Archive for January, 2010

The nausea of philosophy

January 31, 2010

At a Nietzsche conference in Oxford last year, I heard an inspiring paper presented by Dr Gudrun von Tevenar. She gave an eerily penetrating and dark profile of the feeling of ‘ekel’ as a kind of lost instinct. In translation, this is something like nausea and disgust, but apparently, in the German, it has a more shocking gravity and meaning which doesn’t resonate in the English translation. The use of this nauseating-disgust (ekel) at all things ugly and unclean allows for a turning away, to avoid contact. However, ekel is more of an instinctive judgment mechanism than a psycho-physical problem. This reaction, according to Nietzsche, was the original form of moral judgement for physical, ethical and mental health. Much in the same way dogs sniff each other in a mode of semi-formal etiquette. It is a close examination which still keeps the other at a distance.

For Nietzsche, intellectual ekel is needed if we are to learn to stretch distances between that which is clean and unclean, a free-spirit from the herd and the strong from the weak. After 2000 years of slave morality we have been taught to lose this ordering mechanism, this visceral affection that acts as a barometer for what is ‘good’.Nietzsche wants to affirm life but only through relearning what it means to live and seeking out the affirming while condemning that which is against life. Nietzsche advises we need to relearn to judge the wholesomeness of people much like we judge the wholesomeness of fruit. For Nietzsche ‘the “entrails” of every soul are physiologically perceived by him… ‘smelled’.

Once this has be re-learned, Nietzsche wrote that redemption from ekel comes from keeping a distance, where one must drink from the well not poisoned by the unclean and try to keep good company and solitude. However, withdrawal from others by escaping it in a kind of ascetic purity is not affirming life. Tevnar made a final comment about Zarathustra going back down to the people once he had overcome the ekel that had previously hounded him, once he had laughed a powerful laugh of affirmation, the fearless laugh of someone who dances over the abyss, the ‘laughter of height’ and not of the herd.

To philosophize is to turn towards the ekel that causes the pulse to quicken, for ground to become figure and to be estranged within the world again. As Heidegger said, it is easy for one to occupy oneself with ‘philosophy’, hence he favoured the term ‘thinking’, as a pre-philosophical move against the Platonic representational lichtung [clearing]. I have too readily engaged myself in ‘philosophy’ and not ‘thinking’ and thus need to begin again to examine the world not through the distant and stoic mind of the ‘philosopher’ who stands by and watches the world go by, but to face the ekel of a non-representational world. Ekel is not Sartrean nausea or Heideggerian angst, but a non-representational manner of approaching objects afresh each time. Zarathustra’s affirmative laughter is the non-categorical behaviour that dissolves those habitual responses that guide us to endlessly repeat the same elemental abstractions to the detriment of our lived experiences. Ekel is an instinct to to let the anxiety of change and change open new worlds.

The shape of thought to come: Musings on The Ornette Coleman Quartet

January 7, 2010

I take jazz improvisation to be a model for permanent revolution in society at large” Eugene Holland, Deleuze and Music

The album Ornette! is electrifying. The fluctuating pitter-patter cross rhythms and squeaky choppy eruptions of unexpected sounds feel like they’re blasting Being apart with snare and sax. Patterns grow and fade-out becoming intense with a gradated tempo and flickering motifs of delightful repetitions with a difference. There’s a forcefulness to it, an aggression one could say, but in the sense of trying to create new objects, unthought objects. To make objects that burst out between the gaps of the apparatus of mobilized rational society, its marketed castrated intensities and conceptualized modes of living.

The Quartet float out effervescent enunciations, crystalline things that re-set the rhythm of you body from an ordered structured clock time of contiguity and predictability to one a liquidated dimension of the joyful uncalculated being-there. This music is a sensual drenching, a celebration and reminder of the edifying and contingent experience of being that erupts in the gap between the thing and nothing. If consciousness is memory, as Bergson would proclaim, the experience of listening to music is the pattern matching of ever new layers of fresh memories. Memories that come and go yet linger on as remembrances of patterns and intensities.

