Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category

Slavoj Žižek – Maybe We Just Need a Different Chicken

Loosely paraphrasing Slavoj Žižek, the brilliant and compelling Slovenian philosopher: There’s the story of a madman who is convinced that there is a chicken after him who wants to eat him. A doctor asks him why he is worried, since he’s not a piece of grain, and the madman replies, “but does the chicken know that?”

Raising questions on ideology and its omnipresence in every day life – as he points out in his penetrating observations of quotidian pop culture, from the McCain campaign’s hijacking of the “change” banner, to the Dark Knight, to Kim Jong Il, to home intrusions by Israeli soldiers, to Kung Fu Panda – he makes it clear that we will always have a chicken, it is just a matter of being sincere about it. Cynicism is not a way out of the dilemma of the chicken, according to Žižek, and I can say I totally agree with him – though I couldn’t put it quite so eloquently (or hilariously).

This was shot last September in Oregon, during his tour to promote his book, Violence. I’m reading it right now, and, as usual, it’s amazingly engaging for cultural theory. Žižek doesn’t hide behind oracular mazes of words and endless jargon like so many contemporary academic theorists. And, besides the clarity of his writing, he’s also quite hilarious. His off-the-cuff remarks in the Q&A session had me cracking up. Nothing like a little counter-intuitive thinking to start your day!

Benjamin on Cinema

The ill-fated German cultural critic and brilliant writer Walter Benjamin, on cinema:

By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring common place milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action. Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling. With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject. So, too, slow motion not only presents familiar qualities of movement but reveals in them entirely unknown ones “which, far from looking like retarded rapid movements, give the effect of singularly gliding, floating, supernatural motions.” Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye – if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man. Even if one has a general knowledge of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person’s posture during the fractional second of a stride. The act of reaching for a lighter or a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with our moods. Here the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, it extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses

From his 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

Semiotics and Media

People may not really think they’ll become the people they see in the ads, but the paradigms invoked by advertisements do seem to matter a great deal in terms of how people understand their social identity.

The same goes for any other kind of media, apparently. The recent flurry of invented narratives in the race for the US presidency comes to mind – especially McCain’s campaign, which has changed narratives repeatedly in the last few months, depending on which way the polls are going. (thanks Tom)

Link to professor Tom Streeter’s insightful web essay on semiotics in media.

Foucault’s Madness and Civilization

Madness and Civilization is one of those must-read texts of 20th century continental philosophy. In it, Michel Foucault argues that reason is based on the exclusion of the mentally ill, who are placed in institutions where society attempts to forget them. This, he says, came as a result of the classical age and the Cartesian concept of cogito, where sane people were supposed to be able to exorcise madness from correct thinking, and mad people were those who gave primacy to their hallucinations. They were once romanticized in art, like in the proverbial ship of fools, but now they are bound to reason.

He traces the great confinement – a term he uses for the locking away of the insane – to the closing of the lazar houses in the 17th century. These institutions were then used to collect the rabble and the mentally unfit. Unreason, therefore, became akin to disease, and now it replaced leprosy as the great unknown terror. Later, in the industrial age, they were seen along with the rabble as potential cheap labor.

He argues that the conception that madness is defined along scientific terms is mistaken – it is really the prevailing morality that defines what madness is. Madness confined cannot cause fear, and it cannot offend reasonable and moral citizens of a state.

Continue reading ‘Foucault’s Madness and Civilization’

Einstein on Art, Science & Schopenhauer

Einstein gets mystical in this speech he gave at Max Planck’s 60th birthday, called The Principles of Research:

I believe with Schopenhauer that one of the strongest motives that leads men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one’s own ever shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from personal life into the world of objective perception and thought; this desire may be compared with the townsman’s irresistible longing to escape from his noisy, cramped surroundings into the silence of high mountains, where the eye ranges freely through the still, pure air and fondly traces out the restful contours apparently built for eternity.

