Archive for September, 2009

Language and ‘Tool-being’

September 29, 2009

HorizonI did this in a bit of a hurry as I want to get off to the library, but this should hopefully explain a little more why Harman is not in ignorance of his ‘medium’ and understands exacty what is meant by language as the horizon and ‘house of being’.

In the middle of a room there is a table. The table stands with four legs on the floor. If I say, the table is related to the floor through a meaningful relationship of abstraction several objections can be made. 1) That meaning cannot be given to object-object relations, they are only meaningful to humans who observe these relations where meaning is a product of language. 2) Objects cannot abstract each other, only humans can perceive something in an object which is only a part of it against what is given in reality. As I pointed out in the review, Harman tries to redefine abstraction and meaning, giving them a universal ontological application. The status of beings, meaning and language are thrown into dispute. Is there not something special about human language that gives us greater insight into the world and into being in general?

Anyway, back to the table and floor. Are these things ideal or real? If they are ideal, it means that they are objects that can be made present to human understanding from comprehension of language. Within this context, the table and floor are both objects, as each could be separated, yet they are used here as an example machine, and thus are one object (or more accurately an assemblage of objects within objects). What type of object are they? Do they exist only as ideal structures? Is an ideal structure something transcendental or material?

Let us say that the ideality of a thing necessitates a non-semiotic medium in which to reside. The word table doesn’t reside in a transcendental realm exterior to the material world, as Platonism is understood, but is something with materiality. The table and floor have materiality through text on a computer screen. The word ‘table’ as text is itself ideal in that its medium could be almost anything. The meaning of the words (as signifiers with signifieds) is in infinite play depending on who reads them: the intention of the object is unknown. Are the table and floor real? Or are they imaginary? How do they have existence? Yes, they exist. They have an ‘iness’. Before the word means anything it could be said to ‘be’. It is being. Yet, we can go further. It could refer to different types of objects. Yet in this example, there is a clause that narrows down the type of table (one with four legs). The word table is a ‘rigid designator’ (Harman is favourable to Kripke’s term). It is something exterior to any relation that can be put to it. The text ‘table’ is thus something which refers and withdraws: it refers to things outside itself for its own context, yet all actual relations do not make present all that ‘is’ the object.

The table refers to something outside itself (a table thing) , yet its referral is not its only feature. Anything that could be known about why the word ‘table’ is, could never be described, listed or noted in full (to start with, the word ‘table’ is not a table, it is an assemblage of letters; it is an English word; it has two syllables; etc). Thus any view of it I may have must necessarily be one of abstraction. What is the importance of language here? Before the word ‘table’ is anything linguistic it ‘is’. If anyone of any language was to see it they would see something and nothing (no-thing in particular, as the signifier ‘table’ would not be understood to point to any particular signified, but there is relation and thus, would have some kind of meaning). What difference does language make here? It makes some difference to how the word table is abstracted but not all the difference to what it ‘is’.

If we think cannot know anything outside language because language is our only medium of access to the ‘world’ and each other, then language immediately becomes present-at-hand (PAH). Necessarily, if we don’t want to mistake language as PAH we must acknowledge it’s withdrawn essence which is before our exhaustive encounter with it. Language is nothing linguistic: it is nothing but the freeing of movement that leads from the appropriating event (Ereignis) to man’s speech. Put simply, language allows for the movement of being as nothing to its appropriation as something in particular. Language is not just a tool to manipulate words and communicate. It does not only exist as something pragmatic, put to use through one’s projects. Language must, if we are to take Heidegger seriously, be something that is always already withdrawn from the linguistic. To define a theory of language through its use is to reduce it to PAH. This message is echoed by Badiou whose confrontation with set theory leads him to the conclusion that although language bestows identity on being, being is in excess of language. The inscription in language requires that existence be in excess of what the description defines as existing.

The RTH of ‘table’ cannot be described through language and social practises. It is not that the philosopher must only recognise their medium (i.e. language): the philosopher must recognise the their medium of which language operates within. Our lives are at the disposal of more than a purely linguistic reality. Heidegger concludes, “Language in its essence is neither expression nor a human deed. Language speaks”. The speaking of language as done by human Dasein summons the world to things, yet preserves things as things. Language, like art, reveals the tension/strife between world and thing. Not only that but language is the concrete interpenetration between world and thing in their dif-ference (e.g. ‘table’ as is, and with all referential interpretations). Language is world, but world is not just something that humans have, it is a universal structure non-reducible to human Dasein’s access to being.