The Quartet acts like a de-tuning process, taking one away from the register of the world as concepts, as structure, as order, yet forms these things organically, harmonizing to patterned resonance, disarray and back again. They play in the cracks, filling them up, bursts them open to let our ears feast on the fertile-soils and strange ripe fruits that are passed over by the unadventurous.

The freejazz of the Quartet is the finest example of a playful music of sporadic rapid movements between experimental existences. There is no imperative of beat, tempo and direction. The instruments wrap themselves around each other, like interweaving rainforest undergrowth that symbiotically spread and multiply. It is jarring, distorted and uneven; it strikes as rough waves of noise, especially if one is used to calmer warm seas that caress you in polymorphically perverse comfort. Beat chop and change, waves splash, bubble and morph into eddies and currents that move with relentless creative force. However, it is not random and neither is it anarchic. The weeping sounds that open Peace are not unstructured as such, but create an ephemeral mood that is welcomed like Rumi’s guests at his Guest House: “A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all!”.

There is an emotional logic of sensation, as Deleuze would say, an instantaneously apprehended magnitude, where the irrational logic of a spasmodic sharp spontaneous reaction lingers in the memory-consciousness of the listener and player. Understood as a unit operation, it is “an understanding, largely arbitrary, certainly contingent, of a particular situation, compacted and taken as whole”. It is the procedure implementation of non representational randomness where man experiences himself as an accident… and likes it.

The Quartet do not battle against their sound’s structure like musical deconstructionists, but create in the playful seriousness of children’s games which morph through praxis that feeds back into the memory of a malleable given of the game structure. The music of the Quartet is not in fear of structure.However, there is always a fidelity to the enterprise of their collaboration: the fidelity is not to a mood, a sound, a rhythm or a idea, but to the exploration of the unknown and unforeseen.

The form and content of the music is creative and fecund. There is no obligation or expectation other than in playing with the possibilities of objects created by sax, drums and bass. These possibilities are generated inside the immediacy of their local assemblage, the apparatus by which they speak being from the depths. I feel in freejazz, the light and lightness of a deterritorialized line of flight, the permanent revolution of subjectivized freedom whose message is echoed in the instructions of Deleuze and Guattari who can bring this article to a close:

“This is how it should be done: Lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensities segment by segment, have a small plot of new land at all times. It is through a meticulous relation with the strata that one succeeds in freeing lines of flight…” (ATP, p.178).

Notes from ”The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance’ by Bruce Fink

January 4, 2010

These are my notes from ‘The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance’, by Bruce Fink, with supplementary notes where appropriate. Rather than keeping them for my eyes only, I thought I would share them, as I’m sure they’ll be useful. I’m aware there are spelling and grammatical mistakes from sloppy typing, but I will try and correct these if I have time in the coming weeks.


Zizek and Badiou on HARDTALK: Unapologetic strangers

January 3, 2010

Badiou  HERE and ZIZEK   HERE

When I saw that Badiou and Zizek had been on HARDtalk, I was excited and apprehensive. To have two contemporary philosophical giants given prime TV time to answer questions on topics that are completely neglected by the mainstream media, feels like a progressive move, but also has a kind of ‘lambs to the slaughter’ feel about it, too, as philosophy and philosophers seem to be banished from television. Except for a few programs on existentialism that were made many years ago, I don’t think Heidegger, who seems to be the most important philosopher of the twentieth century, has probably ever been mentioned. For Badiou and Zizek to gain some prime TV time seems like times are changing. However, I do feel that appearances on these programs for both Zizek and Badiou were mixed blessings and also, partially wasted opportunities. I would have though that for a program whose title picture, which is begging to be etched with a hammer and sickle, wouldn’t look out of place in a Soviet style steel mill, may have been a little nicer to these two.

