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

Some recent publications

“Out of time, or Anderson’s national temporality revisited” in Networking Knowledges, vol. 9, no. 1, 2016.

This peer-reveiwed paper discusses, among other things, the notion of Messianic time (Walter Benjamin), which is to be understood as a temporality where the moment of redemption is an ever-present potentiality. First, it can be considered as a psychological time, or a mind time, that is governed by traumatic encounters. This sense of time is rendered as a strictly logical time in the work of Jacques Lacan. Second, it is a time of grace, in the sense that it is governed by necessity. Blaise Pascal and the Jansenists went to great length to refute the dominant notion of grace as sufficient. If there is an instance that determines events, then the means by which this instance governs can only be a necessary cause. Finally, the work of Benedict Anderson, and particularly a later article in his corpus, is reconsidered. Here, Anderson argues that the effects of globalization have to some extent rendered the temporal linearity of nationalism obsolete. It is therefore apt to consider what a time after nationalism will be like.

“Clandestine Acclaim: how spectacles conceal our praise of power” in Oxford Left Review, no. 14, 2015.

This article investigates how it is that we tend to settle for negative liberties (liberation from obstructions, hindrances or impediments to our desires) even though we are fully aware of the limitations of such freedoms, and how a peculiar technique of governance – what we shall refer to as clandestine or hidden acclaim – underpins an emergent form of social domination, so-called ‘acclamative capitalism’.

“National, Authentic, Excessive: toward a globalized body of sports” in Altitude, 2014.

In this peer-reviewed essay, the implication of Pierre Bourdieu’s insight that sports are ways of knowing with the body that are to a large extent taught silently, transferred from the teacher to body of students, often without ever reaching the level of verbal utterances is under scrutiny. The body produced through the Physical Education curriculum is increasingly enmeshed in what Pierre Bourdieu referred as the “cult of the natural and authentic.” Such a body enables a more autonomous cultural field of sport compared to nationalism’s epic body, since it no longer places nations in a necessarily antagonistic relation to each other. Instead, the impure and unnatural pose as new opponents of the sporting body. Sports increasingly function to signify excessive and ineffable aspects of our existence. Bourdieu’s notion of illusio shows how sport participants can arrive at this understanding through an experience of the seductive character of sports.

“Spectacular sports as desire engine” in International Journal of Zizek Studies (IJZS), ISSN 1751-8229, Vol. 3, No 3., 2009.

In this essay, the notion of acephalic knowledge is discussed as a possible point from which to launch ideological critique. Acephalic knowledge is situated in a body that is without head and without heart, i.e. it is a kind of knowledge that is prior to reason and emotion. As Slavoj Žižek states, it provides a «thou art that», or a kind of recognition that the subject cannot but accept since it articulates the very kernel of the subject’s being. When we are stripped of our emotional and intellectual defenses – when we are placed in a state of subjective destitution – we are in a position to recognize this kind of knowledge. Here we ask if mass mediated sports can provide an experience of such subjective destitution.

Schopenhauer’s lineage

Schopenhauer is well known for his assertion that what disappears with our demise is the most vulgar and uninteresting part of our existence: in other words, when we die our individuality goes away. That is not to say that everything that is us disappears with our final day of light. In the essay on “Immortality: a dialogue,” Schopenhauer puts it thus:

As far as you are an individual, death will be the end of you. But your individuality is not your true and inmost being: it is only the outward manifestation of it. It is not the thing-in-itself, but only the phenomenon presented in the form of time; and therefore with a beginning and an end. But your real being knows neither time, nor beginning, nor end, nor yet the limits of any given individual. It is everywhere present in every individual; and no individual can exist apart from it. So when death comes, on the one hand you are annihilated as an individual; on the other, you are and remain everything. (p.405 in T. Bailey Saunder’s translation)

What is less trumpeted is that Schopenhauer should have drawn some of his ideas from his colleague Spinoza, who wrote some 200 years earlier. Spinoza held that there really is only one substance — God — and everything else is part of this single substance. As Bertrand Russell noted in his History of Western Philosophy, Spinoza made this claim in distinction to  Descartes, who had made a clear separation between mind — which is the element that allows us to connect with God — and matter, our physical, machine-like substance. What sets us apart from the determinism of matter was to Descartes our ability to perceive ideas, or, in his famous dictum, our ability to think: I think therefore I am.

Russell notes in no uncertain terms that Spinoza would take exception from this view: God is not only omnipotent, but is in fact everything. Thought and extension are attributes of this single substance, and, subsequently,

Individual souls and separate pieces of matter are, for Spinoza, adjectival; they are not things, but merely aspects of the divine Being. There can be no such personal immortality as Christians believe in, but only that impersonal sort that consists in becoming more and more one with God. (p. 571)

What is crucial is to perceive the way in which Spinoza arrived at a conclusion remarkably similar to Schopenhauer’s well-known rejection of individual immortality some centuries later: individuality is nothing but an aspect of our “true and inmost being,” and this being is timeless.

