spectrum of the human, and become god-like, or in deficit of what’s human and become a mere force of Nature. It was the necessary capacity to bestride these two that he embodied to a far greater degree “what is human” than did the later Odysseus who articulated a specific historical domain, which he remained within. 

As philosophy recovers from the Idealisms which plagued the Rights of Man, and seeks to reorient itself within a Real World of forces and objects, it must be wary of ontologizing the Odysseus of what is human, the specific alienations we have generated through our choices (much of it imported through the ontology of the Negation, how his name can only be pronounced as “No-man” by the poly-phemic One). There is a real choice in philosophy I believe, whether to start with the Achilean man (woman), or the Odyssean one, a beginning which directs the kinds of answers we find.

My sense is that as sufferers of modern and post-modern conditions, it is best not to ontologize these to the degree that we cannot imagine ourselves beyond them. Yes, perhaps it is good to learn the tricks of the trade, to bring forth black box powers as a matter of survival, but it is better I suggest to learn the glow of an other competence, the competence of bond, withdrawl and speaking action. I think that there is something to Carl’s glassy metaphors that speaks to the proposed unifications of Achillean force. The ways in which powers are better read and expressed as Real.

What Does Odysseus know that Achilles does not? And what does Achilles know…ontologically?

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