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Fr. 566

September 25, 2014

What does the philosopher have to say to the public at large? More importantly, what should the philosopher attempt to convey to that same public? Such a question has taken the fore in the academic arena today as philosophy attempts to reach a sphere with which it has lost touch to some extent throughout its increasing professionalization in the contemporary university system.

This question has pride of place in Brian Leiter’s recent publication “The Paradoxes of Public Philosophy”, first delivered as a conference presentation and later edited in draft form and made available via the internet. As the title suggests, Leiter concerns himself with the shortcomings of the most widespread view of public philosophy. Public philosophy as a whole has a number of recognizable traits for Leiter:

Rather the special purview of so-called “public philosophy” is to contribute philosophical insight or knowledge or skill to questions of moral and political urgency in the community in which it is located. So conceived, public philosophy is an artifact of what is usually called the “neoliberal” way of thinking that has dominated the capitalist world completely since the 1980’s, in which every human activity justifies itself by its contribution to something for which there is demand in the marketplace (p. 1).

Indeed, the problem is a widespread one and constitutes a problem or pathology to which our own study has fallen prey to some extent in its desire to restart political discussion between interlocutors and publics that has heretofore failed. In attempting to make our findings of immediate use in the political sphere, we have given into the neoliberal temptation so defined by Leiter.

Yet the question is perhaps older than Leiter here suggests, for the transmission of knowledge, substantive or otherwise, from philosopher to laymen is a longstanding one. Consider only the case of the Romantics, such as Novalis, for whom writing fragments (bite-sized inspiration, as it were) was truly conceived as a practice. This practice came bundled with the hope that seeds so sown would provoke the transformation of ordinary folk into the enlightened, imaginative poet-philosophers and symbol creators sought by the Romantic school.

Leaving this question aside for a time, we should come back to Leiter’s own diagnosis of the problem, which is twofold. The two constituent paradoxes of public philosophy’s troubles are as follows. On one hand, public philosophers have no hard and fast, substantive conclusions on the right or good to hand on to the public. At best, they could only agree on very modest claims. Yet consensus of this kind seems to be a prerequisite for a claim that demands public assent. On the other, we might be led to believe following this first conclusion that, if not a content-ful claim, philosophers might still be able to offer something in the way of a method or way of thinking about contested normative claims. Leiter terms this second view “discursive hygiene” and relates it to the vaguely Socratic tradition within Western philosophy.

More specifically, discursive hygiene is seen to consist in “parsing arguments, clarifying the concepts at play in a debate, teasing out the dialectical entailments of suppositions and claims” (p. 4). Yet this view of public philosophy swiftly runs into problems at an empirical level, particularly as concerns emotivist theories of normative discourse. Between the two, there is no fundamental contradiction, and the latter even serves to explain the shortcomings of the former. Recall that for the emotivist:

Ethical disagreements are at bottom a function of disagreement in attitudes, rather than disagreements about beliefs […] the connection between particular facts and our attitudes is just a contingent psychological/causal fact: it is just a psychological fact about many creatures like us that if our beliefs change, our attitudes often change too […] (p. 5)

This is a point on which Leiter insists. If we allow that our beliefs can influence our attitudes, nevertheless, we cannot extend ourselves much beyond this baseline sketch of the situation. For we simply lack the means to plot the mechanisms by which such changes are effect and to make of this a science. Leiter himself recalls such limitations when he remarks that:

[…] changes in belief do influence changes in attitude, but only as a contingent, psychological fact; this includes changes in belief about the logical or inferential relations between beliefs or between beliefs and attitudes […] (p. 6)

As Leiter attempts to make clear, there are no rules, inferential or otherwise, governing the transformation and causal interaction between beliefs and attitudes, all of which leads to the second paradox for public philosophy as laid out by Leiter: “discursive hygiene plays almost no role in public life, and an only erratic, and highly contingent, role in how people form beliefs about matters of moral and political urgency” (idem.).


September 24, 2014

With a fresh cup, she circles back to her topic of choice this evening, good writers and good digesters, and adds that an exquisite palate does not suffice for to the palate must be joined a strong stomach, one capable of breaking down anything put before it. The dilettante’s weak stomach can easily assimilate moss and stone, arch and bridge, but, when confronted with people, it falters. Her words gather speed and hurtle on, recalling that the time needed to digest bone, sinew, hair and blood is beyond the weak stomach’s limited capacities in that it can make nothing of them and they remain as opaque as before. In the weak stomach a building, with all its artificial materials, gives way to the dilettante in a way that the body, with its flesh and consciousness cannot. For this takes time, time that she would not otherwise spend with buildings, bridges or moss, so much time that she does not have, all of which makes of her a dilettante and of the sparse denizens of her stories mere vehicles for ideas.


