Friday, November 30, 2007

Every (or nearly every) reference of Walter Benjamin to Heidegger in his letters

Here they all are (from The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910-1940, ed. Theodor Adorno and Gershom Scholem, tr. Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson, Chicago: U of Chicago Press--note, I still have to check the German for any more) , for anyone who is ever interested. It is striking how much they throw light on many of Benjamin's views, as well as how the views of Heidegger were perceived:

The first, in a letter to Gershom Scholem, November 11, 1916 (p. 82), after just completing "On Language as Such and on the Language of Man," updating Scholem on his latest reading:

An essay (originally held as a lecture when he received the venia legendi in Freiburg) on "Das Problem der historichen Zeit" has appeared in the last or next to last issue of the Zeitschrift für Philosophie und philosophische Kritik, and documents precisely how this subject should not be treated. An awful piece of work, which you might, however, want to glance at, if only to confirm my suspicion, i.e. that not only what the author says about historical time (and which I am able to judge) is nonsense, but that his statements on mechanical time are, as I suspect, also askew.

In another letter to Scholem, December 1, 1920 (p. 168), referring to Heidegger's habilitation dissertation, "The Doctrine of Categories and Meaning in Duns Sotus," (1915) a topic Benjamin himself was (prior to finding Heidegger's text) thinking of writing about:

I have read Heidegger's book on Duns Scotus. It is incredible that anyone could qualify for a university position on the basis of such a study. Its execution requires nothing more than great diligence and a command of scholastic Latin, and, in spite of all of its philosophical packaging, it is basically only a piece of good translating work. The author's contemptible groveling at Rickert's and Husserl's feet does not make reading it more pleasant. The book does not deal with Duns Scotus's linguistic philosophy in philosophical terms, and thus what it leaves undone is no small task.

In another letter to Scholem, January 1921 (p. 172), despairing the progress of his work on language and meaning alluded to above:

...I essentially must patiently lie in wait for my new project. To be sure, I have firmed up certain basic ideas, but since every one of them must be explored in depth, it is impossible for me to have any kind of overview at the beginning. Furthermore, the research I have done to date has caused me to proceed with caution and to question whether it is correct tofollow scholastic analogies as a guide, or if it would not perhaps be better to take a detour, since Heidegger's work presents, albeit in a completely unilluminated way, the elements of scholastic thought that are most important for my problem, and the genuine problem can somehow be intimated in connection with this. Thus it may be better first to have a look at some linguistic philosophers.

Nine years later, in yet another letter to Scholem, January 20, 1930 (p. 359-60), reflecting on his goal over the past two years "that I be considered the foremost critic of German literature," and on possible changes to the Arcades Project ("the theatre of all my conflicts and all my ideas"):

I intend to pursue the project on a different level than I had previously planned. Up till now, I have been held back, on the one hand, by the problem of documentation and, on the other hand, by that of metaphysics. I now see that I will at least need to study some aspects of Hegel and some parts of Marx's Capital to get anywhere and to provide a solid scaffolding for my work. It now seems a certainty that, for this book as well as for the Trauerspiel book, an introduction that discusses epistemology is necessary--especially for this book, a discussion of the theory of historical knowledge. This is where I will find Heidegger, and I expect sparks will fly from the shock of the confrontation between our two very different ways of looking at history.

Here is the most striking reference--one can hardly believe it. Back in Berlin (from Paris) later that year, on April 25, 1930 (p. 365), at the inception of his wonderful and extremely productive friendship with Bertolt Brecht, Benjamin writes to Scholem summarizing his recent work:

My most recent short piece bears the title of "From the Brecht Commentary" and I hope it will appear in the Frankfurter Zeitung. It is the first product of my recent very interesting association with Brecht. I will send it to you as soon as it has appeared. We were planning to annhiliate Heidegger here in the summer in the context of a very close-knit critical circle of readers led by Brecht and me. Unfortunately, however, Brecht is not at all well. He will be leaving very soon and I will not do it on my own.

A letter from March 7, 1931 (p. 371-2) to the publisher of Neue Schweizer Rundschauu, Max Rychner, after receiving Rychner's article on Bernard von Bretano's essay "Kapitalismus und schöne Literatur." Benjamin is articulating his standpoint with respect to dialectical materialism to Rychner, who refers to Benjamin in his essay as just another Communist-sympathizing Marxist dogmatically employing the materialist view:

...The strongest imaginable propoganda for a materialist approach came to me, not in the form of Communist brochures, but in the form of "representative" works that emanated from the bourgeois side over the last twenty years in my field of expertise, literary history and criticism... Marxist ways of thinking, with which I became acquainted only much later, were unnecessary for me to demarcate myself early and clearly from the horrid wasteland of this official and unofficial enterprise... Cur hic?--Not because I would be an adherent of the materialist "worldview;" instead, because I am trying to lead my thinking to those subjects into which truth appears to have been most densely packed at this time. Today those subjects are neither the "eternal ideas" nor "timeless values." At one point in your article you very kindly refer to my Keller essay in a way that does me honor. But you will no doubt agree with me in this essay too it was precisely my concern to legitimize an understanding of Keller on the basis of understanding the true condition of our contemporary existence. It may be a truly unmaterialistic formulation to say that there is an index for the condition of historical greatness, on the basis of which every genuine perception of historical greatness becomes historicist--not psychological--self-perception on the part of the individual who perceives. But this is an experience that links me more to the clumsy and caddish analyses of a Franz Mehring than to the most profound paraphrases of the realm of ideas emanating today from Heidegger's school. [The implication is that Heidegger is a theorizer of "eternal ideas." Benjamin concludes by asking Rychner] ...to see in me not a representative of dialectial materialism as dogma, but a scholar to whom the stance of the materialist seems scientifically and humanely more productive in everything that moves us than does that of the idealist.

About seven years later, on July 20, 1938 (p. 571-2), Benjamin writes to Gretel Adorno from Skovsbostrand in Denmark (traveling with Brecht) about the intellectual atmosphere there and in the world more generally:

Here I get to see writing that hews to the [Communist] party line a bit more than what I see in Paris. For example, I recently came upon an issue of Internationale Literatur in which I figure as a follower of Heidegger on the basis of a section of my essay on Goethe's Elective Affinities. This publication is wretched. I think you will have a chance to hear what Bloch makes of it. As for Brecht, he is trying his best to make sense of what is behind Russian cultural politics by speculating on what the politics of nationality in Russia requires. But this obviously does not prevent him from recognizing that the theoretical line being taken [a line close to party lines, that incidentally would render Benjamin a follower of Heidegger] is catastrophic for everything we have championed for twenty years.

Of course, there could be more references, so actually I wouldn't take this as exhaustive (references, of course, proceed by other means than by dropping names). But at least these "by-name" references are all here.

Scattered notes for a paper on Benjamin and Heidegger

This might not be a paper I will end up writing, so I put my notes here:

In "Theory of Gambling"
The Hand and the body more than the eye as the experience of the gambler "feeling" the table.

In "The Work of Art In The Time of Its Technological Reproducibility"
The Freeing of the hand by technologies of reproducibility
and the "Shock:" the eye touched while watching a film

In Being and Time
This schema the opposite of the augenblick whih eschews techne's setting and space--it is the pure relation of Dasein to ecstatic (dispersed) temporality which only then gives space.

Comparison (which relies on a difference in the concept of dispersion [Zerstreuung] between Heidegger and Benjamin: dispersion for Heidegger is geshick, being determined from outside, as well as Benjamin, but for Heidegger this ecstatic relation is only temporal where for Benjamin it is spatio-temporal, in fact irreducibly spatial--cf. Sam Weber, Mass Mediauras)
Augenblick as the view of the history (destining) of light and clearing/concealing compared to the history of shocks [touch] in the theses on the concept of history. cf. Benjamin on Augenblick in his text on Baudelaire: "The camera imparts to the Augenblick an as it were posthumous shock"--after it is already dead, dying beyond dying.

