Video lecture on Kierkegaard and Agamben

This video is a recording of a paper presented at a conference dvoted to Søren Kierkegaard at the University of Gdansk, Poland, in April 2013. The paper discusses the notion of leaps that we find in Kierkegaard and makes links to Pascal and the recent work of Giorgio Agamben on power. The key question is how it is that we find ourselves unable to act meaningfully in the present conjuncture.

Video lecture by Torgeir Fjeld on Kierkegaard, Pascal and Agamben

Private language

There’s two things that’s exactly right and one thing that’s possibly more questionable about the private language argument posed by Edmund Gordon in his article “Biography in the Twitter age” posted on The Times Literary Supplement on November 14, 2016. Let’s first recount briefly what Wittgenstein — UK’s philosopher of language and logic — said about private languages (see also the post here).

Essentially, Wittgenstein held that the notion that it is possible to generate a language that is truly private is absurd. For instance, in §241 of Philosophical Investigations he notes that,

“So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?”—It is what human beings say that is true and false; and they agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in form of life.
While contract theory would have it that we freely enter into agreements with each other with regard to what words mean, what is true, how the world is put together, and so on, Wittgenstein here clearly takes exception from such an approach. Rather, it is not so much perceptions of the world that are true or not, but how those perceptions are uttered. In other words, truth is a characteristic of language, and agreement is achieved in language. And yet, the parties are not private entities, since their agreements are achieved not on the level of voluntary contract, but as a constellation of forms of life.
Further, in §246, he asks
In what sense are my sensations private? —Well, only I can know whether I am really in pain; another person can only surmise it.—In one way this is wrong, and in another nonsense. If we are using the word “to know” as it is normally used (and how else are we to use it?), then other people very often know when I am in pain.
Here, Wittgenstein underlines the extent to which language is a requirement for perception. If what we are perceiving is someone else’s emotion, then we are guessing or inferring in so far as we do not have spoken affirmation to rely on. If W sees someone with a pained expression, he cannot be certain that this person is indeed in pain until it is verbally confirmed, in the view proposed in §246.
Can W know it himself, in a way that only he knows? What Wittgenstein shows in the so-called Private Language argument is that such a question implies something else than simply whether someone hides or does not communicate his thoughts. In order to speak of a language that is private it would be necessary to posit an entire vocabulary, sets of grammatical rules, etc., that would be known only to the person whose language it was the property.
What if W sought to make a language of his own by each time he had a particular emotion writing down the letter S? Wittgenstein counters this suggestion by noting how it would not be possible to affirm — even to oneself — that it was precisely the same emotion W encountered, so that the letter S could come to signify any number of different feelings.
Now, to examine more closely the argument proposed by Gordon regarding autobiography in the Twitter age, we should keep in mind Wittgenstein’s complex approach to the notion of private. Let’s first look at two senses in which Gordon is right:

1. The private has usurped the public

In his survey of the technological impact on the genre of autobiography, Gordon notes that
Among the main qualities and duties of contemporary biography is the way it measures the distance between a subject’s public and private selves – and if people don’t regularly take the measure of themselves in writing any more, that may no longer be possible.
What Gordon surely means here is that as we post more on Twitter and such like, we conceivably write less for ourselves, i.e., in private diaries, journals, etc., so that the entirety of our written production becomes immediately public. It’s an apt observation, and it is further supported by Gordon’s point that
If we’re always performing for an external audience, then the distance between our private and public selves will surely shrink.
We should remind ourselves of two kinds of historical arguments regarding the distinction between the public and the private spheres here, both of which render Gordon’s point as correct. Hannah Arendt noted that what we are experiencing today is the usurpation of the private domain of the public domain, so that the public arena is increasingly approached as if it was an extension of our household. In this view, the distinction between private and public is obsolete, and anything that happens “at home” immediately occurs in public. The recent proliferation of questions regarding private photos, sharing of information that doesn’t really belong to the public on the internet, and so on, belong to this category. Have we forgotten that what we post on the internet no longer belongs to the private sphere?

2. The public has usurped the private

A second sense in which Gordon is right is rendered by recounting the recent politically motivated research into what goes on in the household under the rubric “the private is public.” In this view, it is an oppressive order that maintains the distinction between private and public, and — as the argument goes — it is in the interest of the oppressed to abolish the distinction. There is nothing that goes on in the household that shouldn’t immediately be considered public acts. According to this kind of action research — politically motivated scholarship that seeks to change the order of the world — it is a good thing that, as Gordon notes, “the distance between our private and public selves” have shrunk. In this manner, it will be more challenging for the dominant and oppressive keepers of the household to keep their acts from public view.

