Category Archives: Philosophy

“STJ 86: Taste and Bee” – Process & Theology

This art piece – STJ 86: Taste and Bee – thinks through Anglican, Sarah Coakley’s, articulation of desire in a Mennonite context. Here are a few slightly edited excerpts of an essay I wrote for professor Jeremy Bergen this year at Grebel Uni.:

STJ 86 Taste and Bee

“STJ 86: Taste and Bee” by Lisa Obirek, December 2015

5 reduction linocut on stonehenge paper with added media: water soluble oil, paint pens, raw bees wax, nail polish, gold leaf

This piece is called a “print” and fits within the broader artistic medium of “printmaking.” The more specific term for this particular print is called a five-reduction linocut. This means I use a traditional piece of rubbery linoleum which is essentially just heated up linseed oil and I carve designs into the same block of linoleum in five different stages.  I use carving tools that are similar to traditional wood carving tools on a smaller scale. These carving tools have different ends, or “bits,” that make their own distinct cuts into the linoleum. Continue reading “STJ 86: Taste and Bee” – Process & Theology

Reading Comprehension — reading the controversial

Standardized tests are infamous for these little tasks: read a paragraph and answer some multiple choice questions. The SAT is a prime example.


Though there are many problems with these tests, I think the worst seems to be that there is no risk in what one reads. Why? The content is not important to the reader. If the reader is to be successful, they must adopt a method of reading that delivers results (high test scores). They are not reading the content because they are interested or because they think it might be important.

And yet! what one reads in one’s day to day living, research, or internet surfing is of the utmost importance: it informs, challenges and strengthens our attitudes. Granted, various materials require different methods of reading. Still, one researches about what one is interested in, even if that is for remuneration. One comes across certain texts with certain goals. One is looking for something in the text. When we come across articles that make us angry, we are often already sure of what we will take away from the article. We tend to project far more into the text than what is often there when the topic is meaningful.

Think, for example, when you post a controversial article online. There are those who will like it and support it if it has certain buzz words and if it is linked to a certain ideology. And there are those who will dislike it for the same reasons. That’s not surprising. But what is surprising is that from the comments, it’s often extremely hard to figure out what exactly the article was really about. This is where we will find the largest gap between what the article says and what the reader comprehends. This is true not only of social media but also true of scholars and readers in general.

And shouldn’t this be the job of the reader, to understand the text whether they with it or not? For, if a writer can only ever write to those who already agree with them, then what’s the point of writing?

Perhaps a better task for comprehension would be to first find out the reader’s background, attitudes and allegiances in order to determine what they already agree with and what they don’t. Second, give them a lengthy text to read that challenges their position so that they have to spend a great deal of time with their foes. Third, give the student sufficient time to make notes and go back through the text for nuances. This forces the student to find what they think was important in the text. Finally, have the reader answer some questions aurally. Perhaps the results would be similar to the SAT, but I doubt it.  Any educators out there have experience with this?

The ability to comprehend material that one disagrees with is the ability to change your own attitude. In his Theses On Feuerbach, Marx famously said that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” There is a great deal of truth to it. But one must not forget that the word philosophy means to love wisdom. In other words, to learn to change yourself.

Badiou and Phenomenology — a few words

I am currently working on the second installment of “Ontology — Badiou and Merleau-Ponty — Part II.” It’s proving to be an extremely fruitful endeavor. I hope it will also be fruitful for you, my dear reader. And though Part II is not quite finished (I apologize for the delay),  I wanted to share a few quotations with you by Alain Badiou in hopes that it my elucidate this project between the Logician of Worlds and the Phenomenologist of this world.

“The poem is not the guardian of being, as Heidegger thought, but the exposure to language of the resources of appearing. Further, this exposure itself is not yet the thinking of appearing, which, as we will see, takes the form of logic [a formal theory of relations] alone.” Second Manifesto for Philosophy (29).

“The difference between being and appearing is much rather that which distinguishes mathematics (as ontology) from logic (as phenomenology) — each of these two disciplines being just as formalized and rigorous as the other.” Second Manifesto for Philosophy (36).

