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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Anticipatory Retrospective and Presentism Now: Two Papers I’ve Published Of Late

Posted by John Holbo on 01/15/09 at 08:58 AM

Where have I been? Why haven’t I been posting? I don’t really know!

(Whew. That awkwardness is clean out of the way.)

In the last few months I’ve gotten two pieces through the publication pipes that (I think) deserve discussion together. Unfortunately, they aren’t readily web-accessible. One is a chapter in a book, the other an essay in a subscription-only academic journal. Fortunately, I’m going to try to summarize both, by way of showing how they go together. So it should be possible to discuss. But this’ll be a long post. Just like the good old days!

My pieces are: “Dewey’s Difficult Recovery, Analytic Philosophy’s Attempted Turn” in Democracy as Culture: Deweyan Pragmatism in a Globalizing World, eds. Tan and Whalenbridge, (SUNY 2008) [amazon]. And: “Shakespeare Now: The Function of Presentism at the Critical Time” in Literature Compass 5/6 (2008): 1097-1110. (Academic publication is weird. I started writing these pieces in late 2005 or early 2006. It’s so strange that my ‘new’ work feels old to me, in blog-years. But at least I still agree with both of them.)

The first of these two pieces discusses difficulties the likes of Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam get into, trying to take inspiration from John Dewey about how to stop being analytic philosophers and start being something more useful. For post purposes I’m going to focus on Rorty. The Putnam stuff doesn’t have any strong connection with the Shakespeare ‘presentism’ stuff I’ll be turning to in the second part.

The Rorty stuff I’ve also summarized before. See this Crooked Timber post:

The nub of that post, the core of my critique of Rorty in my paper, is the idea that Rorty’s reformist reach exceeds his justificatory grasp. He himself sees this, more or less. And he tries to be intellectually honest about it. But it really doesn’t work out so well. Because there doesn’t turn out to be a very edifying, over-arching philosophical answer to the question of how or why (or whether) you should urge people to come around to your way of thinking when you honestly don’t think you can give them rationally compelling reasons why they should do so.

In that old post I focus on what I term Rorty’s ‘rhetoric of anticipatory retrospective’. What’s that supposed to mean? Basically, you invite people to imagine a future in which they will have been converted; in which it may no longer even occur to them to ask what seem (to you) to be wrong/useless sorts of questions. You want the dead-enders in the old paradigm to set aside their preconceptions long enough to get it about the new one. But this sort of ‘think outside the box’ exhortation, although sometimes a fine thing (I am sure we all agree), is insufficient as a stand-alone argument. If all there were to Copernicanism, in a justificatory sense, were the abstract thought that it is possible that Ptolemaic believers might convert to Copernicanism, that wouldn’t be a reason for anyone to convert to Copernicanism.

Unfortunately, Rorty doesn’t have anything more up his sleeve. He has this one point—shifts happen; so it can be effective to urge them—but this can’t be stand-alone. So it won’t stand, for Rorty’s specific purposes. He is compelled to paper over the gap between what he wants and what he feels rationally entitled to insist on with characteristic rhetorical moves, some strong, some weak. Preaching the meta-possibility of conversion to the unconverted can seem more intellectually respectful than flat-out urging conversion. But it can also seem like weak tea. Also, it can seem high-handed and intolerant (I do believe Rorty is innocent of these sins, as I argue in my CT post, but it’s his bad luck that his attempts to be scrupulous can come off this way).

Another angle: ‘Telling stories’ is important to Rorty, and is potentially an effective rhetorical strategy. (Who doubts it?) But we quickly ground out. Why are these stories good ones? Someone is sure to point out that narratives have a legitimate place in the most scientific thinking. In a sociological sense, all paradigms of thought in some sense rest on stories: scientists, intellectuals, inquirers, tell themselves about what they think they are on about, and it’s bound to be a kind of story (if you want to write it up that way. But we wave that smoke away and are back to this: ‘I’m telling you a story about x’ is not a good reason for you to believe what I am saying about x. The ubiquity of narrative, if we grant that much, cuts against—not in favor of—narrativity counting as a virtue in any given case.

There are a number of further fallacies lurking hereabouts. In the published essay (but not in that old CT post) I emphasize one in particular. From the fact that sometimes mistakes are fruitful, it does not follow that ‘sometimes mistakes are fruitful’ should be played as a ‘get out of justification jail free’ card. In the essay I quote Jon Elster on the “moral fallacy of by-products—misplaced or self-defeating form of instrumental rationality”. (I actually got this quote from one of Kieran Healy’s posts, a few years back.)

It is the fallacy of striving, seeking and searching for things that recede before the hand that reaches out for them. In many cases it takes the form of trying to get something for nothing, to acquire a character or become a “personality” otherwise than by the “ruthless devotion to a task”. In other cases it is accompanied by self-indulgence, when one is led to tolerate errors or imperfections in one’s work because one knows they sometimes prove useful or fertile. In particular, many have come across the brand of scientist who excuses the one-sidedness of his work with the need for fertile disagreement in science. (p. 107-8, Sour Grapes)

In the essay I do my best to pin this to Rorty-on-Dewey. It goes like this (I’m summarizing my complaint, not really arguing for it here): Rorty wants to step down from what he thinks are uselessly ambitious, absolute, Platonic goals. We should settle for something more pragmatic, more ‘experimental’ (in Deweyan terms). But there just doesn’t turn out to be any intellectually stable stopping point short of Elster’s fallacy. There isn’t any ‘experimental’ method, with a small-m. Once you leave off trying to be Plato (here we are letting Plato stand, rather vaguely, for a broad platform of rationalistic, ‘foundationalist’ philosophical projects and arguments and positions that Rorty devoutly distrusts) you don’t become a shrewd practitioner of pragmatism. You just turn into a vaguely self-indulgent tolerator of unjustified claims.

In Rorty’s defense, he actually sees this himself, I think. In my essay I quote him, from “Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism,” quoting a century-old bit from René Berthelot: “pragmatism reveals itself to be romantic utilitarianism: that is its most obviously original feature and also its most private vice and hidden weakness.” Unpacking that a bit, in Elsterian terms: you want to ‘do good’, in a broad and practical sense; but, in a confused way, you end up substituting various rather romantic exercises in expressive self-cultivation for anything that could plausibly be an attempt to ‘do good’, in a broad and practical sense.

Suppose I’m right that Rorty perfectly well sees that, as a pragmatist philosopher, this is going to be his ‘private vice and hidden weakness’. Doesn’t that make it worse, if he persists along this path while actually seeing the problems with it? Maybe. But what he is going to say to Elster is that, so far as philosophy is concerned, he doesn’t believe in ‘ruthless devotion to a task’ in anything like a ‘scientific’ sense. He isn’t shying away from the honest ‘hard work’. He doesn’t believe in it. Sure, you can pile up the pseudo-technical philosophy journal articles up to your ears. But, honestly: there’s obviously no point (thinks Rorty). Rorty is more sure of the all-around pointlessness of academic philosophy, as others have been practicing it lately, than he is sure that his own private romantic tendencies will go all sour, then curdle his attempts to be a good pragmatist.

Putting it another way: Rorty’s problem is that all the things he really cares about just are the sorts of things that recede if one reaches out for them. He wants to ‘achieve his country’. He wants to ‘achieve’ a healthier sort of culture (academically, politically); a different, healthier sort of ‘vocabulary’ (academically, politically). But all these prospective ‘achievements’ fall under the heading: things that may, at some point, have happily happened (let us grant the ‘happily’, for the sake of argument). They aren’t really the sort of thing you can aim at in a direct, let alone methodically direct, philosophical manner. Not according to Rorty. For Rorty, philosophy just is commission of Elster’s fallacy, one way or another. (Or else it’s just pseudo-technical wheel-spinning, if that actually counts as a different sort of activity.)

Rorty never says all this, in so many words (or even in a different number of words), so it may seem uncharitable to attribute the view to him. (Obviously I’m not proving any of this in this post.) But I don’t set this view up to dismiss it as absurd. It isn’t frivolous or unserious, even if it is wrong (in my opinion). Let me abbreviate a bit by linking to an old Dave Maier post, with which I am substantially in agreement.

Dave writes: “My point is this: since Rorty sees “skepticism” as essentially a problem for dogmatists (i.e., realists who hold we can bridge a transcendental gap between knower and known), we can avoid skepticism, on his view, by renouncing any desire to cross the gap in the first place. But this just is skepticism, of the Pyrrhonian variety.”

I think Dave is right that the arguments that get Rorty here have problems. I mostly agree with him about what the problems are. But we should also consider: suppose you felt driven to Pyrrhonian skepticism, in good intellectual conscience? What should be the practical upshot? How do I live my life—particularly if I’m inclined to try to live the life of the mind? This is a tough one. As Dave points out, it is no good to say that we are just going to be ‘fallibilists’, going forward. That does not begin to acknowledge the corrosive strength of true skepticism. Then what?

Over the centuries, skeptics have taken their conclusions to license everything from conservatism to radicalism. The conservative skeptic says: if we don’t really know, we might as well do as our fathers did. The radical skeptic says: if we don’t really know, we might as well try something everyone around us thinks is totally crazy. (What do they really know?) Rorty is in the middle: we might as well tell stories about how nice it would be to have a spot of liberal-progressive reform around the place. There’s a certain sense to this, but, then again, it can hardly be deeply satisfying. The practical upshot of Pyrrhonian skepticism turns out to be: you might as well suit yourself. No other course of action is more justified. But, by the same token, no other course of action is less justified, absolutely. Also: if people end up feeling compelled by your arguments you will, in a sense, have tricked them. Because, by your own lights, they weren’t really compelling—not in a rational sense. (I don’t mean to put much emphasis on this allegation of deceptiveness, but it does seem significant that offering what are, apparently, rational arguments, while nurturing private skepticism about the possibility of making compelling rational arguments, is a dicey business.)

I think it says something that one of the most famous Pyrrhonist parables of how we should live life—the painter who tries to paint the foam on the horse’s mouth, and fails and fails, and finally throws his sponge at the canvas in disgust, thereby rendering the foam perfectly—is a poster child for Elster’s fallacy. Yes, happy accidents happen. But, no, it surely doesn’t follow that we should actually try to do the ‘wrong’ thing; that is, something that we ourselves have no reason to suppose would be a justified course of action.

In conclusion: I think one reason Rorty’s various attempts to urge ‘achievement’—of our country’, of a healthier philosophical vocabulary—are so uncompelling is that the man is, basically, a Pyrrhonist. He has painted himself into that corner not lazily, but painstakingly. Maybe wrongly—I say so—but considerately and seriously. And it’s a venerable old corner, in its way. Still, here just isn’t any way a Pyrrhonist is going to be a compelling advocate of any ethical or political position.

And if you say ‘but Montaigne!’ I’m going to reply that he’s more the limit case of how Elster is right. Elster doesn’t deny that committing his fallacy can be a way of developing/eloquently expressing your personality.

Have you found this whole discussion to be bafflingly high-elevation? My apologies, if this post has given you a mental nose-bleed that way. I’ve been talking about how Rorty’s arguments seem to me to be unsatisfying. But I haven’t really set forth his arguments, in his words, or even said what his arguments are about. (I’ve said that they are sort of about analytic philosophy, sort of ‘against Plato’, sort of about contemporary politics. But that’s pretty vague, isn’t it? ) Probably, then, this post works best if you can sort of fill in these large blanks for yourself, and make up your own mind about whether I’m right about what goes wrong.

But there is a point to his high-elevation treatment. Namely, I can make an interesting connection with the other paper I just published—one that might not be visible at a lower elevation. Let me quote the abstract of “Shakespeare Now: The Function of Presentism at the Critical Time”:

Presentism styles itself a distinctive critical approach to literary texts, characterized by heightened self-critical awareness. It sees itself as complementing (rather than competing with) historicism. Its main proponents – Hugh Grady and Terence Hawkes – are Shakespearean scholars, and in several recent works, including a recent anthology (Presentist Shakespeares), they elaborate and showcase their approach. This essay argues that the likes of Grady and Hawkes have failed to face up to the simple consideration that ‘presentism’ means a species of error, or it means nothing. They have also failed to square up, satisfactorily, against what is evidently their real target: namely, post-Theory approaches to Shakespeare. (David Kastan is a target, but his name is really more a convenient marker for the target zone, due to the title of his book: Shakespeare after Theory.) Presentism is, in effect, oblique apologetics for Theory, but fails to say anything in its defense.

Oh, no! Holbo is on his anti-Theory High Horse again!

Well, yes and no.

My presentism paper is a bit different than anything I’ve posted, I think. Because probably the most unsatisfactory feature of all the Theory back-and-forths (I mean: above and beyond the fact that my interlocutors refuse to admit that I have good arguments and they have mostly bad ones!) is a total lack of consensus about whether Theory is dead, or hegemonically dominant, or somewhere in between? Or what?

This essay on ‘presentism’ should help, although I am sure it won’t settle things. It’s contemporary. I quote work not from the 1970’s and 1980’s but from the early 2000’s, right up to 2005 (when I started writing the thing). I sample several books, writings by prominent scholars, and I pick an area—Shakespeare studies—that is surely a fair test area for the hypothesis: literary studies still steeped in Theory, or not so much?

One data point arrived in the form of an anonymous reviewer comment. The version of the paper this reader was responding to gestured towards general Theory-skeptical positions I think are basically sound, the sort of thing I argue in Framing Theory’s Empire. I was informed that no such position could be taken at all seriously. In the interest of not being rejected, I toned that down. (To be fair: the paper argues locally. Cutting the more global stuff that grated on this reader was painless and plausibly an improvement. And this reader’s comments were otherwise quite helpful.) The same week, I got a rejection note from a philosophy journal. I was trying to place a different piece, which offered more explicit arguments for the very same anti-Theory positions that I had just edited out, on the grounds that they were obviously disreputable. I was told that these critiques of Theory were so obviously correct that there was really no point in offering elaborate arguments for them. My paper was rejected.

So there is some consensus, in philosophy and literary studies, that the things Holbo thinks about Theory are not worth publishing. But no consensus as to whether this is because they are obviously wrong or obviously right. Perhaps someday science will figure out which.

Anyway: peer review is life’s slowest form of comedy of manners, no? Submitting a paper, then reading the things reviewers say, finally getting the thing published—it’s like watching a glacier slip on a banana peel.

Right. On we go. My ‘presentism’ paper contains some evidence that Theory remains a dominant intellectual force. Here are Grady and Hawkes, in the introduction to their anthology, Presentist Shakespeares, explaining how and why ‘presentism’ is necessary:

Such a criticism’s engagement with the text will take place precisely in terms of those dimensions of the present that most ringingly chime – perhaps as ends to its beginnings – with the events of the past. Deliberately employing crucial aspects of the present as a trigger for its investigations, its center of gravity will accordingly be ‘now’, rather than ‘then’. Perhaps this simply makes overt what covertly happens anyway. In principle, it involves the radical act of putting one’s cards on the table. In practice, it calls for a heightened degree of critical self awareness and for a committed engagement with the developments in critical and cultural theory that have taken place since the 1980’s. (p. 4)

What is really being said here? Scholarly ‘presentism’ about Shakespeare will obviously have to mean, broadly: writing about Shakespeare while making topical, contemporary connections. Trying to make these old plays relevant to the world of today. No one is going to object to that, I guess. But it’s not clear there is enough here to make for a distinctive critical approach. And I argue that, indeed, there isn’t enough. When you try to grasp something more specific, you come away with stuff that, I think, no one could seriously advocate.

To start with: presentism is apparently supposed to be necessitated by, while also necessitating, ‘Theory’. Yes, let’s be sure to capitalize, because it’s not ‘theory’ in the generic sense: plain old thinking; or the offering of abstract general explanatory accounts of some subject matter. Since it’s only been around since the 80’s ‘theory’ must refer (albeit vaguely) to more specific intellectual developments. (Everyone has theory; not everyone ‘does Theory’.) Nevertheless in these presentist texts there are brief, rather pointless attempts made by by Hawkes and Grady, a few others, to muddy this clear point. David Kastan’s Shakespeare After Theory is singled out for the alleged naivete of his proposal that we shift from focus on theory to ‘more facts’—as if you could ever really separate theory from facts! But it’s obvious Kastan is making the non-nonsensical point that certain developments since the 80’s seem to have become sterile. People should try doing other sorts of stuff, like materialist book history. (Possibly wrong, if you don’t like materialist book history, and feel excited about Derrida, but not philosophically insane.) There are further, incidental attempts to paint common notions (you always see from where you are) as peculiar insights of Theory. But it isn’t very plausible that people didn’t know this stuff before the 80’s, or that critics of Theory are opposed to Theory because they want to deny such things.

I even get a chance to defend E.M.W. Tillyard as not that naive, good lord! (It’s not every day you get to defend Tillyard’s relative epistemological sophistication!)

Setting aside theory/Theory conflations, and other attempts to annex common notions to Theory, nothing more is said about why making Shakespeare relevant to the present should necessitate reading him ‘Theoretically’. The argument might be this: since Theory is presently dominant in Shakespeare studies (Kastan be damned), the only way to write about Shakespeare in a way that will make him presently relevant is to write about him in a way that reinforces/commits to Theory’s dominance. But pretty obviously that doesn’t make sense. (I won’t bother explaining why an argument that could be used to faux-necessitate any trend, so long as it is current, can’t be a good one.) But if this is not the argument, then what?

I said there was going to be a connection to Rorty and it’s high time I spelled that out: advocating ’presentism’ just means advocating the commission of Elster’s fallacy.

How so? As I said, no one minds a spot of present relevance to brighten up your historical scholarship. But ‘presentism’, if it is to be a distinctive approach, as opposed to mere historicism plus topical polish, has to be a species of error or, at best, ignorance. Presentism means projecting features of the present onto the past, or else not seeing features of the past because features of the present are blocking them from view.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just ask Nietzsche. I open my essay with a quote from “Uses and Abuses of History For Life”. 

In the first place, everyone will bring an observation to bear here: a man’s historical sense and knowledge can be very limited, his horizon as narrowed as that of a dweller in the Alps, all his judgments may involve injustice and his every experience be imbued with an erroneous sense of originality—yet in spite of this injustice and error he will nonetheless stand there in superlative health and vigor, a joy to all who see him; while right beside him a man far more just and instructed than he sickens and collapses because the lines of his horizon are ever-newly restless and unsteady, because he can no longer extricate himself from the delicate net of his judiciousness and truth for a simple act of will and desire.

So true. But it’s one thing to note that sometimes people make invigorating errors, another to advocate that, therefore, people should set out to go wrong, on the grounds that it is invigorating.

I’m pretty hard on Grady, in particular. Probably that’s because he thinks the way to read Shakespeare is through Zizek, by way of seeing why Nietzsche has a one-dimensional view of power. I’m so convinced that is a comprehensively wrong view that I’m quite impatient with the whole production. (I know, I know. Adam Kotsko will say Zizek is secretly good, for reasons he could tell me if he decided doing so would not lead to diminishing returns in our ongoing, occasional, clashes of philosophical sensibilities. But in the meantime I’m stuck, having only read Zizek, having concluded Zizek is totally confused.)

But maybe I should be a bit more charitable with Grady, as I am with Rorty—because I like Rorty. (No better reason. Possibly I’d like Grady if I met him.)

Grady and Hawkes and some of these other contributors to the ‘presentism’ volumes have, for better or worse, painted themselves into a tight corner. They want it to be that their writings are infused by, empowered by, Theory. But they don’t really have a model they themselves are confident in for infusing their writings with Theory. Because, on another level, they don’t want their writings to be about Theory. Anyway, their writings are about Shakespeare. Theory turns out to be something that is, obscurely, already done at a certain point. These authors clearly distrust conventional, explicit philosophical arguments, but want it to be that, at the end of the day, they will have given you some reason (but what was it?) to accept certain philosophical views.

So we have some serious rhetoric of anticipatory retrospective rolling out. Let me just quote a substantial passage from my piece: 

It seems to me there is a flaw in the basic architecture of any such book as [Hugh Grady’s] Universal Wolf, or Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Montaigne—a flaw that confirms my suspicion that presentism presenting itself as a sophisticated alternative to historicism is, at bottom, theoretical absentism.

In the second of these two books, rather than targeting theory-indifferentism, as exemplified by likes of Kastan, Grady takes sides in an intramural ‘theory’ dispute. In his introduction he sets up, on the one side, Nietzsche, Althusser, Foucault (‘French poststructuralists’), on account of their allegedly ‘one-dimensional’ accounts of power. On the other side, we find the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin) as well as Zizek and Lacan (but not the Lacan of oversimple, Althusserian appropriations.) This side is alleged to have a more sophisticated understanding of subjectivity and power, affording an attractively intelligible account of autonomy.

In the chapters that follow Grady identifies as ‘Machiavellian’ the Althusser-Foucault-Nietzsche axis he disapproves; the favored, Frankfurt School-Zizek-Lacan side is aligned with Montaigne. These alignments are not defended, merely summarized. I, for one, would do it all differently: Nietzsche as the true Montaignean; Zizek plainly belongs with the Machiavellians (among other necessary adjustments.) But before any serious exercise in correct intellectual classification can get underway, we find ourselves in the midst of Shakespeare’s plays. As Grady himself describes the move:

Rather than trying to work out the specific constellation of Frankfurt and contemporary theories of subjectivity and modernity relevant to the readings of Shakespearean texts below, however, I intend instead to pursue the readings in terms of their own contemporaneous discourses, primarily those of Machiavelli and Montaigne. Occasionally, references to twentieth-century theories can help clarify a point or enable a reading of Shakespeare, and when that is the case a note or comment will identify the borrowing. While the chapters below have a clear ‘presentist’ dimension related to contemporary debates in cultural theory about subjectivity and modernity, I am choosing in this work … to put the historicist dimension first, to complement the opposite procedure in my previous book Shakespeare’s Universal Wolf.

Grady reads Shakespeare as providing a kind of argument for Montaigne, over (or in addition to) Machiavelli. This is a large claim but one that I think is well worth taking seriously. But Grady’s Machiavelli and Montaigne are not the historical ones. So his Shakespeare cannot be the historical Shakespeare. So Grady writes sentences like the following: “We, like Shakespeare, need to supplement Althusser and Machiavelli with more Montaignean theories, more appreciatory of the resistance of the subject to interpellation and cognizant of the instability of identity and the openness of subjectivity to new investments, identities and relations of power”. Now for obvious reasons, one should not—especially if one is ‘putting historicism first’—back into the position of being committed to the claim that Shakespeare had a subtle appreciation not just of Althusser but of the limits of Althusserianism, via the insights of the Frankfurt School and Zizek. This is to import an absurd degree of anachronistic specificity into a claim that might—just barely—be allowed to pass so long as it consented to remain utterly vague (and swore never to insist on anything, its whole life long.)

Skipping a paragraph and a half:

The cumulative effect of Grady’s ‘allegory’, i.e. his reading of several Shakespeare plays as a proxy fight between two groups of contemporary ‘theorists’, is a sense of a solid blow struck on behalf of the ‘Montaignean’ side. But if one then, as Nietzsche says, “starts up and asks himself: ‘what really was that which just struck?’” the answer must surely be: one’s behind, on the ground, between two stools—history and the present. We have not been present at an actual argument between actual philosophical positions. The impressionism and essential absent-mindedness of the theoretical performance precludes it. You cannot settle whether Nietzsche has a one-dimensional theory of power by reading four Shakespeare plays. But if that is not possible, then none of this is possible. (1107-8)

To repeat: it’s rhetoric of anticipatory retrospective all over. In Grady’s book, there’s a point before the main argument has started, a point after it has been concluded. But never a point where it is actually going on.

To conclude: you could take this as argument-by-example against Rorty. If people take you up on this whole ‘telling stories that cause certain things that you don’t want to occur to people not to occur to them’ line as a model for philosophy (post-philosophy, call it what you will) we’ll get more books with problems like Grady’s. But, by the same token, I could take my respect for the corner Rorty paints himself into (even if I can’t recommend it) as some excuse for Grady writing this way. He must feel pretty deeply that, somehow, it’s this way or no way. But I would recommend that this thought be re-thought.

Regarding Theory more generally: these presentists weakly confirm the hypothesis that Theory still enjoys a peculiar degree of academic dominance. Many literary scholars feel obscurely obliged to find Theory to be, somehow, necessary. But then the manner of their articulation of its necessity gives good evidence that Theory has been considerably hollowed-out, as others have alleged. If you are arguing that Theory is necessary basically because it is ‘present’—rather than because it is, say, valid or correct, or more intellectually warranted than the philosophical alternatives—you have given up a lot of ground. It gives even more ground to concede, implicitly, that Theory may well amount to presentist bias or blinkers, but somehow—but how would we know a thing like this?— especialy invigorating and peculiarly authentic. I think these presentists would strenuously deny that this really is their argument. But I would reply: fair enough. So what is it? And I don’t think there could be a good reply. So I think the problem is not so much that there is something wrong here as that there is, on examination, not much here. So Theory is, and is not, presently dominant, after all.

Which is probably what you suspected, didn’t you?


Comments

"But we should also consider: suppose you felt driven to Pyrrhonian skepticism, in good intellectual conscience? What should be the practical upshot? How do I live my life—particularly if I’m inclined to try to live the life of the mind? This is a tough one. As Dave points out, it is no good to say that we are just going to be ‘fallibilists’, going forward. That does not begin to acknowledge the corrosive strength of true skepticism. Then what?”

It seems to me clear that given Rorty’s willingness to ascribe power to narrative (stories), history is the next place to turn.  we should move forward trying not to make any of the mistakes that we find in the past.  this principle applies politically and, as it were, theoretically.  it doesn’t cover everything, but i think it’s an important part of Rorty’s story about how one lives in the world as a pragmatist-ironist.

