Tribute to Slavoj Zizek

3 08 2018

My current relationship with the thought of Slavoj Zizek is complicated. A few months ago, I would have been far more enthusiastic about him than I am now. After saturating myself with his heavy accented English lectures, as well as reading many of his books, I have concluded, along with many others, that he is the intellectual clown of the petit-bourgeois left. That’s not to say that I don’t find much of what he writes useful or even compelling. I think he engages popular culture far more effectively than any other voice on the left. More “orthodox” Marxists have a much more ossified view of the world, as if we are still trapped in 1968, 1917, or even worse, 1848. Zizek by no means has this problem. While I may not be able to take his views on Kung Fu Panda seriously, I can at least admire the audacity of someone who tries to draw theory out of something so ridiculous and banal.

All the same, I think his books and various engagements with aspects of modern culture are obscurantist and border on intellectual titillation. At times, his random engagements with popular culture and modern capitalism seem to be akin to a dope addict trying to kick his addiction by describing what a particular high feels like. I know that I am brainwashed by ideology, and am often most brainwashed when I try to rid myself of ideology. I also know that capitalism has a lot to do with it, and even I share his pessimism regarding being able to change all of this. At the same time, when you have a young family, and children facing a bleak future at least on the societal level, you cannot afford such pessimism. One could argue that pessimism is just realism with the rose-colored glasses taken off, but one could also argue that being a pessimist and choosing to have children is the worst barbarism of all. Hope, like reason, is something that separates us from beasts and monsters.
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On the burning in the bosom

29 06 2011

When it is charged with the triviality of what it offers, it assures us, in reply, that the fullness and richness of its meaning lie deep down in its own heart, and that others must feel this too, since with such phrases as the “heart’s natural innocence”, “purity of conscience”, and so on, it supposes it has expressed things that are ultimate and final, to which no one can take exception, and about which nothing further can be required. But the very problem in hand was just that the best must not be left behind hidden away in secret, but be brought out of the depths and set forth in the light of day. It could quite well from the start have spared itself the trouble of bringing forward ultimate and final truths of that sort; they were long since to be found, say, in the Catechism, in popular proverbs, etc. It is an easy matter to grasp such truths in their indefinite and crooked inaccurate form, and in many cases to point out that the mind convinced of them is conscious of the very opposite truths. When it struggles to get itself out of the mental embarrassment thereby produced, it will tumble into further confusion, and possibly burst out with the assertion that in short and in fine the matter is settled, the truth is so and so, and anything else is mere “sophistry” – a password used by plain common sense against cultivated critical reason, like the phrase “visionary dreaming”, by which those ignorant of philosophy sum up its character once for all. Since the man of common sense appeals to his feeling, to an oracle within his breast, he is done with any one who does not agree. He has just to explain that he has no more to say to any one who does not find and feel the same as himself. In other words, he tramples the roots of humanity underfoot. For the nature of humanity is to impel men to agree with one another, and its very existence lies simply in the explicit realisation of a community of conscious life. What is anti-human, the condition of mere animals, consists in keeping within the sphere of feeling pure and simple, and in being able to communicate only by way of feeling-states.

-Hegel, from the Preface of the Phenomenology of Spirit





Spiritual not religious

27 06 2011

My wife and I recently saw Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. To get right into it, I don’t think this is a religious film. Most religious reviewers would like to see films like this as a religious film since they are starved of any popular phenomena that reflect their own biases. These “religious” biases are also influenced by pietist concerns of the devotio moderna in which any given encounter must be pigeonholed into a “burning in the bosom” for Jesus, or whether or not it edifies. “Contemplation” is a whole other thing. I would argue that God is completely absent from this film, and Malick only employs religious themes only insofar as they are used to articulate a philosophical point of view.

