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Archive for January, 2010

“Dasein does not, proximally and for the most part, have any explicit or even any theoretical knowledge of the fact that it has been delivered over to its death, and that death thus belongs to Being-in-the-world. Thrownness into death reveals itself to Dasein in a more primordial and impressive manner in that state-of-mind which we have called “anxiety”. Anxiety in the face of death is anxiety ‘in the face of’ that potentiality-for-Being which is one’s ownmost, non-relational, and not to be outstripped. That in the face of which one has anxiety is Being-in-the-world itself. That about which one has this anxiety is simply Dasein’s potentiality-for-Being. Anxiety in the face of death must not be confused with fear in the face of one’s demise. This anxiety is not an accidental or random mood of ‘weakness’ in some individual; but, as a basic state-of-mind of Dasein”.     –Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, 295.

“In the face of its thrownness Dasein flees to the relief which comes with the supposed freedom of the they-self. This fleeing has been described as a fleeing in the face of the uncanninness which is basically determinative for the individualized Being-in-the-world. Uncanniness reveals itself authentically in the basic state-of-mind of anxiety; and, as the most elemental way in which thrown Dasein is disclosed, it puts Dasein’s Being-in-the-world face to face with the “nothing” of the world; in the face of this “nothing” Dasein is anxious with anxiety about its ownmost potentiality-for-Being. What if this Dasein, which finds itself in the very depths of uncanniness, should be the caller of the call of conscience?”    –Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, 321.

What if this Dasein, which finds itself in the very depths of uncanniness, should be the caller of the call of conscience?

What if this Dasein, which finds itself in the very depths of uncanniness, should be the caller of the call of conscience?

What if this Dasein, which finds itself in the very depths of uncanniness, should be the caller of the call of conscience?


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“It is said that Paganism is a religion of joy and Christianity of sorrow; it would be just as easy to prove that Paganism is pure sorrow and Christianity pure joy. Such conflicts mean nothing and lead nowhere. Everything human must have in it both joy and sorrow; the only matter of interest is the manner in which the two things are balanced or divided. And the really interesting thing is this, that the pagan was (in the main) happier and happier as he approached the earth, but sadder and sadder as he approached the heavens. The gaiety of the best Paganism, as in the playfulness of Catullus or Theocritus, is, indeed, an eternal gaiety never to be forgotten by a grateful humanity. But it is all a gaiety about the facts of life, not about its origin. To the pagan the small things are as sweet as the small brooks breaking out of the mountain; but the broad things are as bitter as the sea. When the pagan looks at the very core of the cosmos he is struck cold. Behind the gods, who are merely despotic, sit the fates, who are deadly. Nay, the fates are worse than deadly; they are dead. And when rationalists say that the ancient world was more enlightened than the Christian, from their point of view they are right. For when they say “enlightened” they mean darkened with incurable despair. It is profoundly true that the ancient world was more modern than the Christian. The common bond is in the fact that ancients and moderns have both been miserable about existence, about everything, while mediaevals were happy about that at least. I freely grant that the pagans, like the moderns, were only miserable about everything — they were quite jolly about everything else. I concede that the Christians of the Middle Ages were only at peace about everything — they were at war about everything else. But if the question turn on the primary pivot of the cosmos, then there was more cosmic contentment in the narrow and bloody streets of Florence than in the theatre of Athens or the open garden of Epicurus. Giotto lived in a gloomier town than Euripides, but he lived in a gayer universe.” –G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.

I am tempted to extend this argument and say this:

“It is said that Kant’s is a religion of joy and Nietzsche’s of sorrow; it would be just as easy to prove that Kantianism is pure sorrow and Nietzscheanism pure joy. Such conflicts mean nothing and lead nowhere. Everything human must have in it both joy and sorrow; the only matter of interest is the manner in which the two things are balanced or divided…”

The narrative I often use to describe Enlightenment rationalists is that they just don’t have the ovaries to overcome their fear and really find out how meaningless the universe is. They don’t realize, I would say (and have said in my blog post “Tickle My Inclinations”) how the Kantian moral framework reduces the extent of authentic life activity to a set of pathological goose bumps. I usually claim that it took Nietzsche, Heidegger, and friends to point of how this was the final nail in the coffin sealing the Death of God. But perhaps it is the opposite. Perhaps it is the Kantian who not only recognizes the meaninglessness of the universe, but unlike Nietzsche, takes it one step forward and just doesn’t invent some hokey and problematic “ethics of authenticity” to supplement the story. In this formulation, the emo points that judge every continental philosophy department undergraduate pissing contest go to the Kantian.

I doubt it though…

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“What is the postmodern? …It is undoubtedly part of the modern” — Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition.