Gambling and risk (cf. Lyotard's Just Gaming, Pascal, and Deleuze's Nietzsche)
These show us two ideas of risk, in gambling existence. for benjamin gambling as an activity shows us the activity of subjectivity itself--in Heidegger nothing is truly gambled because it always can (or does, has to) return from representation to being's possibility, to the nonrisk of presence.

also cf. Benjamin's theories of german fascism and the theologico-political fragment possibly vs. Heidegger's early writing on the three-day meditation on world war I.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Radiohead, technology

I'll get into the subject of the title in another post, dealing with the song "Videotape" on Radiohead's new album, but for now, just enjoy the following (a cover of "The Headmaster Ritual" by The Smiths), which is awesome. One quick reflection, though: you can see how very embedded in a discourse of technology the band is in this clip. Thom says before playing that "this is a song about when we were younger, but we didn't write it." What is this but a logic of reproduction that does not simply submit to but gets at the heart of what we mean by the "cover" of a song? That is, the reproduction of "The Headmaster Ritual" is not about just the re-playing of the song in a new way--if this were the case, it wouldn't be a song about when the band was younger. The song itself, replayed, becomes about how they were younger, only because they are replaying it--i.e. because they are not writing it. Thus the song only lives in its reproduction: the song is not some paradigm or idea to instantiate itself everywhere or anywhere. To sum up or retranslate what is being said:  this is Radiohead's song about youth, which if it is to be about something that matters to them cannot be written by them, and only can be in its  reproduction. But enough--I'm not being clear. Just enjoy!

Fun

For some fun, check out the Reviews of New Food on the McSweeny's website. I think the best, most hilarious one is this:

Giant Caper
Submitted by Kate Taylor

It came to me cool on a bed of pink smoked fish, part of my lox plate for breakfast at a local café. Oblong and grapey with a sure, healthy stem, the giant caper instantly won my heart. Oh! Caper! I see you have a robust and more manageable side. Quelle surprise.
Perhaps I should have cut it up—maybe distribute some slices of caper on the cream cheese, for example. But its skin made me think of a beautiful little dinosaur, and I was occupied waving it around in my boyfriend's face saying, "Giant caper, giant caper! G.C.!" as he tried to dodge it, saying "gross" and "stop." I ate the whole thing at once.
The feeling in my mouth was like a tidal wave of saliva rushing, not forth, but back, to the depths of my spit glands. It's possible that saliva really was pouring into my mouth to counter the immense saltiness of the caper, but it ended up being like that feeling where you touch water so hot you think it's cold.
I coughed once, loudly, and my eyes filled with tears. Cinnamon roll, grits, coffee, water: a bit of each was taken. Two G.C.'s remained on my plate, looking somewhat obscene. I tucked them beneath a spare piece of spring mix.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Joyful knowing?

There was a comment on the first post of this blog yesterday (hope they don't mind that I use it) or so that was hardly "belated:"

a belated comment on the title of your blog:
yes, "joyful knowing" seems to be a more apt translation of "froelich wissenschaft" than "gay science" in this instance.


Hardly belated, because I was just thinking of re-translating it... because I'm never sure whether it was really right at all.
I'm seeking a translation that brings out the inner sense of what Nietzsche means, and thus is less technical and literal than Kaufmann's "Gay Science." At the same time, I want to keep the reference to the type of thinking that Fichte (and other German Idealists) characterized as "science." So it isn't a matter of what is the best literal translation, first off, but in fact what are the best words to suggest what Nietzsche is getting at in that book.
Kaufmann's stodgy translation does bring out one crucial thing: Nietzsche is trying to name a type of Wissenschaft that cannot be the Wissenschaft of the German Idealists--in fact, would be the farthest from the sense of Wissenschaft that the German Idealists give it--precisely by only adding on a modifier, fröhlich--that is, precisely not by naming it something else. It is an ingenious and absolutely destructive modification--an instance of philology and desconstruction at its finest. What is named only by modifying the sense of Wissenschaft is precisely that which could never be Wissenschaft as we understand Wissenschaft: could anyone imagine a knowledge or system of knowing like Hegel's if we were also called to imagine it as fröhlich? These deep, dark philosophers could never take their business so lightly. But this is precisely something you don't need to know German Idealism to understand or enact: it is an appeal to a certain type of light-heartedness and mirth that produces those wonderful, deep laughs, when one is mocking oneself.
This is the sense Nietzsche is giving to the phrase, in my mind--the two poles it bounces between.
But, back to translation, how does one render this in English? Kaufmann doesn't ask whether those who translate the texts of German Idealism translated Wissenschaft correctly, so that remains a problem. The other English translation of the phrase, Joyful Wisdom, is just weird, but it gets at an underlying sense of fröhlich in a type of everyday way perhaps better than Kaufmann. "Gay" in the Kaufmann translation seems also to be right, however, because of the Italian Nietzsche cites on the title page of the second edition: gaya scienza. This confusing situation of the current English translations calls for clarification.
I attempted "Joyful Knowing," but I was thinking of re-translating it, because "joyful" doesn't really resonate with the self-mockery at play here--one isn't just joyful when one laughs at oneself. Knowing, however, I think is a pretty good translation of Wissenschaft--for Hegel and Fichte, a type of systematic thought is at stake, and I think that comes through if we keep "knowledge" in its active form, "knowing." It is a process that isn't done yet, that is connected to a power but also to a rigor. But also remaining a problem is that "joyful" doesn't resonate with the pseudo-psychological language Nietzsche uses to describe the happiness of a philosopher who laughs at himself, in the spirit of the inscription over the door to his house:

Ich wohne in meinem eigenen Haus,
Hab Niemandem nie nichts nachgemacht
Und--lachte noch jeden Meister aus,
Der nicht sich selber ausgelacht.


Which I'll render as:

I reside in my own house,
have never copied after nobody,
and--still laughed at one accomplished [I retranslated this after some judicious remarks one of you made]
who does not laugh at himself.


Meister here is tough to translate--I just left it at "man:" it is the word for any student who has gotten his degree in a technical apprentiship [again, I messed up leaving this thought uncompleted and just saying "student"]. But on to the real issue:Looking back at the four books of the first edition of Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft in the fifth book (in 1887), Nietzsche at once brings up the question of "was es mit unserer Heiterkeit auf sich hat," that is, what it means to have or be with Heiterkeit. This word, then, seems to sum up what has been accomplished in the first four books, and be a good sort of indicator of the meaning of frölich, if not a synonym for it in Nietzsche's mind.
Heiterkeit means happiness, but it also means something like clarity or beauty, or sunniness. It is translated as "cheerfulness," but is perhaps rendered best in the sentence as "brightness." Why are these two senses, then, combined in this word, and why do they act as something synonymous for fröhlichkeit?
Because they are a word for the ease and cheeriness of a mind that is not concerned with purifying or purging itself. If the task of Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft is to undo the Wissenschaft of German Idealism, it does not do this by slavishly rendering German Idealism "evil" (remember the distinction between "bad" and "evil" articulated in Beyond Good and Evil, and all that this distinction called us to think) but by rising above it like a lighter, clearer air over pollution. But if this air is clearer, it is only so by
 virtue of this putrid air below it--it is not something clean and clear and bright in and of itself, due to its participation in something that is purely pure: it is not the air outside Plato's cave, made bright and clean by the sun. Thus its brightness is not like that of a clear morning, but rather the harsh light of a summer afternoon in Sils-Maria (where Nietzsche vacationed and sought respite). It is some environment that can always be mocked if it takes itself too seriously, something always odd if one looks at it directly for what it is, so odd it seems harsh and stupid, though not as much as that which is below it. Cleanliness that is not pure, and perhaps appears laughable if one sees it in the light of all the scrubbing that, were others not so dirty, would have taken place for it to be without stain.
But all this is getting too technical. If we can combine all these senses into a prefix and place it before "knowing," I'd be surprised. So I'll leave it there for now, and see if I can come up with something better given the welcome suggestions of others. How can one capture the laughing at oneself that is present in the fröhlichkeit that Nietzsche appends to a type of knowing? This is the question I put to everyone: any suggestions?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Beyond "language, racism, and beyond"

