Monday, August 23, 2010

Back to nature or the Bhagavad-Gita?

The Birth of Philosophy
Volume XXVII, No. 1, MANAS Reprint, January 2, 1974, pp. 1-5.

The "back to nature" trend that had seized a percentage of the population by the early 1970s is not considered transient here. It is questioned, however, by poet Annie Dillard, who sees nature as a monstrous scenario of proliferation, reproduction, and death. The author of this article sees this dilemma already present in the Bhagavad-Gita, and here once again we are treated to the sociopathic advice given to Arjuna by Krishna. This world view evidently is the author's "solution". Disgusting!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Jack Lindsay's "Spinoza"

Jack Lindsay (1900-1990), Australian writer, polymath, Marxist, wrote this poem between 1933 and 1935:
Because I know you can't get enough . . .

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Generative Anthropology: BS alert!

Is there any end to the pseudo-intellectual diarrhea excreted from France? Is there any academic discipline more devoid of integrity than anthropology? Political Science maybe? Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse: Generative Anthropology.

I have blogged about René Girard before: the author of Violence and the Sacred exposes what he considers to be the root cause of the sacred—sacrificial ritual as the regulator of violent impulses—only to promote Christianity as something legitimate and distinct from all other superstitious belief systems. Eric Gans singles out the genesis of language as the driving causal force—the originary event—behind the evolution of the human race. Isolating this as a single factor both reflects the postmodernist semiotic-fetishist agenda and constitutes a radical form of idealism once again converting anthropology to a pseudoscience. And note how the term "originary event" resonates with religious origin myth.

Here is a particularly revealing as well as sickening specimen of this ideology:

Eric Gans, "The Unique Source of Religion and Morality," Anthropoetics I, no. 1 (June 1995)

Why doesn't it surprise me that Gans is in the French Department (of UCLA)? Anthropoetics, what a steaming load: there are no atheists in foxholes, and all religion is an outgrowth of semiotics. Postmodernism has been exploiting religion for some time. Opportunists of a feather . . . Get a load of footnote 1:
Generative anthropology articulates our postmodern dissatisfaction with the Enlightenment version of secularization, which either denies the transcendental altogether or reduces it to the most abstract version of the metaphysical "first mover" (Deism), without ever explaining the transcendentality of the language it uses in the process. Revolutionary atheism is an inverted religious fundamentalism that makes use of verticality to tell us that the vertical does not exist.

This article is equally delicious:

McKenna, Andrew. (2001). "Signs of the Times: Rorty and Girard," Paper read at COV&R Antwerp.

Here is a bibliography of this trash:

Bibliography of Generative Anthropology

There are no standards and there is no accountability. Academia is like the rest of society: a zoo with all the cages open and the dumb beasts running amok.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Religion, Violence, Entitlement (1)

From the website Against the Grain, a radio program broadcast on KPFA-FM, a Pacifica Network Station. It is unfortunate that such a program could never be broadcast on the Washington DC Pacifica station WPFW, where illiteracy, backwardness, and provincialism rule.

6.08.10| Religion, Violence, Entitlement

The first half of this program is described as follows:
Ron Hassner confronts the argument that religions are naturally conducive to peace. He emphasizes, among other things, the ambiguous and contradictory nature of religious texts and passages.[33 min. of 60]
Hassner begins by trashing Richard Dawkins' infantile lack of political or historical sagacity involving religion. But he also makes short shrift of the self-serving proclamations of the defenders of religion that all religions are inherently peaceful. Religion is not a private affair between man and God as the Protestant tradition would have it. Religions are not detached metaphysical positions; they inherently make claims about space, time, and behavior. There is, however, a perpetual problem of the interpretation of sacred texts, with and without their internal contradictions, with and without translations in foreign languages. Literalism is an impossibility. Justifying any course of action, warlike or peaceful, based on sacred textual authority is necessarily dodgy. When it comes to skewed interpretations, though, Hassner finds Sam Harris especially guilty of irresponsible cherry-picking from the Koran. Part two of this interview is forthcoming.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Renewal of Materialism (1)

"The Renewal of Materialism": Special issue of Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal [New School for Social Research], vol. 22, no. 1, 2000.

I first wrote about this on 4 August 2004, so I will cannibalize that material and in another entry add some comments based on my recent (re-)reading of this issue.

