Friday, September 29, 2006

Overqualified



There is a quote from Adorno that I have been thinking about as of late. It reads as follows:

"The theorist who intervenes in practical controversies nowadays discovers on a regular basis and to his shame that whatever ideas he migh contribute were expressed long ago--and usually better the first time around. Not only has the mass of writings and publications grown beyond measure: society itself, despite all its tendencies to expand, in many cases seems to be regressing to earlier stages, even its superstructure, in law and politics. Embarrassingly enough, this means that time-honored arguments must once again be trotted out. Even critical thought risks becoming infected by what it criticizes. Critical thought must let itself be guided by the concrete forms of consciousness it opposes and must go over once again what they have forgotten."

This quote seems particularly apt today, in the face of our current "War of Terror." In the speeches of our president, and other supporters of the war, the justification for the war seems to rest on two fundamental statements, "We are fighting them over there so that we do not have to fight them here," and, more fundamentally, fighting is "Protecting our freedom." Now these statements are demonstrably false, and have been proven to be several times by the few critical voices left. Moreover, one does not need the tools of ideology critique, to have read Adorno, Althusser, and so on, to prove them false. Of course the situation gets even more absurd when you consider all of the people who believe that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11, or that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Metablogging

Most of the time I carry a small notebook with me. Usually it is one of those ubiquitous moleskin notebooks (that word unsettles me, who would want to skin a mole?). However, as of late it has been a snazzy little journal with a robot on the cover (made by these fine people). In this journal I write down quotes from books that I am reading, fragments of half formed ideas, and even a few titles and outlines for papers or even books that I one day might write. Since I started the blog, however, I have been writing in my book less and less, and I realize that some of these fragments of ideas have made it here on the internets (why does that little "s" on the end of the word still amuse me?). I am not sure if they belong here, they are after all only sketches, or a series of ideas that are almost like a "connect-the-dots"drawing, only without the numbers to guide anyone in making them. More importantly they are not the sort of thing that I thought that I would write when I started this thing--I thought that I would write more about movies, music, and my many adventures.

What I am left with is a veritable backlog of things that I meant to write, ideas formed in the shower, while walking, or whatever, that have made it nowhere. Which is not too different from my usual life. In fact, I think it might be possible to chart a kind of ecology of ideas, in which each idea has its own particular life span related to both the conditions of emergence and validity--some ideas make it into writing and some barely survive the sentence in which they are first articulated. It is not always the best ones that survive.

For example I never wrote about The Black Dahlia, perhaps the oddest film experience I have had in awhile. First, I should mention that it was the first time I was seeing a film with my new friend: a situation fraught with all kinds of mores and customs to be negotiated, talk during trailers? (acceptable), during the film? (unacceptable, unless the film is bad), etc. Add to this the fact that this friend is a heterosexual male, which raises the whole "guy-date" problem (did anyone see that ridiculous New York Time piece about this problem? Heterosexual men at great pains to not even give the appearance of being on a date), specifically it raises the problem of seating. Some men, like my brother, insist on an empty seat between two men in a theater, lest anyone think that they are dating. (For the record, I love my brother, but I would never date him--too much history). Anyway, I opted to sit next to my friend. Then comes the movie which is just odd, so odd that I can only conclude two possible things about it:

1) Brian De Palma is trying to prove the it is impossible to make a new "film-noir" film (is that redundant?). As Jameson and Zizek remind us, it was always already impossible to make a "film-noir" movie, since the term itself is based on the French reception of certain American B movies, thus the term relates more to a perspective, something that happened in translation, than an actual genre. However, there is a certain way in which the film refuses any suggestion of depth that was characteristic of noir, that made it possible to see in it a conflict between an existential hero and a corrupt world. All of the actors in De Palma's film are completely opaque in terms of their motivations, or if not they come off like copies of a copy. The mostly young cast also seem completely lost in the historical period. As my friend pointed out, when Josh Hartnett mentions Rita Hayworth, you get the distinct impression that he has no idea who he is talking about. It is perhaps for this reason that the film made me think of Brick, which one could say is a more successful way of making a new film noir, or maybe I was just thinking "I would rather be watching Brick right now."

2) It sucked.



I should mention that as far as a first time seeing a film with a new friend, it went great. By the end we were cracking each other up. It was a little weird to be the only people laughing in the theater, but it made for a more enjoyable experience.