Here is a supplement to the post below on Derrida and the language of racism: a New York Times article on the circulation of the sign of the noose in the US just over the past two years, with an amazing chart documenting where and how this circulation takes place. The conclusion of the writers of the article is ominous, but reflects how the the rhetoric of "the end of racial inequality" promulgated by late twentieth century commentators from the years of Reagan through Clinton, and especially abused by George W. Bush and his defenders after Katrina, have overlooked reality:

It seems that the September rally in Jena — much as it was seen by many civil rights activists as the beginning of a new social movement — signaled not a renewed march toward racial and social justice, but a surprisingly broad and deep white backlash against the gains of black America.

If advocates of civil rights are seen as wrong to even demonstrate against the heinous crime in Jena, how can anyone claim that racism is on the wane in this country, or, to return to Derrida, that language does not always already lend itself by a necessity to racism? This is what Derrida is getting at: simply excluding the users of a racist sign like the noose--even if they could be found and brought to justice, as they should--employs the logic whereby racists seek to exclude a particular other. Insofar as justice can be executed, it is only a matter of a power (the power of the state over racists). What must be sought is the deeper problem of justice's lack of account for the necessity within racism to have recourse to language to constitute itself. This will bring the users of racist signs to justice but will also address the potential for us all to be racists. Whether this justice must reduce itself to a set of legal codes--or whether this is even possible--also has to be tackled: what is clear with respect to this is that a system of justice founded on the principle of the free actor obviously cannot do this, and while it is in place, still benefits racists and those sick oppressors of others.

Johnson and frustration

The famous statement from Rasselas on poetry that often gets quoted as Samuel Johnson's most concrete definition of the mission of proper poetry is usually quoted wrong. From M.H. Abrams' The Mirror and the Lamp to a literary anthology I just picked up yesterday, one only gets the end of chapter ten, while the whole discussion of poetry goes on into chapter eleven. It is crucial to see that this chapter break--like nearly all of the chapter breaks in Rasselas--does not start a new topic for discussion but rather breaks it up so as to problematize what occurs in the last chapter.
The oft-quoted portion runs like so:

The business of a poet,” said Imlac, “is to examine, not the individual, but the species; to remark general properties and large appearances. He does not number the streaks of the tulip, or describe the different shades in the verdure of the forest: he is to exhibit in his portraits of nature such prominent and striking features, as recall the original to every mind; and must neglect the minuter discriminations, which one may have remarked, and another have neglected, for those characteristics which are alike obvious to vigilance and carelessness.

The mission of poetry is to recall original images by general approximations--this famously echoes Reynold's definition of the best painting. But what does not often get quoted is the impossibility of this task (which therefore revolts against Reynolds, who thinks this task is accomplished all the time): in the next chapter, we get the following continuation of the discussion:

Imlac [who defines poetry above] now felt the enthusiastic fit, and was proceeding to aggrandize his own profession, when the prince [Rasselas] cried out, “Enough! thou hast convinced me that no human being can ever be a poet. Proceed with thy narration.”
“To be a poet,” said Imlac, “is indeed very difficult.”
“So difficult,” returned the prince, “that I will at present hear no more of his labours..."


I suggest that we not hear in this a mere note on how rarely Johnson's notion of poetry is achieved, but that this rarity is essential and constitutive of the abstracting proper to poetry that Johnson just expressed. That is, Johnson's definition of poetry is not just rarely brought into being, it is something impossible for any human being to achieve successfully. Poetry, then, is not a clean neoclassical place full of generalized beauty, but a realm of frustrated attempts to bring this beauty to life. The artwork, then, is never a closed object for Johnson, with smooth abstract edges. It is a perturbed, unfinished thing that can only approximate the approximation that is proper to the general character of art.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Heidegger on Marx



The question posed to Heidegger in this clip was (as recounted by the person who posted this on YouTube): "do you think philosophy has a social mission?" Heidegger answers no, saying (I paraphrase) that we have to ask what society is--the question of its being. Insofar as this is the question, we cannot say that philosophy can have a social mission in the sense that "social mission" is understood as a mission that does not interrogate or just excludes the question of society's being.
The portion that we get in this clip then shows us that if we are to mean anything by "social mission" we also have to (according to Heidegger) interrogate how the being of society is something that changes or can transform itself--which is the supposed goal of any "social mission." Heidegger then turns to Marx as the representative advocate of a philosophy of Weltveränderung--of "world-changing" through something like a social mission, and then tries to show how Marx both looks into and cannot see the necessity of this interrogation. I am posting this because it is heard superficially as a condemnation or "rebuttal" of Marx--indeed this is how the person who posted it (who is a bit of an asshole) characterizes it.
But, if we really hear what Heidegger is saying, if we really pay attention to why he picks up the writings of Marx and reads from them, word for word, we can see that this is more than any mere "refutation." It is a meditation on the words in the sentence (from Marx's "Thesen"): "Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert, es kömmt darauf an, sie zu verändern." More specifically, it is a meditation of the meaning of the word Veränderung, change, transformation, alteration, more literally something like be-othering, or going-through-nexting, and how it is related to Vorstellung, representationand interpretieren, interpretation. Above all, it is an attempt to account for how we should go about reading words that call for undergoing othering, that call for Veränderungen in a way that can only be cited (and moreover, cited materially, by picking up a book). This said, we can see a little clearer why this would have to be a problem for Heidegger, or why he would have to say that the second part of this sentence (the part with the call for alteration, change, or transformation) would have to be contrary to the first. So, with all of this noted, let's translate what Heidegger says (with the help of the poster's translation)--and I'll just note here that I'm provisionally translating Veränderung as "alteration" in order to bring out the othering (in Latin, alterno, alternare) in it:

...the question of the demand for an alteration of the world brings us back to Karl Marx's often quoted statement from his "Theses on Feuerbach." I would like to quote it exactly and read out loud: "philosophers have only differently interpreted the world, what it comes down to is that it be altered." When this statement is cited and when it is looked at, it is overlooked that altering the world presupposes an alteration in the representation of the world. A representation of the world can only be altered by adequately interpreting the world.
That means: Marx's demand for an "alteration" is founded upon on a very certain [or determinate] interpretation of the world, and because of this, this statement is shown to be without weight. It gives the impression that it speaks decisively against philosophy, though the second half of the statement presupposes, unspoken, a demand for philosophy.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Language, racism, and beyond

Jacques Derrida says in "Racism's Last Word" (a short text from 1983 on apartheid) something extremely interesting with respect to how we try to hold racism and especially racist language accountable: he says, "no racism without a language." But Derrida means by this something more precise:

The point is not that acts of racial violence are only words but rather that they have to have a word.
-"Racism's Last Word" in Psyche: Inventions of the Other, Volume 1, 379.

