Monthly Archives: August 2013

En France

Above I’ve posted a short video made up of brief moments during my visit to France. All of it was filmed in Paris, except the very beginning which was on the train to Paris, so I’m guessing it might have been in the region of Picardie. After going to London, I figured this would be a good time to visit Paris while I was on that side of the Atlantic.

I didn’t know anyone to meet in Paris so I simply had three days to walk throughout the city on my own, which the weather permitted wonderfully. I liked La Pirouette and the wine bar/charcuterie shop, La Buvette, where the owner Camille enthusiastically told me about and poured for me several glasses of fantastic wine. L’Ambassage d’Auvergne was another great restaurant, with one funny oddity, which is that while everything else is well-portioned, if you order the delicious Mousse au Chocolat, you’re served with a giant bowl filled with enough mousse for six people. I was thinking of giving the bowl to the nearby table of Irish tourists, but the staff took it away before I could act. Here’s a photo:

The massive mousse bowl and my plate

The massive mousse bowl and my plate

Every time I spoke with Parisians I began in French, with which I’m not fluent but skilled enough to get by. In most conversations, however, after hearing my accent, the local French would respond to me in English. I should note that at no time did I encounter the stereotypical “rude Frenchman”, the concept of which resides in my xenophobic American culture. In the last few days I’ve begun a renewed attempt at improving my French. While I was in London, I met the French philosopher Catherine Malabou who gave me the name of a good Parisian bookstore, where I ended up buying a couple books by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his native tongue.

Of course now I need to return.

The sunset over the Seine

The sunset over the Seine

Going to London for Hegel

The campus of University of London, Birkbeck

The campus of University of London, Birkbeck

I know I’m a few months late in posting about my visit to Europe, and more specifically, my attendance of the conference on Hegel at the University of London, Birkbeck held in May, entitled “The Actuality of the Absolute: Hegel, Our Untimely Contemporary”. I’m pretty sure that the conference was organized by Slavoj Žižek.

From the audience at the conference.

From the audience at the conference.

The first note I took in my notebook happened during Žižek’s opening remarks. He said, “No tasteless, dirty jokes from me….This is pure..” I had to write down something he said to show his seriousness about the subject matter, to push away certain connotations that he is a mere jester.

In these opening remarks, Žižek gave us a few points. The first being the broad categories of readings of Hegel. There used to be two main camps of reading: conservative and revolutionary. Now, Žižek points out, there is a new category of reading on the rise, that being the Liberal Hegel. Žižek points to the Robert Pippen at the University of Chicago, and the so-called Pittsburgh Hegelians. This camp has the characteristic of speaking of a deflated Hegel. For Žižek, this liberal reading was to be the enemy of the work presented at the conference. The other point brought up is the question as to what materialism today. There is Naturalistic Materialism, Discursive Materialism—on this Žižek said, “The Deconstruction era is over”—, and “New” (so-called) Materialism, about which I’m not sure what he meant, but he mentioned a phrase “vibrating matter” with regard to it. Finally Žižek closed his remarks with a musing that maybe to be a Marxist today is to revert Marx’s materialism back to Hegel—perhaps Hegel was more materialistic than Marx.

At the conference there were people recording the presentations. Those recordings are now available online. I highly recommend listening to the many presentations given over the course of the three days. I’m probably going to listen to them again soon. Perhaps my studying in the interim between the time of their recording and now will help me better follow their ideas.

Miéville’s The City & the City

Detail of the cover art of Miéville's The City & the City.

Detail of the cover art of Miéville’s The City & the City.

After quickly reading China Miéville’s Embassytown (2011), I picked up Miéville’s The City & the City (2009), and read that one just as fast. I’ve noticed that both novels include tension caused by rules that seem to be impossible to transgress. In Embassytown, the Ariekei are unable to speak in certain ways, and in The City & the City locals of the city of Besźel and the city of Ul Qoma are—to the surprise of distant foreigners—unable to cross the border separating the two cities, even in places where the cities share parts of the same street.

In the acknowledgements section of The City & the City, Miéville mentions his indebtedness to the works of Raymond Chandler and Franz Kafka, among other authors. And on the cover of the book, a review from the Los Angeles Times mentions Philip K. Dick as a reference point in the novel’s style. While I haven’t read any Raymond Chandler yet, I’m familiar with the work of Philip K. Dick and Franz Kafka—both of which exhibit a dreadful paranoid about the mysterious workings of the world.

Another similarity between these two novels by Miéville is that both include important parts of their respective worlds which lay some sort of foundation for the main storyline. In Embassytown, the fascinating realm of “the immer”, with which space travel of great distances is made possible, is only given a cursory—though good—description. In The City & the City, the “cleaving” of the cities that happened at some point in the past, leaving behind ambiguous, confusing archeological evidence, is the other mysterious foundation.