Here we find a critical review of the philosophical positions of the French Enlightenment and related issues of that time and ours, including the philosophical reaction to the birth of modern chemistry, debates surrounding the nature of life from a materialist perspective, the mind-body problem, the germs of emergent materialism, Spinoza, La Mettrie, Diderot, and more. Here is the table of contents:


François Dagognet Materialism: A Philosophy of Multiple Revivals

Annie Bitbol-Hespériès Descartes, Reader of Harvey: The Discovery of the Circulation of Blood in Context

Yves Charles Zarka Being and Action in the Thought of Ralph Cudworth

Meriam Korichi Defining Spinoza's Possible Materialism

Ann Thomson La Mettrie, Machines, and the Denial of Liberty

Amor Cherni Brute Matter and Organic Matter in Buffon

Annie Ibrahim The Life Principle and the Doctrine of Living Being in Diderot

A. Suratteau-Iberraken Medical Vitalism and Philosophical Materialism in the Eighteenth-Century Debate on Monsters

Roselyne Rey Diderot and the Medicine of the Mind

Alexandre Métraux The Emergent Materialism in French Clinical Brain Research (1820-1850)

Pierre Kerszberg The Mental Chemistry of Speculative Philosophy

Didier Gil Is Consciousness a Brain Process?

Guillaume le Blanc From Matter to Materiality According to Canguilhem

Jean-Claude Bourdin The Uncertain Materialism of Louis Althusser

Antonio Negri Alma Venus. Prolegomena to the Common

Miguel Vatter Phenomenology in Kant's Idealism: Review of Pierre Kerszberg's Critique and Totality

Canguilhem, Althusser, and Negri belong to the 20th century. The latter two are still in fashion, and while I do not recommend them, you can read Negri's article on the web:

Antonio Negri, "Alma Venus. Prolegomena to the common," trans. Patricia Dailey & Constantino Costantini.

The editor's introduction to this issue cites a study showing that Marx and Engels got French materialism wrong in The Holy Family. As it happens, part of said article has been translated into English:

By Olivier-Rene Bloch
[Excerpts translated by Tom Weston from "Marx, Renouvier, et l'histoire du materialisme." This work originally appeared in La Pensee, numero 191, fevrier, 1977, pp. 3 - 42. It has been reprinted in Olivier Bloch, Matieres a histoires, Librarie Philosophique J. Vrin, 6, Place de la Sorbonne, 75005 Paris. This translation is in the public domain, October, 1997.]

Gil, Didier. "Is Consciousness a Brain Process?", Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal, vol. 22, no. 1, 2000, pp. 227-253.

This is one of the finest dissections of the competing philosophies underlying artificial intelligence I've seen.

(To be continued)

David Hume's society & the nightmare of Rousseau

For some years I have been reading philosophical histories written for a popular audience, some of which I've mentioned here, others on another blog. Here's an extract from an entry of 30 June 2007 on my Studies in Dying Culture blog:
My next book was Rousseau’s Dog: Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment by David Edmonds and John Eidinow (New York: Ecco, 2006). (Contents) This is basically historical gossip: a biographical account of the relation between the philosophers Hume and Rousseau. It has less intellectual content than their previous work Wittgenstein’s Poker, and even the title doesn’t fit. Is this about Rouseeau’s essential loneliness, apart from his beloved dog, or is the dog a greater thinker than David Hume? The authors are apparently infatuated with the contest between strong intellectual personalities Oddly, the popularity of these writers in their time does not seem to have been accompanied by profound engagement with their ideas. Only in chapter 11 is there actually an intellectual comparison between the two figures. Of greatest interest is the antipathy of Hume towards the French Enlightenment’s atheism and materialism, which resonates down through British intellectual history (see T. H. Huxley).

Another popular book on this subject (which I've not had a chance to read) has since appeared:

Zaretsky, Robert; Scott, John T. The Philosophers’ Quarrel: Rousseau, Hume, and the Limits of Human Understanding. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

The subtitle is an evident pun on Hume's work. What these authors or the authors of comparable books aim to communicate is a matter for extensive discussion. The juxtaposition of work and life can be instructive, but judging thereupon is a tricky business. At stake here is not only the ideologies of philosophers/philosophies, and not just the overall social context, but the possibilities of being rational actors in an irrational society.

I've just been reading a book I've had for years but just grabbed out of the mothballs, definitely not written for a popular audience:

Christensen, Jerome. Practicing Enlightenment: Hume and the Formation of a Literary Career. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.

Though the conceits imposed on the work by poststructuralism are irritating (converting the entire universe into discourse), and get tedious occasionally, there is nonetheless some interesting content here. The question at hand is how did Hume construct himself socially as a man of letters and exercise a potentially limitless adaptability in all social settings, and generally, how did this fit into the emerging bourgeois order where commerce becomes king? I did not read the whole book; I skipped to the final two chapters where Hume's strategy apparently breaks down.