By on 01/15/09 at 02:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

How many dimensions do you think Nietzsche’s theory of power has?  Because I think Zizek-Lacan-The Frankfurt School’s has eleven, just like reality itself does.  Shakespeare of course realizes this.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/15/09 at 05:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

eric: “we should move forward trying not to make any of the mistakes that we find in the past.  this principle applies politically and, as it were, theoretically.”

The problem is that this isn’t a distinctive position. It isn’t something those Rorty is arguing against would care to deny, at this level of generality; so - again - it can’t really be a reason for accepting what Rorty tells us. This is the ‘fallibilism’ point again. Everyone is a fallibilist. So being a fallibilist is not just an important part of the story about how one lives in the world as a pragmatist-ironist, it’s an important part of the story about how one lives in the world, not as a pragmatist-ironist.

You will probably say: but I was just leaving a blog comment, not writing a full proposal. And that’s fair. But I suspect the same thing would be true of a fuller presentation.

I honestly don’t know how many dimensions Nietzsche’s theory of power has, and reality itself is way above my pay grade! (I’m only a philosopher.) I am sure Nietzsche’s view is at least moderately subtle and twisty and forky, in a Montaignean sort of way. I know it is so because I see it every time I look at it. But I’m not surprised that some people miss this about Nietzsche. So that part, per se, doesn’t bother me so much. It’s the not canvasing arguments, pro and con, that bothers me.

Comfidentially, I would be sad if everyone were as perceptive about Nietzsche as I am. It would lessen my sense of mastery.

By John Holbo on 01/15/09 at 10:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You might find this of interest (via)

Suspension of belief seems not unrelated to suspension of disbelief; neither need be all-encompassing to serve the purpose.

By nnyhav on 01/16/09 at 12:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Because there doesn’t turn out to be a very edifying, over-arching philosophical answer to the question of how or why (or whether) you should urge people to come around to your way of thinking when you honestly don’t think you can give them rationally compelling reasons why they should do so.

Can give them, versus should give them.

I think most of my preferences, including very foundational preferences about how to interpret and interact with the world and be sufficiently compassionate to its inhabitants, stand on very irrational grounds. Extremely irrational grounds, with some ad-hoc borrowed rationales that I don’t find compelling. I also think this is true, to varying degrees, for very many people: the logical reasons we give for supporting something don’t match the feelings we have for it, and the logical reasoning feels like weak tea compared to some inspirational feeling we carry with us.

Manipulating your audience’s intuition and feeling can be as persuasive as manipulating their reasoning, depending on who your audience is. Frankly, one gets more done as a leader (whether destructively or constructively) when one’s audience is emotionally engaged, logical reasoning be damned.

By on 01/16/09 at 10:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Manipulating your audience’s intuition and feeling can be as persuasive as manipulating their reasoning, depending on who your audience is. Frankly, one gets more done as a leader (whether destructively or constructively) when one’s audience is emotionally engaged, logical reasoning be damned.”

I agree. But I am simply noting that offering this argument about how rhetoric can be effective is a funny sort of offering, as effective rhetoric goes. Telling people ‘the most effective way to get people to believe P will quite likely be some sort of rhetorical appeal to P’, although true, is not actually a very effective way of getting people to believe P. If you see the distinction. My point is that Rorty tends to rest with the meta point.

By John Holbo on 01/16/09 at 11:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"So there is some consensus, in philosophy and literary studies, that the things Holbo thinks about Theory are not worth publishing. But no consensus as to whether this is because they are obviously wrong or obviously right.”

Mightn’t there be two consensuses, one per community?

Personally I don’t find the end results of “close reading,” “Freudian criticism,” “Marxist criticism,” “historicism,” “Lacanism,” “deconstruction,” “new historicism,” or “presentism” all that different. All the critics use anecdotal evidence that strikes them in their here-and-now to talk about objects from the there-or-then. Sometimes they come up with something that strikes me too; most of the time they don’t. So I agree that their occasional apocalyptic dithyrambs look silly. It’s like when a painter says they’ve destroyed representation or abstraction, or a writer claims to have murdered the novel, or a filmmaker shows a title card announcing the end of cinema. The most they can do is change the way some people feel about those things, and generally the change doesn’t stick.

Where we part ways is that to my eyes these pieces of yours indulge in much the same silliness, minus the occasional artifactual insights of those critics. The entertainment value of your performance may keep me reading, but having already established that irrefutable logical argument is just not what critics, historians, psychologists, quite a few philosophers, and so on do, it’s not like I learn anything new. (Which isn’t to deny that it may be valuable news to other readers, possibly including some students of your targets.)

I don’t care for Rorty’s writing, but he clearly did not “rest with the meta point”: instead he tried to put it into practice by leaving the philosophy department. And just from a theoretical point of view, if one wants to mash up “philosophy” and “literary studies,” or “philosophy” and “politics,” it seems more productive to unrigorously refer to one from the other than to stay within the discipline repeating “That’s not a proper argument.” These stables will not stay scrubbed.

By Ray Davis on 01/16/09 at 12:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I also thought it was curious that you were lumping together philosophy and literature.  It’d be like if I were writing this philosophically-oriented theology that really challenged orthodoxy or something, and then I said, “There’s a consensus in theology and philosophy that my stuff shouldn’t be published—both because it’s too theological and because it’s not theological enough!” Or maybe if I said, “There’s a consensus that I live neither in Canada nor Mexico—both because I live too far north and too far south!” Or, “There’s a consensus that I’m neither a dwarf or a giant—both because I’m too tall and not tall enough!” Paradoxes of this kind could be multiplied indefinitely.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/16/09 at 12:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ray, I never found the false dichotomy that you’re presenting convincing.  You’ve seemingly binned the universe of literary readings into three:

1. Those that use anecdotal evidence that strikes them in the here-and-now to talk about the there-and-then.  If you think that the end results of close reading are little different than those of e.g. Lacanism, then of course there may be little interest for you in distinguishing one from the other.  But intellectuals are people who distinguish, so your interest preferences don’t seem to be generally shared.

2.  Those of irrefutable logical argument, which is apparently what John is supposed to keep pointing out isn’t used by critics and so on, over and over.  Except that, really, he’s not.  The whole “you’re an analytical philosopher—therefore you must reduce everything to irrefutable logical argument” business is just a way to dismiss anyone labelled an analytic philosopher without reading them.

3.  Something ... else.  The golden mean of readings that avoid false rigor in all directions, presumably.  Since you’re already indicated that you don’t mean “close readings”, I can only characterize these as “readings of interest to Ray Davis”.

It’s fine to be interested only in what you’re interested in.  But when you character what other people are doing according to a binary that seems to be “am I interested in them or not”, you don’t get very interesting results.

By on 01/16/09 at 01:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No one can fault you for being unconvinced by a false dichotomy, Rich.

By Ray Davis on 01/16/09 at 02:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I often find it more interesting when the person criticized defends himself, rather than some third party.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/16/09 at 02:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I guess that the problem is, Ray, that you keep traveling from characterizing your interests to characterizing what Holbo, Rorty, etc. are actually doing—for instance: “I don’t care for Rorty’s writing, but he clearly did not “rest with the meta point”: instead he tried to put it into practice by leaving the philosophy department.” So you disagree with Holbo.  Except that you really don’t, because you’ve already said that you’re reading him for entertainment value, and so anyone actually arguing with you might expect to be dismissed by a one-liner like the one above.

Do people often go to your blog and dismiss huge chunks of what’s under consideration as part of some silliness?  It seems like a rather annoying thing to do to someone.  One could ask, in that case, why are you reading this?  But since you’ve already mentioned amusement value, I guess that’s answered.

By on 01/16/09 at 02:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I find this kind of thing interesting, Adam.  I’m defending my ability to read interesting, non-dismissive things written about it, without, say, you pretending to misunderstand obvious points because you’re more interested in a flame war.  For instance, any person as smart as you evidently are would have to understand that Holbo was not really lumping together philosophy and literature, as opposed to illustrating how his work falls between the expectations of two disciplines.  Maybe after someone just goes ahead and recognizes that you want a squabble, you can just get it over with and stomp back to the Weblog.

By on 01/16/09 at 02:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I’m sorry you dislike the shagginess of my transitions, but since that seems to be an unshakable aspect of my conversation style, it could be that I’m not your ideal writer. For what it’s worth, when I converse with John I do so (I hope) as a friend who shares some interests and reactions but not all.

And yes, people often “dismiss huge chunks” of what I’ve written, often with a one-liner, and I believe they’re well within their right to do so.

By Ray Davis on 01/16/09 at 03:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My conscience pinches regarding the “entertainment value” bit, though, so just in case my point was as unclear to John as to Rich:

It sounds like the two published pieces point out legitimate issues in published work, and are therefore (no matter with what bravura or stodginess they’re composed) worthwhile scholarship.

As John warns, however, this weblog post is not a reprint of those papers. Instead, it connects those pieces to his overarching anti-Theory project and connects that to what he sees as Rorty’s philosophical dead end.

To which I weblog-comment that the sort of refutation he’s made could (and has) made against virtually all varieties of critical work, that attempting to define “Theory” by that sort of refutability will leave you with a very unwieldy set of “Theorists,” and that Rorty didn’t stop at that dead end but instead jumped the fence.

By Ray Davis on 01/16/09 at 03:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ray, I guess that I disagree (with respect to your last comment) above about “the sort of refutation he’s made”.  What I read the piece above as making has nothing to do with irrefutable logical argument.  It has nothing, really, to do with refutability.  It says that people ordinarily attempt to provide reasons why one should believe in things, and that Rorty appears to be trying to make an end-run around the necessity for doing so.  Objecting that Rorty put his ideas into practice by leaving the philosophy department seems like just another way of saying that anyone who asks for reasons might as well be asking for irrefutable logical argument.  You can only say that this sort of refutation “could (and has) be made against virtually all varieties of critical work” by inflating the refutation beyond (my) recognition.

You’re certainly within your rights to dismiss huge chunks of what someone writes, on a blog or elsewhere, with a one-liner.  But there are many things that people have the right to do that they nevertheless might consider not doing.

By on 01/16/09 at 03:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It is interesting how I can’t understand these comments without understanding the history of previous comment interactions between Adam, John, Rich, and Ray.  Since I have a very incomplete understanding of this whole history, I barely understand what is going on, since it always seems to me that every comment thread is simply the continuation of a previous debate, the stakes of which are largely invisible to those on its margins.

By on 01/16/09 at 04:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, seriously, tacking two long, vaguely-related pieces together is totally uncool.

Stephen Toulmin, ex-philosopher, also described himself as a Pyrrhonian. I can’t make sense of your claim that Pyrrhonians can’t persuade anybody of anything. Pyrrhonianism is actually quite a popular common-sense position among the unwashed masses.

By contrast, a group of philosophers with a rigorous theory of truth can argue any given point to impasses, and some points (free will, mind-body) will be argued right up to the heat-death of the universe. It’s sort of like tic-tac-toe—if both players are competent, neither player can ever win.(I recently saw something like this point made by a philosopher with whom I otherwise disagree, Inwagen in “The Problem of Evil”.) The philosophical arrow never reaches the target.

As for the anticipatory retrospective, I think that it’s one of the ways that a lot of ventures are supported. Significant political action is always done in the context of imperfect knowledge about the present and even more imperfect knowledge of the future. You can never be completely sure that your venture is either possible or desirable. But people do things anyway.

If you look for the arguments made for any of the admired foundational political acts of recent centuries (17th c British Revolution, foundation of Dutch Republic, French Revolution, American Revolution, New Deal) you’ll find that the arguments are philosophically invalid in various ways, and often also rely on erroneous historical assumptions. Political foundations are not constructed with truths. This is testable by looking at a corpus of political foundations and examining the key propositions of each of them.

By on 01/16/09 at 06:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Apropos of Nietzsche’s theory of power, does anyone know whether Nietzsche’s theory of power had any relationship to any other physical metaphor such as force, energy, mass, velocity, etc.? Or is it just a verbal metaphor with only a vague physical reference? I know that he lived in an era when the “energy” metaphor was widely used, with only vague reference to actual physical energy.

Much of what I read about power in Nietzsche doesn’t seem like power at all in the physical sense.

By John Emerson on 01/16/09 at 06:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan,

Quick summary: Rich wants to be left in peace to read John’s insightful posts without people criticizing them, so he comments relentlessly in the hope that the critics will give up and go away.  I mainly think John is wrong about Zizek and get annoyed with him for telling me I’ve failed to tell him how he’s wrong, so I try to torment him whenever possible.  Ray tends to post more in sadness than anger.

Watch for Rich’s self-righteous response in which he points out to everyone how unserious I am and suggests I should just go away if I don’t have anything to contribute.  Meanwhile, John will act like the whole Rich thing isn’t happening for the most part (unless it becomes exceptionally bad, in which case he will declare a pox on everyone’s house) and will just respond to people as though Rich hadn’t spent 40 comments defending his every word.  John will patiently respond, be much more measured than Rich, but will eventually realize that no one is providing him with satisfying arguments so he might as well just go on believing what he came into this believing.  The continued inability of _anyone_, in the _entire world_, to provide John with a satisfying argument is one of the great marvels of the blogosphere.  At the same time, John himself gets to advance his points through irony and passive-aggression, because he at least has arguments at the ready, even if we never quite get to see them or even to know what counts as a proper argument in his mind.  (He will of course deny this whole last part.)

Hope this helps!

By Adam Kotsko on 01/16/09 at 07:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John E, I think that there’s a sense in which particular types of overreach are more dangerous to particular times.  I don’t think that the problem of our particular time and place is that we have too many philosophers / experts positivistically insisting that only rigor will do.  The more important problem right now seems to me to be vaguely Pyrrhonian—at least, vaguely in that direction—the idea that anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s, so e.g. if taking action against global warming would be inconvenient, just listen to the denier rather than the scientist and there’s no real way to distinguish one from the other.  The anticipatory rhetoric of the time involves something like “Imagine that we have a democratic, free Iraq.  Now why would you want to support Saddam?”

Pieces like Holbo’s give valuable informal ways of attacking that.

By on 01/16/09 at 07:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rick: Following Toulmin, my answer is that questions should be framed in terms of practice instead of Truth. I’m pretty sure that both Rorty and Toulmin argue, and in any case I do, that skepticism and rigor are mutually reinforcing. If your standard is Truth, anything less than Truth is worthless, and quibblers can defer the decision infinitely. If your standard is practice — “What’s the best thing to do about this now?”—everyone has to justify their own answer, rather than just knock down the other guy’s answer.

Toulmin is my man, rather than Rorty. Rorty’s opening to post-modernism didn’t work, as he recognized, partly because of the unfortunate form American postmodernism took. And his irony / pluralism streak does not appeal to me.

By John Emerson on 01/16/09 at 08:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually I too think that you (John) are a bit unfair to Rorty.  You’re right about his tendency toward “imminent critique” [nice one, btw] in the political context of Achieving Our Country, but elsewhere, e.g. in Truth and Progress, he engages substantively (not always convincingly, but that’s another issue) with all manner of critics and allies.

So then we might want to accuse him not of “resting with the meta point,” but instead of inconsistency – that he isn’t entitled, by his own lights, to argue with critics in the way he does.  And I do think he is at least somewhat lax about what he says in various places, in the way that self-described “pluralists” can be, in his case deploring argument in one place and engaging in it in another.  But I don’t think that he contradicts his Pyrrhonism (which he calls “ironism") simply by engaging in object-level philosophical argument with Charles Taylor or Michael Williams or whoever.  Those arguments and that philosophical stance can be aimed at the same philosophical targets.  On the contrary, I think what is wrong about the role his Pyrrhonism plays for him is, as you complain, that he trots it out as a supposedly virtuous forbearance whenever he doesn’t want to give an argument for something (or doesn’t have one).  Not only is that lame, it (ironically!) misses the force of the actual anti-dogmatist (and, not incidentally, anti-skeptical) power of the Davidson/Wittgenstein/pragmatism convergence he of all people helped to set up.  (Think Rorty and his Critics).

I don’t know how much you know about the actual Skeptics, but they weren’t the buffoons lots of people (e.g. Hume) seem to think they were.  On Michael Frede’s sympathetic reading, for instance, the point is not that we should not believe anything, or even engage in argument for this or that, but that we shouldn’t believe dogmatically (or as they put it, “insofar as it is [as on the Platonic or Stoic view] a matter of logos“).  One can engage in a lot of argument without thereby falling into dogmatism so construed.  Still, I’m not endorsing this position, in Rorty or elsewhere.  It’s ultimately unstable, on my view, but there are a lot of things about it that I like.  See Burnyeat & Frede, eds, The Original Sceptics – it’s a real kick in the head.

Anyway, some of what you say about Rorty the Pyrrhonist (I’m thinking of “Also: if people end up feeling compelled by your arguments you will, in a sense, have tricked them. Because, by your own lights, they weren’t really compelling—not in a rational sense") sounds like it might be better aimed at Fish the (neo-) Sophist.  That’s the guy who’s really caught in the performative bind.

I’ll spare you my thoughts on “fallibilism” for now.

By Dave Maier on 01/16/09 at 09:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But what would Heidegger say?

By on 01/16/09 at 10:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

""So there is some consensus, in philosophy and literary studies, that the things Holbo thinks about Theory are not worth publishing. But no consensus as to whether this is because they are obviously wrong or obviously right.”

Mightn’t there be two consensuses, one per community?”

Well, not to explain my own joke, but the idea was supposed to be that if one community is sure something is right, and the community next door is sure the very same thing is wrong, maybe we should at least conclude that both groups would do well to be be less sure they know the answer.

“I also thought it was curious that you were lumping together philosophy and literature.”

I’m not sure whether you’re serious about this, Adam, but I’ll just be a straight guy for a change. Philosophy and literature seem like subjects that could be interestingly brought into coordination/dialogue with each other, if only this could be done in satisfying ways. (Agreed?) Also, you do see the humor of the situation I was in? How do you address both communities persuasively, given this level of background disagreement? (Right?)

“John himself gets to advance his points through irony and passive-aggression, because he at least has arguments at the ready, even if we never quite get to see them or even to know what counts as a proper argument in his mind. (He will of course deny this whole last part.)”

Is there any reason why I shouldn’t deny this last part?

OK, new policy: Adam K, I’m not going to address any complaints from you about how I don’t have arguments until you have decided it is finally worth your while to tell me what secret thing I have been missing all this time about Zizek. Let’s start where we left of in the last thread (linked to in the post). You alleged that I made some pretty awful mistake in understanding Kierkegaard on faith, because I am a liberal. You were aggrieved that I wouldn’t just accept this about myself, that I made little mocking jokes in response to these charges. (You found it insulting that I said you weren’t serious.) But, when I offered you the chance to explain what mistake it was I making, and why you thought it was a mistake, you briefly suggested that perhaps we were in agreement about Kierkegaard after all, which I said didn’t seem to be the case; then shifted back to the view that I was all wrong, but that there would be ‘diminishing returns’ if you had to explain how or why. Does any of that ring a bell? It was a very Euthyphro sort of moment, in the overall dramatics.

But sometimes to get a bold speculative return you have to risk a little loss in steady dividend payments, I think! So I urge you to take the plunge into philosophy. When you criticize me, tell me not just THAT you think I am wrong but also (this is the chemical X that makes it an awesome recipe) WHY you think that.

And, by the way, it really isn’t chemical X but just plain old argument, such as you might find in a regular kitchen. I don’t have an rarified or peculiar notions of what counts as an argument. An argument is a set of considerations that gives you reasons to accept a conclusion.

It isn’t as though I don’t have high respect for the philosophical arguments of lots of folks, after all. You know that well enough So you can cut out all this nonsense about how no one has ever convinced me that they even have an argument. This is just you trying to get out of offering one, right?

But I will add this much: the whole Adam/Rich thing goes like this. Adam disagrees with me but won’t say why; Rich agrees with me. Adam has to say something, so he hints that the fact that Rich agrees with me shows that there is surely some serious problem with what I am doing. How not? Also, when Adam and Rich start tearing into each other, Adam is if I don’t hold Rich exclusively responsible for the results.

So now you’re all up to speed with the history of John, Adam K and Rich.

Moving right along to more substantive matters.

Ray writes: “The entertainment value of your performance may keep me reading, but having already established that irrefutable logical argument is just not what critics, historians, psychologists, quite a few philosophers, and so on do, it’s not like I learn anything new. (Which isn’t to deny that it may be valuable news to other readers, possibly including some students of your targets.)”

This is, I think, a quite fair criticism. I’m farting into the same pillow, repeating negative points without managing to make them more positive. In my defense, I’ve tried to leave off writing about this stuff so negatively, move on in my own research, but the time-delay effects of the academic publication system mean that stuff I was actually writing round about the time of our Theory’s Empire event is only now coming out.

I do think that these points are worth making because, unlike Ray, many people don’t find them to be basically right. Adam K, for example, is absolutely sure they are fundamentally wrong. But the intellectual value, for me, of dwelling on the negative, rehearsing more or less the same argument set, for better or worse, is probably a case of diminishing returns. I think there are some interesting details in the Shakespeare piece (sorry I can’t put it online). But probably the proper thing to do is right a great paper on Shakespeare and Montaigne myself, rather than grousing about others writing ones that are unsatisfactory.

Finally, let me address John Emerson:

“I can’t make sense of your claim that Pyrrhonians can’t persuade anybody of anything. Pyrrhonianism is actually quite a popular common-sense position among the unwashed masses.

By contrast, a group of philosophers with a rigorous theory of truth can argue any given point to impasses, and some points (free will, mind-body) will be argued right up to the heat-death of the universe. It’s sort of like tic-tac-toe—if both players are competent, neither player can ever win.(I recently saw something like this point made by a philosopher with whom I otherwise disagree, Inwagen in “The Problem of Evil”.) The philosophical arrow never reaches the target.”

There are two different points here. First, there are moderate forms of skepticism/fallibilism that are eminently common-sensical. But it’s not right to call them Pyrrhonian, strictly. So I disagree. The other point I agree with: about how philosophers sorta kinda know it’s going to be an essay in isometrics. You will make your realist arguments. I will make my anti-realist arguments. At the end of the period we will bow and shake hands. And tomorrow we will be back where we started. If you really believe that’s what it’s like, in a meta-sense, then how could you take the arguments seriously?

What we should notice here, I think this is John E’s point, is that there’s isn’t so much pragmatic daylight between those who say we have to take all this stuff seriously, be ever searching for foundational truth, and the pragmatists. The latter camp are just being a bit more honest. Some people like to say there are many Truths - eternal verities. Liberal arts is a glorious exploration in the plural groves of all these. There are always two sides, which just shows how subtle the truth is. Then others say there is no Truth, so lets be pragmatists, and the eternal verities crowd act all shocked. But is there really such a difference in attitude, in practice? Is that what you are saying, John E? If so, then I agree that it’s a point for the Rorty side.

By John Holbo on 01/16/09 at 10:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John,

You are so fucking frustrating.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/16/09 at 10:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And now Dave M. leaves a good comment, so I’ll add to mine. I’ve said before that I like Rorty largely because the debates in volumes like “Rorty and His Critics” are so great. Rorty trying to work out all the ways in which his Davidsonian incorporations are problematic is fantastic stuff. The critical attacks are so sharp, and Rorty is so serious about addressing them seriously. It’s a model of what academic philosophy is like, at its best. I learned more from that book than any other philosophy book I’ve read in the last 10 years. But, at the same time, I just don’t think the approach of that book fits with “Achieving Our Country”. What great about Rorty replying to his analytic critics is that he just drops all the ‘anticipatory retrospective’ shiftiness. It’s so much better when he does that. (I’m not convinced it’s some kind of performative contradiction. But it is in the sense that it underscores how much more interesting the stuff that Rorty says is going to be boring is, and how much more boring the stuff that he says is going to be more interesting.)

I don’t think the ancient skeptics were buffoons, by any means. I do think it’s the kind of position that you could feel driven to by powerful arguments. But then it just can’t be satisfying. And it sure isn’t going to be a platform for reformist progressive democratic politics.

By John Holbo on 01/16/09 at 10:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"John,

You are so fucking frustrating.”

Well, this is improvement. At least you aren’t telling me that I’m wrong any more. I’ll cop to the frustrating charge freely.

By John Holbo on 01/16/09 at 10:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I do think you’re wrong.  I’ve painted myself into a corner by arguing specific points and trying to find some kind of common ground, but that was doomed to failure because your misconstrual of Zizek is so global that the only way to rebut it is to start from scratch and simply say what I think Zizek is up to.  Thankfully for everyone, I’ve now done so, in book form.  Read my book.  It tells you what I think of Zizek.  It’s different from what you think of Zizek.  The differences are where I think you’re wrong.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/16/09 at 10:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think the ancient skeptics were buffoons, by any means. I do think it’s the kind of position that you could feel driven to by powerful arguments. But then it just can’t be satisfying. And it sure isn’t going to be a platform for reformist progressive democratic politics.

But John, this just reinforces my suspicion that you way underestimate the power of the Skeptical point, sympathetically construed (do read Frede; he’s awesome).  It’s emphatically not just “argument can’t get us anywhere, so we’re not going to do it.” That’s the problem with Rorty’s use.  But there are other uses.

Think about it this way.  What’s the problem with reactionary politics?  Well, much (certainly not all, but much of what is actually causing problems nowadays) of it can be construed, for diagnostic purposes, as due to philosophical confusion, most often some sort of residual or overt Platonism.  Skeptical tropes can be insanely useful in helping to expose a position’s latent platonism and turn it against itself.  The trick is to get off the trolley before it self-destructs.  And if you know you’re going to have to do that, that can even work.

