Monthly Archives: August 2012

Chaos, Order, and Muppet Theory

Every once in a while, an idea comes along that changes the way we all look at ourselves forever. Before Descartes, nobody knew they were thinking. They all believed they were just mulling. Until Karl Marx, everyone totally hated one another but nobody knew quite why. And before Freud, nobody understood that all of humanity could be classified into one of two simple types: people who don’t yet know they want to sleep with their mothers, and people who already know they want to sleep with their mothers. These dialectics can change and shape who we are so profoundly, it’s hard to imagine life before the paradigm at all.

Enter “Muppet Theory,” which is “a little-known, poorly understood philosophy that holds that every living human can be classified according to one simple metric: Every one of us is either a Chaos Muppet or an Order Muppet.”  Check out the rest of this humorous philosophical article HERE, and try to determine whether you are a Chaos Muppet or an Order Muppet.

Muppets of the world, unite!

Integrating Deconstruction

It’s easy to use a philosopher’s concepts and stylistic strategies without actually confronting some of the serious challenges that the philosopher is engaging.  A case in point: Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory, in its extremely comprehensive treatment of various perspectives, discourses, and ways of knowing, often picks up on important conceptual and stylistic elements of philosophers without fully engaging those philosophers’ problems.  Wilber’s treatment of Derrida is a fine example.

Wilber attempts to integrate Derrida into this Integral framework, yet fails to come to terms with the deconstruction of the transcendental signified.  Gregory Desilet discusses this problem of the transcendental signified in an essay on “Misunderstanding Derrida and Postmodernism” (on ), where he shows how Wilber has simply misread and misquoted Derrida on this issue.  In Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (2000, p. 629) Wilber refers to an interview of Derrida’s (in Positions), arguing that Derrida therein accepts “genuine transcendental signifieds” on the grounds that translation is not possible without them.  The problem is simply that Wilber improperly interpolates when he cites this interview.  When Derrida says “no translation would be possible without it,” the “it” to which he is referring should not be understood as “the transcendental signified.”  Rather, the “it” refers to the “difference” between signifier and signified.

That this opposition or difference cannot be radical or absolute does not prevent it from functioning, and even from being indispensable within certain limits—very wide limits. For example, no translation would be possible without it. (Derrida, Positions, 2004, p. 19)

This is not to say that there is nothing undeconstructible for Derrida, but what is undeconstructible is not a transcendental signified—not a pure or absolute transcendence that is free from shifting contexts and sliding chains of signifiers.  It is quasi-transcendental.

Not a stable or substantial foundation, a quasi-transcendental condition is insufficient and disordering.  Quite different from a sufficient and empowering transcendental, it is always deferring in further temporal unfolding, constituting horizons of possibility by transgressing them.  Although Wilber claims that Derrida posits a transcendental signified necessary for translations, a transcendental signified actually closes the door and translation, cleaning up the slippage and deferral that keep translation in transit.  There’s no getting around the groundless play of events.  There is no transcendental signified, no first or final frame of reference, no ground, not even Nonduality or some kind of groundless ground.  Moreover, this doesn’t mean that Derrida is a nihilist.

Perhaps it’s worth remembering that Derrida, in his autobiography, says that “the constancy of God in my life is called by other names” (Derrida, “Circumfession,” 1993, p. 155).  He says that while also declaring his atheism.  God is a name, and it but one name among many for the impossible effects of an event (l’événement), which names a coming (la venue), the arrival of a newcomer (arrivant), a stranger to come (à venir).  If what happens is reduced to its position in a rigid program or a homogenized order where no surprises occur, then the event is reduced to an economy of the same—a systematic order that precludes the differences that would accompany the arrival of what is coming.

An event occurs when the future (l’avenir) breaks through the economy of the same, opening the rigid order of the system to the absolute surprise of what is to come (à-venir).  This absolute surprise is something for which no anticipation, expectation, or horizon of waiting is available, because this surprise is precisely the e-vent, the coming-out of that which is wholly other than any program or order.  It is impossible to prepare for this coming, to let in the other, because preparation would assimilate the alterity of the other into one’s own horizon of expectations.  It is impossible, and it is precisely the task of deconstruction to somehow prepare a way for the impossible to happen.

Deconstruction is a process of preparing for events through the invention of the other, an evocative and provocative invention.  It is the invention of messianic justice—an impossible justice that comes with the arrival of the other, an arrival that is undeconstructible and irreducible to any particular messianisms or particular religions.  In a sense, Wilber was right to say in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (2000, p. 562) that the deconstruction of presence “has almost nothing to do with mystical Presence,” but only because deconstruction is more messianic than mystical.  In any case, that “almost nothing” poses a much more serious challenge than Wilber has taken up.