Heidegger centres human Dasein by making the distinction between world (human logos), world poor (animals) and world less (rocks, water, etc). He insists that these classifications demarcate the ‘accessibility’ of beings to being. The essence of world coincides with the essence of the world forming character of human Dasein. However, Harman does not deny that we are different from animals and rocks, only that there is a base line, ontological principle that animals and rocks do not escape from: the RTH. For Heidegger, human Dasein is the being that can approach being as being through Angst. It is this being-towards-death that brings recognition of ones finitude thus making care a primordial existential condition of Dasein’s being-in-the-world. Thus human Dasein has world animals do not. Yet human Dasein can never encounter being as being separable form beings. Harman appropriates Levinas’ ‘insomnia’ against Heidegger’s Angst to show that it is not beings standing against a blank screen of being that blurs beings against being.

For Levinas, insomnia shows that being is only beings. Insomnia shows the ‘is’ structure and not the ‘for’ contextualization of beings. Harman reveals neither Levinas or Heidegger can push human Dasein to the top of the ontological rankings as Angst and insomnia reveal being as being, but not the ‘being in general’ (RTH) that is withdrawn from any world relation: this is the transcendent that no being has exclusive access to. Human language cannot bridge this gap to the ‘being in general’ and so we must look at language as something which isn’t the limit of our world or intrinsic to our pragmatic concerns but an aspect of our engagements in the world of beings that makes a difference to being, but not to the detriment of non-semiotic actors which make differences in their own ways. To use the terminology of Levi Bryant, language makes a difference but not all the difference. Harman recognises this and it provides the imperative to speculate on an object-oriented philosophy.

I found this quote from Badiou to support this idea of language by Harman. They very different imperatives as to why they want to ‘abandon’ philosophy as mediation on language: Harman wants to watch a ‘carnival of objects’ while Badiou has political machinations of universality which can depose the tyranny of the universality of capital):

“If philosophy is essentially a meditation on language, it will not succeed in removing the obstacle that the specialization and fragmentation of the world opposes to universality. To accept the universe of language as the absolute horizon of philosophical thought in fact amounts to accepting the fragmentation and the illusion of communication [this is a Lacan reference: see my article on (mis)communication] – for the truth of our world is that there are as many languages as there are communities, activities or kinds of knowledge. I agree that there is a multiplicity of language games. This, however, forces philosophy if it wants to preserve the desire for universality – to establish itself elsewhere than within this multiplicity, so as not to be exclusively subordinated to it. If not, philosophy will become what in one way it mostly is, an infinite description of the multiplicity of language games”

(From ‘Philosophy and Desire’ in ‘Infinite Thought’ p. 47)

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Review of ‘Politics of Nature’ by Bruno Latour

September 24, 2009

POLNAT‘Political ecology has not begun’, says Bruno Latour, so he is going to start it. ‘The politics of nature’ looks quite alien from anything else I’ve seen. It proposes something quite radical yet remarkably simple. It is not a work of political philosophy as such, but an inter-disciplinary challenge to politics, economics, philosophy and science to organize themselves so as to formulate a non-discriminative collective of the common. The problems arise from the concept of nature. For Latour, this word is more trouble than it is worth. As he exclaims ‘Thank God, nature is going to die. Yes, the great Pan is dead’ (p. 25). I will explain this using a diagram provided in the book. This diagram is really all you need to think about to understand his entire argument.

politics of nature 01

On the left we have the current political model. Nature is split off as something that requires the philosopher-scientist hero to go out into this hidden world of primary qualities and bring back precious knowledge. This as Latour makes clear is reminiscent of Plato’s Cave allegory. This makes a true democracy of actors impossible from the start, as some people are prioritized over others by their access to ‘reality’. Things and humans are separated in order to support the notion of multiculturalism against mononaturalism. The notion of nature thus is shown to have always been an illusion. The natural world is set against culture as either a chaotic force that needs to be controlled (i.e. modernism) or mother nature is in balance and we need to become attuned to her laws so as not to destroy her and ourselves (Gaia spiritualism). For Latour this distinction is something that only the west has done. It is not that non-western peoples are better at living in tune with the environment and listening to mother nature. No, they are capable of vicious acts of environmental degradation and disequilibrium as western civilizations. We should not aim to marry culture and nature together, but to dissolve the distinction entirely. Non-westerners do not have problems with nature, as they have never divided the world in such a manner.

On the right side of the diagram we can see what it means if we don’t split culture and nature and instead have a collective of non-human and human actants. The collective is in charge of collecting the multiplicity of associations between humans and non-humans. This is because the subject/object distinction has been removed and a politics proper can begin. Politics is ‘the entire set of tasks that allows the progressive composition of a common world’ (p. 53). Constructing the common must be done through an experimental metaphysics, where things are no defined permanently, but can engage in exchanging properties. The common is formed through articulations. These are not linguistic statements, but uncertain propositions, speech impediments, which do not take positions in polemical style. These propositions push forth matters of concern, which replaces matter of fact. Facts neglect the theoretical work that is needed for their construction. Therefore, propositions must be put forth by spokespersons, but these are not just people (as if people can be separated from the world) but relations between humans and non-humans. This is what is meant on the diagram by ‘collective in the process of exploring’.