Sort of.  And the political project of course wouldn’t be done then either, just some major obstacles cleared away.  But in any case you are being too dismissive.

BTW the “buffoon” remark was aimed at those who think, as Hume seemed to, that Pyrrhonists were in danger of walking off of cliffs because they thought the senses could not be trusted.  This is ridiculous and shows no understanding of what the position is.  Not saying that you thought this.

By Dave Maier on 01/16/09 at 10:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But Adam, if all you can do is point out differences - that is, you can say THAT you disagree, but not WHY - why should anyone accept your global view rather than mine? The ‘differences’ are presumably not just where you think I’m wrong but where I think I’m right.

Can you see why this is unsatisfying and, frankly, rather intellectually suspicious?

My arguments look like the sort of thing that could be addressed piece-meal. It looks like it is should be possible to ‘think locally’, as it were, about what Zizek is arguing, whether Zizek is right about Kierkegaard, about what Kierkegaard’s account of faith is. About what the pseudonymous author of “Fear and Trembling” is on about. Now you are telling me that, for reasons you cannot express, the only approach is actually this: everyone needs to imagine a new way of looking at all this that is, obscurely, globally, better than mine. And that is that.

Maybe someone should write a paper about why what one might call the rhetoric of anticipatory retrospective - ‘all your bases will have been belong to us’ - is intellectually unsatisfying. After all, if I read your book I will either find specific arguments about specific texts and claims or I won’t. If I won’t, then that seems to me problematic. But if I do, and if they are the sort of thing that can be assessed, then what was so hard about assessing MY specific arguments and claims? What makes it be that my arguments are peculiarly the sort of thing that can only be stated to be wrong, never argued to be wrong? Can nothing more be said about rather astonishing state of affairs, according to you?

On the other hand, ‘all your bases will have been belong to us’ IS an eminently Hegelian stance.

But why should I just take it on faith that you have superior Hegelian insight - you’ve seen the unarguable rightness of your alternative picture. Why shouldn’t I suspect it’s a plain old case of you not agreeing with what I say, but not being able to say exactly why you disagree. Which happens all the time.

By John Holbo on 01/16/09 at 11:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You act like we’ve never discussed specific points.  We have.  You say I jump around a lot.  Fine, I admit I’ve changed my mind on certain points in our seemingly five-year-plus conversation.  In my mind, you seem to jump around a lot, too.  It could be that your passive-aggressive faux-Socratic style is actually part of the problem here!  Like maybe I’m not really into going into detail because you’ll just turn everything around on me or claim we don’t really disagree or whatever—so it seems like a waste of time.  If you really want detailed arguments, you have to come across as the kind of person who’s going to be worth discussing with, rather than someone who continually dismisses my every attempt to make myself understood and then bizarrely claims that I’m keeping my stance hidden.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/16/09 at 11:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, why don’t you just a) stop it, preferably at once; and b) review Adam’s book for us?  That would be something, as I think we can all agree.  (BTW, Adam, I thought your first comment on this thread was awesome.)

By Dave Maier on 01/16/09 at 11:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And yet I’ve opened up a tab to review your damn article....

By Adam Kotsko on 01/16/09 at 11:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John E, but I was justifying my preference on the basis of practice, not on an appeal to truth.  I was saying that the best thing to do about the situation now was to be especially skeptical of skepticism, in effect, and let the undue-rigor people have a pass.  This is justified on the basis that a good deal of our current problems really do have answers that are knowable in a practical sense but not politically accepted, and that various forms of high-intellectual-culture philosophy that question our ability to know anything quickly descend the ladder down into obscurantism and from there down to deliberate propaganda.

By on 01/17/09 at 12:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"If you really want detailed arguments, you have to come across as the kind of person who’s going to be worth discussing with, rather than someone who continually dismisses my every attempt to make myself understood and then bizarrely claims that I’m keeping my stance hidden.”

In my posts, in my papers, do I really come across as someone who’s ‘not even worth responding to?’ (Forget about comments. There’s lots of snark in comments. And you know perfectly well that I usually only snark if I’m snarked at first. No doubt I’ve started snarkfests, but, as rule, if people address me respectfully, I’m respectful back. Right?) What is it about my posts and published papers that seems to you to show that I am not worth responding to seriously? I think they’re pretty good papers.

By John Holbo on 01/17/09 at 12:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"And yet I’ve opened up a tab to review your damn article.... “

Ah, THAT’s the stuff.

By John Holbo on 01/17/09 at 12:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Okay, you say that the Brecht poem is an example of utilitarianism.  Nowhere in the poem does it say anything about utility or future generations, etc.—it just says the good man is the speaker’s enemy, i.e., the enemy of the revolutionary cause.  Similarly, you say that Lenin is a utilitarian.  Maybe you could argue that he was, but it’s clear that that’s not what Zizek thinks of him.  If Kierkegaard isn’t a utilitarian—and clearly he isn’t, then I would assume that Zizek putting together Lenin and Kierkegaard means that Zizek doesn’t think Lenin is a utilitarian

That’s a key difference between us: you are assuming that Zizek is getting Kierkegaard wrong (based, incidentally, on a lot of stuff that you are importing into the text), whereas I’m assuming he’s getting Kierkegaard right (in a way that, broadly speaking, we would both agree is “right"), and interpreting his stuff on Lenin in that light.  Lenin is suspending the ethical from two points of view—he’s violating liberal democracy, obviously, but he’s also violating the supposed “natural” course of events dictated by Marxist theory.  He has no guarantees, either of liberal proceduralism nor Marxist progressivism.  That is the aspect of Lenin Zizek finds most appealing, not some bullshit about broken eggs automatically leading to omelettes. The whole point is that Lenin has no guarantee, so why would you say that Zizek thinks the results are guaranteed? 

He’s talking about being willing to take a risk, being willing to take steps that within your present “normal” frame of reference may even seem despicable.  Now there’s the Jack Bauer version of that, being willing to torture, etc., to save the system (the same might be said of Bush, or indeed of Stalin)—Zizek’s clear that that’s not what he’s after.  He’s talking about taking a risk in service of revolutionary change.  You’re fond of pointing out what liberals already know—well, Zizek already knows that the results of revolution aren’t guaranteed and can be quite ugly.  He was born and raised in a communist society, for example.  So the whole Gulag Archipelago thing was pretty pointless, especially given that Zizek’s opposition to Stalinism has been a constant.

More broadly, he’s not advocating reviving Leninism whole-hog.  He’s investigating Leninism as an example of the formal structure of revolution.  Why might we need a revolution, you understandably ask?  Well, that example of Clinton’s health care initiative that you take to indicate how very confused Zizek is—isn’t it sad that, given how all the evidence is in favor of single-payer healthcare, it seems absolutely impossible to conceive of our good liberal elites delivering it to us?  If procedural liberalism isn’t enough to give us a humane outcome on a question like health care when essentially all the evidence is on one side, then what good is it?  I think it actually reinforces Zizek’s argument that such an obvious move can seem like an attempt at revolution in our context.

Overall, though, the central question is the whole point about utilitarianism: you are completely importing that into Zizek’s argument.  If you remove the utilitarianism piece, then suddenly it becomes clear that Zizek—as we would expect from an educated and well-read person—can actually understand Kierkegaard!  And the parallel with Lenin is much clearer as well, since he’s not portraying Lenin (or Brecht’s speaker!) as a utilitarian.  Insofar as you are importing utilitarianism into Zizek’s argument, therefore, you are misreading Zizek and are therefore wrong.

Is that good enough?  Are you willing to at least acknowledge that I’ve told you what’s wrong?  Or have I failed to attain to that mysterious discursive form, supposedly so common and yet so strangely elusive, that you call an “argument”?

By Adam Kotsko on 01/17/09 at 12:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

(Incidentally, the part about getting Kierkegaard wrong because you were a liberal stemmed from a chunk of conversation where you must’ve been discussing how you thought Zizek misread Kierkegaard and I took it to be that you were just describing what you thought Kierkegaard was saying.  Needless to say, neither you nor Zizek hold the view of Kierkegaard I then critiqued.)

By Adam Kotsko on 01/17/09 at 12:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"have I failed to attain to that mysterious discursive form, supposedly so common and yet so strangely elusive, that you call an “argument”? “

Well, I wouldn’t know. I don’t know about any such mysterious discursive forms. (I try to leave the persistent mysteries to you, in these debates. So you tell me.) As to arguments, on the other hand, it’s certainly that, but it seems to me weak.

Here’s why. In two steps. First: Lenin not a utilitarian.

I give a brief argument that he is in the paper. When liberals objected to Lenin, he pointed out that the bodies were piled higher in Europe, after W.W. I than he expected them to be piled high, by his revolution. That is, the end justifies the means. And the end is: the greatest good for the greatest number. That’s the sense in which I say Lenin is a utilitarian. He doesn’t think that individual rights not to be killed trump the common good, or anything like that.

I don’t think this is a very controversial reading of Lenin. Read his stuff. You will find that I am right. In the meantime, let me turn this around. What possible, plausible view of Lenin is there according to which he is not, in this rather weak (since indefinite sense) a utilitarian? I don’t really consider this in the paper but mostly because I just don’t think there is an alternative view that enjoys any plausibility. What do you think Zizek thinks Lenin is, if NOT a utilitarian? Suppose Lenin believed that the greatest good for the greatest number could be achieved under liberal democracy. Why would he then advocate revolution? I don’t think he would. (And please note: there are plenty of thinkers - Nietzsche; Hegel - who would say that producing the greatest good for the greatest number, in a material sense, is not the highest end. You should oppose liberal democracy, politically, on some other grounds, then. But I don’t think Lenin is one of these.)

In short: if Lenin is not a utilitarian, then what?

Second, where Kierkegaard fits in. In our last go-round you faulted me for emphasizing the irrationality of faith, for Kierkegaard. But I think I’m not wrong. It is the essence of faith to be absurd, for Kierkegaard, because the notion centers on the doctrine of the incarnation, eternity in time. Faith isn’t ‘taking risks’, in a conventional sense. We’ve been over this: if Abraham is a gambling man, he isn’t the father of faith. This is why I pressed you to articulate what you think K. on faith is. You are sure I am wrong to emphasize irrationality, but I haven’t heard yet why you think that. I don’t expect to be convinced.

To sum up: I am guilty of importing utilitarianism into Lenin. Very well. Show me Lenin, minus utilitarianism.

I am guilty of important extra stuff into Kierkegaard. But it looks to me like that extra stuff is: what Kierkegaard really argues, in the very works Zizek is discussing. Faith is absurd. So show me I am wrong about that.

There actually is a useful connection to the post here: ““pragmatism reveals itself to be romantic utilitarianism: that is its most obviously original feature and also its most private vice and hidden weakness.”

Kierkegaard, minus his view of faith, is just a sort of more generic romantic figure. Lenin is a utilitarian. Zizek’s Kierkegaardian-Leninism is just a kind of romantic utilitarianism, then. So, at best (flipping Berthelot’s formula) he’s reinvented the wheel of pragmatism. That is: he wants better health care. So what has he been complaining about liberalism for, all this time. We want better health care, too. We just don’t know how to get it. And Zizek doesn’t have anything intersting to say about how to get it, in practice. (Leap of faith, sure. But what does that really come to?) So the whole thing combines extreme fanciness, leaping from philosophical peak to peak, with complete emptiness, politically.

To repeat: if Lenin is not utilitarian, then what? If Kierkegaard doesn’t think faith is absurd, then what?

By John Holbo on 01/17/09 at 01:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Just to clarify: it is not my view that K. thinks irrationality is sufficient for faith. (Being nuts is not automatically any spiritual achievement.) But he does think extreme irrationality is necessary for faith. Faith can’t make sense. I think you have misunderstood me as asserting the ‘it’s enough just to be nuts’ view, in the past. Whereas actually I only want to defend the latter.

By John Holbo on 01/17/09 at 01:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Lenin is suspending the ethical from two points of view—he’s violating liberal democracy, obviously, but he’s also violating the supposed “natural” course of events dictated by Marxist theory.  He has no guarantees, either of liberal proceduralism nor Marxist progressivism.”

One more quick clarification. This can be called ‘suspending the ethical’, but in Kierkegaardian terms it’s clearly going to be the opposite: a case of ‘dwelling within the ethical’, suspending lower duty for the sake of higher. Are we agreed about that terminological usage?

By John Holbo on 01/17/09 at 01:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You all of you, hwæt:
http://www.hs-augsburg.de/~Harsch/anglica/Chronology/13thC/Owl/owl_text.html

By on 01/17/09 at 02:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, B, I give. I tried to read it but couldn’t quite get it.

By John Holbo on 01/17/09 at 03:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam K, in all seriousness, I think that your response shows that you’ve never understood what Holbo was on about.  Not that Holbo is necessarily right.  But that you’ve never bothered to take him seriously as someone you might learn something from, as opposed to someone who could be a convenient spark for emo outbursts of frustration.

I’ll point out that the “Lenin as utilitarian” bit holds the same problems that Ray was having with “irrefutable logical argument” vs the ordinary provision of reasons earlier.  In my reading—and yes, I can provide my own reading of Holbo, even though he’s right here, and it may differ from his—he’s not saying that Lenin is a utilitarian in the sense that he believes in the system propounded by J.S. Mill.  He’s one in the ordinary sense that he took deliberate steps to further a revolution that he thought would help people.  Holbo isn’t importing J.S. Mill into Zizek, or attributing him to Lenin.  He’s pointing out the ordinary, accepted fact that the Lenin outside Zizek’s imagination was a revolutionary leader, not a mystic.

But maybe the Lenin inside Zizek’s imagination is the important one?  No one says that philosophers have to get historical figures right in order to use them within philosophy.  But here we run into Kierkegaard.  From what you’ve written, Adam, I don’t see any sign that you even understand Holbo’s bit about Kierkegaard. Faith in the absurd just can not translate into “taking a risk in service of revolutionary change.”

Frankly, I think that your view of Zizek’s ideas is one that he himself probably doesn’t share.  It’s like a debased self-help-ism for frustrated lefties.  Can’t get Clinton’s health care?  Then have the courage to leave everything behind and take a chance!  It shares marked similarities with Rick Warren’s purpose-driven life thing, actually, all the way down to the admiration of revolutionary structures without sharing their goals.  I think that my own view of Zizek as psychotherapeutic jester is actually more sympathetic to him.

By on 01/17/09 at 10:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, Adam hasn’t weighed in again so I’ll take the time to correct one definite misreading of me that I haven’t bothered to flag before. Adam writes: “So the whole Gulag Archipelago thing was pretty pointless, especially given that Zizek’s opposition to Stalinism has been a constant.”

But this just misses the either/or structure of my argument, which is: either Zizek is serious about this stuff, in which case he’s committed to Stalinism, or he’s not serious about this stuff. Obviously this is consistent with Zizek being staunchly anti-Stalinist. It would just follow that he is not very serious. Which is pretty much my view.

I more or less accept Rich’s point about Lenin, although I would add: it’s probably possible to be a mystic revolutionary leader. It’s even possible that Lenin had a mystical sort of bent, in a strangely secular sort of way. He felt individually ‘called’. There are some weird stories about the man. But Leninism, the philosophy, isn’t mystical. He doesn’t justify himself that way, officially. If it’s confusing to call Leninist justifications ‘utilitarian’, because that brings in irrelevant Englishness, call them ‘consequentialist’. Same difference, for my purposes. I do regard the identification of Lenin as utilititarian, in the weak sense that is all I need, as almost trivial. It’s like saying ‘Descartes was rationalistic’. You can debate the fine points endlessly, but surely some basic stuff should just be granted as obvious to anyone who’s acquainted with the stuff. So I’m surprised to see this regarded as an interpretive sticking point and wonder whether there is some misunderstanding about what I’m arguing and why I’m arguing it.

By John Holbo on 01/17/09 at 10:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rick, the undue-rigor people produce skepticism when all of their arguments come to impasses. The way practical philosophy works, you start out with a topic of some significance that you need to make a decision about. You inventory and assess your knowledge and ignorance, look for new knowledge if you can get it, and then when the time comes, make your decision according to what you know and don’t know.

Either a relativist or a rigorist would bring the process to a halt. Given the skeptical base of a lot of philosophy, a lot of rigorists are effectively relativists: “First we must prove that these are people, and not cunningly contrived automotons” and so on.

The rigorist is destructive because he will require you to prove everything. The relativist is destructive for almost the same reason; at every point he will assert that some opposite might be true. Neither is willing to commit to making the best possible decision at a given time.

I think that Toulmin’s definition of Pyrrhonianism, which is mine, is different than yours or Holbo’s; whether it’s different than Rorty’s, I’m not sure. It involves renouncing the demand for perfect knowledge, which is the thing that makes skepticism possible.

The contemporary philosophers I like most are not hard to read, but they’re unimportant within the profession: Stephen Toulmin, Chaim Perelman, Michel Meyer, and Ernest Gellner. All of them have been more influential outside philosophy than within.

By John Emerson on 01/17/09 at 10:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I actually never thought that the either/or structure of the argument worked that well, John.  In order to collapse everything into a single either/or, you have to tacitly assume all sorts of things about both belief and practice.  People get hung up on whether e.g. you’re assuming that revolutionary actions always lead to Stalinism.  I would think that it’s perfectly possible to quote a Brecht poem about breaking eggs, set out to beak a few eggs, and have them turn out to strangely enough never actually be broken, even though the revolution succeeds.  That’s not lack of seriousness if it really is faith in the absurd.  It need not even really be faith in the absurd.  For instance, one could set out to be a mock revolutionary leader, all the way down to breaking-eggs rhetoric, in the belief that this example would inspire people to do things that in the end would make actual breaking of eggs unnecessary.

By on 01/17/09 at 10:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"I actually never thought that the either/or structure of the argument worked that well, John.”

But I love my Kierkegaard jokes! (Even if no one else does.) At any rate, I don’t accuse Zizek of being a Stalinist, nor do I believe he is one. I say either he is one, or he’s silly.

John E: “It involves renouncing the demand for perfect knowledge, which is the thing that makes skepticism possible.” The problem with this is 1) that it’s not what the historical Pyrrhonists, or their inheritors down the centuries, have actually argued. So maybe a different name would be better. 2) nearly everyone turns out to be a Pyrrhonist, on your usage. No? (Who demands perfect knowledge, after all?) Most of the people you are objecting to are going to be Pyrrhonists, if not all of them. So this isn’t a good way to get at what separates you.

By John Holbo on 01/17/09 at 10:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I suppose you’ve expanded the meaning of “utilitarian” to the point that I no longer see its meaning.

Is Antigone a utilitarian woman?  Is her sacrifice of herself an example of “ends over means” thinking?  Is “ends over means” thinking an accurate definition of utilitarian thinking?

I always assumed that utilitarians always took a top-down centralized perspective on the issue.  Which is to say: only a fulfilled end can justify the means.  No imagined end can justify anything. 

For example, William James’ anti-utilitarian parable works as a critique.  Here, we have a society that has achieved total happiness for all, at the price of extreme suffering for one.  James asserts that it is unjust to ensure the happiness of all at the price of the forced suffering of even one.  (Which I suppose means he wasn’t really a Christian, because otherwise Christ’s suffering was an unjust price for our eternal salvation.)

But would utilitarians say that a failed attempt to bring happiness to all that cost a million lives was just?  No, because unless you actually *achieve* the happiness, from the standpoint of utility, the cost wasn’t worth it.

A utilitarian would say: a successful risky investment was worth it, but an unsuccessful risky investment wasn’t.  The judgment of utility always seems to require the vantage point of after the fact.  A true utilitarian cannot weight the justice of an action from intentions but rather from actual accomplishments.

And that’s the difference, for me, between a romantic/tragic heroic world view and a utilitarian one.  Antigone is willing to commit a crime and die whether or not, in the end, the gods actually wanted her crime or her death.  For Antigone, as for Kierkegaard, the heroism of a hero is in the absurd sacrifice for a belief, for faith, and not for a knowable result. 

The same is true of Hugo’s revolutionaries.  They are willing to die for their cause, but not in some utilitarian scenario in which their deaths will buy happiness for all.  No, they are still willing to die even when their cause is guaranteed to fail.  That sacrifice for an ideal, for a possibility is distinctly Romantic, is distinctly absurd in Kierkegaard’s sense.

That element of the absurd cannot enter into true utilitarian logic.  1000 lives for a failed insurrection is a bad price to a utilitarian, but a brilliant sacrifice to the tragic/romantic.  The utilitarian always judges from completion backward: a successful insurrection was worth the lives of less than but not equal to the number of people saved by the insurrection.

(But even this is badly conceived utilitarianism, if only because John and I assume that a death is *not* a maximum good.  To Antigone, her dieing itself was a good; same with the revolutionary in Les Miserable.  And both the tragic and romantic world view believe the causes of necessary violence must themselves be punished in the end.  Enjolras’ speech about the paradoxical need to use violence to end violence is not utilitarian.  It’s about the tragic realization that those who birth the Promised Land might not live to inhabit it.

So I’m wondering if a sacrificial logic is, for John, really utilitarian, even in his expanded definition of the term.

(And sorry for harping on Antigone and Les Mis—we’re reviewing for the 10th grade midterm, and I’ve been up to my neck in both texts since September!)

By on 01/17/09 at 11:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

My use of the word Pyrrhonian follows Toulmin. Maybe he’s wrong or maybe I heard him wrong. As I recall Pyrrhonians learned to go about their lives without grounding in Truth, which is what I think Rorty and Toulmin propose. I don’t have resources here to check your definition of Pyrrhonianism, but what I describe is pretty much Montaigne’s practice.

The Chicago School in economics has a whole game of making people justify, argue, or ground their moral intuitions, with the intent of debunking them so as to let the market be the sole rule.

Maybe in practice everyone’s a Pyrrhonist, but most theorists aren’t. Many formal sciences aim for the perfection of mathematics or of theoretical physics, and mimic it to the extent possible. Much of academic life seems to be dedicated toward debunking Pyrrhonian approaches, in my sense of the word, and grounding them on approaches grounded on Truth, except that no one ever agrees on the Truth.

By John Emerson on 01/17/09 at 11:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John E., I haven’t read any of the people you refer to, so I don’t really know—but my objection is similar to John H.’s.  Let’s say that my position is a typical sort of scientific-rationalism.  You can never demand perfect knowledge, as a scientist; the universe won’t give it to you.  You have to make decisions, as you say, based on what you think that you know and don’t know.  But since hardly anyone will admit to demanding perfect knowledge, it doesn’t seem like a useful distinguishing factor.

I basically agree with what you’re saying about the two destructive qualities of the rigorist and the relativist.  My contention is that at this time, the relativist destructiveness is globally more important than the rigorist one.  You can see this turn within science studies, I think.  Philosophers used to be concerned with shooting down what they saw as overweening claims by scientists that they knew absolute truth.  Then, some time in the late 90s, philosophers started to realize that elements in society had picked up on and run with knock-off versions of their arguments, and that the real problems with those of too much relativism—of people saying that scientists didn’t know anything about any facts that weren’t social.

So I understand your objection to analytic philosophy, but looking at it from the outside, as a sort of black box that produces down-market cultural effects, I think that those points against it are relatively less important now.

John H., but there are still credible alternatives other than “he is one, or he’s silly.” Especially since, by design, no can really make out exactly what Zizek is saying.  Imagine the following brain-in-a-vat trolley-car alternate-universe analytical philosophy example.  Let’s say that Zizek mystically knows that his quotation of a Brecht poem will produce the social effects that he wants to see without any violence at all.  I can imagine all sorts of scenarios through which this is possible.  In that case, he would neither be a Stalinist—he knows that no violence will actually occur—nor will he be silly, because he will have achieved his goals.

Zizek is often read as if he’s going for a lesser version of this.  The inspiration of revolutionary rhetoric is supposed to get people to rise up and—not have a revolution, exactly.  But the fact that they have risen up will then have the effects that they want, so that revolution in the Leninist sense may actually not be needed.  If the banker runs away, saying “Oh no, they’re going to break me like an egg!” then it’s never necessary to shoot him.

I don’t think that’s what Zizek is actually saying, insofar as he’s saying anything.  But it’s a credible interpretation, and I don’t think it fits within the either-or, as many other interpretations don’t.  That’s why I don’t think that particular argument works.

By on 01/17/09 at 11:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The utilitarianism thing is the only thing I’m saying you’re importing into the text.  I’m not saying you’re adding anything to Kierkegaard, only to (Zizek’s) Lenin.

Let’s assume Lenin really is, in real life, a utilitarian.  (And maybe he is!) Let’s further assume that Zizek thinks that he is something other than a utilitarian, something more analogous to the knight of faith—at least at some point in his career.  (Zizek does, after all, have this whole anthology of Lenin’s writings from a crucial moment, accompanied by a lengthy intro and conclusion, where he lays this all out.) If both of these things are true, then the furthest you can get is, “Zizek’s argument is based on a false premise—Lenin is obviously a utilitarian and there’s just no way around that.” He would then be guilty of misreading not Kierkegaard, but Lenin—i.e., misreading Lenin in a Kierkegaardian way.  So you could reasonably point out the ways in which his Kierkegaard stuff makes him misunderstand Lenin.  What you couldn’t reasonably do is to import a view of Lenin that Zizek does not hold and then say how it makes it obvious that Zizek’s reading Kierkegaard wrong. 

