Tuesday, May 24, 2016

If humans are designed for knowing, then ...

Aristotle says that man by nature desires to know.  Like all Aristotelian claims, this one is wrapped up in a view of nature at large.  For Aristotle one of the primary features of nature is that it is teleological—it is directed towards an end.  This doesn’t mean, like a car, that it its wheels are pointed in a specific direction and will go that way—but that, to use this metaphor, all of the features of the car are designed for the task of going.[1]  Similarly, if we want to know what humans are, we examine what they are and this tells us their end. The most dominant features, so the story goes, of humans include reason and senses (and presumably memory).  These features combine to make a being designed to know. 
This story should raise some questions, for those of us with the advantage of not being inculcated in the Christian tradition of knowledge.  For were we to take a longer view of human being—that is, both onto- and phylogenetically—we might witness long comically futile episode in which “knowledge” (what precisely this means should also be in question) is neither “kept” nor implemented into human activity.  What is more common in contemporary human life than the sin of akrasia, in which the person fails to act on what she knows?  The woman knows that smoking a cigarette is a risky behavior, but she nonetheless does it.  The man knows that others are not—by virtue of their ethnic association—stupid or smart or sexy, but still judges them as if this were so.[2]
One can explain akrasia in different ways, but the phenomenon still shows that humans bear knowledge that does not change their behavior.  And if one “knows” something but cannot act in accord with this knowledge, of what value is this “knowledge”?
So then let’s adopt the alternative, unsightly thesis: humans do not desire to know.  The human being desires this and that, but one does not desire to know.  If this is the case, how do we who have the unfortunate task of “teaching” them complete this mission?  For even if people do not desire to know, they still must be taught.  The child must wash his hands, he must learn about the Aristotelian concept of teleology, and he must be able to perform the mathematic operations allowing him to understand his wealth or poverty.

[1] A much more interesting and accurate analysis might develop here, were it not we were interested in talking about knowing, since cars are hardly designed simply for “going”!
[2] The phylogenetic view is more tragic, as human lives are expended and exhausted as a result of knowing but not implementing this knowledge.  For example, consider threats to public health that are ignored or suppressed because of their perhaps relatively smaller effects on politics or on the economy.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Light and reality

The object has two deceptive images, counterposed.  First, the object is seen from above and is a circle with a whole in the center. Second, the object is seen from in front and is a square that is solid. A circle and a square cannot be one another, but both are true.

Yet in a third image we see the unity of the two images, because we can see that a cylinder sits before us which looks like a square when seen from above and like a circle when seen from above. The third image presents a "whole real."

But this truth, which is taken for truth (wahrnehmen, one might say), is also false.

For what is deceptive is not the view, but the light. The light illuminates, we say, and in so sayinng we imply that things are what they appear to be when we have woven together various appearances.

We have the man when we witness him in each state of development and growth, from walking on four to walking on two to walking on three.

On the non-existence of reflection

In an essay in the NYRB on Michael Hayden’s new memoir, the author notes a curious moment where Hayden describes the interaction of intelligence figures across borders who meet and talk shop. In this tête-a-tête occasionally a moment emerges that Hayden calls a “creation mythology,” in which his counterpart would make a comment passed off as fact that expresses a non-critical judgment of political conviction.  His example includes the counterpart’s remark that Serbian muslims do not care for the lives of their children.  Hayden then turns this realization back on himself and wonders if his counterpart similarly treats some of his own comments in this way as mere “creation mythology.” And he concludes that yes, this must be the case.
I cluck like a chicken and say “no shit” to myself, because I am enlightened and know all about the inestimable value of reflection and feel a little warm inside knowing that I am enlightened. Then I start to think that reflection and intelligence are not synonymous. I think about how so many people are intelligent in being able to understand and apply rules and methods.  But that this does not mean reflection.
This reminds me of a period when I was a graduate student and thinking about “the gift” and using this terribly abstract concept to make sense of my life.  An erstwhile girlfriend told me that this was a mistake. And this judgment became the more true as I slowly suffered through the beginnings of an emotional decline.
Yet what I was doing at that moment was—in at least one respect—reflection.  I was taking a concept that I was obligated to learn as a graduate student in philosophy and turning the concept back on my own life.  This is why people study philosophy, I believe, I hope.  Through whatever path led me there (long Sunday mornings in church) a concept bedeviled me, and either that bedevilment continued or was replaced by a newer, more robust, more “sophisticated” bedevilment.  The point is that the activity was personal in an essential respect.
To approach this phenomenologically (to whatever degree my time-addled mind is capable), the ego may have an object that it attends to and becomes.  This is how the mechanic or the philosopher-technician works.  But the ego may also pose the object over against itself and then turn that object against itself.  This is reflection: turning the concept back upon the thinker. Becoming self-conscious.  And yet, to turn it against oneself means to draw forth some knowledge of oneself (an object of consciousness) and to relate it to the first object—the concept.