“When I recognize that  multiple which belongs to the situation (which is counted as one there) is connected — or not — to the name of the event I perform the minimal gesture of fidelity: the observation of a connection (or non-connection). The actual meaning of this gesture — which provides the foundation of being for the entire process constituted by a fidelity — naturally depends on the name of the event (which is itself a multiple), on the operator of faithful connection, on the multiple therein encountered, and finally on the situation and the position of its evental-site, etc. There are infinite nuances in the phenomenology of the procedure of fidelity. But my goal is not a phenomenology, it is a Greater Logic (to remain wihtin Hegelian terminology). I will thus place myself in the following abstract connection and non-connection. This abstraction is legitimate since ultimately — as phenomenology  shows (and such is the sense of the words ‘conversion’, ‘rallying’, ‘grace’, ‘conviction’, ‘enthusiasm’, ‘persuasion’, ‘admiration’ … according to the type of event) a multiple either is or is not within the field of effects entailed by the introduction into circulation of a supernumerary name.” Being and Event (329).

The quotations above point towards a project concerned with the workings, structure, and organization of terms. The intimate relationship that these terms have with a subject, or subjects, is not what is of primary importance. What is of primary importance is whether or not a term is eventually rejected or incorporated into a situation. In other words, the (sometimes long) process of discerning whether or not a term is necessary to complete a goal is not Badiou’s objective. Badiou’s objective is to name the fact that this judgement, this exclusion and inclusion of terms, must occur in order to realize one’s commitment to a grander idea.

Badiou — where is agency?

It’s ironic that Badiou criticizes Delueze for having a subject with no agency when Being and Event is written almost entirely in the passive voice. Furthermore, he seems to be doing more phenomenology than he would like to admit. He describes the event, but, paradoxically, by describing the event and it’s conditions, he may be inadvertently giving those subjects, who read his book and would like an event, the poison and not the cure.

For Badiou, it would appear that event has far more agency than the subject; the subject only carries out what the event has prescribed. Now, given this, is a subject’s awareness of evental conditions something that hinders or facilitates an event? I can see a few options.

  1. Badiou might say that the event is so powerful that it won’t matter whether a subject is ready or not.
  2. The awareness of these conditions facilitate the event because one can try and organize multiples accordingly.
  3. Trying to calculate and manipulate multiples is antithetical to the production of an event because an event cannot be calculated. For instance, I’m told that there are many revolutionaries who try to calculate the perfect time for an event, but because they are so intentional in their readyness for the event, they are never sure whether “this is it!” until the revolution had already taken place. To put it differently, those who were grabbed by an event were not thinking “make an event happen” but “make X happen.”
  4. Badiou might say that these calculative revolutionaries might have just had the wrong calculative apparatus.
  5. On 219, Badiou praises Pascal for saying that the “miracles (events beyond proof)” are what founds a subject’s belief.  Badiou condemns, in the name of Pascal, those nihilist libertines/pessimistic French Moralists who try and produce a Christian subject — that is, produce an event in a subject — by presenting a chaotic and desolate picture of the world. The subject has two choices: ultimate despair (atheism) or life (Christianity). In this sense, a subject can try and push themselves to an extreme, engaging in self-destructive activities until they are either pushed over the edge or until they experience an event. One could almost say that this is the real meaning of “the cast of the die” in  Mallarmé’s poem. If one wants to push it further, one could say that participating in “only a little bit of self-destructive behavior” is only carried out because the subject wants to feel like they have control over their mortality: “I can push myself off the edge if I want to. See! Look at me! I’ve done this little bit of self-destructive behavior.” Once this activity is completed, they go back to their normal lives, and occasionally flirt with their mortality. But it there is never a true interaction with death and finitude. One might say that because they are not faithful enough to their nihilistic event (say, a day or two of utter despair which resulted from a few unfortunate encounters, death of a loved one, etc.) their fidelity is only spontaneous. In this sense, to provoke a conversion via nihilism is always a failed enterprise because an event names something positive and self-referential, which does not exist because one sees the evil in the alternative.
    Anyone have thoughts on whether a subject has more agency than an event, if so, in what way?

Ontology — Badiou and Merleau-Ponty — Part I

“Why should I read Badiou?” is no longer the question — “Why wouldn’t you read Badiou?” – Dr. Jonathan Widell.

