Sunday, February 17, 2008

Tapping Topic: Postmodernism

"I believe the emergence of postmodernism is closely related to the emergence of this new movement of late consumer or multinational capitalism. I believe also that it's formal features in many ways express the deeper logic of this particular social system. I will only be able, however, to show this for one major theme: namely the disappearance of a sense of history, the way in whihc our entire contemporary social system has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past, has begun to live in a perpetual present and in a perpetual change that obliterates traditions of the kind which all earlier social information have had, in one way or another, to preserve. think only of the media exhaustion of news: of how Nixon, and more so, Kennedy, are figures from a now distant past. One is tempted to say that the very function of the news media is to relegate such recent historical experiences as rapidly as possible into the past. The informational function of the media would thus be to help us forget, to serve as the very agents and mechanisms for our historical amnesia."
-Fredric Jameson, The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on Postmodernism.

"Science has always been in conflict with narratives. Judged by the yardstick of science, the majority of them prove to be fables. But to the extent that science does not restrict itself to stating useful regularities and seeks the truth, it is obligated to legitmate the rules of its own game. It then produces a discourse of legitimation with respect to its own status a discourse called philosophy. I will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a meta discourse of this kind making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of rational or working subjects, or the creation of wealth...
Simplifying this to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards meta narratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences: but that progress in turn presupposes it... The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is also being dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements, narrative, but also denotative, prescriptive, descriptive, and so on... Each of us lives at the intersection of many of these."
-Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge

"Postmodernism is among other things a sick joke at the expense of revolutionary avant-gardism. "
-Terry Eagleton

Rob: "What's this week's topic?"
Me: "Postmodernism."
Rob: "Boring."

And so the dreaded Postmodernism revealed its ugly head at Tapping Philosophy, where groans ensued, and the eyes of back into their respective heads, where they would lay for some time. So what is Postmodernism? Jameson seems to assert that it is the cultural superstructure of late capitalism, where Lyotard situates the postmodern in the epistemological encounter of the language game of scientific legitmation against narratives. The word tends to get thrown around in a derogatory manner in some circles, while in others it is exalted. Does postmodernism completely trash modernism, or simply reveal content that was already latent within modern thought? If the first is the case, what is good about postmodernism, and why would it be a helpful critical framework? We should question the historical nearness of postmodernism. Hasn't the age of modernity resulted in untold progress across civilizational boundaries? If it reveals already latent content, why even use the distinction in the first place? What events in history have occurred that might precipitate such a disjunction between science and narrative, and is it possible to repair this disjunction within the postmodern epistemological framework? Would such a repair even be desirable as the possible return to a modern epistemology? What are the consequences of postmodernism, and does postmodernism call for anything, or is it simply critical or descriptive?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Madness: Summary

Tapping Philosophy: Madness – Summary

·      I  It was my intent to frame the discussion for the night in terms of the Foucault/Derrida debate over Descartes’ reading of madness, as it is a useful tool for framing the relationship between reason and madness, in terms that are conceptual and historical.  Thus, when people brought up their concerns with relationship to madness, I often found myself referring to the debate, as the debate not only has consequences for the concept of madness, but also for the place and authority of philosophy and history.  I’ll give the abridged version of the debate.

o   Foucault wishes to examine madness from how it is situated in a historical and cultural context.  Thus, for Foucault, there is not an essential concept of madness in general, but rather, there’s madness in the Renaissance, madness in the classical age, and madness in the modern age.  More specifically, Foucault is not concerned with the pathology of madness, but rather how specific groups of people are produced as mad subjects, by authoritative institutions.  Foucault claims that Descartes’ exclusion of madness is a sign of the forthcoming classical episteme (model of knowledge) wherein madness is excluded from thought proper.

o   Derrida critiques Foucault’s reading of Descartes, in that he fails to adequately grasp the concept of madness, a concept that is central to his history, at least in Derrida’s interpretation.   Derrida thinks Foucault has too drastically historicized this madness, and that this madness is actually central to all intelligibility, as the conditions for the possibility of being understood in the first place, and in this way, madness is always staring philosophy in the face.