Conclusions: reflection does not exist; critical consciousness means expressing self-awareness; intelligence and reflection are not necessarily distinct; cancel that shit.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Confessions, Redux

More than a thousand years have passed since Augustine—now known by the name Saint—started composing his famous Confessions. Augustine senses a profound interiority, a deep memory in which he finds what constituted him.  He calls this interiority God. The dream of deep interiority is not disconnected from the violence on the streets of Baltimore.  Is it paid for by black bodies, Te-Nihisi Coates?  Well, no, because Augustine was pre-American, pre-modern slave trade.  But it continues and finds a new ground.

 Our interiority is not the interiority of Augustine.  His was an interiority where there was no inner life: he watched Ambrose read to himself with amazement. One read, in Augie’s time, aloud and heard the words spoken. This explains, in part, the power of the Qur’an today, because of its insistence on a unique aural aspect. To read aloud is to populate a room with two and to make oneself into a hearer. 

Our interiority is again a striving for solitude. The best of us strive for solitude through music played at a volume where the music seeps from our earbuds into the atmosphere and irritates others.  We want to block out the external world and to have one thing for ourselves. In the automobile, with the windows closed or with the windows open.  In the latter situation we are evangelists: “Join the jam!”

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


Let’s watch “Battlestar Galactica” or “Star Wars” together and immediately we are met with an image that denies humanity, for humanity did not evolve, but has existed forever. “A long time ago in a galaxy far away.”[1] Instead it has suffered tremendous turns of fate.  These are Christian concepts no doubt.  Can we both accept the evidence of evolution and enjoy “Star Wars” as simply a moral allegory (I puke a little in my mouth at the thought)?

My body is a vestige of eternity, in a poetic sense, that what made it has been handed down throughout myriad differentiations but by continual selection and repetition.  At some profound level, I am a single-celled organism. How did organic life begin, I have to ask myself, and I do not know.  How did what is non-organic give life to the organic?

But even this is a diversion, a reinscription of the anxiety of nothingness and a clinging to some unique quality that differentiates us from the whole of what is.

Whereas, we are quite unique, albeit meaningless.  What we know now we will never know again, yet our pretensions to knowledge will leave this past moment powerless to be anything other than ignorance.

[1] Yes, I said denies humanity, for although humans may have existed since time immemorial, they are no longer mammals part of a natural universe, but a form transhistorical.  Therefore, they are no animal, but Godhead.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Adriel Trott on Friendship (Part Two)

In my last post on friendship, I responded to my friend Ashley Vaught's questions about the role of proximity in friendship in Aristotle. I consider some questions there about whether virtue friendship is possible when we are still on the way to becoming completely virtuous. I was left wondering how we can ever become virtuous if we need friends to become virtuous but we can't be virtue friends before we are completely virtuous. Perhaps it isn't just that friendship is impossible, but rather that our friends who help us become virtuous must be more virtuous than we are. One possibility is that virtue in Aristotle unlike in Plato can be partial and always underway since virtue is practiced and requires a practice of ethical perception which is then limited based on our individual habits of seeing. Against the view that friends become virtuous and then become capable of having complete and virtuous friendships with us, I think that Aristotelian virtue friends make us have more complete virtue because together we can see better, ethically speaking. It is not lost on me that my exchange with Ashley over friendship in Aristotle illustrates how friends help us see more and better. I appreciate the meta-ness of that more and better being about how friends help us see more and better.

So this brings me to the question of whether romantic friendships are instances of complete friendships -- Ashley thought that might be so today because they satisfy many of the conditions of complete friendship, but that Aristotle didn't mean this because he didn't think of women as equal to men and thus not capable of friendship. I'd contest that to some degree given that he describes the relationship between men and women as political and political rule as that which is between those who are free and equal. But let's concede that Aristotle might have meant complete friendship as that which is between those old leisurely men who sat around and thought about life together (I picture the old guys in Greek cafés who sit around all day chatting with nary a woman in sight). The more I think about it, the more I think that there is not an easy answer to this question. In this post then I don't promise to offer any answers but to raise more questions and concerns about how we think about friendship in Aristotle and how investigating romantic friendship might further illuminate those questions.

