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Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

Epictetus, Freud, Ignatius

Just adding a few notes to yesterday’s post… Foucault mentions Freud, of course, as one the inheritors of the ideas of Epictetus and Cassian, but we could also include St Ignatius Loyola in this lineage with the intricate structures and practices he constructed around the ‘discernment of spirits’. ‘Discernment’ is the term retained from this phrase in an age generally sceptical (except in New Age circles) of the existence of a whole other world of spirits.

this site administered by the Loyola Press describes Loyola’s ‘practices of the self’ as follows:

Discernment of spirits is the interpretation of what St. Ignatius Loyola called the “motions of the soul.” These interior movements consist of thoughts, imaginings, emotions, inclinations, desires, feelings, repulsions, and attractions. Spiritual discernment of spirits involves becoming sensitive to these movements, reflecting on them, and understanding where they come from and where they lead us.

Ignatius set up a list of 22 rules for discernment – which would bring him into line with Epictetus’ rule based approach as well.

One might also mention in this context of the spiritual training of the mind, Eastern practices of ‘mindfulness’ which have been imported into Western culture via systems such as yoga and New Age meditation practices.

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Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015

This sounds like a rather interesting book, although I have only read a brief extract and a review. I like Crawford’s point, at least as described in the review below, that we need to pay focused attention to the constraints of physical reality, rather than losing ourselves in an abstract screen world of virtual possibilities. This is a point being made by a number of philosophers at present.

I’m not so keen on the concept of ‘mastery’ referred to below however, as this all smacks a bit too much of domination for my tastes. I would prefer to think of ‘working with’, rather than submitting things to our will. And because I can never resist throwing in a reference to Foucault: this focus on our interaction with the physical and the material, a materiality which is both human and non-human, and the necessity of patiently working with it at a whole range of levels, is arguably one of the primary focuses of Foucault’s work as well, and what makes his work so easily applicable to so many domains.

Reviewed by Nick Romeo at The Daily Beast, 5 March 2015.

Extract from review:

Crawford’s solution [to the distractions of the modern world] is not that we retreat into soothing sensory deprivation tanks; he advocates engaging with the “the brute alien otherness of the real” as apprentices and eventually masters. His ideals of focused attention are activities in which we exercise freedom not by purchasing products to express our will, but by submitting to the intrinsic demands of the external world in some restricted domain and accommodating its realities in skillful and intelligent ways. This sounds far more obscure than it actually is: playing ice hockey, practicing glassblowing, learning Russian, working as a short-order cook, building pipe organs, and playing an instrument are some of the examples he gives.

Nietzsche once said that joy is the feeling of one’s power increasing. Crawford appropriates the remark to argue that getting good at skilled actions fulfills a fundamental human need that our culture often neglects by offering instant technological solutions. In one fascinating section, he compares Mickey Mouse cartoons from the early and middle 20th century to children’s television today. The older shows present the physical world as a source of menace and humor: one thing that the constant collisions, crashes, explosions, and general slapstick show is that characters are subject to immutable laws of physics. Nature does not pander to its denizens; it follows that it’s a good idea to pay attention to the world and try to understand how it works rather than how you would like it to work.

In the contemporary Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, by contrast, a Handy Dandy machine solves problems by presenting pre-approved options on a screen menu. Technology has conquered risk and peril, and material reality meekly obeys the wills of characters, provided they have the appropriate gadgets.

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It would appear that ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO for short) is raging out of control in our societies. There has been a lot of discussion about the way this is fueled by social media, but less discussion about the way it is fueled by advertising and rampant consumerism. The perfect gadget/smart phone is always just about to be released. The perfect couch or mattress is just one more hour of research away…

A few links

Can we break free from the fear of missing out? A well informed and interesting article on the problem.

How to buy the most sustainable couch ever A fantastic blog post about ‘chronic couch commitment phobia’.

