Kant on the sublime

15 03 2011

Might is a power which is superior to great hindrances. It is termed dominion if it is also superior to the resistance of that which itself possesses might. Nature considered in an aesthetic judgement as might that has no dominion over us, is dynamically sublime.

If we are to estimate nature as dynamically sublime, it must be represented as a source of fear (though the converse, that every object that is a source of fear is, in our aesthetic judgement, sublime, does not hold). For in forming an aesthetic estimate the superiority to hindrances can only be estimated according to the greatness of the resistance. Now that which we strive to resist is an evil, and, if we do not find our powers commensurate to the task, an object of fear. Hence the aesthetic judgement can only deem nature a might, and so dynamically sublime, in so far as it is looked upon as an object of fear…

Bold, overhanging, and, as it were, threatening rocks, thunderclouds piled up the vault of heaven, borne along with flashes and peals, volcanoes in all their violence of destruction, hurricanes leaving desolation in their track, the boundless ocean rising with rebellious force, the high waterfall of some mighty river, and the like, make our power of resistance of trifling moment in comparison with their might. But, provided our own position is secure, their aspect is all the more attractive for its fearfulness; and we readily call these objects sublime, because they raise the forces of the soul above the height of vulgar commonplace, and discover within us a power of resistance of quite another kind, which gives us courage to be able to measure ourselves against the seeming omnipotence of nature…

Sublimity, therefore, does not reside in any of the things of nature, but only in our own mind, in so far as we may become conscious of our superiority over nature within, and thus also over nature without us (as exerting influence upon us). Everything that provokes this feeling in us, including the might of nature which challenges our strength, is then, though improperly, called sublime, and it is only under presupposition of this idea wihin us, and in relation to it, that we are capable of attaining to the idea of the sublimity of that Being which inspires deep respect in us, not by the mere display of its might in nature, but more by the faculty which is planned in us of estimating that might without fear, and of regarding our estate as exalted above it.

-Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, found here





On 19th century Thomism

14 03 2011

image credit

The book is Gerald McCool’s book, Nineteenth Century Scholasticism: The Search for a Unitary Method. I reviewed the sequel to this book, From Unity to Pluralism, previously on this blog.

The book is about the process of how neo-Thomist scholasticism became the “official philosophy” of the Church from the publication of Leo XIII’s encyclical, Aeterni Patris, in 1879, to the opening sessions of Vatican II in the 1960’s. In the process of describing how scholasticism became once again dominant in the Catholic Church, McCool describes the historical circumstances and rival philosophical approaches that scholasticism sought to replace. In this rare survey of Catholic thought in the 19th century, the author concludes, as in his sequel, that scholasticism ultimately unraveled due to its inability to analyze categories of thought within their proper historical context. In the end, neo- scholasticism could not be unified because the original scholasticism never was. Even the esteemed Baroque commentators on St. Thomas had deviated from their master on such key issues of the nature of being, knowledge, and grace.
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On defeated arguments

10 03 2011

Sancrucesis pointed out on this blog a couple of links to Thomist philosopher Charles de Koninck’s interventions to try to make the Catholic Church change its position on artificial contraception before his death in 1965. De Koninck was by no means the most progressivist voice in the Church, and had argued against the growing influence of personalism at the expense of the Thomistic concept of the common good. Why he argued for a change in the Church’s position is for me not as important as how he did it. Unlike most Catholics today, he has very little concern for the human person as taken as a completely separate entity at least in this question. Even here, a sort of argument from “the common good” seems to be primary in de Koninck’s mind.
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Weekly links 03032011

3 03 2011

A link on “biblical consumerism”:

Beal thinks the current boom in biblical consumerism amounts to a “distress crop,” the last great efflorescence of the old authoritative ideal before people move on and learn to embrace biblical ambiguity. I’m not so sure. Craving the certainty and absolutism of fundamentalism is a fairly common response (across many religious faiths) to the often terrifying flux of modern life. If certitude is the main thing American Christians are seeking when they turn to the Bible, then they’re unlikely to tolerate, let alone embrace, Beal’s “library of questions” model. You can learn a lot about how the Bible was created in the past 2,000 years, and about the many strange forms it has taken in the present, from “The Rise and Fall of the Bible.” But where it’s headed in the future is a mystery much harder to solve.