It seems to me that the only evidence you have in favor of construing Zizek as a brutal misreader of Kierkegaard is the fact that Lenin, in real life, is a utilitarian.  Yet in Zizek’s reading, he’s not!  He’s something analogous to a knight of faith!  And Zizek really does appear to understand the basic outline of a knight of faith!  So again, if you reject the possibility that Lenin is a non-utilitarian, then you just can’t get that much further into his argument—certainly not far enough to accuse him of misreading Kierkegaard.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/17/09 at 11:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As for the language of risk—when we’re talking about religious things, it’s typical to use common language in such a way that it’s understood not to fully capture what we’re getting at.  Risk-taking usually involves some form of calculation, etc., but in this context, as you point out, it can’t.  So we use the risk language anyway, making clear that it doesn’t include the normal sense of calculation.  Is this different from the normal concept of risk-taking?  Yes, absolutely.  Is it difficult to conceive?  Again, yes—but that would seem to indicate that we’re taking the religious problematic seriously.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/17/09 at 11:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, if you think that my response after reviewing John’s article is an example of an emo outburst, then you are an idiot.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/17/09 at 11:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, Antigone is not a utilitarian (consequentialist) because (on one standard way of telling the story) she feels she has an absolute duty to bury her brother, because he is her brother. She has no notion that burying her brother will produce great good for the city, or for anyone. She doesn’t think it will do her any good, or even her brother. But it’s her duty. It’s the right thing to do. That is, she prioritizes the Right over the Good.

Kant is, standardly, the great philosophical champion of duty - of the right over the good. He thinks it is very important that ethics is a matter of following categorical imperatives and those have nothing to do with counting costs or consequences. (Antigone is not a Kantian, of course, but she is like him in that she is motivated by a staunch sense of duty. She isn’t going to budge merely because you point out that she is provoking suffering, and no good will come of it.)

One of the big tests of whether you are a ‘deontologist’ - a believer in the right (in duty) rather than the good - is how you respond to James’ problem. What if melting one innocent person down for Soylent Green would make a lot of people really happy? This is exactly the sort of thing that makes Kantians (and others) say utilitarianism is wrong. Because the utilitarian is committed to saying that maybe it’s ok (if the hedonic math comes out alright.) Of course utilitarians will argue back that, actually, it’s a stupid example, and you get variants on utilitarianism and so forth. But obviously Lenin is a utilitarian because he’s happy to stack the bodies up like cordwood, so long as he is convinced that there would have been more suffering the other way.

“But would utilitarians say that a failed attempt to bring happiness to all that cost a million lives was just?  No, because unless you actually *achieve* the happiness, from the standpoint of utility, the cost wasn’t worth it. “

No. Utilitarians are willing to distinguish between the most reasonable course of action - which is the most ethically justifiable - and the course of action that in fact produces the best outcome. Their judgments of ethical right and wrong mostly attach to the former. There are problems and paradoxes with this, perhaps. But utilitarians have to have a theory of how you make forward-looking judgments of the right thing to do, under uncertainty. And they do have such theories.

The third major school of ethics, on the standard division that they teach you in Intro Ethics, is virtue ethics. Roughly, ethics becomes a matter of cultivating the right sort of character. And then letting that guide you. (You deem yourself more certain about who the best people are, than the right actions. Whatever the best people do is alright with you.) To the extent that you can beat the peg of Romanticism into any hole, this is it. Romanticism is a theory of personal excellence first and foremost. There is a sense in which Hugo’s revolutionaries are virtue ethicists. There is a sense in which, plausibly, Antigone is one.

It can be pretty hard to separate a sense of duty from a sense of character. They reflect each other. But it’s pretty easy to say that utilitarianism is officially committed to not being a theory of the right (except for the rightness of maximizing the good), or of ethics as an expression of good private character. All I’m saying about Lenin is that it’s pretty clear that, officially, he’s in this corner. It’s a big area. So that’s not saying much yet. But there are definitely other areas. So it isn’t trivial to say that Lenin is a utilitarian.

Does that help?

By John Holbo on 01/17/09 at 12:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam grants Lenin is a utilitarian and proceeds: “Let’s further assume that Zizek thinks that he is something other than a utilitarian, something more analogous to the knight of faith—at least at some point in his career.”

This is already very strange and hard to know what to do with. It’s like saying: let’s assume that Zizek thinks Kant is a fanatical Benthamite. No acquaintance with Kant’s writings, however cursory, could support such a notion. So saying things like ‘on the assumption that Kant is Benthamite, it turns out that the categorical imperative demands that we maximize the good’ is ... well, how are we supposed to assess such a claim? But saying ‘on the assumption that Lenin is like a Kierkegaardian knight of faith’ is just like this. It’s so obvious that no significant element of Leninism can survive this radical traverse. (How not?) So are we still talking about Lenin at all? Or are we now talking about Kierkegaard, but calling him ‘Lenin’. Or what? What is your view about this, Adam. I realize I’m making it sound silly. But I’m perfectly serious.

It also doesn’t fit with Zizek to assume that he just assumes Lenin is pretty much the same as Kierkegaard. After all, it’s supposed to be surprising that these two could fit together, not obvious that they are barely distinguishable.

Also, you say that Zizek understands Kierkegaard. I really don’t see much evidence of this. He says things about Kierkegaard that clearly aren’t right. That doing what Kierkegaard would call ‘living in the ethical’ would count as ‘suspending the ethical’. That is, he’s got the major categories exactly backwards. (Do you disagree? If so: on what grounds?)

“Is this different from the normal concept of risk-taking?  Yes, absolutely.  Is it difficult to conceive?  Again, yes—but that would seem to indicate that we’re taking the religious problematic seriously.”

But this is just the danger to Zizek’s position (according to me). That we might take the religious problematic seriously, rather than assimilating it to some attempt to calculate risk. A politics of ‘we have to try, because it’s this or nothing’ can be attractive, I grant. But it’s also not Kierkegaardian.

I guess at this point it might be a matter of taste, but it seems that if you really take the Kierkegaardian religious problematic seriously, and try to make that the basis for practical politics, then you think that politics has to be all and only about trying to levitate the Pentagon, and mystical-yet-worldly efforts of that order. It just sounds too silly, no? Health care infrastructure on the strength of the absurd? Does anyone really think that sounds better than Obamacare? There’s a reason why Kierkegaard didn’t think you could make a politics out of this, after all.

By John Holbo on 01/17/09 at 12:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“Mightn’t there be two consensuses, one per community?”

Well, not to explain my own joke, but the idea was supposed to be that if one community is sure something is right, and the community next door is sure the very same thing is wrong, maybe we should at least conclude that both groups would do well to be be less sure they know the answer.

I got that, John, but my question was still sincere, and the lead-in to the rest of my comment. To unpack a bit, even if one isn’t a full-out rip-snortin’ relativist, one would have to admit that the value of a statement about a group will vary with the groups it’s applied to. When I exclaim “Everybody here is so young!”, my pereceived sense (or lack of sense) depends on what sort of party I’m attending. Anglo-American philosophers don’t rely on intuitive leaps from miscellaneous sources; literary studies scholars do. What I see isn’t a disagreement amenable to rational compromise so much as two games maintaining separate sets of rules.

Similarly, the tale of Richard Rorty can be boiled down to a rather pure relativistic essence: Someone announces that they’re tired of playing a game and quits to join some other game. According to the players who remain in the game, the quitter “lost.” The quitter and the quitter’s new companions may have quite another opinion. And, so far as I can see, both sides are correct, and yet there’s no paradox. Rorty was only stuck with his “meta point” while he remained stuck in a game that would turn anything meta. Outside that game he could engage in arguments based on assumedly shared nostalgia, kindness, attraction, and so on without needing to justify each of his assumptions. (I agree with you that he didn’t shine in his new game, but that’s a matter of taste.)

In my defense, I’ve tried to leave off writing about this stuff so negatively....

God, I don’t know how you guys stand the time delays! Anyway, I look forward to the newer stuff as it gets ripe enough to drop off the bone, but for whatever my opinion is worth (and for any number of reasons, I hope it’s worth very little) I think well-done corrective scholarship is immensely valuable. We share a dislike for certain fallacious maneuvers, and it’s satisfying to see them called out. It’s when you start generalizing your corrections into aspersions against what you see as one particular group within academia that I get twitchy (and possibly bitchy): I can’t see how the evidence supports that move, and it reminds me uncomfortably of some of the things I thought you disliked. (Of course I often find myself doing things I dislike as well—these are the sorts of difficulties that happen in these sorts of conversations and always have.)

By Ray Davis on 01/17/09 at 12:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Zizek admits that he’s isolating a certain moment in Lenin—again, he has an anthology of relevant writings of Lenin accompanied by lengthy attempts to justify that move.  I’m not trying to decide the question of whether Lenin is a utilitarian.  I’m just saying, on the procedural level, that if you are convinced that Lenin is always and only a utilitarian (i.e., that Zizek’s attempt to isolate some glimmer of something else in Lenin is doomed to failure), then you just have to reject his argument tout court.  You don’t get to go into his text, plug in things about Lenin that Zizek isn’t talking about, and then show how incoherent it makes it.  That’s just a fundamentally flawed procedure.  I’m not saying at all that you have to agree with Zizek’s reading of Lenin, nor am I attempting to defend it.  I’m saying that your article goes beyond what it can reasonably do, given that you reject such a core premise.

There are a lot of things you could do after rejecting this core premise.  You could say, “Oh, isn’t it sad that the revolutionary left is reduced to such mystical gestures?” (That seems to be what Rich is aiming at.) You could make broader reference to the attempts of other leftists to reclaim some elements of Christianity and what a negative sign that is, etc.  There are a million directions you could reasonably go.  Where you cannot reasonably go is where you in fact did go—substituting your understanding of Lenin for Zizek’s and then showing how, when you import presuppositions that Zizek clearly does not share, his argument doesn’t work.

Again, I emphasize that this is a procedural point.  Your argument is flawed on the methodological level.  It’s not that you’re not allowed to disagree with Zizek or that I’m just annoyed that you’re criticizing my hero or whatever.  It’s that your procedure fundamentally does not make sense.  I’ve tried to make this point before on this blog—claiming that if Adam Roberts didn’t start from a position within Christian theology, he couldn’t critique transsubstantiaion beyond simply dismissing it as nonsense—and everyone got super mad and frustrated with me.  I don’t understand why.  You want a discussion at the level of argument, you’ve got it: your argument is fundamentally flawed.  You overreached.  All the stuff you’re doing about “Kierkegaard the utilitarian” doesn’t make sense and doesn’t hit its target.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/17/09 at 12:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Ray. One of the funny things about Rorty’s case is that I think reports of his emigration were exaggerated. Yes, he wanted to leave. Yes, he got some jobs in other departments. But in an odd way, it turned out he actually couldn’t talk to the new neighbors the way he had been hoping. In a weird way, he kept engaged with the old stuff. He ended up awkwardly straddling, rather than abandoning. He ended up as a whipping boy for those in the English department, just as much as he had been in the philosophy departmnent.

He was a well-payed whipping boy - plum post, as whipping posts went - so I’m not urging pity. I think the ways in which he couldn’t really get out, intellectually, are quite philosophically interesting.

It’s true that I am guilty of something that Rorty is maybe a bit guilty of (or maybe not). The vague feeling that, if you’ve got some sin, you can expiate it by being especially hard on others who have the same sin. Which, on reflection, is a very dubious point of ethical economy.

By John Holbo on 01/17/09 at 12:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, I’m still waiting to hear for you to answer my initial questions. Let me re-put them. How is Lenin a Kierkegaardian knight of faith? How does this make sense? You’ve said that Zizek wants to make sense of this, and I’m sure he does WANT to make sense of this. That’s not the issue. How DOES he make sense of this? I mean: at all. Roughly?

I’m also curious about the basis for your claim that Zizek really does understand Kierkegaard, even though he seems to get the basic categories backwards. Doesn’t that seem like a source of concern? Or do you think there’s some way to explain away the problems I think I see?

Here’s yet another way to put it You write: “You don’t get to go into his text, plug in things about Lenin that Zizek isn’t talking about, and then show how incoherent it makes it.”

Yes, but then again: no. There are also constraints on what Zizek can think about Lenin, and have them be reasonable things to think. (If you think otherwise, then I think you are the one who is confused about argumentative methodology.)

What I would like is for you to go into his text, plug in things about Lenin that make sense, then show how it all comes up so Kierkegaardian. I don’t believe it will be possible for you to do this. But if you can do it, then I will indeed have to admit that I’ve missed whatever Zizek was up to all along.

By John Holbo on 01/17/09 at 01:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, really, if you don’t want people to regard you as the kind of emo attention-seeker who goes to someone’s blog and announces that they’ve painted themselves into a corner by trying to engage and that no one here understands them boo hoo, then calling them an idiot in the same sentence doesn’t help.

You write: “So we use the risk language anyway, making clear that it doesn’t include the normal sense of calculation.” I don’t really believe you, or, at least, I don’t think that you ever understood Kierkegaard in the way that John suggests.  Abraham going to sacrifice Isaac just doesn’t have anything to do with the concept of riskiness.  It not only doesn’t have anything to do with calculation, it also doesn’t have anything to do with chance.  This is the point that John keeps pointing at, and you can’t paper it over by saying that whenever you talk about risk you don’t really mean anything like risk.

Did Zizek misunderstand Kierkegaard?  It’s impossible to say.  When someone is speaking performatively, they may misunderstand, or they may pretend to misunderstand.  If you take Zizek seriously, then I think it’s clear that his books aren’t really there to be read, but instead are there as a sort of ritual activity.  After all, who has more faith in the absurd than the Underpants Gnomes?  Just substitute for step 1 “Write another obscurantist book” and for step 3 “Revolution!” and there it is, right there.  Of course, if you don’t take Zizek seriously, the books become, well, bait for suckers to extend Zizek’s reputation.  I think that the con man is more respectable than the mystic, myself.

By on 01/17/09 at 01:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I’ve looked at my referral logs, and it turns out that posting on extremely long-running debates deep in the bowels of a comment thread to an already long post is not really driving up my traffic.  If I’m an attention-seeker, I’m apparently a “knight of faith” of attention seeking.  What’s more, I really do think you are an idiot!  This whole thing about Zizek as conman and how really that’s a respectful thing—that’s idiotic.  I don’t think John’s an idiot, however, which is why I prefer his own self-defense over your dogged and servile comments.

John, I don’t think that Zizek is getting Kierkegaard’s categories backwards.  The only way you get them to come out backwards is if you plug in the “Lenin (or Brecht’s speaker) as utilitarian” thing.  I think that’s an unwarranted move.  If you want to make sense of Zizek’s argument, you have to start with Zizek’s own understanding of key terms and figures.  If you reject that understanding, you reject the rest of his argument automatically, without subsequently having lisence to then poke around with foreign presuppositions plugged in in place of Zizek’s. 

This is really an extremely simple point.  It’s possible that Zizek is wildly off-base about Lenin.  But then how does it make sense to substitute Zizek’s dumb ideas about Lenin with smart ones and then present that as a critique of the internal logic of Zizek’s argument?  The internal logic requires the dumb (in your view) ideas about Lenin!  Once you take them away, it falls apart, with no need or possibility of further analysis!

By Adam Kotsko on 01/17/09 at 01:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The few remaining interested parties, other than Rich, may want to head over to my own little blog to continue this discussion and let people get back to the original topic of the thread.  (Please, I crave attention!)

By Adam Kotsko on 01/17/09 at 01:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Now now, Adam, of course I don’t mean attention in the form of traffic.  I mean attention in the form of the thrill that you so evidently get when flame-warring.  It’s the reason that you always lead off with this “dogged and servile” bit.

I don’t think that you take Zizek seriously, really.  The bit about him conning society therapeutically is fairly self-evident and accepted among his readers.  You’re just mad because you thought you were in on the con and didn’t like the idea of pushing it back one step.

By on 01/17/09 at 01:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m going to need some citations on the “accepted among his readers.” Every reader I’ve met who has also met you thinks, like me, that you’re an idiot.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/17/09 at 01:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The Right over Good reading of Antigone seems to important a lot of later European style thinking into Sophocles’s construction of her character.

Sophocles makes it quite clear that Antigone believes she has an absolute obligation to bury Polyneices because it is what the gods demand of us.  She is convinced she knows what the gods want of us.  She is convinced that the gods will punish those who disobey them.  That’s consequence #1 for her. 

Antigone also pushes Ismene away from contributing to the bural and, later, from sharing in the punishment.  She does this not to save Ismene but to keep the glory and righteous of her deed all for herself.  (Like Beowulf facing the Dragon alone.) That’s consequence #2.

Third, Antigone refuses Kreon’s offering of an “out,” when he proposes that she might not have known of his law when she buried Polyneices.  Antigone insists, publically, that she *did* know about the law and broke it in part to humiliate Kreon and the new type of State he stands for.  That’s consequence #3.

Finally, Antigone argues that she would never sacrifice herself for a husband or child but only for a brother.  You can always get another husband (Haimon) or child, but brothers are irreplaceable.  Satisfying that philia love (and glorfying it over love as eros) is consequence #4 for Antigone.

I go for Hegel’s version of the conflict: double bind between competing Goods, not Right over Good.

By on 01/17/09 at 02:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My intrepid co-blogger Anthony has now written a post arguing that Lenin is closer to being a virtue ethicist than a utilitarian.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/17/09 at 02:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You want citations?  How about Adam Kotsko, in this thread?  Because that’s what the often-cited bit about Clinton’s health plan is about, of course.  You just don’t want to think of yourself as one of the good liberal elites who he’s addressing.  “Have faith in a revolution”, he tell them, but as you say above, this can’t be interpreted as him telling them to “take a chance”—it’s not about risk.  Yet he has no plan, of course.  No, he’s either conning or inspiring them, take your choice, into an unfolding of action and belief, based on the absurd.  You evidently want to see yourself as outside that, participating without participating, like a good academic.  Like I said, unserious.

Look, Adam, so far I’ve predicted your behavior here exactly.  Well, I got wrong which blog you’d stomp off too; I forgot that you had another one.  Each repetition of your flaming only goes to show how right I was about you to start with.

By on 01/17/09 at 02:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You’ve really got me pegged!  In the strict Dan Savage-ian sense, I might add.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/17/09 at 03:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Pegged in the strict sense?  Hmm, that casts me as a woman.  Is there an especially perverse thrill for you in the reversal of what you feel to be the natural order, in which you tell me what’s going on?

Look, Adam, I suggest that either you find the self-control not to show up and flame during these Valve things, or that you start to take the whole thing more seriously.  Taking it more seriously means that John can’t be as self-evidently wrong as you think he is, above.

By on 01/17/09 at 03:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m just free-associating in my comments to you at this point, Rich.

I think John made a mistake in his article.  I have said over and over what I think his mistake is.  I have pointed toward resources where he could find more detailed justifications for Zizek’s “Kierkegaardian” reading of Lenin, if he thinks such a reading is simply impossible, including a post at my blog.  I don’t see how any of my behavior toward John indicates that I’m not taking our discussion (i.e., the discussion between me and John, not including you) seriously. 

My behavior toward you of course indicates that I’m not taking you seriously as a dialogue partner or as a person, because I don’t.  Everything is as it should be, then, in my mind.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/17/09 at 03:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Free association is a pretty good technique for finding out what’s on someone’s mind.  But no, Adam, I don’t think that having one petulant snit after another is really taking anyone seriously.  You bowed out of the last recursion of this in the same way that you always do.  It hasn’t been a 5 year conversation—how could it be, when you think that John is hung up at an elementary, beginning point, past which no further engagement with Zizek is possible?  It’s been 5 years of the teenager slamming the door, shouting that no one understands him, going to his friends and getting them to agree that those old people are so past it.  Don’t you think it’s time to grow up?

By on 01/17/09 at 03:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Now, Rich, don’t you think you’re exaggerating a pinch?  Has it really been as bad as all that?  And am I really “slamming the door” so much as offering to unclog Holbo’s comment thread by shifting this very old conversation (if that’s what it is!  Perhaps I was misled by the simple fact that people are talking back and forth!) elsewhere?  Things to consider, my friend.  Zizek’s a con artist, I’m a teenager… Jesus H. Christ.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/17/09 at 03:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This thread is being adequately trolled and my presence is not needed.

By John Emerson on 01/17/09 at 03:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Okay, Rich, we annoy each other.  It’s clear.  We also find responding to each other very difficult to resist.  Thus John is justified when he says “a pox on both your houses,” to that extent.  I could be more mature and just ignore you.  On the other hand, you could make yourself easier to ignore by not being an asshole who continually butts into every conversation

My exchanges with John tend to be much more productive and civil than my exchanges with you, although you apparently find that difficult to see.  That’s because I want to talk to John.  When I want to talk to John, I don’t want to talk to you.  Yet you seem to assume that anyone who wants to talk to John must ipso facto also want to talk to you and defend their critiques of John not only from his own responses, but from your attacks of his critics—your responses to whom are, by your own admission, motivated primarily by annoyance.  As my own example indicates, conversations that find their impetus in annoyance are not usually very beneficial to anyone involved, except insofar as they allow people to let off steam—something that is surely permissible in a venue devoted to “venting steam.”

So maybe one helpful way to avoid our vicious cycles in the future would be to stop butting into every conversation!  Then I wouldn’t be so tempted to abuse you!  For instance.  I know it’s not fair to put so much of the burden on you—you should be able to denounce John’s critics as unserious all you want, this being a free country, etc.  Yet the same principle that gives you a right to express annoyance at me also allows me to express annoyance right back at you.  Am I saying, at the end of the day, “he started it”? Well, in a sense, but I do admit that it’s my own weakness that makes me respond to your provocations.  So, in accomodation of my weakness, maybe you shouldn’t provoke me by butting into every fucking conversation and should instead let John Holbo—a professor of philosophy who’s perfectly able to defend himself—speak for himself.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/17/09 at 03:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The problem with your suggestion, Adam, is that it takes as its starting point the proposition that I have nothing to say, other than servile defense of whoever I’m defending.  I could equally well ask why you keep butting in to my conversations, if I believed that people in comment boxes had private conversations that other people weren’t supposed to interfere with.  I was responding to Ray, not you, when you made your dig about people defending themselves rather than a third party.

But descriptively, also, your summary is just wrong.  Look at this recent Valve thread, for instance.  I preemptively took your current advice and completely stayed out of that one, did you notice?  Yet you brought it to its usual conclusion.  Or this one, which I also completely stayed out of.  I wasn’t the one who made you write “You’ve brutally misunderstood me and written a long post in response to no one.”

Why don’t you just take responsibility for what you write, and not blame it on me?  You like a flame war now and then.  You know it, I know it.  If you want to do anything about it, that’s really up to you.  Of course it’s annoying for me to respond making this all about your personal psychology, rather than the issue under discussion—but come on, it’s been 5 years.  Why pretend?

By on 01/17/09 at 05:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So my claim that I get especially frustrated with you is vitiated by the fact that I sometimes get frustrated with others as well?  I’m not following.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/17/09 at 05:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Why should I refrain from commenting on things that I’m interested in just because you’ll get annoyed?  You’ll get annoyed and sabotage any thread that’s remotely about this kind of thing whether I do or not.

In this thread, for instance, I’m still interested in hearing back from John about why he thinks that “Zizek: Stalinist or silly” really closes off all the available possibilities.  To me, that seems like a variation on, let’s say, “Jesus: liar, lord, or lunatic”—not very convincing.  Why should I refrain, if refraining does no good anyways?

By on 01/17/09 at 05:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So what you’re saying is that you can’t tell the difference between asking John a question and doggedly attacking every one of his critics?  Do you have other related problems? Can you tell the difference between an apple and a mailbox?

By Adam Kotsko on 01/17/09 at 05:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"John, why don’t you just a) stop it, preferably at once; and b) review Adam’s book for us?  That would be something, as I think we can all agree.”

The book even contains things that look like arguments for why Zizek is right (and why Kotsko’s reading of Zizek is a right reading). And Kotsko probably gets pennies when the book is purchased, which should add to the good will of this sort of discussion.

I’m inclined to think that Holbo’s response to Zizek’s Lenin anthology would be interesting to read, too. Getting clear on what it is in Lenin that Zizek thinks is Kierkegaard seems like it would be important to nail down if one wants to argue about whether or not Zizek’s Lenin is, in fact, Kierkegaard. Or whether he’s just Montgomery Scott. Trying to approach the Lenin-Kierkegaard identity from the other side doesn’t seem to be going very productively.

By Daniel Lindquist on 01/17/09 at 06:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I see that Rich has bowed out, having perceived that I can keep it up all day.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/17/09 at 06:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wow.  I teach 126 teenage girls every day, and the Adam-Rich exchange makes my students look like Socrates’ circle.  I was willing to assume it’s because nothing much is at stake for my girls, but then I remembered that while my students at least have to worry about grades, absolutely nothing is at stake for Adam or Rich.  Besides, of course, the degeneration of their public images.  I suppose I don’t really care what Lenin or Zizek really thinks, either.  So I’m probably not a trustworthy observer.

But the *issues* that John raised about differing versions of ethics—even if I was apparently ignorant of basic “Intro to Ethics” distinctions—are pretty interesting.

By on 01/17/09 at 09:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In a way, then, isn’t it the purest form of sniping?  Almost Kantian, in its own way.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/17/09 at 10:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam writes: “It’s possible that Zizek is wildly off-base about Lenin.  But then how does it make sense to substitute Zizek’s dumb ideas about Lenin with smart ones and then present that as a critique of the internal logic of Zizek’s argument?  The internal logic requires the dumb (in your view) ideas about Lenin!”