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Place of Philosophy: Spinoza

This is one of the half formed thoughts that I came up with in the middle of teaching my Spinoza Seminar. The sort the leaves me thinking, after responding to a student's comment, "hey, there might be something to what I just said." It is also an attempt on my part to think in somewhat generic terms about my particular position, in philosophy, in a state university, in Bush's America. Thoughts which are provoked, in part, by my morbid fascination with resent discussions about liberal bias in the university.

In Spinoza's refusal of a position at the University of Heidelberg he writes the following:"I do not know within what limits the freedom to philosophize must be confined if I am to avoid appearing to disturb the publicly established religion.” Now the refusal of the position has generally been interpreted as a characteristic statement of Spinoza's caution. However, I have been thinking of it in light of the division that Spinoza sets up between the philosopher and the "common people" in the Theological Political Treatise.

In the Treatise Spinoza argues that all worthy objects of desire can be classified under three general headings:
1. To know things through their primary causes
2. To subjugate the passions, i.e. to acquire the habit of virtue
3. To live in security and good health

For Spinoza the conditions for the first two "lie within the bounds of human nature itself," and thus can be pursued by the philosopher alone. The third, however, requires the artifice of the "social body." However, given that Spinoza will later argue that some social order is a precondition of any economy or arts, it would seem that the first two ultimately presuppose the third. The cultivation of knowledge presupposes the community.

Now, it is at this point that things get interesting. The order of the community is secured by imagination, by scripture which extends obedience beyond thus who cannot grasp the rational basis of the community. The security of the community in turn makes possible the life of the philosopher, whose very examinations call into question that foundation. There is a dialectic in which philosophy continually subverts what by definition it must presuppose. That is to say that there is something of an existential situation where the philosopher is continually questioning the beliefs that make philosophy as an activity possible.

At this point it would be easy to lapse into an easy division between the philosopher and the common ("vulgus"), however, as Spinoza makes clear this division is not between two separate classes of people, but between superstition (or imagination) and reason, cutting through each individual. After all we are all rational and imaginative, reasonable and superstitious, mind and body. For Spinoza the state is founded both on reason, on the recognition that "nothing is more useful to man than man," and imagination, the projection of the other as someone like me, a highly ambivalent situation since this imagined similarity makes possible conflict and strife (EIVP37). To quote Balibar: "Sociability is therefore the unity of a real agreement and an imaginary ambivalence, both of which have real effects."

We all live simultaneously inside and outside of the ideologies that constitute our shared life. I wonder if this split could be related back to the division of mental and manual labor? To the fact in a highly specialized economy of knowledge, we are active in some respects, capable of producing real ideas, but passive in others, subject to the established ideologies. I cannot connect all the dots here, but I thought that I would toss in the following quote from Adorno by way of a conclusion. It is a passage that I think about a great deal.

"The intellectual, particularly when philosophically inclined, is cut off from practical life: revulsion from it has driven him to concern himself with so-called things of the mind. But material practice is not only the pre-condition of his existence, it is basic to the world which he criticizes in his work. If he knows nothing of this basis he shoots into thin air…[H]e hypostatizes as an absolute his intellect which was only formed through contact with economic reality and abstract exchange relations, and which can become intellect solely by reflecting on its own conditions. "

Like I said it is a half formed thought.

By the way the image above comes from a collection of philosophical T-Shirts. Perfect for that special someone.

Other news: Finished Badiou's Theorie du Sujet (more on that in a bit) as well as Ranciere's Nights of Labor. Recently saw The Black Dahlia which was hilarious, but I do not think that it meant to be.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Youth of Today, and the Youth of Today

Perhaps nothing separates me from the kids of today (by which I mean college students) than the concept of "selling-out." It is utterly alien to most of them. They have no problem with the fact that the bands that they like are appearing on television shows and commercials.

(There used to a lag between a song being released and it appearing on a commercial. It used to be years. Then it shrunk to less than a year. Now it is a commercial before it is a hit. Think of Nick Drake, that Volkswagen commercial was the best thing that happened to him, too bad he was already dead.)

Now I cannot pretend to speak for my entire generation, but for at least a certain section of quasi-punk/hardcore kids "selling out" was not just an issue, it was the issue. It was the entirety of critique of capitalism, and more than that it was our existentialism, or politics, our bread and butter. We would spend hours discussing who sold out and exactly when. It still haunts me.

In fact I may have pinpointed the exact moment when I sold out, it was when I bought these:

100% Organic Hemp, 100%Recycled tire, Union Made shoes. A product that complete expresses my particular combination of social and ecological concerns. Not to mention all of that exposed stitching. (And I am not going to mention the kicking corporate ass part, because that would be embarrassing).

