The paralogisms of pure dismissal

Dismissal is a fundamental feature of the intellectual life. We are all finite and limited, both in time and in mental capacity, and so it will inevitably happen that we feel compelled to dismiss some cultural product or other — indeed, entire fields of cultural products.

The decision on what to dismiss is structurally unjustifiable. In principle, if you set about justifying your dismissal, you must engage in activities other than dismissal — critique, for instance. But for your critique to be valid, you must spend considerable time on the cultural product in question, which misses the point of dismissing it in the first place.

Let’s say, for instance, that I dismiss Lovecraft. I don’t care about Cthuhlu or any other theme, character, or event portrayed in Lovecraft’s work. The themes explored do not seem to me to be worthy of attention.

Then suppose someone challenges me on it: many smart people, even professional philosophers, think Lovecraft is great! How can I dismiss him? This is where I risk being drawn into the trap. If I critique Lovecraft, I reveal how laughably superficial my knowledge of Lovecraft is — hence my dismissal cannot be taken seriously. The only thing I can do if I want to justify myself is precisely to study Lovecraft closely, to engage deeply with the philosophical dialogue surrounding his work, in the hopes of finding it to be, as I suspected, valueless. And all that time spent proving I was right not to study Lovecraft would only result in dismissal by Lovecraft fans — after all, I did not approach Lovecraft with an open mind!

The only option is to have the courage of your dismissal. If someone tries to goad you into justifying your decision to dismiss something, the only possible answer is: “I just don’t care.” But how can you not care? “I don’t care.” The abyss of freedom emerges as the abyss of apathy, in which the space of reason and justification collapses into the sheer assertion of “I would prefer not to.” Only in dismissing Lovecraft, in short, are we truly free.

Summer to-do list

Summer has finally begun, as we had our last faculty meeting yesterday. My previous two summers were almost insanely productive. This year, as I am in a lull waiting for The Prince of This World — by the way, did you know it’s available for pre-order? — to come out, I am trying to take it relatively easy and let my brain heal up a little bit. The academic-related things I actually need to do this summer are as follows:

  • Finalize my travel arrangements for Australia
  • Write one lecture and revise another, for repeated use in Australia
  • Translate Agamben’s (very short) book The Mystery of Evil: Benedict XVI and the End of Days
  • Correct the proofs and do the index for The Prince of This World
  • Design a syllabus and place a book order for the Shimer senior capstone course

  • Write my contribution for the volume Carlo Salzani and I are co-editing, Agamben as Reader

All but the last item need to occur before I leave for Australia (mid-July). The last item will require reviewing some Agamben texts, and I’m figuring I can bring them along for airplane and other miscellaneous reading during the trip.

This is all quite manageable and far less than I have done in recent years, yet I feel overwhelmed, as though I won’t have a free moment all summer long.

What about you, readers? What do you have planned for the glorious freedom of summer, that blessed time when academics get time off work so that they can finally get some work done?

The Antinomies of Pure Trump

The iron-clad rule of all punditry and freelance social media opinionating: everything that happens must be construed such that it helps Trump.

Do people protest his events? The silent majority hates protestors, so it helps Trump. Do people not protest his events? That shows that he’s a legitimate, mainstream figure.

Does the economy get worse? That increases people’s desire to switch party control, hence helping Trump. Does the economy get better? That makes people feel more secure and willing to take a risk, hence helping Trump.

I leave further examples as an exercise for the reader. In fact, it’s good to practice “but this only helps Trump,” until it becomes second nature. That will help you to build up your social media brand as a sober realist (i.e., someone who always thinks the worst possible thing will happen), and greater attention to Trump leads to more passionate debate and therefore more pageviews and ad revenue for your favorite social media sites.

Were blogs better?

Was online discussion better when blogs were in their heyday? I don’t think I have rose-colored spectacles, but it seems to me there was at least more room for productive discussion. There was a greater chance that a commenter had been following your blog for a while and knew where you were coming from — and similarly, there was a tendency for a community of commenters to develop.

Now it seems like commenting culture is like guerilla warfare — people swoop in, take potshots with no context whatsoever, and don’t even stick around for the responses. No one responds directly to what a particular person is saying, but only to the kind of thing they think that kind of person says. Plus there’s the weaponization of comment through orchestrated harassment campaigns.

There are still people trying to have a genuine dialogue, but it’s hard to filter out the noise. It was never great, of course, but now it’s even worse.

Would not the most radical political intervention for Zizek be precisely to STOP?!

Slavoj Zizek needs to stop writing political columns. He is not good at it. Some readers are still making heroic efforts to construe his political columns positively, but if you need a supporter to write a 2000+ word defense of your pithy political intervention — indeed, if most readers construe it as meaning the opposite of what is intended — then you are doing it wrong.

Those heroic defenses — a genre to which I have contributed in the recent past — generally ask that the reader situate Zizek’s political column or interview or whatever within his vast theoretical apparatus, which has been growing at a rate of at least 500 pages per year for the last couple decades. Demanding hundreds of hours of labor from your reader before you can extract a worthwhile point out of an opinion column is not how political interventions are supposed to work. If your point requires a certain theoretical context in order to make sense, then you should not publish your point without that context.

