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Tag Archives: Derrida

The Banality of Badiou…


Splintering Bone Ashes puts it this way,

Whilst his ontological position has a certain minimalist elegance about it, everything he builds atop it is little more than a ridiculous hyper-structure of nonsense piled upon nonsense, an unsteady philosophical folly whose absurd (yet po-faced) architecture has only been exacerbated by (what I have read thus far of) Logics of Worlds.

And Naught Thought collects the pieces of a disaffected sense of betrayal (a betrayal that isn’t even dramatic enough to be betrayal).

For me it was never the case that I was enchanted with Badiou, only savoring his study of Paul, often just seeing him as something of a One-ups-man of his much more influential and preceding, Deleuze. Who is going to inherit the shared crown of the Dioskouroi, Derrida and Deleuze, so as to enthrall today’s students, and convince them that real philosophy is being done somewhere, now? Continental Philosophy’s need for a frontman.

Yet really it comes back down to this “mimimalist elegance”. The austerity would be austere if it were only intense. If things are to be abstracted, honed, rarified, condensed, they must vibrate, burn in all their mimimal character. Instead it all comes off as a sketch in a student’s notebook, some essential diagram dreamed up, and then written on without end. It is like Plotinus without the Vision. It is a mathematical analogy taken too literally, nicely clever, so as to self-convince. Its like seeing a magician who fails at magic, the transformative performance of that which magic is, and turning illusion into mere trick, someone who forgot the Prestige. After you make the world disappear, you have to bring it back.

[Spoiler: Do not watch if you haven’t seen the film, The Prestige]


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.

Some Doubt about Skeptics

A conversation over Doubt

Duck, over at Duckrabbit, has been voicing some kind of difficulty in understanding just what the Skeptics of communication are after (he seems to mostly have Derrida in mind). Clearly communication works, and it happens all the time. So when someone like Davidson (or Gadamer) comes along with a rather neat theory that helps explain just how this happens, the groudwork of this capacity, Skeptics appear to be in kind of denial of some of the most obvious and beneficial of things.

These are some of my thoughts on the issue, important enough to write aboutr since I share with duck a love for Davidson:

From duck’s post “Davidson and Gadamer”:

But as Clark was describing it, Derrida’s charge seems not to be one of relativism, but instead of dogmatism. Where we assume that communication is successful (such that our task is to explain how such a thing is possible), it may yet be that there is instead a “radical rupture” of some (necessarily) mysterious kind. This claim sounds to me like the ontological cum semantic equivalent of Cartesian radical epistemological doubt: offended by our seeming complacency concerning the apparent smoothness of typical conversation, the skeptical soixante-huitard imp hops in with dire warnings of ruptures and fissures and cracks, oh my!

My thoughts were as follows, and his response:

One wonders why “ruptures and fissures and cracks” have to be necessarily of the disastrous kind. (Do errors in replication prove necessarily foul in DNA?) Are not, and is not, Derrida’s point that fissures are irruptive of creative force? That mistakes and mis-mappings can be productive? Yes, along with Davidson we can theorize that my predictions are governed by a ballast of successful prediction, but too, there is a counter-weight of the play of a successful mis-understanding, the way that possibilities of discovering “what one meant” (even what you yourself meant), are what is endemic to rupturing meanings.

To offer an example from the aforementioned. When Descartes spoke of the centrality of Hyperbolic Doubt, did he in any way have in mind (mean?) the Hyperbolic lenses he was attempting to devise? (Is this conflation a malapropism of sorts, an accidental blurring of argumentative clarity, which should have chosen another word?) This is a rupture in meaning, one that brings down, and at the same time fortifies from another perspective, what the Cartesian project was.

Indeed, not only are successes, but I believe Derrida’s point is, so are failures, in their very failure nature (an inclusion of what seems should be marginal).

“Lions, and Tigers and Bears” have purposes too.

When he had responded in an affirming fashion, I thought we had come to an agreement. Gotten was the play of language, and its creative possibilites, come from the borders of sense:

duck wrote: Maybe that is his point (let’s be charitable). And maybe that’s even true (I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t be, in some sense). But it would take a serious misreading of Davidson to think that that posed any serious threat to his project (on my not entirely faithful reading). (Gadamer too, I bet, but I’m less sure there.) Thus my comparison to skeptical alarms.

