Category Archives: Philosophy

A subject is formed by something that does not exist

As some of you know, I’m in a reading group that centers on the work of Zizek, Lacan, and Badiou. Lately, the project has taken on a new life. We are currently working towards the possible publication of a reader’s guide to Badiou’s extremely intimidating Magnum Opus: Being and Event. In it, Badiou claims that mathematics is ontology. In other words, our discourse about the world requires us to make distinctions between beings, and since mathematics is the most rigorous method for making distinctions, the next step is to claim that mathematics is the study of being.

This has led me towards a few thoughts.

If Mathematics is ontology, then Being can, to a large extent, also be predicted. It is calculable. This leads Badiou to ask “how is a subject possible within a universe that is radically predictable?” It turns out that events alone are what constitute a subject. The subject’s allegiance to an event is what constitutes a subject. The event re-aligns the subject’s framework for interacting with the world because we interact with beings in our world according to a certain importance, according to a relationship to something else (like an event). So, being able to truly say that I love someone, commits me to a lifestyle and manner of interacting with people that orients my entire existence. Thus, how I distinguish and interact with beings is re-oriented. In Badiou speak, how I count things is re-oriented. But Badiou uses the passive voice almost entirely throughout his work. Which leads us to ask “Who is doing the counting?” The answer seems to be: the event is doing the counting. Therefore, a subject is constituted on the basis of how faithful s/he is to the event’s count/the organization of beings.

However, events only appear for a short while, like the vanishing isle on the back of a giant turtle which never appears in the same place twice. And it is only after the island/event has disappeared that one can recognize it as such. In this sense, events don’t actually exist because one can never name an event as such, only after the fact. This means that events don’t actually exist. Thus leading to a troubling conclusion: if events don’t exist, then, at bottom, are subjects formed by something that does not exist?

Now, is counting (set theory), even if it is guided by an event, really the fundamental movement of ontology?

Heidegger claimed that once a specific being was looked at in a calculative manner, the being is gone. It is no longer possible to see it in terms of our condition, in terms of Da-sein.  By privileging the calculative analysis (the count), the many colors of Being are white washed into a single tone. The sole criteria for determining the worth, or meaning of beings is reduced to a calculation, a mode of thought that only views a beings as resources to be mined and placed in an network of utility. Is it possible, as Badiou claims, for calculative thought to be reconciled with a phenomenological hermeneutic? How does one balance these two modes of analysis?

Music as Language — structured thought without content

Recent discussion on this blog has prompted me to think about how much music really is like a language.

Language is constituted by syntax, grammar, structure, adjectives and so on; this seems to be basically all that language is. And music, too, has all of these things.

One can compose a sonata where one theme struggles against another. The result is often one where the initial theme is transformed a new. Beethoven’s music often exemplifies this idea. For instance, his fourth piano concerto, second movement. Occasionally, this dialectical movement between the demanding orchestra and the pleading, comforting words of the piano are believed to be Beethoven’s musical realization of Plato’s dialectical method, which Beethoven was probably reading at the time of this composition. In contrast to Plato, we have no content, we have no definition of Justice that must be tested against another. With Beethoven’s concerto, each theme is anonymous. What we do have is the fact that the piano is finally able to convince the orchestra to agree with its serene idea. One can easily make up a story to go along with it: the shepherd David comforting the raging king Saul with his harp. In any case, we don’t know. We only have the struggle. We do not know what the struggle is about. The explicit meaning escapes us.

So, music does not, however, have the same relatively fixed meaning that nouns have in language, one of its essential cores. Still, bits of pieces of music carry with them connotations derived from context. More generally, specific genres of music are associated with certain peoples or genres of art. Wagner’s late operas were composed in such a way that specific characters or themes received their own motif. These associations provided the listener with new ways of deciphering what was happening on stage. More broadly, Wagner’s music was also played during Nazi propaganda videos. As a consequence, his music is associated with anti-Semitism (which Wagner was. Ironically, Zizek claims that Wagner’s music actually epitomizes the wandering Jew).

One could easily imagine a musical composition that could carry this even further where a Wagnerian theme would struggle against a Jewish klezmer theme. The struggle would be easily recognizable as the Nazi’s struggling to wipe out the Jewish people.