·           Some good points were made with relationship to this debate:

o   Is it really impossible to have an insane thought?  Most of the people at the table seemed to agree on the possibility of these types of thoughts.  Indeed this notion of insane thoughts also seems intelligible for Foucault considering his penchant for literature of transgression.

o   However, if we to take Descartes seriously, as read by Foucault, these thoughts would simply be either or in error or illusion, and there would be no question of madness, but simply a question of falsity.

o   What would the difference be in practice for the erroneous person and the madman if they were both doing the same action?  Indeed, this question is valuable, because it reveals that the key location for this debate is mental, and not necessarily material.  For Descartes, the answer might be that the madman would not be able to take that objective step back and realize that he was in error while the rational person would have this capability.

o   What about the potential of conflicting schemas of rationality, does this not produce a certain type of madness in itself?  There is something to be said for the dialectical nature of reason and madness, but I would want to be really strict here.  The example used was the The Bridge Over the River Kwai, where a lieutenant ends up fighting his own countrymen because he sees following war-time rules of engagement as the highest value.   This movie seems to bring up the classical distinction between utilitarianism and deontological morality.   Clearly here we have a case of the officer being particularly susceptible to a deontological conception of morality with relationship to the rules of engagement.  I think you’d have to argue that it was simply an error in his moral calculation that lead him to conclude these rules were the highest good, as opposed to claiming that madness springs out of conflicting rational schemas.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Tapping Philosophy: Madness

Tapping Topic: Madness

First some very important quotes:

Again, how could it be denied that these hands or this whole body are mine? Unless perhaps I were to liken myself to madmen, whose brains are so damaged by the persistent vapors of melancholia that they firmly maintain they are kings when they are paupers, or say that they are dressed in purple when they are naked, or that their heads are made of earthenware, or that they are pumpkins or made of glass. But such people are insane, and I would be thought equally mad if I took anything from them as a model for myself.

-Descartes, First Meditation: What can be called into doubt

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place, and cried incessantly: "I am looking for God! I am looking for God!"
As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. Have you lost him, then? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? or emigrated? Thus they shouted and laughed. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances.

"Where has God gone?" he cried. "I shall tell you. We have killed him - you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God's decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us - for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto."

-Nietzsche, The Gay Science

“Madness, you are no longer the object of ambiguous praise with which the sage decorated the impregnable burrow of his fear; and if after all he finds himself tolerably at home there, it is only because the supreme agent forever at work digging its tunnels is none other than reason, the very Logos that he serves.”

-Jacques Lacan, The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason since Freud.

“The path taken by Cartesian doubt seems to indicate that by the seventeenth century the danger has been excluded and that madness is no longer a peril lurking in the domain where the thinking subject holds rights over truth: and for classical thought, that domain is the domain of reason itself. Madness has been banished. While man can still go mad, thought, as the sovereign exercise carried out by a subject, can no longer be devoid of reason.”

-Michel Foucault, History of Madness (In the classical age)

I’ve had a dearth of quotes lately, so I figured would opt for a surplus with this topic. What does it mean to be mad? For Descartes madness is problem that is rooted in the physical reality of black bile in the brain that prevents a person from thinking, at least in his terms of what it means to think. For Nietzsche madness seems to be a positive, as the person that everyone is referring to as mad is the only one who is actually telling the “truth.” Lacan sees madness springing out of the very configurations of reason itself. Foucault’s transhistorical analysis is not necessarily interested in the object of madness itself, but rather in the manifestations of power-knowledge institutions that surround a specific discourse which refers to madness, and the type of subjects that these institutions are producing.