Two things are being said here: first, words are never "only words"--Derrida could have put the two words in quotes. The point here should be obvious, but the text--in particular its lack of quotes, which must be supplemented--indicates that it should be remembered: language, and in particular racist language, says something. It never says nothing, never is "mere" language. But second, this sentence in a different register (and along the trajectory of its most forceful thrust) indicates that racial violence never just manifests itself in words. Words are not the only way racial violence manifests itself. So, in a way, what is being said is that words are "only words." But at this point it is crucial to read these two points together, so that we come up with the following: words are not merely the only manifestation of racial violence, but they are not this only insofar as they are never "without a language." That is, racial violence never just manifests itself in ("mere") words because it is never without language. This paradox is expressed in the last part of the sentence: racial violence is more than mere words because it "has to have" words.
The crucial thing for Derrida is this "has to have," the necessity of the linguistic, and not the linguistic itself. Many, many people still make the mistake that Derrida simply applies what one critic called once by the name of "semiological reductionism:" that is, a reduction of everything to movements of the signifier and to language more generally. For Derrida, however, racism does not have to have words because everything is words--that is, because racism and acts of racism can be understood under a broad definition of language. Indeed, this is the main thing I wanted to stress here, for though the paradox we just delimited is interesting, it can be absolutely misunderstood and misapplied if we understand it this way. Racial violence never just manifests itself in mere words because it is never without language--but this is not because racial violence is just another name for language. This cannot explain language being "mere" language for Derrida, "only language:" that is, being a limited set of something larger, more expansive--"racial violence." In Derrida, language still maintains its limited sphere of operation, refusing to open itself out into the model on which everything operates. This does not mean that everything does not need, like racial violence, the structures of language in some way. If this is grasped, the crucial distinction has just been made.
The necessity of racial violence having to have words, having to have recourse to language, is not because racial violence is just language, but because racial violence cites the structures and movements of language in order to be different than language, in order to be itself as other than language, to be more than mere language.
Thus, there is no racism without language. But racism is not just merely words. It is the citation of the structure of language, and thus needs words in such a way that words cannot be viewed as "only words" if we see this citation at work. Any of these words then will be bigger than just words, signs, but will indicate something larger than themselves that gets performed on their model.
Practically, it is obvious what is at stake: the fate of a category of law that could punish hate speech as an act (cf. Only Words by Catherine MacKinnon). Derrida would be gutting this category if he asserted everything is language: all racial violence would be hate speech. And many people act like this is what Derrida is saying. But what is really being addressed by Derrida here is how a juridical notion of hate speech does not and will not adequately do what it wants to do--get rid of racisim. This is because there is indeed something other than this speech--acts of racial violence. But these, according to Derrida, are not without recourse to words, to hate speech. So everything revolves around not just deterring hate speech: racism will not be combated if one merely deals with only words. We have to deal with the necessity in racism that invokes language, that cannot be without words. So punishing hate speech as an act like terrorism, as MacKinnon (brilliantly, and with much justification) suggests, doesn't yet get at the complexity of the acts of violence involved in racism and in hate (and thus makes her disturbingly ignore hate when it occurs in other forms than heterosexual sexual abuse--most notably, in instances of homophobia: for a better analysis of the legal ramifications of speech read Judith Butler's Excitable Speech).
I moved fast here because I have a lot to do--but I hope it is clear that the challenge Derrida is leveling here is to not merely see how what he says just reduces everything to language. This injunction to (re)reading Derrida is found in the lack of the quotes, and amounts to the following: if you can't go some lengths to account for the lack of these quotes, you might want to think about whether you are making things too simple regarding the relationship of language to social action and justice, politics, or anything beyond (should I have put this beyond in quotes?) language.
I'll leave you with what Derrida continues with:

...but rather that they have to have a word. Even though it alleges blood, color, birth or, rather, because it uses this naturalist and sometimes creationist discourse, racism always betrays the perversion of a human "talking animal." It institutes, declares, writes, inscribes, prescribes. A system of marks, it designs places in order to assign forced residence or to close off borders. It does not discern, it discriminates.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Zapruder and Benjamin

A great new article by Max Holland on the film documenting the Kennedy assassination made by Abraham Zapruder suggests that the first bullet fired at Kennedy (of three bullets) was shot within a gap in Zapruder's filming. Zapruder began filming before Kennedy's Lincoln had made it onto the main road. He turned it off and then, according to Holland, the first shot (that missed) was taken. Turning it back on, we then see the two other shots fired at Kennedy. Most viewings of the film just pick up the tape at the point where Zapruder turned the camera back on. Holland concludes:

If this belated revelation changes nothing from one perspective — Oswald still did it — it simultaneously changes everything, if only because it disrupts the state of mind of everyone who has ever been transfixed by the Zapruder film. The film, we realize, does not depict an assassination about to commence. It shows one that had already started.

The "transfixing" that goes on when we look at the Zapruder film, is then directly linked to the assassination being a structural part of the film--and, one could say, the structure of any film in general. What is so interesting about documentary films like that of Zapruder's is the fact that they always are viewed like evidence. The film here itself betrays this general quality of film because it was itself used for evidence.
This is similar to what Benjamin has to say about the structure of anything filmed or photographed: photos are photos of a crime. That crime, for Benjamin, is always murder--or assassination. Why? Because photos always document the death of experience, and thus are always already photos of dead people. To be a little more precise: photos and film always capture an experience that is staged for the camera. This doesn't mean that people in films and photos are always posing for the camera--Kennedy in this instance obviously is not--but that reality is becoming filmable and not what the camera is supposedly supposed to capture: "authentic" experience. This experience, then, always lies outside the filmable--in the Zapruder film, experience (and specifically the real experience of the assassination) lies within the gap in the filming. In the end, this is what is appealing to Benjamin about the photos of Atget--as he says in "The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility" they display unabashedly the structure of the photo as the death and murder of experience:

The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuge for the cult value of the picture. For the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face. This is what constitutes their melancholy, incomparable beauty. But as man withdraws from the photographic image, the exhibition value for the first time shows its superiority to the ritual value. To have pinpointed this new stage constitutes the incomparable significance of Atget, who, around 1900, took photographs of deserted Paris streets. It has quite justly been said of him that he photographed them like scenes of crime. The scene of a crime, too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence. With Atget, photographs become standard evidence for historical occurrences, and acquire a hidden political significance. They demand a specific kind of approach; free-floating contemplation is not appropriate to them. They stir the viewer; he feels challenged by them in a new way.

One could easily see that Benjamin would have similar things to say about the Zapruder film and how it challenges us, transfixes us. If this all sounds a bit too "theoretical," ponder this: isn't that which is fascinating about the Zapruder film the fact that the camera is only one of the devices that is pointed at Kennedy at this moment, tracking his movements? That is, that what gets viewed (from a different perspective, of course) in the scope of a rifle pointed at Kennedy would look the same way as the film?

