Saturday, June 05, 2021

Philosophy departments everywhere: sociopathology isn't destiny

 There is an article in the Philosophers Mag that made me laugh outloud. It is a survey essay by Helen Beebee entitled Women in Philosophy: What’s changed? Beebee lists the things that have pushed back the men’s club atmosphere in Philosophy departments, including less tolerance for sexual harrassment and greater opportunities for women to publish. This is the paragraph, though, that I particularly liked:

“One final change I do want to highlight, though, is the atmosphere in philosophy research seminars. Some things that used to happen relatively frequently: questions asked in an incredibly aggressive manner. (I’ve seen people in a state of near apoplexy, so insulted were they by the speaker’s outrageous suggestion that metaphysical realism is false, or that maybe knowledge is justified true belief after all. I mean, what is wrong with the speaker? Is he or she an idiot?) Someone hogging an enormous slab of the Q&A time by asking repeated follow-up questions. (Because their question must just be so much more important than the questions the other members of the audience want to ask.) Or failing to shut up despite the fact that the seminar was supposed to end ten minutes ago and the chair is very clearly starting to look desperate.”

The instances gave me an instant (non)nostalgia for my own days as a grad student in the University of Texas Philosophy Department. Both the intelligence policing – the idea that you had to be smart, which I at first thought was a joke and then realized was taken very seriously – and the outsized, testosterone swollen passion attaching to abstract positions, usually backed up by this or that hoary “analytic” philosopher – were a huge burden to someone like me, who just wanted to talk about Nietzsche, Derrida and Georges Bataille. This desire, not an unusual thing in 80s humanities, marked me down as a nihilist or something. And so I had that experience of presenting arguments that insulted all of humanity, plus the shade of Bertrand Russell, bless his hairy hide. After a while, it was just not funny any more. I remember taking a class with one of the names on the faculty rouster in which discussions that involved me often ended up in “throught experiments”about what I would say if someone was pointing a gun at my head. From my own brief experience of being mugged, I thought that it would be a very rare thing indeed if the mugger was after my response to questions concerning the correspondence theory of truth. A pistol, in my opinion, is a powerful coherence-maker.
If decades on philosophy departments are starting to understand the sociopathic nature of intelligence policing, and doing something about it, it will be almost entirely because of women in philosophy departments, and the entrance of feminism (in another two or three decades, who knows? Even people of color!) have disrupted the thing, the our thing, the male philosopher’s cosa nostra.
Excellent news for the people in that small, small world.

Friday, June 04, 2021

Little France syndrome

 The Little France syndrome

Well, at last the NYT emerges from its Macron daze to notice the sheer cretinism of the Macron cultural politics, driven by its far right allies, all swimming happily in their own shit and screaming about Islamo-gauchisme.

Meanwhile, the old retired fossils in academe, who made their bones in the 80s and 90s – those decades Francois Cusset labels the great nightmare, due to the proliferation of Nouvelle Philosophes and their wannabe companions, all using leftwing rhetoric to promote right wing economic and foreign policy – are also on the attack against the “Americanization” of the cultural agenda. This movement is in synch with Trump’s 1776 commission and Boris Johnson’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities which last month reported that, hooray, Britain has none, and never did anyway, except during a brief window in May of 1679 when somebody financed somebody else’s slaveboat which we think musta been Dutch – a total anomaly!

All of these can be called “Little” positions – Little America, Little Britain, and now Little France. The attacks on American “wokeness” are congealed in a rhetoric that is difficult to cope with. It seems so ridiculous that French academics, any of them, in this day and age would claim that France represents “universal values”, but of course – in spite of the past five hundred years of history, in spite of the evident and outrageous income and wealth inequalities between people of color and white French people, in spite of what you see the cops doing every day – there we are. It is a country in which, on the one hand, feminist groups graffiti walls with condemnations of femicide, and in which, on the other hand, tve-genic academics who have built careers on subpar academic work bemoan intersectionality – we have come to this, debates with the midgets all descending from Action Francaise.

The laughter that wells up in me is the contrast between this small French attitude – in favor the “universal” – and the subrosa massive support for the Americanization of the French economy – a process that has been going on since the “lefties” of the 80s quietly abandoned the defining left tradition while clinging fiercely to the title. It was so eighties – the leveraged buyout era. The entire vocabular of the regime of the president of the rich consists of banalities from American business schools, from “entrepreneurship” – restored to the French vocabulary! – to competitiveness, to the “burden” of the state on the dynamic private sector. It is a made in America circus. But nobody is talking about the droite-onclesamists. Nor, frankly, is anyone in the Little France corner really attacking Islamicists. The largest and most totalitarian Islamicist state – Saudi Arabia – is France’s friend, and more importantly, France’s weapons industry’s friend. So nobody is going so far as to say that we should boycott the Saudis, or block their gas pipelines, like with evil Putin. This is because Saudi Arabia is reformin’, plus they’ve been waging un mignon génocide in Yemen, and nobody wants to interrupt the cash flow there. Rather, the focus is on how Daech’s leadership is no doubt absorbing Judy Butler’s tomes, one after the other.