Adam, I think you have talked yourself into a view of what argument requires, in a case like this, that is absurd in ways you aren’t seeing. For example, I could easily turn the form of your argument around and go like so: Adam K has substituted lots of weak ideas in my paper for the devastating objections to Zizek I wanted it to contain. Since the ideas he is objecting to obviously aren’t devastating objections, but stupid mistakes, they must not be MY objections, which I clearly characterized as highly devastating. (Presenting my objections as anything but devastating must be a failure of close reading, which I can loftily disdain to take seriously.) Do you see why this isn’t going to fly, Adam? (I think this may also apply to your Adam Roberts dispute.)

To sum up, you write: “It’s possible that Zizek is wildly off-base about Lenin.  But then how does it make sense to substitute Zizek’s dumb ideas about Lenin with smart ones and then present that as a critique of the internal logic of Zizek’s argument?”

The answer is: it has to make sense because there’s no other way to argue about Lenin then by looking at features of Lenin’s philosophy, and looking at features of Zizek’s philosophy, and considering whether Zizek got Lenin right, and whether - whether he got Lenin right or not - the overall Zizek-presents-Lenin picture makes sense, makes for an attractive view. (Not just whether Zizek wants it to be attractive, but whether it actually IS attractive.) Put it that way and I’m sure I get no objection from you. But your point about correct argumentative procedure is tantamount to trying to get out of these basic requirements.

I took a look at Anthony’s post and I have basically two points to make in response. “So, yes, Lenin thought of Communism as a mechanism towards overcoming suffering and injustice in the world. Yes, he thought that the revolution would result in the deaths of fewer people than imperialist war. Yes, he made plans and tried to base these are the best empirical information available to him. He “used” things and thought that their flaws and destructive aspects would be outweighed by their positive ones. No one is denying that he was, you know, trying to make things work.”

That’s enough for my purposes. That’s all I need for my argument, all I ever claimed. So I’m happy to take this as confirmation.

Anthony goes on to make the point that Lenin the man, as opposed to Leninism the philosophy, is plausibly a virtue ethicist. I’m actually inclined to think this is right. For reasons I sketched above: Lenin was a very strange person, who clearly wasn’t personally motivated to act by abstract calculations of utility. He was an intense fanatic, with a strong sense of his personal calling. He was a sort of Abraham figure, if you like. I can see that. But someone who is an Abraham behind the scenes, but a utilitarian in public, is not a very attractive political model. ‘I have to kill one Isaac today so that 100 may be saved tomorrow!’ When really you’re doing it because you’re just a driven person who has no idea whether that calculation made a lick of sense or not. You don’t actually give a damn who lives or dies. You are just romantically expressing your own personality in a way that you feel obscurely required to. The disjunction between the official justifications of Leninism and the private personality of Lenin is such a looming chasm of problems waiting to happen that I find it hard to regard it as a positive advertisement.

By John Holbo on 01/17/09 at 11:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

in response to Luther: yeah, Antigone as virtue ethicist is probably more Greek. As has been pointed out: all the ancients were virtue ethicists. Consequentialism vs. deontology is a modern thing that is anachronistic if you project it back to the Greeks.

I don’t think the standard consequentialist-deontology-virtue ethics triangle it really satisfactory. But it’s not a bad starting point. You can kick it down after you’ve set it up.

One quick reason to kick it down, which has to do with my response to Anthony: moral psychology is never really purely consequentialist or deontological. People just don’t think like that. (This isn’t really an objection to the rightness of the claims of deontology and consequentialism, but it’s not exactly an attractive feature.) As I was saying: Anthony’s point about how Lenin, the man, wasn’t really a consequentialist, is more or less a consequence of the general truth that human beings aren’t consequentialists, in their day to day practical judgment processes. Nevertheless, some people advocate consequentialism. And you might decide that it is true that everyone’s day to day judgments - whatever they are like - are better or worse to the extent that they conform to consequentialist conclusions.

By John Holbo on 01/17/09 at 11:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Abraham doesn’t sit at home and hope that he winds up at Mount Moriah, does he?  No, he actually makes preparations and goes.  Kierkegaard goes into great detail about this.  So if trying to carry out one’s plan is all it takes to be a utilitarian, Abraham turns out to be a utilitarian.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/17/09 at 11:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

On the Adam Roberts dispute, it’s hard for me to see how anyone from outside of Christianity would come up with the idea that during the course of a certain ritual, ordinary-seeming bread and wine become Christ’s body and blood.  I’m pretty sure I’m bullet-proof on that front.  You can argue that the very idea is nonsense, and it makes perfect sense to do so.  To get at the claim in more detail, though, you need to enter within the circle of Christian theology (at least for the sake of argument, not necessarily as a true believer).

Similarly, it would be possible for you to reject Zizek’s idea of Lenin as nonsense historically speaking or whatever, but then abstract away from that (similar to provisionally accepting the premises of Christianity in order to refute a specific Christian doctrine) in order to assess Zizek’s account of Lenin on its own terms.  That would be perfectly permissible.  That, however, is not what you do in your article—instead, you plug your own (perhaps historically more accurate!) Lenin into Zizek’s argument and act surprised when Zizek’s argument then doesn’t run right.  That is an error.  That’s what’s wrong with your article—I don’t know how many more times I can say that.

To put it differently: Zizek’s account of Lenin can’t be unattractive just because Zizek misreads Kierkegaard or because Lenin is so irrefutably a utilitarian that Zizek’s account can’t make sense of the historical Lenin.  To assess its attractiveness, you have to accept it provisionally on its own terms.  Given your commitments, I would be surprised if you found Zizek’s Lenin appealing.  But to get at what is unappealing in any level of detail, you have to accept Zizek’s account on its own terms! Which you’re not doing! Why is this hard?

By Adam Kotsko on 01/17/09 at 11:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But Kierkegaard’s point is that the careful preparations only heightens the apparent insanity of it. You’re going up the mountain to kill your son for no reason, but you’re worried about running out of water (or whatever) on the way? What the hell is THAT about?

If it turns out that Lenin is insane in this way, surely it makes it worse, not better: he’s carefully calculating all sorts of things but he actually has no reason to think any of this is a good idea, overall? He just feels compelled to do it, in an inexpressible way, for strictly personal reasons? Does this sound like an attractive politics to you?

Do you really think it would be plausible to argue: Kierkegaard’s Abraham is actually a utilitarian, despite all the shallow interpretations that make him out as some sort of irrationalist.

By John Holbo on 01/17/09 at 11:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No, I was trying to indirectly get at a point raised by an earlier commenter: namely that you have such a capacious definition of utilitarianism that it doesn’t wind up being very useful.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/17/09 at 11:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"But to get at what is unappealing in any level of detail, you have to accept Zizek’s account on its own terms! Which you’re not doing! Why is this hard?”

Adam, you’re just spun around the wrong way on Hermeneutics 101 somehow. I HAVE accepted Zizek’s account on its own terms. He is a Leninist-Kierkegaardian. Those are his terms, not mine. And I have accepted them, as is my duty. Next step: see what Leninist-Kierkegaardianism would be like, and whether the view makes sense. Done.

Now you can, of course, propose that there is some other way of making sense Leninism-Kierkegaardianism. That is, it might be that there’s one way of looking at it - Holbo’s way - that doesn’t make sense. And another way - Kotsko’s way, maybe - that does make sense. If so, it would be more charitable to attribute Kotsko’s line to Zizek. Yes, of course. But this is not what you are saying. You seem to be saying that, just because Zizek obviously thinks there is some alternate way of thinking about it, that therefore there must actually be an alternate way of thinking about it.

But I am obviously not bound, as a basic condition of interpreting Zizek, to admit in advance that there must be some secret way that he is right. Right?

This is really very simple: stop saying that there must be some way that Zizek makes sense, which I am stupidly ignoring. Tell me what that way IS. There’s no other way to settle the question.

By John Holbo on 01/18/09 at 12:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"you have such a capacious definition of utilitarianism that it doesn’t wind up being very useful.”

But useful enough to refute Zizek, unless you know differently.

Look, it’s very important to Kierkegaardianism that Abraham’s act of sacrifice not be, at bottom a utilitarian calculation - not even in the most capacious and almost trivial sense. It IS very important to Leninism that revolutions be, at bottom, utilitarian calculations - at least in the most capacious and almost trivial sense. ‘It’s either this or nothing, so we have to try!’ This is the rock on which Zizek’s philosophy breaks apart. Either he is advocating an insane philosophy of revolution, or he is advocating something that has nothing to do with Kierkegaard Either way, his view falls apart.

By John Holbo on 01/18/09 at 12:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

No, you have not accepted Zizek’s account on its own terms.  You reject Zizek’s account as nonsense—Lenin just can’t be a Kierkegaardian.  That’s fine.  That’s perfectly acceptable to me.  But that’s as far as you get to go.  You don’t get to proceed to attempt a reductio ad absurdam by plugging in what you happen to think of Lenin and then arguing that Zizek’s misreading Kierkegaard.  If Zizek agreed with you about Lenin, then yes, his argument would be ridiculous.  But he doesn’t, so your article does not seem to me to contribute any non-trivial point to human knowledge.  (If Zizek’s premise is switched out for something he disagrees with, but everything else is left in place, his argument is ridiculous!  Wow, thanks.  That helps me understand Zizek.)

Just because I—Adam Kotsko, not Slavoj Zizek—am not supplying you with a satisfactory account of what Zizek thinks of Lenin, you do not therefore have license to project whatever you want onto Zizek, even if you have reason to believe that what you think is somehow “better” than whatever Zizek actually thinks.  He has compiled an anthology, with ample commentary, that will enable you to learn what Zizek thinks of Lenin.  I have referred to it many times in this thread.  Obviously you haven’t read it.  Read it.  Then you can plug that in when you see “Lenin” in On Belief, rather than your own personal opinion or mine.  That seems like sound hermeneutical practice to me.  Absent that, you are not in a position to even begin assessing whether Zizek’s argument makes sense on its own terms. 

This really is a procedural thing, and I really do think you’re going about it wrong.  I really do disagree with you, and I really have, repeatedly, told you why.  So go do your homework and, until then, get back to talking about your two articles.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/18/09 at 12:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Just for everyone’s edification, here is (at least a version of) Zizek’s long conclusion on Lenin from said anthology.  It is the fourth search result on Google for “zizek lenin” (the first being a copy of the same text on another website).  The sense that Zizek’s view of Lenin is this big mystery that everyone’s trying to hide from you should perhaps begin to dissipate now....

By Adam Kotsko on 01/18/09 at 12:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Just because I—Adam Kotsko, not Slavoj Zizek—am not supplying you with a satisfactory account of what Zizek thinks of Lenin”

But I’ve read the Zizek stuff and it doesn’t make sense. For reasons I’ve given. Namely, Leninism-Kierkegaardianism doesn’t make sense. Nor do you have an argument against this, except for the consideration that Zizek wants it to make sense.

The only way to save it is for someone else - if not Zizek himself, then Kotsko - to step in and show me that I’m missing something. I’ve obviously looked at the Lenin anthology. How not? But the problem is that Lenin comes out looking a bit utilitarian. You could say, go read it again. But why do I have to. You yourself have granted that Lenin is a utilitarian in a weak sense. Anthony grants it. There doesn’t seem to be anyone anywhere who seriously denies it. So why should I have to recheck whether it really is so. You haven’t argued that I need to prove it in some stronger, controversial sense. So we’re done. We all agree that Lenin is a utilitarian, to the weak degree that Holbo says. Right?

So OK, here goes. Plug in the stuff from Zizek’s anthology, plus commentary. Results. Lenin is sort of a utilitarian. Check. Can Kierkegaardianism be combined with it sensibly? No. Check. (This step is pending.)

So this is a procedural thing, a really simple one, as you say. You yourself grant the first step. And you have no objection to the second one so far. You don’t say Kierkegaard’s Abraham is a utilitarian. You don’t defend the model of a knight of faith mouthing utilitarian slogans as attractive, in any way. (At least you haven’t done so yet.) So we are reduced to the fact that you “really do disagree” with me. But you haven’t told me why. So I can’t do my homework because I have to wait for you to assign it. What is the Kierkegaardian-Leninist position which I should assess, to see whether it makes sense? Don’t say read Zizek because I already have. Obviously. We need something more. A supplement to Zizek’s writings, to defend him against an objection he clearly didn’t anticipate.

By John Holbo on 01/18/09 at 12:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve read that Lenin piece by Zizek before, of course. (It’s not like I don’t do my homework or anything.) It strongly confirms my point that, in a generic sort of way, Lenin and Zizek are utilitarians. They are benevolently concerned about global problems. They are worried, specifically, that the overall good of humanity will be stupidly sacrificed to stupid qualms about ‘rights’ and liberal democratic procedural niceties. This is classic consequentialism. (It’s actually a lot like reading Bentham on the stupidity of English law, and all the ‘legal fictions’ that amount to a Denkverbot on seeing what’s actually going on, and keeping track of the ultimate point of it all. The similarity with classical English utilitarianism doesn’t go so far, but it’s definitely there, up to a point.)

So, in response to your claim that I’m treating Zizek’s view as a big mystery: I’ve never claimed that, exactly. I’ve claimed that it’s a big mystery how Zizek could be really thinking something very different than what he appears to be saying in passages like that. Because, unless he is really thinking something very different than he appears to be saying, he’s apparently open to my objection.

How not?

By John Holbo on 01/18/09 at 12:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Let me make it even more precise. Adam grants 1): Zizek agrees that, in a weak sense, Lenin is a utilitarian.

(Evidence: that link Adam provides is copious evidence.)

Adam grants 2): All Holbo is claiming about Lenin is that, in a weak sense, he was a utilitarian.

(Evidence: Adam’s complaint that my characterization of utilitarianism is pretty damn weak.)

From 1) and 2) I derive C1: Zizek agrees with everything Holbo says about Lenin (due to the fact that Holbo is saying nothing except fairly trivial stuff.)

Adam grants 3) “If Zizek agreed with you about Lenin, then yes, his argument would be ridiculous.”

(Evidence: Adam said it, so presumably he believes it.)

But Adam resists C2: Zizek’s argument IS ridiculous.

But C2 seems to follow from C1 plus 3.

Don’t you just hate arguments with numbered steps? Well I don’t like ‘em much either. But sometimes they are useful because people can actually pinpoint at what point they want to get off. So, Adam, which one of these steps seems to you objectionable, and why?

By John Holbo on 01/18/09 at 01:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, it’s next morning, and I see that John and Adam have run this thing to the conclusion that was evident, well, years ago.

Here’s an attempt to explain—not defend—since John doesn’t seem to understand.  John, Adam’s argument is unfalsifiable.  That’s what he means when he complains that you don’t have the right continental philosophy background; he means that you aren’t willing to accept that (phrasing things in analytic terms) premises are not to be questioned.  You can’t, as Adam says, “plug in” a differing view of Lenin, because as soon as you do, you have effectively entered an alternate universe from that of Zizekian discourse.

And those premises aren’t just historical views of non-philosophers, they include interpretations of philosophers as well.  So what if Adam doesn’t understand Kierkegaard?  All that matters is Zizek’s Kierkegaard.  From his point of view, *you* don’t understand Kierkegaard, because you only understand the historical one, not Zizek’s.

Adam does say that if you are willing to accept the premises of Zizekian thought, then you can work within the system to find cases in which it is internally not consistent.  There are just enough marginal cases of this kind to keep Zizekians busy.  But of course you can’t question the whole thing via argument.  You can only reject it in one lump, after which you are supposed to not say anything about it.

There is nothing outside the Zizek-text.  That’s why Adam thinks that that old Adam Roberts thread, in which he behaved so shabbily, is a good example.  You simply can’t bring in actual reality and say that the stuff isn’t chemically changing, and is supposed to not be ritually, imaginatively changing, so it’s nonsense.  There isn’t any outside.  You can only leave the believers to their comfortable roles explicating their system and not bother them.

By on 01/18/09 at 09:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, Abraham is a utilitarian, too.  He believes that he will get all his promises fulfilled, on the strength of the absurd.  Obviously Abraham’s case is more extreme than Lenin’s, but it’s also more extreme than the “common” knight of faith who believes that he’ll have a really great meal.  Here’s where Lenin comes in: no one could reasonably expect that by starting a revolution right then in Russia, you would trigger the worldwide proletarian revolution.  Marxists didn’t think so, nor of course did liberals.  Nor could anyone reasonably assume that killing Isaac was a step along the way to being father of many nations—or that being poor is a good way to get a really nice dinner.  Abraham really is aiming at an earthly result!  Kierkegaard is clear about that.  He thinks that being the father of many nations, the earth being blessed through him, etc., would be good things, in a common sense view.  The path he takes, due to his sense of personal calling by God, is crazy, though.  The parallel doesn’t have to be maximally crazy to be a parellel, because Kierkegaard himself includes parallels that are way less crazy than either Lenin or Abraham.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/18/09 at 10:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, Psychologizing is fun.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/18/09 at 10:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s not psychologizing, Adam, it’s a straightforward restatement of what you’ve written, put in terms that John will hopefully be able to understand.  He seems to keep forgetting that you’re a theologian, not a philosopher.

By on 01/18/09 at 11:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, I’m still in talks with the IRS about the tax status of the Church of Zizek.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/18/09 at 11:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You take sources of textual authority, and you explicate them.  I mean, I really would be psychologizing if I had to guess why you chose Zizek rather than someone else.

By on 01/18/09 at 11:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m flattered by your familiarity with my academic work.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/18/09 at 11:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Now we’re getting somewhere, Adam. Lenin a utilitarian and Abraham a utilitarian, too. This is, indeed, a more plausible line for you to take, so long as you concede that it is not just an accidentally but essentially irrational utilitarianism. Both are aimed at some Good. Fine.

“Here’s where Lenin comes in: no one could reasonably expect that by starting a revolution right then in Russia, you would trigger the worldwide proletarian revolution.  Marxists didn’t think so, nor of course did liberals.”

But here’s the thing. Why don’t you find this just disappointing? It turns out that all that Zizek is doing is prescribing Elster’s fallacy. From the fact that sometimes people doing apparently stupid things produces impressive results, you should therefore go out and do something that looks to you like it is just incredibly stupid. The only way to paper over the sheer awfulness of this, as a political blueprint, is - again just as Elster says - transmuting it into a weird sort of romantic virtue ethics. You secure the good result by making craziness an achievement in itself. But do we really think that having crazy political leaders is a sufficient end, politically?

(It’s at least a minor irony that presumably Abraham wouldn’t have been the father of faith, if he had thought this way - hey, sometimes crazy stuff turns out to work, so why not? And Lenin would presumably not be such an attractive figure if we believed he really knew that he was doing something that looked just dead crazy. If he saw himself as committing Elster’s fallacy.)

Some people are disgusted by Kierkegaard, because they see him as just dead crazy in this way. But I think I see all sorts of extra subtle details. The stuff about eternity in time. None of that has any analogy with Zizek’s philosophy, that I can see. Kierkegaard is very clear about where the sanity ends and the insanity starts. I like that about him. In Zizek it seems all mixed up, and I don’t get this sense that he has moments of clarity in which he says: God, I’m just committing Elster’s fallacy, aren’t I? What do I think about that?

I don’t see in Zizek the bit where we get the stark consideration of the apparent awfulness of the position, as we do get in Kierkegaard. Then the working past that, somehow. Where in Zizek do we get that? What makes you admire Zizek, given that he’s saying what we need is romantic (irrational) utilitarianism? Pragmatism without the pragmatic elements, you could also say. What looks good to you about this?

I promise not to jump all over whatever you say, because I think we actually just worked through to a point of real understanding. And, believe it or not, I do want to know whether there is some interesting thing in Zizek that I’m missing past this point. I know that I think there is something interesting in Kierkegaard, just past a point that looks a bit crazy. And I’ve been on your side of the table, in effect, defending him against people who just say he’s a toxic psychotic with all this leap of faith nonsense. It can be hard to push against those who see him that way, but that’s the burden of admiring Kierkegaard. But that’s going to be very different in Zizek’s case than in Kierkegaard’s, in the details. So you tell me what’s good about Zizek, past this point.  Not fully, of course. But a little, if you would. And I promise not to be all attack-y, because I realize that by asking you to be brief I am more or less demanding that you not be fully armored up.

By John Holbo on 01/18/09 at 11:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

If you want to know what’s analogous in Zizek to Kierkegaard’s eternity in time, read chapter 2 of my book, “Subjectivity and Ethics.” (I don’t explicitly deal with Kierkegaard because he’s not a big source for Zizek at that point in his career, but I feel the parallel should be obvious after you read it.) I know it might seem dickish to take this route given that you’ve promised not to be petty and attack-y, etc., but I think it’s the route I need to take to keep my sanity.  Then do a post in response if you want.  I can supply you with an electronic copy if you promise not to distribute it further.

(I should note that everything you do in your latest comment seems to me to be perfectly reasonable.  What we’ve been talking about the whole time in this thread has been very narrow—the argument of your article, which I believe is incoherent.  Your disagreement with Zizek’s position has never been the problem to me in itself, regardless of Rich’s stupid psychologizing.  Your critique of Zizek’s reading of Kierkegaard by way of substituting your own understanding of Lenin for Zizek’s is the problem and is a fatal flaw in your article.  I hate to keep hammering that, but I felt clarification was necessary.)

By Adam Kotsko on 01/18/09 at 11:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Your critique of Zizek’s reading of Kierkegaard by way of substituting your own understanding of Lenin for Zizek’s is the problem and is a fatal flaw in your article.”

And this answer is exactly why I’m not psychologizing.  You’ve said many times, and I believe you, that you’re fine with someone just disagreeing with Zizek’s position.  What they can’t do, according to you, is view any part of his core position as separable.  That’s what you’ve been arguing over and over—that as soon as you replace one of Zizek’s key assumptions with something that is arguably more accurate, the rest of his argument doesn’t make any sense.  But again, as you’ve said over and over, you see this as a problem for John, not for Zizek.

By on 01/18/09 at 12:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Can you give me an example of an argument that wouldn’t fail if one of its core assumptions was replaced with something else?  I’m having a hard time picturing how that would work.

For instance, since I’m a theologian, let’s take Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God.  One of his core assumptions is that there can’t be infinite regress.  But if you replace that with the idea that there can be infinite regress, then his argument makes no sense.  You could also argue that his argument makes no sense as it stands, but the way to do that would be to start where he starts.  I just don’t see any way around that procedure.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/18/09 at 12:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Your critique of Zizek’s reading of Kierkegaard by way of substituting your own understanding of Lenin for Zizek’s is the problem and is a fatal flaw in your article.  I hate to keep hammering that, but I felt clarification was necessary.”

And not to hammer back, but I am willing to listen to this clarification if and when it is forthcoming. But I honestly don’t see that you’ve ventured anything of the sort yet. (I’m not being snarky. It just seems to me that a condition of showing that my understanding is wrong is showing that a more charitable one is possible. And you haven’t attempted that here, although I’m sure you believe in it.)

I am happy to receive chapter 2 of your book, gratis, and promise not to distribute it. And will try to respond to it in a non-attack-y way, if possible. Presumably that is where I should actually look for an attempt to present a more charitable and attractive picture.

By John Holbo on 01/18/09 at 12:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, chapter 2 doesn’t deal with Kierkegaard or On Belief.  I don’t know if you’ll find the position more plausible, but at least you’ll have a clear picture of what I think Zizek’s saying before I then go on to say what I find attractive about it.  I’m not really willing to undertake either the explanatory or apologetic tasks in comment #150 of a thread about something else—hopefully you’ll understand that.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/18/09 at 12:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If a mathematician finds out something about infinite regress that’s applicable to the meaning of the phrase as Anselm uses it, such that there can be infinite regress in this sense, Anselm’s argument falls.  It’s not just that “it makes no sense” internally.  There’s no further reason for anyone to bother with it.

The problem is that you’re willing to inflate your description of what the assumptions of the argument are to be anything that Zizek relies on, even if this is discovered post hoc, and even if this conflicts with things that people know pretty strongly not to be true.  So Zizek “makes no sense” if you have a different reading of Lenin.  Or of Kierkegaard.  Or of Lacan, of course, although John hasn’t approached from that direction.  Or Hegel, probably.  If, to make sense of Zizek, someone figures out that you have to accept Zizek’s reading of figure X, then that’s what you have to do, whether that reading makes sense from the point of view of anyone else or not.  It’s a circular system in which to make sense of Zizek, you have to accept all of his assumptions, no matter what they are, because to do otherwise would fail to make him make sense—and that is the core purpose of the procedure.

So, sure, you’re fine with someone not accepting the whole system—being an unbeliever, essentially.  But they have to reject the whole thing.  They can’t try to pull it into an outside world of referents to non-Zizek-interpretations.

By on 01/18/09 at 12:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, You’re being really ridiculous.  The whole discussion has been focused on the narrow question of John’s article.  I apply a general principle that you seem to accept—namely, that once a core assumption of an argument is found to be untrue, you no loner bother with the argument.  Poking around Anselm’s argument and switching out the “no infinite regress” parts for “yes infinite regress” would be a nonsensical way to go about disproving Anselm’s argument.

John, Even if I am not supplying you with a plausible Kierkegaardian reading of Lenin, you still don’t get any further than rejecting the premise.  That is, you can’t then proceed to say, “Well, if Kotsko can’t make me understand how Lenin could possibly be Kierkegaardian, I have to substitute in my own reading of Lenin and assume that’s what Zizek thinks Kierkegaard is like.” My failure to supply you with a position that plausibly agrees with Zizek’s does not mean that you get to assume Zizek agrees with you.  You’ve rejected the premise of his argument!