Monday, November 19, 2007

What if an other were other than an other: Derrida, Lacan, Heidegger

What if the other were not one, single other, but more than one other? This is the question Derrida puts to Lacanians.
More precisely, he asks, what if the other were not one, single other, the other, but other than an other? We have to be more precise here because we are not moving between the terms of singularity and multiplicity but between the terms of singularity and alterity, identity and difference. That is, if we were just to ask if the other were not one but more than one, we would be asking if the other were multiple in its singularity, and not about the alterity of this other. When Derrida talks about "other(s)," with the "s" in parentheses, he is not indicating multiplicity: he is not saying that the other is always multiple. Badiou, in his effort to make a Lacanianism complicit with some Derridian notions, precisely interprets it this way--which is only wishful thinking. This is an important distinction: if we were to ask about whether the other were multiple, we would still be thinking of the other itself, of alterity, as singular, as a singular site where multiple others resided.
We now can see that Derrida's question is more radical. What if an other were other than an other? That is, what if alterity was already othered? What if alterity was other to itself? What if, when one tried to specify the place of alterity, of what is not here or with one in their singularity, one never could find it, because it was always in another place than this other place? What if, looking at Pakistan, the other of India, Indians could not find Pakistan--what if Pakistan were elsewhere? Or Israel, with respect to Palestine? Or "terrorism" (to duplicate the way we here raise concepts to otherness to assert superiority--one cannot point to a nation we are the other of, there are too few or too many--and in doing so only reveal an abysmal lack of understanding and respect for national otherness that exceeds every other nation's) with respect to the US? This is what Derrida is getting at. Indeed, it perhaps implies that the other is multiple, but this is not the thrust of the question, for the multiple could only be accounted for if it were viewed as whole, as singular, that is, as other that was not also other to itself.
An other is other than an other. This is what Derrida means when he says, in The Gift of Death, tout autre est tout autre. But this is not a formula that is localizable to only the "late" Derrida, the "ethical" Derrida. This is prevalent in his earliest work. To see how this is so, lets only substitute "difference" for "alterity." What is identical to itself has its other in difference, in what makes identity different in some way from others. We can translate what Derrida says, then, as this: difference is different than difference. Difference is different from itself. Difference has no identity. In other words, this radical difference, a difference that cannot be commensurable with any system or economy of identity, differs the moment where and displaces the location when it would be merely a singular difference and not already different from this difference. Derrida names this difference that is different than difference, différance.
Why is this a question posed to Lacanian psychoanalysis? Because Lacan merely conceives of difference and alterity as different and other. It does not consider it as different and other from itself. It is in this way that Lacan can speak of the Other, even if this Other does not exist or is nothing. As Derrida puts it in "Envoi" (in Psyche, volume 1) the other conceived this way "would disappear like the wholly other" (127). In other words, any alterity that came on the scene as alterity conceived in this way, would merely disappear into what just gets opposed wholly to what is singular. "Wholly" is used because what is other for Lacan is indeed totally other, but is only other as a whole, as a singular otherness, that is, as an otherness that is identical to itself, even if (as Lacan says) it doesn't exist. To put it in a different way, Lacan's Other is not other, because it is merely a singularity opposed to a singularity. To pass off this Other as otherness, like Zizek or Badiou or any other Lacanian, would need some justification in Derrida's view.
This should further illuminate my other writings below on the difference between Derrida and Lacan, especially with respect to their approaches to Freud. I think I'm getting a grip on it now! With this comes a heavy qualification on my first post, which sought to locate them in relationship to Heidegger's question of being. This can't be done, since for neither of the thinkers being is the real question. The real question is alterity, otherness, and how to be responsible for it. In other words, Heidegger's question only becomes interesting when being engages alterity--and for Heidegger this is when being is as itself, opened up or split open in its essence as ek-sistence, or in presence. Let's just sketch out Heidegger's position quickly in relation to the above. Being in presence is for Heidegger being in otherness to itself, and, as this otherness, precisely itself in its ownmost possibility. Presence, then, is otherness in the sense of the wholly other. In other words, being is the otherness of Lacan. Derrida's critique of presence, then, is not a war waged against presence just because presence is bad for Derrida (as many people and even Derridians think), but because presence does not adequately get at the otherness, the ek-sistence of being, like Lacan's otherness. Derrida thus makes presence encounter différance, an othering of an other, a differing of difference. To put it a different way, Heidegger goes beyond the present to presence, and then Derrida makes him go out of presence back into the present that is other than itself, that differs from itself in its presence as present, that re-presents itself. Lacan, for Derrida, cannot do this just as much as Heidegger.

What is dialectic?

I wanted to elaborate what I was beginning to get at in my post on Derrida and dialectic below. But before I do that, I have to return to the issue of dialectic itself.
What is dialectic? I have two posts below on dialectic and language that were drafts of a presentation that I made to a class on dialectic, and, after seeing how those presentations ended up, I realize it might be better to explain the dialectic in a different way.
The reflections below were motivated by a reading of dialectic that Heidegger makes in "Hegel and the Greeks:" dialectic is the process whereby thought goes through the holding-together and gathering that takes place in language, (in Greek, dia-legein) and comes to appearance that way (so that the whole is, in Greek, dia-leges-thai).
But Heidegger offers a seemingly conflicting reading of dialectic in his early course on the Phenomenology of Spirit: there, dialectic is described as the moving between the speculative and propositional sentence. It is this latter explanation that was a bit clearer to my class, so I'll explain it that way. Hopefully, though, afterwards you can see perhaps how these two explanations are not conflicting. And hopefully we will be led to a position where we can explain a "Derridian dialectic" in a later post.
So, again, what is dialectic? It seems easy to characterize at first, but after a while, you can see that no one is really clear about what it is. Gadamer makes this clear in his book on dialectic (Hegel's Dialectic: Five Hermeneutical Studies--I recommend it). Dialectic for Hegel is not just a mode of allowing thoughts to address their contradictions, like in ancient or medieval philosophy (in saying it is "not just" these, of course I am not indicating that something of the spirit of Hegel is not in them and vice versa.) Nor is it the mere play of falsity and appearance that Kant makes it out to be in his Critique of Pure Reason, though this influences heavily the sense of "phenomenology" that we find in the Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel's sense of dialectic is more restricted. And yet, because of this restriction, it is also the most vague: divorcing himself from the tradition of dialectic to specify a really precise concept of what it does ends up making it hard to specify without going through the entire Hegelian philosophy. In fact, this is its point: it is the Hegelian philosophy insofar as this philosophy is the interrogation of negativity and its result in spirit. One cannot extract dialectic from the interrogation of which it is a constitutive movement.
But if we understand this, we can perhaps get a little more specific as to what it is, making reference to Hegel but also trying to wrest dialectic from out of Hegel. Let's begin: dialectic is not a force or power, but a result of a force or power--specifically, "the tremendous labor of the negative." That said, dialectic as a result is always being again taken up by this negative labor, so that it can never be said to merely be the sheer content and residue that this negativity deals with. That said, dialectic cannot be a form or method that experience or spirit through the labor of the negative gets processed through--Kojeve is good in showing you that it is not the form of the labor of the negative.
So, dialectic seems to merely be what we sait it was: a "constitutive movement" of a movement (of negativity and spirit) that is larger than it. This gets us nowhere. Or does it?
Understanding dialectic as a result that is not a result, that is, not a content nor a form, allows us to account for three binaries that the dialectic itself introduces in the texts of Hegel:
Immediacy/mediation
Indeterminate/determinate
Universal/particular
The first deals with how dialectic is a result or not, the second with how it is a content or not, the third with how it is a form or not.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Benjamin, German Idealism, and dialectic

Benjamin often speaks of dialectic, the logical movement powerfully confronted by German Idealism, in favorable terms: calling someone a dialectician for Benjamin is a compliment. He says of the work of Karl Kraus that it deserves respect because of its dialectical character:

"...the fact that this man is one of the very few who have a vision of freedom and can further it only by assuming the role of chief prosecutor is a paradox that most purely reveals the dialectic at work."
-"Karl Kraus (Fragment)," Selected Writings, volume 2, part 1.

But if dialectic is to be sought after as an amazingly forceful way of thinking, why would Benjamin say of German Idealists that they have a view of the world like those of Jünger who longed for a return to the militarization of World War I?

...as far as anyone could see over the edge of the trench, the surroundings had become the terrain of German Idealism: every shell crater had become a problem, every wire entanglement an antinomy, every barb a definition, every explosion a thesis; by day the sky was the cosmic interior of the steel helmet, and at night the moral law above.
-"Theories of German Fascism," Selected Writings, volume 2, part 1.