Steven Pinker and Scientism

I just read Steven Pinker’s recent article in The New Republic, “Science is Not Your Enemy: An Impassioned Plea to Neglected Novelists, Embattled Professors, and Tenure-less Historians”. Although the article calls itself a plea, it rather appears as the words of a self-appointed apostle of science, who reprimands ungrateful children for their inability to celebrate the manna bestowed upon them by science. Bewildered, Pinker writes, “One would think that writers in the humanities would be delighted and energized by the efflorescence of new ideas from the sciences. But one would be wrong”.

While I’m tempted to go through every part of the article and critique it, my argument can be summarized in a few points. First, Pinker begins with a misconception of philosophy, specifically metaphysics, which is not neurology, but rather the speculative thought about how we can come to make claims about knowledge and truth. Pinker’s enlisting of philosophers like Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, etc. into the ranks of cognitive neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists is simply ignorant. Pinker would do well to walk over to the office of his colleague Peter Galison—professor in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University—and ask Galison to explain to him the differences between Metaphysics and neurology. Galison could also tell Pinker about the ideas of the self-improvement of humanity in the history of scientific thought. Pinker fails to see how anyone could possibly have anything negative to say “Enlightenment humanism”, which Pinker says is behind science today. This, I would argue, is the decisive point behind much of the criticism of scientism. Pinker lists such words as “reductionism” as terms used to criticize science’s flattening view of the world, but he doesn’t really explain how those criticisms are inaccurate.

The devotion to scientific facts becomes its own religious worldview. I want to quote at length a passage in which Pinker lists the ways in which science has accomplished such a view:

The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet. For the same reason, they undercut any moral or political system based on mystical forces, quests, destinies, dialectics, struggles, or messianic ages. And in combination with a few unexceptionable convictions— that all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct—the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings. This humanism, which is inextricable from a scientific understanding of the world, is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies, international organizations, and liberalizing religions, and its unfulfilled promises define the moral imperatives we face today.

While it is true that mystical belief-systems have been rejected, there is a difficult situation now in which scientific practice in thought becomes almost violent in its perception of all things. The enlightenment humanism espoused by Pinker due to its concern for self-preservation of humanity is heavily criticized by the Frankfurt School because it reduces nature and other humans to mere objects of domination. In other words: just as nature is now simply a material to be manipulated to achieve the goals of human flourishing, such a utilization can and has been turned upon fellow humans.

This of course is timely to have read this article while Noam Chomsky criticizes Slavoj Žižek for daring to have thought outside of scientific categories, which merely affirms the status quo. In Dialect of Enlightenment Horkheimer and Adorno address such demands upon maintaining strict theoretical borders:

The loyal son of modern civilization’s fear of departing from the facts, which even in their perception are turned into clichés by the prevailing usages in science, business, and politics, is exactly the same as the fear of social deviation. Those usages also define the concept of clarity in language and thought to which art, literature, and philosophy must conform today. By tabooing any thought which sets out negatively from the facts and from the prevailing modes of thought as obscure, convoluted, and preferably foreign, that concept holds mind captive in ever deeper blindness (xvi-xvii).

The blind obedience to mere empiricism is a symptom of equating reality with eternal truths, thus leaving no room for imaginative thought.

A side note: for a critique of the encroachment of scientism—in the form of the controversial Evolutionary Psychology—into literary studies, read Jonathan Kramnick, “Against Literary Darwinism,” Critical Inquiry 37 (Winter 2011): 315-347. The essay is available on JSTOR as well, if you have JSTOR access. This essay was brought up a lot during my time at Critical Inquiry, and we even printed several responses to the essay in issue 2 of volume 38 (Winter 2012).

Embassytown, Falsehood, and Change

Detail of cover art for China Miéville's Embassytown (2011)

Detail of cover art for China Miéville’s Embassytown (2011)

This past week I shot through China Miéville’s science fiction novel Embassytown (2011). Perhaps the driving force behind such quick reading was probably the fascinating idea Miéville introduces early in the novel: an alien species—the Ariekei—who speak with two mouths, and whose language strictly prohibits any falsehood to be spoken. They consider themselves to be speaking only truths, and not merely words as references of the truth. The species of the narrator—possibly human—is the guest in the “Embassytown” section of a strange city on the home planet of the Ariekei. The novel is pushed forward by the tension in the language of the Ariekei due to their need to express similes or even metaphors. This linguistic constructions border dangerously close to untruths and thus are difficult for the Ariekei to imagine. In other words, the necessity for untruths becomes evident.

What I kind of imagine the Ariekei look like. These are "antlions" in the game Half-Life 2.

What I kind of imagine the Ariekei look like. These are “antlions” in the game Half-Life 2.

