November 11, 2015

Shake people out of their ordinary assumptions

Posted by: Bert Olivier Posted on: November 9, 2015
Setting the scene for his subtle and penetrating discussion of the state of the world, Derrida uses the eponymous Hamlet’s famous words from Shakespeare’s tragedy as metonymic summary of his considered assessment: “The time is out of joint”. This is done advisedly, because one soon realises that the character of time itself is at stake: “What is coming, in which the untimely appears, is happening to time but it does not happen in time” (p. 77). (Clearly, he has something similar in mind to what Manuel Castells thinks of as the transformation of “sequential time” into “timeless time” via the global technological revolution.)

This fundamental change in the meaning of temporality is further apparent in the absurd claim (by Francis Fukuyama, and his teacher, Allan Bloom, for instance), that we are witnessing the “end of history” today, now that the former USSR has supposedly at long last realised that liberal-democratic capitalism is the “telos” that history has finally actualised. Significantly (intermittently quoting Bloom), Derrida remarks (1994: p. 78):

“ … what is one to think today of the imperturbable thoughtlessness that consists in singing the triumph of capitalism or of economic and political liberalism, ‘the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the endpoint of human government,’ the ‘end of the problem of social classes’? What cynicism of good conscience, what manic disavowal could cause someone to write, if not believe, that ‘everything that stood in the way of the reciprocal recognition of human dignity, always and everywhere, has been refuted and buried by history’?”

What interests me particularly here are Bloom’s words quoted, no doubt with heavy irony, by Derrida: the “end of the problem of social classes”. This is a double irony, because not only did Fukuyama and Bloom celebrate the fall, in the late 1980s, of the very system that attempted to remove different social classes in favour of equality, namely socialism/communism (the USSR), but particularly because, as Derrida then goes on to remind one, they could not possibly be unaware of the social and economic disparities that persist across the globe, despite their premature triumphalism.

This could be approached by way of listing the “mass of undeniable facts” (1994, p. 80) corroborating such a claim (which have themselves massively multiplied since 1994), or one could offer a kind of “multiple rubric” which readers can themselves use to trace such evidence, which is what Derrida proceeds to do under the heading of “plagues” accompanying the “new world order” (p. 81-84). Note that they are all (but particularly numbers 1 to 5, below) connected with the massive, and growing, social inequality that the apologists of liberal democratic capitalism seem to be blind to, and furthermore, they function simultaneously.

There is too little space here to elaborate on the full implications of these ten “world plagues”, so it will have to suffice to quote Derrida by way of conclusion (1994, p. 85): “For it must be cried out, at a time when some have the audacity to neo-evangelise in the name of the ideal of a liberal democracy that has finally realised itself as the ideal of human history: never have violence, inequality, exclusion, famine, and thus economic oppression affected as many human beings in the history of the earth and of humanity … let us never neglect this obvious macroscopic fact … ”

The distinction between system and environment is self-referential in the sense that it is an activity (this distinction is an ongoing process that has to reproduce itself from moment to moment in the order of time in a temporality constituted by the system) that only occurs on one side of the system. It is the system that distinguishes itself from its environment, producing an outside and an inside. For the environment, by contrast, this distinction does not exist. Here it’s necessary to note that Luhmann uses the term “environment” equivocally. There is, on the one hand, the environment that exists as such. This environment is what Deleuze and Guattari, in “Of the Refrain”, referred to as chaos or the “milieu of all milieus”. It would be there regardless of whether or not there were any systems to observe it. And that’s just what systems do, according to Luhmann. They observe events that take place or unfold in their environment (other-reference) and within themselves (self-reference). On the other hand, there are the environments constituted by systems. These are the flows or phenomena in other-reference to which a system is open. We can call these two environments Ei and Ec to refer to the “independent environment” and “constituted environment” respectively.

The environment (Ei) is always more complex than the system. Put differently, there is never a one-to-one correspondence between system and the independent environment (Ei). Here I think Luhmann makes a real advance over semiotic and linguistic idealisms because, where these idealisms tend towards a sort of imperialism of the sign and signifier that recognizes no outside, Luhmann’s thought is premised on the existence of a hyper-chaotic outside that can never fully be mastered. If there can never be a one-to-one correspondence between system and Ei, then this is because the environment is hyper-complex and systems need to be capable of engaging in operations and observations in real time (or, at any rate, the time of the system). The system must selectand establish selective relations to its environment. Systems are only ever selectively open to their environment. For this reason, systems are necessarily exposed to risk, for it’s always possible that the channel of openness that a system established did not anticipate or retend something of deep importance. It is this risk, the aleatory, the unexpected (the openness of systems is temporalized complexity), that both plays a key role in how the system evolves, but also opens the system to the possibility of destruction.
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We could thus say, in a manner similar to the artist Malevich, that every discipline is framed. There is a frame that precedes that which appears in the frame and that is the condition for the possibility of what appears in the frame (here Derrida’s essay “Parergon”– which could be subtitled “Of Distinctions” or “Of the Frame” –shows itself to be of tremendous value even outside of aesthetics).

