The Examined Life

5 08 2010

Some notes on the film

This is a 2008 film of conversations with philosophers. Most are probably philosophers that readers here would never have heard of, but I thought the film watchable in spite of its rather unusual subject.

On the talk by Kwame Anthony Appiah:

Above the philosopher speaks of “cosmopolitanism”. While many readers here might read this as a typical liberal critique of Western logocentric structures of thought, I don’t think one can argue that there are fundamental differences between our lives and the lives of our not so distant ancestors. We can often pass more people in a day than most of our ancestors would have passed in their lifetimes. We also deal with a far greater variety of people than we would have access to even a couple of generations ago. I do think that there is a compelling case that we are not epistemologically equipped to deal with the broad diversity of people in our current society.

There have emerged two approaches to this problem. One is the continual assertion of the necessary normative in the face of diversity. I think the Republican Party is a good example of this when a few years back it wanted to affirm the necessity of “small town values” for the betterment of the nation, even when the vast majority of people (by definition) do not live in small towns. The “small town” is normative, the city is not. In my own experience with Catholic traditionalism, such “imagined communities” would think themselves normative: societies within societies that functioned according to their own rules and values. The other manner of coping, of course, is to end the search for any sort of transcendent truth whatsoever.

In terms of philosophical and religious truth, many times we get our views from such an “imagined community”, only artificially or virtually cut off from the rest of society. These have nothing to do with location, kinship, or physical characteristics. The problem emerges when we employ such artificial constructs to come up with an exclusionary normative, and by that we counter-pose ourselves against those immediately around us, even our own families.

On Avital Ronell:

The immediate impression from this talk was, “oh no! Not one of these people again!” You know, the typical academic liberal who throws the term “fascist” around against people she doesn’t like. Nevertheless, it got interesting towards the end of her segment when she was asked by the film maker whether any moral action can exist without meaning. Ronell then began to talk about alterity, that once you know the Other, you are ready to kill him. Again, perhaps there is a “liberal bias” behind this, but she did cite Derrida in saying that once you have a “clean conscience” you are probably living unethically. It is true, perhaps a good “Christian” governor is much more comfortable giving the go-ahead for an execution of a condemned criminal than someone less devout. The difference can be that the former feels that he is acting morally, whereas the latter might not be so sure.

A lot of people like to throw around the social utility of religion, when it is abundantly clear that such a utility is a two-edged sword. The “insight’ to act morally may only be an excuse for even more depraved immoral action. It is at least worth a thought.

On Cornell West:

Clearly the star of the show. He was very evidently grandstanding and name-dropping every chance he could, which is why his segment was less appealing than I think the director intended. Nevertheless, I think the one thing that I got from his talk was the belief that “anti-romanticism” is the only real viable means of pursuing truth in our society. We cannot spend our time thinking of the loss of a distant past which shall never return. Like Zizek (also interviewed), love of this society must be an unconditional love, warts and all.

While I agree to some extent with this sentiment, it is my opinion that it can be taken too far. I think, to some extent, some deference must be given to tradition and a venerable past. This cannot amount to an archeological dig for truth, but is rather a remembrance of the past of our immediate ancestors. In this case, I would say that I am a romanticist, but I would add that I am a “deconstructed” one. Romanticism tends to hitch its wagons on great big metanarratives that it feels can carry the burden of its philosophical problems. I am a romanticist of micronarratives, of folklore told by my extended family and the little monuments from the recent past that are rusting and gathering dust all around us. Such micronarratives do not necessarily define everything outside of themselves as evil, but neither do they accept the world just “as is”. Nor do they look to a future where all aspirations will somehow be met.

Overall, after watching this film, I was affirmed in my belief in Pierre Hadot’s concept of philosophy as a way of life. Philosophy is not so much about telling you what to think, but rather how to think, and even more specifically, what cannot be thought. That is the genius of Neoplatonism and other ancient systems: they all land in silence, in what is above speech. But for that, transformation is needed, and ethical action. Philosophy is merely one exercise that can help us achieve that glimpse of the other world, but for that, we must learn to think honestly, and act morally.