Fighting FOMO I particularly liked this passage:

Do not mistake the onscreen gallery of glee for a wonderful real life that is somehow passing you by. The human experience depicted by the media is never the whole truth — and often an outright lie.

The whole truth is that most of us spend enormous portions of our time looking for our car keys while suspecting there’s something biochemically wrong with us. The whole truth is that today, plenty of us will spend hours trying unsuccessfully to muster the energy to bathe — hours that will be memorialized in neither pictures nor words. The whole truth is that if you could trade places with the people who give you the most raging cases of FOMO, you’d probably find out they’re really, really tired.

Research to be continued on this topic…

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The new Australian government has little time for what it calls the “increasingly ridiculous” research grants being allocated by the Australian Research Council. This has happened before in Australian politics and as in the previous instance the targets are humanities research. As it is, humanities research attracts only a very small percentage of overall research funding from the Australian Research Council which allocates the money.

Unfortunately all of this does nothing but confirm a problem of long date in Australian culture, namely a pervasive anti-intellectualism and a short sighted focus on the purely pragmatic. Serious lack of funding to the higher education sector is in line with this cultural tendency. It is important to note of, course, that problems on this front are not uniquely Australian – but some would argue that intellectuals have to work harder for cultural and social respect in the Australian context than they do in a number of other countries.

Paul Redding reflects in The Guardian Newspaper (17th September 2013) on the uses of philosophy in the context of recent statements by Australian Coalition MP Jamie Briggs. Paul Redding’s work in the history of ideas and philosophy was one of the recent targets.

Philosophy is not a ‘ridiculous’ pursuit. It is worth funding

An extract:

“As a first, crude attempt, I’ll describe philosophical work as work with and on “concepts”. Philosophers are concerned with concepts in the same rigorous sort of way that, say, a pathologist is concerned with diseases, or a mathematician with numbers. […]

Concepts are not the contents of so-called thought-bubbles. They are the hinges or links of reasoning processes. They describe those aspects of thought that enables it to make the right connections: connections with the rest of the world; with other thoughts; and with actions. I use the word “right” here to indicate the possibility of getting these connections wrong.

Looked at this way, a concern with concepts can seem important indeed. To recycle an idea from Aristotle, it’s the capacity for conceptual thought that allows us to reason and act on the basis of reasons, and not just react to environmental stimuli. That we all work with concepts at some level allows us to exercise reason and act freely—to be more than mere bundles of conditioned responses. Concepts are what make us distinctively us.”

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chabotPascal Chabot, Global burn-out. Paris: Presses universitaires de France (PUF), 2013

I was so impressed by the arguments detailed in this review by Stéphanie Favreau of a new book by Pascal Chabot that I am posting up a quick translation. These ideas tie in extremely well with my own observations and sentiments in relation to the current situation in the higher education sector as well as other sectors. Chabot provides a very useful analytical framework to help understand and gain some distance from what is currently occurring. I am looking forward to reading his book.

You can find the original review in French on the nonfiction.fr site

Global burn-out : An ideology of the absurd syndrome

The Cholera of modern times

Attention must be drawn first of all, to the sleek and precise style of this book: a book which allows the various elements that make up the heart of that complex and multifactorial phenomenon which is burnout, to be distinguished. The reader will also be surprised by the first pages of the book which are like reading a novel. The detailed description of this woman who suddenly burst into tears at the wheel of his car, stopped in the emergency lay by on a highway is indeed reminiscent of some scenes from the The Horseman on the roof where Giono depicts emptied bodies, distorted by cholera, their disease oozing from every pore. We see a similarity in style but also perhaps more fundamentally, it is tempting to see burn-out as the cholera of modern times.