Every discipline can thus be said to be territorial and geographical. A territory, after all, is premised on a distinction, the drawing of a boundary. Here the drawing of a distinction should be thought in a very active sense, as a sort of repulsion or pushing away of an outside. The territory of a discipline is its founding distinctions. By contrast, the geography of a discipline is the “texturally” of its object. The object of a discipline, its geography, is that which appears in the marked space of its distinction. All geographies have their texture, their singularities, their features. For example, Literary Studies has the literary object as its geography, and is premised on a set of distinctions (that are fuzzy as in the case of all disciplines) that distinguish the literary object from other objects such as the ethnographic, biological, rhetorical, economic, chemical, philosophical, etc., objects. The texture of the literary object consists in all those features or singularities that are unique to literature as an object of discourse.

There are a variety of ways in which the boundaries of disciplines are maintained. There is, on the one hand, the subject of a system or a discipline. Within every discipline there is the formation of a subject, an agent, that develops the competence to observe according to the territoriality or distinctions of the discipline. There is, in short, a process of subjectivation that creates the subject of the discipline. This process takes place through graduate training. Graduate training is, above all, the formation of a transcendental aesthetic, a field of sensibility or receptivity, to inhabit the territory and geography of the discipline. Then there are the journals, presses, and conferences of the discipline. These are boundary maintaining regimes that link subject of the system to subject of the system and that create and maintain an interiority of distinctions distinct from other disciplinary territories. One talks with or communicates with ones colleagues in the discipline across the globe. Of course, it’s also the case that each discipline creates sub-systems that are themselves territories and geographies defined by sub-disciplines, specializations, and schools of thought. Each of these sub-systems is premised on its own system/environment distinctions and founding distinctions.

A curious feature of distinctions is that they are blind to themselves. On the one hand, every distinction has its unmarked space, the space of that which has been set aside to found the territory and geography, which thereby becomes invisible to the system. 

The Pinocchio Theory - Freedman on Mieville - I just finished reading Carl Freedman’s excellent book on China Mieville, which I can heartily recommend to anybody who’s interested in Mieville. The book ...
Though Deleuze uses “potentiality” positively, to mean something like what Mieville and Carl mean by crisis, his critique of mere logical possibility is pretty much the same as Mieville’s and Carl’s critique of what Mieville calls potentiality. In both cases, it is a question of actuality merely being added to a pregiven possibility; as opposed to the way that transformation requires a much deeper process of dialectical contradiction (Mieville) or actualization of the virtual (Deleuze). [I used to get all worked up about the differences between dialectical realization in the Hegelian tradition adopted by most Marxists, and the nondialectical account of differentiation as actualization of the virtual in Deleuze; but my present view is that these are actually quite minor differences, the basic point is pretty much the same in both traditions).

In any case, the Marx/Mieville theory of crisis, and the Deleuze theory of virtuality, both point to the way that there are untapped prospects for transformation or radical change even within the seemingly most static and repressive actual situation. Carl’s own treatment of this issue made it more clear to me than ever before; which is why I wish he had brought it back in the conclusion of the volume, and brought it to bear on the question of science fiction and its relation to other genres such as, especially, weird fiction. I think that, on both Carl’s view and mine, science fiction and other “arealistic” genres (as Carl calls them), have a lot to do with the rendering fictively present of these often neglected alternatives that may underlie and undermine even the most stable and repressive actualities.

The Pinocchio Theory - Accelerationism Without Accelerationism - Here is my review of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ INVENTING THE FUTURE. Cross-posted from The Disorder of Things. Steven Shaviro
The greatest strength of Inventing the Future, to my mind, is that it does indeed turn our attention towards the future, instead of the past. A big problem for the left today is that we have too long been stuck in the backward-looking, defensive project of trying to rescue whatever might be left of the mid-twentieth-century welfare state. While it is perfectly reasonable to lament our loss of the safety net that was provided by mid-twentieth-century social democracy, the restoration of those benefits is not enough to fuel a radical economic and political program. Looking nostalgically towards the past is far too deeply ingrained in our habits of thought. We need to reclaim our sense of the future from Silicon Valley and Hollywood. 

January 29, 2014 Interview with Paul W. Kahn, Author of Finding Ourselves at the Movies - Hope Leman (@hleman)
Philosophy, I believe, is dialogue. There is, however, no reason to think that the philosophical dialogue cannot be with oneself. I don’t think that one can start out this way. One needs teachers and companions to challenge the self and with whom to argue. But a dialogue begun with others can certainly continue with the self. A habit of thinking that starts in actual conversations can become an internal conversation.

I spend many hours every day essentially talking to myself, as I write about an idea, read what I have written, reject it as not quite right, and then try again. These forms of being alone – as well as many other private experiences – are not pathological, but to be without friends or people to talk with as a general condition is a problem for most people. Not many of us cultivate that sort of loneliness.