Georges Bernanos in Les Grands Cimetieres sous le lune wrote: La colère des imbéciles m'a toujours rempli de tristesse, mais aujourd'hui elle m'épouvanterait plutôt. You and me, Georges my brother.

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Barthes freudian slip


“The ship on which Theseus sailed with the youths and returned in safety, the thirty-oared galley, was preserved by the Athenians down to the time of Demetrius Phalereus.29 They took away the old timbers from time to time, and put new and sound ones in their places, so that the vessel became standing illustration for the philosophers in the mooted question of growth, some declaring that it remained the same, others that it was not the same vessel.” – Plutarch, the Life of Theseus

We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. – Otto Neurath
There’s a curious error in Barthes by Barthes – something that is like a parapraxis, a Freudian slip. Like the classic instance of the Freudian slip outlined in the Psychopathology of Everyday Life,  this one, too, has to do with a classical allusion.
It is contained in the entry entitled, The Argo.
“ A frequent image: that of the ship, the Argo (bright and white), which the Argonauts replaced piece by piece, little by little, so that in the end they had an entirely new vessel, without having to change either its name or its form.”
This image seems to be a conflation of two classical instances of the ship image in philosophy. One is the vessel of Theseus, which is first mentioned by Plutarch in the Life of Theseus. In the early modern period, Plutarch’s instance was taken up by Hobbes and Leibniz, each of who commented on the paradox of identity that the ship names. The second is Neurath’s ship. As Thomas Uebel has shown, Neurath often turned to the image of the rebuilt but continuous ship in his writing. He especially used the image against the Carnapian ideal of a meta-language – a dream language in which syntax and semanticity would merge, so that we would know from the very construction of a sentence whether it was true or not.  This, Neurath thought, fundamentally misunderstands language. Hence, the image of a ship which is constantly being repaired from flotsam at sea by sailors who cannot simply go into port and take the ship apart from the bottom.  In Hans Blumenberg’s exploration of ship metaphors in philosophy, he quotes an instance where Neurath claims that the imprecise clusters are “always somehow part of the ship.”
Out of these two separate images, Barthes chose to attach the perpetually reconstructed ship to the Argo, which carried Jason and his crew – the Argonauts – to Colchis. In constrast with Theseus’s ship, which – being on display – is, as it were, a museum piece, the Argo is an object of practical life. But there is another difference with Theseus’s ship, one that should block Barthes’ appropriation. As Apollonius of Rhodes put it in the Argonautica: ‘For a divine timber had been fixed in her: Athene had taken it from the oak of Dodona and fitted it in the center of the prow.”
The wood of Dodona had the power of human speech – a power that was given to the Argo. So, in fact, the Argo is the one instance of a ship in which there is something irreplaceable.  Which goes against Barthes point: ‘This vessel, the Argo, is very useful. It furnishes us with the allegory of an eminently structural object, created not by genius, inspiration, determination, evolution, but by two modest acts (which cannot be grasped by the mystique of creation): substitution (one piece drives out the other, as in a paradigm) and nomination (the name is not at all tied to the stability of the pieces) by means of combining in the interior of the same name, nothing is left of the origin. The Argo is an object without any other cause than its name, without any other identity than its form.”
As in any parapraxis, we are given an utterance that is like a wound, allowing us, if we have the tools, to trace the trauma. The trauma here is seems to be in the form of a forgetting – forgetting the magical/religious instance. That forgetting marks the enlightenment heritage of structuralism – in fact, Barthes mistake might be taken as emblematic of the fact that structuralism was the purest outcome of the enlightenment, its endpoint. Structuralism assumes, finally, that the world is saturated with substitutes, is a system of substitutes – in a sense, the world is capitalism. And in this world, action at a distance, magic, origin, Athene are chased away by a universal forgetting . Under the guidance of the name – in the name of – the system of substitutions can act on its own, automatically, without a genius.
In Barthes telling, these two acts just happen to coincide in this one image. They are, however, historically bound together. In practical terms, the crew of the Argo is simply trying to survive and stay afloat, which is why all oak planks – whether from Dodona or from sea wrack – are replaceable. From the point of view of nomination, however, whether the Argo is registered as the Argo or not is of ultimate political importance. If the name doesn’t hold, then the Argo becomes a pirate ship, an illicit ship. And at this point the schema of substitutions feeds into a different destination for the ship.
The forgetting of the story of the Argo – the supervenience of two other stories of ships and identity – is all the more freighted as Barthes himself is in the midst of changing, as he wrote Barthes by Barthes, from the disenchanted mapper of myths to the softer and more vulnerable utopian of desire. He was, in a sense, letting one piece of Barthes drive out another.  Right after presenting the image of the Argo, he personalizes it by contrasting his office in Paris with his office in the country, which, though differently located, is identical in function.  He ends this passage by writing of the Argo as the ideal structural object, in which the “system prevails over particular beings.” But using an image which is structured to deny that the system prevails over Athena – using an image of the one boat that can talk – Barthes seems to be undermining his point – just as he is trying to shed his structuralist past.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

