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13 Books from 2013

My top 13 favorite reads of 2013…

13.) Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
12.) David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous
11.) Slavoj Žižek, Parallax View
10.) Richard BauckaumJesus and the Eyewitnesses
09.) Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being
08.) Christina Gschwandtner, Postmodern Apologetics
07.) Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity
06.) Emmanuel Falque, The Metamorphosis of Finitute
05.) Slavoj Žižek, God in Pain
04.) Jacques Derrida, Given Time
03.) Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition
02.) Edmund Husserl, Ideas I

And the grand finale…

01.) Caroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption

Deconstructing Difference?

In After the Death of God, John D. Caputo writes that:

“Were a democracy to come–and it cannot came, that would not be possible for it to actually come–it would not be a place in which there is pure harmony or perfect “peace.” It would be a place in which there would be endless and irreconcilable differences, a profusion of differences that would be adjudicated without killing one another. “

John D. Caputo

Though an intriguing and compelling presentation of political messianism, this post will not be about democracy, nor about politics. Instead, I am here interested in the relationship between the different and the same. Caputo’s thought, and really deconstruction in general (if not all thought that takes Levinas’s philosophy of alterity as one of its founding intuitions) resists totalization, looks forward to the incoming of the other, seeks to break with the ontology of presence: simply, deconstruction is a philosophy of difference (or, perhaps better, différance). The Same is a questionable enemy, a source of oppression, violence waiting to happen. The same exludes the different, or worse, absorbs the different, destroying its alterity in a burst of assimilating power. But, it must be asked, to what extent, does this “binarity” (to use one of Caputo’s terms), re-inscribe deconstruction within the very paradigm it is trying to escape? For, deconstruction places itself in opposition to simple binary schemas of this or that, being and nothing, male and female, writing and speaking, etc, etc… . Consistency, it seems, would require that this same resistance be brought to bear on the same and the different. In Deconstruction in a Nutshell, Caputo writes:

“When presented with a neat distinction or opposition of this sort … [Derrida/deconstruction] will look around–in the text itself–for some third thing which the distinction omits, some untruth, or barely true remnant, which falls outside the famous distinction, which the truth of either separately or both together fails to capture, which is neither and both of the two.”

Jacques Derrida

It must be asked, then, is the opposition between the same and the different too “neat”? How is the eternal struggle of the same and the different not precisely the sort of meta-narrative that deconstruction seeks to expose the limits of? For, as Caputo vigorously argues, every binarity can be clearly identified by its hierarchical structure, because ever binary inevitably develops into an us/them, good/bad, pure/impure, that is to say, every seemingly descriptive schema, hides an implicit normative schema. Yet, we see, in the elevation of absolute difference over the “violent” totality of the same, exactly such a hierarchy.

Should we, then, “look around–in the text itself–for some third thing which the distinction omits”?

Should deconstruction itself be deconstructed?


Justice, Voice, and Silence: thinking through the Texas Filibuster

The events surrounding Texas’ “Senate Bill 5” and Sen. Davis’ filibuster raise incredibly complex questions concerning the interrelationship between politics and the voice–viz. the question of the silencing of the voice.

In many respects, the entire narrative of the night’s events pivoted around this notion of silencing. From a broader political standpoint, the very nature of “Senate Bill 5” seems to emerge from a conflict of the voice, the silencing of the politically dis-empowered (women) by the politically empowered (men). Comprising a mere 21% of the Texas senate, those whose bodies were directly targeted by the bill remain essentially voiceless in response to its powers. In resistance to this inequity of power, Sen. Davis brought to bear the subversive power of the filibuster, precisely the power of the voice. Having been politically dis-empowered, Sen. Davis’ filibuster reasserted the lost voice, called out from the silence. Yet, the resistance to the voice emerged once again, redoubled through the rigorous application of the parliamentary rules (the letter over the spirit), and eventually, as desperation set in, through the bending of these rules (the abandonment of the letter and the spirit). The final postponement of the vote succeeded only when, following the final silencing of Davis’ voice, the law itself was subverted by the emergence of a new voice, the rising of a no-longer-silent minority, who overtook the chamber, drowning out the voices of the powerful.