Latour wants to reorganise how the roles of politicians, scientists, moralists and economists are complimentary and only become disordered when they try and do each others jobs. They should not put into a hierarchy of importance, but given a reciprocal relationship the collective must utilize to the maximum capacity. This will allow us to articulate and represent the common. Politicians can compromise and make enemies, as an enemy is ‘one who is rejected but will come back the next day to put the collective at rick’. An enemy is not human specific (Latour uses the example of prions and mad cow disease). Economists must economize and offer scale models of precisely what is taken into account by the collective. They make sure the collective knows what is internalized and what is externalized using a common language and make the collective describable. Moralists venture out of the collective to see things from the outside. They ask ‘what do those things want?’ and make sure we treat all things as a means and an end, not just humans. Scientists have the instruments and laboratories to detect new things, and so can tell us of anything that should be taken into the collective and naturalized. Put very simply, all these things are brought together and kept consistent by good administration.

One of the main arguments in this book is against Realpolitik. Political ecology is in favour of a ‘politics of reality’ which is ‘nourished’ by moral issues not distracted by them. However, Latour does not intent this book to be anything revolutionary. He wants its banal message to be read and understood as a simple reflection which aims to rid us of concepts which have and are continuing to handicap any chance of a true politics. As he says ‘I have no utopia to propose, no critical denunciation to proffer, no revolution to hope for’ (p. 163).

This book is a fascinating yet simple thought experiment that needs serious consideration. It does not promise a perfect world, only a chance to push towards the best of all possible worlds. As the collective is defined by movement, there is no teleological end point or utopian moment, but the perpetual throwing out of entities by the power of rank ordering where, if they must, they can return as appellants in the next iteration, to trouble the power of the collective into taking into account. This banal process never stops. This is a kind of all embracing realism that makes power politics look like children squabbling in a sandbox. I think he is right that things need to be reoriented away from the unfreedom of supposed democracy we have now toward a more inclusive common world. I suggest if you want to get a glimpse of a new type of world based on a proper attempt at political ecology that doesn’t rehash the old myopic visions of the deep ecologist and the Gaia spiritualists, read this book.

Review of ‘Tool-being’ by Graham Harman

September 23, 2009

tool_beingIn this book, Harman alludes to truth being more like a key to a lock than adequatio or the revealing/concealing play of alethia. The mind numbing drudgery of thousands of pages of Heidegger’s gesamtausgabe are unlocked from their semi-mystical confusion (as Harman points out, Heidegger does get confused by his own discovery) and brought into a profoundly simple freshness and engaging clarity.

As a confessed Heideggerian now for more than two years, I’m constantly stuck by the tiniest of details that can reorient myself towards his work in quite bizarre and absurd ways. Last year I was decrying the absent gods and celebrating the call for their return, vouching to set on a course for the poetic reawakening of beings towards being, leading the charge against the technological dragon that stalks our essence, causing us to flee from being by cutting us off from the its own questioning. I even become obsessed with the mystical and religious currents of Heidegger’s talk of gods, which led me to read Caputo and other such religio-Heideggerians. From this I came away with wonderful answers and new insights into figures such as Meister Eckhart and D.T. Suzuki and the world was now a more magical place. Now, in contrast, I’m about to drink to the health of what I, and many others in the know, see as a redefining phase of philosophical brilliance… the speculative realism movement and in particular the work of the object-oriented philosophers and ontologists (most notable are Graham Harman and Levi Bryant). How right old Paul De Man was when he said that each profound moment is one of insight and blindness.

There is always a level of total bewilderment and deep understanding with Heidegger. When I first read ‘Question Concerning Technology’ which quickly made me a convert, I feel I grasped Heidegger almost as much as I do now, although now I am several thousand pages of dense text the richer. This is because, according to Harman, Heidegger has actually very little to say, he just says it in lots of fancy ways about many thing over many years. Heidegger’s master key, the famous hermeneutical ‘destruction’ runs thus: anything that prioritizes presence (PAH) is metaphysics, thus metaphysics is bad and I can clobber any philosophy which prioritizes PAH with a great big hammer for being a sucker to destiny of being they inevitably fall victim to. What we then get, says Harman, is 18000 pages of historical writings which appraise philosophers in their relation to the metaphysical myopia they are destined to regurgitate. This means that from Plato onwards all succumb to Heidegger’s tag line: metaphysics of presence. Harman seems to have learnt a similar trick from Heidegger as a condition of his object-oriented philosophy (OOP). Harman re-reads and re-constructs the history of philosophy from what could be described, in Deleuzian terms, as Harman’s minor literature: that which can be appropriated into something new outside the context of its own creation. Harman re-reads not only the past masters (neglected or well known) of philosophy against the lens of his OOP but those so called Heideggerians, who confidently decorate the halls of academia with their butchered interpretations of Heidegger’s basic concepts.