Complete friendship is between equals. In a patriarchal society, we have no reason to assume that romantic relationships are between equals. Aristotle's complete friendships seem to be not only between men but also between Greeks, precisely because barbarians could not be seen to be equal to Greeks, so the Greeks could not be friends, complete friends, with barbarians. Derrida argues in Rogues: Two Essays on Reason that democracy for Plato was a ruse, a sharing in turns that appeared to allow for difference, but always required that one be equal, the same, having the same sight of the good, in order to rule. But Aristotle's account of friendship seems to acknowledge the lack, the incompleteness, even of complete friendship, where one cannot fully see one's own virtue or deliberate as well alone as with others.

I have a hard time thinking about this without thinking about Danielle Allen's Talking With Strangers. Allen argues that Aristotle's account of political friendship can help us think about racial reconciliation by showing how the undue burden of sacrifice on Black Americans is injustice because it requires an unequal contribution by equals. Allen's account suggests that friendship then requires challenging our notion of what constitutes equality. Friendships are unequal when unequal demands are made for their success, as when peace is maintained by asking people to stop complaining about racism and thus making the victims of racism pay for the success of the political friendship. Or in romantic relationships, when women bear the emotional load or the moral compass of the relationship. If political life is a matter of justice because it is a matter of equality, then friendship too is political, and it can involve the same difficulties as political life, though perhaps with more goodwill. Liberal feminists like Susan Moller Okin point to the problems with thinking that romantic or family relationships need not concern themselves with equality or justice in Justice, Gender and the Family. The lives of the closest proximity in contemporary life are romantic ones and this closeness has been what kept or discouraged people from demanding equality and justice in these relationships. But that liberal model of the family, which argues the problem is that rights are properly distributed, contributes to our view of koinonia, whether between two or ten thousand, as the competition of resources, whether they be rights or recognition.

So yesterday was Alain Badiou's birthday and I'm reminded of Badiou's inclusion of lovers in his list of the kinds of subjects produced by an event. Love is the event, and the subject-of-two is what is formed in fidelity to that event, an event which changes the way that you see the world. I'm not saying Aristotle is Badiouian, but complete friendship might be better understood as this kind of subject-of-two in a way that sees the friendship as a common activity that manifests something in the commonality, and a commonality, a community, that must be worked on, investigated, considered, improved. Such a conception can serve as an antidote to the force that the concept of the self as a discrete subject has on our thinking.

One obstacle to thinking romantic relationships as complete friendships is not just that they are gendered and unequal, but that culturally gendered expectations infuse our romantic relationships in ways that seem to demand that partners perform their gender well for the sake of the community formed by the friendship. Such demands are manifested in the "you-complete-me" Disney version of what romantic friendships ought to look like, which keep us from allowing for the kind of freedom we tend to allow our friends. That seems to make romantic friendship about fulfilling what we need (a partner who reflects well on us and fills the needs that we imagine we have according to a certain view of romance, and one might say, of happiness) rather than about the opportunity to live a virtuous life, to fill out one's view of life from a virtuous perspective that a complete friend offers Aristotle. The other side of that is it makes romantic friendship about negotiating needs. When people talk about marriage as sacrifice they are drawing on a model of romantic friendship that says you have to give up what you want and what would make you happy in order to make your partner happy and such a willingness to be for-the-other will produce a successful romantic friendship. I've been struck in my efforts to write about friendship just how pervasive is the view of the individual as a subject that has a sphere of wants and needs that she then negotiates the world to fulfill. This giving up some things and demanding satisfaction in other areas entails this modern sense of who we are as subjects metaphysically separated from one another, agents who have to reach out and give up something or demand something in order to be and to be happy. In my understanding of him, Aristotle doesn't think about ethical and political life in terms of responsibilities to others, but rather, in terms of actions that make this shared life good, an account that binds self-care and the flourishing of community. Even the language of self-care seems insufficient because it seems to tell too well in advance that I am a self who reaches out beyond my self to others. Aristotle is explicit about how our self-sufficiency is communal.