A few words should be said about the mechanics of the film and plot. In terms of the actual filmmaking, I was impressed but not floored by the scope of the first hour of this movie. The opening scenes take us from the house of a family that has just suffered the tragic loss of one of their sons, to the creation of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth. Much of the imagery is grandiose, though I told my wife afterwards that the temptation for me was to see it in the same light as one sees those Imax presentations in museums on the death of the dinosaurs or hurricanes on the bayou. But these episodes never got to the point of kitsch in this film. Perhaps the most effective scenes came after this contemplation of cosmogony, when we see the emergence of a young family living in Waco, Texas, in the 1950’s. Scenes of birth, sleep, and play take the viewer back to his or her own childhood, and are shot with a contemplative care that make these images by far the best of the film.
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The Spirit is an (opposable) thumb

20 06 2011

By the combined functioning of hand, speech organs and brain, not only in each individual but also in society, men became capable of executing more and more complicated operations, and were able to set themselves, and achieve, higher and higher aims. The work of each generation itself became different, more perfect and more diversified. Agriculture was added to hunting and cattle raising; then came spinning, weaving, metalworking, pottery and navigation. Along with trade and industry, art and science finally appeared. Tribes developed into nations and states. Law and politics arose, and with them that fantastic reflection of human things in the human mind – religion. In the face of all these images, which appeared in the first place to be products of the mind and seemed to dominate human societies, the more modest productions of the working hand retreated into the background, the more so since the mind that planned the labour was able, at a very early stage in the development of society (for example, already in the primitive family), to have the labour that had been planned carried out by other hands than its own. All merit for the swift advance of civilisation was ascribed to the mind, to the development and activity of the brain. Men became accustomed to explain their actions as arising out of thought instead of their needs (which in any case are reflected and perceived in the mind); and so in the course of time there emerged that idealistic world outlook which, especially since the fall of the world of antiquity, has dominated men’s minds. It still rules them to such a degree that even the most materialistic natural scientists of the Darwinian school are still unable to form any clear idea of the origin of man, because under this ideological influence they do not recognise the part that has been played therein by labour.

-Fredrich Engels, The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man





Reality for the sake of theory

11 04 2011

Notes on Hegel’s Philosophy of History

The premise of Hegel’s work can be summarized, oddly enough, in a very simple phrase: “the Eastern world knew that one is free; the Greek world knew that some are free; and the German world knows that all are free”. The movement of the Spirit through history is manifested through man’s increasing separation from Nature. Spirit, simply put, is freedom, and modernity is the realization of that freedom that has been developing through the centuries. Hegel uses the figure of the Egyptian Sphinx, the human face climbing out of the animal body, to show this emergence of the free from the primeval muck of nature.
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Who Thinks Abstractly?

7 04 2011

Think? Abstractly? — Sauve qui peut! Let those who can save themselves! Even now I can hear a traitor, bought by the enemy, exclaim these words, denouncing this essay because it will plainly deal with metaphysics. For metaphysics is a word, no less than abstract, and almost thinking as well, from which everybody more or less runs away as from a man who has caught the plague.

But the intention here really is not so wicked, as if the meaning of thinking and of abstract were to be explained here. There is nothing the beautiful world finds as intolerable as explanations. I, too, find it terrible when somebody begins to explain, for when worst comes to worst I understand everything myself. Here the explanation of thinking and abstract would in any case be entirely superfluous; for it is only because the beautiful world knows what it means to be abstract that it runs away. Just as one does not desire what one does not know, one also cannot hate it. Nor is it my intent to try craftily to reconcile the beautiful world with thinking or with the abstract as if, under the semblance of small talk, thinking and the abstract were to be put over till in the end they had found their way into society incognito, without having aroused any disgust; even as if they were to be adopted imperceptibly by society, or, as the Swabians say, hereingezäunselt, before the author of this complication suddenly exposed this strange guest, namely the abstract, whom the whole party had long treated and recognized under a different title as if he were a good old acquaintance. Such scenes of recognition which are meant to instruct the world against its will have the inexcusable fault that they simultaneously humiliate, and the wirepuller tries with his artifice to gain a little fame; but this humiliation and this vanity destroy the effect, for they push away again an instruction gained at such a price.
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Notes on Hegel on Africa

21 03 2011

These are some of the infamous passages by G.F.W. Hegel in his Philosophy of History in which he writes the following:

The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality-all that we call feeling-if we would rightly comprehend him; there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character. The copious and circumstantial accounts of Missionaries completely confirm this, and Mahommedanism appears to be the only thing which in any way brings the Negroes within the range of culture…

At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit. Historical movements in it-that is in its northern part-belong to the Asiatic or European World. Carthage displayed there an important transitionary phase of civilization; but, as a Phoenician colony, it belongs to Asia. Egypt will be considered in reference to the passage of the human mind from its Eastern to its Western phase, but it does not belong to the African Spirit. What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History.
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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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