Chapter 1 puts the record straight: Heidegger is still within metaphysics because there is a world outside our own that we do not have access to. This is the ready-to-hand (RTH), the  endo-relations of objects (to use an expression from Levi Bryant). Objects are always more than their ontic present-at-hand (PAH) relations. No object, human or otherwise, can draw any deeper from the dark well of the object’s being than each other: there must necessarily always be withdrawn, subterranean aspect of an object. All modes of absorption in the world are ontologically identical: Buddha does not have any special ontological privileges any more or less than ‘Berlin lawyers’ or electrons. If this point is taken seriously, Harman discovers that the ‘question of the meaning of being’ must be a reverse tautology, as I will explain.

Objects have two dimensions (at this point in the book they do anyway): their references and their withdrawal. Their references point to something beyond themselves, to something else, as a relation to another object. When an object is at work there is always a part of them that is in withdrawal. Harman takes the word ‘refer’, which in German is Sinn, to be ‘to mean’. If an object refers it is being. Thus to be is to mean. Sinn = Sein. The meaning of objects comes from their relatedness to the world, this is true for Dasein, who is a being ‘in’ the world of relations, but for all objects. Objects are being ‘in’ not being ‘for’: they are not representations. Thus Dasein is no longer elevated to be the only entity that has meaning and can uncover the meaning of being. All objects refer and must therefore have meaningful being. Which means all objects are Dasein! Ta da!

This may seem like some semantic chicanery, but following Heidegger’s own stance regarding the depths of objects, this logic must be taken to its fullest conclusion, which Harman sees as a the start of a full blown realism. He then goes on to trace the interpretations of Heidegger’s tool analysis from the Aristotelian continentals, such as Bernasconi who understands Heidegger’s notion of historicity to be the imperative to read the history of philosophy. As such Bernasconi reads Heidegger with and against Aristotle’s notion of poiesis. Harman emphasises that Bernasconi reads RTH as production. Which has a disastrous logical domino effect: production is teleology, teleology is PAH, PAH is metaphysics, thus Heidegger is still within a Greek ontology of PAH.

After more or less demolishing this position he moves on to the analytic pragmatists. These guys (and it mainly is guys) are obsessed with the idea of tools in use. Whereas Bernasconi saw Heidegger’s tool analysis not to do with actual tools but with the ‘exchange of presence’ between an objects RTH and PAH. The analytic pragmatists got one look at those tools and though, yes! The world is there for us to ‘understand’, to gain knowledge of in the form of ‘competence’ in its practical use: being = understanding. Harman say: wrong! Verstechen does not mean ‘knowing how to do something’ but is an unthematic ‘being-with’ that occurs in every moment of Dasein. Thus Okrent, Rorty and Dreyfus are seen off, although he is more favourable to Dreyfus for suggesting that Heidegger could be used for a ‘robust’ realism.

Harman seems to pull all this off through what seems to be his own interpretive trick-shot stating, “Heidegger must not be regarded as the absolute authority” on his own ideas! For Harman, all the interpretations of Heidegger have got themselves in a twist because they have tried to stick to the masters order of prioritizing human Dasein as something that has ontologically superior access to being than all other beings. Harman suggests to read tool-being against Heidegger’s own anthropocentricism and his failed experiments to explain it (such as his discourses on animal and insect ‘captivation’, Dasein’s ‘profound boredom’ and worldless rocks). Harman thus knocks Heidegger from his anthropocentric high-horse and, in true clockwork orange style, makes him watch the carnival of objects unleashed by a flat ontology.

The icing on the already overly ornate cake is Harman’s analysis of the fourfold. Put simply:

sky = the revealed process and tangible forces to be reckoned  within our lives. It reveals entities which are events unfolding as processes. It is an ontological category for ontic specific things.

earth = the withdrawn serving-bearer (load bearer?) of being.

gods = who comes to presence only in the absence of what is present. The Godhead is the ‘concealed sway’, the gods are the hidden messengers which remind us to wonder at being.

mortals = things capable of death as death. It is a grasping of the finitude of all that exists. Mortals means being as being. It is for all Dasein and not only human Dasein.

Harman has finally removed any hint of ontic appropriation or absurd taxonomy of beings from Heidegger’s mysterious das Geviert (fourfold/quadrate). What this means is that we can start having serious conversations about this later work and not snigger behind his back at the obscurantist later moments of Heidegger. The result of this is very important for tool-being as it helps to remove Heidegger from the hoards of linguistic philosophers who have pounced on his later writings on language. Harman makes it clear, Heidegger can teach us as much about non-language as he can about language (if you remember, ‘silence speaks’, apparently). His position can be summed up as this: the speaking of language summons the differentiation of the onefold of the world and thing, but is not the only thing that does so, and so shouldn’t hold a higher ontological importance than non-language in the questioning of being.