The structure of this event clarifies an essential relationship between politics and the voice. Simply, political power is none other than the power of the voice. To be politically powerful is to be one who can drown out the voice of opposition–political power is the power to silence. Through numbers, intimidation, social engineering, financing: the essential danger of democracy is neither the power of the majority over the minority (e.g. as race theory or feminism might suggest), nor the minority over the majority (e.g. as many critics of the politics of capitalism suggest), but more fundamentally, the domination of the voiceless by the voiced. The principal tools of socio-political change, from civil rights marches to union strikes, from grassroots petitions to the filibuster, are essentially structured around the voice, they are structures which allow an unheard voice to re-emerge into public discourse.

The question then becomes, what voice is to be heard? At what point does the repression of the voice legitimate the overturning of the political? For, the events of “Senate bill 5” are not without their own ambiguities. Certainly, the GOP used parliamentary legalism to disrupt Davis’ filibuster (first two “strikes”), but the Dems similarly used this legalism to overturn the 12:01 vote. Yes, the GOP “bent” the law in their third “strike,” and again in their push for a late vote, but did the erupting balcony not similarly subvert the law? Neither side stood simply with or against the law, both used the law as a tool when expedient, and sacrificed it when necessary.

Yet, this ambiguity vis-à-vis the law does not mandate an ethical relativism, a basic valuation might still be permitted. Against the overly simplistic readings of the night by many liberal commentators, the beauty and character of the night is not found in the “overturning of GOP trickery” as some have suggested, or the “correct application of the law” as others have implied, but in the true arrival of the ethical. The lesson of June 25th is not that true justice finally emerged from politics, but the recognition that politics are secondary to the ethical, that sometimes the political, the law, must be suspended to make room for the inbreaking of justice–as Derrida writes, “Law (Droit) is not justice. Law is the element of calculation, and it is just that there be law, but justice is incalculable, it requires us to calculate the incalculable; and aporetic experiences are the experiences, as improbable as they are necessary, of justice, that is to say of moments in which the decision between just and unjust is never insured by a rule.” And what is the phenomenological form of the inbreaking of justice? Perhaps nothing other than the inbreaking of the repressed voice. Levinas’ Totality and Infinity, it should be remembered, reminds of us this intimate link between the voice and justice: “Language,” it states “institutes a relation irreducible to the subject-object relation: the revelation of the other. … Their commerce [i.e. discourse], as we shall show shortly, is ethical.” What we learn from the Texas senate is that politics and the law are a mere means toward the essentially foreign end of justice, an end which can only be glimpsed, ever so slightly, in the voice of the oppressed, the voice of the needy, the voice of the minority.

Yet, there is something explicitly anti-democratic in this emergence of the oppressed voice of the minority. If the Texas vote was easily to be passed (as both sides admit), and backed by a majority of Texans, shouldn’t the “democratic approach” be the institution of the law, not the subversion of the vote? When is it permitted for the minority to overcome the majority? The very structure of the protest movement, regardless of its democrat and “power to the people” rhetoric, appears to be an essentially anti-democratic structure, the supplanting of the majority by the minority. We see an analogous structure developing in the recent turmoil in Egypt. The ostensibly democratically elected president Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been forcibly ousted by the Egyptian military in conjunction with a massive protest movement of an unprecedented scale (the BBC estimates 33,000,000, the largest recorded protest in history). Is this protest, as well as that in Texas, an injustice?

Perhaps. Or maybe it is time to recognize that democracy is not an end unto itself. Perhaps it is simply another reiteration of politics, law, droit. Could democracy be thought as an abstraction, always secondary to the concrete oppressed other? Could we not affirm that democracy, properly thought, is always in service to something greater, something positively undeconstructible, justice-itself–and the visible image of this invisible justice, the voice of the oppressed?

Three Events at Duquesne

The Retroactive and the Phenomenology of Childhood Memory

A friend recently described the experience of a return to a childhood home, sparking a discussion about the phenomenology of the memory of childhood space.* A memory of a childhood space retains a certain internal self-consistency, as long, it might be said, as one avoids a return.  But a return to such spaces often breeds a startling disorientation.  Faced with the, often traumatic, reintroduction to or secondary experience of the space of my elementary school classrooms, my old rickety treehouse, that small crawl space under the basement staircase; my body no longer “fits” these spaces of memory. It is not I who have grown, my primordial experience insists, rather, these spaces have clearly shrunk: the walls have enclosed upon me,the door handle is too low, the rope swing unimpressive.