Contemporary acedia

To better define burnout, the author first proposes a quick overview of the history of the notion. We learn that if the contemporary psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Freudenberger was the first to introduce this term into medical language, there are much older traces of this phenomenon in quite another domain. Thus the rapprochement with the acedia that affected the most devoted of monks and other theologians is particularly well-chosen insofar as it illustrates the paradoxical nature of burnout, namely the fact that it is the most fervent defenders of a cause who eventually exhaust themselves through their very dedication. Acedia for the religious “is the Our Fathers which can no longer be uttered, the forgotten Hail Marys, the genuflections that one doesn’t get up from”. In the same way, according to Freudenberger’s observations, it is the doctor or nurse who, one fine morning, after having believed for so long in the value of their commitment, simply cannot get up and go to work.

If there has been so much discussion around burnout today, it is because it no longer affects just those in the caring professions working at the bedside of those, which an ideology that we will look at later on, defines as “weak links”. But it affects the very pillars of the liberal system, “the meritocratic battlers, the heroes of rewarded effort”. If burnout is of concern, it is it because it represents a “challenge to dominant values: it generates new atheists in relation to techno-capitalism”.

Mechanisms of the absurd

To try and explain this paradox, Pascal Chabot distinguishes three characteristics of our postmodern era which are of course in practice all intertwined.

Burnout is perfectionism which has run out of steam. Global economic development is largely based on the ideology of the self-made man. In this archetype which characterises liberalism, the individual is encouraged to transcend him or herself chasing the mirage that he or she will reach full self-realisation through work. In short, professional success has replaced salvation. What gives such a life its zest, is that given the best places are rare, you have to elbow your way through the crowds to win. Engaged in spite of themselves in this competition, individuals then throw themselves into the melee and sacrifice an entire part of their own person on the altar of work. Hence it is not enough, once the career has been set in motion, to maintain cruising speed, more and more has to be done because the competition never sleeps and profit waits for no man. Perfectionism in the service of such an abyss is transformed into a veritable regulatory nightmare.

Burnout is also humanism which has run out of steam. Indeed, to keep up the pace, more direct means accompany the race for recognition. Every enterprise worthy of its name, thus has at its disposal two major components: a human resources department and a management team. Of course, the human resources department is an essential element for the survival of the company, but what the author criticises here is the slippage from a figurative sense of the term to a sense that transforms the formula into a true oxymoron. In effect, in the postmodern era, “the human is a resource: which disgorges its best energies, its sweat, its time. It is, in every way, supernumerary, and therefore replaceable”. Human resources are therefore responsible for identifying the best stallions for the line up in the race for profit, and also for the letting go of the lame and other washouts while the management team deals with those who are still on track. To give us an idea of the completely dead souls that such a system generates, the author gives the floor to the manager himself: “I have fulfilled my mission. I managed by terror, I singled out the weak links. There were indeed suicides, but what could I do?”

Because there is necessarily a hidden motor in this infernal machine, burnout can also be defined as a race for recognition. In effect, “the human, who, constrained by necessity, does violence to his selfish needs, wants to see his or her sacrifice recognised”. He or she is willing to sacrifice themselves, but a minimum of recognition must be given in return. The height of cynicism is that it is precisely because they have the all too human feeling that people are grateful to them that they will persevere in their efforts. On this point, Pascal Chabot also cites Axel Honneth who understood very well that “recognition can be an ideological weapon with which, under the guise of flattery, individuals can be confined to a subordinate function in order to prevent them from escaping”.

What burnout reveals through three characteristics is that basically not even those most dedicated to their work are dupes of the non-sense of service which taps their forces. Burnout means that flattery and smiles are no longer sufficient to hide the vertigo of the logic of profit. Only sensed, not explicitly spoken or thought, absurdity is lived and somatized. “Bodies are smart. They sometimes know more about our needs than our blinkered psyches”. Burnout tells us that we cannot ignore the need that everyone has to have time for themselves. No number of fetishes can help, we have to live.