Zizek is a tougher nut to crack, although he necessarily has to be ousted. He too prioritizes the human subject as that which has an ontological passport to reality. However, Harman, like a bully in a playground, pushes Zizek out the way to grab Zizek’s flashy theoretical toy: retroactive causation. Harman however wields it not to gather all the other kids in the playground to marvel at it, but strides out into a vast jungle of objects: retroactive causation is a global ontological structure. The Real is that which is the gap between what is revealed and concealed by all objects where objects fantasies the ‘what is’ of other objects in specific configurations, contrary to their unknown depths. For example, not only do I fantasize my relation to other people by thinking they are complete beings who are what they display, but objects interact with other objects, deny their depths and engages in a phantasmatic relation to that object as a projection of its own desires. Abstraction is something all objects do, it is not unique to human Dasein.

What we are left with are Harman’s best friends: Levinas, Zubiri, Ortega y Gasset and Whitehead who encircle the now born-again realist of Heidegger. They join him for what look like his first tentative steps towards an object-oriented philosophy that he is still building. I have not yet read ‘Guerilla Metaphysics’, but I’ve read ‘Prince of Networks’, so I can see how the questions he left at the end of ‘Tool-being’ have been taken up fiercely in his recent work. For me, one serious consequence of Harman’s analysis is how he treats Heidegger’s work on technology. But I will leave that for another post. In conclusion, if you want to ‘get’ Heidegger (and become very unpopular with many Heideggerian’s in doing so), if you want to be part of a new wave of exciting philosophy now optimistically called ‘the speculative turn’, read this book.

Notes from Graham Harman’s ‘Tool-being’

September 22, 2009

I will write a short review soon, but here are the notes I made while reading his book. I prefer to write notes in the form of aphoristic sound bites and not paragraphs as they’re easier to remember.

(more…)

Aliens and Ideology

September 17, 2009

During a lecture by Zizek which can be found HERE, he mentions the John Carpenter film ‘They Live’ as a brilliant yet vulgar example of what he, Zizek, is trying to do: see through layers of ideology.

In this film, the main character steals a box of sunglasses, thinking it was something much better. He ditches the box, but keeps one pair for himself. When he finally tries them on, he discovers that he can literally ‘see’ ideological interpellation at work. For instance, he looks at magazines and adverts and instead of seeing pictures and articles he sees a dull grey background with big black words such as ‘consume’, ‘stay asleep’, ‘marry and procreate’, ‘don’t think’, etc emblazoned across them. The main mystery is that an alien species has infused itself into the world and is keeping everyone docile so they can live out their own capitalist/consumer desires upon us.

This got me thinking about other alien films and the idea of aliens from outer-space as being a symptom of some kind of lack or projection from the human psyche. I want to demonstrate how alien movies contain philosophical and ideological themes. Here are some (very) rough ideas concerning a few well known alien movies and I’m sorry for the lack of polish:

Independence day = aliens are a projection of neoliberal use and abuse system of exploitation. They are capitalism on a galactic scale (they are how we would be if we were able to go into space). First, destroy forms of resistance (asymmetric warfare: the aliens have full spectrum dominance), then move in to extract valuable resources. More interesting themes are: the Jewish protagonist; USA the saviours of the world that tells everyone else how to save themselves; the alien’s exoskeleton which reminds me of a quote from Junger which goes something like ‘technology provides the armour that allows one to step outside the realm of sensation and become impervious to pain’. It also reminds me of the homunculus theory of mind, where a little man sits in the driving seat of our mind, controlling us. Ultimately its a pro-government and pro-military film. The military machine proves, at the end, to have been able to save us, and their behind closed doors research wasn’t in the end a waste of money. The Masonic/illuminate symbolism also act as a cheeky prods to get conspiracy theory types all excited.

The Aliens movies = a look at unrestrained phallus (power). I think Zizek once said that ‘aliens’, in these movies at least, are the bit cut off in castration. Interstellar rape is the basic premise: i.e. this alien species has no concept of out of bounds and is therefore a projection of the desire and danger of transgressing the Oedipal prohibitive phantasy. This mirrors the political phantasy of universal values through the perfect communication between the aliens: aliens work together seamlessly and are not themselves concerned with sex, only jouissance through exercising their power through killing (the only time they show self-reflexivity is when they postpone the moment of death by a few seconds, like they are savouring the paralysis and fear of their victim) and by presenting the mother (queen) with gifts of bodies to act as incubators. They take their collective logic through the Absolute authority of the queen alien. This could reflect our own fears over authoritarian centralized control. This could also be seen as the logic of a universalized politics inscribed into the living organism of the collective alien body itself: the aliens act as one mind against their enemies, and do not fight amongst themselves. The film also acts as an obvious critique against capitalism prioritizing money over life, greed over honour, etc (as the spaceship ‘Nostromo’ hints at, together was the ominous ubiquitous presence of the Corporation). One possible script flaw which undermines the credibility of Ripley is how she allows for the robot in Alien 2 to stay on the mission. Even though he saves the day and is by the end a hero, there was no way of telling this from the start. It would have made more sense for her to kill him anyway, as this can be done with impunity: robots are not life no matter how life like they are. Instead she lets him continue which could possibly have endangered the lives of the crew and herself. This lends itself to a pro-robot sub-plot, which clearly gives the message that robots, if programmed towards the correct human values, could be our saviours. ‘Newt’ is a little more difficult to account for. The more than obvious interpretation being, she is the replacement for her own, now dead, daughter (the lost love object returns). Here is a horrible interpretation of why ‘Newt’ is an important name. A newt’s cells can de-differentiate, which means, they can regenerate limbs and organs. Now ‘Newt’ could be seen as a regeneration of the lost daughter and also as a metaphor for Ripley herself, who seems to be able to come back to life (as in the fourth film).