Leaving aside the question of whether Zizek’s opinions about the refugee crisis or whatever else are “correct,” we must also pay attention to the form of his interventions. How do they function politically, concretely speaking? Let’s look at their real-world effect rather than fantasizing about what it would be like if the powers that be somehow implemented his program or he were dictator. I don’t know how we can conclude that they are anything but an utter failure. They do not prompt discussion of the actual issues at hand, but instead turn all attention to how we are to assess Slavoj Zizek the individual — is he a Eurocentric Islamophobic racist? And even if we grant that he’s not, the very fact that the question is coming up constantly indicates that there is a failure of presentation.

Yet it appears that he takes every such accusation as an occasion to dig in his heels further on his stupid South Park-style contrarian “provocations.” So we’re dealing with political interventions that utterly fail to get their point across and instead prompt an increasingly negative referendum on Zizek — apparently causing a feedback loop where he insists all the more on his ineffective presentation (again, construing his intentions as charitably as possible).

The only way to stop this vicious cycle is to stop. He needs to stop writing these opinion columns, and his friends need to stop writing apologetics and start writing him e-mails begging him to just stop, before he completely destroys his reputation and legacy.

Some thoughts on Homeric gender politics

Iliad

It’s almost too obvious to say that the Homeric epics are misogynist. What strikes me is how systematically misogynist they are, how they have to keep repressing a feminine element that always threatens to resurface. Sometimes it does, most dramatically when Hecuba bares her breast in an attempt to dissuade Hector from rejoining the battle, more mundanely when the soldiers chide each other for being womanly.

Every story that is, on the face of it, about the relationship between a man and a woman is displaced into a story about a rivalry between two men or about the loyalty between two men. The presenting issue in the Iliad combines both moves: Helen is induced to be unfaithful to her rather unimpressive husband, Menelaus, but this marital tension is displaced into a rivalry between Menelaus and Paris (abortively staged in Book 3) and then of course balloons into an international conflict lasting a decade. Achilles’ apparently sincere love for his war captive, Briseis, quickly becomes fodder for rivalry with Agamemnon. This does not explode into violence due to party loyalty, but Achilles can only join back into the captive after the death of his beloved comrade Patroclus (male loyalty) opens up a more serious male rivalry with Hector. That then sets up the uneasy truce between Achilles and Priam — where two men, united in their grief over men, call a temporary halt to the war started over a woman.

This aggressively homosocial gender politics may work in war, but it starts to fall apart when we turn back toward home in The Odyssey. And that incoherence is brought to a head in the figure of Penelope. On the one hand, Homer seems to be trying to set up some kind of tension through the constant reminders of Agamemnon’s fate — will Penelope really be faithful, or will Odysseus be betrayed? On the other hand, there are only two ways for a human woman to be: either utterly devoted and submissive or maliciously traitorous. (Helen shuttles back and forth, but at any given moment she is either one or the other.) At times this strains credulity, as when we learn how happy Briseis was at the prospect of becoming the lawfully wedded wife of her husband’s murderer, or what Penelope exults after Telemachus basically tells her to shut up because he’s the man.

There is no room for a woman who is seriously torn, though Penelope sometimes come close. Unable to give her a complex internal life, Homer instead puts her into a complex situation where she can’t be sure whether her husband is dead or alive. If we ask why she doesn’t simply tell the Suitors to leave, the simplest answer is probably that if she did that, she wouldn’t be a proper submissive woman — open wilfulness, even in the service of faithfulness to her husband, is breaking the rules. Her only weapon is passive-aggression, exemplified by the burial shroud trick.

In the later epic tradition, it is the women who start to get what we moderns would identify as a complex interior life — above all the impressive figures of Medea and Myrrha, who are faced with a genuine internal conflict (whether to betray her father for Jason and whether to seduce her own father, respectively). As for the men, we see profound depths of emotion — to a point that is almost comical from a modern perspective at times, or at least from the perspective of impatient student readers who are tired of all the crying — but never real depth of character. The price they pay for their relentless repression of the feminine is being stuck at the surface of things.

A Hegelian footnote to Nancy

In the acknowledgments to the collection The Birth to Presence, Nancy confesses that he has not always found it possible to provide bibliographical references for his quotations: “Some readers may take this to be oversight or a blameworthy hastiness, even if the reference is to a well-known text. (‘What is “well-known” isn’t known at all,’ writes Hegel; I know this sentence well, but I don’t know where to locate it in the Phenomenology of Mind.)”

For various reasons, this confession has always stuck out in my mind — it is a reminder of the greater fussiness of English publishers with regard to quotations, and the irony of the specific quotation in question is of course striking. Hence I believe that during the course of my year-long tutorial over the Phenomenology, I would have noticed the quotation if it actually appeared. And my evidence for this bold claim is that I did in fact notice it when I came across it in Addition 2 to paragarph 24 of the Encyclopedia Logic (pg. 59 in the Hackett edition):

In this way the Logic is the all-animating spirit of all sciences, and the thought-determinations contained in the Logic are the pure spirits; they are what is most inward, but, at the same time, they are always on our lips, and consequently they seem to be something thoroughly well known. But what is well known in this manner is usually what is most unknown.

What do you think, readers? Is this most likely the passage Nancy had in mind, or is there a closer match elsewhere?

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