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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

Western Culture Claustrophobia, and Other News

October 23, 2015 | by

Performance view of Ragnar Kjartansson’s Bonjour, 2015.

  • The artist Ragnar Kjartansson lives in fear (and bemused disgust) of what he’s dubbed “Western culture claustrophobia.” “It’s everywhere!” he’s said: “The same desire for this Western properness is everywhere—it’s like a big block of marble that is hanging all over the world and it’s getting bigger and bigger.” He’s doing his part to chip away at that marble sky with the most radical force of destruction known to man: performance art. His new piece, Bonjour, “takes place on a faux-outdoor set conceived to be as generically French as possible … Real-life actors play two characters, a man and a woman who live near one another and are brought together by a chance encounter at a fountain … The man and the woman say the only word of dialogue, ‘Bonjour,’ to each other … After their greeting, they return to their respective homes and go to sleep, and the piece, which will be on repeat during the duration of the exhibition, begins again.”
  • Proust had his madeleine. Nell Zink has her Friskies: “It had been a long while since I’d seen cat food up close. I opened the bag and crouched to pour it into a bowl on the floor. Instantly I was transported back to my earliest youth. The pantry floor in our house in Corona. My face close to the cats’ food dish. My hand in the dish. The sharply disappointing flavor. Greasy dust integral to crumbly, salmon-pink x shapes, crosses faintly reminiscent of a game of jacks … I knew the brand very, very intimately.”
  • Mind-body dualism: like, is there any bigger drag in all of philosophy? Most analytic philosophers subscribe to some version of physicalism—the theory that the mind is made of the same stuff as the body, and that indeed everything in the universe is made of physical stuff—but dualism remains dismayingly prevalent out among laymen. Where did it come from? “The idea of separation between soul and body may have assumed cultural dominance because of the new importance of political rhetoric within the large urbanized city-states that were formed in fifth-century Greece. The rhetorician and philosopher Gorgias, who was a generation older than Plato, wrote a virtuosic essay arguing that Helen was not to blame for the Trojan War because she was the victim of rhetorical persuasion. This piece … is the earliest surviving evidence of a Greek author making a systematic distinction between body and soul. Gorgias argues that the soul may be powerless against the body—an argument developed in awareness that people often act against their own best interests.”
  • You’ve probably been reading the old, unannotated Bartleby, the Scrivener, haven’t you? That’s why everyone’s laughing at you. They’re all reading the slick new annotated version, which features glosses of criticism by everyone from J. Hillis Miller to Gilles Deleuze—and which airs, on at least one occasion, the theory that Bartelby may be dead for the entire novel, in a kind of Sixth Sense­–ish way.
  • In which Chen Li talks to an old Chinese blacksmith about his working life: “One year, a typhoon blew a foreign ship from the inner to the outer bay, slashing it in half and leading to the death of several foreigners. The coffin shop sent for him and had him deliver some thicker iron nails to the shop to fasten the coffins. Two weeks later, he returned to collect his due. While he was walking into that dark, long, and narrow shop—Oh my, what the heck—someone climbed out of a coffin! Turned out that was the master of the shop; he said it was a cool place to take his midday nap.”

Humean, All Too Humean, and Other News

October 5, 2015 | by

The Camera Restricta encourages you to get a life.

