The Irony of Practice: Hypocrisy

In a previous post, I pointed out the use of Socratic irony in Pierre Hadot’s writings on philosophy as a way of life involving spiritual exercises. The idea is that “Hadot’s practice of irony reveals the irony of practice.” To put it simply, practice is always hypocritical. Continue reading


Treating People Like Individuals

It’s not uncommon to hear someone propose the ethical injunction to “treat people like individuals.” It’s mostly used in reference to the complicated ethico-political problem of negotiating intersecting group dynamics: ages, genders, sexes, races, classes, ethnicities, religions, abilities, capabilities. What does it actually mean? Continue reading

Provocation and Interruption

Provocation and interruption are, respectively, the origin and goal of philosophy. This sense of philosophy finds expression in the following quotations from Peter Sloterdijk, the first of which suggests that philosophy is a trace of an unavoidable provocation, while the second articulates the function of the philosopher as an interrupter.

It is a characteristic of humanitas that human beings are confronted with problems that are too difficult for them and that nevertheless cannot be left unaddressed on account of their difficulty. This provocation of the human being by something that can be neither avoided nor mastered left an unforgettable trace behind already at the beginning of European philosophy—indeed, perhaps philosophy itself is this trace in the broadest sense.
(Sloterdijk, “Rules for the Human Park,” Not Saved: Essays After Heidegger [Polity Press, 2017], p. 211)

We live constantly in collective fields of excitation; this cannot be changed so long as we are social beings. The input of stress inevitably enters me; thoughts are not free, each of us can divine them. They come from the newspaper and wind up returning to the newspaper. My sovereignty, if it exists, can only appear by my letting the integrated impulsion die in me or, should this fail, by my retransmitting it in a totally metamorphosed, verified, filtered, or recoded form. It serves nothing to contest it: I am free only to the extent that I interrupt escalations and that I am able to immunize myself against infections of opinion. Precisely this continues to be the philosopher’s mission in society, if I may express myself in such pathetic terms. His missions is to show that a subject can be an interrupted, not merely a channel that allows thematic epidemics and waves of excitation to flow through it. The classics express this with the term ‘pondering.’ With this concept, ethics and energetics enter into contact: as a bearer of a philosophical function, I have neither the right nor the desire to be either a conductor in a stress-semantic chain or the automaton of an ethical imperative.
(Sloterdijk, Neither Sun nor Death [Semiotext(e), 2011], p. 84-5)


Ptolemy’s Revenge II: The Balls of Serres

Meillassoux suggests that Kant’s Copernican revolution was not actually Copernican at all.  Kant (and so many post-Kantians) improperly inverted Copernicus, returning to a pre-Copernican anthropocentrism (see “Ptolemy’s Revenge” in After Finitude).  Kant is obviously anthropocentric, but is that really an inversion of the Copernican turn?  Or…might we be able to speak about the birth of the Copernican revolution out of the spirit of anthropocentrism?  If Meillassoux wants to get past Kantian idealism, he might need Ptolemy more than he knows.

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An Ethical Universe

Bruno Latour articulates a wonderful idea in An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence, where he argues that morality is in the world, not just in humans.  For anything to exist it must persist in its being: everything emits “must,” like a musty smell.  To be is to emit value, to evaluate.  It is value all the way down.  Here’s what Latour has to say:

We have to go down long lines of Bifurcators before reaching Kant, who expects humans deprived of world to “add” values to beings “deprived of ought-to-be.”  Before him, and in the rest of the world, there hadn’t been a single existent that had failed to exclaim: “It must,” “It mustn’t,” measuring the difference between being and nonbeing by this hesitation.  Everything in the world evaluates, from von Uexküll’s tick to Pope Benedict XVI—and even Magritte’s pipe.  Instead of opposing “is” to “ought to be,” count instead how many beings an existent needs to pass through and how many alterations it must learn to adapt to in order to continue to exist.  On this point Nietzsche is right, the word “value” has no antonym—and especially not the word “fact.”
Just as a geologist can hear the clicks of radioactivity, but only if he is equipped with a Geiger counter, we can register the presence of morality in the world provided that we concentrate on that particular emission.  And just as no one, once the instrument has been calibrated, would think of asking the geologist if radioactivity is “all in his head,” “in his heart,” or “in the rocks,” no one will doubt any longer that the world emits morality toward anyone who possesses an instrument sensitive enough to register it. (pp. 453, 456)

This means that the task of ethics is aesthetic—becoming sensitive to the ethical emissions of things, cultivating something like Humean sympathies for the values of different modes of existence.  However, Latour expands on Hume by making ethics cosmological in scope.  Everything has value, everything matters.  This is similar to something Karen Barad says in Meeting the Universe Halfway.  “A delicate tissue of ethicality runs through the marrow of being.  There is no getting away from ethics—mattering is an integral part of the ontology of the world in its dynamic presencing.  Not even a moment exists on its own. […]  We need to meet the universe halfway, to take responsibility for the role that we play in the world’s differential becoming” (p. 396).