I think Badiou’s thought is often initially difficult to engage with partly because it is not very obvious how it relates to other ontologies. In order to show how this relation, I thought I would put Merleau-Ponty’s unfinished attempt at an ontology into dialogue with Badiou’s Being and Event.

M-P takes the same starting point as Heidegger: Being is said in many different senses. The recent advances in science increasingly broaden the scope of what is said to exist. Stars are said to exist, though their light takes years to reach us; particles are said to exist, though they may exist for a fraction of a second; I exist and you, my reader, exist. Can we say that all of them exist in the same sense? Though physicists acknowledge that there are many different kinds of beings, it does not think that it is necessary to develop an ontology that would take these differences into account. If a being can be measured, then it exists and that which cannot be measured must be cast aside.

Merleau-Ponty is not satisfied with the naïve ontology that satisfies the physicist, nor is he satisfied with the widespread view that only science can speak truth. Merleau-Ponty holds that the answers to these questions are extremely complex. Propositions like, “all we are is chemical reactions, all we are is a series of objects” are flawed because they ignore our experience of different variations of beings. In this case, human beings affect us differently, and with greater power, than other beings. I can say that humanity is one animal among others, but there is no question that the experiences I have with other people influence me far more than those of animals -– sometimes their absence (like a death) affects us more than their presence. And I can say that all people are, at bottom, are objects ( a person is an object just as a table is an object) and that I can choose to feel how I want to feel, but when I look at my day to day experience of people, I realize that I do not interact with someone as I would a pencil, or desk, or even the stars, nor do I think of myself as an object. For example, I say that the table is next to the chair, but I do not say that my hand is next to the glass. These types of examples, analyzing these common ways of speaking, continually arise in Merleau-Ponty’s work as a possible indication of what is true. This leads M-P to use ordinary speech as a possible tool for grappling with questions such as “what is Being? What is true? How are beings structured?”

The Editor, Claude Lefort, writes this description of Merleau-Ponty’s work in the forward (one of the best forwards I have ever read, btw):

“But if speech, which is born from silence, can seek its conclusion in silence and make that silence not be its contrary, this is because between experience and language there is in principle, exchange; it is because experience is not something one could coincide with, because it bears a transcendence, since already, in itself, it is differentiation, articulation, structuration, and because in some way it calls for language; it is because language is also experience, because there is, as Merleau-Ponty writes so well, a being of language in which the enigma of being is repeated, because beyond the movement of the pure significations there remains the silent mass of the discourse, that which is not of the order of the sayable, and because the greatest merit of expression is to disclose this continuous passage form the word to being and from being to the word, or this double openness of the one upon the other. To think through this exchange is no doubt what The Visible and the Invisible was to devote itself to, at the end.” Xxix

In other words the study and interpretation of being. Interpreting being meant, for Merleau-Ponty, a proper account of being’s exchange with the language of our experience, and in experience in general. And perhaps the difficulty of elucidating the meaning of this exchange led Merleau-Ponty to ask whether or not a new style of language was needed in order to study wild and brute being. Though he hesitant to conclude that language was needed to be used in a new way, he was confident that only a method of inquiry that let the things themselves speak could be possible by departing from experience and all of the variations that are found in it. He believed that fruitful research was no longer possible where research departed from assumed categories like God, nature, or humanity because this type of research often detaches thought from its experience and cease to be a faithful interpretation of the world. Thus, a large part of his work and method focused on the interrogation and clarification of ambiguities that tangled up better paths towards a truthful exegesis of being.

The bulk of M-P’s unfinished ontology focuses in on the true and those “various vibrations of being” that produce the true and how the true can remain, despite the presence of deception, lies and the false which throw the true into question. In other words, how we can have the world (yes something is true) and yet not have it (moments later we find it is false)? How can we have a world that does not close in on over itself? In the end, Merleau-Ponty, the famed phenomenologist, was no longer satisfied describing the world. He died before he could finish the project.

Let’s turn to Badiou. Being able to say “what is true” does indeed play a central role in Badiou’s work, e.g., determining the validity events and looking at the state of the situation and so on. But he does so by incorporating mathematics. At first glance this might seem contrary to Merleau-Ponty’s project.

Does not mathematics occupy itself to the fullest extent with the measurable? And would it not be a step in the wrong direction, towards the naïve physicist, to place mathematics as the definitive mode of ontological exploration?