As for films that are so personal that one does not want to talk with others about them, I have no doubt that people have that experience. Not everything has to be talked about with everyone. The point here is no different than with a good book or a painting. The work offers an opportunity for a conversation, but it does not require it.

Philosophy is not a means to some other end. I cannot prove the usefulness of philosophy by showing you that it will improve your job prospects, find you a partner, or make your life easier. We engage in philosophy because we are drawn to self-reflection. We not only act, we think about what we are doing. At times, we think about our entire lives, what we are committed to and why. Everyone, in some way or another, is drawn to these reflections. That is part of what it means to be a person. Philosophy is only a more sustained effort to engage in this sort of self-reflection. The importance of that experience in one’s own life is the only ground upon which philosophy can be defended.

Most philosophers think of their activity as one of explaining. I don’t disagree with the urge to explain, but I think we need to get people enthusiastic about looking for explanations. That is the role of disruption: to shake people out of their ordinary assumptions about themselves and their world and to get them thinking.

One of the disruptive points I pursue in the book is to explore the relationship between family and politics. Political theory today generally assumes the perspective of the individual entering a social contract on her own in order to advance her interests. In popular films, we almost never find a film about politics that is not also about family. I explore that connection to disrupt political theory, but also to disrupt ordinary assumptions about the nature of political commitments.

Every movie imagines the possible through the construction of a narrative. An account of natural development does not include the possible. We don’t say that an earthquake was one of several possible events. We say it happened and it had to happen because of shifts in the tectonic plates that preceded it. A narrative does not work that way. A narrative always sets the actual against the possible. We are interested in human stories because of the choices made, but choice requires a belief that other possibilities were present – the choice could have been different.

Films interest us because they are both a result of and a reflection on free action. We don’t interpret a natural event; we analyze its causes. A free act is one that occurs for reasons. The meaning of a free act is a function of the reasons we assign to it. We might disagree about the reasons; we may be uncertain. Reasons, accordingly, call for interpretation.

Since the thesis of the book is that more is at stake in movies than entertainment alone, I don’t think the statement demeans the church – just the opposite. We go to church to reflect upon the nature of the self and the range of moral responsibilities we face.

Watching movies invites the same sorts of reflection. Movies involve us in a problem, a site of tension, and they ask, “What would you do?” Of course, they often represent this in fantastical ways, but so does religion speak of miracles and fables. The movies are always “preaching” to us not because they are trying to be didactic, but because we are eager for narrative. We come out of a movie with a sense that something has happened. We want to think about it. Thinking about the meaning of parables is, of course, one of our oldest experiences of religion.

My ideal reader is the student in college or graduate school, but I hope the book will appeal to anyone interested in the traditional questions of philosophy. I do not engage the professional scholarship of film studies. Rather, the book addresses the questions that have always motivated philosophy: for example, freedom, faith, love, death, and justice. I hope readers will engage these questions and learn that they are still very relevant to our modern experience.

Big Data: What it Can and Cannot Do – M.S. Srinivasan - At present, the corporate world is enamoured of “Big Data” or Analytics, which is regarded as the new “Management Revolution” Harvard Business Review has c...

However when the decisions involve a deeper or wider understanding of human factors like motivation or well-being or a holistic comprehension of the totality of life, then data becomes less important and human insight acquires a much greater significance.

Right decisions depend on right understanding which can be at many levels. At the first level, there is the understanding of life as it is, made of the known, visible, manifest, and predictable and the mobile actualities of life. At a deeper level is the unknown, invisible unmanifest, dormant, unpredictable and the flux of future possibilities. At a wider level is the understanding of the ecological dimension, which means connectedness, interdependence, unity and wholeness of life, which is necessary for knowing the long-term consequences of our decisions. At another level is the realm of values, the ethical, aesthetic and spiritual dimension, and the factors which lead to human well-being and fulfilment, individual and collective, inner and outer, which may involve reconciling many dualities, dilemmas and conflicts thrown by life.

Big data, analytics, and whatever future development in IT which enhances the capacity to process information can only help in better understanding at the first level of visible facts and when combined with Artificial Intelligence provide a certain level of insight into the second level of the invisible like for example hidden patterns behind facts. But at all other deeper, wider or higher levels, analytics may not be of much help and we need a deeper and higher intuition. In the future, as we grow as a race in our inner consciousness, more and more of these higher non-material dimension will begin to manifest and get incorporated into human life. This is already happening. For example, factors like ethics, values, long term vision, social responsibility, sustainability, holistic perspective and human well-being are now increasingly recognised as key to success in the future world. All these factors and many more which may come in the future will throw up problems, situations and decision-contexts which cannot be solved entirely by analytics but requires a higher intuitive understanding.

Even in the first level, right decisions require a certain subjective freedom from excessive self-interest. Without this freedom, big data will be used to support personal decisions driven consciously or subconsciously by self-seeking motives. Secondly, quite often right questions are the spark which ignites creativity and innovation and analytics can’t ask questions. As McAfee and Brynjoffson quote Pablo Picasso as telling “Computers are useless they can only give you answers.”

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