Politicize Aesthetics, Don’t Aestheticize Politics

It’s worth remembering the following passage from Walter Benjamin’s classic essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

“Fiat ars—pereat mundus” says fascism, expecting from war, as Marinetti admits, the artistic gratification of sense perception altered by technology.  This is evidently the consummation of l’art pour l’art.  Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for Olympian gods, has now become one for itself.  Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own alienation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure.  Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism.  Communism replies by politicizing art. (p. 122)

Benjamin, Selected Writings, vol. 3, 1935-1938. (Edmund Jephcott and Howard Eiland, Trans.). Harvard University Press, 2002.

The moral of the story is that the simple implosion of politics and aesthetics is equivocal.  Smooshing them together isn’t inherently beneficial.  The distinction between aestheticized politics and politicized aesthetics is crucial.  The same holds true for the relationship between aesthetics and ethics, a relationship that just about everybody has thought of in terms of the portmanteau, “aesthethics.”  On that note, I’m interested to see how the implosion of the aesthetic and the ethical is figured in the new anthologyAesth/Ethics in Environmental Change: Hiking through the arts, ecology, religion and ethics of the environment, edited by Sigurd Bergmann, Irmgard Blindow, and Konrad Ott (LIT Verlag 2013).

Place in Whitehead, Deleuze, Derrida

Whitehead, Deleuze, and Derrida each discuss place by engaging, among other things, the discourse on chora (“place”) in Plato’s Timaeus, where chora is described as a “third thing” that is neither sensible (matter) nor intelligible (form), but a generative relational matrix that organizes and disturbs form/matter interactions.  The recoveries of chora at work in these thinkers draw on their related concepts of creativity (Whitehead), difference-in-itself (Deleuze), and différance (Derrida).  As a locus of creative differences, chora supports their respective efforts to transform or overcome Platonism and its form/matter hierarchy, thereby making room for understandings of place as exceeding the limits of dualistic hierarchies.

This fall, I’ll be presenting papers on this topic on a couple different  occasions, including the 5th annual meeting of the Pacific Association for the Continental Tradition (PACT) in San Francisco and the 17th annual meeting of the International Association for Environmental Philosophy (IAEP, pronounced like “yep”) in Eugene, Oregon.  I’ll discuss the specific ways in which Whitehead, Deleuze, and Derrida each interprets chora and how those interpretations are indicative of complementary yet antagonistic possibilities for understanding and responding to actual places.  Instead of taking sides, I claim that those possibilities are at their most relevant and compelling when they are brought into a complex contrast with one another.

For Whitehead and Deleuze, chora is described in terms of a positive becoming, whereas Derrida writes about chora as an excluded or marginalized alterity.  Those different accounts reflect different conceptions of transcendence and immanence.  While Derrida maintains a Levinasian tendency to privilege the transcendence of alterity, Deleuze is committed to immanence, notwithstanding their respective attempts to deconstruct transcendental signifieds and liberate events from transcendence/immanence binaries.  Whitehead resolves the opposition by conceiving of a mutually implicative relationship between transcendence and immanence (in theological terms, panentheism).

Although each of these thinkers intends to affirm an ethical commitment to place, that does not necessarily translate into a commitment to some actual place(s).  For instance, Derrida affirms the ethically compelling alterity of place, including human and nonhuman others associated with place, and he does so with much attention to language and ontology but relatively little engagement in natural sciences, thus compromising his ability to account for some specificities of actual places.  That contrasts with the evolutionary and cosmological repetitions of chora given by the more scientifically inclined Whitehead and Deleuze, for whom the task of understanding and responding to places requires an integration of speculative metaphysics with empirical inquiry.  A crucial contrast between Whitehead and Deleuze is that the latter tends to undermine the specificity of actual places by explaining actual entities in terms of an underlying field of virtual multiplicities.  More pluralistically, Whitehead’s ontological principle affirms that actual entities are irreducibly real, such that a place is a field of becoming not in the sense of an underlying virtual field but in the sense of a dynamic network of actual entities in mutually constitutive relations.

This is not to say that Whitehead’s recovery of chora is better than Derrida’s or Deleuze’s.  Whitehead is more attentive to the specificities of actual places.  However, his “God” and “eternal objects” might unnecessarily complicate empirical inquiries, in contrast to Deleuze’s immanent experiments with chora, which are more affirmative of the non-teleological and self-organizing capacities of places.  Among these three thinkers, Derrida is perhaps most well-suited for discerning ways in which different (undecidable) determinations of place involve exclusions and negations, which constitute and disturb the boundaries of language, reason, gender, and species.  In sum, I hope to convey some ways in which Whitehead, Deleuze, and Derrida contribute to knowledge of and ethical responses to actual places, with the unique benefits and limitations of those contributions becoming apparent amid the creative differences between them.