However, Mathematics has no objects – it merely formalizes relations. It is grounded upon the central idea that “insofar as it exists, then ….” The requirements for a being’s existence are whatever one would like them to be. But those requirements are not found in mathematics. Mathematics is simply there to formalize these requirements. Hence, the gap between knowing whether something exists and the meaning of these existing things might mean is traversed in an instant by mathematics.

Without losing any real substance of M-P’s ontology, one could easily imagine that it occupies itself entirely with the motto of mathematics: “insofar as it exists…” What does existence mean? What is it? How can I know what either mean? Primarily concerned with proofs, mathematicians tend to leave these questions to philosophers.

To put it as simply as possible: mathematics are capable of formalizing any ontology. And so far, set theory, more specifically, Zermelo-Frankel Set Theory seems to be the most adequate, according to Badiou. Insofar as there are beings in the world, mathematics can formalize them. The world, though, is that which is made up of objects. Which is where physics comes in. Physics is concerned only with objects. Mathematics merely formalizes the relations between these objects.

The final answer for what an object is is rather difficult to find in the work of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. But they are able to talk about them. They are capable of having a discourse on objects, beings and truth without too much difficulty. The difficulty lies in finding definitive answers. This is why they can’t be said to be “doing physics.” They are not speaking purely about the relationship objects have to one another.  They are concerned with objects and beings, insofar as they exist for us, that is, insofar as they matter to us.

Merleau-Ponty’s demand for a new language to speak more rigorously about Being might be met in the work of Badiou. Indeed, Badiou does speak about Being in a new way. And Badiou explicitly states that his work is not about the world, which deals with objects: it is about discourse. Discourse is meant in the broadest possible sense. This discourse is about our experience of the world and how we communicate this experience. And since how I speak about the world affects my relationship with it, the better my discourse, the better I can engage with beings insofar as they exist. Or as mentioned earlier in the quotation: “language is also experience, because there is, as Merleau-Ponty writes so well, a being of language in which the enigma of being is repeated.”

In sum, Badiou follows Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty by stressing the importance of Die Frage nach dem Sinn von Sein. It revealed our incapacity to fully declare and define what Being is in its many vibrations. But Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty were not successful in finding any sort of answer to the question. The success their work has lies primarily in keeping the question of Being open which promotes a certain ethos of understanding, a perspective that moves back and forth between ignorance and knowledge and enjoying a kind of rest in this movement. Badiou also accepts this position. But he wants to know how we are able to distinguish between beings and the saying of being in many senses. Instead of the question “What is meant by the fact that we say beings exist in many senses?” he asks “How do we distinguish between two beings? How do we distinguish between many beings and one being?” To answer this, he turns to mathematics.

The appearing of Heidegger’s beings in Badiou’s set theory.

Color shines and wants only to shine. When we analyze it in rational terms by measuring its wavelengths, it is gone. It shows itself only when it remains undisclosed and unexplained. Earth thus shatters every attempt to penetrate it. It causes every merely calculating importunity upon it to turn into a destruction. This destruction may herald itself and the appearance of mastery and of progress in the form of the technical-scientific objectifivation of nature, but this mastery nevertheless remains an impotence of will. The earth appears openly cleared as itself only when it is perceived and preserved as that which is essentially undisclosable, that which is shrinks from every disclosure and constantly keeps itself closed up.

[Die Farbe leuchtet auf und will nur leuchten. Wenn wir sei verständig messend in Schwingungszahlen zerlegen, ist sie fort. Sie zeigt sich nur, wenn sie neentborgen und unerklärt bleibt. Die Erde läßt so jedes Eindringen in sie an ihr selbst zerschellen. Sie läßt jede nur rechnerische Zudringlichkeit in eine Zerstörung umschlage. Mag diese den Schein einer Herrschaft und des Fortschritts vor sich hertragen in der Gestalt der technischwissenschaftlichen Vergegenständlichen der Natur, diese Herrschaft bleibt doch eine Ohnmacht des wollens. Offen gelichtet als sie selbst erscheint die erde nur, wo sie die wesenhaft Unerschließbare gewahrt und bewahrt wird, die vor jeder Erschließung zurürckweicht und d. h. ständig sich verschlossen halt.]

