Monthly Archives: May 2013

One Year Later

Today marks the first birthday of “The Space Beyond Being.” I know it is a cliche, but it seems like just yesterday I was searching for a creative outlet for my summertime boredom (if only I had the time to be bored this year…). In celebration of this momentous occasion, I give you this link to my very first post, a review of Michel Henry’s Marx: a Philosophy of Reality; a fortuitous first post, given the prominent role that both phenomenology and Marxism have played in the last year of blogging.

Also, here are some fun stats:

  • Most popular post: Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” #7
  • Total “views”: 6,840
  • Most popular search term (leading people here): “summary of Feuerbach”
  • Visitors from over 100 nations

Thank you to all of my readers and commentors for a great first year. Here is my Gif(t) to you:

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Three Events at Duquesne

Texan Ideological Deconstruction (or, From Hank to Derrida)

I recently posted elsewhere about my love of (read: obsession with) King of the Hill, and following some positive response, thought I would put together something slightly more substantial. So here we go:

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First Level: Unity

If we begin by looking at the presentation that King of the Hill offers forward as its basic appearance, we find a sort of “back to the basics,” traditionalist, family sitcom, differentiated from others only in being a cartoon. Even the basic human competency of the father figure, Hank, sets it apart from its contemporaries (Simpsons, Family Guy) who sought to overtly undermine the traditional family structure by decentering the patriarchal power center (though ironically, these incompetent patriarchs nevertheless retain a redoubled narrative centering, most clearly in Family Guy). Prima Facie, the construction of this narrative around an all-American traditional family, and its refusal to undermine the central patriarch should point to a reactionary, even “conservative”  narrative. Yet, King of the Hill is significantly more complex.

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Second Level: Dichotomy

At a deeper level of analysis, though still relatively cursory, one seems to find a principal  guiding dichotomy. On the one hand we find traditionalist conservativism, epitomized most strongly in the characters of Hank and his father, on the other liberal/feminism, epitomized in Peggy, Bobby, and (with less consistency) Luanne. Watched through the lens of these two paradigms, King of the Hill appears really rather shallow and uninteresting, perhaps a meta-critique of the political climate in America, but nothing substantially more. But, I would argue, there remains a key third level, below both the traditionalism and the traditionalism v. progressivism conflict, a deconstruction of the very dichotomy presented here, and perhaps then, a deconstruction of the liberal v. conservative lens of American politics and ethics.

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Third Level: Ambiguity

The show both overtly and subtly undermines/deconstructs this principal distinction at nearly every turn. But this deconstruction can be most clearly seen by a breakdown of the principal characters.

Hank:

Hank functions, as we said, as the “traditionalist.” His language and actions often reflect this perspective; he refuses to show emotion, he discourages Bobby’s attempts at non-traditional (i.e. not football or baseball) extracurriculars, and he encourages (to Peggy’s chagrin) a clear division of labor between “men’s work” and “women’s work.” Nonetheless, and most clearly at key dramatic or narrative points in the the show, Hank makes decisions directly counter to this conservative ideology. Rather than allow his friends or family to suffer, Hank overturns his own notion of the “right” or “correct” way for the world to function; at Peggy’s boggle tournament, for example, he (eventually) abandons his own desire (to check out a new lawn mower with his friends) and instead functions as a cheerleader of sorts for Peggy. More dramatically, following his close friend Bill’s mental breakdown, and cognitive split into two personalities, himself and his ex-wife, Hank dons drag in order to protect his mentally ill friend from the ridicule of his neighbors. As a Time magazine article wrote:

Hank tries to avoid both his dad’s callousness and P.C. feel-goodism while sticking to his principles of hard work in a world that rewards shortcuts.

Peggy:

In a similar manner, Peggy functions as a strange mix of the traditional housewife and a second wave feminist. On the one hand, it is easy to pigeonhole her as a liberal, given her obsession with women’s empowerment and similar causes. Yet, once again (and notably again at key moments) Peggy turns to the traditional family/communal structure in order to maintain her friends’ and family’s well being. Her ideological commitments only run as deep as the personal suffering of her loved ones and no further. This complexity emerges most clearly in her attempts to mediate the relationship between Bobby and Hank. On the one hand, she “plays her role” as the liberal in her interactions with Hank, encouraging him to open up to Bobby, to participate in his non-traditional (and generally “effeminate”) hobbies.  Yet, she also functions as a traditionalist in relation to Bobby, often encouraging him to try sports, to participate in “boys” activities.

Luanne:

Luanne is similarly “contradictory,” surpassing her role as the stereotype of the “dumb, PC, liberal, white girl.” This surpassing can be seen most clearly in a subplot of the early seasons in which it is repeatedly shown that, while she is viewed as  “dumb blonde” and other stereotypes, she is also the most skilled mechanic on the show, a traditionally “male” job, as well as in later seasons where it is revealed that she is a fervent evangelical Christian (even going so far as to host a Christian children’s tv show), a traditionally “conservative” religious orientation. Even her political affiliations wax and wane, supporting communism one episode and George W. Bush’s reelection the next season.

