jetty bw

"Real men study law and engineering, while ideas and values are for sissies."

From one of the most distinguished and celebrated intellectuals of our day, literary scholar and philosopher Terry Eagleton:

The Death of Universities
Academia has become a servant of the status quo.
Its malaise runs so much deeper than tuition fees

Terry Eagleton,
Friday 17 December 2010

Are the humanities about to disappear from our universities? The question is absurd. It would be like asking whether alcohol is about to disappear from pubs, or egoism from Hollywood. Just as there cannot be a pub without alcohol, so there cannot be a university without the humanities. If history, philosophy and so on vanish from academic life, what they leave in their wake may be a technical training facility or corporate research institute. But it will not be a university in the classical sense of the term, and it would be deceptive to call it one.

Neither, however, can there be a university in the full sense of the word when the humanities exist in isolation from other disciplines. The quickest way of devaluing these subjects – short of disposing of them altogether – is to reduce them to an agreeable bonus. Real men study law and engineering, while ideas and values are for sissies. The humanities should constitute the core of any university worth the name. The study of history and philosophy, accompanied by some acquaintance with art and literature, should be for lawyers and engineers as well as for those who study in arts faculties. If the humanities are not under such dire threat in the United States, it is, among other things, because they are seen as being an integral part of higher education as such.

(read full arrtical)
jetty bw

The American Montaigne

Navigating Past Nihilism
The New York Times
December 5, 2010

“Nihilism stands at the door,” wrote Nietzsche. “Whence comes this uncanniest of all guests?” The year was 1885 or 1886, and Nietzsche was writing in a notebook whose contents were not intended for publication. The discussion of nihilism ─ the sense that it is no longer obvious what our most fundamental commitments are, or what matters in a life of distinction and worth, the sense that the world is an abyss of meaning rather than its God-given preserve ─ finds no sustained treatment in the works that Nietzsche prepared for publication during his lifetime. But a few years earlier, in 1882, the German philosopher had already published a possible answer to the question of nihilism’s ultimate source. “God is dead,” Nietzsche wrote in a famous passage from “The Gay Science.” “God remains dead. And we have killed him.” . . .

But there is another option available. Perhaps Nietzsche was wrong about how long it would take for the news of God’s death to reach the ears of men. Perhaps he was wrong, in other words, about how long it would take before the happiness to which we can imagine aspiring would no longer need to aim at universal validity in order for us to feel satisfied by it. In this case the happiness of the suburbs would be consistent with the death of God, but it would be a radically different kind of happiness from that which the Judeo-Christian epoch of Western history sustained.

Herman Melville seems to have articulated and hoped for this kind of possibility. Writing 30 years before Nietzsche, in his great novel “Moby Dick,” the canonical American author encourages us to “lower the conceit of attainable felicity”; to find happiness and meaning, in other words, not in some universal religious account of the order of the universe that holds for everyone at all times, but rather in the local and small-scale commitments that animate a life well-lived.

(read full article)

(Yay, SparkNotes!)
jetty bw

Far/Nearness: Consciousness Turned Inside Out

Roger Caillois
"Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia"
October, Vol. 31, (Winter 1984) pp. 16 - 32
MIT Press

Mimesis: the idea of imitation. Alterity: the idea of difference, the opposition of Self and Other. For anthropologists, social scientists, artists, and everyone else caught up in the enigma of "modernity," the question "What is reality?" is crucial to knowing what it is we know and what we are. If traditions are inventions, and social life is a construction, how is it that we understand reality as both real and really made us?

jetty bw

Nietzsche: "God is dead." - Althusser: "Man is dead."

French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser is best known for his theory of interpelation, wherein he presents not just an argument about the oppression of workers within the relations of production, but, far more fundamentally, an account of the process whereby the very working $ubject is produced. Yes, churches, schools and offices are sites where this takes place. But the crux of Althusser's insight is this: one is not a person who enters into "the relationships of the relations of production after the fact; in this is, in fact, no person until after interpelation. Human consciousness is ideological, per se. Whatever takes places outside of ideology is entirely inaccessible to consciousness. To name this traumatic "beyond", Althusser uses for the term "encounter". Following Althusser's lead, the great American Marxist scholar, Fredric Jameson, uses the word "history".