Here we see Heidegger making a statement about how the earth truly reveals itself. It reveals itself only when it is presented as undisclosed and uncalculated. When a painting or waterfall is reduced to wavelengths, it ceases to work upon one’s everyday experience of beings. It becomes one set of wavelengths among many, and no wavelength more important than the other, except as it pertains to the domination of nature. If all things are reduced to objective particles, then they cease to work upon our experience as they should, that is, as beings revealed. Beings revealed are those that work upon our view of things and give things their shine, like a Greek temple which reveals beings as they are and how they relate to us and to the temple, and vice versa. In contrast, the kind of calculation that he is talking about is one that seeks to dominate nature. It seeks to bend things to the human’s will to power. “Do I want this? Yes, then I will do it since all things are, are a bunch of particles and have no importance beyond that.Thus, I see all things as particles, as resources, waiting to be gotten by me.” — instead of beings that shine.

Let’s turn to Badiou. Badiou recognizes, and he thinks most agree with him, that Heidegger is the last recognized philosopher. Furthermore, Badiou is constantly in dialogue with him and grapples with his thought almost at every turn. Badiou also incorporates mathematics (the most rigorous form of making distinctions/calculations) into his own ontology (Being and Event) – something that has never been done before. at least with such rigor, that is. The result is often one that is less than inspiring. Often, when one reads Badiou, one gets an overwhelming sense of a cold calculative disposition towards the world (see Clayton Crockett’s critique — a rather superficial one, I think). But this is a gross misreading of Badiou. It misses Badiou’s constant praise of the poetic and the phenomenal. It would not be too brutal a statement, or proposal, to say that Badiou is a staunch Heideggerarian who has been able to incorporate a productive understanding of calculation.

I propose that Heidegger is misusing the term “calculation.” Or rather, he is giving it a bad name. What Heidegger is talking about is not really so much calculation as such. He is attacking a particular way of viewing beings. A particular kind of calculation. No doubt painters can be said to be calculating as they paint, or composers as they compose, or writers as they write. Each of them must focus in on certain aspects of composition at certain times of importance. They can organize material according to large structures, or small ones depending on how they are calculating, or in set theory/Badiou language: “how they are counting.”

Set theory does not calculate beings in the pejorative sense that Heidegger is addressing, but, in fact, it simply organizes them. It never presumes to reduce anything to a number. Things (or sets) gain their existence by being in a relationship with other things. In other words, set theory functions according to axioms and not according to defining, at bottom, what a being is. Set theory is a system of relations. It is not ‘out to dominate nature.’

So, is Badiou’s use of set theory too calculative, too nature-dominating? I propose that it is not. I propose that it merely organizes beings in terms of importance. And, is this not what art is? Is this not what Heidegger demands of the artist – to organize beings according to what is important?

the crossing from nature to culture

How much freedom does our biology allow us to have?

“In truth, the crossing from nature to culture and vice versa has always stood wide open. It leads across an easily accessible bridge: the practising life. People have committed themselves to its construction since they came into existence – or rather, people only came into existence by applying themselves to the building of said bridge. The human being is the pontifical creature that, from its earliest evolutionary stages, has created tradition-compatible connections between the bridgeheads in the bodily realm and those in cultural programes. From the start, nature and culture are linked by a broad middle ground of embodied practices – containing languages, rituals and technical skills, in so far as these factors constitute the universal forms of automatized artificialities. This intermediate zone forms a morphologically rich, variable and stable region that can, for the time being, be referred to sufficiently clearly with such conventional categories as education, etiquette, custom, habit formation, training and exercise – without needing to wait for the purveyors of the ‘human sciences’, who, with all their bluster about culture, create the confusion for whose resolution they subsequently offer their services.”
―  Peter Sloterdijk, Du mußt dein Leben ändern

Memorizing Vocabulary

Language learning question: Even when the method, level of engagement and level of importance seem to be equivalent, why are some words consistently more difficult to remember than others?

Might it have to do with one’s active vocabulary in their mother tongue? As in, if I use the word “hopefully” a lot in English, learning an equivalent will be easily integrated into the foreign language.
A remedy to the problem is probably just adding more cues to the flash card. But I’m curious why there is this problem in the first place.