Lagging behind this traumatic event, though, is a second trauma, a retroactive violence against memory.  Once I have become reacquainted with these spaces (once, that is, that I have overcome the first trauma of disorientation), this new sense of space, this new orientation, leaks backwards, infecting my past recollections. I no longer become capable of recollecting the towering ladder as towering. Rather, it is the childhood I who now shrinks; the mystique of this childhood world is retroactively demystified, and subsequently so am I.

The retroactive appears to function as a measure of authenticity; revelatory of the “true size” of the space, for instance. But is it truly the case that the retroactive is more “true” in a meaningful sense; is this move not simply a repetition of the prioritization of the present so lamented by Levinas and Derrida? Where is the legitimization of such a prioritization found? Phenomenologically, Edmund Husserl describes this experience of this “retroactive positing” in his discussion of retention. There, he describes the process by which the present “primoridial givenness” of “impressionality” leaks backwards, fixing itself in our memory and reconstructing the memorial. But one must therefore ask: where is the authentic bodily relationship to my childhood spaces found: in my initially recollected experience, my later reorientation, the disorienting moment of suspension between the two? Is truth found only in the purity of the primordial perception, only in the retroactively “edited” memory, or somehow in both (or even neither)?

*Framed within a broader discussion of  Dylan Trigg’s Memory of Place.

Back from SPEP

This past week/end the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy held its yearly conference.  Although the flight cancellations and other travel difficulties (resulting from Sandy) brought a large number of paper cancellations, particularly on Thursday, the event was nonetheless a great experience to be a part of.  With scholars from across the globe, the program was bursting with presentations on Phenomenology (particularly Heidegger, Husserl, and French thought), Deconstruction, Race and Gender Theory, Critical theory, psychoanalysis, and much more.  Generally, there were about a dozen simultaneous presentations, interspersed with a variety of plenary addresses, including, notably, Miguel de Beistegui’s lecture “The Question of Desire in French Phenomenology” (gotta give a shout out for the Silverman Pheno. Center).

Of the panels that I was able to attend, the standout was by far “Is Radical Phenomenology Too Radical? Paradoxes of Michel Henry’s Phenomenology of Life.”  There, Frederic Seyler (DePaul University)presented the above paper, with a response by Jeffrey Hanson (Australian Catholic University) notable for his recent publication Affects of Thought.  Both speakers were particularly clear and cogent, and Seyler was able to critique Henry’s thought, while simultaneously remaining quite fair to the thinkers position, an accomplishment which is seldom achieved.

CFP: ‘Between Heidegger, Levinas & Derrida’, Dublin

Micro Reviews #8 “Religious Experience and the End of Metaphysics”

Overall Rating: 8/10

I recently picked up a this short compilation at a small used bookstore and eagerly made my way though it.  Religious Experience and the End of Metaphysics is comprised of a collection of articles–originally written for a seminar “Religious Experience in the Wake of Modernity” at the Catholic University of Louvain, 1999-2000–edited and prefaced by (noted Levinas Scholar) Jeffrey Bloechl of Boston College.

While a comprehensive examination of every chapter is beyond my current attention span, the book as a whole stands together in surprising uniformity, and it should be possible to speak in broad strokes about its presentation.  As the title indicates, the subject of this volume is twofold, on the one hand is religious experience, particularly (though not exclusively) of the mystical variety.  On the other, is the continental philosophic tradition seen specifically through the lens of Heideggerian thought.  Drawing upon the work of Heidegger, Marion, Derrida, Levinas, as well as a wide variety of religious traditions both Eastern and Western these thinkers question the nature of God, the relationship between cultural/historical development and religious ultimacy, and the universality of religious insight.

Overall, the contributions to this volume are of considerable quality, although a few noticeably stand out.  In “The Work and the Complement of Appearing”, Jean-Yves Lacoste reexamines Heidegger’s famous analysis “The Origin of the Work of Art.”  Here, seeming to reveal the influence of Michel Henry, Lacoste elaborates a theory of direct aesthetic affectivity.  Yet, challenging both Heidegger and Henry, Lacoste proposes that this affectivity does not carry the absolute quality that it is generally attributed and instead positions affectivity itself within the larger project of factical interpretation.