Hume is the toast of the salon culture of Paris, but he finds negotiation of his relations with the French women in the salons rather complicated. Women are indispensable to Parisian salon culture; they are enchanted by male intellectuals; yet, paradoxically, they are maintained as intellectual inferiors by the men, who love having women in their society but really only are interested in one another as intellectual equals. There is an undertone of flirtatiousness in intellectual encounters with women; the tacit social conventions of "gallantry" just complicate matters for the celibate (I get this from other sources) Hume.

The final chapter deals with the subject of the two aforementioned books, the disquieting public tiff initiated by Rousseau. Here Hume's fundamental strategy of engaging everyone in the world of letters and keeping on good terms with everyone is sabotaged. In the No-Good-Deed-Does-Unpunished Department, Hume's generous gesture of rescuing Rousseau from France and setting him up in England, instead of cementing Rousseau's friendship, only arouses his paranoia. Fearful of accusations being circulated against him, Hume feels compelled to engage in a peremptory strike to ward off the threatened public scandal and publishes an Exposé Succinct. Christensen analyzes this scenario at length, but his tedious writing and postmodern conceits are not easily digestible. He seems to validate Rousseau's paranoia, as men of letters were in that time accustomed to acting as political agents for others, and David Hume's liberality comes under some scrutiny. But I see no convincing argument made. Notably lacking is an examination of the contradictions in Rousseau's life strategy that are discernible in Rousseau's Dog. The Republic of Letters was an urbane microsociety embedded in a treacherous macrosociety. The "dialectic of Enlightenment" here need not be made so mysterious: where social mores, conventions, and institutions are at odds with the pretenses of rationalism, a rational being cannot function in society, and a social being cannot function rationally. One can project, abstractly, the development of society in a rational direction, but to be blind to the shaky premises of one's own social being vitiates one's pretensions. This book yields relevant information usable for the triangulation of Hume's society, his social position as an intellectual, and the ideological assumptions embedded in his philosophy, but I do not find it conclusive.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Soviet Diderot

Miller, Arnold. "The Annexation of a Philosophe: Diderot in Soviet Criticism 1917-1960," Diderot Studies XV. (Geneve: Librairie Droz, 1971.)

Most of the first 75 pages are readable online. The history of Soviet work on Diderot up to 1960 is covered here. A landmark was I. K. Luppol's 1924 book on Diderot. Lupol asserts that Diderot was a dialectical thinker. The argument as reported here seems pretty lame. Miller begins by asserting that Luppol was brilliant, then makes short shrift of his work. I can only hope that Luppol's analysis was not as childish as it appears to be from reading about it second-hand. Miller also points out discrepancies between the different editions of Luppol's work.

I have one Soviet work which may be more substantial:

Dlugach, Tamara. Denis Diderot, translated by Catherine Judelson. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1988. 237 pp. Originally published in Russian, 1975.)

The Soviet perspective presumably influenced the framing of this important anthology:

Diderot, Denis. Diderot, Interpreter of Nature: Selected Writings, translated by Jean Stewart and Jonathan Kemp, edited and with an introduction by Jonathan Kemp. 2nd ed. New York: International Publishers, 1963. (1st ed. 1937)

Friday, August 6, 2010

Tarrying with Theology: Slavoj Žižek & The Monstrosity of Christ

The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?
Slavoj Žižek & John Milbank, edited by Creston Davis.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.


Introduction: Holy Saturday or Resurrection Sunday? Staging an Unlikely Debate / Creston Davis

The Fear of Four Words: A Modest Plea for the Hegelian Reading of Christianity / Slavoj Žižek

The Double Glory, or Paradox versus Dialectics: On Not Quite Agreeing with Slavoj Žižek / John Milbank

Dialectical Clarity versus the Misty Conceit of Paradox / Slavoj Žižek

Creston Davis is a jackass: he is the philosophical correlate of the Democratic Party, of Clinton-Obama bipartisanism: overcome the cleavage between liberals and conservatives by capitulating to conservatives. In philosophy, is there anything more disgusting than postmodern theology?

Apparently, one of Žižek's other conceits, besides being a poseur tough-guy born-again Leninist, is to pose as an atheist Christian theologian. This is almost as sickening as the rest of the book, but there are some interesting moments. I'll confine myself to Žižek's first essay "The Fear of Four Words."