Bobby:

The last member of the core family, Bobby, while less dialectical than the others, also presents a starker refusal to fall into ideological traps; perhaps a motif of childhood innocence, a time before ideology, is hinted at. In a certain sense Bobby functions as a microcosm of the show itself, a direct refusal to fall into any single ideological identification, a resistance and deconstruction of what it means to be an identity. His hobbies, as we already mentioned, are not those of a traditional small town Texan boy, but he is instead obsessed with prop comedy, works as a rodeo clown, and a number of other obscure activities and jobs. He models, wears non-traditional clothing, takes women’s defense courses; as an unashamed “chubby” kid, he refuses body norms; he fails at most tasks, lacking the traditional “hard work” spirit of his father, yet still idolizes his dad as a hero; he dates Connie, a “more attractive,” more intelligent/higher achieving, girl outside of his race. He simply breaks almost every social “rule” set before him.

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Conclusion:

The result of this constant undermining/deconstruction is that the show ends up transcending both the old “reinforce the family” sitcom of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, and the more modern “liberal tv” stereotypes of the 90’s and the 00’s. It challenges the stifling traditionalism of old-school america, while simultaneously reinforcing the actual value of family and community. It openly mocks Liberal america, while reinforcing the unique non-traditional, feminist, and “liberal” values of its characters (Bobby, with his constant challenging of gender and societal norms, basically embodies this aspect of the show). Because of this constant give-and-take, its ideological dialectic, it is likely one of the least reductive shows of the last few decades. It uniquely finds a way of simultaneously challenging the restrictive and oppressive character of traditionalist value, while nonetheless drawing out the failures of liberalism which are tied to its loss of community, and perhaps even, family. Moreover, like Jacques Derrida, who argues in “The Force of Law” that every deconstruction must be in the name of an undeconstructible, every law deconstructed in the name of justice, the ethical core of King of the Hill, the placement of its greatest subversions at moments of suffering, its commitment to place real human suffering above any ideological commitment, liberal or conservative, traditional or progressive, marks it as one of the most ethical shows on television, and the truest enactment of deconstruction: King of the Hill offers a radically unique and powerfully ethical Texan Ideological Deconstruction.

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Note: I am not alone in my assertion of King of the Hill‘s greatness, in 2007, Time Magazine ranked King of the Hill as one of the 100 Best Shows of all Time.

Death of the Author-God

My latest contribution to “The Ecumenicals,” a lighthearted post-modern take on the question of scriptural inspiration, inspired by the interpenetration of the “Death of the Author” and the “Death of God.”

Inspiration: Justin’s Take

Be sure to also check out the other responses here.

To Simply Walk into the Room…

There is nothing easier than simply walking into the room, right?

I recently attended a conference at Akron University entitled “Feminist Scholarship and Practice in the 21st Century” and put on by the Committee for Research on Women and Gender. I should begin by commending the conference for putting together an exciting and interesting set of presentations and a fascinating keynote (Patti Lather, Ph.D.). While the other presenters and the staff were kind and inviting, there was nonetheless something disorienting about the experience, a quiet nagging sense that… I did not belong there. Why this feeling of not belonging? Simply put, I was one of two male attendees, and the only male presenter, at at conference run by, principally for, and primarily concerning women. There is a sense to which this feeling subsided over time, as I got more closely acquainted with other presenters, after my presentation was well received, etc. But the sense, particularly the feeling of simply walking into the room for the first time, singing in, making a name tag, awkwardly standing around… never fully subsided.

Perhaps what struck me most strongly, following this experience, was how utterly unfamiliar this experience felt; how unfamiliar it was to me, a male in philosophy. I could not help but reflect upon my past experiences, the theology and philosophy conferences that I had attended. What was the composition of these conferences?

Even? Hardly. A majority male? to say the least. Primarily male? most likely.

Was my experience, of entering a strange land in which I was an unconcealable other, really so unique, or was I merely experiencing what it is like at every other academic conference for women, for racial or sexual  minorities, for anyone who doesn’t fit the philosophical/academic norm?

Philosophers tend to look like this.

Philosophers tend to look like this.

More disconcertingly, even as an “other” at a conference of women, I nonetheless enter with a distinct societal advantage. In the hierarchy of academia, the male has been king (gendered term intended) going on 2500 years. What would be my experience had the roles been truly reversed, had I not only entered as a numerical minority, but at a lower class on the societal scale of value? Would I have even had the courage to sign in and take my place at the front of the room? I don’t know. Nor can I truly even imagine that situation, a situation so radically foreign to my (generally privileged) position.

What “take away” did I bring from this experience? I am unsure. I do not have a remedy.  I do not know what could heal our society, academia, or even our conferences such that the male, the white, the straight, the cissexual, will no longer hold both numerical majority and power control.

What I can recommend though, is that every male in philosophy, theology, or perhaps any discipline, attend a feminism conference.  Feel the weight of being the minority.  As fleeting and partial as this experience was, it nevertheless offered a (at least small) glimpse into an experience that is foreign to the male academic life. Experience, so as to better understand. Perhaps when male philosophy begins to feel this weight, they can better understand the true difficulty of the minority academic experience, perhaps they will understand the strength and courage that it takes to simply walk into the room, and take one’s seat. 

