René Girard (1923-2015)

I heard while traveling today to the Subverting the Norm III conference that René Girard passed away.  I had been told by Michael Hardin, who is close to the family, that he had been ill for some time.   Read the rest of this entry »

Recent Text & Excerpts

I would like to call attention to, and to give some context for, a recent book that I did in collaboration with the artist Davis Rhodes. The book consists of two (physically discrete) parts, each of which includes my text in relay with images of Rhodes’ work. This is not a catalog essay — there is no attempt to provide theoretical meaning for the artworks, nor is there any attempt to pose these artworks as exemplifications of my theoretical efforts. I understand the writing that I do for this book to be no different than my customary mode of writing, with the essential qualification that I have here written under a condition constructed by the works of Rhodes (and my longstanding conversation with him).

The argument I make in this book is a central condensation of my ongoing project on conversion (which is also partially indexed by “Nonrelation and Metarelation” and an upcoming essay in Rhizomes 28). More specifically, the interest of my text in this book is to articulate an immanence of the porosity of non-being (essential disequilibrium) and the construction of form. The text draws on various sources: Deleuze’s difference in-itself; Laruelle’s One, which I read as N(o-)one; Sharpe’s wake; Wilderson’s objective vertigo; Bersani’s anegoic shattering. Selected passages from the text are found below.  Read the rest of this entry »

Is Critique of Israeli State Violence Inherently Anti-Semitic?

The Pope recently spoke with Jewish leaders and affirmed that critique of the State of Israel is a form of anti-Semitism. He also affirmed the commonly uttered opinion that Israel has a right to exist. Unfortunately, such talking points are common ways to shut off any critique that the state of Israel is violently occupying and oppressing the Palestinian people.

Far from being just misinformed, the Pope’s talking points are more strategic. By claiming an argument is inherently anti-Semitic, one can close off any critique of Israeli state violence. There is no doubt the state of Israel has and continues to commit violence against the Palestinian people. By saying all critique of Israeli state violence is anti-Semitic, the supporters of the state of Israel do not have to address the claim that they support either intentionally or unintentionally the systematic oppression of a group of people. The argument intentionally obscures because to admit that the state of Israel is oppressing the Palestinian people might mean that one can no longer justify the actions of Israel. Although making the claim that critics of the state of Israel are anti-Semitic sometimes has basis in truth (see David Duke), it is more strategic in most cases. Similarly, the appeal to Israel’s right to exist is strategic.

What is ignored in the claim that “Israel has a right to exist” is the lack of an equivalent appeal to the right of the Palestinian people’s right to exist. It is difficult to imagine this omission as unintentional. It privileges one people’s right to exist over others without explicitly saying as much. How would the Pope address the fact that his statements ignore the Palestinian people and their continued occupation by the state of Israel? Moreover, how would the Pope address the fact that in 1948 Palestinians were forced to leave their homes in what is now the borders of Israel? Do Palestinians have a right to exist and by extension, a right to defend themselves? Or is “the right to exist” rhetoric granted only to Israel? If we’re talking realpolitik here, both peoples have a right to defend themselves. Read the rest of this entry »

Further thoughts on accessibility in humanities scholarship

The issue of the relative accessibility of humanities scholarship, the role of “theory” and its terminology, and the need to reach a broader audience have all been major areas of conversation within the humanities themselves. The heyday of “theory,” for instance, is widely acknowledged to be over. Meanwhile, there has been an explosion of more accessible publications (n+1, LA Review of Books, The New Inquiry, etc.) and book series (Zero Books, Repeater Books, etc.) that apply the modes of critical analysis inculcated in humanities graduate programs in a way intended for a broader educated audience — and they have had some real successes, both in reaching that audience and in being accepted into the existing mainstream (as for instance when n+1 alumni pepper the pages of The New Yorker). And meanwhile, to pick just one major example, Judith Butler — the very embodiment of “bad academic prose” in most discussions — has quite literally transformed her prose style from the bottom up in the last decade and engaged quite intentionally with a broader public. We could also think of the phenomenon of Zizek’s broad popularity.

The journalistic discussion of “bad academic writing” never, ever mentions any of this. It judges from the outside, based on stale cliches of 80s- and 90s-vintage academic trends. It never asks the “bad academic writers” whether they have a reason for writing the way they do or whether they share concerns about accessibility. That’s why I regard the discourse as beneath contempt — not because of some misguided loyalty that rejects any critique of any humanities academic, but because the whole discourse is a transparent ongoing political hit-job.