Predator – predator as the logic of honourable warfare. Kind of Nietzschian superman, who like to face resistance and overcome it through honourable exchanges in combat. To overcome resistance one must become seamlessly integrated into the environment one is in (in P1 Arnie becomes imperceptible to the predator through camouflage etc). I’ll think more about this later.

Men in Black = Film relies upon Leibniz universe in an atom speculation, which becomes clear during the move after solving the galaxy on Orion’s belt mystery and the game of marbles at the end of the film between the two alien creatures. Link between black and shadows. MIB run in the imperceptible background which actually maintains its control over alien refugees, so everyone can get on with their important lives and not be blighten with the alien presence – obviously a few aliens slip through the net! Normal society could be seen as white, therefore, will smith as a black man is the negative of the MIB image which becomes appropriated into the MIB by an aesthetic turn. The illegitimacy of the MIB is untouched in favour of an aesthetic reappraisal of the MIB’s own reflexive image. This could be some kind of commentary on hip-hop culture becoming mainstream, but I won’t held at gun point to this thesis. The cockroach could be a metaphor for minorities (namely Mexicans). The story goes like this: the cockroach or ‘bug’ is hiding in the skin of a farmer (i.e. they pretend to be people) and is hunting for the supreme energy source. If the ‘bug’ finds it we will all be killed by the higher power who readies their guns at us waiting for us to make a mistake. This could be seen viewed like this: the cockroach is a metaphor for the escaped Mexican refugees, they are unwanted pests, they are here to degrade the American way of life and culture, to sap their energy source, etc. If this happens then the international competition are ready to pounce on what was once a cytoplasticly strong country and destroy their market superiority! This xenophobic interpretation is a bit wild, but it does seem to carry some weight, given the political context, as in 1994, Proposition 187 was passed in California, barring illegal immigrants from receiving basic social services. The film came out in 1997. Immigration issues must have been big news around the time the script would have been penned.

I could do this all day, but I want to finish the second chapter of Graham Harman’s ‘Tool-being’ asap. There are loads of other strands to draw out, maybe someone else can analyse those?

The Two Ronnies and The Tower of Babel: The (im)possibility of communication

September 16, 2009

“And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.”

This sketch by the two Ronnies brilliantly demonstrates several things: 1) that blogging and computers present us with previously impossible immediate intertextual possibilities, as we can’t (yet) watch youtube clips embedded in books or magazines. And 2) that the subtlety of comedy consists in holding open the gap which separates what one thinks from that of actuality. The only thing one can do when faced with this void is to cry or, as is the more frequently desired response from BBC comedy programming, is to laugh. 3) from the classically timed and practised miscommunication of the two Ronnies, we can infer that communication is, in fact, miscommunication.

This leads strangely, yet appropriately, into thinking about the Tower of Babel, as articulated in Genesis XI. If you remember from coerced cub-scout Church visits or even from school Religious Education lessons, the Tower of Babel was the project of a peoples with one language to build an almighty tower which was to have “its top in the heavens.” This could mean (I’m not going to say this is the only reading of the story, after all, free-play of signifiers and all that) the homogeneity and perfection of their language meant there were no boundaries to what they could manipulate and command, being totally and indefatigably empowered by their unmediated access to enjoyment, jouissance, and thus in no need of God.

What the Tower of Babel story and the Two Ronnies seem to be announcing is that we are stuck with imperfect language, which essentially translates to miscommunication not as the exception but as the rule. What also runs parallel in these two stories is the theme of language and desire: the desire to use, obtain and manipulate objects.

I will give two readings of the Tower of Babel story, one along Heideggerian technophobic lines and the other from a Lacanian position of the castrated subject (which actually run nicely together, as you will see a bit later).