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3 responses

6 08 2010
Steve

You guys might be interested in Glenn Olsen’s “The Turn To Transcendence”.

6 08 2010
Odysseus

As I read what you wrote about micronarratives, something tangential occurred to me which you may have already recognized: Your “frustration” (or however you choose to characterize the temperament of your analyses of modern society and culture in the United States) with society is not simply due to a cultural difference. That is, it’s not just due to you coming from a Mexican family and culture while living and operating in primarily caucasioan, ‘middle class’ environments.

I think that you are also closer to “what has been lost” than the rest of us. You are only one generation (two?) from people living off the land, worshipping God as such people will, living together as such people will. These narratives are not yours (in that you are not a part of them) but they are only secondhand or thirdhand tales for you. Perhaps this, in addition to the purely cultural difference, gives you a perspective that doesn’t jive with that of others. I imagine many people commenting here and elsewhere (such as myself) are much more cut off from such an existence. It is not even in our grandparents’ memory. We are, perhaps, more ‘adrift’ than you are. We read these narratives in books, because there is no one left to tell us about them. My grandfathers, on both sides, had farms and dairies but they were already of the “industrial sort”. No one was waking up and putting on the overalls and going out to the fields. My mother has vague memories of keeping chickens. All I knew was suburbia and television.

I imagine this kind of disparity in people’s backgrounds must be the source of a lot of conflict and disagreement.

Sorry, I don’t mean that as psychoanalysis, but rather was just thinking aloud about something which I think you have pointed out before, possibly in other words, regarding the effects of people’s generational backgrounds (for lack of a better term. I’m in over my head when it comes to talking about this stuff) on their philosophies, their outlooks, their approach to religion.

5 08 2010
Jason C.

We also deal with a far greater variety of people than we would have access to even a couple of generations ago. I do think that there is a compelling case that we are not epistemologically equipped to deal with the broad diversity of people in our current society.

I did some deliberate reading a few months ago on the topic of “community,” and one of the more interesting books I read was “Beyond Loneliness” by Nils Christie. It’s about the Camphill communities that are alternatives to “mental health institutions.” One of the points Christie makes about these communities is how everyone in the community is a unique character. Everyone is known for what is unique about them. And this is contrasted with so-called “normal” society, where the ideal for people with mental handicaps is for them to hide their differentness, to fit in with “normal” people. Whereas in the Camphill communities their “handicap” is part of their personality, in “normal” society they have to suppress what is “strange” about them.

Another interesting book on this topic is “The Gift” by Lewis Hyde. He does make the point (and this goes to your discussion of “small-town” vs. “city”) that small size was essential to traditional societies that functioned on the idea of “gift.” The problem, of course, is how to recover the essence of these small “gift societies” while still living in our much larger society. For me, the answer is not to try to artificially limit society (which can lead to the utopianism that you refer to), but to limit ourselves. We cannot control society…but we have control over how we relate to others. For me, the person in front of me, the person I can see and smell and shake hands with, that person is the basis of my community. This is why, to me, not being able to feed the world doesn’t really bother me (should I feel guilty because I can’t feed people I’ve never met?); but not feeding the beggar who asks me for food while I’m walking is a great matter of guilt for me, because that man is in front of me, and in that fleshly encounter, I am being invited to community…how can I not respond?

So I wouldn’t say that a “small town” is normative, but I do think that limiting ourselves in our own lives is very important. That’s one of the reasons why I am wary of “Internet culture.” Sure, it connects me with millions of people…but so what? Those millions of people are an abstraction. The person sitting next to me right now as I sit in the library is very real, and yet I am here talking to you whom I have never meet nor ever will meet. That is very bothersome to me. Here I am writing this long post on your blog, and I can’t muster a simple “hello” to the person sitting next to me.

Anyway, I guess you were probably thinking of “diversity” more in a cultural sense. I’m not sure if any of my thoughts here relate to that. But I would point out that the story of the Good Samaritan involves a transcendence of “ethnos.” The Samaritan and the Jew, while being from two different peoples and cultures, transcend those differences in their encounter of friendship. And that transcendence of ethnos is possible because of Christ’s Incarnation, because with Christ “there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

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