The ideal invention here would be the contraption authored by Eric Blair in his momentous 1949 novel, where it is no longer the private citizens who watch television, but the television who observes the private citizens. Nothing — in this rendition of the world — remains private.

3. Is there a truly private language?

Now, let’s finally consider one sense Gordon’s view is a bit more challenging. In order to understand this sense, it is necessary to review the remarks on Wittgenstein above. Given that W asserts how we cannot arrive at a truly private language, it is necessary to make such a language in the presence of some instance that in some way is external to us. Let’s call this instance the Law-Issuing Instance. We can conceivably construct a language under the aegis of such an instance, debating with ourselves — our Law-Issuing Instance — whether or not we have truly encountered that same emotion as when we previously identified a feeling with the inscription of the letter S. However — and this is the crucial point — if this were the case, we would not be truly alone, i.e., in the private, when we made up the language.


“George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne,” etching. Courtesy of the Yale University Manuscripts & Archives Digital Images Database, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Public domain.

In fact, would not the true horror scenario be a situation where we would be bereaved of our Law-Issuing Instance? It is such a horror that is suggested — and we believe wrongly — by Gordon’s notion of an evaporation of the boundary between private and public. It is in this sense it is possible to say that there never really was a private writing situation, since each entry in a diary or journal was always accompanied by an instance that — however made up by our selves — remains external to us. The crucial point is that this notion of writing in the presence of an Other does not entail the eradication of the private sphere. It simply means that we are never truly alone: there is always someone there that, as George Berkeley held it, watches over us.


After the Prince was torn away in tragic circumstances
Our debt to him could only be settled by uncovering the cause

In a spectral apparition the Prince said:
“Find out the reason for the tragedy,
and you will know your true friends.”

Only by gathering evidence could we put him to rest
And the evidence was written on his body.

(Illustration: Patrycja Wrocławska, used by permission)

Dressage and illusio

What should we make of the terms dressage and illusio in the context of sports?

Dressage is a way to make bodies submit, to domesticate and somatise, so that they can be governed and mastered. In sport dressage takes place silently: the skills required for practical mastery are often transmitted without words, and there is a knowledge of sport that never reaches the level of conscious awareness. This is why dressage entails a form of belief: through social orchestration we are led to accept what we would otherwise have considered ill-founded, since, as Pierre Bourdieu noted, “belief is what the body concedes even when the mind says no.”


Pierre Bourdieu

The term illusio has three senses. First, it describes how participants are seduced as they get involved in the game.  It is a necessary component in the acquisition of mastery: the required immersion in the game seduces the player to forget that it’s “only a game,” and that, as a game, it always holds within itself the possibility of referring to something else. The capacity of sports to pose analogous relations to other forms of activity is what is brought out through the aristocratic disposition of disinterest — of not becoming too involved. The amateur ideal highlighted such relations, and regarded sports primarily as a physical art-for-art’s sake. The demise of amateurism and the attendant rise of sports as spectacles deeply affects our potentiality to unmask the illusio of physical activity.

Second, illusio indicates the effects of a society that is orchestrated through mass mediated spectacles. It is in this sense that we can say that major sports events provide fantasies that serve to regulate desire on the level of populations. It is the ritual character of sports that seduces us to invest a libidinal energy that can be garnered in the service of governance.

In the third sense, illusio shows the distinction between everyday and scientific interpretations of spectacles. To Bourdieu, illusio “directs the gaze toward the apparent producer” –- painter, composer, writer, or sports performer –- “and prevents us asking who created this ‘creator’ and the magic power of transubstantiation with which the ‘creator’ is endowed.” This is how audiences are kept in a state of awe by spectacular sports: through the effects of illusio fans are given to ascribe supernatural powers to characters they know only from mediatised events, and it is this mechanism that prevent viewers from uncovering the illusion and objectifying the fantasmatic.

The study Dressage and illusio: sport, nation and the new global body enquires into the ways nationalism and the forces of globalisation govern us through sport. It is presently available through ( More information is available here.