Because dialectic is able to be lifted (cf. my post on Derrida, below, as well as the writings of Althusser on Marx's "overturning" of Hegel in For Marx) from the world of German Idealists.
Dialectic is an amazing force precisely because it holds things in indeterminate (immediate) contradiction through its effort to determine (mediate) them. This holding together, this arresting and immobilizing that takes place through the negative work of dialectic (the work of the dialectic to not arrest--that is, the work of the dialectic to mediate, to mobilize, or to bring forth total-mobilization) is the most forceful element of dialectic. Why? It (that is, this holding in indeterminate, immediate contradiction) does not lend itself without distortion (that is, without determination or mediation) to the objectification of capitalism, fascism, any of the organizing political-economic structures that reduce the world to what Heidegger rightly calls (also against Jünger) a "world picture:" a world of images fully determined by technology. Given this, one needs to think of how Heidegger in his critique of the objectified world-picture really thinks dialectic too much as a process that brings this picture about, and does not think enough that dialectic's suspension and overturning of objectification in its very process of objectifying is precisely the power of it--this would be Benjamin's contention if he were to confront many of Heidegger's texts dealing with Hegel (which includes Being and Time--in fact one could argue Being and Time is Heidegger's most expansive meditation on Hegel). In other words, dialectic, while it renders everything into a world of images fully determined by technology, can also bring forth a world of images that are indeterminate with respect to technology, that use technology to bring forth these indeterminate images or immobilizations--it is not necessary to retreat from the objectification and images wholly, as Heidegger seems to think.
The world of Geman Idealism is precisley not the world of dialectic, then, for Benjamin: however (dialectically, of course) it is that world in that it utilizes its power of determination and resolving (mediation) most. German Idealism's relationship to the dialectic therefore cannot be simply overcome and the dialectic extracted from it, just like its landscape (the First World War) cannot be merely passed by or simply improved by the view that blasted it apart. In being lifted (relever) from them, dialectic is always stolen--it belongs still in a sense to those who originally owned it.

Friday, November 16, 2007

From Benjamin

Benjamin on Karl Kraus:

...His entire fire-eating, sword-swallowing philological scrutiny of the newspapers is actually concerned not with language but with justice... His linguistic and ethical quibbling is not a form of self-righteousness; it belongs to the truly desperate justice of a proceeding in which words and things concoct the most implausible alibi simply to save their own skin, and must be incessantly refuted by the evidence of one's eyes or straightforward calculation.
-Selected Writings, Volume 2, Part 1, 195-6.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Derridian dialectic

...what would it be? Could it still be called dialectic? L'economie generale, yes. But this is precisely what is not dialectic in a Hegelian sense (l'economie restreinte).
Or is it? After reading him, one is surprised how much Derrida writes on Hegel. On: that is, not necessarily about, nor simply against Hegel. One is suprised how much Derrida writes not against the dialectic simply, but on it, on top of it, like graffiti, writing over it, lifted above it (Aufgehoben, relevé). One is surprised precisely because Derrida does not seem like the generation that wrote most about or against Hegel in France: the generation of Sartre, Lacan, Bataille, Kojeve, Hyppolite, even Althusser--the "existential" generation (in the sense that they react to existentialism in some way, or, better, to Heidegger). In a way he lifts himself above the fray of those thinkers, bogged down in critiquing dialectical reason, in writing against or about it, and thinks the trace and différance. But that he thinks this trace to lift Hegel above being merely written against or about--this is what one does not expect.
Those interested in Derrida need to think hard about this: Derrida does not write about Hegel (or) to critique him. Deconstruction, if it was the name for those writings about the trace and différance, was precisely what allowed him to write on Hegel and not just simply about Hegel or in such a way as to only critique Hegel.
If this was the case, it means that Derrida was not undoing the dialectic, but precisely lifting it above being written against or written about.
One has to think of this "lifting" if one wants to think what this means for the possibility of a Derridian dialectic. As much as it might mean rescuing or saving, "lifting" can also mean to steal, to pilfer. It is a transgression that precisely does not move into the sphere of a beyond, where something can be written about, comprehended, or written against, definitely opposed. The play on raising up out of the fray of "existential" Hegelianism and also stealing this Hegelianism from the "existential" age is precisely what characterizes the Derridian dialectic. It is what is suppressed and elevated by those Derridians who simply think Hegel exists to be critiqued in the texts of Derrida.
In Derrida's time, this play was also what was being suppressed and elevated--precisely not lifted--by Lacanians. And today, their suppression and elevation is the most tempting way to do away with the lifted Hegelianism of Derrida. Zizek, Badiou: they don't lift Hegel, they comprehend him, they are relieved that they are done with Hegel, that he is over with, that he has been finally made to be commensurate with a postmodernism so he can be used ethically against the old Hegelianism, capitalism. Thanks to Derrida--these Lacanians say--we are able to relieved of Hegel without having the guilt of lifting (relevé) him: thanks to Derrida we can now use him against himself when we write about him. But what--they continue--is all this writing on Hegel in Derrida, this talk about lifting, about relève? We can be relieved of Hegel without lifting him! Stupid Derrida! You do not see how against Hegel you can be in writing about him.
What is dangerous and disgusting about this is that it is a refusal to think about how being relieved of Hegel is precisely lifting him--how relieving (relève) is precisely just another translation of lifting (relève).
What is the Derridian dialectic, then? Can we specify this stolen trace, this trace of a trace? Provisionally: the plunge back into the transgression that Hegelian dialectic effectuates in its negations, but tarrying with this transgression as such, with its negativity just at the point (and time) it negates, so as to make it negate only indeterminately, generally, and yet without reserve. All this means is that the Derridian dialectic is seeing the impossibility of writing against Hegel, and why it could and should always only amount to a lifting of Hegel, a subscription (writing under, which for Derrida is the same as writing on) to the labor of the dialectic. The Derridian dialectic, then, is always a writing on Hegel, a writing that shows how Hegel can never be overcome or elevated (like it is said to be in Zizek, or in Heidegger), never be suppressed.
But what would this dialectic look like? Again, another provisional specification: it would look like "NOUS" (the French word for "we," and, despite or perhaps because of this, also the Greek word for knowing) written on a wall in the Centre Pompidou, traced by Brassaï. A graffiti that writes on something in order to engage what it can't overcome, what it can't write about or against, a dialectic of what can never be suppressed. That is, an infinite lifting, a stealing of what steals, over and over again without reserve.
I'll write on this more in another post. Sketching the relationship to a Hegelianism that seeks to overcome Hegel, and showing that this is precisely not what Derrida does--that he does not want to be relieved of Hegel without lifting Hegel--is all that is crucial here.

Monday, November 12, 2007

"The central front on the war on terror"

Don't we all sense that characterizations of the Bush administration's disgusting rhetoric as "fascist" or "dictatorial"--see Frank Rich's column yesterday if you want one of the more thoroughly executed instances of this--don't really get at the heart of the matter, and end up just sounding paranoid, ineffectual. Why is this the case?
It is because this term as it is used refers to fascism when it is at its height, its fullest manifestation. But wasn't Germany, for example, just as fascist in the years before the National Socialists came to power? That is, in its willingness ("will" is precisely the fascist way to describe it, as we will see) to sacrifice values, the values of the Heimat, etc. it was just as fascist as when it actually took them away. (One should revisit a review by Benjamin of a volume of Jünger, where he says precisely this--I think its in the second volume of the selected writings... Benjamin also sensed this about Heidegger, I think) The impotent will, the longing for a will that characterized Germany after the First World War--that is what fascism is, and this longing is what really pervades the disgusting "war on terror." The contradictions of Bush are not expressions of the double-speak of a Hitler or a Stalin--they are contradictory because they are expressions of a power that is really only the impotent longing for adefinite enemy, for a front on which to face them. Isn't the unbelievablely naive optimism of this administration that they will meet this enemy precisely what cannot be accounted for by every critic of this administration? Who has not explained it away as mere doublespeak in some form? We must ask ourselves, doesn't this impotent optimism resemble someone like Jünger's after the war (or Heidegger's, always) in his longing for another field of battle, for another definite enemy, for another front? (For Heidegger, we should say, another Auseinandersetzung.) That is, isn't this optimism genuinely expressed--in the sense that it also necessarily expresses an impotence to have the future be present?
Along these lines, we might reread a passage from Derrida as applying to our "war" in this way:

...polemos unites adversaries, it brings together those who are opposed (Heidegger often insisted on [this]). The front, as the site upon which the First World War was waged, provides a historic figure for this polemos that brings enemies together as though they were conjoined in the extreme proximity of the face-to-face. This exceptional and troubling glorification of the front perhaps presages another type of mourning, namely, the loss of this front during and especially after the Second World War, the disappearance of this confrontation which allowed one to identify wthe enemy and even and especially to identify with the enemy.
-The Gift of Death, 17.