An interesting coincidence has occurred at the time of this reading. Just as I’ve been reading the works of or about the Frankfurt School, I see that the epigraph of Miéville’s novel is a quote of Walter Benjamin taken from his essay, “On Language as such and on the Language of Man”: “The word must communicate something (other than itself)”. I’ve been reading Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment lately and had just been reading the introduction in which the authors write about the use of instrumental reason in which utopian or imaginative thought is crushed and destroyed because it does not speak of the status quo:

The arid wisdom which acknowledges nothing new under the sun, because all the pieces in the meaningless game have been played out, all the great thoughts have been thought, all possible discoveries can be construed in advance, and human beings are defined by self-preservation through adaptation—this barren wisdom merely reproduces the fantastic doctrine it rejects: the sanction of fate which, through retribution, incessantly reinstates what always was. Whatever might be different is made the same (8).

As I wrote recently, when truth is equated with the current reality, then the use of metaphor or even falsehood is needed as a negation of positivistic thought.

There is a moment in the novel where Miéville compares non-Ariekean language with the money form in that both are mediators between originally incommensurable. Reading that section, after noting the source of his epigraph, confirmed that Miéville had to have been familiar with Marxist thought. Sure enough, he has. In fact, according to Wikipedia, he’s even written about the abstract, equalizing mediation of the commodity form with regard to law: “The Commodity-Form Theory of International Law: An Introduction”, Leiden Journal of International Law, 17 (2): 271–302, 2004. It’s kind of interesting to be able to tell such a thing through a science fiction novel about language.

There’s a short interview with Miéville that I recommend listening to if you’re interested in hearing more about language and Embassytown.

The experiencing of comprehending or trying to comprehend the unknown is always kind of thrilling in science fiction. The word “wonder” probably covers this. Just like the Ariekei hold festivals in which they enjoyed hearing non-Ariekei tell lies or their own attempts at telling untruths, I suppose I also like the feeling of encountering ideas that are seemingly alien.

The Frankfurt School and Right-Wing Conspiracy Theorists

Last year I stumbled upon some Youtube videos made by right-wing conspiracy theorists about the work of the Frankfurt School. This sort of thing isn’t necessarily new, but I was surprised that the kind of people who would know nothing about intellectual history in the United States somehow knew about thinkers like Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse. On Youtube, the video makers use the term “cultural Marxism” as the catch-all for what they see as the campaign for “political correctness” and the decline of U.S. culture, which is obviously incorrectly attributed to Marxist thought. One hilarious moment in a video includes a voiceover of a quote of Marcuse, in which the narrator does his best to sound like an “evil”, scheming German as he yells out the statement.

Around the same time last year, I was in an airport, waiting for a flight to Vancouver—coincidentally for the Marxist Literary Group’s Summer Institute on Culture and Society—when I saw a book by the U.S.’s quintessential right-wing conspiracy theorist Glenn Beck. I think the book I picked up was Beck’s Cowards (2012). I remember being amazed to find an entire chapter or at least sub-section of a chapter devoted to the Frankfurt School, admittedly with great inaccuracies.

The common accusation raised by these right-wing critics is that Horkheimer, et al. had devised a scheme, whose sole purpose was to destroy the United States for the sake of evil. This is of course a stretch of the praxis of their theoretical goal of human emancipation. This philosophical endeavor, however, is ignored by people like Beck.

At the MLG’s Vancouver institute, I mentioned this curious discover to one of my colleagues, who said that this strain of right-wing thought might stem from Allan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind (1987). I haven’t read the book, but find it funny that Bloom taught at the University of Chicago, where I went to a Masters program recently. I’m guessing Bloom’s book is nowhere near as ignorant and twisted concerning the Frankfurt School as the examples cited above, but it’s fascinating how ideas can be distorted for the sake of American anti-intellectualism.

Out of Steam in Infinite Jest

Detail of cover of 2006 paperback edition of Infinite Jest

Detail of cover of 2006 paperback edition of Infinite Jest

After roughly two years of occasionally (but increasingly less often) picking up David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest (1996), I think it’s time to just give up on trying to finish it. It’s not that the novel’s prose is too dense or complex, etc., but rather that I simply don’t care anymore. I can sort of see the interrelation of the various story lines, but it’s become so tiring continuing to read seemingly endless new scenes about these various characters. For what it’s worth, I was on page 554 of the paperback edition. If anyone who’s finished the book and thinks the second half of the novel redeems my current impasse, please let me know. Perhaps I was only a couple pages away from a great turning point.

This, of course, could be a prime example of what Wallace described as the problem of boredom in the contemporary moment. I’d recommend watching Wallace’s interview on German TV station ZDF for more on his ideas about the problem with boredom.