Žižek begins with a quote from Chesterton. The aims is to posit Christianity against magical thinking, nature worship, and other religions. Žižek has an animus against New Age mysticism, which is at least interesting:
The next standard argument against Hegel’s philosophy of religion targets its teleological structure: it openly asserts the primacy of Christianity, Christianity as the “true” religion, the final point of the entire development of religions. It is easy to demonstrate how the notion of “world religions,” although it was invented in the era of Romanticism in the course of the opening toward other (non- European) religions, in order to serve as the neutral conceptual container allowing us to “democratically” confer equal spiritual dignity on all “great” religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism . . .), effectively privileges Christianity—already a quick look makes it clear how Hinduism, and especially Buddhism, simply do not fit the notion of “religion” implied in the idea of “world religions.” However, what conclusion are we to draw from this? For a Hegelian, there is nothing scandalous in this fact: every particular religion in effect contains its own notion of what religion “in general” is, so that there is no neutral universal notion of religion—every such notion is already twisted in the direction of (colorized by, hegemonized by) a particular religion. This, however, in no way entails a nominalist / historicist devaluation of universality; rather, it forces us to pass from “abstract” to “concrete” universality, i.e., to articulate how the passage from one to another particular religion is not merely something that concerns the particular, but is simultaneously the “inner development” of the universal notion itself, its “self- determination.”

Postcolonial critics like to dismiss Christianity as the “whiteness” of religions: the presupposed zero level of normality, of the “true” religion, with regard to which all other religions are distortions or variations. However, when today’s New Age ideologists insist on the distinction between religion and spirituality (they perceive themselves as spiritual, not part of any organized religion), they (often not so) silently impose a “pure” procedure of Zen- like spiritual meditation as the “whiteness” of religion. The idea is that all religions presuppose, rely on, exploit, manipulate, etc., the same core of mystical experience, and that it is only “pure” forms of meditation like Zen Buddhism that exemplify this core directly, bypassing institutional and dogmatic mediations. Spiritual meditation, in its abstraction from institutionalized religion, appears today as the zero- level undistorted core of religion: the complex institutional and dogmatic edifice which sustains every particular religion is dismissed as a contingent secondary coating of this core. The reason for this shift of accent from religious institution to the intimacy of spiritual experience is that such a meditation is the ideological form that best fits today’s global capitalism.

Adorno did as good a job or better on this subject. Later, Žižek approvingly quotes Chesteron again:
Love desires personality; therefore love desires division. It is the instinct of Christianity to be glad that God has broken the universe into little pieces. . . . This is the intellectual abyss between Buddhism and Christianity; that for the Buddhist or Theosophist personality is the fall of man, for the Christian it is the purpose of God, the whole point of his cosmic idea. The world-soul of the Theosophists asks man to love it only in order that man may throw himself into it. But the divine centre of Christianity actually threw man out of it in order that he might love it. . . . All modern philosophies are chains which connect and fetter; Christianity is a sword which separates and sets free. No other philosophy makes God actually rejoice in the separation of the universe into living souls.

Žižek has his problems with Western mysticism, too, e.g. Eckhart, who, among others, neutralized the "monstrosity of Christ". A couple more interesting paragraphs:
The trap to avoid apropos of Eckhart is to introduce the difference between the ineffable core of the mystical experience and what D. T. Suzuki called “all sorts of mythological paraphernalia” in the Christian tradition: “As I conceive it, Zen is the ultimate fact of all philosophy and religion. . . . What makes all these religions and philosophies vital and inspiring is due to the presence in them all of what I may designate as the Zen element.” In a different way, Schürmann makes exactly the same move, when he distinguishes between the core of Eckhart’s message and the way he formulated it in the inappropriate terms borrowed from the philosophical and theological traditions at his disposal (Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Aquinas . . .); even more, Schürmann designates the philosopher who, centuries later, was finally able to provide the adequate formulation of what Eckhart was striving at, Heidegger: “Eckhart came too early in his daring design. He is not a modern philosopher. But his understanding of being as releasement prepares the way for modern philosophy.” However, does this not obliterate the true breakthrough of Eckhart, his attempt to think Christology (the birth of God within the order of finitude, Incarnation) from the mystical perspective? There is a solution to this impasse: what if what Schürmann claims is true, with the proviso that the “modern philosopher” is not Heidegger, but Hegel? Eckhart’s goal is withdrawal from the created reality of particular entities into the “desert” of the divine nature, of Godhead, the negation of all substantial reality, withdrawal into the primordial Void--One beyond Word. Hegel’s task is exactly the opposite one: not from God to Godhead, but from Godhead to God, i.e., how, out of this abyss of Godhead, God qua Person emerges, how a Word is born in it. Negation must turn around onto itself and bring us back to determinate (finite, temporal) reality.

Later on, Žižek does reveal what a reactionary Chesterton is without naming him as such; Chesteron has merely failed to see that the anarchist lawlessless of the philosopher is not just the most criminal act, but an indictment of the criminality of an entire system. I imagine that Orwell would have a field day--perhaps he did, for all I know, with Chesterton's contention that orthodoxy is the greatest rebellion.

