Science envy

The hottest new trend in continental philosophy is scientism. Where all of us benighted continentalists worry over meta-commentary on previous readings of interpretations of old German texts, you see, scientists are really engaging directly with the real!

Well, let me tell you: I’ve actually been doing science this semester in the Shimer Natural Sciences 1 class I’ve been auditing. I’ve laboriously read through foundational texts of pre-modern and modern chemistry. I’ve taken part in modern adaptations of classical lab experiments, such as the experiment with the calcination of tin that allowed Lavoisier to definitively disprove the existence of phlogiston and cleared the way for the recognition of oxygen. I daresay that this experience, however rudimentary it undoubtedly is, represents a more concrete engagement with scientific practice than most of our current science fetishists have had since high school.

As a result of this engagement, I’ve come to some preliminary conclusions. First, the natural sciences are conceptual disciplines and mostly don’t want to admit it. Experimental results are not unmediated encounters with the real, but tests of concepts — often requiring extremely contrived set-ups that would never be even approximated in a thousand years of passive “empirical observation.” Any number of “wrong” systems can account for observed results (viz., the phlogiston theory, which was actually pretty robust, until someone thought of the question it couldn’t answer).

The scientific method is obviously extremely powerful, but its (often willful) blindness to the real nature of its practice and its totalitarian ambition to explain everything (i.e., reduce everything to “scientific” terms) also make it extremely dangerous. Hence one of the most important jobs of philosophers is to be critics of science, in the Kantian sense of the word. In other words, Husserl and Heidegger and Foucault were basically right.

A Fun Fact about Privatization: With Scattered Reflections on “the State”

James Meek’s LRB article about electricity privatization in the UK includes an interesting tidbit:

How did we get here? In 1981, with inflation and unemployment at 10 per cent plus, with the recently elected Conservative government forced to yield to the demands of the miners, public spending cuts provoking general outrage and Thatcher’s prime ministerial career seemingly doomed to a swift, ignominious end, a 38-year-old economist from Birmingham University called Stephen Littlechild was working on ways to realise an esoteric idea that had been much discussed in radical Tory circles: privatisation. Privatisation was not a Thatcher patent. The Spanish economist Germà Bel traces the origins of the word to the German word Reprivatisierung, first used in English in 1936 by the Berlin correspondent of the Economist, writing about Nazi economic policy. In 1943, in an analysis of Hitler’s programme in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, the word ‘privatisation’ entered the academic literature for the first time. The author, Sidney Merlin, wrote that the Nazi Party ‘facilitates the accumulation of private fortunes and industrial empires by its foremost members and collaborators through “privatisation” and other measures, thereby intensifying centralisation of economic affairs and government in an increasingly narrow group that may for all practical purposes be termed the national socialist elite’.

That’s right: privatization of government functions and state-owned industries was literally invented by the Nazis.

This reminds me of something I’ve been meaning to blog about for months. Read the rest of this entry »

Monasticism and neoliberalism: On Agamben’s The Highest Poverty

I’ve been slowly working my way through Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics this summer, with a kind of dawning horror at the sheer nihilism of neoliberalism. The end result of this ruling ideology is that we should all be our own individual enterprises, in constant competition with others, making continual economic choices — and with no goal outside the competition itself. Even when we “retire,” we are not at rest, because then above all we need to be savvy managers of our various investments.

All this in the name of freedom! Read the rest of this entry »

Some remarks on Agamben’s style, ending with a comparison to Lacan

The process of translating Agamben has forced me to pay closer attention to his style, broadly speaking, than I likely otherwise would have, particularly given the necessity of following up on his references and citations in order to bring his looser European bibliographical style up to American standards.

First, it’s clear that for all the obvious erudition of his work, he relies very heavily on secondary sources — but primarily in order to use their own evidence to come to his own conclusions. To use our fashionable contemporary terminology, he is mostly concerned to make “interventions” into particular fields of scholarship that he views as having been held back by a lack of explicit attention to strictly conceptual concerns (which usually leads them to more or less unconsciously accept some pre-given conceptual form). Read the rest of this entry »

The Aesthetics of Authority

This post grows so directly out of my daily Google Chat conversations with Brad that it is essentially co-authored.

