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Michael Rosen on Derrida

From Leiter’s blog, Michael Rosen (who wrote the excellent On Voluntary Servitude, a book I would write about if it weren’t so dense that it’d require a huge amount of time to treat it) talks about academic strategies:

Ephraim Kishon has a story called “Jewish Poker”. Jewish poker is played without cards so all you can do is bluff – and you have to bluff high. I think that this is the secret of Derridean post-modernism as currently practised in U.S. humanities departments: in the end, it’s all competitive hyperbole – who can be more radical?

Someone starts off with a huge unsupported generalization. For example, they write a book saying that the whole of Western thought is under the hegemony (good word) of (say) “logocentrism”, that its genealogy has to be exposed and deconstructed to reveal the Other that it “covers over and disavows”.

That’s a high bid, but you can top that. Why not write a review saying that this is to give “the Other” a “hegemonic status”, that this too needs to be deconstructed and given a genealogy? Say that the re-valuation of values hasn’t been radical enough, that “the Nietzschean trans-valuation is far from being complete: in its second stage, at the threshold of which we find ourselves today, it will necessitate a de-hierarchization of the already inverted values, so that alterity, too, would lose its newly acquired transcendental status, just as sameness and identity did in twentieth-century thought.”

Of course, tone and style matter. Although you’ve left banalities like “sameness and identity” (and hence, presumably, essence, cause and logical inference) far behind, don’t hesitate to use terms like “necessitate” for the ideas you are advocating, or (although you don’t believe in such fetishes as truth in interpretation) to describe others’ interpretations as “deeply flawed”. To think that once you’ve toppled the idols of objectivity you can’t write as if they were still standing is a sign of hopeless logocentrism.

It’s good too to write as if your native language isn’t English, or that, at least, your English has been saturated by what you’ve absorbed in your many years on the *rive gauche*. A nice Derridean-Althusserian touch here (see Judith Butler, *passim*) is the spurious use of the term “precisely” when you make an especially vague assertion (“The promise of deconstruction lies, precisely, in its ability to inspire this post-metaphysical thrust ‘beyond the same and the other.’”) Introducing your sentences with pompous phrases like “Let us note that …” may not add anything of substance to them but it does convey the impression that you are addressing your audience from a position of authority (a podium at the École Normale?). Above all, the secret is to convince people that you are further up the mountain than everyone else and looking down on them. Writing in this condescending way won’t make you popular, no doubt, but what the hell – oderint dum metuant!

Where will it all end? Presumably, this too can be out-bid – perhaps someone else will come along and offer a genealogy of deconstruction or a deconstruction of genealogy. There doesn’t seem to be any limit to how many iterations the transvaluation of valuations can go through. Yet there must – surely – come a point where the whole thing vanishes up its own …

But what to do until that happy day? Certainly, it is heart-breaking for those of us who would like Continental philosophy to be taken more seriously, but how do you argue with people for whom “reason” and “argument” (like “sameness” and “identity”) are simply terms in a “hegemonic discourse” they have left behind? And, if they can shrug off the Sokal hoax and take Alain Badiou seriously, they are obviously past being laughed back into sanity by a sense of the absurd. So I think that all the rest of us can do is to keep out of their way and leave them to patronize one another to their hearts’ content.

Michael Rosen

Rosen and Leiter edited the Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy, and seem to be part of a vague movement afoot among Anglo philosophers to write about Continental theorists in comparatively clear and methodical ways. I have a fair bit of sympathy with this movement. One of the ongoing debates, though, is which of the theorists are irredeemable. Here’s how the categories seem to be shaking out, from my perspective. (I could be wrong about any of these; this is just a general impression and not reflective of the views of any single person.)

Solid: Herder, Hegel, Marx, Peirce, Dilthey, Nietzsche, Husserl, Adorno, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Habermas

Sketchy: Heidegger, Gadamer, Foucault, Kuhn, Deleuze

Fraudulent: Derrida, Levinas, Althusser, Badiou, Zizek

Given this arrangement, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more attention paid to Vico, Cassirer, Ricoeur, and Apel, but perhaps in time, just as Herder seems just now to be having a renaissance.

I’ll have my own say on Derrida and phenomenology shortly….