September 23, 2014

She elaborates her vision of the writer over dinner, an endeavor for which the setting could not be more appropriate. To hear her speak, words losing themselves in the steam from cups, the writer’s task is before all that of digestion. By extension, a good writer is a good digester, she pursues. Any fool can spin literary gold from glistening moss spied between the arches of a railway bridge, for the striking visual stimulus of the moss by night is easily assimilated into the text. No, only the truly talented can take a person’s history and make of it a symbol, and, for this, nothing less than an exquisite palate, thoroughgoing digestion and time will do.

Fr. 565

September 22, 2014

It is to just such a question, i.e. that of a genuine alternative, that Aronson turns in the last paragraphs of his retrospective.

So how can opposition form? How to respond? As Marcuse asked toward the end of One-Dimensional Man,“How can the administered individuals—who have made their mutilation into their own liberties and satisfactions . . . liberate themselves from themselves as well as from their masters? How is it even thinkable that the vicious circle be broken?” His answer, framed in semi-apocalyptic terms, is a root-and-branch rejection of the existing order and the creation of a “new sensibility.”

Hence the looming problem: if what we can be is predetermined or outlined by the market, then how can we truly and authentically be ourselves in the way that we hold when we speak of such things? If, as Aronson suggests via Marcuse, the die has already been cast, the question then becomes just what we are expressing when we express ourselves or attempt an authentic self-realization with the aim of establishing an alternative to that which exists. Can it truly be considered a self if it has been entirely determined from the exterior by objective economic measures?

Although we here diverge to some extent from both Aronson and Marcuse, it bears due consideration that Marcuse’s rejection passes not through the organizational, co-opted by capitalism despite itself, but through the personal or even sub-personal: a new sensibility.

Rather than be recognizably political, a new radical movement would have to—will still have to—be as much about creating a different sensibility and different values as about an effective alternative politics. Creating a movement for an alternative is an immense and many-sided task, one that Occupy barely began. But Occupy did begin it. It tried to create a genuine alternative to what passes for democracy today, to reclaim public spaces for a public use, to actively involve its participants, to find ways of keeping them unified, to overcome their habituation to roles of dominance and passivity. It refused to give the media its requisite sound bites and rejected the foreshortened “realism” of the status quo.

Insofar as this process calls for new sensibilities and values, it is reasonable to expect that this creation will draw, at least in part, upon an examination of who we are as people, i.e. as individuals, and of the contingent historical and cultural elements from which this same sense of self arises with its attendant sensibility and values.

Indeed, Aronson’s remarks touch here upon an essential part of the project that we have been elaborating in fits and starts: the need to elaborate a new grammar of self and identity that takes us beyond the liberal-communitarian impasse between legal subject and concrete individual. Where these remarks serve a particularly important role is in their reminder that it is not enough simply to pick out a grammar of self and identity already latent in contemporary culture. For, as shown above, merely picking out, dusting off and putting forth a grammar of self which is inherent to the organization of society at this time would do little more than present individuals with the selfsame tools for expression, articulation and realization with which they have been presented for decades: buying power in relation to a market dealing increasingly in niches.

Accordingly, the true task consists in finding means for expression which eschew buying power and the market and thereby open up a real field of alternatives. This raises a further guiding question for our study. If the notion of “individual” stems in part from earlier resistance movements, and these have been so thoroughly assimilated by the market now as to form part and parcel of the very system from which they sought to separate themselves, we might then wonder whether the usage of such a term casts a shadow over our enterprise from the start.

More precisely, in framing our project in neo-liberal terms, we may have reason to fear its coming to the same end as earlier attempts to shed light on a true alternative. Were the term “individual” as compromised as it might seem, then it may well prove worthwhile to jettison the term altogether in favor of some new notion, some new concept less weighted with the baggage of the old. The proper framing of alternatives proves as important as their elaboration, as Aronson’s reflection on Occupy proves well.

From all of this, we can conclude that the way forward to a true political otherness will pass through a political imagination that has been heretofore exercised irregularly and adulterated at times by the market’s omnispresence. Our task is then, via the prism of self, to find that which is truly other and not simply to content ourselves with the demands of the here and now.

Fr. 564

September 19, 2014

At the Boston Review, Ronald Aronson contributes something of a forward-looking retrospective on Herbert Marcuse. Although much can be said for Aronson’s careful reconstitution of both One-Dimensional Man‘s text and context, it is equally worthwhile to consider the contemporary takeaways from this retrospective. A throughline through the text can be found in statements like the following:

The totalitarian direction of the one-dimensional society is wholly compatible with civil rights, a free press, and free elections. In place of exploitation, Marcuse speaks of “domination” and “repression.” He rarely focuses solely on the capitalist class in his discussions, preferring to speak of the “interest in domination.” He conveys the sense of a smooth, comfortable oppression that has managed to exorcize or repress its contradictions.