If this phenomenon has come to undermine the body, it is also perhaps because there is no space to express the absurd: culture also having entered in effect into the race for profit. In this sense one can only observe “the false promises of the knowledge economy”. Capitalist logic, which can thus be described as absurd insofar as nothing seems to be able to assign limits to profit, this logic which sustained enterprise, has now spread its tentacles into the private lives of individuals to the extent that leisure itself and any kind of search for meaning have become profitable. You are sold everything right down to recipes for happiness.

What burn-out reveals, is an uprooted form of existentialism where “there is an immense tribe of people who feel with ready-made feelings, […] think with ready-made ideas, […] who want with ready-made wills”.

Ideological roots

To better conceal this incendiary spread through the postmodern world, some claim that burn-out applies only to “the weak” and other “maladjusted individuals”. In short, they take refuge behind that other ideological weapon which is the pseudo-Darwinian argument of the survival of the fittest which necessarily involves collateral damage. “But this is not the right axiom. In reality, humans are plastic beings par excellence.” Humans adapt to new situations and ethnological museums are bulging with the remains of this human diversity. In every civilization besides, we find a form of spirituality and culture which responds to other requirements besides those of simple adaptation to the environment. This is because adapting, controlling one’s environment is one thing, “but one must also in addition realise oneself”. Humans are those beings who needs to find meaning in what they do with their life, they need to project themselves towards a horizon that transcends everyday concerns thereby giving them confidence in themselves. When the logic of the absurd ends up covering every base, the system goes into crisis.

Thus “humanity groans, almost crushed under the weight of the progress it has made”. Technical advances that were meant to liberate are now in the service of a logic of production which is cut off from any sensible relation to reality. The work by means of which people should be able to free themselves from the grip of nature to devote themselves to “more interesting metaphysical and more caring purposes,” has become a trap that no one is able to avoid and that nothing seems to be able to undo.

Finally, in relation to this cult of performance, which has its roots in the patriarchal model, another remark by the author deserves to be pointed out. The issue of burnout takes on a particular dimension when it comes to women. Numerous cases occur in the area of professional care and education – positions occupied primarily by women. Mechanically therefore, burnout most often affects those who are white-collar battlers. A double trap opens up here. The cliché is that women turn to these professions because they are naturally gentler, more compassionate, more dedicated. In reality, it is history that has shaped this myth and “this naturalism is controlled by more or less understood corporate interests”. But the tragedy of this situation is that somehow women have allowed themselves to be caught in this trap, that it adheres to this discourse and interprets their behaviour in the light of this reading.

The author’s emphasis on the issue of “Women’s burnout” is interesting insofar as it may, to some extent, also illuminate the overall situation. Indeed, in the same way that no-one is responsible for anyone else’s situation but nonetheless to some degree contributes to the survival of patriarchal values, no postmodern individual is responsible for anybody else’s situation even though he or she continually endorses it. It is of course tempting to apportion blame but in reality everyone is “half victim, half guilty, like everyone else”.

Psychologists say that burn-out is an endogenous reaction, sociologists that it is an exogenous phenomenon. But “this is where the philosophical approach which is relational, enriches the debate. For philosophy, in the diseases of civilization and the troubles which mirror it, it is the relationship between the individual and the social which is the problem. It takes two to build a relationship”. Of course both types of factors may be intertwined but burnout is not visited on the individual from above, neither does it come up from below, it appears on this edge of existence where the individual strives to achieve as much as take in relation to his or her environment. If burnout indeed characterizes a logic of the absurd it is in that it corresponds to some extent to the Camus’ famous definition: “The absurd is born of the confrontation between the human appeal and the unreasonable silence of the world”.

Towards a technological pact

To take the first steps towards eliminating “the burn-out machine” the author proposes two things.

Firstly, we need to seriously “consider reflecting on creating penalties for personnel management techniques which use fear and bullying as strategies”.

Next, we need to envisage the development of a pact or “technological contract” which as a regulatory ideal puts logics that have no other ends than themselves back in their place.