Just to bring you up to speed, not only should the duplication of the stem "relat-" catch your eye, but in particular Althusser's use of the word "relation-ships". This is not a Marxist economic terms of the sort Gramsci would have used but rather an anthropological term, one taken directly from Claude Levi-Strauss. It refers to the superstar anthropologist's presentation, in Structural Anthropology, of the "elementary structure of kinship", an atomic set of basic familial relationship which inform all identities, activities and even attitudes within primitive cultures. The point Levi-Strauss wants to make in this essay is that within such structures the individual means nothing. Each individual body enters into the structure, which is to say into culture, only insofar as loses its individuality and takes up a functional role within the larger whole. Not only does the discrete biological body no longer exist in the raw form after this moment of "interpelation" (as if it ever did in the first place), but indeed the individual unit of consciousness does not exists before this moment of entry into larger structure. Even before its birth, as Althusser insists, the individual was "always already" a $ubject.

This is the crucial difference between Marx and Althusser; or, between the early Marx and Althusser. Because one of Althusser's greatest projects, a life-long project, was to demonstrate something I discussed in class yesterday - that at a certain moment in Marx's life, around 1848, a fundamental epistemological shift ("decalage") occurs - just like the total historical break which for Bynum occurs between the Middle Ages and Modernity. In the same way that pre-history of modern sculpture, at a point around 1900, can be seen to meet an agonized end in the failed commisions of August Rodin; or just as the historical "moment" that was modernist sculpture in turn meets its demise around 1964, when a welter of previously unimagined but nevertheless mappable forms begins to arise; so, at a certain moment in the mid-19th century it becomes possible to think the end of another historical "moment", that of Man. The end of Humanism, a tradition apparently going back a number of centuries, according to this argument which is made in structuralist terms akin to those used by Krauss, in fact only dates back to the late 18th century, with the rise of a particular set of ideas, question and disciplines known as the Sciences of Man - all of which focused on the human body as a scientifically knowable entity, and all of which maintained a face that the scientific investigation of Human nature would eventually lead to a just, equitable and peaceble brotherhood of Humanity.

Althusser's argument, quite simply, is that sometime just around 1848 - when he wrote the "Theses on Feurbach" (Feuerbach being the last great exponent of Humanism) and The Communist Manifesto, Marx was able to think the end of Man, to realize man is neither the apex of creation nor the perfection of nature, nor is Man even an entity which has a continuous and unified history which will eventually culminate in self-knowledge and self-actualization. Rather, Man is an ideological construct of relatively recent advent. I say 'advent', instead of 'invent', specifically because Marx, as Althusser constructs him, does not believe anyone in particular invented the myth of Human History. Rather, Human History arises as an "event", and takes the form a total "moment", a comprehensive structure outside of which it is not possible to think at all. Or, to say it contrariwise, it is only by fully mapping out the extended field within with the Human is but one term or position (and for that reason it can no longer be seen as a priviledged), that one is able to project the end of Man. One can only think the end of Man from within, and at a particular moment during, the History of Man. In other words, the critique of Man must be a radically immanent critique, because thought itself, consciousness itself, only exists within a structure.