And Rich, It’s the argument of one particular book, not his entire body of work.  That’s all John is addressing in his article; all I’m addressing is John’s article.  Your wildly inflated claims of my religious devotion to Zizek are therefore misplaced.  There are things in Zizek that you could find either wrong or useful in isolation from other aspects of his work; in fact, if you find them wrong, it’s plausible that if you contextualized them in his broader work, you’d find them to be even more wrong.  That’s how it works when you’re dealing with wide-ranging thinkers.  So for instance, I remember you saying that you thought Specters of Marx was a pretty interesting literary reading of Marx—but you found other aspects of that book, and presumably of Derrida in general, to be less interesting, helpful, or convincing.  And that’s totally fine!  That’s the only way to do it!  No one’s asking anyone to be a fundamentalist of anything!  It’s pretty crazy that you’re taking my critique of one article of John’s, dealing with one argument from one book of Zizek’s, and inflating it to this insistence on absolute Zizekian orthodoxy.  No, I’m just talking about this one argument of Zizek’s—if you reject the premise, you’ve done all the work on that one argument that you can do.  Attempting to do more leads to incoherent results.  Again: why is this hard?

By Adam Kotsko on 01/18/09 at 01:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Coming at it from another direction: Let’s say you find it baffling that Anselm would reject something as sensible as infinite regress, when everyone knows it’s possible.  Charitably, then, you assume that when he seems to be rejecting it, he’s actually accepting it.  Yet, unaccountably, his argument then makes no sense!  How strange!  When someone complains that you’re taking the wrong approach altogether, you say, “Well, then, prove to me that infinite regress is impossible!  If you can’t, I have to assume that Anselm accepted it—after all, that’s the charitable thing to do in the case of such a revered thinker, right?”

By Adam Kotsko on 01/18/09 at 01:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, when every disagreement become a matter of rejecting a premise, and when premises are treated pretty much as a matter of preference rather than as items that can possibly be settled, then you do get a quasi-religious system.  By being very quick to say “Oh, you disagree?  That’s fine, people can believe whatever they want.  Zizek just won’t be helpful to you in this case.  Not that that could be a good reason for anyone else to change their mind, of course.  See you!” you essentially create a orthodox system.

Specters of Marx, since you brought it up an as example, was sometimes insightful.  Which is to say, not systemic.  You could pick out something on the “visor effect”, let’s say, and think it was interesting, without particularly needing to have an opinion on the rest of Derrida and / or Marx.  Derrida writing a book about how we should look at Marx in a contemporary way was really not doing his core project, at least as I understand it.  People sometimes read Zizek that way, as a source of interesting ideas not necessarily related to each other.  But, really, when you’re talking about Zizek’s view of Lenin, I think that you’re being misleading when you call it “this one argument of Zizek’s”.  There have to be planks that, if pulled out, the whole thing falls.

By on 01/18/09 at 01:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Zizek talks about a wide range of things, including politics.  If you disagree with him about Lenin, your view of his politics is likely to be negative—but he could still be helpful as an interpreter of Lacan, or as a film critic, or whatever.  It’s also possible that your view of his politics could be negative if you agree with him on Lenin—a possibility John is broaching by asking, “Okay, but why is this supposed to be appealing?” I’m not dealing with any of that high-level stuff.  I am dealing with the very narrow question of whether you get to swap out Zizek’s view of Lenin for your own and use that as evidence that Zizek doesn’t get Kierkegaard.  I say no.  Apparently that’s radically controversial.  I don’t understand why.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/18/09 at 01:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Here’s another way of getting at the problem.  This weekend I have been reading through Peter Abelard’s commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Now Abelard is a typical medieval reader insofar as he assumes that Paul is going to be in basic agreement with the tradition of the church as Abelard understands it.  So anything that seems to disagree with Abelard’s contemporary understanding, Abelard explains away, often in pretty unconvincing ways in my view.  To do otherwise would be inconceivable for Abelard—it would be tantamount to accusing Paul of being a heretic, which is impossible. 

The result is a text that is pretty reliable as far as understanding Abelard goes, but not so reliable as a guide to Paul.  One can see how a fresh reading of Paul without the presupposition that he agrees with the accrued teachings of a thousand years worth of church tradition might be a more beneficial way of getting at Paul’s thought, completely abstracted from the question of whether Paul will turn out to be right or convincing.  That is, reading Paul on his own terms is a more reliable way of getting at Paul than “fudging” his ideas to approximate something that makes more sense to you.  I think we can agree on that, right?

Holbo’s approach to Zizek in his article is a weird kind of “backhanded apologetics.” He fudges Zizek’s opinion of Lenin so that it makes more sense to him.  Then he finds that Zizek doesn’t seem to make sense.  I’m saying that the procedure is wrong and that he hasn’t at all demonstrated that Zizek doesn’t make sense.  It’s still possible that Zizek doesn’t make sense—in On Belief, in his reading of Lenin, or more globally—and my argument here doesn’t presuppose that he does.  What it does presuppose is that to plausibly claim that Zizek doesn’t make sense, you have to be talking about Zizek rather than about some bizarre hybrid made up of your own common sense opinions that are then jammed into Zizek’s text.  If you prove that the bizarre hybrid doesn’t make sense—and I’d be willing to bet that such bizarre hybrids rarely do make sense—you’re not really proving anything.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/18/09 at 02:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, *if* Holbo is doing what you say that he’s doing, then you are correct; he’s wrong.  I’m willing to give you that kind of limited agreement.  I suspect that he would phrase the whole thing very differently, probably in terms of trying to find a charitable reading of Zizek and not stopping at the first “ah ha, Zizek doesn’t get Lenin.” But as you often say, he can speak for himself.

But, speaking for myself, I think that this “very narrow question” is rather a dodge.  Would he really still be a good interpreter of Lacan if everything that he bases around Lenin dropped out?  There’s a sense in which if someone designs a system badly, that calls the rest of their systems into question.  If someone wants to say something like “Zizek comes up with amusing anecdotes” or even “I think he’s a pretty good film critic”, fine.  I could even get a determined resistance towards treating Zizek as a systematizer of any kind.  But, of course, that’s not what you do.

By on 01/18/09 at 02:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That limited agreement is literally all I’ve been asking for this entire thread.  So thanks.

Zizek does not seem to me to base any of his interpretations of Lacan on Lenin.  The Lenin stuff is a pretty recent development; he was doing essentially expository work on Lacan from the beginning. 

If you read my Zizek and Theology, available wherever fine books are sold, you will find that I take a kind of middle road on the question of Zizek’s systematicity—I periodize his works based on a series of attempts to bring together his main concerns in a systematic way.  Hegelianly enough, each attempt arrives at a kind of deadlock, prompting the next attempt at systematicity.  It’d be possible for someone to view those deadlocks as not being deadlocks at all and to prefer, as many Zizek readers do, his earlier works such as The Sublime Object of Ideology.  I think you could use the stuff in Sublime Object in isolation from the Lenin stuff with no problem at all.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/18/09 at 02:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I didn’t mean to imply that Zizek bases his interpretations of Lacan on Lenin.  What I meant was that if you dig deep into a major work of a prolific philosopher and find out that it appears to be systematically wrong, that naturally calls all of their other systematic work into question.

But, to once again sum up what I mean: I don’t think that what you called this very narrow question really is that important.  As far as I can tell, John is right about Lenin, and about Kierkegaard—I don’t see how the word “risk” can be brought in there at all—and, for that matter, on the whole constellation of things that Zizek says that liberals can’t see about liberalism, which enliven the recurrent Clinton’s health plan trope.  And to respond with “well, you won’t find Zizek useful in those areas, then” denies the concept that he can actually be wrong about anything in any kind of global sense.  You can only accept his premises, and therefore find him useful, or not.

It’s like a drearily New Age orthodox version of what you describe above as Abelard on Paul.  Anything that Paul writes that disagrees with Abelard’s contemporary understanding gets explained away, because otherwise that would make Paul a heretic, which would be inconceivable.  But since we’re all tolerant of heretics these days, it’s all right if any particular person wants to disagree: that just makes Paul not useful for them, and puts them outside the universe of people who have anything useful to say about Paul within the belief system.

By on 01/18/09 at 02:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think that’s what I’m doing, though.  You’re extrapolating pretty wildly from a very small claim.

I agree with you that the point I’m making isn’t important in the grand scheme of things.  At the end of the day, it means John has written a flawed article.  We’ve all done the same at one point or another.  He’s just gone on saying a million times that no one has been able to pinpoint exactly what’s supposed to be wrong with his article, so I gave it my best shot. 

Maybe his other points are all right, but he didn’t really argue for them—he just argued for this kind of bizarre thing about how Zizek misunderstands Kierkegaard.  I’d say that he could’ve made his own point much more directly and clearly if he hadn’t been so concerned to dissociate Zizek and Kierkegaard and had just kind of “went with” the Lenin-Kierkegaard thing.  Who cares, on a political level, if Zizek is reading Kierkegaard right or not?

By Adam Kotsko on 01/18/09 at 02:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Kierkegaard is important at the political level because “don’t be afraid to take a risk” is such a debased version of “have faith in the absurd”.  There’s a bait-and-switch back and forth.  When people say “Whoa, faith in the absurd?  That sounds crazy” then the response is “Zizek is just saying that people should be willing to take a big risk, to shake things up.  If you can’t get Clinton’s health plan within the system, then think outside the box!” When people then say “That sounds like a deranged, thoughtless self-help ‘you can do anything that you want to if only you believe’ tract”, the reply is “But it’s based on a deep quasi-religious faith!  In the absurd!  There’s really a lot of philosophical depth and seriousness behind it.”

By on 01/18/09 at 03:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m skeptical that most liberals find political positions motivated by religion attractive or “deep.”

By Adam Kotsko on 01/18/09 at 03:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Quasi-religious in the sense that many left-liberals have a vague longing for Marxian social ideals even though they don’t really think that Marx was right.  The kind of thing that Zizek is on about when he goes on about how Stalin was better than fascist dictators because Stalin at least gave people hope.  (Note: I am not saying that Zizek supports Stalin.)

By on 01/18/09 at 03:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"it means John has written a flawed article.”

Adam, at least you should admit that, from the point of view of this thread, this is still very hypothetical. You’ve said THAT there is a flaw. We all get that. You just haven’t said what it is. You say that the flaw is that my view is implausible. But that’s still pretty vague.

It seems telling that your account of where the mysterious, undiscovered obvious flaw is to be looked for has undergone a pretty fundamental shift. You started by saying, and I quote: “Similarly, you say that Lenin is a utilitarian.  Maybe you could argue that he was, but it’s clear that that’s not what Zizek thinks of him.  If Kierkegaard isn’t a utilitarian—and clearly he isn’t, then I would assume that Zizek putting together Lenin and Kierkegaard means that Zizek doesn’t think Lenin is a utilitarian.”

By the end of the thread, you have come to realize that the only way to make sense of Zizek is to imagine that he is thinking of BOTH Lenin and Abraham as utilitarians - the latter in a very strained sense.

I think what we are seeing here is that you felt there was something wrong with my article, but you weren’t sure what. Nothing wrong with that. So you were sort of casting about here and there, testing for possible weaknesses. The first line you tried was a loser so you reversed it. That’s fine. But the second line, the ‘Abraham is a utilitarian just like Lenin’ bears no resemblance to anything explicit in Zizek, and it is hardly self-evident, and we haven’t really seen it developed. I honestly doubt it fits well with Z.’s text. (For many of the reasons you were probably thinking about when you said that obviously he isn’t thinking about Lenin as a utilitarian.) If you are arguing that the flaw in article is that I didn’t think of this line that is still to be developed, then what’s your excuse for not thinking of it yourself until half-way through this thread?

Now let’s cut all that hoo-ha and, if you like, see whether there is some way to turn the new line into a way of defending Zizek. I’m going to read your stuff, but I’m betting there isn’t an ‘Abraham the surprise utilitarian’ bit in it. But this does seem like the linchpin of your criticism of me now. So, if you want to make it, then make it.

By John Holbo on 01/18/09 at 09:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Here’s another clue, to help you on the way to finding any possible obvious problems with my paper that I may have missed.

Think about why Kierkegaard doesn’t describe Abraham as a utilitarian, even though he aims at the Good, above all. In a sense. After all, utilitarianism is a form of ethics and Abraham is suspending the ethical, allegedly. So why isn’t Kierkegaard just boringly refuted by the fact that Abraham aims at ‘the good’, and is willing to sacrifice common notions of the Right? Why doesn’t this just turn out to be a strange sort of Ethics, not the overthrown of Ethics generally? It’s crucial to Kierkegaard that he’s got an answer to this question, but it depends on conceptions of ethics that are questionable, since they are somewhat polemically bounced off Hegel. They have to do with notions of publicity and reason, among other things. They have to do with a conception of ethical despair, and strategies for dealing with it. Probably they also have to do with the question of whether something that you don’t believe CAN BE a ‘means to an end’ COUNTS as a means to an end, for purposes of assessing your ethical outlook.

If I give up in disgust and throw my towel at the canvas and, miraculously, the foam is rendered perfect, is this a case of wisely choosing the best means to an end or not? Yes and no. Are Pyrrhonists ‘utilitarians’? Not obviously, although you could say that, in some sense, Pyrrhonism is being advertised as conducive to good ends.

By John Holbo on 01/18/09 at 10:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jesus H. W. Christ!  My comment about both Abraham and Lenin being a utilitarian was intended to get at the point that you were defining utilitarianism so loosely as to be virtually meaningless.  Such a stance is still compatible with thinking that Zizek doesn’t think that Lenin is a utilitarian in any meaningful sense.

This is how it always ends.  You go into this passive-aggressive thing about how I haven’t made it clear what my objection is, even though I’ve said it 40,000 times.  At this point, even Rich understands what my objection is, even if he’s only hypothetically granting that you are actually guilty of it.  You are not making any kind of Socratic point here, John.  I have made myself clear.  I haven’t convinced you, but I have made clear points the whole time.  I’m satisfied that I have, at least.  Apparently your standard is whether I’ve convinced you—well, it’s hard to convince someone that what they’ve written is fundamentally flawed.  You have kind of an investment in it.  I don’t take it personally that you’re acting like you’re not even hearing my objection.  But this whole play-acting like I haven’t even properly made an objection—come the fuck on!

By Adam Kotsko on 01/18/09 at 11:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In the past, I have on occasion thrown shit at the wall to see what sticks.  What’s different in this conversation is that I have written a comprehensive study of Zizek and so have a much firmer view of what he’s up to.  Ever since I announced that I was rereading your article in this thread, I have repeatedly advanced the same position (i.e., 40,000 times): it is erroneous to substitute your own view of Lenin for Zizek’s and use that as evidence that he’s misreading Kierkegaard.  I have used almost those exact words multiple times.  As I said in the previous comment, the claim that both Abraham and Lenin are utilitarians was meant to be a “reductio ad absurdam” of your position.  Apparently you took it as agreement with your position.  Well, you were wrong.  At no point did I waver from my apparently hugely controversial and difficult to understand position that substituting your own view of Lenin for Zizek’s can’t count as evidence that Zizek is misreading Kierkegaard.  At no point!  I have been thoroughly convinced that (a) you did in fact follow that procedure and (b) it was erroneous, from the very second I finished rereading your article the other night. 

Absolutely consistency.  Absolute insistence.  I am not fucking budging on this, because I really think that’s what you’re doing.  If you’ve read Zizek’s Lenin anthology and still think that Zizek’s Lenin is a utilitarian in anything but a trivial sense—well, you may be hopeless.  Me giving you my little thoughts here in comments is not likely to help.  You need to ponder the possibility that maybe you’re seeing utilitarianism in Zizek’s anthology on Lenin because you’ve published an article based on the premise that Zizek’s Lenin is a utilitarian.  I would concede that maybe I’m disagreeing with you because I’ve written a book on Zizek, but—we haven’t yet gotten to a point where we’re directly talking about Zizek!  We never have!  We’ve always been in this weird netherworld where everything you say, I can justly say, “Okay, but you’re not really talking about Zizek.  Surely this straw man you’ve created is badly off base, but it doesn’t tell us anything about Zizek.” And me writing three more sentences in this comment box isn’t going to change your stubbornness.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/18/09 at 11:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, you have said 40,000 time THAT you are making an objection. I know that. (Sheesh.) You have not said what the objection IS, apart from the fact that you evidently find my argument implausible. (I get it. You find the article implausible.) The fact that you are pointing to what Rich concedes only underscores this. He said that “*if* Holbo is doing what you say that he’s doing, then you are correct; he’s wrong.” But I obviously know that IF I’m misinterpreting Zizek, that’s a problem. (How not?) I just don’t THAT I am. Yet you yourself say that this ‘if’ is all you wanted to prove. “That limited agreement is literally all I’ve been asking for this entire thread.”

So fine, you have established that IF I am making an implausible interpretation of Zizek, that’s a problem. We agree!

Back to the matter at hand. Neither Lenin nor Abraham are regarded as utilitarian by Zizek. Fine. We are back to that. Regarding my little argument, you evidently want to get off at step 1. So: sketch for me a non-utilitarian Lenin, which it would be reasonable to suppose Zizek had in mind, thereby showing that it was implausible of me to cram the utilitarian one down his throat. In the essay I take a stab at this by casting Stalin in the role. So: how would a thoroughly non-utilitarian Lenin differ from the Stalin I sketch in my paper? If it bothers you that I call him Stalin, when Zizek is a staunch anti-Stalinist, then just call him S. Or even L. I try to consider the possibility that there might be a strictly non-utilitarian revolutionary leader, rather like Abraham. in the paper I conclude: but this is so repugnant it can’t be what Z. has in mind. Are you saying it actually IS what Z. has in mind? He advocates the figure that I label ‘Stalin’? But then (now we can no longer be so polite with our S’s and L’s) what is the basis for Zizek’s anti-Stalinism? How does he distinguish the thing he doesn’t like from the thing he apparently likes? Since my point is that, from the outside - if you aren’t Stalin yourself - you literally can’t tell the difference between the Knight of Faith and the mere moral monster. The only difference is going to be some very private, individual fact, nothing public.

By John Holbo on 01/19/09 at 12:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"If you’ve read Zizek’s Lenin anthology and still think that Zizek’s Lenin is a utilitarian in anything but a trivial sense.”

No. As I have said, I am very happy to make do only with the fairly trivial sense.

By John Holbo on 01/19/09 at 12:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The very fact that Zizek compares Lenin to the knight of faith shows that he doesn’t think Lenin’s a utilitarian!  The only evidence you advance in your article to show that he misunderstands Kierkegaard, however, is based on the premise that Zizek assumes Lenin is a utilitarian. 

Anthony’s post shows how Lenin is not a utilitarian in anything but the most trivial sense—and you, in that very fucking thread, say that Lenin the man is not utilitarian because no one is.  Well, fine—Zizek is talking about Lenin the man rather than Lenin the philosophy, because he wants to get at the moment before Lenin “becomes a Leninist”! 

You admit that if you’re misinterpreting Zizek, that’s a problem independent of whether Zizek’s view is actually appealing.  Well, okay—you’re misinterpreting Zizek! Your outrage that I continue to fail to supply you with an account of Zizek does not change that fact.  If you can argue based on the bare fact that Lenin wants to succeed at what he tries to do, then I don’t think I need to go into a huge amount of detail either.  You are using a flawed procedure. I don’t need to supply a fleshed-out account of what “Lenin as non-utilitarian” would look like, because it’s obvious that Zizek doesn’t think Lenin is a utilitarian!

By Adam Kotsko on 01/19/09 at 12:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

If you respond and say that I’ve conceded Abraham is a utilitarian, I will literally, audibly scream.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/19/09 at 12:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, Adam (as I understand him) isn’t simply saying that you’re misinterpreting Zizek.  It’s a more technical sort of objection.  Let’s say that you’ve got a classic argument that goes: if A, then B; if B, then C, and so on.  Adam claims that you are asserting not-A, and therefore pretty much have to bow out of the rest of the chain.  According to Adam, you can’t say “Point A is wrong, but let’s go on to B anyways and see how it looks with A being replaced by something else.” The whole argument falls apart if A is contradicted, so you have to stop there.  You could presumably do a separate attack on B, but if you do, you have to assume A if you want it to be an attack on the argument as a whole.  (In this example, A is pretty much Zizek’s view of Lenin, B is his view of Kierkegaard, and C are his political conclusions.) No doubt Adam will correct me if I’m wrong.

Adam, you really should get away from the whole “Lenin isn’t a utilitarian except in a trivial sense!” thing.  That trivial sense is exactly what separates being willing to take risks from acting on faith, and it’s all that John needs for his objection to work.  Just because he has slightly mysteriously decided to call it “utiliatarian” doesn’t mean that he has to show that Lenin was a J.S. Mill utilitarian.

By on 01/19/09 at 12:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I would perhaps quibble with the details of his account, but Rich is correct that I’m only arguing a very small and technical point, which is a big part of the reason that it’s so infuriating that you’re acting like I’m not properly making any objection at all.  You wanted an argument—well, I’ve provided it, I think pretty unambiguously.

Where I would especially object to Rich’s comment is that if John’s sense of utilitarianism is accepted, then Abraham appears to be a utilitarian as well—i.e., he wants good things to result, and he wants to succeed at what he tries.  I have a hard time thinking of any human being in history who doesn’t fit that description.  Such a contentless concept seems like an unpromising candidate to do the kind of argumentative work John needs it to do.  (I’d venture the guess that in the original thought underlying article, “utilitarian” wasn’t actually as contentless as John’s made it out to be in this thread.)

By Adam Kotsko on 01/19/09 at 12:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Your outrage that I continue to fail to supply you with an account of Zizek does not change that fact.”

Just to clarify. I’m not outraged. At this point, I’m highly amused. (It’s not amazing that the dog can dance badly. But that it can dance badly for so long! It’s a minor wonder of the animal world.)

“The very fact that Zizek compares Lenin to the knight of faith shows that he doesn’t think Lenin’s a utilitarian!”

Look, if someone says ‘the greatest female proponent of the utilitarian tradition in ethical theory is the Chinese philosopher Immanuel Kant,’ then the author apparently thinks Kant is a female Chinese utilitarian. It doesn’t follow that there must automatically be a plausible and compelling way to make out that Kant IS a female Chinese utilitarian. The author is confused, and the way to bring this out is to point out that Kant is actually a German male anti-utilitarianism. It would be silly to object that this is a ‘flawed procedure’ because it imports concepts of Kant that are alien to the author in question. That’s the point. The author needs a little injection of alien conceptual matter.

“I don’t need to supply a fleshed-out account of what “Lenin as non-utilitarian” would look like, because it’s obvious that Zizek doesn’t think Lenin is a utilitarian!”

Yes you do, because it’s not self-evident that there is anything interesting that he could be thinking about Lenin the non-utilitarian. On the face of it, this is as uninteresting as Kant the anti-utilitarian. It just looks like somehow he has gotten very confused.

Your point about how we are really talking about Lenin, the man, not Leninism, the philosophy, is liekwise confused because 1) it’s pretty clearly false to assert that Zizek is totally uninterested in Lenin’s writings, as opposed to his practical political actions as a revolutionary. He’s published a whole anthology of Lenin’s writings, wrote an introduction and everything!

2) Anthony is confused about the distinction between normative theory and moral psychology, which limits the utility of his post. My point was just that if we turn ‘utilitarian’ into a term for a moral psychology, rather than a normative theory, then we will discover that no one is one. But this is actually a good reason not to do so. Let ‘utilitarian’ refer to anyone who is sincerely committed to the view that the ethical thing to do is maximize the greatest good for the greatest number. Moving past that, lots of utilitarians have theories - of varying degrees of plausibly - to deal with the problem that obviously the man on the street isn’t going to be performing massive utilitarian calculations all day long. In practice, everyone is a virtue ethicist (plausibly. Lenin, for example.) But this doesn’t actually bother the utilitarian, who has ways of theorizing around it. (I could tell you about them if you are curious.) It certainly doesn’t prove that Peter Singer is not a utilitarian, after all, just because he doesn’t live like one, consciously, every minute of every day.

“If you respond and say that I’ve conceded Abraham is a utilitarian, I will literally, audibly scream.”

No, but I think you would be in a less unpromising position if you actually did concede that. Or at least agreed to work through it, experimentally.

By John Holbo on 01/19/09 at 12:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In the case of the hypothetical false characterization of Kant, you just note that the person’s characterization of Kant is false.  You don’t subsequently read their article with the correct Kant in mind and use the resulting hybrid argument to claim the author doesn’t understand Confucius.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/19/09 at 12:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

And exactly how is regarding Abraham as a utilitarian supposed to be promising for my argument?  The whole point of making that connection is to claim that your use of utilitarianism is not just overbroad but meaningless and therefore can’t possibly bear the argumentative weight you’re putting on it.

I really thought we were coming to some kind of understanding earlier today.  I thought we could move forward.  But I can’t possibly move forward with someone who claims that I’m not even making an objection in the proper sense when everyone else I’ve talked to about it—including a person who seems to basically hate me—understands what I’m getting at!

By Adam Kotsko on 01/19/09 at 01:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"I’d venture the guess that in the original thought underlying article, “utilitarian” wasn’t actually as contentless as John’s made it out to be in this thread.”

Well, guess away. Or, better still: show that it is so. If you think that I need a stronger sense of utilitarianism than I am fessing up to, and that the stronger sense is doubtful, then explain why you think this. (This is what Alex thinks, too. But he, too, is only guessing. I think that says something.)

OK, Rich’s point about the argument structure makes some sense: “Let’s say that you’ve got a classic argument that goes: if A, then B; if B, then C, and so on.  Adam claims that you are asserting not-A, and therefore pretty much have to bow out of the rest of the chain.  According to Adam, you can’t say “Point A is wrong, but let’s go on to B anyways and see how it looks with A being replaced by something else.”

