The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

The World Doesn’t Care About You, and Other News

August 31, 2015 | by

Bad Brains in 1983. Photo: Malco23

  • Today in reevaluations of problematic twentieth-century philosophers: Heidegger’s predilection for tragedy and poetry informed his yearning for a grand narrative, a story that could encompass all of history. That yearning, in turn, is part of what led him to Nazism. Even so, “Heidegger’s tragic, overblown interpretation of Nazism may have been unique to him, but he was certainly not the only twentieth-century philosopher to think that poetry and tragedy might preserve something integral to human experience that was in danger of being swallowed up by the forces of reason and demystification … Maybe academic philosophy today has conceded too much ground to demystifying argumentation, to judgment and quantification. Maybe we do need more poetry in our lives. Maybe films really do represent a last gasp for tragedy and grand-scale thinking in the modern world.”
  • Jane Smiley, whose Art of Fiction interview will appear in our Fall issue, discusses her cluttered office in Carmel Valley, California: “I have never objected to mess, since mess reminds me that I can choose to write or I can choose to clean, and I have always chosen to write … I have never liked privacy in a writing room; I have always preferred noise and traffic and phone calls and people walking in and out.”
  • Remembering New York City’s hardcore scene, some thirty years later: “The insight boiling up, across all of these records, is: the world doesn’t care about you. There are no merit badges awarded for normalcy and complacency for the likes of us in straight society. It’s a long slog, and some days you are just a piece of living meat unhappily compelled to work and eat and sleep and go through the motions of your relationships, just because it is too much trouble to do otherwise. Hardcore starts from the minimal, almost entirely swallowed-up spark of human life, maybe just the faint, unwanted heartbeat whose persistence means, ‘I have to go to work today.’ The young Marx thought that mankind would attain its ‘species-being’ in the free time obtained for human development after the attainment of communism. Hardcore says: our species-being is a pretty ugly thing, for now, but we have to own it. It—we—can’t wait.”
  • For the past several years, an experimental genre of creative nonfiction has been quietly thriving online: one-star Yelp reviews of national parks. Don’t let the unsophisticated and often ungrammatical prose fool you; these works have taken the pulse of America. Read on as our nation’s treasures and all manners of natural beauty are cast aside as garbage: Death Valley is “the ugliest place I have ever seen,” Yosemite needs more parking lots, and Carlsbad Caverns appeals only if “you find big caves and rocks overwhelmingly fascinating.”
  • Geoff Dyer revisits Raymond Williams: “Borders—how they are constructed and recognized, how they impede and are crossed—are central to his thought … [he] entirely reshaped my sense of life and literature and the way they were related … Before that, in a way that now seems hard to credit, I had no understanding of the social process I’d lived through even though it was, by then, a well-documented one: the working-class boy who keeps passing exams—exams that take him first to grammar school, then to an Oxbridge college—and discovers only in retrospect that there was more to all this than exams, or even education.”

The Horror of Philosophy, and Other News

August 24, 2015 | by

From This Magazine Is Haunted, April 1952.

  • Newly declassified documents have revealed that the British government spied on Doris Lessing for some twenty years and that they’d thoroughly imbibed the rhetoric of J. Edgar Hoover: “Her communist sympathies have been fanned almost to the point of fanaticism owing to her upbringing in Rhodesia, which has brought out in her a deep hatred of the colour bar,” MI6 wrote of Lessing, whose “plump build” they were also sure to mention. “Colonial exploitation is her pet theme and she has now nearly become as irresponsible in her statements as … saying that everything black is wonderful and that all men and all things white are vicious.”
  • Say what you will about The End of the Tour as a depiction of David Foster Wallace—it is, if nothing else, a smart take on the mechanics and ethics of celebrity profiles, the lifeblood of the magazine industry. “The movie is apt in its insinuation that there is sometimes very little daylight between doing the reporting necessary for a magazine profile of someone and compiling a surveillance dossier upon him or her … the very structure of the reporting process, with its enforced proximity, can engender a precarious intimacy, even while the ultimate purpose of this intimacy—an article that is to be written by one participant about the other—is never forgotten.”
  • Teju Cole saw a photograph by René Burri: four men on a rooftop in São Paulo. He resolved to discover the circumstances of its creation, and—why not?—to replicate it, if possible: “To me, it literally portrays the levels of social stratification and the enormous gap between those above and those below … ‘Those four guys just came from nowhere, and went to nowhere,’ Burri said of the men in his photograph.”
  • On philosophy and horror and the horror of philosophy and the philosophy of horror: “Any reader of difficult philosophy books will have experienced their own kind of horror of philosophy, reinforced today by public intellectuals, who most often use philosophy as a smokescreen for selling self-help books and promoting the cult of the guru … philosophy explains anything and everything, telling us that a horror films means this or that, reveals this or that anxiety, is representative of this or that cultural moment that we are living in, and so on. Perhaps genres such as the horror genre are interesting not because we can devise ingenious explanatory models for them, but because they cause us to question some of our most basic assumptions about the knowledge-production process itself.”
  • If you’re looking for a good way to kill a lot of time at the end of the summer, head to Berlin, where, in a longstanding ritual, a cinema deep underground hosts a complete and unabridged viewing of Andrei Tarkovsky’s filmography. “International filmgoers book their flights as soon as the schedule is released, some in order to see the same set of films they saw last year. Judging from my seatmates at several screenings, the appeal crosses generational as well as national divides. The people want Tarkovsky, they want him on celluloid, and they want him whole.”