New poem in translation

Snow can cover things up, bury people and objects, draw a blanket over the dead, turn darkness into whiteness, alter the light. Here’s a translation of a historical poem on a situation that was contemporary to the poet, Göran Sonnevi, and that would lead to mass upheavals and significant shifts in how we thought about our relations. We are compelled to ask about the legacy of recent armed interventions and what the future holds. Read the poem here: Poetry


Photo courtesy of Poetry Foundation.

Nietzsche’s rejection of happiness

Nietzsche makes no secret of that it is Schopenhauer — Europe’s great pessimist — that is his true and most magnificent teacher. It is from him that Nietzsche got his idea of the will as essential to man and his existence, and it is against Schopenhauer that Nietzsche can finally announce the end of all values, or, to put it more precisely, the zero-point of morality that has as its entailment the transvaluation of all hitherto acknowledges values.

Let’s begin from the beginning: the question of the will. To Kant the world as it appears to us had a dark and hidden underside, what he referred to as the noumenon. Behind the phenomena were this entity, shrouded in darkness and knowable only as negation. To speculate about the noumenon, Kant believed, was tantamount to delving in metaphysics, and this was something Kant would advice strongly against.

To Schopenhauer things were different. While he acknowledges the division between the world as it is experienced and some hidden core or essence to this world, the noumenon was not beyond speculation. In fact, the noumenon was renderable as will. Hidden behind everything we see — the representations of our world — is a world-governing will, and the will manifests itself in people, but also in animals, in organic matter — trees, grass, plants — and even in dead objects: planets moving through space is governed by will. There isn’t anything morally laudable or desirable in the will — it’s on the level of what later philosophers would refer to as an existential facticity.

It is only with Nietzsche that the will takes on the appearance of something that is in itself beneficial. In his Genealogy of Morals he critiques Schopenhauer for claiming to have found an essence to ethics: the pessimist held that our ability to experience compassion lay at the core of our morality. It is this claim that Nietzsche cannot endure. The will, Nietzsche held, doesn’t rely on any preconceived ethical core. Not even compassion or happiness can hold that position. Instead, the will is nourished by that which supports and strengthens the will itself.

Such considerations tend to turn curious travellers away from Nietzsche: should life have some ethical core or daimonic goal? Commentators have claimed that Nietzsche’s will to power has to do with the kind of self-preservation that was hailed by biologists and 19th Century social critics influenced by Darwin. Such readings of Nietzsche should be complemented with a fuller understanding of what it is that Nietzsche’s Superman — the Ubermench — is above or beyond. And the answer is not other people or some such, but values that have been received as essential without being subjected to the kind of trans-valuation prescribed by Nietzsche.

To Nietzsche the essence of life lay not in “self-preservation,” but in a self-transcending enhancement. Valuable are those moments that supports, furthers, and awakens the enhancement of life.

Ginsberg on Miłosz on Ginsberg

America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies.
America I used to be a communist when I was a kid, I’m not sorry.

Allen Ginsberg, America

Did I fulfill what I had to do, here, on earth?

Czesław Miłosz, One more contradiction

There’s a wonderful moment in Czesław Miłosz’ well-known tribute To Allen Ginsberg when the reader is given to wonder if all Miłosz retained from his engagement with Ginsberg’s poetry was a figure prone to psychiatry, illicit substances and rebel posturing.

It is not so.

What abscones Ginsberg is his refusal of the ironic gesture so prevalent in today’s conversation. It is the “demure smiles of ironists [that] are preserved in the museums, not as everlasting art.” We understand that Miłosz exempted Ginsberg from this fault: his was an art of belief.

Did Ginsberg comment on Miłosz? Read closely his most cherished poem America. In it you will find portrayals of events and movements that shaped the world of Miłosz, albeit from — as it were — the opposite direction. When Ginsberg gives voice to his sentimentality about members of the Industrial Workers of the World — the “Wobblies” — these were types that governed the land Miłosz had renounced.

Their perspective can be nothing but divergent: when Ginsberg find freedom in Carl Solomon’s Howl, Miłosz cannot but be reminded of the way psychiatry was a tool for political oppression in Eastern Europe. Where Miłosz longs for institutions that can buttress a tradition beyond the grasp of immediate political gains, Ginsberg seeks anarchy and spontaneity.

Where Miłosz’ conservatism becomes a call for civilization, Ginsberg prophesizes a freedom that can bear nothing old, nothing lasting.

There is nevertheless one thing they agree on: there is truth, and there is truth in art.