Now the problem here is that, classically, you can do this. You can say: you’ve got no way to get to B. But let’s just suppose you got there anyway. What good would it do you? Then you make some further objection about how you still couldn’t get to C. Very standard stuff.

But I think we don’t really have quite a classical case here. Let me just try to say how I think it actually looks. You’ve got your Lenin. Then from there you get to Kierkegaard. Adam is, apparently, thinking that I ought to consider what Zizek’s Kierkegaard picture looks like, independent of what his Lenin picture looks like. But, in fact, this pretty clearly can’t be done. Can’t get there from here. (This is why I missed that he was telling me to do this.) Because, if you take the Lenin away, you’ve got no more Zizekian Kierkegaard. Zizek is pretty clear that he is adapting Kierkegaard in some way, along Lenin lines. So: If you’ve got no Lenin, you’ve got no Zizekian Kierkegaard. The whole thing just evaporates. On the other hand, if you’ve got Lenin, then you’ve got the world’s ugliest case of Kierkegaardianism. And in my paper I do try to make this either/or structure clear. I’m sure Z’s Kierkegaard is a failure, but I can’t be sure why. Either because he’s got no Lenin. Or because he’s got Lenin. the failure is a bit different, depending which. (And I can’t be sure which.)

I suspect the unclear bit of this will be: what do you mean ‘just evaporates’? I mean this: you’ve got to have some conception of who Lenin is, what his philosophy is about, to understand what Z. is saying about K. If you say: let’s just drop the L. stuff there’s no way to focus on K instead.

Compare: suppose I say that in order to understand this exciting thought about Kierkegaard, you need to appreciate the Chinese female utilitiarian-ness of Kant. Someone points out that he isn’t. So fine. Let’s just think the new thought about Kierkegaard. But now we have no idea what it is. It seriously hasn’t shown up yet. Now at this point someone could invent a thoroughly fictional Chinese female utilitarian - call her Schmant - to play the role Kant was mistakenly thought to play, namely of pointing the way to some surprising new intellectual possibility. (Sorry that my example is so ridiculous.) That’s why I bring Stalin into the paper. I have to imagine a figure who could play the role that Zizek wants Lenin to play, even though it is quite clear the real Lenin won’t play that role. I’m looking, seriously, for a political figure who might point in the way Zizek wants to point. But it just doesn’t look good. It looks like Stalin. That’s my point.

By John Holbo on 01/19/09 at 01:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"And exactly how is regarding Abraham as a utilitarian supposed to be promising for my argument?”

Well, I don’t think it ultimately is. But that’s mostly because I think your argument is doomed. (No offense.) But it’s sort of interesting, as the ‘Lenin is not a utilitarian’ line just is not. That’s just you banging your head against the single most impregnable part of the wall, it looks to me. ‘Abraham as utilitarian’, absurd as it is, provokes a consideration of the characteristics of Kierkegaard’s views of ethics, and possible analogies - with Pyrrhonism, for example.

By John Holbo on 01/19/09 at 01:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I want in on all these fun and games. 

Would something like Stalin really be the Kierkegaardian Lenin?  Isn’t one of the essential aspects of the Abraham story the fact that A is taking orders from YHWH?  A leader like Stalin (or Hitler, or Ghandi, or Lenin, or MLK Jr. or anyone who seeks to transform the world) cannot be Abrahamish precisely because he’s acting on his individual conscience and vision of the ideal world (even if that vision is a Pisgah vision of the Promised Land).

So the true Abraham of modern politics would be the bureaucrat: the administrator who follows orders whether or not s/he believes in the ultimate moral or political worth of the orders themselves. 

Just thinking out loud.  Feel free to disregard and continue the *Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead* impression.

By on 01/19/09 at 02:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, I solve that by imagining that Stalin actually is thinking exactly like Abraham (historically unlikely as this is.) He sends people to the gulag even while thinking that ‘on the strength of the absurd, even though they will all die, they will not die’. But he knows this is absurd, so he can’t say it and he has to live in ‘fear and trembling’, with everyone thinking he’s a murderer, when actually it’s this more obscure spriritual thing, for better or worse.

Kierkegaard is pretty clear that Abraham, qua Father of Faith, can’t be a model leader, because the Knight must be solitary. This creates the basic problem for turning the Knight of Faith into a model leader.

It’s not going to be that the true Abraham is a bureaucrat, because, presumably, the bureaucrat doesn’t live in ‘fear and trembling’. He passes the ethical buck, to his own existential satisfaction, in some more painless way - painless for him, anyway.

By John Holbo on 01/19/09 at 02:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

One more bit about the ‘Abraham as utilitarian’ stuff.

“If John’s sense of utilitarianism is accepted, then Abraham appears to be a utilitarian as well—i.e., he wants good things to result, and he wants to succeed at what he tries.  I have a hard time thinking of any human being in history who doesn’t fit that description.”

I think it’s quite easy to find examples of philosophers and people who aren’t utilitarians: Kant, for example. Plato. Confucius. There are lots of them. Throw a rock and you’ll probably hit one (but utilitarians will tell you not to do that!) Very few human beings in the history of the world have actually thought that ‘the end justifies the means’ trumps all other rules, and that the proper ethical thing to do is work to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number. (But once in a while a Bentham, or Lenin, or Peter Singer really pops up.) There are good reasons why, in intro textbooks, utilitarianism is contrasted with other styles of ethical thinking. (When Anthony said that utilitarianism just means ‘wanting to get things done’ it may be that I was reading him, too charitably, as asserting that utilitarianism is essentially ends-justifies-the-means, maximize the good. At any rate, that’s what I think utilitarianism is. Nor am I alone in this regard.)

Right. It seems interesting that, oddly enough, Abraham can almost be fitted into a utilitarian - more broadly: consequentialist - frame. Because, plausibly, he judges by ranking the Good absolutely over the Right. But he is a peculiarly decayed sort of consequentialist, for the obvious reasons we’ve noted. Namely, it seems that consequentialism has to be a form of instrumental rationality. But his is a case of instrumental irrationality. What do we make of that?

In what sense does a philosophy of instrumental irrationality - doing things because of the ends they will produce, without belief that they can produce those ends - have any attrativeness? The interest in shifting from Z. to K. is perhaps, in part, that I’m now on the hook to defend this, since I sort of like K., don’t I?

By John Holbo on 01/19/09 at 03:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"When Anthony said that utilitarianism just means ‘wanting to get things done’ it may be that I was reading him, too charitably, as asserting that utilitarianism is essentially ends-justifies-the-means, maximize the good. At any rate, that’s what I think utilitarianism is. Nor am I alone in this regard.”

John,

I don’t think I actually said that, or if I did that wasn’t my intention and I misspoke. I was taking, on the basis of your comments and not your article, that you thought Lenin was a utilitarian based on his wanting to get things done. My contention was that you were confusing “wanting to get things done” with utilitarianism (which I take in the average ordinary sense that they teach it at the undergraduate level). Just wanted to clear up my meaning and intention, nothing more, please do carry on.

By Anthony Paul Smith on 01/19/09 at 04:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I haven’t read everything you’ve written since my last response.  Instead, I’m just going to spell out for you why Lenin is like the knight of faith.  The common factor is the sense of “flying blind.” This may seem counter-intuitive, since Abraham has a direct order from God.  That’s why you need the other stuff about the more everyday knight of faith as a supplement. 

What does “flying blind” mean?  It means that neither Lenin nor Abraham is “covered” by the big Other.  Again, you’d assume that God is enough of a “big Other” for Abraham, but the way God is functioning for him is not like the big Other functions, because the big Other is basically what Kierkegaard calls the ethical or universal.  It’s always a particular ethical or universal order, situated in a particular cultural milieu.  Abraham’s cultural milieu was one in which one gained a kind of immortality through one’s son, and God—whom Abraham before had every reason to think of as somehow guaranteeing and working within that ethical order—deprives him of his integration into that milieu through the command to kill Isaac.

Similarly, Lenin is convinced of the justice of the workers’ cause and of the truth of Marxism as the official ideology of the proletarian movement.  Part of that ideology is that there are a series of natural stages that economic development must take before communist revolution becomes possible.  Most notably, capitalist development has to take its highest form.  Lenin feels called to bring about the revolution right now, however, in a country that is very far from the appropriate level of development.  His actions are therefore no longer “covered” by the big Other of his context—he’s flying blind.  Zizek quotes him as saying, “About this, Marx and Engels wrote not a word.” That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t or shouldn’t know how to do stuff effectively, just as Abraham is able to carry out the practicalities of traveling to Mount Moriah, etc. 

In the case of Abraham, the situation is so terrifying that you can’t really get inside his head.  In the case of Lenin, the situation seems to be invigorating.  He’s more like the “everyday” knight of faith than like Abraham in that respect—his life becomes a kind of improvisation rather than a clearly delineated, rule-based thing.  The writings Zizek collects are intended to get at that improvisational feel, which Zizek believes is the authentic revolutionary moment.  This is a point where you’re in error—the mere fact of collecting writings doesn’t mean Zizek is interested in Lenin’s “philosophy.” He’s interested in a period when Lenin doesn’t and can’t have a “philoosphy,” when he’s making things up as he goes along.

This period of Lenin’s improvisation doesn’t last forever.  The revolution becomes institutionalized—it becomes its own big Other.  The mainstream of the workers’ movement coalesces behind Russia, and Marxist theory is augmented with the newly founded “Leninism.” And this is why Stalin is not like the knight of faith—he’s “covered” by that big Other, which Zizek elsewhere calls “the big Other of historical necessity.” Paradoxically, Stalin is only in the ethical stage!  He’s just following an ethics that we find repugnant.  I would venture to say that part of the problem is that Lenin’s improvisational approach becomes codified into a kind of necessary ruthlessness—extreme violence is directly necessary, in some sense is inherently revolutionary, instead of being merely a means to an end.  In short, Stalin really does believe that if you break enough eggs, you’ll necessarily get an omelette—and the Lenin of a period later than what Zizek is focusing on may well have come to believe that as well, or something approaching that.  But Stalin isn’t, like Abraham, “flying blind”—he has a set ethical order, albeit one that outsiders recognize as a horribly dystopian one. 

I want to give all the many people still reading this thread a chance to digest this last bit, but I’ll at least gesture to why “Lenin as the knight of faith” is supposed to be attractive—it’s attractive in the same way that the “everyday” knight of faith is an attractive figure.  It seems like an appealling way to live.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/19/09 at 06:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Now going back and reading the comments, which turned out to be shorter than they seemed in my e-mail updates, I have to say that you don’t provide any way to find Kierkegaard appealling aside from saying, “Zizek’s frivolous, but Kierkegaard is all serious and good.” In a far distant comment thread about Zizek, someone put forth your critique as a “serious” alternative to Kirsch’s, and someone subsequently quoted the part where you say, “Zizek’s frivolous, but Kierkegaard &c.,” and said essentially, “What the hell?” That strikes me as the appropriate reaction for someone who hadn’t already decided before reading your article that Kierkegaard is good, a reaction I was deprived of given my pro-Kierkegaard stance.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/19/09 at 06:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Now going back and reading the comments, which turned out to be shorter than they seemed in my e-mail updates, I have to say that you don’t provide any way to find Kierkegaard appealling aside from saying, “Zizek’s frivolous, but Kierkegaard is all serious and good.””

Well, that’s why I said I’m awkwardly on the hook now, didn’t I? (You thought maybe I was kidding about that part?)

“That strikes me as the appropriate reaction for someone who hadn’t already decided before reading your article that Kierkegaard is good”

Bingo.

Re: Stalin. I didn’t suggest that my Knight of Faith Stalin was the real one. I’m sure that the actual one was just as you say. Still, I thought I needed a hypothetical of a certain sort.

Re: the everyday knight of faith and ‘flying blind’. Well now we’re getting somewhere. Better yet: we’re getting somewhere connected to where we started - namely, my post. (So we can pretend there is some grand, seven season story arc to this thread. It’s like Sunnydale being destroyed, leaving only a pit, perhaps.)

No, seriously. You are making Zizek a sort of pragmatist. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. There’s no way that ‘improvisational’ is not going to be pragmatic. Now we have, in effect, a hypothesis about what makes for successful pragmatist persons in certain sorts of environments: namely, ones in which things are totally falling apart and coming together. Revolutionary times, as opposed to normal times. What psychic features should the pragmatist exhibit? The answer, apparently: invincible self-confidence that whatever you do will succeed. Other pragmatists may tell you you should be a story-teller, or self-critical, or always forming teams of rivals, or always sticking with your tribe, or trying to find wedge issues. But Zizek says: you need to be invincibly self-confident. Obviously all invincibly self-confident people won’t be invincible, because it’s nuts. Mostly they will probably die horribly, possibly taking many others with them. But no one will make it as a leader who isn’t absolutely impervious to self-doubt. No rational being can thrive in this environment, then, because it’s irrational to be so impervious to self-doubt. Only certain species of irrational being will thrive. Ergo, rationally ... well,you basically have a theory of a specific sort of environment in which it is adaptive to commit Elster’s fallacy.

Does that sound about right? (This is not a trap.)

By John Holbo on 01/19/09 at 06:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Phew.  Well, I can’t say I especially want to get in the middle of this; but since my name has come up a few times, I’ll just say this.

Adam K mentions my problems with transubstantiation.  If I understand him (and I’m trying, genuinely) Adam K’s objection to my objection is that I’m only prepared to look at transubstantiation from a narrowly scientistist perspective.  ‘The priest says he’s turned the bread and wine to flesh and blood; but give the bread to a baker and the wine to House and once they’ve tested it they’ll find it’s still bread and blood’.  Adam’s argument is not that it’s invalid to criticise transubstantiation, but that unless one criticises it from within the circle of Christian belief the critique is meaningless:  he agrees that Dr House would find no blood cells in the wine, but thinks that’s irrelevant.

This isn’t what I was saying, I think.  I was saying that (imaginatively inserting myself into the Christian mindset) I could see how transubstantiation could be taken as a metaphor, and a powerful one; but that this very question—whether it is metaphorical or literal—has been intensely debated within the Catholic church, and the official line is that it is not metaphorical, it is literal.  The ‘literalness’ inheres in a belief that things are substance and accident; and that although the accidents of the bread and the wine remain the same, the substance has literally changed to the body and blood of Christ.  Why this is doesn’t, as far as I can see, admit of further explanation (I mean why substance and accident changes the way it does in this one case; usually changes in accidents are supposed to go the other way.) But OK.

Now I don’t buy this, not because I don’t share this Christian faith (although I don’t) but because I don’t see that a contemporary Christian, any more than any other contemporary person, can commit to a substance-accident model of the physical universe; any more than they can commit to a pre-Copernican model of the solar system.  One easy way out (it seems to me, although it’s hardly my place to say so) is to say ‘no, but transubstantiation is a metaphor; in a similar way the water in the baptismal font symbolises rather than literally embodies the holy spirit).  But that’s not what the Catholic church does.  Now, for all that I know, that’s just how Adam K feels about it (I mean, that transubstantiation is a metaphorical rather than literal process). Or maybe not; he’s disinclined to discuss his personal faith in detail, a position I can certainly respect.  But he did take very fiercely, and from time to time, intemperately, against my line on it.  This may be because he thinks I was arguing the vulgar scientist case; or maybe metaphor angle infuriates him; or maybe he just finds anything I say really annoying, the way some people are sonically allergic to yapping dogs.  If I had to plump for an explanation I’d say that Adam K thinks simply I’m disqualified from discussing this matter because (a) I haven’t read as much theology as he, and (b) because I’m not a believer.  (a) is tricky, because Adam K doesn’t know how much theology I have read, which may be more than he suspects.  But (b) would at least explain his occasional lack of politesse (his decision not to keep to himself, but rather to share with the whole world, his belief that I’m ‘a fucking idiot’, and so on).  His hostility to me might be a redacted quantity, proportionate to the degree he perceives that I’m hostile to Christianity.

The relevance to this thread seems to be something like this:  if you don’t accept X’s premises, then there’s nothing useful you can say about X.  In the particular context of this post, John gives no evidence of an especial animus against either utilitarianism or Kierkegaard.  But we might say: it’s unlikely he can fully grok Zizek’s take on either because he doesn’t buy Z.’s Lacanianism.  In other words the problem might be that Z gets Lenin and Kierkegaard wrong not because he hasn’t read enough, or thought enough about, those two thinkers; but because reading them with Lacan tinted spectacles is inevitably going to lead to misprision.  Similarly, anything I say talking about Christianity is going to come out distorted by my atheist vocoder.

By Adam Roberts on 01/19/09 at 09:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John: “Now the problem here is that, classically, you can do this. You can say: you’ve got no way to get to B. But let’s just suppose you got there anyway. What good would it do you? Then you make some further objection about how you still couldn’t get to C. Very standard stuff.”

It’s not quite standard in this case, because A and B are not strictly separable.  You can’t say “Suppose you got to B anyways, without A”, because B depends on A so much that it’s really A+B—it supposedly makes no sense to talk about Zizek’s view of Kierkegaard at all if you’re putting in a wildly differing view of Lenin than Zizek’s.  You could presumably say something like: “OK, let’s assume that Lenin is a knight of faith.  Does Zizek’s view of Kierkegaard make any sense with that assumption?” to which the answer I think would still be no.

Why would it be no?  Well, to interject something else into the thread, there’s a book, Russian Rebels, 1600-1800 by Paul Avrich, which I think is quite good.  In short, there was something like an indigenous non-Marxist tradition of Russian revolution for Lenin to draw on.  So Lenin not uncovered by Big Other as Adam describes above, etc. etc.  But even more so, insofar as I understand Kierkegaard’s mystical appeal to faith, there just isn’t a preservation of the properly faith-y bits of it.  I don’t want to say yet again that being a confident person willing to take huge risks and improvise is not the same thing as setting out to do something that you have every reason to believe will be—not might be, but will be—disastrous, except for your faith.

By on 01/19/09 at 10:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"If I had to plump for an explanation I’d say that Adam K thinks simply I’m disqualified from discussing this matter because (a) I haven’t read as much theology as he, and (b) because I’m not a believer.”

Adam K will say I’m psychologizing, of course, but—I really don’t think that this is particular to Adam K.  It’s a feature of continental philosophy done off the continent, in English.  The only way to take all of Adam’s objections to various things, as well as those of other similar people, and give them a common character is to recognize a common insistence that once you’ve contradicted a premise, you just have to drop out and go away.  You can’t say “Suppose I didn’t believe in substance and accidents.  What would this still mean?” Once you say “suppose I didn’t believe in substance and accidents” you’re supposed to come to a full stop.  The rest is meaningless.  It’s not an insistence that you must believe in substance and accidents, or whatever the individual case is, it’s an insistence that you must respect language-games and not attempt to globalize them.

I find the entire syndrome annoying, of course.  It’s directly opposed to a scientific conception of the world, even a humanistic one.  Worse, it takes individual people’s writings as source-texts of authority that create their own discourses.  You can explain Zizek all you want, or you can deny him, but if you question him you have to use his assumptions.  It throws everyone into a nearly overtly religious discourse.

By on 01/19/09 at 11:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Holbo writes of Kotsko’s description of Zizek’s Lenin:

“You are making Zizek a sort of pragmatist,” and

“There’s no way that ‘improvisational’ is not going to be pragmatic.”

I don’t believe that the label “pragmatist” is adequate to the kind of agency depicted in Kotsko’s post and later developed in Holbo’s own response. On what grounds can we describe Lenin’s or Kierkegaard’s behavior as “pragmatic”? Perhaps if we redefine pragmatism to include an irrationalist belief in one’s self and one’s mission.  But why choose to label an agent working from such a belief a “pragmatist”? Because he believes that his action will work? Because he is unconcerned with theorizing beforehand what kinds of methods are appropriate to achieving his ends?  Why this label? 

As for the second comment.  It is far from obvious that “improvisational"--in this or any other instance--can be reduced to “what is pragmatic.” Do we call a jazz solo pragmatic? Why not think of Lenin and Kierkegaard as jazz musicians of the ethical?

By on 01/19/09 at 11:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"It is far from obvious that “improvisational"--in this or any other instance--can be reduced to “what is pragmatic.” Do we call a jazz solo pragmatic? Why not think of Lenin and Kierkegaard as jazz musicians of the ethical?”

I hadn’t thought of that, exactly. I don’t think it fits Kierkegaard actually. But I think it sort of fits Lenin, on Kotsko’s characterization. (The reason it doesn’t fit Kierkegaard is that he combines what is really a kind of mincing socratism with a loopy belletristic excess. Which isn’t very jazzy, really. But maybe you can see why I feel a certain affinity.)

By John Holbo on 01/19/09 at 11:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I just telegraphed two thoughts unclearly: one about philosophers, the other about writing styles. Never mind. Carry on.

By John Holbo on 01/19/09 at 12:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I do think that the jazz thing fits Kierkegaard, and here’s why.  The key moment that Kierkegaard’s narrator can’t understand isn’t the decision to kill Isaac—as you point out, he can think of circumstances where that would be necessary and justified.  What really gets him is that when God suddenly calls the whole thing off, Abraham doesn’t miss a beat.  His understanding of the psychology of resignation, including the idea that if you’ve really resigned yourself you would be kind of upset if you got what you resigned, is pretty convincing in my mind, and so it is genuinely difficult to understand how he could not miss a beat.  Also note: that is what Abraham has in common with the “everyday” knight of faith!  The latter is not convinced of anything morally wrong—he just wants a particular thing for dinner.  When it turns out he doesn’t get to have that for dinner, he doesn’t miss a beat. 

The key, not surprisingly, is not in a particular kind of ethical stance, but in being able to inhabit a situation wherein your horizon of expectation is simply gone.  Lenin hunkering down and institutionalizing everything might be analogous to Abraham saying, “Oh no!  I’m not going to be tricked—God told me to kill Isaac so I’m going to do it!” Or maybe it would be one of the more subtle scenarios in the four vignettes.  In any case, Zizek does think that Lenin, for lack of a better word, wound up failing to maintain the “knight of faith” stance.  Abraham presumably does, which is why he’s the father of faith.  But there really was a period, in Zizek’s understanding, when Lenin seemed to be doing the knight of faith thing.  And if you buy Kierkegaard, someone doing the knight of faith thing is going to be pretty compelling, even if he’s just talking about what he wants for dinner.

Here is something I left out of my account: for both Zizek and Kierkegaard, there is no “meta-ethics.” That is to say, there’s no general ethical horizon outside of each particular culture-bound horizon.  Once you’re out, you’re out—as implied by the use of “religious” as opposed to “ethical.” You can’t be a utilitarian within the religious sphere because you’re outside the sphere within which ends are selected and means are fitted to ends—by whatever calculus, even the crude one of “the ends justify the means.”

(Now this takes us a bit far afield of the original question, but I’d venture to say that the “utilitarian”—in the actual “history of philosophy” sense rather than the “John Holbo tryin to save his argument” sense—is actually in the aesthetic stage, insofar as happiness is an end in itself.  The deontologist is the ethical stage, because that’s the stage where duty is an end in itself.  And if we have to assign an “ethics” to the religious stage, it would be virtue ethics.)

By Adam Kotsko on 01/19/09 at 12:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam R., You don’t have to be a believer at all, just accept the basic tenets of Christianity for the sake of argument.  Here are your options as I see them:
1.  Dismiss the doctrine as mere sophistry. 
2.  Say that no one can possibly believe in a substance/accidents metaphysics—which eliminates a major premise and causes the doctrine to collapse.
3.  Provisionally accept the premise of the substance/accidents thing and attempt to disprove it from within Christian doctrine—many examples of possible approaches exist, as this was obviously a controversial topic.

Pointing out that it’s ridiculous that the doctrine wants to be literal while deploying the substance/accidents schema to make it impervious to empirical disproof is a subspecies of 1, I believe.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/19/09 at 12:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

""You can’t be a utilitarian within the religious sphere because you’re outside the sphere within which ends are selected and means are fitted to ends—by whatever calculus, even the crude one of “the ends justify the means.””

Well, this is officially the story. Kierkegaard doesn’t want it to make sense to think of Abraham as a utilitarian, even in a strained sense. That doesn’t mean he isn’t stuck with with it.

““utilitarian”—in the actual “history of philosophy” sense rather than the “John Holbo tryin to save his argument” sense—is actually in the aesthetic stage, insofar as happiness is an end in itself.”

No. There’s a difference between utilitarianism and being in the aesthetic. Animals live in the aesthetic. They seek satisfaction. They don’t make a judgment that it is good to maximize satisfaction. Utilitarianism is definitely an ethical theory, not an aesthetic stance.

“And if we have to assign an “ethics” to the religious stage, it would be virtue ethics.”

The problem is really: but if we really have to do it, then it’s not the religious stage, after all. It isn’t ‘higher immediacy’. It’s just higher duty, or virtue, or ends justify the means. None of these views will be fully satisying because, officially, none of them can be right, on K’s story. Problem for K.

By John Holbo on 01/19/09 at 12:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The actual meat of that comment was my response to your objection about jazz.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/19/09 at 12:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Are you hinting that I don’t say enough in comments in response to other comments left by other commenters, including yourself?

But very well, no rest for the weary: “And if you buy Kierkegaard, someone doing the knight of faith thing is going to be pretty compelling, even if he’s just talking about what he wants for dinner.”

The problem, I think, is that Kierkegaard thinks you’ll never be sure what you are seeing. So, in fact, the knight of faith will be rather confusing to meet. (Is he an idiot? Is he crazy? What’s his problem?)

I don’t really know what I think about the jazz thing.

By John Holbo on 01/19/09 at 12:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam K: OK, although I don’t agree (would you say believing the sun goes around the earth is ‘mere sophistry’?).  I’d be interested in discussing it: but such discussion would go off the point of this thread, and might annoy you, so I’ll let it go.