The Phantoms of the Fifteenth Arrondissement

August 11, 2015 | by

In an unremarkable section of Paris, Roger Caillois saw hiding places for “floating beings.”

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Caillois ca. 1975. Photo: R. Minnaert

Pity the Fifteenth! Paris’s most populous arrondissement is also one of its least celebrated. Stretching from the Front de Seine high-rises in the northwest to the Tour de Montparnasse in the southeast, the Fifteenth is sleepy, residential, and architecturally undistinguished. Home to minor government agencies and the headquarters of various corporations, its streets and thoroughfares are named for military officers, former colonial possessions, inventors, and Émile Zola, France’s dullest great novelist. Rue des Entrepreneurs intersects Rue de Commerce, where it branches off into Rue de l’Église and Rue Mademoiselle, which gives a good indication of what was on the minds of the men who incorporated the small suburban villages of Grenelle, Javel, and Vaugirard into the metropolis in the early years of the Second Empire. To make matters worse, the Fifteenth is tantalizingly adjacent to some of Paris’s genuine landmarks, like the Eiffel Tower, located just across the Avenue de Suffren in the Seventh, the Cimetière Montparnasse, on the other side of the neighborhood’s eponymous and much-reviled skyscraper, or the tony apartment buildings on right bank of the Pont de Bir-Hakeim.

Yet this is Paris, and even the most unremarkable stretches of Zone 1 have their devoted mythographers. Born in 1913 in Reims, the jack-of-all-genres Roger Caillois knew something about being fame-adjacent. If you were to look at the faded group photographs of some of the most important avant-garde literary movements of the twentieth century, you would see him, in the background, with his thick eyebrows and chubby cheeks, manuscript in hand, ready to launch into a lecture about his latest intellectual obsession: mimicry, ludology, the sacred, gemstones, secret societies, science fiction, the City of Light. As a student at the prestigious École pratique des hautes études, Caillois became acquainted with the works of pioneering philosophers and anthropologists like Alexandre Kojève and Marcel Mauss. He was a member of the surrealists until a disagreement with André Breton over the nature of a Mexican jumping bean got him kicked out of the movement. He went on to found a discussion group, the Collège de Sociologie, with fellow excommunicant George Bataille, contributing articles to Bataille’s journal Acéphale while skipping the meetings of his secret society, one of which notoriously involved a serious discussion about a ritual sacrifice of one of the members. Walter Benjamin loathed him, but nevertheless included several citations from his writings on Paris in The Arcades Project. In Buenos Aires, where Caillois, a militant antifascist, spent the war years, he met Victoria Ocampo, the editor of the journal Sur. Ocampo was responsible for publishing some of the leading lights of what would become known as the Latin American Boom. Upon his return to France, Caillois took up a position at UNESCO, using his influence there to introduce the French reading public to his new friends Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, and Silvina Ocampo. Read More »

The Library of Babel as Seen from Within

July 23, 2015 | by

Reproducing Borges’s imaginary library online.

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Since I first read it in a high school Spanish class, I’ve been fascinated by the theory of language implicit in Borges’s “The Library of Babel.” The story describes a universal library containing, in 410-page volumes, every possible permutation of twenty-two letters, spaces, commas, and periods—every book that’s ever been written and every book that ever could be, drowned out by endless pages of gibberish. Its librarians are addicted to the search for certain master texts, the complete catalog of the library, or the future history of one’s own life, but their quest inevitably ends in failure, despair, even suicide.

Perhaps I was obsessed by the same desire for revelation, or haunted by the same subversion of all rational pursuit. In either case, fifteen years later the idea came to me one night of using the vast calculative capacities of a computer to re-create the Library of Babel as a Web site. For those interested in experiencing the futile hope of Borges’s bibliotecarios, I’ve made libraryofbabel.info, which now contains anything we ever have written or ever will write, including these sentences I struggle to compose now. Here, to give you a sense of the vastness and the unintelligibility of such a project, is a random page: Read More »

Thinking Through Images: An Interview with Nick Sousanis

July 20, 2015 | by

First idea map for Unflattening, April 14, 2011.

First idea map for Unflattening, April 14, 2011.

Everything about Unflattening is odd, from its ungainly title and unfashionable subject matter (Rudolf Arnheim art theory meets Herbert Marcuse radicalism meets Scott McCloud comics boosterism) to its provenance: Nick Sousanis initially wrote and drew this full-length comics essay as his graduate-school dissertation. (He was earning his doctorate in education at Teachers College Columbia University, studying under the philosopher and social activist Maxine Greene.)