What is crucial about this passage is that it emphasizes how the mourning for the polemos is already this second mourning, is already a "presaging," and thus is already the mourning for its eventual possibility of being lost. The two move together, and characterize how fasicism shows up on the scene not in the restriction of freedom itself but in the genuine (/contradictory) insistence that there is (the loss of an) enemy. That is, where things get framed in terms of polemos or of will and impotence--even by the opposition (see Rich's column)--and where this language is not taken seriously, there fascist tendencies are really at work. We shouldn't read, then, the blatant idiocy of a phrase such as "the central front on the war on terror" as the machinations of a conniving fascist administration like the NSDAP at the height of its power (when it was fascist as Nazism), but as the very real reframing of the way we talk about our actions in the very real (early) fascist language of longing through power for a definite identification, a definite confrontation. That is, it is precisely in how it makes any characterization of them as "fascist" in the late fully fledged Nazi sense seem paranoid. Insofar as we long genuinely for a will to bring back the rights of the constitution--like Rich does--we've already succumbed to their more subtle fascism, because we too look only for a real confrontation, a real enemy.

Great Blogs

Here are two great new blogs:

The Princeton English Grad Student Forum, where all the stuff going on lately here will be able to be seen and discussed, and

A great blog aligning with the many concerns of this one, particularly with reference to "postmodernist" (whatever that means) stuff and literary criticism, and

Jethro Masís' blog on all things philosophical: which has a lot, lot of good links to things Heidegger-related.

Also, if anyone wants some really awesome fun stuff, check out Jeff Nunokawa's Facebook page which is just full of great things.

And, by the way, the poster of "Who Dat Ninga" is from NBC's "30 Rock," which I find unbelievably hilarious. 

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Technology, Causality, der Bestand, der Gegenstand

In “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger shows that we fail in thinking of technology because we think of technology as an instrument (means) for our use. In order not merely to think of what technology does, but its essence (roughly speaking, what brings it to be what it is), Heidegger determines that we have to think about and question what is really meant by the word “cause” and the causal interpretation of occurrences under which we hastily try to view technology. Technology, then, precisely in its being adequately viewed, requires that “cause” be interpreted differently as something beyond causality in the common sense, as something more “originary” (ursprünglich). The result of this view will be a thinking of technology that considers it as being an instrument only in its derivativeness or deficiency.
Heidegger begins by asking what is common to the various ways causality can be understood, and determines that in each case something is responsible for something. This responsibility (Verschuldung) of something is misunderstood, according to Heidegger, either “moralistically as a lapse,” or through construing it “in terms of effecting” (9). Using his example of a silver chalice being caused by a silversmith, he determines that the sense in which causality is most causal lies not in the silversmith’s producing it, but in the more basic phenomenon of the silversmith’s being responsible for the appearance of the chalice there before us lying readily available (Bereitliegen) for our involvement with it. Causality understood as production or effectuation just makes something issue forth from something else, while in the more basic phenomenon of responsibility the accent is shifted onto how something is brought before us in its availability. Causation, then, really exists beyond commonly understood causality as a way (namely, a way of being responsible) that something can be brought into presence there before us. It is only in this way, as a “revealing” (Entbergung) or unconcealing of something such that its presence is brought forth, that technology can be understood (derivatively) as “an occasioning or an inducing to go forward”—i.e. as an instrument or means to an end that produces changes (9).
What all this means then is that “the possibility of all productive manufacturing”—if we understand this as a blanket-term for technology and for technological causation as responsibility—“lies in revealing” (12): that the essence of any thing that is deemed to be technology or technological (a coal mine, for example), does not lie in its production or effectuation of technologically manufactured material as such (processed coal), but in the way that anything it produces or effects possesses the possibility of revealing due to the technological process that it went through (the way the coal is processed rock able to be used as fuel). But of course if this definition of production as revealing characterizes technology, it would also characterize anything that is brought before us in its presence. This is why Heidegger does not specify the essence of technology specifically as revealing itself. Technology (techne) is a specific type of revealing, while revealing by itself is what Heidegger says is poiesis that is most proper to art. This is a letting into presence that lets something fully come into presence as itself.
If the essence of technology is a more specific type of revealing than poiesis, then, we can specify it as self-concealing or withdrawing in a particular way. For if poiesis is a revealing of something in its presence as itself, any other mode of revealing must somehow deflect or hinder the process of something’s coming into presence as itself. The material of technology must come to presence as other than itself, or, as Heidegger puts it, must be “set back” in its its being brought to presence of itself “with forgottenness” (“Die Kehre,” 68, my translation: “…mit der Vergessenheit nachstellt”). This process of self-concealing in presencing that will characterize technology specifically exists in how technology always brings something to presence (to its lying there ready before us) only as itself in its being regulated or ordered. Put differently, this means that what is revealed by technology cannot be brought forth as itself because its essence is seen to be in its readiness rather than in its being in presence in its lying before us. The technological is lying ready there before us as opposed to its lying ready there before us: the emphasis is placed on readiness, on its standing-ready, on its being a reserve, rather than on how it exists there. Indeed, the technological is so ready that this readiness is calculable and distributable—it is not just present somewhere or other, indeterminately. What is crucial to the essence of technology, however, is that this calculable readiness is all that the object is seen to be in its presence: as Heidegger puts it with the example of coal technologically extracted, “the coal that has been hauled out in some mining district has not been supplied in order that it may simply be present somewhere or other. It is stockpiled, that is, it is on call, ready to deliver the sun’s warmth that is stored in it” (15). In short, the coal is in its presence has its poeitic possibilities of revealing itself as belonging to a process foreclosed: it is never able even to seen as processed rock (as belonging to the process of its technological extraction from the mine) but always appears already as just a certain amount of fuel, as a reserve of energy. Similarly, The Rhine, as Heidegger says, comes to presence with its essence concealed, not as a river but as a “water power supplier” (15).
To put it a different way—a way to which we will have to return—even if what is created through poiesis is not determined as something that poesis effects (i.e. if it is not determined as issuing from causal instrumentality), it still “ends up” as something revealed. With technology, what gets revealed is, in a sense, the impossibility of ever fully revealing something—not because there will always be more to reveal about what gets revealed (here, coal as fuel), or that revealing always misses its proper end in the sense of purpose (Zweck), but because what is revealed by technology is always meant to be ready for further revealing or being brought into presence (mountain as fuel, fuel as energy, energy as light, etc.). This is what Heidegger means when he says that with revealing of technology, “revealing never simply comes to an end,” never expires, never runs off or peters out (16, “Dieses [entbergung] läuft jedoch nicht einfach ab”). What is revealed always lies there before us, not as something that has been revealed, but as what always has the possibility to further reveal how it can be newly unlocked, transformed, stored, distributed, or switched about—in short how many ways it can be brought again into presence (15). The interminable transformability characteristic of what technology reveals is like a stock of something always ready to be distributed somewhere. Heidegger accordingly calls what submits itself to technology and technological revealing “der Bestand,” the German word for a stock.
However, what is technological is not a stock in the sense that it is a stock of objects (Gegen-stände)—and it is here, by returning to objects, that we can see why Heidegger needed to go beyond causality as traditionally understood in order to define the essence of technology in terms of what it works on. A stock of objects is revealed not in its readiness at all, but precisely in how they conform to purposes or generate effects. If one looks at the technological as a set of objects, one does not look at it as a reserve for revealing, for further transformation and further presencing, but rather at its potential for further use for purposes. We may look at an airplane and see that it is a series of objects that cause the transportation of individuals, but does this really characterize the plane? Heidegger thinks these objects as objects do not reveal themselves as that transportation itself in its potentiality. The airplane, yes, is a series of pieces of metal. But these pieces of metal are not “used” for transportation, Heidegger thinks. The plane is more originally than any set of objects a people carrier, what just is there, on the runway, “ready for takeoff,” for bringing itself again into presence as a transporting (17). The “stock,” then, must be understood as something more like a resource, when we talk of coal or water or air as a “natural resource:” it is a reserve not of things but of a potential for converting itself into further presencing of itself, into fuel or energy. Put differently, for Heidegger what gets worked upon by technology cannot be looked at causally in the common understanding because we are dealing with a stock of stuff that is so destined for its particular effect that it cannot be said to be caused when it brings itself forth. What we are dealing with is a stock of objects that are always already their effect: to say that they are objects, then, or that something causes something to be brought about by means of them at bottom distorts the essence of this stock. We must give them a different type of being altogether: that which we designate by “resource.”

