On Critchley and the secular age

Simon Critchley offers a bleak diagnostic of the secular age. In Charles Taylor’s parlance, the secular age is the moment civilization comes to the realization that the fullness of meaning elicited by religious belief, the fullness of meaning arising from the exploration of our inner depths, or the encounter with fullness in nature, becomes a projection reachable through complementary narratives, and the celebration of differences.

Critchley thinks the modern subject is deeply dissapointed by the failures of religion and liberal democracy, he thinks philosophy begins with disappointment, as one would expect when confronted with wanton violence, and the moral bankruptcy of the law. The ethical subject, he or she as a being defined by a plurality of narratives and contexts, is located by Critchley at the interstice of religion and politics. The point of the matter is that an ethics which references abstractions that, even Kant conceded, are incomprehensible, is out of touch with the heteronomous spirit of today.

It seems something curious is happening in regard to ethics. We have arrived at the realization, perhaps too late, that the political is incomprehensible as ethics is insofar as the ethical subject, the conscious subject, is not wired to the ethical fact, the thing-in-itself about practical reason that warrants action; in other words, why some do act when faced with injustice, and others, albeit faced by it, do not. This is the question driving the whole history of ethics after Kant’s recipe of the categorical imperative, namely, how are we to explain what makes reason ethical, what is, in meta-ethical parlance, the thing that elicits practical reason into the realm of moral action. Critchley disagrees this is the end of the story of ethics, because politics just are, and so ethics remain. And we may adopt passive or active nihilism on the face of dissapointment, but Critchley suggests:

“On my view, ethics is the experience of an infinite demand at the heart of my subjectivity, a demand that undoes me and requires me to do more, not in the name of some sovereign authority, but in the namelessness of a powerless exposure, a vulnerability, a responsive responsibility, a humorous self-division. Politics is no the naked operation of power or an ethics-free agonism, it is an ethical practice that is driven by a response to situated injustices and wrongs” (Simon Critchley, Infinitely Demanding, London: Verso, 2007), 132.

In true ironic fashion, Critchley’s ethics is a “self-division” of the self, insfoar as the projected imago of the self (in lacanian parlance, his idealization at the level of the symbolic-real), is dislocated the moment a concrete case of injustice happens on the face of things. The self is divided: by the ethical facticity of practical reason -the demand felt in our gut to act when faced by something bad-, and its escape from so doing -the disconnect between intentionality and ethics. This is the irony: we are ethical subjects who are not ethical at all. We feel guilty when we reject the opportunity to act (as our projected self demands), we act as we are in tune with our ethic selves, yet (in most cases) we fail to be so.

Reading a paper by Pablo Lazo in regard to his reading of J.M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg (a depiction of Coetzee’s interpretation of Dostoevsky, and his downfall as a writer who does not answer to the demands of concrete cases of injustice), he suggested a term that I think applies to Critchley’s case, terrestrial ethics. An ethics grounded on specific cases challenging our political and ethical imaginary, cases that house suggestions to act, which, in parallel, drive our reaction on the face of otherness; an imposition on the self by the self to resist a state-of-things.

I’d rather let Critchley put it neatly:

“Politics require subjective invention, imagination and endurance, not to mention tenacity and cunnig. No ontology or eschatological philosophy of history is going to do it for us. Working at an interstitial distance from the state, a distance that I have tried to describe as democratic, we need to construct political subjectivities that are not arbitrary or relativistic, but which are articulations of an ethical demand whose scope is universal and whose evidence is faced in a concrete situation” (Ibid, 132).

Sons of irony

The decline of faith on the political and the religious is touching rock bottom (some may argue it already did a long time ago). Belief in the ideals of liberal democracy, as the opposite of fundamentalism in all of its varieties, as well as the credibility of ideas on all things transcendental, is belief that has ran its course. The political and the religious are faces of the same coin if we think of them as signifiers of what we desire as a collective. One the one hand, justice for all; on the other, meaning after death. But neither is a real possibility, only a “thing-to-come” as Derrida says; and it goes without saying that people have fallen into the custom of ironizing their beliefs.

We have reached the age of ironic nihilism, because God is dead, like Nietzsche posits; but democracy is dead, too, as evidenced by the failure of one democracy after another; yet we resist calling them “dead” in open channels of communication, we raise our children to believe in them as we whisper to ourselves the doubts we have over the meaning of our civilization and ourselves as wishful thinkers. There is a big split between our wishes and the violence that abounds. We fill ourselves up with notions in regard to the surpassing of human limits here on Earth, celebrating our virtues in spectacles where the magic of technology (and ideology more broadly) keeps rage dormant, as is the case with most countries under rule of law.

But what then is a person to do? Other than the pragmatic day-to-day, what is a person to do? How are we to understand the irony of liberal democracy and multiculturality, that is, what do we say of the political landscape of deconstruction after Derrida; the religious vacuum left by Nietzsche; the downfall of ideology after Marx?