I was amused to find out that in his bare Berlin study, in the year 1919, his walls were decorated with four photos, one of Schopenhauer and of three British physicists: James Clerk Maxwell, Michael Faraday, and Newton. (Link)

Joseph Campbell and the spiritual shift

I finally read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which examines our religions, myths, folktales and legends, and pulls out the core element in them all – the monomyth, as he calls it. Ever since my teen years I’ve considered myself an atheist, but I’ve always been perturbed by certain atheists with a – and you can’t describe it any other way than this – dogmatic outlook and haughty disdain for people with “faith”. I’ve always found this feeling hard to put into words, but Joseph Campbell has done it masterfully, with the clear and eloquent language of a genius.

Myths and religion are not to be taken literally, which would make them easily dismissable as outright lies and childish fairy tales; they are not fantastic tales machinated by an evil mastermind to control people; rather, as folktale after folktale, myth after myth, religion after religion have proven when carefully examined, there is always a common message. The actors may change their garb from a tunic to a loincloth, the scenery may change from the desert to the Amazon, but they all share the same profound realization of “oneness”. The scope of Joseph Campbell’s book is astounding.

The point is now we are in a new age – heralded by Nietzsche in the 19th century – where we must still come to the same conclusions as the great religions came to. We have not outgrown our need for them. “The aim is not to see, but to realize that one is, that essence; then one is free to wander as that essence in the world.” That’s what the religions did when the skyline was our boundary and when the great oceans dropped off of precipices into the great unknown. The problem is that science is not the final answer to the “why”. Science may show us how a certain concatenation will lead to one event or another, but it will not explain “why” – and therein lies the power of the myth and religion. Perhaps now we need a change of values and consciousness on a global scale, and it won’t come with our antiquated religions, or mere science.

The universal triumph of the secular state has thrown all religious organizations into such a definitely secondary, and finally ineffectual, position that religious pantomime is hardly more today than a sanctimonious exercise for Sunday morning, whereas business ethics and patriotism stand for the remainder of the week. Such a monkey-holiness is not what the functioning world requires; rather, a transmutation of the whole social order is necessary, so that through every detail and act of secular life the vitalizing image of the universal god-man who is actually immanent and effective in all of us may be somehow made known to consciousness.

That’s a spiritual shift, and no amount of decoding the human genome, smashing protons, or obsessive interpretations of the Torah, the Koran or the Bible will solve it. Nietzsche was so right about the age we are now in.

Campbell also says:

The differentiations of sex, age, and occupation are not essential to our character, but mere costumes which we wear for a time on the stage of the world. The image of man within is not to be confounded with the garments [which is the whole point of asceticism]. We think of ourselves as Americans, children of the twentieth century, Occidentals, civilized Christians. We are virtuous or sinful. Yet such designations do not tell what it is to be a man, they denote only the accidents of geography, birth-date, and income. What is the core of us? What is the basic character of our being?

This is my kind of thinker. We need to get out these false categories we make up for ourselves and confront who we really are.

Everything is True

No really.

His Popeness, Herr Ratzinger, is a firm believer in absolute truth. Like he’s absolutely right. And you’re wrong. Unless you agree that he’s absolutely right.

Heidegger says truth is the disclosure of the Being to Dasein, or, in less pompous language, truth is reality illuminated to someone who is really really smart. But actually not really, because he says there is truth and untruth in everything. What a stinker.

Camus is a man of action. The pornstar of truth-sayers. He says fuck all absolute truth. Ride that bad bitch and don’t give her a moment’s rest. He says absolute truth leads to intolerance, tyranny and really shitty art. Not to mention disturbing body tics like thrusting your arm out and yelling “Heil!” anytime you see a man with a well-groomed mustache. (Heidegger take note.)

Saint Augustine says truth isn’t something that comes from the mind like a dirty limerick. You can’t buy it on Ebay either. In fact, truth is transcendental and mysterious and highly personal. Like your secret fascination with Brazilian fart porn. Or kind of like that.

All kidding aside, here’s a great repository of smart people saying things about Truth: All the Truths about TRUTH.