Charles Hinton and His Cubes

Thanks (and happy birthday) to Michelle at Potato Benevolence for (re?)introducing me to Charles Hinton, mysterious theorist of fourth-dimensionality in the late 19th century. Aside from his forays into gunpowder-charged pitching machines (a proto-Survival Research Laboratories experiment retired after a few accidents) and bigamy, his obsession with extra spatial dimensions influenced Edwin Abbott’s better known Flatland and was celebrated by Borges, who also mentioned him in “The Secret Miracle.” It’s easy to see a connection back to Llull and Bruno in his gnostic quest for knowledge of hidden spaces. He also constructed a series of cubes designed to help train one to envision a four-dimensional hypercube (or tesseract) by envisioning the various three-dimensional views of the hypercube in a mental superimposition. Sort of like this:

But the oddest part is the letter that was sent to Martin Gardner after he wrote about Hinton in Scientific American. (Mark Blacklock has also covered the odd history of the cubes in his comprehensive site on Hinton and others.)

Dear Mr. Gardner:

A shudder ran down my spine when I read your reference to Hinton’s cubes. I nearly got hooked on them myself in the nineteen-twenties. Please believe me when I say that they are completely mind-destroying. The only person I ever met who had worked with them seriously was Francis Sedlak, a Czech neo-Hegelian Philosopher (he wrote a book called The Creation of Heaven and Earth) who lived in an Oneida-like community near Stroud, in Gloucestershire.

As you must know, the technique consists essentially in the sequential visualizing of the adjoint internal faces of the poly-colored unit cubes making up the larger cube. It is not difficult to acquire considerable facility in this, but the process is one of autohypnosis and, after a while, the sequences begin to parade themselves through one’s mind of their own accord. This is pleasurable, in a way, and it was not until I went to see Sedlak in 1929 that I realized the dangers of setting up an autonomous process in one’s own brain. For the record, the way out is to establish consciously a countersystem differing from the first in that the core cube shows different colored faces, but withdrawal is slow and I wouldn’t recommend anyone to play around with the cubes at all.

Hiram Barton

On the other hand, Theosophist Sedlak seemed to be fairly happy with the result, as chronicled by his wife:

Towards the end of his long and trying illness, when terrible coughing prevented him from sleeping at night, the long silent hours seemed interminable. On my enquiring one morning as to what sort of a night he had had, he said almost joyfully, “Oh, being awake does not trouble me now. I do the cubes, and the time flies.” So I thanked God and blessed the cubes, for which had been found a utilitarian use at a most desperate psychological juncture. Power won cannot be lost, and will some day be utilised.

Hans Blumenberg: Work on Myth, ch. 1

This is the second part of an occasional series as I work through this monster of a book, which to me seems far more dense than Blumenberg’s earlier The Legitimacy of the Modern World. (In the intervening years, he seems to have read many, many more books.)

Blumenberg started the book by placing humanity in an antagonism with its environment, and the problem caused when, as I mentioned in the first part, one can no longer just run away from the hostile things in the world. Myth then emerges as, he plainly states, a way of engaging with and shaping that which is beyond us. The formation of an ordered world of myth (and its sibling theory) produces “the capacity to be addressed…Every story gives an Achilles’ heel to sheer power” (p. 16; power here being that which exerts itself over us).

Then there is a five-step process of the development of myth, beginnign with the undefined, superior, hostile Other (pp. 22-23):

  1. The Other becomes the Other One, via the process of giving a name or names to the Other. (This is clearer in German, where the journey from das Andere (abstract Other) to der Andere (personal Other One) is a function of the grammar.) This lays the ground for personification and engagement.
  2. A physiognomy of the Other One is generated, along with accompanying behavior patterns and character, setting the grounds for the laws of engagement with the Other One.
  3. The concept of fidelity emerges, by which the Other One will reliably show favor to those that…the Other One favors, in accordance with the physiognomy and laws.
  4. Humans may enter into a covenant of some sort with the Other One: if you do what it wants (which may well not be possible), the Other One will deliver on its promises.
  5. The covenant is superseded by “an absolute realism of the commitment of divine favor to men,” where we and the Other One are in it together, so to speak, and the world is friendly.