More precisely, what do we say to those that still think we may fulfill justice for all, and meaning after death through the turning of our eyes to the eyes of others, as Levinas suggests?

May we resist virtue, deontology, and utilitarianism as end-goals, as recipes to the landscape of violence and nihilism? Are we to resist the weight of our history, and marry  theory in an attempt to bracket it? Is there a voice to be found within the interstices of the political and the religious, between onself and otherness, in light of Deleuze? Or are we to bite the bullet and live in a spiritless, formless world, free of naive views of the otherworldly, turning our insides out in a fit of individualism as Nietzsche would want us to? Is there a way of connecting the two, the way Hegel insists? Or are all these heuristic routes just connectors in a framework of references?

Here lie the spaces for a philosophy of resistance, a displacement of critical thought that is proper to doubt, the cartesian project capable of activating the banks of rage of a people looking to incarnate a semblance of justice.

This is the open ended question mark at the end of every moment of injustice, could it have been any other way?

On the nature of text

Do borders circumscribe the meaning of a text? To begin, it is important to articulate what is meant by the “border of a text”. When speaking of borders in a text, we could be referring to the physical borders of the text, its margins, they prevent words from escaping the text, ordering words into a form easily accessed by those reading the text. The limits of a paragraph, the limits of punctuation marks, the pace of the author’s voice; they are figurative limits as well, inasmuch as they represent something associated with the text, its characters, its ideas and the authority of the text, the author. The figurative borders of text, thus seem something else entirely; they constitute the limits of our understanding of the text as readers without authority over the real significance of the text; what the author originally intended, whether the author managed to articulate his ideas as he intended; whether the reader is capable of interpreting the text as it was intended to. On the other hand, it would be wrong to ascribe a pure point of entry to every text; every reading of a text is a quasi- reading of a text, an impure reading of the text as something considered beforehand pure inasmuch as texts elicit a kind of abstract idealization of what is contained in them. But text operates as a nexus of association to things outside of it, beyond what texts elicit to the reader’s imagination; a sort of conjuring of thoughts, ideas, and experiences, embedded in the experience of the text, or the reader’s experience with the text. So, as reading an author could be equated to hearing the author speak, the same happens inversely, the author reads the reader and hears the reader’s silence, inasmuch as the text feeds from the reader’s own voice, in a relationship that would be wrong to articulate by way of the laws of logic; meaning of a text is a subjective experience that defies what is aptly described as objective, yet both dimensions of understanding are intertwined for text appears from the author’s objective experience of a given fact, a given fact interpreted, that is. Therefore the infinite act of interpretation begins with limits blurred time and again when reading a text, words articulating meanings often associated to meanings outside the text, and meanings outside the text interpreting meanings inside of it. This is a tension ubiquitous to texts, given that as readers we pretend to balance meaning we ascribe to a text and the meaning elicited by the text; the limits are there and are not there when it comes to interpretation.

So, is there tension between the borders and the text itself? Do the borders add to its meaning? Is there a text outside the text? The answer to these three questions can be articulated in the positive, given the nature of text as a nexus of associations.

Stephen King on writing

I had the pleasure of devouring On Writing by Stephen King in a single sitting. I bought the book in Lima’s airport and read it in the six-hour flight home. It was heartwarming, lucid and transformative.

The American author’s prose is clean, structured and to the point, which is refreshing given the amount of writers that opt for style over clarity. King divides his book into three sections; the first details some of his memories, the second constitutes a writing masterclass and the final section describes his connection to writing (after a serious life-changing experience).

Besides learning some of the best writing advice I have read in my life, I also took home a memorable scene. Without spoiling much, King recounts his downfall into drug addiction and his subsequent redemption, which concludes by meditating on the role writing plays in the lives of men and women behind the pen (or keyboard). His personal conclusion is that writing ought to be a support system for life; not the other way around. If there is a theme in his book it would be this: don’t delude yourself that writing (or any artistic enterprise) is a tragic, destructive affair; it can (and has in many cases) helped people lead fulfilling lives. It can elicit virtue.

Steve’s life evidences his thesis. Albeit a man with more than a few demons, the author is happily married, continuing his life’s work, beloved and universally recognized. He argues that praise, sex, fame nor money should be the goal for aspiring writers. And in philosophic fashion, King suggests that writing should be enough. If you’re serious about it (and walk the walk and talk the talk) the rest will follow. The twist is that Stephen King places greater emphasis on having a family (a wife and kids). Writing is secondary.

I’m with you, Steve. This book became an instant classic in my library. I strongly encourage everyone to pick it up from your local bookstore.