It follows that, for Spinoza, logical necessity is not limited to the material domain (as noted in this blog post): “Everything that happens is a manifestation of God’s inscrutable nature, and it is logically impossible that events should be other than they are” (ibid.).

Our path to contentedness? To find peace in the wisdom of knowing that things are the way they are by necessity, and that they could not be otherwise.

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

“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.

Spinoza on Descartes

The mind has greater power over the emotions and is less subject thereto, in so far as it understands all things as necessary.

Spinoza, Ethics, V

It is thoroughly established that Baruch Spinoza drew on the work of his predecessor Rene Descartes when he assembled his philosophy. What is most often put in the centre of this assumption is the way Spinoza sought to reaffirm Descartes’ system through a geometrical — and therefore, as it was thought at the time, indefeasible — superstructure.

The full extent of Descartes’ influence on Spinoza becomes clear when we turn to the Ethics. Descartes held that there is a division between our biological nature — which is wholly subject to deterministic relations — and our spirit, which is exempted from such determinism. There is a logical insufficiency at work here: if it were so that our spirit is wholly outside the biological machinery, how are we to explain that the spirit cannot withdraw its body from the iron-laws of nature?

spinoza

Baruch Spinoza

It is in response to such questions that Spinoza would mould his refinement of Descartes. To Spinoza it isn’t so much that the mind — which is what the spirit receives as its reformulation — is singular in its exemption from iron-cast determinism, but that we can become conscious of determinism, and that this raising to the level of consciousness is what enable us to withdraw from the biological machinations of nature.

Spinoza upends Descartes’ absolute division between nature and spirit: rather, it is the extent to which the mind apprehends its situation in a domain of necessity that indicates our ability to command our emotions. We are reminded of Schopenhauer’s’ later wisdom: “to obtain something we have desired is to find out that it is worthless; we are always living in expectation of better things.”

To desire is to be dissatisfied, and to be able to regard one’s desire as transitory is our only source of tranquillity.

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.

Gelassenheit and The Shining

The experience of releasement Martin Heidegger develops in the concept of Gelassenheit has a precise analogy in the film The Shining (directed by Stanley Kubrick, written by Stephen King, released in 1980). What is curious is the way we are introduced to what is referred to as “the gift” of the child in the film and how it turns out to be the crucial divisor between survival and nothingness.

Already in the precursor to the famous scenes in the mountain hotel the child reveals his special talents when he in a conversation with his imaginary friend Tony is imparted visions of doom: blood flooding through hotel corridors, girls pale as corpses, and so on. He has some kind of seizure, and the physician who examines him suggests that it could have been caused by an imagination of the vivid kind. It is only when he arrives at the hotel and is left alone with the chef that he realises that he is not alone in having the visions and encounters that Tony has mediatised to him. The chef explains quite clearly how some people can see beyond the immediate coordinates of our spatio-temporal givenness and perceive events that have happened before or that have yet to happen.

Indeed, this is precisely what turns out to be the case. As his father works himself deeper into a state of obsessive compulsion, the horrid visions the child are realised, both as confirmations of past events and as actualisations of visions that can be perceived as nothing but premonitions on the side of the child. The temptation here is clearly to remain within the explanatory framework offered by the figures of the story, and, indeed, by the story itself. The boy is perceived as having the ability of recounting hidden events from the past and to foresee future events: thus is his gift.

Should we nevertheless not turn another page in Heidegger’s notion of

to find a more thorough and less speculative en-framing of the gift? There is no need to question the boy’s abilities as a kind of special skill. However, and this is the crucial point, the visions and perceptions that the boy have when he is in his particular state of reception are interpretations that are contingent on his transversal into a domain beyond the ordinary. We first get a clear sense if this kind of encounter the first time he meets the chef in the kitchen. While the chef is explaining to the boy’s mother the various components of the storage facilities, the boy is able to somehow take leave of the ordinary conversation and its literal references and enter into a state where he hears a more profound voice emanating from the chef, as if from the underside or beyond the immediate words. What the boy hears is the chef asking if he would like some ice-cream.

The situation is similar to the scene in the precursor in that the boy is able to access some level of experience that is not immediately available through a set of common references and literal readings. In the film this theme is developed further so that in the end the boy is able to use his skills to manipulate the perceptions of others, and, finally, bring to the rescue the chef from his vacation.

What the boy is able to do is to step into what Heidegger referred to as the clearing. It is a space where we move beyond our everyday literalnesses and can encounter some hidden truth that is revealed — however brief — before it is again covered over. The clearing is not a particular spatial location or domain that we can wilfully enter. Rather, to enter the clearing is to have the experience of releasement: it is as if we are unconstrained and let go into this domain of transversal on the condition that our perceptions there are subject to codification of a particularly enigmatic kind.

It is such experiences that lie behind the child’s pact with his imaginary friend Tony that whatever he is imparted while in this special state of transportation must remain hidden.

Jack Nicholson in Kubrick's The Shining (1980)

Jack Nicholson in Kubrick’s The Shining (1980)