  • If you were conducting a kind of Hemingway Grand Tour, traveling the world in search of all things Papa, I’d tell you to get a better hobby—but if you insisted, I would tell you to make sure you visit northern Michigan, the site of Hemingway’s sometimes neglected formative years. “Havana, Key West, Ketchum, Paris, Pamplona—these locales tend to conjure vintage Papa: a kerchiefed, bloated, rum-drunk Nobel laureate. Petoskey? Not so much. The gatekeepers of Hemingway’s legend have largely ignored the place … But if you want to understand the writer, you have to start here. Michigan-era Hemingway is threshold Hemingway—young and raw, before the fame and subcutaneous padding and sixteen-daiquiri lunches. It’s where he experimented in delinquency, learned to cast a fly rod, stepped unmoored into the wilderness and first tinkered with a prose style that would one day make him famous.”
  • In times of internal strife and quandary, it’s seldom a good idea to turn to the precepts of dead white men. But during her midlife crisis, Alison Gopnik found solace in the ideas of David Hume, which remain progressive even today: for Hume, “the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or ‘reality’ or even ‘I’? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact … Give up the prospect of life after death, and you will finally really appreciate life before it. Give up metaphysics, and you can concentrate on physics. Give up the idea of your precious, unique, irreplaceable self, and you might actually be more sympathetic to other people.”
  • From the renowned creators of camera obscura and camera lucida, it’s Camera Restricta, which “will force you to actually spend time admiring a picturesque landscape rather than worrying about composing the best shot.” Basically, it’s a camera that can tell if other people have already photographed the thing you’re trying to photograph, thus saving you a lot of time and preventing any kind of White Noise–esque Most Photographed Barn in America phenomenon.
  • On Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty Is a Wound, an Indonesian novel now available in English, which is playful and agreeably profane even as it tackles the darkest chapters of its nation’s history, such as 1965’s anti-communist purge: “The narrator’s voice ranges from merciless and brusque to tender and doleful. One of the men is terrorized by the ghosts of slaughtered Communists, who make him ‘think that he was making love to his wife’ when, in fact, ‘he was fucking the toilet hole.’ Scenes of brutality—of rape, incest, bestiality—are undercut by macabre humor. Dewi Ayu’s eldest daughter, Alamanda, is in love with Kliwon, her childhood sweetheart, but she is forced to marry the Japanese soldier Shodancho, twenty years her senior, who drugs and rapes her. Alamanda buys an impenetrable ‘anti-terror garment’ that transforms her underwear into a literal iron fortress.”
  • Most of us have accepted that this “Internet” isn’t just a passing trend; it’s time, then, to put some serious thought into how to curb the trolls, whose power is on the rise. “With enough effort, expertise, and good faith, a comments section can showcase the worthwhile, efface the worthless, and downrank the dubious. But in mass media and mega-platforms—where most of the action is—comments sections are all too often cybercesspools of trashing and trolling, obsessive annotators, and regressive instigators … The original sin of Internet culture was the exploitation of user-generated content to enrich a lucky few at the top of dominant platforms. Spreading that wealth … would be a good first step toward taming trolls and shaming sock-puppeteers.”

Back to School with the Übermensch

September 16, 2015 | by

Nietzsche on education, inequality, and translation.

Nietzsche as a pupil at Schulpforta, 1861.

 When I went off to college, it wasn’t, as far as I could tell, the result of any decision. The assumption—the fact—was simply there, in my family or high school or race and class or wherever it was, that there was more to come after twelfth grade. I didn’t appreciate the privilege nearly enough, but I also felt no need to justify to myself or anyone else how I planned to spend the next four years. There must still be such eighteen or nineteen year olds out there, never expected to explain themselves, but it is harder to imagine them. Nowadays, education is fraught and embattled and debated and doubted down to the core.

I feel like I’ve read the same essay half a dozen times recently­—here are two good examples—an essay insisting that the true value of education is not calculable in monetary terms. Education is moral, philosophical: a process of creating and becoming better people. You can make the argument that a liberal-arts education is “valuable” in the narrow sense, since it is, but even if that argument wins some battles—and it rarely does—it will lose the war. Once you concede that economic striving takes priority over artistic or humanistic goals, then arts funding and English degrees and even pure science are never going to withstand the juggernaut of business and technology. You have to fight under a higher standard.

I agree with this line of thought and am happy enough to see the point made half a dozen times over. I’ve read it recently in Friedrich Nietzsche, too, whose little-known 1872 lectures On the Future of Our Educational Institutions are appearing this fall in my new translation under the snappier title Anti-Education. Even in Nietzsche’s day, the state and the masses were apparently clamoring for

as much knowledge and education as possible—leading to the greatest possible production and demand—leading to the greatest happiness: that’s the formula. Here we have Utility as the goal and purpose of education, or more precisely Gain: the highest possible income … Culture is tolerated only insofar as it serves the cause of earning money. 

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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.”


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 »