Monthly Archives: December 2012

Traversing the Levels with Alphonso Lingis

O-14, designed by Reiser + Umemoto

O-14, designed by Reiser + Umemoto

In Guerrilla Metaphysics, Graham Harman mentions Alphonso Lingis, whom he respectfully refers to as a “carnal phenomenologist.” Since reading this praise, I had been meaning to look into Lingis’s work, and I was happy to have found an interview with Lingis.

The reason I was interested in the interview has mostly to do with Harman’s reading of Lingis’s phenomenology, specifically Lingis’s ideas about inanimate objects—a subject barely discussed in the talk. About his book The Imperative, Lingis states, “The concept of imperative in that book came from Merleau-Ponty and from Levinas. Merleau-Ponty wrote that subjectivity is destined for objects. There’s a teleological orientation toward objects in a coherent world. So somehow the world orders us.” One basic understanding of this point is that material conditions have a consequent on our actions. It seems that Lingis means more than this, however. Lingis continues, “I understood that every animal we see, and also the plants and rivers we see, we see their wants and needs also; they affect us, weigh on us, and order us. It’s the same kind of experience.”

Harman is interested in Lingis’s “levels” of the world, particularly the essences of the world that are not anthropocentric, and where the unseen world resides when we’re not around to witness it. Harman writes in Guerrilla Metaphysics, “What is most characteristic of Lingis’s levels is that they are not a feature of human perception that follows us around wherever we go, but a feature of reality itself. The human being merely explores them, without being responsible for generating them” (67). This emphasis on the ontology of inanimate objects not being tied to human perception is made because it is a linchpin of Harman’s metaphysics. Harman continues with an example:

The glaciers of the South Pole and the currents of water jetting from and toward the glaciers are themselves fleshly to one another, ‘visible in general,’ even in the absence of all humans. They encounter one another not as stupid inanimate bulks working with mechanical torpor, but as topographical bulges in the world, as imperative objects never fully manifest to each other but communicating with one another through the levels that bring their qualities into communion (68).

It seems that Harman’s main point here is that individual entities do not always interact with each other completely through a single medium or level, and thus that there must be many levels of the world of experience.

The image above of a project by architects Reiser and Umemoto was chosen because I like the way they illustrate and emphasize the varying layers of materials in their designs. Those different material layers contain their own internal interactions, and yet also act as objects themselves, interacting with other material layers.

Learning Kivy

I just started working on creating graphic user interfaces for Python with Kivy. I’ve written a Python script to help me practice German words, but I’d like to make it a bit more visual than simple text in a terminal like this:

a boring terminal window

a boring terminal window

Right now I’m thinking of interactive buttons acting like little vocabulary “cards”:

something a bit more interesting

something a bit more interesting

You’d click on it and it would tell you the answer. After that, you’d be able to move it into a correct or incorrect “pile” depending on whether you got it right or not. After running through the given list, you’d be able to start over with the incorrect pile until you had completed the notecards.

All this practice of vocabulary words could just be done with regular paper cards, but I’ll eventually end up with hundreds of cards stacked up all over my apartment, which I can do without. We’ll see how it goes.

The Last Bolshevik

still from Chris Marker's Le tombeau d'Alexandre (1993)

still from Chris Marker’s Le tombeau d’Alexandre

I just watched Chris Marker’s film Le tombeau d’Alexandre [The Last Bolshevik] (1993), which focuses on the work of Soviet filmmaker Aleksandr Ivanovich Medvedkin (Александр Иванович Медведкин). Medvedkin seems especially interesting due to his “film-train”, which was specifically-stocked train that travelled through the Soviet Union during the 1930s. The film mentions the kolkhozy several times as places Medvedkin’s train visited. The film ponders the troubles of being an artist committed to a degenerating party. One need only see Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) to see the initial optimism of the U.S.S.R. At the end of the film, several people say that perhaps Medvedkin’s death in 1989 saved him from further heartbreak in the coming years. Concerning his commitment to an increasingly negative party, Marina Goldovskaia says,  “I will never never believe that Medvedkin was a liar. I cannot believe it, because he was a sincere person. I will not believe it. I think that he wanted this fairy tale—he needed it [ . . . ] people needed it.” It should be noted, too, that Marker does not completely apologize for Medvedkin’s later films that felt too much like distorted propaganda.

I gotta admit that the intermission in Le tombeau is kind of silly. It’s a couple minutes’ shots of Marker’s famous cat Guillame-en-Egypte resting on a keyboard as music plays. I guess some cute footage of his pet is not the worst way to take a break from the somber history of the Soviet Union. Which reminds me . . . About a year ago, when I was in the MAPH at UChicago, a buddy of mine in my group was writing his thesis on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Occasionally we’d read each other’s drafts, and I’d tell him something like, “It’s going well, but it darkened my day!” Perhaps my thesis on utopias leveled out the mood of our topics.

Given Chris Marker’s enthusiasm for Medvedkin’s work, I’d like to see some of it, especially his film Счастье [Happiness] 1934.

A Moment with Pierre Loti

Paul Gauguin, "Montagnes Tahitiennes" (1891)

Paul Gauguin, “Montagnes Tahitiennes” (1891)

I’m reading Pierre Loti’s Pêcheur d’Islande (1886) right now to practice my French. Here’s a nice moment from near the beginning of the novel: “Dehors, ce devait être la mer et la nuit, l’infinie désolation des eaux noires et profondes. Une montre de cuivre, accrochée au mur, marquait onze heures, onze heures du soir sans doute ; et, contre le plafond de bois, on entendait le bruit de la pluie” (24).

After having read excerpts from Loti’s other novel Le mariage de Loti [or Rarahu] (1880) for a French class a couple years ago, my professor recommended this one.