Postmodern epistemology is Nietzsche’s. Postmodern ethics is Nietzsche plus Kant. Postmodern ethics is a universality that refuses universality. In that sense, postmodern ethics is both necessary and impossible. Postmodern ethics is the internal rupture of the Modern. It is its essence; it is its excess. It is sublime; it is domestic. It is atheological; it is messianic.

“Can one conceive an atheological heritage of the messianic?” –Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx.

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“The triumph of love entails a kind of “mental work” that—by overriding shame, disgust, horror, or pain—could be identified as specifically queer, because this work consists in struggling against the affect-laden social norms regulated by sexuality. Queer politics involves not only the negative effort to resist norms, but also the positive work of intense, almost superhuman loving.”

–Tim Dean, “Lacan Meets Queer Theory.” in Perversion: Psychoanalytic Perspectives. ed. Nobus, Downing.

“Last week we went to the museum. A whole whale is hanging from the ceiling. Bigger than big! OK, have you seen a Volkswagen car that’s like a bug? Um huh, you know what I’m talking about. That’s how big the heart of a blue whale is. I know it’s not possible, but if that heart in me could I love more? Ms Rain, Rita, Abdul”

Push by Sapphire.

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Check out my paper in the latest issue of Prometheus at Johns Hopkins. I wrote it at about this time last year, and my writing style has improved since, but I still stand behind the substance.

http://www.prometheus-journal.com/2009/12/heidegger%E2%80%99s-secular-fall/

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The importance of Kantian epistemology in the development of contemporary continental philosophy is well established in the received narrative of the history of Western Philosophy. Kant’s “Copernican revolution in philosophy” demonstrated for the first time that our experience of the world was always importantly only our experience of the world, as we bring certain preconditions of intelligible and meaningful experience to all of our encounters with the world. Seeing our experience  of the world as mediated in this way, Kant leveled any ambitions to know anything about “the world in itself”. We may be sure the external world exists, and that it plays a significant causal role in stimulating our experience, but any interaction with the world is ultimately the human take on the matter. From this it is just a one or two step maneuver, perhaps through Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, to the perspectivist epistmologies of postmodern plurality (Nietzsche, after all, acknowledges his debt to Kant’s critical epistemology in The Birth of Tragedy). On the socio-political side, the Marxist tradition dominant in Continental philosophy was just another two-step maneuver from Kant. First Hegel took Kant’s fixed, rigid, and unidimensional categories of experience  and gave them historical maleability and fluidity in his Geist, and Marx gave Hegel’s Geist material character in his “dialectical materialist” reading of “ideology.” All this is well known.

What strikes me is how little Kant’s moral philosophy is emphasized as equally instrumental in this development. Just as the “Copernican revolution” in epistemology informs the perspectival epistemology dominant in Continental philosophy, deontology, it seems to me is the pivotal moment that informs existential anxiety (and all it’s analogue forms, “the death of God,” in Nietzsche, “the death of the Father,” in psychoanalysis, and so on).

In the teleological ethical framework that preceded Kant’s, a life dedicated to morality was a completely fulfilling and satisfying life. For the medievals, an ethical life was a life dedicated to the service of God, meant to bring the material world closer to God’s design and to make oneself suitable for entry into the Kingdom on Heaven. Even in the comparatively secular Athenian  worldview, teleology allowed the ethical life to be part of the greater natural design, a life-long practice of virtue, excellence, and self-perfection that was in itself the end of life. A good life could could defined in its totality as a moral life.

But in deontology justice takes on an ultimately prefatory function. Kant’s central innovation in his moral thought is to shift the locus of moral authority away from heteronomous validation by some state of affairs we find desireable, thus judging as ethical any activity which brings about that state of affiars. Instead for Kant, the locus of moral validation is ultimately the end-in-itself formulation of the categorical imperative (not, I believe, the good will, as Kant presents it). The moral injunction, Kant claims, does not call upon us to create a more proper and excellent world, it tells us “there are certain ways one ought never to treat other people, regardless of the world it creates.” Understood from this perspective, morality is essentially all about getting out of people’s way. My actions are morally commendable if they create a situation that allows for the maximal free expression of other moral agent’s life projects. Morality is not about eudaimonia, it is about taking others ends as trumps on my inclinations.

And with this prefatory shift goes any hope for a fulfilling life of justice. If justice is understood as “creating the conditions for…” then a life of justice starts to look like a whole lot of preparation and not a whole lot of meaning. An ethical life becomes passive, an attempt not to violate certain inviolable boundaries–the ends-in-themselves. An ethical life is about following rules.  An ethical life becomes analogous to, say, a student who follows all of the rules of student conduct so as not to interfere with others education, but never takes on academic virtues herself. Morality is setting up for a fair game, but without concern for how well that game is played.