To put it in psychoanalytic terms, which Althusser also admits to adopting, it is only possible to map the Unconscious from the position of consciousness. This is the fundamental difference between the early Marx and the later Marx, the early Marx and Althusser. The former believe in the original dignity and eventual sovereignty of Man. Ideology, according to this view, is a state of false consciousness into which humanity fell. In the middle of his essay, Althusser points out the two prevailing beliefs about this fall: 1) That of the 18th-century French philosophes was that false ideas has been foisted on the majority by the priest and despots in order to exploit them. God, here, is a weapon to crush. 2) That of the 19th-century German philosophers and historians (a veritable new science) was that false consciousness was a phase that humanity needed to pass through over the course of it natural development. God, here, is a fantasy construct through which humanity darkly contemplates its own image. Of course, for Althusser, both of these are wrong. Because each supposes that it is possible to overcome ideology, to start, "in the final instant", outside of ideology and come to consciousness per se. Hence, the obvious contrast is between false consciousness and free consciousness. What Althusser claims Marx saw, though still dimly because he lacked the methods and insights later furnished by structural anthropology, what the free consciousness was itself a form of false consciousness.

In fact, free consciousness, the belief that we are in control of our own minds and actions and destinies, is false consciousness par excellance. The very feeling, to put it as plainly as can be, that we have finally stepped free of all ideology and at last stand in the clear, this is the surest indication that in that very moment we have entered into Ideology completely. This, again, is the famous moment of recognition, the moment of the production of the $ubject, of his entry not into the relations of production but into the relationships of the relations of production; which Althusser calls "interpelation", or "hailing". It is both a total event which happens at various key moments in our individual lives, but even more importantly for Althusser, it is a ongoing process we repeat, moment by moment, every instant of our waking lives. Each time we say to ourselves not just, That's where I work; or, Now it's time to pay my bills and do my taxes; but indeed each time we say to ourselves, These are my pants and thank God the key are in the pocket; or, Man, I really feel like myself today; we are in that same instant hailed into $ubjectivity, as term which must be heard in its pure ambivalence.

Robert Gober
"Untitled" (1992)
Site-Specific Installation (2007)
At Schaulager, Basel

There is no outside to Ideology. In the same way the outside of the total social practice we call Text can only be thought as a logically necessary aspect of Text, one which must properly be understood as Not-Text; so the outside of the total social practice we call Enlightenment, or Freedom, can only be thought as a logically necessary aspect of the same structure which must be properly be understood as Ideology, or Necessity. As Lacan, so famously put it, "There is no other to the Other." This is no "God" after the death of "God".
jetty bw

Atheism and Anti-Humanism: A Little Literacy Can Be A Very Dangerous Thing

Here's a letter I wrote some time ago to a friend. I'm posting it here to follow up on Eckhart and also to prepare us for our next reading, Machiavelli. I believed what I wrote when I wrote it. Today, however, I take a much dimmer view, feel much less tolerance for the "enthusiasm of the proselyte." It's hard for me to feel even patience today with NRA fanatics, militia members, and Sarah Palin and her tea-party goons running amok. As I suggested at the beginning of the letter, a little literacy can be a very dangerous thing.

Here, then, is a letter I wrote to a friend on the subject of what contemporary French philosopher Jacques Derrida calls "White Mythologies". I'm posting it here because of its relation to you. Not all of you will care to read this, I know. But perhaps at least one or two of you will.

Dear Z,

I'm glad you're still teaching Althusser. I won't even go so far as to say that he was unjustly maligned, but I nevertheless think he has much to offer, if only because he's doing something different. As you've seen, right now I teach medieval theology, and certainly the medieval Church has much not to be proud of.

And yet each day I'm finding myself more and more impressed with the love of learning, as well as the disregard for popularity and indifference to danger, evinced by the writers we're examining.

I think we're pretty much in agreement on the function of the compromise third-term (both A and B) as performing a naturalizing function. My class has examined this, though not necessarily from the perspective of critique, in the writing of Augustine: his attempt to invalidate heretical readings of the Scripture, as either too literal (Cyprian and Origen) or too capricious and symbolic (Tychonius) or too base (The Gnostics).

It seems that the Augustinian compromise formation results from a necessary ground operation: liberating the text from any necessary tie to history: i.e., from any “motivation”. Literality in Augustine (and of course this is merely my reading of him) means not what actually happened, but rather what the book, once the text has been properly established, actually says.