There is something about identifying with a brand any brand even if it meets you halfway that just feels like selling out.

Since I am plugging products I will say that I am thoroughly enjoying the new album by The Thermals, "The Body, The Blood, The Machine." I will spare you the attempt at rock journalism and just say punk rock concept album, that is right, complete with tales from a dark fascist-christian future (or is that present?).

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Mythos and Logos: Hollywood Version


I recently stumbled across this article in the New York Times titled "If Hollywood is a Game, this Player Says that it is Over." The article is on Michael Tolkin the author of The Player, the book that was the basis of Robert Altman's film. In the article Tolkin argues that what Hollywood is facing is nothing less than a collapse of the basic narrative structure of the hero's journey.

“The movies haven’t been very good the last three or four years, they really haven’t,” he said. “Everybody knows that. At least that, maybe more. And what they were will never return.” The source of all this creative-industrial-complex angst is the death of what he both eulogizes and parodies: the classic journey-of-the-hero story structure, analyzed by Joseph Campbell in the 1940's, popularized a generation ago by George Lucas through “Star Wars,” spouted and shorthanded by studio executives ever since, and all but trampled to death, Mr. Tolkin said, by nearly every subsequent action movie and thriller that Hollywood has turned out.
Or as Griffin puts it: “Physics cracked the atom, biology cracked the genome and Hollywood cracked the story.”

Now there is perhaps nothing less original the bemoaning the fallen state of Hollywood, but what is interesting is the reason that he gives for it. It is at this point that the article caught my eye:

“I don’t think America’s had a good movie made since Abu Ghraib” Mr. Tolkin said, before clarifying that he’s talking about big movies, not the minuscule ones that have met the industry’s quotas for unembarrassing award nominees.“I think it showed that a generation that had been raised on those heroic movies was torturing. National myths die, I donÂ’t think they return. And our national myth is finished, except in a kind of belligerent way”

Now this is perhaps a bit too optimistic, after all it assumes that everyone is upset about Abu Ghraib, and the war for that matter. (Plus it does nothing to explain The Phantom Menace.) At the same time, it does raise the interesting issue that if war remains our basic template for heroism, and the current war is one that is at the very least fraught with ambivalence if not disdain, where does that leave us with respect to our myths?

A quote from Jameson ups the ante on this: "The west has long since found itself unable to think the category of the 'great collective project' in terms of social revolution and social transformation. But we have convenient subsitute, in any case far less demanding on the imagination: for us, and as far back in 'modernity' as we can determine, the great collective project--the 'moral equivalent of war'--is simply war itself. It is finally as a war machine that the efficiency of the state is judged: and no doubt modern warfare offeres a very advanced form of collective organization indeed. But a fundamental structural and ideological imagination is surely demonstrated by this lack of alternatives, and by the persistence of World War II in the American mind as the great Utopian moment of national unification and the lost object of our political desire" (A Singular Modernity pg. 212).

What strikes me about this is how our current war pales in the face of this, it is a war without a "collective" dimension (that is unless you count those-"support-the-troops"-magnets-that demonstrate-unconditional-support-without-damaging-the-resale-value-of-one's-car). Or, perhaps more accurately it is a war which manifests itself as a collective insecurity. We all participate through fear, through the spread of the news of the latest thwarted terrorist plot, or news tidbit about unprotected water towers and reservoirs.

Ranciere argues (Yes, I have been reading a great deal of him as of late) that this offers a new definition of the state, or a definition of the new state. Playing off of the current administrations "old/new Europe" distinction, in which "old" Europe followed the electorate's hostitility towards the war in Iraq and "new" Europe towed the line, treating democracy like a "focus group," Ranciere argues we should define the "new" democracy, the new state as follows:

The advanced capitalist State is not one of automatic consensus, of adjustments between the daily negotiation of pleasures and the collective negotiation of power and its redistributions. It does not proceed by defusing passionate conflicts and disinvesting values. It does not self-destruct in the limitless freedom of digital communication and the polymerization of individual identities so destructive to social ties. Where commodities rule without limit, whether in post-Reagan America or post- Thatcher England, the optimal form of consensus is one cemented by fear in a society grouped around the warrior State. ("On War as the Advanced Form of Advanced Plutocratic Consensus" pg. 254).

So perhaps we will need new myths, new stories, that are no longer based on the outdated hero (Tolkin's example) or even the sublated collective project (Jameson) but on a society governed by fear and separation.