We can take lots of directions with this topic. We can question the possibility of an ahistorical conception of madness. Might such a concept have heuristic value in understanding madness, or should we follow Foucault’s linking of madness to a historicity? How is madness related to rationality? Does madness stand outside of the limits of reason or are they engaged in a complex dialectical exchange? Where does madness stand in terms of the subject object relationship of consciousness, or can madness even be iterated in these terms? Does madness have a language? Can madness reveal truth, and if it can, is it possibly to evaluate the truth of madness against the truth of rationality? Importantly, is madness an actual phenomenon of consciousness, a label that has been used to group together certain decision making political subjects, or both? What manifestations of madness are of concern for the psychiatrist and the psychologist, and what manifestations of madness are of concern for the philosopher, or critical theorist? Indeed, it seems as though there are different objects of study, which would fall under the same label of madness, but is there a common interpretive thread in these objects of study, or do they all relate do differing configurations of madness?

I look forward to discussion

Tapping Summary: Identity

Wow, this already feels like it was a long time ago.

Some basic points
  • I introduced the topic and then promptly ceded the floor to rob, who discussed the important distinction of the for itself and the in itself, in Sartre's terminology
    • The in-itself is an object whose identity corresponds with its being. A chair situated in reality doesn't have to do anything special in order to correspond to its definition as a chair, it just does so.
    • The for-itself its the being, who finds its existence to be a pressing issue and a concern, and this for Sartre is the human being. The human being, for Sartre, has a fundamental freedom, which is the ground for the human being to be able to engage in various games of meaning, which can be referred to as worlds.
    • Bad faith then, would be the fundamentally free human being as unable to cope with this freedom, and retreating into specific meaning games, attempting to be like the in itself
  • This brought up questions as to whether engaging in these systems of meaning was necessarily a bad thing, if this fundamental freedom does actually exist as Sartre says it does, and if it did exist would it have actual value?
    • For Sartre, all actions can be evaluated in terms of whether they promote existential freedom or not. Thus, for Sarte, an oppressive totalitarian regime would stand in direct opposition to promoting existential freedom, and thus it should be critiqued and dismantled.
    • With the structuralist critique, however, we see the fragmentation of Sartre's subject, into various other types of subjects, and these subjects are produced by the political, social, and ideological institutions that surround then.
    • This structuralist critique opens up questions of existential responsibility, especially with regard to any conception of a subject as fragmented or marginalized. Does this open up a series of excuses as the late Robert C. Solomon suggests, or is this critique simply reflecting a shift of how people conceive of their identities
  • I leave you with this quote: "Sometimes I go around tolentine at night and turn off all the lights in the rooms" --Anonymous

Monday, February 4, 2008

Tapping Topic: Identity

Tapping Topic: Identity

What does it mean to have an identity? What forces constitute the identity of a person in society? Arguments can be made for socioeconomic class, race, gender, ideology, and culture all having a major influence on the concept of identity. Is there a complex dialectical relationship between all these terms of identity, a prioritization of these terms, or do they relate to identity independently of each other? How does identity function in relationship to the decision making subject?

I would like to frame this question in terms of a particular thinker, namely, Jean Peal Sartre. Sartre talks about identity as a construction that gives meaning to the subject by allowing him to participate in various shared economies of signification, which one could also refer to as a world, e.g. the business world, the academic world, the sports world, etc. He also claims that there is a problem when the radically free existential subject attempts to conform to a specific identity as though it were the static essence of his being, and Sartre refers to this problematic self deceit as an act of bad faith. So in this Sartrean context, do all identities run categorically against a basic principle of human freedom, in other words, are all identities an exercise in bad faith, or is there a space in this philosophy for the utilization of identities for radical progress? It seems there is a critical space that Sartre wants us to inhabit with relationship to identities, and the guiding principle of his critique would be that the radical freedom of the subject is valuable.

Perhaps we should question this freedom with relationship to our identities. Does this freedom to choose your identity exist in the first place? Is society built on a plethora of radically free subjects, or is this simply a mythology abstracted from the way society actually functions? Does Sartre underestimate the value of these dialogical economies of meaning that form subjects to be able to participate in society in relationship to personal freedom, or this freedom the very conditions for the possibility of a society that can be just?

Let’s discuss.