On the “bad academic writing” trope

Yet another article on the scourge of opaque academic writing is making the rounds, and someone on Facebook got mad at me for being so dismissive of it. After all, surely I must admit that sometimes academic writing is needlessly complex and jargony? Right? Right?! But I don’t have to admit anything.

What I wonder is not whether the generalization is justified, but why it is an issue suitable for discussion in the mainstream press. Further, though the critique is aimed at “academic writing” in general, the proverbial “howlers” are almost always in the humanities.

Why are the humanities singled out? The reason is twofold. First, it reflects a belief that specialized knowledge in the humanities simply does not exist. Any humanities research that is not immediately accessible to an undergraduate is therefore an elitist imposture. Second, there is little doubt that there is a political agenda at work, given the ire directed at the influence of “Theory” in humanities writing — which is almost always a left-wing enterprise.

So no, I won’t “admit” that sometimes “academic writing” is bad, because in the public sphere, such rhetoric functions to delegitimate the humanities. There is a serious discussion to be had about the accessibility of our work, etc., but that is a discussion for us to have, on our own terms — not the terms set by a tediously cliched article in the Atlantic Monthly.

Teaching the Phenomenology of Spirit

This semester I’ve had ideal circumstances for teaching Hegel: a very motivated student and a one-on-one setting. My ultimate goal, however, would be to teach a proper course, and I imagine (based on my experience teaching Heidegger) that such a course would be pretty full at Shimer. Here are some of my thoughts on how to organize that.

First, I think it’s absolutely necessary to pair it with Hyppolite’s Genesis and Structure. Hegel infamously refuses to cite his sources, and simply providing that context (which includes many texts that Shimer students would have actually read) is invaluable. Hyppolite has his own reading, of course, but so far it seems that he has kept his axes relatively unground. For any given day, then, I’d assign a certain segment of the Phenomenology and the parallel text in Hyppolite.

Second, I don’t think they need to do everything. For the segment on “Observing Reason” (which I had us go through much too slowly this semester, due to my relative unfamiliarity with those sections), I might assign Hyppolite and tell them to scan over the actual Hegel — they should know what goes on and how it recapitulates previous movements from a new perspective, etc., but they can probably get by with just a description. I would also omit “Religion” and — perhaps more controversially — both “Absolute Knowledge” and the Preface. (In any event, I would save the Preface for last if there turned out to be room.) By my math, this would make it possible to do less than 10 pages of Hegel per session on average (assuming three days a week). Even paired with the Hyppolite, the reading load would still be light compared to the Shimer average (30 pages per sesion).

Finally, I think this approach would leave me room for some further secondary essays, where I could incorporate a range of perspectives (particularly feminist and black perspectives) on one of the ultimate Dead White Males.

Three questions on Hegel

Questions that occur to me as the first half of my (hopefully) two-semester tutorial on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit winds through the wilds of “Observing Reason”:

  1. So far, I’ve noted that for Hegel, the “negative” can mean many things. It can mean abstraction (which negates the full richness of concrete content) or determinacy (which implicitly negates other things through its very self-assertion). It can mean negation in the simple sense of rejection or destruction. Best of all, of course, is the self-referential negation which both negates and preserves itself, hence transcending immediate negation in order to introduce the superior quality of mediation. My question: is it actually necessary or helpful to use a single word to cover all of this?
  2. A.V. Miller’s translation of Begriff as “Notion” seems to have few fans. “Concept” is probably better and more natural — but would it be possible to capture a little more of the “grasping” or “gripping” in Begriff? (Presumably he could have used the Latinate equivalent if that were satisfactory.) Something along these lines would emphasize the distinction Hegel is trying to make between Vorstellung, representation or picture-thinking, and the properly philosophical thought that he’s promoting: it’s not a question of seeing or observing or describing (though all those activities remain necessary and legitimate), but of actually grasping. Of course, it’s a weird kind of grasping that seizes hold of living movement by entering into it — which is very different from how we normally think of “concepts.”
  3. Is it possible that Hegel’s critique of physiognomy and phrenology could be taken as a rejection of scientific racism? (Obviously that wouldn’t let him off the hook, but it might make him one of the earliest exponents of the more “nuanced” racism that points to a group’s culture as the source of their dysfunction.)
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