A Protestant friend of mine once said that the Bible should probably be compared more to a music score than a guide book for living. Americans are notorious for using it as the latter. Even candle shops and botanicas sell books of the Psalms as works of conjure and white magic. The difference between this and using it to justify imperial power is merely a matter of scale. As for me, I never liked reading the Bible, even when forced to do it on my knees in seminary. Oddly enough, it was Luther who would say that the Word of God is expressed best in preaching, not in the written text.

Epistemological distress due to the ripening of late capitalism makes for poor dogma.

This is proof that most people believe in some pretty sloppy history. First off, one must concede that Marx himself called Lincoln a “first rate second rate man”. His subsequent apotheosis should then be seen as unjustified. However, when speaking of the Civil War, Americans are notoriously bad at considering the slaves as entirely passive actors; as poor victims waiting on the plantations to be saved. As W.E.B. DuBois proves in his magisterial work, Black Reconstruction in America, slavery was really ended by a massive general strike on the part of the slaves who left their plantations in droves during the course of the war. Something similar occured in Brazil in 1888: slavery was ended by the slaves themselves a couple of years leading up to the proclamation of the “Golden Law”. To concede that the actual slaves played a vital role in their own liberation would be too much for the bourgeois intellectual, just as the Haitian Revolution proved to be too much for the “world stage” to digest, at least openly.

And, some old news, just to prove that some Latin American “leftist” presidents are not as “left” we think.





On terror

2 03 2011

Zizek is much more interesting in talks than he is in texts.

I agree with this video. The more I live, the more authoritarian I become.

People like to wash their hands of the violence. But we all wash our hands in blood.





The cunning of reason

24 02 2011

It is not the general idea that is implicated in opposition and combat, and that is exposed to danger. It remains in the background, untouched and uninjured. This may be called the cunning of reason – that it sets the passions to work for itself, while that which develops its existence through such impulsion pays the penalty and suffers loss… The particular is for the most part of too trifling value as compared with the general: individuals are sacrificed and abandoned. The Idea pays the penalty of determinate existence and corruptibility not from itself, but from the passions of individuals.

This quotation from Hegel’s The Philosophy of History fits perfectly the common notion of the “cunning of reason”: individuals who follow their particular aims are unknowingly instruments of the realization of the Divine plan. But certain elements disturb this seemingly clear picture. Usually passed over in silence is the very point of Hegel’s argumentation apropos of the “cunning of reason”: the ultimate impossibility of it. It is impossible for any determinate subject to occupy the place of the “cunning of reason” and to exploit another’s passions with getting involved in their labor. i.e. without paying in flesh the price for his exploitation. In this precise sense, the “cunning of reason” is always redoubled: an artisan, for example, makes use of the forces of nature (water, steam…) and lets them interact for ends external to them, to mold the raw material into a form appropriate for human consumption; for him, the aim of the process of production is the satisfaction of human needs. It is here, however, that he is as it were a victim of his own ruse: the true aim of the process of social production is not the satisfaction of individual needs but the very development of productive forces, what Hegel refers to as the “objectivization of the Spirit.” Hegel’s thesis is therefore that the manipulator himself is always manipulated: the artisan who exploits nature by way of the “cunning of reason” is in turn exploited by the “objective spirit.”

-Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative





Gaia Is a Tough Bitch

23 02 2011

My primary work has always been in cell evolution, yet for a long time I’ve been associated with James Lovelock and his Gaia hypothesis. In the early seventies, I was trying to align bacteria by their metabolic pathways. I noticed that all kinds of bacteria produced gases. Oxygen, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, ammonia — more than thirty different gases are given off by the bacteria whose evolutionary history I was keen to reconstruct. Why did every scientist I asked believe that atmospheric oxygen was a biological product but the other atmospheric gases — nitrogen, methane, sulfur, and so on — were not? “Go talk to Lovelock,” at least four different scientists suggested. Lovelock believed that the gases in the atmosphere were biological. He had, by this time, a very good idea of which live organisms were probably “breathing out” the gases in question. These gases were far too abundant in the atmosphere to be formed by chemical and physical processes alone. He argued that the atmosphere was a physiological and not just a chemical system.
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On sight