The recent Zizek interview was the more disappointing of the two. This is only because Zizek is the more fluently spoken in English and thus his sparing skills should be more than a match for Stephen Sackur’s antagonistic blunt style. The program is set up to ask the ‘hard’ and tough questions, to harass and force the interlocutor to slip up and generally be exposed as a feeble minded simpleton, who can’t articulate themselves and generally gets a bit flustered when their safety net gets taken away. Both Zizek and Badiou walked straight into the antagonistic form of the program. As philosophers, one would think they would try to undermine the structure of the program to bring a reflexive focus to the polemics at hand. This did not happen, they both tried to answer the questions as normal, falling into trap after boisterously set trap.

Zizek is characterized in the introduction as someone he sees the good in Stalin and thinks Communism is the answer to the ills of the twenty-first century. The antagonisms are set from the start, here is the enemy, now we can expose his nonsense or perversity’ as the interviewer repeats again and again. Zizek, who writes many big and deliberately flummoxing books (his Lacanian postponing the end point of clarity works at the level of form to force the reader to ‘traverse the fantasy’ of the ‘subject supposed to know’, i.e. that Zizek knows and that by reading his work they too will come to know). It seems like an exercise in condensation, but it is more one of intuition. The answers are not cut off because he isn’t given the time to respond properly, or because the program must end at a certain point. No, it is because the form is given credibility to provide a type of truth defined by the program (i.e. watch the interviewee squirm when confronted by their own words and actions), rather then forcing the phantasmatic stance of the program and its viewers out of their comfort zone.

For instance, Sackur exposes Zizek’s hypocrisy by quoting from him that Stalinism is favourable to any liberal democracy, after Zizek announces on the program that Communism was probably the biggest disaster of the 20th century, even more so than Nazism (as under Nazism, there was always a distinct set of persons demonized for a particular reason, while under Stalinism, it could be anybody for any arbitrary reason). Zizek explains that it is because of the possibility of a different social regime, other than liberal capitalism, is opened up by communism, whereas liberal capitalism promotes itself as an ontological realism (I’m paraphrasing here).

Sackur then asks him why is he a communist even after Zizek admits it was a ‘total failure’. Clearly, Sackur completely misses the answer Zizek gave previously or he wouldn’t have asked the same question again. Sackur was probably too busy listening to instruction on his ear piece or thinking about his set questions to give an intelligent answer to Zizek’s comment. Although it could be said that the repetition and incredulous tone of the interviewer is part of the format of the program, and thus a provocative tactic rather than an intellectually sincere one. Zizek stresses the importance of recognising the change in horizon between, what used to be ‘socialism with a human face’ to the now ubiquitous ‘capitalism with a human face’: capitalism, even with a human face, will not be able to solve the antagonisms we confront today at they remain external to the horizon of capitalism.

After being accused of Eurocentricism and ignoring the successes of India and China in raising people out of poverty through bolstering the middle classes, Zizek responds that these are not successes as they have resulted in segregation of public space, through favellas and immigration ‘problems’: in sum, those who are excluded and politically isolated. Unfortunately he then makes a statement about these places being concentrations camps, and then withdraws the comment after being challenged by Sackur. He does make the point that it its because of their isolation that makes it seem like they are in concentration camps, but he should not have conceded as there is a clear linearity between camp and favella that would have been more useful to expand upon. However, to expand upon this would probably not have suited the programs spitting contest style, so would no doubt have been cut.

The interviewer is keen to emphasise his reading of Zizek’s critics, who condemn Zizek’s claim that Islamic fundamentalism is a product of liberal capitalism. Zizek responds with the example of Afghanistan pre-soviet invasion, as an example of secular Islam that becomes fundamentalism through engagement with the international community. This again misinterpreted by Sackur who says that Zizek blames capitalism for all the world evils. Zizek responds with that quip that perhaps his readers (and interviewers) should read him correctly, so as not to confuse his critical examination of capitalism with a complete rejection of it: for Zizek, we cannot go back to a fantasy world untouched by capitalism, but apply our critique from within capitalism, which demonstrates that we cannot reject in its entirety that which founds our very mode of engagement with the world.