The identity crisis turn


It was, I believe, the existential psychoanalyst Erik Erickson who first coined the phrase “identity crisis”. In “Young Man Luther”  - a truly Hollywoodish title for a monograph. Erickson defined the term with relation to adolescence  which he naturalized as part of the life cycles that he saw as inherent to the full development of human beings:

“I have called the major crisis of adolescence the identity crisis; it occurs in that period of the life cycle when each youth must forge for himself some central perspective and direction, some working unity, ut of the effective remnants of his childhood and the hopes of his anticipated adulthood...”

Erickson, in the late fifties, became a celebrated figure, one of those intellectuals that Time Magazine would reference. Perhaps the height of his popular fame came in the early 70s. On April 5, 1970, he made the cover of NYT magazine under the headline: Beyond Freud, which was glory indeed at the height of Freudian psychoanalysis. Tom Wolfe, that labeller, called the 70s the me decade, but it could have been better labelled the “identity crisis” decade. This interests me, since identity has grown in importance since the 70s, while “identity crisis” has lost its psychological roots. There is a certain pleasing backwardness to the idea that the era of identity comes after the era of the identity crisis – or is this, in fact, the kind of growth through life passages Erikson envisioned?

The Erikson article in the NYT begins with an anecdote: the writer, a professor of psychology, is attending a faculty function. A “young mother” there was “talking about her identity crisis”, which came about because she and her husband had decided to have no more children. “It was as if ... she had been robbed of some part of herself and now needed to find a new function to replace the old one.”

Of course, being a young mother, the male professor had to show her, for the reader’s benefit, who was who: “When I remarked that her story sounded like a case history from a book by Erik Erikson, she replied, “who’s Erikson?”

One can imagine her side of this story.  And in fact, one can more than imagine – although the professor didn’t know it, the seventies belonged to the young mother, and to the explosion of the woman’s “new function.”

The same NYT magazine contained two other articles – one a consideration of the Chicago Seven and the New Haven Black Panther trials, the other a consideration of white unemployment.  A crossroads, this particular issue, of the spirits of the time.

That 1970 article crowned the march of the “identity crisis” out of Erikson’s books and into the general public. In 1963, Diane Ravich, reviewing Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, diagnosed it as saying that the American housewife is undergoing an identity crisis – which she called “a much overworked phrase.” Perhaps this was because the disorienting social forces unleashed during the Cold War had recognized, in a phrase that had its origins in colonial outposts, a mantra. As the NYT reported, Erikson’s theory of life passages came out of his work on two Indian reservations in the 30s and 40s.

“Erikson did field work not only with the Oglala Sioux of Pine Ridge, S.D. ... but also with the salmon-fishing Yurok of North California.”

Erikson was one of a group of workers in the human sciences, like his friends Margaret Mead and Alfred Kroeber, who were engaged in a process of cultural transference, looking for solutions to “Western problems” while at the same time projecting onto their “subjects” Western theories. Theories that, one should remember, came out of European or American metropoles that had fairly recently been surrounded by a majority peasant population, whether of Central European peasants – Erikson came from Vienna – or American smallholder farmers.

It was a context of cultures in the midst of liquidation, both physical – from genocide – and cultural.

“Central to many an adult Indian’s emotional problems seemed to be his sense of uprootedness and lack of continuity between his present life-style and that portrayed in tribal history. Not only did the Indian sense a break with the past, but he could not identify with a future requiring assimilation of the white culture’s values.”

As it turned out, the “white culture’s values” were, at the same time, de-routing and disorienting the white subject, l’homme moyen sensuel. As well, the black subject. The female subject. Subjects all over in labs all over, subjects all over  in cities and suburbs, factories and faculties, who responded well to the conditioning, the advertising, the credit cards, the local organizations of uplift, etc.

The identity crisis as a phrase has now embedded itself in the “discourse”, although, oddly, there is still no reckoning between the universalist claims of life passages, out of which the identity crisis comes, and the identity turn. That the identity crisis became portable – that it hits now the Democratic party, now the society for better dentistry, etc. – has made it blander, and less startling in its reference to uprootedness, alienation, and cultural annihilation. If there is a missile in the first act, it should go off in the last act – according to an old theatrical theory. But we are long beyond the last act, and the destruction we face was not the one we envisioned when we moved out of the cities to live and built the highways to carry us away from the bomb’s epicenter. And we all now identify, but who is this “we”, and how does it move through its life?




olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...