The analysis of burnout shows that there are two possible paths of evolution. On the one hand, there is the path willingly embarked on by the post humanists. To overcome the shortcomings of modern man, they invent technologies capable of making a machine that doesn’t call on “the bureau of metaphysical claims”. On the other hand, there are humans with all their flaws, or rather a vision of humans in which the need for time and the search for meaning are essential conditions for which “there is no solution because there is no problem, but only life which continues on through the generations and which is the raw material for all humanisms”.

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Warning spoilers
My rating: *

imdb link

Watchmen has been on my ‘to view’ list since it first came out and I read the rave reviews and numerous comments to the effect that it was an intelligent superhero film for those who didn’t like superhero films. I am one of that number. I generally find superhero films and other films derived from comic books or even graphic novels to be tedious and unengaging. I am simply unable to connect to the characters they propose and the alternate realities they inhabit.

Unfortunately last night’s viewing of Watchmen has done nothing to change this view. I found it tedious, overlong and pretentious. If the cultural references looked interesting to begin with during the opening credits, they are never extended beyond the range of the average first year undergraduate. Let’s make a list of this cultural hot potch.

American history and politics: the assassination of Kennedy, nuclear proliferation and deterrence, anti-communism, Richard Nixon and Vietnam, the much-touted loss of innocence and belief in the American dream.

Science and religion: the mysteries of quantum physics and a blue god-like figure (Dr Manhattan) looking vaguely like a Hindu god (he actually sits in a levitated lotus position at one point). Dr Manhattan exhibits super powers acquired through the standard experiment-gone-wrong leading to hideous-transformation-of- scientist. This god-like alien figure who through his immense powers has become detached from the trivial mundane matters of ordinary beings must, of course, be shown and be humbled by the true universal and superior value of what it means to be human etc. etc.

Poetry: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ – hoary standard of many an English language high school curriculum. Although the writing, to its credit, makes the associations with Ramses II and Ancient Greek civilisation at the origins of Shelley’s sonnet published in 1818.

Arthouse film: Some of the character Rorschach’s right wing vigilante voiceover fulminations about vice and corruption in urban America as he moves through seedy streetscapes come across as a very close echo of (‘hommage’ to?) the rantings of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976).

Philosophy: Benthamite utilitarianism versus Kantian deontology, is it morally justifiable to sacrifice 15 million people to save billions?

Music: Perhaps the use of music is the most interesting cultural aspect of the film. Classics of the protest and counter-culture era occupy prominent positions: Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They are A-Changin’ (1964), Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’ (1964), and then Leonard Cohen’s later 1984 classic ‘Halleluja’. If Dylan’s music over the recreated historical montage of the spectacular opening credits is obvious, a little research is required to judge the appositeness of the other two songs. One wonders why ‘Sound of Silence’ is played during a rainy (of course) burial scene in a cemetery for the character of  ‘the Comedian’ who is shown in a flashback to be Kennedy’s assassin until one realises that the song was originally written by Paul Simon in the wake of the assassination. The controversial juxtaposition of Cohen’s song about romantic loss and longing with an extended soft-core porn sex scene is perhaps somewhat more jarring. Perhaps the film makers were thinking of Jeff Buckley who performed the most famous cover of the song. Buckley remarks that in his interpretation, the song is about ‘the halleluja of the orgasm’. But even then, it is Cohen’s version, not Buckley’s, that is used and many viewers have baulked at the sheer obviousness of it all and the elision of the more subtle aspects of the song.

To conclude this list and to paraphrase the Scarlet Pimpernel in his guise as the inane fop Sir Percy Blakeney quipping to his French republican archenemy, Chauvelin: ‘So much for culture and fashion’ (The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982)).