Sackur is concerned that as there is no clear example or even an abstract thinker who represents an ideal for communism: this, he insists, surely must be a bad sign. Zizek concludes that he isn’t after revolution in the standard sense. He makes it clear that “we need to form a new form of collectivity that will be neither market or state bureaucracy”, but he is a pessimist: democracy won’t deliver us from our problems: it may not be light at the end of the tunnel but a train coming towards us.

If we take out Zizek’s main points, those who have never read or seem Zizek before may be a little put off by the cerebral rants, excessive hand movements and conversational tangents, but I think he recognises the need to cut the crap and say as clearly as possible his position, because Sackur is determined to misrepresent him at every turn. Zizek does deal well with the questioning and he does seem to come off quite well and at times, unusually, focused on the main points.

Sackur applies the same style, albeit slightly slowed down, no doubt recognising the limited English skills of his guest. Although Badiou’s answers clearly weren’t suited to the medium, Zizek seems to have met his challenges with forceful and better presented summaries. It is still discouraging, that while any TV exposure for philosophers is always music to my ears, it is a shame that it is performed not through a careful and sincere dialogue, but through a sensationalist interview that is aimed not at ‘hardtalk’ but discouse that legitimises intellectual confrontation based upon misinformation, misreadings and misdirection of aggression. Sackur doesn’t present ‘hardtalk’ but a fake attempt at provocative discourse that can never agree with or arrive at any conversational synthesises or progression. It plays upon a fantasy of straight talking, ‘cut the crap’ style journalism that is not exposing anything but the farcical format of the show itself. The interviewer doesn’t want to understand Badiou and Zizek, but to attribute to what ever response they deliver to one of a ‘perverse’ nature or purely some form of ‘continental’ intellectual entertainment, suitable for a limited audience of pseudo radicals.

Even if Sackur’s position could be described as playing devils advocate with his guests, one gets the feeling that some of the time it is quite personal: such as this quote towards Badiou, that people at home are thinking “here is a man who is stuck in the romance of 1968, a time of course when you were on the barricade and you want to recreate the romantic idea that the working class can take to the streets and re-order society and you sit there, frankly, with your metaphorical Gauloises in your mouth spouting this French radical ideology but no one really buys it any more”. Partially, I think Badiou may not have heard him properly, as there was little sign of being flustered by this Francophobic question. It isn’t a helpful question and an ironic use of the word ‘buy’ as well. It may well be that people at home are struck in reductive caricatures of cigarette smoking Parisian coffee shop French intellectuals, but the programme, ultimately was giving the same message. What is clear from these interviews is not an open dialogue between communist philosophers and the BBC, but the desire to discredit ‘romantic’ emancipatory philosophies.

As a mobilization of unit operations (see Ian Bogost’s book, Unit Operation), the program advocates a hostile incredulity to the idea of communism which involves the operations of cutting into sentences, swapping and changing topics, not allowing for follow up responses and presenting the interviewee with quotes taken out of context which would require more time than the program can allocate for its examination. The two central unit operation of HARDtalk are reductive positional generalization (to provoke aggression in the interviewee) and incredulous rebuttal (to mock the interviewee’s perspective). In general, I find any reliance on cultural theorists or academics on television tends to end is grotesque simplifications. For example, the pop psychologist analyst on Big Brother. These sound-bite simplifications may swing well into the next dazzling video clip, but offer little extended and more fruitful analysis. For self proclaimed philosophers to be guests on this TV program and to engage the show on its own terms is not only a little disappointing, but it forgets the elementary philosophical lesson of Plato’s Apology. If you remember, this is where Socrates asks the court to consider him a “stranger” to his new trial environment. It isn’t that Badiou and Zizek are “strangers” to television, but they are to the distinctly uncharitable style of the show. A reflexive response and recognition of the problematic televisual medium itself may have been a philosophically more thought provoking response to what were, at times, ignorant and antagonistic questions.