But maybe such a misreading is itself irruptive of creative force! If so, create away.

But it seems that he still harbors doubts about the Doubters, as he protests against the seemingly nonsensical aims (ambiguity intended) of these overturners of “communication”. He makes a very good point, in that one has to get a grip on what Skeptics think communication is, if one it understand why they are so resistant to it. But the extent of “charity” seems strained for him:

duck: I’m not sure what skeptics about communication think communication is, that we may so easily doubt that it occurs (that is, that it is the default case). It’s not the magically total and transparent availability to one of another’s mind. It’s when you have some idea what (i.e. in the world) they’re talking about, such that you have some idea whether or not you agree with them (or can do what they ask, or whatever). Set the conceptual bar too high, and voilà, “breakdowns and aporia.” Just like epistemological skepticism.

And these are my thoughts on the matter. I am not a Derridist, but I think it is important to understand the nature of that project, the over-riding metaphor or trope that it is operant there, that sense-making is power distribution in the service of “clear appearance”, so to see the possible consequences of “transparency of mind”:

I agree with Musicalcolin, when she/he says,

I understand Derrida’s critique to be something about the totalizing power of interpretation. That is, interpretations may succeed, but in that very success may also be an imposition.”

“Those Skeptics” are not perverse deniers of the capacity to communicate, rather they are the critics of reified communication (the capacity itself) as it comes to be dogmatically passed down in social forms. Wittgenstein’s playful Language Gamees can become a bit more Kafkaesque in courtrooms.

What is at stake here though, in the transparency of minds question, is that if indeed the process can be anchored in some particular, fixed discriminating way, one may be able to “see into” someone else’s mind, and categorically determine that they are not “making sense”, or, in a more Davidsonian way, that the sense that they make is based on having “bad beliefs” (apparent to everyone). The Skeptics want to say, there is no vantage point from which “sense” can be divorced from structures of power. Such structures, and their discourses, rest upon an essential capacity to make minds transparent. All the good stuff, the transparency that helps us connect, plays right into the mechanisms of defining what is sense and what is not. And any definitive way that “transparency” is achieved, becomes a mechanism of control. (It is for this reason, of course, that Descartes’ invented his radical doubt, to unhinge himself from social forms of power, in project of attempting to look straight into the ration divine.) Skeptics, like Derrida, are not interested in simply throwing wrench-doubt for doubt’s sake into a supposedly well-oiled and beneficent machine (communication): Hey, can’t you see how well this stuff works! Rather, they are bent on undercutting the bonds of meaning, at a radical level, so as to open up a space for counter discourse, speaking ever out from the shadow of meaning, from the periphery.

For Derridists and their sort, the issue of miscommuniation it is not just as duck says, a product of setting the “conceptual bar too high”, a kind of “we are just asking too much from communication in the first place”. It is more gaining a space for critiquing occasions where the bar doesn’t seem high at all, where we seem to see unproblematically (but thoroughly culturally invested) into the minds of others, and come to know “just what they are thinking”.

It is absolutely essential, and combinatory, that we understand what other people are thinking, but but something more than just “communicating” has happened when we do so. Keeping track of this more, is what I believe Derrida (and others) are after. When the world coheres, it is “our” world.

I thought this topic is worth posting, as it actually shows a kind of Davidsonian truth, one that undercuts Derrida’s point to some degree (all “knowing” is not simply a “presencing”, but also is a bodily “doing”). When describers of communicablity have difficulty accepting what a skeptic about communication has to say, it very well may be that they mean different things when talking about what “communication” is. What communication is, is both a homogenizing process (“if you become enough like me, you would agree with me”) and a self-transformative process (“if I become enough like you, I would agree with you”). It touches on the very boundaries of, and experience of “the self”, our perimeters of coherence and perception. I think that duck was very right in his intuition to refer to the “lions and tigers and bears” of rupture in communication. For such creatures can very well be the playthings of adult-child fantasy; Derrida, at his worst, can be seen as playing a tedious and impish game of “gotcha” and pin-the-phallus-on-the-argument-donkey. But ruptures in communication also can be, and do in history become, the very real terrors which help construct our Emerald City of “transparent minds”, for better or worse.


So is it wrong to ask, What is in the basement of the Emerald City of communication?