The Heideggerian approach could read the Babel story as metaphor for the dangers of technology. Once we can freely manipulate our world to achieve all our wildest calculative desires, we will have fled from being into the nihilistic mechanical abyss of technologically determined Being. To paraphrase Heidegger, if technology solves all our problems, this will be our biggest problem. That is why God comes down and heroically ruins the party by given them different languages and we’re back to ‘four candles’ again. The Tower of Babel is a kind of Heideggerian prophesy, where human Dasein builds his technological tower of domination, his supreme all commanding phallic posture will be overcome by the returning gods (or God in this case) who will save us from our godless selves. As Holderlin once optimistically poetized, ‘where the danger grows so to does the saving power’.

This understanding of language and technology is important, but first a few contributions from psychoanalysis. In Lacanian terms, the story is equivalent to the myth of sexuation so humorously spoken by the comic poet Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium. This myth recycles old Greek tales of the splitting of an original singular sex of super beings into two sexes. Before this separation they had almighty power and flaunted their relationship to the gods. This simplistic yet tongue-in-cheek example of a sexuation myth symbolizes the desire is to become complete, whole and thus fully constituted, against the punishment of our divided essence, which limits our power and makes us dependent upon the other sex. The Tower of Babel provides the same myth but this time for language (which as we will see, is not totally divorced from sexuation). According to the old Bible story, human beings were once capable of powerful world manipulating abilities. Incredible things can be achieved within a community with a unidirectional mindset, structured by complete comprehension and understanding of each other (no squabbling family arguments and thus no storming out the room screaming ‘you just don’t understand’ within this society). According to the story, language was once complete, whole and fully constituted for the people of Babylon, and thus our frustration at miss communication can be traced back to the behaviour of cretinous human beings who dared to push their capabilities to ever greater heights and were finally stopped when they were faced with the castrating powers of God.

Now, I have used two key words that may have picked up on: phallic and castration. Thus, the obvious point is that the Tower of Babel is a gigantic phallic gesture. Remember, in Lacan’s sense, phallic or phallus does not mean penis. The phallus is phantasmatic power. Since we are all castrated subjects, as Lacan goes to great length to discuss (you need a forklift truck to pick up Ecrits), no one has the phallus. That’s right, no one, not men or women, millionaire sky scrapper owners or Gandalf. No one has the phallus. There is only an imaginary relation to the possession of power which comes from the desire of the Other. As the Other is language, the symbolic mask to the unsymbolizable Real. It is through the acquisition of language that we are able to articulate our demand to try and reclaim the lost love object, object a, that unconsciously structures our desires, the phantasmatic memory of a lost unity. This object, the spectre of the mother we enjoyed with orgiastic polymorphous perversity, gave us  unconstrained jouissance. Entry into language is needed to overcome the terror of the absence of the mother (Daddy has to have some fun too!), which causes the dependent baby no end to agony. Yet once the first structures of language begin to form there is no turning back, we are ripped from the world of the Real and thrown into a world of symbolic mediation.

As the sketch goes on, Ronnie Corbett (the little one) gets more and more frustrated. He wants to fulfil the Others desire but is foiled by the rich polsemy of each word Ronnie Barker utters. What does he want? What does the Other want of me? If I don’t have an accurate idea then how can I be successful? How will I please the Other? How will the Other love me if I can not give them what they want? The dilemma develops, each time a mistake is made the more Ronnie Corbett thinks its a prank. Is the Other mocking me? “You’re ‘avin me on!!?”. Each object that gets brought out plays upon the literal interpretation of the phallus. The ‘fork handle’, the two types of hoes, even the letter’s ‘o’ could be said to have sexual resonances, while finally ending on the unspeakable, the object which causes Ronnie to walk off, the written words alone are enough to jilt him and storm out: ‘bill hooks’ (a type of knife). This last tool acts as the final symbolic gesture, the final ‘cut’, which amplifies the repeated demonstrations of linguistic castration from each previously miserable failure.

This is a vulgar interpretation of the sketch and its symbols, but it all seems to fit so well! I’ve done it now anyway, and you’ll no longer be able to see the program again without thinking of these inferences!

The sketch works on more levels even than this. For instance, the size of the two Ronnies matters. Corbett’s short stature stands in contrast to Barker’s relative height advantage adding another dimension to the lack inherent in the satisfaction of desire. The demands Barker makes of Corbett emphasise his lack. The use of the ladder extends the effort required to please the Other which for Corbett has now passed from bother and into discomfort: the subject suffers for the Others jouissance! All this invokes a feeling of pathos in the audience, adding further to the subjects castration. Perhaps the joke works not just because of the desperation of their miscommunicate, but because Corbett never overcomes the lack inherent is miss interpretation with laughter (laughter being the rupture in the symbolic caused by the proximity to the Real). Something is holding him back. His work. One can imagine a similar situation, such as as home, where instead of frustration, it is seen for what is is, an absurd case of miscommunication which could be overcome by sharing laughter. However, the serious worker wants to do his job properly and capably, yet he is faced with the stark reality of being limited by something he cannot control: language, which is inseparable from the demands of the Other.