If capitalist society can be considered totalitarian, it is precisely in virtue of its unprecedented capability to co-opt oppositional movements and bend them to its own ends in the form of new products and markets, consumers and niches. In other words, and as Aronson carefully sets out, what first serves as the means to opening up some area or way of life to broader awareness and acceptance in the public sphere must later and by the same token become part and parcel of that same public sphere. Reality can be dented, but, with time, the dent can be unmade or, perhaps more accurately, reality can be made to seem as though the dent were always there.

Indeed, Aronson’s breathless appraisal of the student and social movements of the 60’s is tempered with just such groundedness of this sort. If, on one hand, he asserts of Marcuse’s writings…

“One-dimensionality” also did not foresee that social movements, already beginning in the early 1960s, might have a transformative effect on the flat, gray American society many of us grew up in. These movements made all capitalist societies more diverse, more racially equal, more tolerant, multicultural, and feminist—in key ways, more livable for almost everyone. When women become CEOs of major corporations, same-sex marriage rites become common, government agencies use Spanish, and an African American family occupies the White House, the watchword of our times is no longer “conformity” but “individual freedom.” Marcuse didn’t look for unexpected places where the system’s contradictions might break out. He seemed to have too much faith in domination and too little in resistance, too much respect for the rulers and too little for the ruled.

…on the other, he wastes little time in reminding us to what extent markets themselves had a hand in the movements’ becoming commonplace. To this end, he notes of Marcuse:

But if he failed to anticipate these social and political changes, he did realize that any such changes would become intertwined with a kaleidoscopic and immensely profitable expansion of choices and forms of expression […] A combination of movements and markets led to a space freer, more inclusive, more interesting and diverse, and humanly and socially richer than any of us would have imagined upon closing the pages of One-Dimensional Man.

In short, at the same time that the human power behind the movements were securing greater freedom, inclusion and expressive capacities for individuals, the market consolidated these new spaces and rights through their assimilation into the economic system. And perhaps it is truly their entrance into the economic that enshrined these rights as such.

The reason for this owes to the way in which capitalism reduces expression to purchases and expressive capacity to purchasing power. Put more simply, markets provide the means to (self-)expression, a reality which is reflected in our day-to-day experience. For others and ourselves, we are defined as much by our purchases as we define those same purchases.

Although Marcuse did not live to see these movements and markets fully play out, he was prescient in important respects. As Aronson deliberates elsewhere:

Thus, on the one hand, Marcuse’s expectations were unmet: we capitalist subjects responded to the repressions and the possibilities within and around us in assertive ways that significantly changed ourselves, others, and the world. But, on the other hand, that world has also been shaped by what Marcuse understood as capitalism’s dazzling ability to generate and meet new needs, to deliver the goods and then some. The system’s emancipatory possibilities, Marcuse knew, “are gradually being realized through means and institutions which cancel their liberating potential.”

Expression and realization can be little of the sort when the means to these ends inevitably passes through that which drains them of any deeper meaning. What is expressed is no longer the self but rather that sanitized and palatable self for which the market has made room by solidifying appropriate spending avenues. In the face of totalitarian society and the coopting of individual expression by the market, what room is there for that which is truly other in society? How might a true opposition arise?


September 18, 2014

There is no accounting for the way that I have spent my life haunted by details. These are far from significant. Nor there is any stripping them of importance, for they bore little to begin with. In spite of this, they have come loose of the settings in which I encountered them and taken on a semblance of meaning. Such is the carved motif glimpsed beneath the display case glass, a small hole in a book bound and filled by the hands of Hokusai. I know not whether this motif, perhaps half a centimeter in length, arose from purpose or later accident but I was taken aback to find its distinctive shape marring a printout from the university. From there, it took its place amongst the others that I carry about with me to no good end or purpose.


September 17, 2014

Parfois, en pleine nuit, on arrive malgré tout à s’introduire dans la gare par une porte de côté. En franchissant le seuil, le promeneur se trouve dans un espace qui revêt un tout autre aspect. Nul signe de la vie n’est présent et tout paraît en attente du lever du soleil. Il passe devant les caisses vides et écoute attentivement les annonces muettes de la SNCF. Pourtant, dans cette gare devenue une dédale, la seule manière d’avancer et de rejoindre la vie consiste à se heurter contre les portes fermées et longer les quais, pour finir par revenir sur ses pas et retrouver la première porte, celle qu’il aurait mieux valu ne pas franchir.


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