By Adam Roberts on 01/19/09 at 12:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, I do think that my own ideas about how the jazz metaphor works are worth addressing.  But whatever: at this point, do you concede that there’s at least some possibility of drawing an analogy between a certain part of Lenin’s career and the Kierkegaardian knight of faith?  Before you seemed to be going on the idea that it’s just impossible, so the only way to proceed was to plug in your own common sense version of Lenin and then watch as Zizek’s argument fell to pieces.  Now I’ve given you the positive vision of a Kierkegaardian Lenin.  You don’t have to accept that that’s how Lenin really was in real life.  Just tell me if you think the position I laid out is a position that a human being could conceivably have.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/19/09 at 12:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Geocentrism as a theory isn’t making empirical claims while being designed so as to be impervious to empirical disproof, so the parallel isn’t very helpful, I don’t think.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/19/09 at 12:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Kotsko writes:

“The key, not surprisingly, is not in a particular kind of ethical stance, but in being able to inhabit a situation wherein your horizon of expectation is simply gone.”

It seems to me that “inhabit[ing] a situation wherein your horizon of expectation is simply gone” just *is* a “kind of ethical stance” (as you put it). Or, at least, it is not obvious that abandoning one’s normal expectations in the service of a powerful but unverifiable calling could not be itself described as an ethical stance. Socrates’ daemon and all that. 

Contra Holbo, however, such “flying blind,” and “improvisatory” behavior is not intelligibly described as a species of pragmatism, without widening the scope of the latter concept beyond recognition.

More generally, I am a fan of conceptual categorization as much as the next guy, but I take it Zizek-Kotsko is interested in this “moment” of Lenin’s development precisely to the extent that it is not reducible to already existent ethical categories. 

Now, I understand Holbo’s point that Zizek-Kotsko *claiming* this about Lenin does not make it so, but it seems to me that Holbo could do a better-- more charitable--job of attempting to engage this description of Lenin from the inside-out, rather than quickly reducing it to one or another already identifiable positions (utilitarian, pragmatic, etc.)--positions the conceptual adequacy of which the whole “experience” of Lenin is supposed to call into question.

By on 01/19/09 at 01:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My point would be (this is me not ‘letting it go’, obviously) there are other ways of addressing transubstantiation beyond the three you mention.  One other way for example would be to historicise it.  So, lining up the claims in the Bible with the way the world works has occupied a lot of people.  For example, the Bible says Joshua makes the sun stand still in the sky at Gibeon.  God can do that (He can do anything); but it makes a lot more sense if you believe the sun goes round the Earth.  When the Catholic church suppressed Copernicus’s writings and persecuted Galileo they weren’t just being ornery for the sake of it; they were defending the fit between what they said God was about and the way the world works.  But actually it turns out the world doesn’t work that way, so the fit isn’t literal the way they claimed.

The idea of transubstantiation as a literal phenomena is surely not ‘designed so as to be impervious to empirical disproof’; rather theologians explained what was going on (what Jesus specifically says happens) in terms of the physics of their day.  It is possible to ‘read’ transubstantiation, even from within a Christian perspective, as a way of articulating a shift in worldviews that gets blurred by invoking ‘mystery’ in a vague, non-technical sense.

By Adam Roberts on 01/19/09 at 02:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That is another approach that I hadn’t thought of.  It still arguably results in the doctrine itself being sophistry or sleight of hand.

(I would note, more or less as an aside, that transubstantiation appears to be the only aspect of Catholic doctrine that relies on the traditional notions of substance and accidents—the use of “substance” in the doctrines of Trinity and Christology seems to me to be pretty far removed from the classical philosophical usage, to the point where it becomes just kind of a placeholder word.)

By Adam Kotsko on 01/19/09 at 02:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A clarification/correction: the doctrine wasn’t designed so as to make physical proof impossible; it was designed to take into account the fact that no physical change in fact occurs.  Once it’s established, however, the end result is that the doctrine is formulated in such a way that no physical disproof is possible.

(If you want my personal opinion on the doctrine, on the level of “theology” rather than my own “personal faith,” I don’t understand what it can possibly be saying other than, “We are actually correct, in a strong sense, to call the bread and wine that have gone through this particular ritual process the body and blood of Christ.” It uses fancy terminology that ultimately amounts to bald assertion.  And part of the rules of this language game is that the elements are not to leave the liturgical context in which they can be treated as the body and blood of Christ.  So it’s not just that no scientific proof is possible—it’s that the elements’ status as body and blood make taking them to a lab and submitting them to tests grossly inappropriate.)

By Adam Kotsko on 01/19/09 at 03:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Religion wants to make truth claims, but ultimately it’s a losing game because it will always be outgunned by empirical reality itself.  The best justifications for religion end up being pragmatic ones, ones that don’t depend on empiricism.  But religion cannot admit that it is pragmatic and utilitarian, just one more comforting fiction among others, because then its metaphors are just metaphors, suggestions, which though only suggestions, we hope you take seriously, to paraphrase John Ashbery.  In the academic humanities, all theoretical systems have become purely analogical, metaphorical, theological.  (Nobody really believes in Lacan in the strong sense, for example.) Zizek’s constituency is among liberal academics who don’t really take him seriously, who view him as the source of convenient metaphors.

Ultimately, if Leninism is just some theological metaphor, then who cares?  Nothing is at stake in the debate any longer.  It becomes an argument about who has the more compelling narrative, who is a “strong poet” in the Bloom/Rorty sense.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 01/19/09 at 03:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Here are a couple of broad thoughts about the shape the conversation is taking in my view.  The first is on the relatively narrow question of whether Zizek is misinterpreting Kierkegaard.  On the one hand, John seems to view it as problematic that Lenin seems reducible to a given ethical stance.  Yet on the other hand, he seems to view this as a problem inherent to Kierkegaard’s thought.  If Zizek is falling into the same problem as Kierkegaard, that would seem to be evidence in favor of Zizek getting Kierkegaard right (i.e., being wrong in the same way that Kierkegaard is wrong, presumably). 

A further consideration, and one that I think touches back on my use of a mutated notion of risk freed from calculation (which of course is not much like the risk we normally think of)—what Zizek is trying to get at with his isolation of a particular moment in Lenin’s career is something that resists conceptualization, as wj has pointed out.  At least some strains of theological language—and here I’d include Kierkegaard—are devoted to coming up with ways of talking about things that resist conceptualization.  Hence it’s understandable that Zizek would draw on theological styles of thought.  (Of course, this gets into very broad questions of what theology really is, which are always difficult because there will always be people who think that theology is fundamentally about believing stupid things with no evidence, etc., which seems to me to describe extremely crass forms of belief that all actual theologians would reject as inadequate or uninformed and that I would venture are probably only held by a very small but very loud portion of the religious population.)

By Adam Kotsko on 01/19/09 at 04:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan Mayhew’s comment appeared after mine, but seems to provide evidence for the point I make in the final parenthetical.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/19/09 at 04:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I would never say it’s about believing stupid things without evidence.  I’d say it’s more about developing specious arguments for believing (or not) things (stupid or not; that’s not my word) for which there can be, by definition, no real evidence.  I take it for granted that real theologians are too intelligent to actually hold (most) the beliefs for which they argue.  Maybe I’m wrong to assume that people teaching theology are mostly agnostics, who, with the classic defense mechanism of “splitting,” can look with obvious contempt at the “crass forms of belief” of actual believers.  If you are smart enough to be a theologian these days, you know your own belief is a wholly contingent matter, metaphorical through and through.  After all, you’re not so dumb as to be crass and literal.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 01/19/09 at 04:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So according to Jonathan Mayhew religion makes truth claims that don’t measure up to “empirical reality”. Empirical reality is adequately accounted for by “empiricism”. And since it is obvious that the rejection of empiricism entails pragmatism, religious arguments are all ultimately pragmatic.  Unless they are utilitarian, which amounts to the same thing. Or fictions.  Or metaphors. But none of this matters because, quote, “all theoretical systems have become purely analogical, metaphorical, theological,"--these three terms of course being synonymous--and so we should all just head to the gym and write limericks with Dick and Harry.

By on 01/19/09 at 04:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s rare for me to actually follow through on such declarations, but I think it’s safe to say that further dialogue with Jonathan is not going to be helpful to me or anyone.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/19/09 at 05:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Mayhew’s writings on theology are either incoherent or are brilliant parodies of incoherence.

I enjoy especially the suggestion that contingent beliefs are to be parsed as metaphors.

By on 01/19/09 at 05:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, I view religion as a supreme fiction.  Its value is in how well it works; that’s pragmatism. Historically, it has retreated in the face of empirical knowledge about reality, claiming that’s not its game, but it still wants to make the ultimate truth claims.  It is contingent in Rorty’s sense, but it still wants to be absolute.

It is utilitarian in that is sacrifices an ethical principle (telling the truth about its own contingency) for the “greater good,” its pragmatic benefits.  There’s a huge amount of cynicism in condemning the crassness of other people’s stupid beliefs, from the School of Theology.  What makes one religious belief less crass than another?  What are the grounds of argument?  Is crassness an aesthetic, an ethical, or a religious criterion? 

I am probably not the ideal interlocutor for anyone, I agree wholeheartedly!  Once I start posting a flame war is inevitable.  I would not answer my posts if I were you.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 01/19/09 at 06:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Yet on the other hand, he seems to view this as a problem inherent to Kierkegaard’s thought.  If Zizek is falling into the same problem as Kierkegaard, that would seem to be evidence in favor of Zizek getting Kierkegaard right (i.e., being wrong in the same way that Kierkegaard is wrong, presumably).”

Presumably, this is what Holbo means by his being “on the hook” to say why Kierkegaard isn’t wrong, whereas Zizek is. Why Kierkegaard is only apparently reducible to a given ethical stance, while Lenin is actually so reducible. Though it does seem to show that Zizek is, on Holbo’s view, misreading Kierkegaard in a way that one can plausibly misread him. (I suppose the plausibility of the misreading will have to come out in his vindication of Kierkegaard, for which he is presently on the hook.)

By Daniel Lindquist on 01/19/09 at 06:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And if I were you, I would not write them.

Signing off.

By on 01/19/09 at 06:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, I gotta do something else today, but here’s something, then you probably won’t hear from me again for a day or so:

“But whatever: at this point, do you concede that there’s at least some possibility of drawing an analogy between a certain part of Lenin’s career and the Kierkegaardian knight of faith?  Before you seemed to be going on the idea that it’s just impossible, so the only way to proceed was to plug in your own common sense version of Lenin and then watch as Zizek’s argument fell to pieces.”

I never denied that analogies were possible. One of the biggest problems Adam K. had with my paper was, precisely, that I drew analogies between possible revolutionary lifestyles and K.’s knight. I called my revolutionary ‘Stalin’, but he wasn’t the real one, of course. Adam didn’t like him one bit, which was fine. But good old Stalin should have established my bona fides as a monger of analogies between K. and Lenin.

I also plead innocent to plugging in common sense notions and letting things just fall apart. I was plugging in Kierkegaardian notions and Leninist notions and, whatever they may be accused of, neither of them is commonsensical. Quite the opposite.

I think what I am guilty of is abstaining from the making of stone soup on behalf of Zizek. I noted that, in itself, the Lenin-Kierkegaard thing was not going to do it. I think that has to be an important and even necessary first step. If you don’t just say that, you are never going to be clear about the situation. It is significant that, to make any sense of K-L, you have to go a long way from both Lenin and Kierkegaard. Zizek doesn’t acknowledge this or say a lot about it. That is, Kotsko’s Zizekian philosophy is not to be found in the pages of Zizek, I think, although no doubt you can find inchoate glimmers of it.

Kotsko looks to me to be attempting major reconstructive surgery, which is fine. But I don’t take it to have been my job to do that, to start with.

From my point of view, then, the usefulness of this thread came when Adam realized that he actually was under some obligation to provide a positive sketch of what the Zizekian alternative to my bad-looking interpretations were. The sense that he could object to me on some small ground (if you aren’t assuming A, you can’t proceed to B) was due to not seeing the structure of my argument.

In response to this, Adam K is more than welcome to say: look, actually Holbo should have seen all the Kotskoesque stuff in the very pages of Zizek himself. That would be interesting, if true. Maybe I did miss it. But I sort of doubt it. We can have that discussion if you like.

Now, I expect where we will go from here is: but haven’t we been shown that K and Z are actually fairly close together. Z has problems, but so does K? Yes. At this point I would say: the things about K that make him interesting, rather than just insane (in my opinion) on the subject of religion are the highly specific things he has to say about eternity-in-time and the doctrine of the Incarnation.

K is interesting on religion for the way he treats it as a solution to the old Woody Allen joke about ‘the food is so bad - yes, and the portions are so small’. How do you deal, ethically, with despair. With the feeling that life isn’t worth living - and then you die? Kierkegaard’s answer is inherently mystical. He was quite right to say that really his view was inherently Christian. Because the idea that God becomes man, and dies, yet is eternal, is at the center of it. I don’t believe any of that, but I find it a fascinating and strange view. And I don’t think it has any analogy with Zizek, or with any strategy for revolutionary politics. So the things that keep K’s view from just being insane and uninteresting have no analog in Z., so far as I can see. Obviously I would have to defend this view at length to make it compelling, but that is my view. I have made down payments.

http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/fear_and_trembling_and_the_incarnation/

Kotsko said: isn’t it interesting that Fear and Trembling isn’t about the Incarnation, yet it is about faith. Holbo: you can’t read Fear and Trembling except as a careful framing of the centrality of the doctrine of Incarnation. He and I disagree about that. It’s a Kierkegaard argument. Probably we disagree about other stuff, too.

By John Holbo on 01/19/09 at 10:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, quick point about the jazz thing: it’s too vague (not that I couldn’t cease to be, with a bit of work). And, importantly, jazz improvisation is not really a good example of totally transcending all rule structures. It’s a matter of being creative within certain bounds. Improvisation does not have the same relation to musical ‘rules’ that K’s ethics allegedly do to K’s faith. When you are improvising, you actually aren’t ‘flying blind’. But it is crucially important that the Lenin case be a strong case of that, I take it.

The thing that works about the jazz analogy is that there is something aesthetic about the Lenin case, allegedly. (For better or worse.)

By John Holbo on 01/19/09 at 11:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

How worthless this whole conversation was, then.  All this work, all this rereading of your article, all this supplying of everything you asked of me, all to be told: Nope, sorry, I still think what I thought all along.  “Kotsko’s Zizekian philosophy is not to be found in the pages of Zizek, I think, although no doubt you can find inchoate glimmers of it”—I’m sorry, but that feels insulting to me.  You wanted to know in detail what the underlying logic of Zizek’s position on Lenin is—I supplied it, as an expert on Zizek, particularly the theological angles on his thought.  And you just glibly get to dismiss it.  Awesome.  I do all the work, and you get to fucking dismiss it with a lordly gesture.

Why should I have expected anything else, based on my past experience with you?  It’s unclear.  Hope springs eternal, I suppose.  But I feel I’ve been ill used here.  You’ve lost a lot of credibility as a dialogue partner in my view.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/20/09 at 12:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I mean seriously—is the problem that my view was relatively clear and coherent, so there’s no way it could be Zizek?  Because it sounds a lot like Zizek to me.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/20/09 at 12:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"is the problem that my view was relatively clear and coherent, so there’s no way it could be Zizek?”

No, of course not. (Don’t just bury your head in the sand and refuse to listen to what I’m saying.)

OK, step back. I’m genuinely surprised and disappointed that you are insulted by the last bit. I think you are over-sensitive and standing on your own authority in an unreasonable way. Because you can hardly expect that, as a condition of debating with you, that I can guarantee, in advance, to agree that you are right and I am wrong. Very often it doesn’t go that way. Very often it goes WELL without going that way.

You DID end up by supplying me with everything I asked for, in a formal sense. Yes. Namely, you finally consented to give a positive sketch of a alternative to my picture of bad old Zizek. For which I am grateful. I thought that was actually pretty interesting. You will note how non-attack-y I was at that point, as promised. But a promise to be non-attack-y is not a promise to purchase, sight unseen. And, indeed I cannot buy it because: 1) I think it’s sort of a strain to see what you see in Zizek. 2) I don’t think it’s all that compelling, in itself, as a view. I regard the combination of somewhat strained reading with not so attractive in the end (in my view) as not a great advertisement for the philosophy. You are a Zizekian. Fine. I am not.

There isn’t anything glib about this. I am stating my honest opinion: when I read Zizek, I don’t see the thing Adam K. just sketched, although I am glad you sketched it for me. Let me actually PROVE that I am not glibly dismissing you: you can try to refute me. It is in the nature of what I have claimed that it can be usefully responded to. You can show (IF you can) that, not only is this a more plausible view than I saw in Zizek, but that the more plausible one is readily extractable from the text. We haven’t been quoting the text in this thread. But if it frackin matters to you so all-fired much that this position is really there in the text, not just something you were inspired to think by the text, you could, potentially, bolster your position with quotes from Zizek to show that what you say is already there, plain as day. Being a reasonable person, I am - well, not happy, but willing - to listen to evidence that I have read Zizek wrongly.

I think you need to decide which of two goals you are aiming at: 1) showing that there is some terrible procedural flaw in Holbo’s paper, such that it can be dismissed as containing a cripplingly incoherent central argument. 2) presenting a Zizekian philosophy, for the consideration of those who might be interested in it. I’m glad you’ve done 2). But I am skeptical that you can achieve 1). And it’s certainly a mistake to think that doing 2) is tantamount to doing 1). Showing that there is some way to make sense of something is not the same as proving that someone was an idiot to miss it. Also, I would have thought that 2) was ultimately more important than 1). I am surprised that you apparently regard the achievement of 2), without 1) as a waste of time. (Don’t you find your picture of Zizek interesting? I do, for what it’s worth.)

And I am most surprised that you are so bitter about this ‘as an expert on Zizek’ stuff. It seems to me frankly ridiculous. What if I told you that, as a person who has published an article, as an assistant professor of philosophy talking to a mere graduate student in theology ... Would you meekly stand down? Of course not.

Finally, as to ‘that feels insulting to me’: would you really find it interesting if I were to catalogue all the times, on this blog, that people have made responses to things I have written that ‘feel insulting to me’? You think THIS thread is long?

Do you think I DON’T feel mildly insulted, for example, by the very fact that you keep insisting there’s some feature of my paper in virtue of which it can be dismissed rather than taken seriously? Yes, of course I do. You’re saying that something I think is good is not merely bad but idiotic. Do I say you shouldn’t say such things, just because this is so? No, of course not. Maybe you are right that I’ve made a mistake. I have to hear you out, even if it will be slightly annoying if you are right, and I will feel a bit of an ass for having clung to a confused position so long. IF you are right of course.

Sheesh.

By John Holbo on 01/20/09 at 02:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

So I feel unfairly dismissed and frankly as though you have made up your mind that you can never concede even the smallest point—and your solution is that I should spend my time combing through On Belief in order to provide you with more fodder to say, “Sorry, no”?  Do you think of me as a character in a Kafka novel?

By Adam Kotsko on 01/20/09 at 10:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Also, I will note that the reason I was so reluctant to present Zizek’s positive view is that in a previous thread on AUFS, I had already laid out the exact same view.  I still hold that it actually is Zizek’s view.  And just for the sake of argument—if it is in fact Zizek’s view, then you really have substituted your own view for Zizek’s, meaning that my critique of your article is correct.  All the stuff about how liberalism is preferable, how he’s not telling liberals anything they don’t already know, etc., could still stand, but the core argument about how he messes up Kierkegaard based on your own personal reading of Lenin cannot.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/20/09 at 10:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam. You have read “On Belief”. I have read “On Belief”. You have a positive view of “On Belief”. Which I only managed to extract from you with difficulty, but which I listened to, and with, I hope, some evidence of my sincere interest. But then I say:

‘that’s sort of interesting. (Thanks for sharing.) But I don’t find it all that plausible as a philosophy, and I don’t really see it in the text, except maybe just a little bit. I suspect you are really being inspired by the text more than you are taking stuff out of it. Point me to the bits that you think support this reading.’

And that was an intolerable affront to your superior dignity and philosophical personage?

Should you spend your time combing through “On Belief” in order to try to convince me you are right? I honestly don’t know. It depends. Is it important to you to convince me that this view is well supported by the text? If not, then I don’t see why you care that I disagree with you.

If it IS important to you, isn’t it nuts to think that you could convince me of what the text says any other way than by pointing to some feature of the text?

But it will be a lot of work to quote the text!

Yes, probably, but no one is holding a gun to your head, forcing you to believe it’s important to make Holbo believe that this is not merely a possible view of Zizek, but a textually well-supported one at that.

“So I feel unfairly dismissed”. When you haven’t EVEN been dismissed.

Sorry, it’s not a Kafka story you are thinking about at all. It’s Dostoyevsky, “Notes From Underground”.

By John Holbo on 01/20/09 at 11:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Now you’re even dismissing my feelings of being dismissed!  Maybe we can set up an infinite regress problem here, if we haven’t already.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/20/09 at 11:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

No, I’m figuring that if I am going to be accused of causing feelings of unfair dismissal, I ought to at least have the fun of feeling feelings of dismissing fairly. In compensation.

Fair is fair.

This is a form of ‘calling shenanigans’, for those keeping score at home.

By John Holbo on 01/20/09 at 11:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, it’s important to set the record straight for the hundreds of people reading this entire 200+ comment thread.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/20/09 at 11:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Speaking of which. What must the angels be thinking?

By John Holbo on 01/20/09 at 11:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Emo, actually.  When the teenager slams the door, sometimes the only thing to do yell “Yes, I am a fascist!” and then laugh.

By on 01/20/09 at 11:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich’s comment has made me double my initial estimate of who’s actually reading this thread other than me and John.  (Before, I assumed it was just a Google bot.)

By Adam Kotsko on 01/20/09 at 11:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam K., you clearly have a mental model of how John is going to respond by now, right?  So of course you must enjoy doing this over and over.  Why else would you do it?

By on 01/20/09 at 12:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I actually think it will take years of psychoanalysis to really get to the bottom of it.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/20/09 at 12:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Boo!

(Did I scare you.)

By John Holbo on 01/20/09 at 12:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Seems to me that since the liberal-humanist novel has run its natural course, and postmodern experiments have failed to find a popular alternative paradigm, threads like this are the future of fiction. It’s got everything.  I laughed, I cried, I was on the edge of my seat.  All it needs now is some spaceships or something and I’ll be delirious.

By Adam Roberts on 01/20/09 at 01:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In the “or something” category I nominate Aretha’s hat:

http://blogs.tnr.com/tnr/blogs/the_plank/archive/2009/01/20/what-a-hat.aspx

By Bill Benzon on 01/20/09 at 03:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Come on folks, surely we can get this thread to the 200 mark. It’s so close!

By on 01/20/09 at 03:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This should be comment #195.

By Bill Benzon on 01/20/09 at 05:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m bitterly disappointed that this thread has well beaten the 164 comments for John’s “Sign of a Sign?” post.

I’m also bitterly disappointed that John doesn’t post things about Derrida anymore…

By on 01/20/09 at 08:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You can’t push these things. They have to take their natural course.

Like a flower growing.

By John Holbo on 01/20/09 at 10:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Or like a glower, flowing.

By on 01/20/09 at 11:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

How true!

By John Holbo on 01/20/09 at 11:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I was impressed by this thread because after the initial, predictable flame war’s cathartic effect allowed a day or two of actual progress to be made, the thread lasted long enough for a small second one—the “Jonathan M. should be told not to have dialogue—with anyone!” bit.  Or maybe three, with the final spat.

By on 01/21/09 at 12:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

200!

By Bill Benzon on 01/21/09 at 05:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Okay I think the only answer is a group hug (actual group huh, in person, if any of y’all can’t afford it then some foundation should fund the plane tickets) followed by getting back to talking about Rorty.

Or the Valve could start moderating comments.

By on 01/22/09 at 03:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Because you seem interested in your audience:

We, the tiny undergraduates of theory classes are often assigned the task of haunting such sights as these to see…

how the professionals do it…

such interesting fodder you provide…

I will only be able to inform you which one of you is right, (if either, or possibly both)...

after I consult Zizek a bit more and, of course, Dostoyevsky at our usual stammtisch.

Be well...and await patiently my answer...I anticipate a seven year run at my PhD.

By on 03/12/09 at 12:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Gosh.

Those in theory classes are told to read things like this thread?

How long, I wonder, before someone writes a Ph.D. dissertation about a blog post?

By John Holbo on 03/12/09 at 01:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Indeed, in contemporary theory, we try to see what the grown ups are talking about.  I think we call it something wonderful like...entering the discourse of our chosen occupation.

Blogs are useful when you (I) want to talk about the “chatter” out there--I’ll touch on a conversation in a paper and then bring my research into more “academically acceptable” resources.  Blogs are also useful for finding new avenues to explore for research.  Well, and sometimes, they are simply entertaining--especially when the bloggers are clever English pomos.

We also follow ATEG--American Teachers of English Grammar--which, funny enough, is often a great deal more heated than the theorists’ logs.  Grammarians can be incredibly witty and horribly cruel at times.

A cohort asked me what the usefulness of theory that appears to have very little cultural significance (and by that I mean--value--that which helps us to better know ourselves and therefore fix ourselves)can be.  I’m sure you (the collective you) must have threads on such a general topic.  Since you seem to be reading this--can you readily think of one?  I can search for one myself (really)--just thought you may know of an interesting thread (here) about it.

Be well.

By on 03/12/09 at 03:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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