In “Derrida and Marion” John D. Caputo reveals the Husserlian genesis of these two influential thinkers, marking out the ways in which they both sought to move beyond Husserl’s strict understanding of intentionality and fulfillment.  Contrasting Derrida’s freeing of intentionality (through the abandonment of intuition) from Marion’s supression of intentionality (though a surplus of intuition), Caputo critiques the latter by way of the former.  Citing the inability of Marion to bridge the gap between non-conceptual intuitive givenness and concrete knowledge; Caputo argues that it is only through faith that one can move from pure saturated givenness to “God.”  “Marion comes around to confessing that givenness requires an intention that intends something not given that we can and must belive, that we also trust and love.” (p. 132)

Overall, this volume is a satisfying read and a helpful supplement to those who are already familiar with the debates surrounding the “theological turn” of post-existentialist French phenomenological thought.  Recommended for anyone interested in phenomenology, philosophic theology, mysticism, or 21st century continental philosophy.

Phenomenology and its Futures

Micro-Reviews #5: Emmanuel Levinas’ “Alterity & Transcendence”

Overall Rating: 7/10

Emmanuel Levinas’ Alterity & Transcendence is a collection of short essays and dialogues. This mid-sized work is competently translated by Michael B. Smith, although certain passages read rather uncomfortably, seemingly the consequence of an overly-literal translation. These passages lightly affect the readability, but do not seem to detract from the meaning of the original French (particularly for those who are familiar with the idiosyncrasies of French syntax).

The work itself is broken into four larger sections, each of two-four essays. The first, “The Other Transcendence” is by far the most philosophically interesting. Comprising “Philosophy and Transcendence,” “Totality and Totalization,” and “Infinity,” this section engages the most important themes of Levinas’ corpus. Here, Levinas develops his conception of the “totality,” drawing upon a variety of figures, most importantly Heidegger and his notion of “the world.” The “totality” is simply the entirety of beings, of entities within the world, visible (physically and mentally) for the I. Against this visibility, Levinas posits an invisibility of non-intentional consciousness. This concept, directly related to Sartre’s notion of non-positional consciousness and influencing Henry’s later development of affectivity, posits a form of relation which is outside or “beyond” the realm of Being. For Levinas, the principal example of such consciousness is “the Other,” the human subject positioned in front of the I. This other is presented to the I as a “face” (visage) which commands the I “do not kill.” It is this ethical aspect of the “beyond Being” which leads Levinas to posit ethics as “first philosophy,” dethroning ontology, which, because it concerns only visible beings, is secondary to the direct relationship with the other.

The second major section, “Philosophy of Dialogue and First Philosophy,” continues to develop this conception of ethics. Drawing upon his holocaust experiences, Levinas fleshes out the difficulties involved with a philosophy directed towards the other. Pushing beyond Buber’s I-thou relationship, Levinas argues that the simplicity of the ethical call explodes in the face of a third party, a second “other” who necessitates that one attempt to compare two incomparibles, that is, one must ask the simple question: which “other” do I put first. It is for this reason that Levinas identifies the eruption of a second “other” into the I-thou relationship as the foundation of justice and its needs.

It is also within this section that the explicitly religious aspects of Levinas’ work begin to rise to the surface. Identifying God as the Wholly Other (Tout Autre), Levinas understands the alterity of other humans to be a glimpse or trace of God’s self. In this way, he identifies the command of the other’s face, “do not kill,” to be the very “word of God.” Certainly, this “word of God” does not bare the particularities of a concrete religious system, but Levinas argues that this fundamental religious experience of the other should be the foundation, not only of all ethical behavior, but furthermore, of all religious interpretation and practice.

In the third section, “peace and right,” the work begins to flounder a bit and becomes significantly repetitive. Nonetheless, these essays do provide an insight into Levinas’ political theories, including his (lost) hope in socialism, which he originally understood to be humanities greatest chance for true progress, but which, in Stalinism, became one of its greatest failures.

The final section, “conversations,” is comprised of two dialogues (the first with Christian Chabanis and the second with Angelo Bianchi) in which Levinas answers various questions regarding the content and application of his philosophy. Although these dialogues are interesting, if for no reason other than their intimate/personal tone, they are nonetheless somewhat vapid in content.

Overall, this work (and its first section in particular) provides a great introduction to those who are new to Levinas and a helpful resource to those who are not. In light of its brevity (182 large print and large margin pages), I would recommend this work to anyone interested in phenomenology, theology, ontology, or ethics.