Here is a curious comment on the diversity of atheisms:
Peter Sloterdijk was right to notice how every atheism bears the mark of the religion out of which it grew through its negation: there is a specifically Jewish Enlightenment atheism practiced by great Jewish figures from Spinoza to Freud; there is the Protestant atheism of authentic responsibility and assuming one’s fate through anxious awareness that there is no external guarantee of success (from Frederick the Great to Heidegger in Sein und Zeit); there is a Catholic atheism à la Maurras, there is a Muslim atheism (Muslims have a wonderful word for atheists: it means “those who believe in nothing”), and so on. Insofar as religions remain religions, there is no ecumenical peace between them—such a peace can develop only through their atheist doubles. Christianity, however, is an exception here: it enacts the reflexive reversal of atheist doubt into God himself. In his “Father, why have you forsaken me?”, Christ himself commits what is for a Christian the ultimate sin: he wavers in his Faith. While, in all other religions, there are people who do not believe in God, only in Christianity does God not believe in himself.
Žižek demonstrates here how little he knows of Jewish atheists, and how he obtuse he is to real, historical Christianity, not the sanitized version of theologians. It is the same intellectual fraud that real theologians and mystics perpetrate via their religions: that their constructs constitute the inner meaning of the vulgar exoteric religions that form the actual substance of history.

Žižek digresses from there to Frankenstein, the Book of Job, pop culture, and Freud. Then back to Kant and Hegel. Another curious assertion follows:
This double kenosis is what the standard Marxist critique of religion as the self-alienation of humanity misses: “modern philosophy would not have its own subject if God’s sacrifice had not occurred.” For subjectivity to emerge— not as a mere epiphenomenon of the global substantial ontological order, but as essential to Substance itself—the split, negativity, particularization, self-alienation, must be posited as something that takes place in the very heart of the divine Substance, i.e., the move from Substance to Subject must occur within God himself.
A little farther down, another indictment of "standard" Marxism:
This is why standard Marxist philosophy oscillates between the ontology of “dialectical materialism” which reduces human subjectivity to a particular ontological sphere (no wonder Georgi Plekhanov, the creator of the term “dialectical materialism,” also designated Marxism as “dynamized Spinozism”) and the philosophy of praxis which, from the young Georg Lukács onward, takes as its starting point and horizon collective subjectivity which posits / mediates every objectivity, and is thus unable to think its genesis from the substantial order, the ontological explosion, “Big Bang,” which gives rise to it.
More rehabilitation of Hegel. Then literature, movies, detective stories. . . and Wagner.

Žižek poses the question of what is different about the Jewish communal spirit and the Christian one? I must have missed his answer, for we are back to Hegel. Then on what makes Christ different from other wise men.

The next section begins with Pope Ratzinger's verbal assaults on Islam, secularism, and Darwinism. Then comes a curious defense of Islam, coupled with Judaism. Christianity as the monstrous exception that unifies the two abstractions. More Chesterton. Žižek sees an affinity between Catholicism and dialectical materialism (vs. the ontological incompleteness of the universe, viz. quantum mechanics, Badiou). More on Badiou and materialism . . . and of course Lacan. Passing remarks about the new atheists. Then ruminations about the relationship between monotheism and atheism, e.g.:
. . . what if the affinity between monotheism and atheism demonstrates not that atheism depends on monotheism, but that monotheism itself prefigures atheism within the field of religion—its God is from the very (Jewish) beginning a dead one, in clear contrast with the pagan gods who irradiate cosmic vitality. Insofar as the truly materialist axiom is the assertion of primordial multiplicity, the One which precedes this multiplicity can only be zero itself. No wonder, then, that only in Christianity—as the only truly logical monotheism—does God himself turn momentarily into an atheist.

More on materialism, Deleuze, Badiou, Lenin, Bukharin, Chalmers, Lacan . . . . Then:
What, then, is the proper atheist stance? Not a continuous desperate struggle against theism, of course—but not a simple indifference to belief either. That is to say: what if, in a kind of negation of negation, true atheism were to return to belief (faith?), asserting it without reference to God—only atheists can truly believe; the only true belief is belief without any support in the authority of some presupposed figure of the “big Other.”

Žižek is a clever boy. Interesting little observations here and there, but he adds up to nothing. And this intervention in theology is outstandingly worthless and devoid of integrity.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Atheism & the arts revisited

I've posted on this subject before. I just came across this little article:

Richard Norman on Whether Atheists Can Appreciate Religious Art
Nigel Warburton
November 27, 2006