22 02 2011

First of all, the bright, clear color of the sky, and all it holds within it, the stars that wander here and there, and the moon and the radiance of the sun with its brilliant light; all these, if now they had been seen for the first time by mortals, if, unexpectedly, they were in a moment placed before their eyes, what story could be told more marvelous than these things, or what that the nations would less dare to believe beforehand? Nothing, I believe; so worthy of wonder would this sight have been. Yet think how no one now, wearied with the satiety of seeing, deigns to gaze up at the shining quarters of the sky!

…A truth wondrously new is struggling to fall upon your ears, and a new face of things to reveal itself.

-Lucretius, De Rerum Natura





On torture

21 02 2011

image source

I found this via the Western Confucian. It seems to me that one cannot speak of the civilization that we have in comparison to civilizations past and call what they had then barbarism. After all, did they have such large portions of their society either incarcerated or formerly incarcerated? And of course, the above link shows that the idea of “at least we don’t torture people” to be a lie. The fact that we incarcerate people for years on end and have them terrorized in such ways is a torture unique in and of itself. Compared to that, a good flogging or caning seems civilized.

Much has been made in the Catholic Church in this country regarding the instrinsically evil nature of torture. While the Church should no doubt be applauded for such a stance, many pundits use it to wash their hands of the actual realities of the prison-industrial complex in this country. If we are going to obsess over such practices as waterboarding of foreign terrorists yet say nothing of repeated gang rapes of prisoners within our own borders, at least we shouldn’t complain if people accuse us of being inconsistent. All we are doing is using our moralistic stance to shield ourselves from the actual realities of our situation. And as this condition is often the result of government and social policy (the “war on drugs”, the economic abandonment of the ghetto by industry, etc.), it might as well be an atrocity perpetrated by the state.

On the other hand, I don’t buy the whole argument that, from a moral theological perspective, torture is “intrinsically evil”. My first reply would be, “since when?” 1993? 1945? As the Catholic Church was supportive of many forms of torture, right under the noses of moral theologians who we now respect in many other ethical issues, one wonders what makes us so smart to see things that they didn’t. If we argue that the Catholic Church could get torture so wrong for so many years, we can only wonder what else it may have gotten wrong. On the other (other) hand, I don’t see anything in any theological teaching (prior to the last fifty years) that says the the State has no right to punitive action against the bodies of its subjects. For me, this seems the case of the Church playing catch-up with the values of the secular Enlightenment (though one must concede that those values were distilled from Christian principles, and many Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment ideologies haven’t been particularly enlightened). For me, I am thankful that the Church doesn’t defend torture, but I think this is a case of secular ideology schooling the Church on how to be civilized.





On Being Human

9 02 2011

Blade Runner thus gives a double twist to the commonsense distinction between human and android. Man is a replicant who does not know it; yet if this were all, the film would involve a simplistic reductionist notion that our self-experience qua free “human” agents is an illusion founded upon our ignorance of the causal nexus which regulates our lives. For that reason, we should supplement the former statement: it is only when, at the level of the enunciated content, I assume my replicant-status, that, at the level of enunciation, I become a truly human subject. “I am a replicant” is the statement of the subject in its purest – the same as in Althusser’s theory of ideology where the statement “I am in ideology” is the only way for me to truly avoid the vicious circle of ideology (or the Spinozeian version of it: the awareness that nothing can ever escape the grasp of necessity is the only way of us to be truly free.) In short, the implicit thesis of Blade Runner is that replicants are pure subjects precisely insofar as they testify that every positive, substantial content, inclusive of the intimate fantasies, is not “their own “ but already implanted. In this precise sense, subject is by definition nostalgic, a subject of loss. Let us recall how, in Blade Runner, Rachael silently starts to cry when Deckard proves to her that she is a replicant. The silent grief over the loss of her “humanity,” the infinite longing to be or to become human again, although she knows this will never happen; or conversely, the eternal gnawing doubt over whether I am truly human or just an android – it is these very undecided, intermediate states which make me human.

-Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology








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