In Le mariage de Loti, there have been both French and English soldiers in the same place, among the polynesian islands. I’m still not completely sure how that worked politically. From some quick searching around, it seems that there was competition between the two colonizing countries until France established its protectorate in the 1840s.

The Gauguin painting above is included because he did these paintings in reaction to his stay in Tahiti. Perhaps it gives a sense of the light there.

ReS Futurae’s Official Opening

The French journal ReS Futurae, which focuses on science fiction, has officially premiered online. In its growth I had written two short pieces for its carnet.

Irène Langlet, the director of the project, made the announcement. The journal’s introduction reads:

ReS Futurae est une revue francophone internationale dédiée à l’étude de la science-fiction sous toutes ses formes : littérature, cinéma, arts graphiques, jeux vidéo, musique, design et phénomènes culturels divers. C’est une revue académique, à comité de lecture et arbitrage par les pairs, fondée sur un partenariat avec la revue Science Fiction Studies : des traductions croisées d’articles acceptés dans l’une et l’autre revue seront publiées régulièrement. Dans le paysage académique francophone, ce sera la première revue de cette nature.

I look forward to good things from it, as its gestation stage looked promising.

Needing Adorno

Nonsite recently hosted a discussion on Theodor Adorno called, “Do We Need Adorno?”. The first piece is Todd Cronan’s review of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Towards a New Manifesto, followed by responses to both the book and Cronan’s review.

One of the primary concerns of the discussion on Nonsite had to do with the concept of domination, as well as its distinctions and convergences with inequality. In his review, Cronan writes,

It’s a matter of understanding the sea change in Marxist analysis that Adorno initiated when he criticized the basic Marxist tenet that ‘economics has priority over domination; domination may not be deduced otherwise than economically’ (Negative Dialectics). That domination exists without private property was presumed to point to a more basic fact about civilization than any economic analysis could explain. For Adorno the fact that ‘human beings…are always being humiliated’ has absolute priority over any economic analysis (48). At stake is nothing less than a vision of Marxism as an analysis of humiliation, of shame, not exploitation.

The responses discuss the relevancy of Adorno’s point above, that Marxist thought must adapt to differing forms of domination—forms that have existed with civilization itself. I don’t think this is saying that Cronan believes that Marx kept the purview of his project merely to the economic. Cronan ends his review by arguing that Adorno made the mistake falling into the idea of “milieu theory,” which was “the idea that culture determined consciousness.” Cronan continues, “[Marx’s] great achievement was to see that economics was not a matter of culture but of exploitation.”

Nicholas Brown expands on this idea, writing that Marx, just as Hegel, would regard such reductions as “All are vulgar materialisms, attempts to reduce the subject to some causally determining substance.”

The ending of Chris Cutrone’s response I think leads the reader to an assertive Yes to the question in the discussion’s title:

Adorno and Horkheimer are thus potentially helpful for recovering the true spirit of Marxism. Their work expresses what has become obscure or esoteric about Marxism. This invites a blaming of their work as culpable, instead of recognizing the unfolding of history they described that had made Marxism potentially irrelevant, a ‘message in a bottle’ they hoped could still yet be received. It is unfortunate if their conversation isn’t.

It was the degeneration of the Left that makes Adorno and Horkheimer appear irrelevant. Their awareness of the development of culture and domination stands in contrast to the neoliberal sense of freedom in the contemporary culture.

A Romanian Journal I Found Yesterday

The library at UChicago occasionally gets rid of some books by offering them up to the students. Along with some volumes on Astophysics and Electron Microscopy, I saw a few interesting looking issues of a journal called, Anale de Istorie.

After some looking around on wikipedia, it seems that it was printed by the Romanian Communist Party’s institute, Institul de Studii Istorice și Social-Politice de pe Lînga C.C. al P.C.R.

In the issue from 1988, there was a kind of advertisement for a man named Ceausescu.

Google translate seemed to think “Scritti scelti” is Italian for “selected writings,” so I’m guessing these are all the different volumes of a man named Ceausescu. An additional search help me discover that this is Nicolae Ceaușescu, who ruled over Romania for years until his government was overthrow in a revolution in 1989, in which he was executed for his apparently brutal reign. It’s odd to think that this issue was printed the year before his death. The wikipedia page mentions a cult of personality that surrounded him, which emphasized showing only the best images of the man. This would explain the full page portrait on the first page of the issue, a black-and-white photo that has been colored:

It’s so odd to have this juxtaposition of this portrait and the knowledge of how awful he was.

As a side note, I’ve now found that Chris Marker criticized French television through using footage of Ceaușescu’s trial and execution in his work Détour. Ceaușescu (1990). In her book Memories of the Future, Catherine Lupton writes:

Within this desire to reshape broadcasting according to his own whims and enthusiasms, Marker uses Zapping Zone to propose a critical interrogation of television as it currently exists, and invites the viewer to share in imagining the possibilities of what television might be instead. Nowhere is this vein of criticism more pointed than in this eight-minute video piece Détour. Ceaușescu, which re-edits taped television footage into a sardonic commentary on French television coverage of the trial and execution in December 1989 of the Romanian dictator Nicholae Ceaușescu and his wife. The TF1 newsreader makes much of the moral imperative to broadcast the videotape of the swift trial and execution of the Ceaușescus in its entirety, without commercial breaks. Marker chips in with arch indignation via an inter title, ‘What, no adverts?’, and proceeds to intersperse the grim reportage with snippets of breezy television commercials, through darkly apposite montage proposing new uses for kitchen paper and laundry detergent in dealing with the bloody aftermath of the execution. French television’s hypocrisy in attempting to deny its own complicity with advertising is undermined to devastating effect (184).