The last two stages are Judaism and Christianity, at least in the history that Blumenberg chronicles, and anyone who has read Hegel will see the Protestant-influenced German movement from the Jewish world of Talmudic law to the Christian world of Christ’s love. Except that Blumenberg is quite clear that the Christian cycle fails to solve the problems of the covenant-based myth: evil, suffering, etc. Like all myths, he says, it moves the problems of its predecessor around, but this is hardly an undisputed achievement. So theodicy continues to exist and the supposed friendliness of the world is always in doubt; the myth is under constant threat of replacement.

So far this is indeed very Nietzschean, but Blumenberg is much more historically savvy, or at least he wants to present the problem as one that lives on in theory itself. (Nietzsche was more content to wave away theory; Blumenberg is not an anarchist.) And he has a small coup in the first chapter to show his insight.

If we look back on the multiplicity of the historically accumulated theories of the origin of religion, they sort themselves out into two main types. The first is represented by Feuerbach, for whom the divinity is nothing but man’s self-projection into heaven, his temporary representation in a foreign medium, through which his self-concept is enriched and becomes capable of retraction from its interim state of projection. The second is represented by Rudolf Otto, for whom God and the gods arise from an a priori and homogeneous original sensation of the ‘holy,’ in which awe and fear, fascination and world anxiety, uncanniness and unfamiliarity are secondarily combined. Must one not also expect both theories to have their corresponding phenomena, which just haven’t been separated, descriptively, by the name “religion”?

p. 28

To paraphrase: the theories of the origin of religion merely recapitulate religious experience itself rather than providing explanation. In other words, we have not come so far from myth as we think. And, Blumenberg hints, it applies just as easily to philosophy, which so often appeals to either (a) a holistic identity of divinity and man (Spinoza, Hegel, transhumanists) or (b) some kind of radical alterity by which the Other is apotheosized and related to mystically (Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Levinas, Badiou). At least as I read him, Blumenberg’s ambition is to portray these religious and philosophical mechanisms as aspects of a single, more fundamental mythical (or perhaps more accurately, metaphorical or meaning-generating) mechanism.

Blumenberg on Running Away

I saw Heiner Goebbel’s odd Stifters Dinge this weekend (made odder with the persistent head cold I’ve had), and though I think it’s senseless to try to give a concrete analysis of it, one part jumped out at me, an interview with Claude Levi-Strauss where he says that there is nowhere left unexplored in the world, no remaining frontiers. I don’t think he’s right, but humanity is definitely at a place where we finally think of the whole planet as our home rather than any one part of it. And so…

If we have to seek man’s origin in the category of animals that ‘flee,’ then we can comprehend that before the change of biotope [from jungle to savanna] all signals that set off flight reactions would indeed have the power of fear but would not have to reach the level of a dominating condition of anxiety, as long as mere movement was available as a means of clarifying the situation. But if one imagines that this solution was no longer, or no longer constantly, successful, then from that point onward the situations that enforced flight either had to be dealt with by standing one’s ground or had to be avoided by means of anticipation.

Hans Blumenberg, Work on Myth 1.1

So while Hegel thinks the primary will of humanity is desire, for Blumenberg the primary motive of primitive humanity is getting the hell out of Dodge. And when we settled down and no longer ran from place to place, an underlying anxiety originated of the anticipation of having to pick up sticks and run. (Blumenberg is more prosaic than Heidegger; he thinks life is tough enough on its own without the problems of Dasein.) And as long as we could imagine that flight, could imagine packing up and rebuilding elsewhere, the anxiety could be kept in check.

But I wonder: when you’ve filled up the planet and you know you’re stuck on it and you start to see assorted disaster scenarios that offer no refuge to start over (be they nuclear, environmental, or otherwise), what does that do to the anxiety? There’s no flight left (except to other planets, the fantasy of some optimists).

Hegel on Stoicism

Hegel knocks stoicism for its ultimate uselessness:

The True and the Good, wisdom and virtue, the general terms beyond which Stoicism cannot get, are therefore in a general way no doubt uplifting, but since they cannot in fact produce any expansion of the content, they soon become tedious.

Phenomenology of Spirit, 200

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