Yesterday, Brad was telling me about a David Graeber lecture that he attended and suggested that the reason so many academics tend to favor the Marxist left over the anarchist left is our desire to have the right answer, which I generalized to a latent (and sometimes not so latent) authoritarianism of academics. Read the rest of this entry »

On Being Anti-Christian

As our discussion of J. Kameron Carter’s Race proceeds, I’d like, in the spirit of “halftime analysis,” to repost a lengthy comment I made on this post. The question at issue was Carter’s treatment of Foucault, which some took as critical, and some as an attempt to draw out a certain problem built in to modernity. What makes this intriguing for me, and worthy of raising again, is the question of the position one adopts regarding the relation between radical criticism and theology. Is radical criticism possible apart from consideration of theology? And if one answers no, then in what sense? That is, even if one accepts the necessity of considering theology’s relevance for radical critique, is it actually necessary to save some aspect of theology from this critique? Here’s the comment: Read the rest of this entry »

“I like to think (right now, please!)”

Adam Curtis’s All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (part 1, part 2, part 3) is pretty excellent. It puts forward an ambitious and interesting thesis, which I think deserves more engagement from the anti-authoritarian left than this rather defensive response at New Left Project. To try and compress Curtis’s already over compressed argument into one thesis, he identifies the idea of a self-regulating homeostasis as a widely accepted common sense of our times, and one which makes it difficult for us to think about changing the world, either about what such a change would mean or what the role of power would be in accomplishing such a change. That New Left Project response is right to point out other traditions which influence the anti-authoritarian left and have more to say about power and radical change, but this doesn’t negate what I think Curtis is trying to do. The ideological assemblage he puts together has a certain coherence, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be exhaustive, I don’t think he’s denying that there are other elements which could be assembled in other ways.

This does, though, raise a problem with the documentary, and indeed with Curtis’s work more generally. I think he’s doing this kind of Foucaldian tracing of discourses, but I’m basically guessing, because he’s not very explicit about what he is doing. There are various things about the way the program is put together that imply certain things about the epistemology, although they’re also rather contradictory. Curtis’s signature method, the construction of a documentary largely from archive footage some distantly, some closely related to the point being made, emphasizes the intellectual configuration being constructed is partial. In particular, building the program around juxtaposition tends to push against interpreting the relationships between the elements as causal, which of course is emphasized by the jumps in time throughout the program. Read the rest of this entry »

Agamben and Jewish Difference: Some scattered thoughts

I’ve been reading Foucault’s Security, Territory, Population the last few days, and it has prompted some thoughts on Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory, which is a kind of response to Foucault’s work. The trigger for these thoughts came when Foucault said that the notion of the king as a shepherd is a not a classical Greek or Roman theme and was brought in from the Mesopotamian and specifically Hebrew tradition by means of Christianity.

That claim makes perfect sense, but it struck me that it’s absolutely impossible to imagine Agamben making such a claim. Read the rest of this entry »

1 John and Foucault

As I haltingly make my way through the New Testament, starting with the very easy book of 1 John, I came to verse 2:28:

Καὶ νῦν, τεκνία, μένετε ἐν αὐτῷ, ἵνα ἐὰν φανερωθῇ σχῶμεν παρρησίαν καὶ μὴ αἰσχυνθῶμεν ἀπ’ αὐτοῦ ἐν τῇ παρουσίᾳ αὐτοῦ.

The NRSV translates it as follows:

And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he is revealed we may have confidence and not be put to shame before him at his coming.

The word translated as “confidence” is none other than the famous Foucauldian word “parrhesia.” I found a devotional reading online that picked up on the real meaning of the word, but appeared to abstract it from its context and claim that Christians should be bold in approaching God in prayer — yet in this particular context, we are promised that we will speak boldly to Christ at his coming. What does that mean? And in connection with that, how should we understand the part translated as “not be put to shame before him”? (I’d suggest “not be dishonored by him.”)


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