Augustine carries us from readings to Reading. I believe you can see how this shift from the literal to Literality, from the text to Textuality, from the many to the one; is tied up with an entire ideological project based in the narcissistic moment of recognizing oneself as a soul, as Human.

Once a “Human” middle term has been established as "natural" one then is at liberty to wander into allegorical readings, or to speculate as to the historical veracity of certain Old Testament narratives. But these relative freedoms are always based upon the possibility of returning to the normalcy and security of the Letter. (Or as Lacan would say, L'Etre.)

And I think it is preciesly this almost inescapably seductive ecstacy, or euphoria, of the Self recognizing itself in the Word, i.e., finding itself in the Field of the Other, which is the main target of Althusser's devastating critique of Marxist Humanism. I admire Althusser because his work allows me to see how ideological apparatuses operate at the most elementary (phonological) levels of everyday life, turning the mundane practice of reading (even the newspaper or the tabloids) into the Moral Act of Reading (and it's this sense of the quotidian as morally uplifting which I think is everywhere attacked in the Mythologies of Barthes).

From a purely critical perspective, it's nauseating to witness the self-satisfied and self-congratulatory middle-brow smugness I associate with consumer of the History-Channel and other equally banal mass-media representations. Yet perhaps, from time to time, we have to admire, and even envy, the childlike euphoria of the ideological proselyte. Perhaps, at times, this simplicity almost seems preferable to the generalized apathy by which we’re surrounded. Perhaps it might be tempting to hope for some moment of conversion of one’s own, to willfully cling to a naïve belief that not every initial burst of joy must soon give way to a banal happiness; a happiness which in turn gives way to a malaise whose only cure is to be found in converting one's neighbor (preferably an exotic one) specifically so that the Self can enjoy the intoxicating spectacle of watching it's own conception and birth re-staged for it by another.

As for Althusser, I think he is taught so little because, like Bernard of Clairvaux, or, even more, Eckhart, he utterly shatters our narcissism, annihilates our ego.

Your friend,

jetty bw

***Last Readings of The Semester***

These are they and this is it. Download The Prince onto your iTunes and listen to the appropriate files, or just listen to the assigned files at the Librivox site. It's about ninety minute's worth of material. The time will fly by if you just relent and allow yourself to have fun with this. Load your pod and take a walk, or go running to this stuff, as I do. It's better than music. Though I don't necessarily love Machiavelli himself, I love reading him. Montaigne as well.

We'll discuss Machiavelli on M/T and Montaigne on W/Th. This will be great way to end a rewarding semester. Our last few meetings have been especially good, and I want to thank you for your interest and participation. I hope you all have had as much fun and learned as much as I have.

Nicolo Machiavelli
(1469 – 1527)
The Prince

(Chapters 1 - 8, 12 - 18)

Michel de Montaigne
(1533 – 1592)
"Of Cannibals"
"Of The Education of Children"
jetty bw

From North America's Leading Trade Publication in Higher Education

Teaching Document Design, Not Formatting Requirements
The Chronicle of Higher Education
December 2, 2010, 8:00 am

By Prof. Hacker

[This is a guest post by Evan Snider, a doctoral fellow in Rhetoric and Writing at Virginia Tech. His research interests include visual communication, digital writing, and professional writing pedagogy. --@jbj]

Any academic practice that rests largely on inertia is one that’s ripe for hacking. One such opportunity is hiding in plain sight: Even as word processing software has highlighted design elements, even as design programs have become more accessible and user-friendly, even as my home discipline, rhetoric and composition, has dedicated much more attention to visual literacy, many faculty members continue to specify detailed formatting requirements for student writing.

You know what I’m talking about. I’m talking about sentences like this:

Your paper must be double-spaced, 12 point Times New Roman, with one-inch margins.

Such draconian formatting requirements stifle students’ creativity and cut off any critical thinking about what should be a crucial part of any writing-intensive classroom, namely visual design.

(read full article)