But these examples with such obvious connotations are exceptions rather than the rule. The explicitness of these kinds of connotations are actually quite few and far between. Often, the connotations are rather subtle and are lost on those who have not spent many hours with the work. For instance, upon the first hearing of Bach’s St. John’s Passion, we don’t understand that the aria Mein Teuer Heiland is composed as a pastorale (Christ the shepherd), where the believer (bass soloist) asks the Christ nailed to the cross if he has redeemed the whole world. While the believer petitions Jesus, a choir sings a chorale with text of the realized eschatology of the church, nor does one immediately grasp that when the believer is asking if the world is redeemed, the word redeemed (Erlösung) wraps around the chorale’ affirmative answer in continuous sixteenth notes. Thus, Bach emphasizes the scope, steadfastness and persistence of this redemption. There are many other examples of this kind of work in this aria, and Bach’s work in general, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

The point I’m trying to make is that music contains the structure of language without much of the content. The content that does become associated with music is extremely unstable and often only understood by a few. One can use music to have a nuanced conversation in purely musical terms, about musical terms. But one cannot have a nuanced conversation that is not about music with music.

If language structures thought, then, what is structured thought without explicit content? Is it merely an invitation to fill the empty envelope of sound with whatever content one likes?

With Music — we are never quite sure

In a recent comment by Gerald Ens, I was asked what role music has in the formation of character. This is a question that has a long history. This isn’t the place to do a thorough genealogy of the question. However, to make a broad generalization, I would say that opinions about character and music have not changed so much throughout history.

Certain genres of music are still associated with certain groups of people and time periods. It seems that when people partake in a certain genre of music, they immediately take on the cultural connotations of a that genre and a character attribute is thrown onto the subject: one cannot like rock and roll without having some inclination towards being a rock god, a groupie, sex, drugs, etc. One cannot like classical music unless they have a pretentious side of them.

Furthermore, one can be accused for not actually liking the music at all; they like the culture that goes with it. For example, if I am a rich aristocrat in the middle of the 19th century, I go to concerts whether I like the music or not because that is where politics happen, that is where I retain my status in society. To take a more recent example, if I am an avant garde type, a hipster maybe, I like strange and atonal music, or even terrible bands because if I say that I like something on the fringes, I gain the respect of those who are also on the fringes. Those who enjoy more mainstream music cannot accept how someone can actually “enjoy” listening to music so strange. To both types of people, the accusation can be leveled: you don’t like the music, you’re doing it for social reasons.

The obverse of this argument is equally absurd: how can one be attracted to music with no cultural associations? Can one be attracted to the rap music or the protest songs of the 1960s without the “Fuck the system”? Probably. But perhaps they are attracted to other aspects of the music, e.g., be care free, be yourself, love everyone. The various elements of music that compete for our attention are far ranging. Usually this is named by answering the question “Why do you like this music?” Even music that you have never heard before becomes quickly associated with meaning from your experience. In order to be meaningful it must have meaning and meaning.

Another argument that had great success throughout a good deal of music history goes something like this: when we listen to holy music, we become holy whether we like it or not. This took the form of an argument that goes (very brutally) like this: The universe has been ordered according to divine proportions, unity being the purest; it is the most like God. Those intervals that are most unified are those intervals that resonate with the most divine presence. For example, the unison, the simplest of intervals, is the most like God since there is only one God and one universe and one Truth. The octave, the next closest interval to the unison exemplifies a similar relation, though not quite as pure. In the Baroque, exemplified by the music of Bach, the unison represented God, the octave the Holy Spirit, the fifth Jesus, and the third, man. The third also plays a special role because one has to flatten the third in order to achieve a tuning system that enables one to play in more than a few keys. This also serves to symbolize that man has fallen.

This tradition enjoyed its heyday during the renaissance. The people didn’t have to understand what was going on, nor did they have to like it – it was good for them because the music was in itself good and the soul would recognize it as such.

During the Baroque, the Lutherans developed this idea into saying that music moved a person’s disposition to be in a place where they could be better able to receive the words that were said in the music, e.g., the gospel. The composer had at their disposal a set of compositional devices that could be used in such a way that one could easily predict the audience’s reaction to the music. Compose the music in a minor key with a slow tempo and the audience becomes melancholic.

Closely connected to this use of rhetorical devices in music, we have composers who write for film. Tense scenes are often accentuated with deep bass and slow high notes, always in the minor. Joyous, triumphant scenes are in a major key with full orchestra with an easily identifiable theme. Basically, and it is obvious, the music accentuates the mood of each scene.