‘Cultural’ references aside, Watchmen is wonderfully inventive and quite spectacular on the visual front. But like many contemporary Hollywood films, this immense and impressive visual creativity is disappointingly and fatally undercut by poor characterisation and story telling. As many have commented, not only is the writing the most essential factor in the film equation, it is also the cheapest, so why so frequently does it go wrong? Other films that come to mind on this front include the recent Prometheus (a review in The Guardian entertainingly points out the many character and plotting problems showcased by this film), and the Pirates of the Caribbean films. I haven’t included Avatar here, as for all the hype, I found much of the visual landscape it offered cliched rather than inventive. I commented earlier in this blog on the other problematic aspects of this film. But so as not to seem entirely negative, there is at least one film trilogy that does get it right and that is Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (for all the failure of its ending(s)).

I hadn’t intended to write so long a review of Watchmen, but in many ways it is emblematic of so many things that are irritating in the contemporary Hollywood multinational (but monocultural) film productions that swamp the global market.

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Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of EvilEthics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil by Alain Badiou


Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. Trans. and intro. Peter Hallward. London: Verso.

I will say from the outset that I found this book opaque in its argumentation and fundamentally alien to my own philosophical stance. Thus I am happy to stand corrected on any of the points I make here. From my perspective at least, Alain Badiou comes across as an old-fashioned existentialist with a few postmodern trimmings around the edges. His other work enlisting esoteric mathematical and set theory in the discussion of philosophical problems does nothing to alter this impression.

I’ll begin by making a few points of comparison with another thinker with whom I’m more familiar, namely Foucault. Foucault is interested in how truth emerges in and through quite specific historical experiences and the historical complexities of the interaction of truth with power relations, whereas Badiou seems more interested in proposing a number of abstract and eternal ontological principles. Even if the latter are only able to manifest in history and in specific instances and through embodied subjectivities, they effectively transcend time and culture and are universal. As Badiou remarks: ‘I think there are truth-procedures everywhere and they are universal; that a Chinese novel, Arabic algebra, Iranian music … that all this is, in the end universal by right’ (pp.140-1).

Badiou mentions Foucault in his book to applaud his rejection of humanism in the 1960s. He notes that this didn’t mean that Foucault and other anti-humanists of the 1960s were amoral nihilists as they took an activist stance in favour of the oppressed. He doesn’t mention, however, the reasoning Foucault used to support his anti-humanist position. This was precisely that ‘humanism’ provided a very limited and abstract definition of what it was to be human, with the end result that large numbers of people were actually excluded from the ranks of the human. In short, humanism was not inclusive or ethical enough.

Badiou makes the assertion that if the human animal is certainly mortal, humans can transcend that limited animal condition and achieve a immortality through accessing the truth. This ‘immortality’ is guaranteed by the fact that the truths being accessed are eternal and exist across time – even if they still need to be historically embodied or brought into history in order to exist. So individual humans remain mortal, but the truth they bring into history transcends time and culture and makes them (metaphorically) immortal in general and in theory. Thus, we have immortality of some kind of abstract human spirit rather than the human individual.

Unfortunately, I can see no good reason to be convinced by these assertions or by the convoluted arguments around what constitutes an ‘event’, where truth somehow emerges in history and then persists through subjective practices of ‘fidelity’. Interesting ideas, but without any detailed historical or empirical grounding to provide some kind of real world purchase, I remain sceptical.

Badiou makes the interesting point that popular contemporary ethics makes the tacit assumption that Evil, rather than Good is primary. By this, he means that ethics doesn’t crank into gear unless it has an evil (oppression of minorities, discrimination etc) to rail against. This leads essentially to a loss of hope and a diminishment of truth. If we start from ideas of the Good or a Utopian stance against which to measure things then we have a more viable ethics. Fair enough, but again this is all terribly vague. Badiou firmly states that there is no God in his schema (p. 25), but he offers a range of abstract concepts which, it could be argued, do nothing but stand in as problematic substitutes requiring an equal amount of belief and whose power effects remain unclear, for all Badiou’s declared radical political stance.

For a more extensive and perhaps more sympathetic review see Andrew McGettigan on The Philosopher site (Interactive electronic incarnation of the Journal of the Philosophical Society of England)

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