One might object, of course, that in creating the conditions for that fair game, Kant does nothing to prevent the players from then playing virtuously, and simply not applauding virtuous performance as “ethical,” but by some other name. A meaningful Kantian life is then fulfilled after this prefatory justice. I do not think this is the case. As Zizek reminds us “What is problematic in Kantian ethics is not formalism as such, but rather the fact that, prior to Kant’s assertion of the autonomous formal moral Law, he has to reject every other foundation of ethics as ‘pathological’, relating to some contingent, ultimately empirical notion of the Good.” (Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, 224). Not only are all non-moral endeavors reduced to pathological inclinations–all of which are essentially comparable in value–but then any social practice or institution that seeks to amplify the domain of the meaningful life even when in concert with the moral Law is forbidden. In Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, as implied in the title, Kant forbids the church or community from playing any (now-‘pathological’) role other than the enhancement of adherence to the moral Law. Religion and community have thus been subsumed under the prefatory function of the moral Law. In fact Kant goes even further in the “Doctrine of Virtue” of The Metaphysics of Morals. Though the “ends of virtue” seem initially to offer us escape from this prefatory trap, they are ultimately not morally commendable inclinations, but are merely the inverted, positive formulations of the ever prefatory, ever restrictive, ever negative nature of the moral Law. The ends of virtue then function to compete with and stifle my inclinations, so that we “strive with all [our] might that the thought of duty for its own sake is the sufficient incentive of every action conforming to duty.” The Doctrine of Virtue is then a doctrine, as Kant says, “in praise of moral apathy,” which adds to the deontological levelling of inclinations by calling for their complete abolition. Kant’s ethics, then, affects a kind of psychic suicide. The meaningful life looks something life this: we prepare, we prepare, we prepare, then we tickle our inclinations…and even then we feel sort of bad about it.

“ESTRAGON:
I am happy.
VLADIMIR:
So am I.
ESTRAGON:
So am I.
VLADIMIR:
We are happy.
ESTRAGON:
We are happy. (Silence.) What do we do now, now that we are happy?
VLADIMIR:
Wait for Godot.”

As I’ve said, I think this deontological shift was instrumental in the development of the emphasis on existential anxiety in philosophy only a century later. Only in a philosophical framework in which the moral life is an entirely prefatory and ultimately unsatisfying one can the true meaninglessness of life be a credible philosophically salient concern, as prior to Kant it would have been dismissed simply as a stubborn refusal to see the ethical meaning that saturates the cosmos and is written in our telos. Kant gave us a framework where meaninglessness may actually be a very fair and informed way to describe our situation. It also helps that Kant levelled the diversity of non-Moral human projects to essentially equivalent pathologies. With this attitude one is not far from the uncanny experience Heidegger describes in which the network of socially meaningful projects simply looses salience, and one has the uncanny feeling that one is in the world but not of it.

Of course, I am not down on deontology, as I am not down on existential anxiety. I think the deontological shift was a progressive move in the philosophical narrative (though I disagree with a lot of what Kant has to say about moral motivation). Existential anxiety, we cannot forget, is precisely the moment of the call of conscience, the call of authenticity:

“Uncanniness reveals itself authentically in the basic state-of-mind of anxiety; and, as the most elemental way in which thrown Dasein is disclosed, it puts Dasein’s Being-in-the-world face to face with the “nothing” of the world; in the face of this “nothing” Dasein is anxious with anxiety about its ownmost potentiality-for-Being. What if this Dasein, which finds itself in the very depths of uncanniness, should be the caller of the call of conscience?”    –Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, 321.

…What if this Dasein, which finds itself in the very depths of uncanniness, should be the caller of the call of conscience? It seems to me that Kant was integral in introducing this moment of awakening to philosophy–an awakening to the ethics of authenticity. Kant’s was the first movement in a long “destruction of the history of [moral] philosophy” (Heidegger). Deontology is essentially correct: all of the positive content of morality is ultimately restrictive and prefatory, it cannot give you a formula for a meaningful life. A meaningful life is something you have to author yourself, in the face of the absurdity, in the face of the meaninglesness, in the face of the nothingness. A meaningful life is not a moral project, it is an artistic project

“Only as an aesthetic phenomenon is existence and the world eternally justified.” –Friedrich Nietzsche.

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“…the saturnalia of a mind that has patiently resisted a terrible, long pressure — patiently, severely, coldly, without yielding, but also without hope — and is now all of a sudden attacked by hope, by hope for health, by the intoxication of recovery….nothing but an amusement after long privation and powerlessness, the jubilation of returning strength, of a reawakened faith in a tomorrow and a day after tomorrow, of a sudden sense and anticipation of a future, of impending adventures, of reopened seas, of goals that are permitted and believed in again.” –Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science.

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