Also, it couldn’t hurt to read these:

Death of Kumaré Theology

A Few weeks ago I was introduced to a fascinating documentary, directed by and starring Vikram Gandhi, entitled Kumaré. Adopting the persona Sri Kumaré (and appropriately thick accent), Gandhi modeled himself upon the plethora of Yogis he had discovered while filming a documentary of their lives, philosophies, and followers. Simply, Gandhi was convinced that there was something artificial to these Gurus, something that could be imitated to the same success by himself, with no formal training. Gandhi hoped that, by attaining a small group of loyal followers, leading them through a set of contrived practices, chants, and meditations, and finally revealing himself as a “false prophet,” he could reveal that the truth that they were seeking wasn’t to be found in any Guru or Yogi, but rather, that this truth was, in some sense, within themselves. [Read more]

Setting aside the (perhaps questionable) individualistic bent of the documentary, I was struck by the beauty of the film, the authenticity of the relationships, and the depth of the spirituality among Kumaré’s followers and Kumaré himself. I also could not help but wonder if there was not a more profound and unexplored theological depth underlying the film in general, but perhaps more specifically, the climactic “unveiling” scene (where Kumaré reveals himself as an American from Brooklyn, rather than an Eastern Guru).  I wonder if this unveiling scene might perhaps offer a glimpse into the theological fecundity of Death of God theology.

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In the early 1960’s, a theological movement, Death of God theology, emerged on the american scene with unprecedented speed and vigor, only to fall out of academic favor with nearly the same speed; “falling” so far that Adam Kotsko describes Thomas Altizer, one of the prime catalysts of this movement, as “the third rail of academic theology.” This movement, drawing upon the insights of Christian Mysticism, the dialectic of Hegel, and the atheism of Nietzsche, sought to articulate a theology built upon the primary intuition that “God is Dead.” While the precise understanding of what is meant by this “death of God” has been heavily debated–ranging from the metaphorical, through the performative, all the way to a quite literal understanding (of which Altizer appears to be a case)–there remains a consistent sense among Death of God theologians that, to a great extent, we are “on our own.” We can no longer rely upon a theological Big Other to guide our actions, declare right from wrong, and provide the Archimedean point of theological and philosophical reasoning.

Is it possible that the experience of the Death of God, the death of the Big Other, is precisely what Gandhi sought to offer his students at the momentous unveiling of his “true identity” at the conclusion of Kumaré?

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For Gandhi, the essence of his teaching, both as Kumaré and at a meta-level through the unveiling, was “asking questions, breaking down icons and idols, and destroying the illusions our society is built on,” and presenting these deconstructive gestures as “highly ‘spiritual’ acts.” This reorientation of deconstruction as a spiritual act, perhaps even as the spiritual act par excellence, is precisely the motivation that underlies the reemergence of Radical (Death of God) theology in contemporary discourse. Caputo, Rollins, Zizek, Marion–these thinkers of the death of God, of the God who is not, who is “beyond being,” are not seeking to end religion, spirituality, or theology, but on the contrary, to revitalize it. Like Gandhi, they desire to break down the “idols” of thought. It is not coincidental that Marion’s God Without Being opens with a sustained treatment of the phenomenology of the idol. Anyone who wishes to follow the movement of the death of God, must first walk the path the includes a decisively critical/deconstructive gesture. The radical theologian, or any religious person who wishes to follow this path, must face the authentic trauma of the death of the idol, whether this idol be a clear conception of the “greatest possible being,” the moral big Other who guides moral reasoning, or the unveiling of the spiritual Guru as a mere brooklynite.

Of course, such a path has its risks. As Kumaré illustrates, anytime that one challenges these idols, idols that may be fundamentally orienting in ones life, there is a chance that this trauma will be unbearable.  There are those who simply refused to speak to Gandhi after the unveiling, who stormed out of the room and never returned his calls. But there were also those who understood, who felt the freedom of his message, who recognized that there was no other way that his teachings could have concluded.  And this is the risk of the the Death of God–it can be freeing, opening, empowering, and it can be devastating and destructive. This freedom, as Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra so beautifully illustrates, can inspire terror as easily as dancing. When one gazes into the abyss of the Death of God, or the Death of Kumaré, one does not know what one will find.

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Copenhagen Summer School in Phenomenology and Philosophy of Mind 2013

Philosophical Birthdays

Today marks two noteworth philosophical birthdays:

The first is one of the founders of existential philosophy, the Danish Philosopher and Theologian Søren Kierkegaard, who turns 200 today.

“Be cautious with an abstract thinker who not only wants to remain in abstraction’s pure being but wants this to be the highest for a human being, and wants such thinking, which results in the ignoring of the ethical and a misunderstanding of the religious, to be the highest human thinking.” –Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments

The Second is the philosopher, economic theorist, and political revolutionary, Karl Marx, who turns 195 today.

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” –11th Thesis on Feuerbach [my analysis here]

Celebrate these two groundbreaking and revolutionary thinkers today.