More Fear and Loathing

Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only real cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas.  To relax, as it were, in the womb of the desert sun.  Just roll the roof back and screw it on, grease the face with white tanning butter and move out with the music at top volume, and at least a pint of ether. (H. S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, p.12)

But our trip was different.  It was a classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in the national character.  It was a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country—but only for those with true grit.  And we were chock full of that. (18)

Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.…
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.
My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings [….] You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.…
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.…
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. (66-68, brackets added)

The wave broke and rolled back, and we’re left in the desert.  Our experience of the tremendous power of the sacred (mysterium tremendum) has become empty, and we’re left trembling with fear and loathing in the desert.  All forms of transcendence have become empty: God, the American Dream, and counterculture idealism and utopianism.  The counterculture was the last hope for the emergence of a community based on love, but like other movements before, the counterculture became “a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody—or at least some force—is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel” (179).  And now we’re left in the desert, facing “grim meat-hook realities” (178).  If abandoning the old-mystic fallacy sounds bad, wait…there’s good news here…

Left in the Vegas desert, we are left with the real, not in the sense of an original reality that grounds everything that follows from it.  Such an origin is precisely what we’ve lost.  Thank God.  For Baudrillard, existence in the “desert of the real” is existence amidst a groundless play of images and signs, where the real is itself an effect, a copy, a hallucination or image.  The sign is the thing in itself.  Furthermore, this hyperrealism of the Vegas desert is basically a realized eschatology.  The wave broke and rolled back, and now God (Love, Freedom, America, Counterculture, etc.) is deserted and dead, and thus deserted, the divine has passed fully into immanence, into the desert.   In About Religion: Economies of Faith in Virtual Culture, Mark C. Taylor is explicit on this point: “Las Vegas is, in effect, the realization of the Kingdom of God on earth” (5).  With true grit, we can start at the edge of the desert, find our way to the main nerve of the American Dream, and relax in the womb of the desert sun.  If we have eyes to see it.  Real healing–the real cure–is at hand, amidst the Kingdom of Fear.

The Alluring Withdrawal of Things

The ready-to-hand is not grasped theoretically at all, nor is it itself the sort of thing that circumspection takes proximally as a circumspective theme.  The peculiarity of what is proximally ready-to-hand is that, in its readiness-to-hand, it must, as it were withdraw [zurückzuziehen] in order to be ready-to-hand quite authentically.  That with which our everyday dealings proximally dwell is not the tools themselves [die Werkzeuge].
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 99.

To put it another way, the real tool is not present, not in theory, not in practice.  Yet, in its withdrawal or retreat (Entzug) it exhibits a trait, a pull (Zug), which opens the space of an attraction (Bezug) whereby a relationship to the thing can be forged.  The thing is never present and never becomes present, never ever, but we relate to it indirectly through an alluring pull.  Oh, to release into the attraction that pulls you into the nearness of distance…

The withdrawn trait of the tools themselves extends to all things, not just to what is conventionally included in the category of tools.  A hammer, a hydroelectric dam, a bee, a theory, a human, and a Greek Temple all share the same tension between withdrawal and presence.  This isn’t to say that Heidegger is not encumbered by anthropocentrism.  His low estimation of animal worlds (poor in world, weltarm) and stone worlds (worldless, weltlos) is weighed down with quite a lot of anthropocentric baggage, his repudiation of humanism notwithstanding.  But that’s a different topic…

What’s funny about puns?

I just got back from a week in Malibu, and along with that, I’m recovering from a pretty severe case of olympic fever.  What have I learned?  Simply this: some puns are funnier than others, and only partially because some work better orally than they do in writing.  For instance, consider the following three observations.

If I was going to compete in the Olympics, I would medal in other people’s business.

When some people visit the beach, they go shelling.  I’m more open than that.  When I visit the beach, I go Heidegger.

I think the name “Malibu” comes from a Chumash word for the aural intensity of the surf there (i.e., loud waves), but “Malibu” sounds too negative to signify that sacred sound.  A more positive name would be Malihooray, or better yet, Benihooray.

What can we conclude from this?  At the very least, we can probably agree that a lot of puns feel like bad jokes, but maybe the point of puns is less about being funny and more about performing some kind of phonosemantic alchemy, like Jesus using the “Peter is a rock (petros)” pun to enact the institution of his Church.

Liberation in the 21st Century

Last month, from July 8-12, the first conference on African and African Diasporan Women in Religion and Theology was held in Legon, Ghana at Trinity Theological Seminary’s Talitha Qumi Institute of African Women in Religion and Culture, founded and directed by Mercy Amba Oduyoye.  Rosetta Ross has written a helpful summary of the event.

The event was brimming with diversity while also aiming to forge commonalities and build upon shared African heritages, although conference organizers are hoping for an even more diverse representation of women from African and in the diaspora at future conferences.  Along with inspiring integrations of indigenous, Christian, and Islamic traditions, one of the interesting things about this conference is that it is carrying forward the legacy of liberation theology.

After emerging in the mid-twentieth century, liberation theology spread out of its initial patriarchal contexts as women scholars and activists sought liberation not only from classism and poverty (i.e., the preferential option for the poor) but also from sexism and racism, thus birthing feminist and womanist liberation movements as well as black liberation theology.  However, liberation theology has since become rather passé.  Its rhetoric needs updating if it is going to exist in the twenty-first century.

The furor that emerged during the 2008 US presidential campaign over black liberation theology and the recent echo of that uproar during the current campaign only highlights the unlikeliness of a convening of a meeting rooted in mid-twentieth century ideals.

The good news is that those outdated ideals are changing.  As this conference in Ghana shows, young scholars and activists are taking up the task of renewing and rejuvenating liberation theology, articulating tactics and concepts that can facilitate liberation in the complex contexts of our emerging planetary civilization.

The participation of the youth is “a source of possibility for the future of a liberationist agenda in religious practices and discourses. Although the mid-twentieth century spirit of social solidarity seems nearly passé, hope exists in efforts that seek to take up ideals of a better future for everyone.”  In other words, hope exists for what Leonardo Boff calls “integral liberation,” a transversal approach to liberation that attends to personal, social, and environmental struggles as they are situated in a globalized world.