Sousanis’s career might be considered a little odd, too. He followed up an undergraduate degree in mathematics with a brief stint as a professional tennis player, then cofounded and edited a cultural magazine in Detroit, while also working as an artist. This isn’t the typical career path for a cartoonist—though to be fair, that profession doesn’t provide many followable emblematic models in that regard. Wild enthusiasm and plunge-taking fearlessness aside, Sousanis seems like a solid citizen; while his ideas are radically utopian, their flavor is resolutely wholesome. He is reminiscent of the kind of small-town high school teacher who’s popular with students because they believe he tells the truth and is unafraid to veer away from the curriculum-assigned script.

The script Sousanis is veering away from in this case is the age-old Western bias against visual imagery (and in favor of the Word), which he traces back to Plato’s cave. Sousanis believes that verbal language alone is a poor vehicle for capturing the multidimensional, many-layered fullness of human experience, the equivalent of Edwin Abbott’s two-dimensional flatworms trying to explain a sphere. It’s not so much that a picture is worth a thousand words, but rather that a picture is worth concepts that can’t even be put into words. And in an attempt to prove his case, he drew it.

What does “unflattening” mean?

It would be easier to tell you what the book’s about than to tell you what “unflattening” is. Actually, I’ve thinking about that lately because there’s a French translation in the works, and they can’t use that word because it doesn’t mean anything.

How could it not mean anything?

Well, I don’t think it means the right thing. It doesn’t mean anything in English—it’s not a word people use. The book is very much an argument that we make sense of the world in ways beyond text—teaching and learning shouldn’t be restricted to that narrow band. So rather than talking about visual thinking and multimodal stuff—from Howard Gardner to Rudolf Arnheim, people have been talking about it—comics just let me do it.

That’s what the book is about, if it’s about anything. Read More »

Solve Your Problems with Symmetry, and Other News

July 15, 2015 | by

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The Shaker Meetinghouse in New Lebanon, Columbia County, New York.

  • Philosophers are always telling us what to do and why to do it—telling us, in essence, how to rescue ourselves from childhood, how to grow up. For Vivian Gornick, their advice is lacking in what a college counselor might call real-world experience: “The Hebrew philosopher Hillel urged that we do unto others as we would have others do unto us. Kant urged, similarly, that we not make instrumental use of one another. With all the good will in the world—and remarkable numbers of people have it—we have not been able to make these noble recommendations carry the day. Not because we are lazy or venal or incompetent but because most of us live in a state of inner conflict that makes purity of behavior an impossibility. Every day of our lives we transgress against our own longing to act well: our tempers are ungovernable, our humiliations unforgettable, our fantasies ever present … ”
  • Today in ill-advised marketing campaigns: the Australian publisher of the new Lisbeth Salander novel has taken branding to a disturbingly literal level in its quest to find “a female fan prepared to ‘donate’ her back for three months. This would have involved being adorned with her very own Dragon Tattoo for advertising purposes.” The so-called tatvertising campaign sought to find someone who could “handle the pain, just like Lisbeth Salander.” The publisher has since canceled the promotion, but there’s nothing stopping true fans from pursuing masochism to please their corporate masters.
  • Does the art market depress you? The answer should be a resounding yes—no one likes plundering plutocrats. But here’s a thought: you can probably just ignore the whole sordid commercial aspect of the thing. “Sensing that people will one day look back on this era as a freakish episode in cultural history, why not get a head start on viewing it that way? Detach and marvel. Meanwhile, art goes on making meaning for those who are rich only in the desire and leisure to engage with it … To expect the running-scared super-rich to behave benevolently, in regards to art, is plainly foolish.”
  • So you’re conceiving a building in which the sexes are segregated—congratulations! The Shakers have just the kind of architectural design you need. The key is extreme symmetry, “in which one side meticulously mirrors the other, door for door, stair for stair, each fitting answering another … The control implicit in the design goes further. Men and women worked in different trades, so rarely encountered one another in the workplace … The Shakers perfected what they called a ‘living building’: a settlement that served their purposes while also reinforcing their separation from non-believing outsiders.”
  • Critical thinking remains an integral part of an education in the liberal arts—and a vague, endlessly broad term, with no real applicability. What is it? How do we use it? For the answers to these and other unanswerable questions, all you have to do is go to college. But even there the term is on watch now. “One of my colleagues adamantly rejected the inclusion of an allegedly trendy catchphrase (‘experiential learning’) as part of our mission statement, and insisted that we use ‘critical thinking’ instead. My colleague was ostensibly rejecting the professionalization of college education, in favor of the more properly academic priority of intellect. This preference, however, struck me as curious, as it revealed that ‘critical thinking’—whatever cluster of ideas or intellectual ideals hide behind the phrase—had become something for which we felt nostalgia.”