Going back to Heidegger, the technological capabilities of human Dasein comes from its orientation towards Being. For instance, it is not that there is something called technological progress, only the destiny of being drawn from an interpretation of the logos as logic. Heidegger saw the nihilism of technological fetishism and mastery coming from the logos defined as logic, which promotes scientific reductionism and thus falling victim to a metaphysics of presence which cuts off the questioning of being from being instead of ‘letting beings be’ (i.e. understanding the necessarily withdrawn nature of objects and not representing them as defined solely as something or other). Language is therefore very important for Heidegger, as changes in the understanding of language, what it is and what it is for, reorientates our being-in-the-world, calls us to abstract our world in new ways, which can mean we flee from being as being, into a purely calculative and instrumentalized notion of being as representation or face being with authentic resoluteness.

The Tower of Babel story ends with the people of Babylon now scattered across the land, with different tongues incompatible with each other. It is now very difficult to collaborate as they don’t understand each others desire and have no homogenized inter-subjective desire of their own. For Heidegger, language acts as a horizon. This means that the limits of our language limit the world of our engagement. We engage in the world of symbolic importance where things have place (topos), meaning (logos) and purpose (telos). This is why we have temporality, as our being is stretched over time, where the past and the future both have meaning in the actuality of the present moment. We are always projecting forward and back to maintain our own place within the symbolic life-world and to gain our measure of being from what is inter-subjectively gauged as important.

The story of the Tower of Babel is not, I believe, supposed to be taken literally. What I have demonstrate is that miscommunication as an essential part Dasein’s facticity (the fact of being bound and handed over into a world of engaged relation) and the desire to transcend this horizon is something demonstrable in ancient historical texts such as the Bible and in modern television programs. The Tower of Babel story works as a story which reveals the finite capacities of human kind in relation to the infinite powers of God, and thus uses the trauma of castration as a vehicle for religious belief. The two Ronnies however have no such agenda. Comedy here acts not as some kind of Schopenhauerian anesthetic to the anxiety of existence, but as the affirmation of the very lack that allows for the formation of the subject. Corbett’s escape into the back room only emphasizes his fixation to the unpassable rock of castration. Yet it is the sketch itself uses the ambiguity and confusion of language to achieve jouissance: only the viewers who perform the function of Corbett’s mocking super ego recognise the farcical situation with an affirmative laugh.

Biotechnology and Ethics in China

September 15, 2009

This is a link to the paper I presented for the Sussex University Undergraduate Philosophy Society. It’s a bit rough around the edges and as it’s now officially public so I may update it at some point. I no longer hold to this theoretical position: I disagree with the idea of Foucault’s ‘docile bodies’. However, it’s full of a lot of other mightily interesting things and takes, head-on, ideas concerning eugenics and population control that point the finger not just at China but at the international environment within which  it operates. If you have any suggestions please leave a comment.

http://www.supsoc.org/2008/10/15/mike-champion-on-biotechnology-and-ethics-in-china/

Here’s the abstract:

China has promoted population policies, such as the ‘one child policy’ and ‘eugenics law’ which have enframed the human subject within a powerful system of medical and scientific institutions. These have promoted an objective conception of the human subject and rejected what is perceived to be ‘imperfect’. This coincides with the need to reduce population numbers in the overpopulated and under resourced China. The combination of over population with international dreams of modernity, progress and racial strength propelled China into an era where the bodies of its peoples are disciplined into objective conceptions of life. The national conception of birth control was solidified by law, which has effectively propelled coercive population control methods across the country. The result is an imbalance of female and male births due to female infanticide and patriarchal social structures. The powerful communist government continually strengthens itself through its successful grasp of international trade and economic power, replicating its dominance over the population through scientific technological determinism. China, however, does not operate in a vacuum but is a member of the international system of states and as such, it is important to examine ‘macro-political’ international theoretical paradigms, such as political realism, and how they are juxtaposed with ‘micro-political’ inter-subjective conceptions of the human subject. The turmoil of China’s population problems reveals how biopower operates globally and how eugenics practices now form part of larger bioethical debates. I hope this presentation can stimulate much needed thinking in this area

Ticket to the void

September 15, 2009

train voidThe picture here is from one of the many little bits of card that get thrown out at you when picking up pre-booked tickets from any ‘quick ticket’ machine in English train stations. What I find of absolute brilliance about this particular piece of card are the words ‘void’ daisy chained across the front in a gloriously bold font. As a philosopher-in-progress and someone who has used the railway system many times only to be faced with a multitude of blunders, mistakes and delays the ticket seemed to light up in my hand, a beacon of absurdity and sublimity. It probably even compelled me to start and name this blog, just so I could share the daftness with the world.