Friday, November 9, 2007

Derrida, and the sadness of not doing justice

Voulais prendre en compte: wanting to do justice to the text (and not work, and not author) requires "forms" that allow themselves to be "affected" (se laissent en... affecter), moved, touched, by the event (l’événement) of the text. It would be sad not to do this justice, not to demonstrate justice, by not demonstrating differently, demonstrating in another way, demonstrating the otherness in every way, demonstrating the other, by reducing justice to what demonstrably resists otherness and difference:

Interviewer: Of Spirit is taken from a lecture and its style is fairly demonstrative (démonstratif). But your preceding works,, such as Parages or Ulysse gramophone, tend to resemble literary studies of literary texts.
Jacques Derrida: I always try to be as demonstrative as possible. But it is true that the demonstrations are rendered in forms of writing that have their own rules, that are sometimes new, and most often produced and displayed. They are unable to completely satisfy traditional norms [normes traditionnelles], which these texts justifiably interrogate or displace.
Interviewer: Your book on Joyce is all the same a bit disconcerting [Votre livre sur Joyce était tout de même un peu déroutant].
Jacques Derrida: That has to do with Joyce. It would be sad to write in forms that didn't allow themselves to be affected by Joyce's languages, by his inventions, his irony, by the turbulence he introduces in the space of thought or literature. If one wants to do justice to the event called "Joyce," one must write, narrate, demonstrate in a different way [démontrer autrement], and thus risk a formal adventure.

-"Philosopher's Hell," in The Heidegger Controversy

The blindness of David Brooks

I usually enjoy David Brooks' remarks in the New York Times and on NewsHour, because he shows how conservatism can be at least somewhat sane. Comparing him to any other conservative commentator in the news in print or on television really shows you how ridiculous the party's public intellectuals have become.
This is because Brooks' conservatism is mostly grounded economically: social issues for him as well as the role of the government tend to be inflected through a relationship of governance to the requirements of a free market. In a column a few weeks ago, Brooks tried--unsuccessfully I think but better than any of the other conservative commentators out there now--to ground this view in the writings of Burke. But his view of things tends more to hearken back to a fiscal conservatism of the mid-twentieth century and tie in well now with many of the economic conservatives like Fukuyama and those in the law and economics crowd.
It is here, though, that Brooks becomes blind. Because he consistently is a conservative outlining critiques of values-based conservatism, he cannot successfully engage with questions of value except through economics or the role of the government engaging in economic issues. But what happens with this is not an inability to talk about questions of values, but rather a filtering of questions of values through economics so that they seem to fizzle away and not really be issues at all. This is what he does today in his column on Reagan's 1980 campaign speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had been murdered sixteen years prior. Reagan got up and spoke of how he favored "states' rights"--insensitive to how that might sound to a group of people who used the issue of states' rights to oppose, sometimes through acts of murder, the federal attempt to bring civil rights to every state and especially those in the South.
Brooks says, after recounting the facts--which really did need to be done and he should be praised for it:

You can look back on this history in many ways. It’s callous, at least, to use the phrase “states’ rights” in any context in Philadelphia. Reagan could have done something wonderful if he’d mentioned civil rights at the fair. He didn’t. And it’s obviously true that race played a role in the G.O.P.’s ascent.
Still, the agitprop version of this week — that Reagan opened his campaign with an appeal to racism — is a distortion, as honest investigators ranging from Bruce Bartlett, who worked for the Reagan administration and is the author of “Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy,” to Kevin Drum, who writes for Washington Monthly, have concluded.
But still the slur spreads. It’s spread by people who, before making one of the most heinous charges imaginable, couldn’t even take 10 minutes to look at the evidence. It posits that there was a master conspiracy to play on the alleged Klan-like prejudices of American voters, when there is no evidence of that conspiracy. And, of course, in a partisan age there are always people eager to believe this stuff.


It is true that the "agitprop version" of the event overlooks the complexity of what happened (which Brooks does recount with fidelity in the case of Bartlett and drum--though, notice he does not speak of his colleague Paul Krugman's column a few weeks ago that makes the much larger claim that conservatism is based upon racism in the South, and is particularly faithful to the complexity of what happened in Philadelphia), but Reagan isn't being slandered as Brooks says because this "complexity," according to him, takes the following form:

He spoke mostly about inflation and the economy, but in the middle of a section on schools, he said this: “Programs like education and others should be turned back to the states and local communities with the tax sources to fund them. I believe in states’ rights. I believe in people doing as much as they can at the community level and the private level.”
The use of the phrase “states’ rights” didn’t spark any reaction in the crowd, but it led the coverage in The Times and The Post the next day.
Reagan flew to New York and delivered his address to the Urban League, in which he unveiled an urban agenda, including enterprise zones and an increase in the minimum wage. He was received warmly, but not effusively. Much of the commentary that week was about whether Reagan’s outreach to black voters would work.


That is, Reagan is being slandered according to Brooks because this event is set in a larger context that tries to economically help out African Americans by "increasing the minimum wage" and diverting more funds to schooling. Prior to this quote, Brooks also sets up the economic ways Reagan was trying to court voters.
I'm not saying that Brooks said that the economic program Reagan was outlining is really what he thinks contributes to the "misunderstanding" of Reagan here. I'm saying that throughout the article, the economic pops up as the tantilizing evidence to the contrary that Reagan wasn't a racist. Brooks underlying emphasis upon this is how he really persuades us that the situation was more complex, not by just recounting the events.
Look at how dismissively Brooks utters "Reagan could have done something wonderful if he’d mentioned civil rights at the fair." What's more important to him by far is that Reagan "spoke mostly about inflation and the economy." The intention to help these people out is really there, its in the numbers, despite an insensitiveness that borders on racism. The question of values end up getting addressed in the long run by Reagan's fiscal conservatism: it would have been great if he would have encouraged brotherly love, but really he was encouraging it all along if we look at the complexity the right way--that is, economically. Questions of values really just reduce to this.
This is dangerous and what makes Brooks perhaps even more blind than the other conservative hacks out there. By not interrogating values as values and dissolving them into questions of economic policy, which is valueless, or at least safer, less heated, more rational, Books is able to get Reagan off from being a racist. The real question is what he never addresses: was this a racist act? In fact, this question should have been asked precisely because of the context of events. For Brooks, however, the context, because it is "complex" (read: economic), this question never needs to be pursued.