Oblivion in Hunter S. Thompson’s fiction

Back in my college years I took a class with the associate chair of the department of English in Fordham University, Daniel Contreras. An expert of the modern American novel, Contreras’ syllabus included works by some of the defining authors of the era. Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Bret Easton Ellis, Oscar Z. Acosta, William S. Burroughs, Philip K. Dick,  and of course, Hunter S. Thompson. Contreras’ lectures on  Hunter S., and a close reading of (what some consider his magnum opus) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, drove me close to a place of perplexity and despair. For me, this particular novel bared the bones of what it means to exist in an increasingly oblivious society. The story of a journalist, Raoul Duke (Hunter) and his lawyer, Dr. Gonzo (the infamous Oscar Z.) is a journey into the depths of the American Dream (that is, the radicality of the American Dream). Fear and Loathing is the summation of Thompson’s philosophy: ‘fuck it’.

But not in the sense in which the phrase is ordinarily used. Rather, I’ve always felt that the American author’s writing was a way out of his own anxiety; his idea of literally giving the world the finger (like one of my favorites, Albert Camus, he left guns blazing). Many of his characters are men desperate to find meaning. This is the curious dilemma of the information age: having every door open, yet lacking a veritable answer (or something resembling authenticity) to our questions. Everything is synthetic. Hence, Hunter S.’s route is inward. But what he finds there is oblivion. He becomes even more unconscious of what is happening around him. Perhaps Duke could blame the effects of heavy drug use, but it seems that he finds his answer in the suffocating annex of the American Dream, the Circus Circus in Las Vegas. Here, Raoul and Gonzo encounter the figurative assertion of visceral America. Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo find insanity. The absurdity underlying the economy of abuses which they have been driven to accept.

Praise for DFW

Reading The Pale King is a daunting and exhausting task. True to his style, David Foster Wallace keeps to the prolix and the lexicon of a virtuous writer, weaving paragraph after paragraph of dense descriptions and conceptual gymnastics that would make Kant shiver. What I found was a meditation on American life as seen from the eyes of a variety of characters embedded in the cruelest and heaviest of boredom. Technical terms aside, I learned more about the IRS than I could have ever from an official handbook. The human condition (the DFW topic par excellence) also permeates the pages of this mammoth novel. Insofar as the American author’s  redeeming writing references fringe subjects, this experiment in precision may at times feel suffocating (the man is able to account for every minuscule detail in the world created by his prose lacking in commas and separate paragraphs). He indeed emulates the pace of monotonous existence; his novel figures like a sort of poetic document curiously found inside the drawer of a fiscal drone, Claude Sylvanshine. And like a mantra, it reads fluently. DFW is better at marathons than sprints; the slow burn will decimate you but once  your reach the other side, your mind and soul shall bear the scars of an ascetic. However different in scope, reading Nabokov’s Lolita was a similar experience (I literally had to use a cornucopia of dictionaries to push through both novels).

The same feeling of awe and perplexity characteristic of any author that manages to name something unnamable, is found on the 700-something pages of The Pale King. It deserves a place in the pantheon of literature. I had resisted boarding the DFW fan wagon, but to hell with it, DFW  is an otherworldly writer, with a mind so analytical, so plugged to the very fabric of what he witnessed in his lifetime, that the manner in which he matured (from Jest to King) indicated that he was working toward something very special. The more reason to feel the blues because he did not earn a (deserved) posthumous Pulitzer. If you haven’t, give The David Foster Wallace Reader a go. The Reader will take you on a crazy ride into the mind of a defining author.

Displacement in The Childhood of Jesus

Editing a brilliant text by Pablo Lazo Briones (forthcoming) on the philosophic importance of J.M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus, I stumbled upon a couple of interesting ideas. Lazo’s argument is that the novel posits a close connection between displacement and the biblical reference candidly apparent in the South African’s tale of a boy and a man whom arrive to a place that promises a better life.

This place, Novilla, is inhabited by people that have abandoned their past and their desire. They live under the logic of labor and cohesion; every man, woman and child has a particular purpose in this social complex, and they carry it out faithfully. There is no room for sexual desire, some might say the essential component of any human life, and, as the boy and the man soon find out, they have arrived at a world void of meaning (all the food is stale, every chat is redundant, work is boring and repetitive).

However, the boy and the man increasingly question the insular order of Novilla, to the point that, at the concluding pages of the novel, we find them escaping what was originally promised to them, a new, better world; the cycle begins anew, and our protagonists resume their journey in search of that better world. Lazo’s thesis, lending from Derrida’s notion of hospitality, is that Novilla’s hospitality isn’t real hospitality, hospitality belonging to a trascendent, moral mandate which doesn’t force the other arriving at our home to adjust to a set of requirements; true hospitality doesn’t demand anything from our guests. We realize that the man and the boy will never reach that promised place. There is no place to arrive at, because the search itself is the place. Displacement.

So the man and the boy keep going, announcing themselves as they go along, preaching the faith of something unnamable.