If we are cultivating a subject-of-two in friendship and in romantic friendships, then it seems that we live wanting what is good for our partners not because we are obliged and somehow less independent (which is a bit of a neoliberal capitalist myth anyway), but because it is our opportunity to be generous and just. We remain concerned with equality and injustice and who is contributing more or less not because we are keeping our own tallies, but because we want the success of the community formed by these relationships (which is not to presuppose a self that formed prior to or separately from community) not to be unduly borne by one party (à la Allen). But even more that we don't see the community of the complete friendship as formed by separate parties with separate agendas who come together and reconcile their agendas in order to be happy (such business world terminology is also why the term 'partner' seems to make of relationships the space of competition over resources -- why oh why do we let capital make us think of our relationships in this way?).

I thank my husband in the Acknowledgements to my book by saying that our lives together prove that the deliberate choice to live together constitutes friendship, a line from Aristotle's Politics. Deliberate choice, prohairesis, is a sense of reaching out toward something rather than willing a decision. Reaching out toward something can be done collectively and reaching out toward sharing life seems to capture something of Badiou's notion of the subject-of-two. I worried when I wrote that sentence in my Acknowledgements that it sounds like I'm not saying enough. These reflections have assured me that I am.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Watching "Fargo" and thinking about David Denby's accusation

The other day I went to the agora, where I met a man (David Denby) peddling strange notions. He looked into my soul and said, "A____, you are a deep believer in the force of the Coen, but this means at heart you are a misanthrope. You are not laughing with, but at."

When I think misanthropy, I think Farrelly brothers films, for crude examples, or films by Todd Solondz and Neil LaBute, for more compelling examples (like Happiness [1998]). But you can see it in Kubrick's The Killing (1956), too, as well as many other places.

Misanthropy is an ethical disposition and it speaks to your person, who you are, how you treat others and what is of value (to you). And it's not a pretty one. The misanthrope lives above the world. For him, all others are silly or stupid or shortsighted, and he regularly forgets, if he ever knew, the wisdom of Spirit (Hegel), which is that in his greatest achievements, his sense of possession in knowledge, he will be deceived. So, ironically, the misanthrope does not know himself, but not because he lacks knowledge of himself, but because he doesn't appreciate the limitations in his self-knowledge.

And David Denby writes—or perhaps asks—if of all of the Coen brothers films, only No Country for Old Men (2007) is a straight story, in which the misanthropy falls aside.
For almost twenty-five years, the Coens have been rude and funny, inventive and sometimes tiresome--in general, so prankish and unsettled that they often seemed in danger of undermining what was best in their movies. Have they gone straight at last? (Do the Movies Have a Future? 235)
This analysis even extends to Fargo (1996), where to some degree it is true that it hits the mark. Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is meant to be laughable at first, just as are his co-conspirators Carl and Geaer (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare), although by the end of the complicating action their stupid depravity and toneless violence, respectively, become apparent. Even in their kidnapping, Carl and Geaer seem brusque but still concerned for their quarry (they check her pulse after she falls down the stairs). Then they are pulled over by a state trooper, and three murders quickly result.

More pointedly, one of the greatest problems with the film is the ending, which while it hovers over the pregnant sheriff, Marge (Frances McDormand), she leaves us with a shallow comment that there are more things that matter in the world than money. Peter Stormare's "mute" Geaer, by contrast, seems to offer the commentary her platitude deserves.

Since I saw this film in 1996, I've always hated its ending precisely for this empty moralism. But if Denby is right, then Marge's platitude is just another joke. Perhaps the dilemma is false, that one must not choose comedy over empty platitude, and that Marge's comment is an exasperated response to what otherwise is unworthy. She is not horrified Geaer's actions, just disappointed. She does not make him into a monster, just a foolish, misguided man.

Marge is not wrong, there are greater things than money, and when people act for the sake of those things alone, they end up doing horrible things. This is the case with both Carl and Geaer, as well as Jerry (perhaps especially the latter, who seems otherwise oblivious to his evil). But … so what?

To put this point more broadly, I cannot accept that most or even all of the Coen brothers films are misanthropic, although they are certainly peddling laughs with some wild abandon. For, to me, despite the comic moments, Miller’s Crossing (1990) is a serious, dramatic film. As one commentator put it, Tom (Gabriel Byrne) is a tragic character caught between his friendship and his love. As is No Country For Old Men. And True Grit? But let’s turn to the comedies, to which I must also protest that they are not misanthropic. Even the most foolish Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) or The Big Lebowski (1998) are also filled with a love for their wayward, foolish characters. Similarly with Intolerable Cruelty (2003). This kind of laughter is not belittling because these characters are never meant to be realistic portraits. They are buffoonish, exaggerating the qualities we already recognize.

And yet, I feel as though Denby might respond, “thou dost protest too much.” He might be right. Maybe I'm upset because of what it says about me.