There is another theme by Zizek that should mentioned. He writes in various places that Beethoven’s Ode to joy has been played by many dictators with opposing politics. For some reason, there seems to be a unifying, sublime element in Beethoven’s ninth that many people seem to easily grasp. This, he claims, is often claimed to be the redemption of music: the same music that served evil can now serve good; it is an empty signifier. And he claims, in a Perverts Guide to Ideology, that this situation should be read in a much more ambiguous way that “with music, we are never quite sure.” Zizek also claims that this sublime element is nothing other than a void: it is too ambiguous to make sense of; it serves too many purposes; it is merely a deep feeling of connectivity to whatever one is already connected with.

Now, after these long winded remarks, what do I think? Well, in my platonic days I fancied the idea that when you listened to the music of Arvo Pärt your soul and character were slowly worked upon in a good and ordered way because the profound simplicity that his music exemplifies can do nothing but correct those straying from the straight and narrow.

I don’t hold to this view so stringently any longer. I do tend towards the idea that music speaks culture and that music is always drenched with connotations that are difficult to divorce. I tend toward the idea that certain cultures of music produce a certain character attribute and vice versa. Perhaps Gregorian chant is attractive for those who yearn for a simple life of divine mystery. If I only want to sing Italian opera, if I want to be on stage, if I want to be adored for my voice of gold that soars above the orchestra, I might have a deep need to be publicly adored, to be noticed, to be admired.

Still, I am hesitant to think in these terms because it tends to pigeon-hole people into categories based on their musical choices. And yet, this is often what we do: “You listen to Bob Dylan? Okay, now you are legit.” “Oh, you listen to Radiohead? Okay, now my respect for you has grown immensely.” In most of these cases, we are congratulating people on being attracted to bodies of work that have historically (or culturally) been respected that we also align ourselves with. While I do tend towards a view of art that holds a certain kind of complexity as criteria for long lasting meaningful interaction, I do not want to say that it is universally true that complex music is always better than simpler music. This argument is also used in the defence of most kinds of art: Doestovesky writes polyphonic novels; therefore, the complexity of the characters continually draws readers into the bountiful resources of the text. But I do believe that well-constructed complexity lends itself to continual interpretations which the West tends to find historically meaningful (maybe it’s just a white dude thing?).

I would like to conclude these remarks by addressing the most difficult to address: Zizek’s claim. How should it be read that the same music can be used for both good and evil? In truth, I can’t say much. His claim is basically that music is tool that can be used by a person of any persuasion. And in this sense, the only thing that I can say is that music is a language. As a language that speaks a certain vocabulary, it doesn’t possess inherent meaning independent of culture. It can be used for good or evil and though certain genres of language are cultivated in certain spheres of our human world, the genre itself is almost always easily adaptable to be used for other purposes and political views.

And that, my dear readers, is what makes it so difficult to say whether some forms of music are better than others. Music doesn’t seem to be a tool like any other that has potential consequences like, say, the internet does (it influences the way you read, interact, etc.). The cultivation of certain styles do tend to lend themselves towards certain kinds of practices and techniques, but the musical technique in itself does not make a person more holy. Music is an ambiguous tool that seems to be able to serve basically any political movement. And this, my friends, is difficult to accept.

I am annoyed and not annoyed

The other night I participated in an informal debate about logic. My interlocutor held that it was “absolutely true that something could not be both something and not be something at the same time”. I tried to offer some examples that would prove the contrary, but I don’t think I was very successful.

I would like to briefly engage this idea again as simply as possible without recourse to unhelpful jargon.

A fire is danger and it is not dangerous. It is one or the other depending on the one’s proximity to the fire.

A chair is a chair and not a chair. Again, it depends on the situation: sometimes I use it as a chair, but most of the time it just takes up space in my room and hides the dust that collects underneath it. Sometimes it is table.

A piece of art is both art and it is not art (at least in our time: “to each h/er own”). It depends on the viewer.

It’s both possible that I could go on and not go on at this moment… But I’m sure by now you get my point. I will, however, offer two possible replies.

1. In all of these examples, one could argue that I am not using language correctly. Since the piece of art cannot be said to be both art and not art at the same time, we need a new word to say what it is. We need a word to describe it so that it will have only that meaning. We need to construct a language where, in every situation, we could always say that X can never be not X. It’s term exhausts it’s meaning.

2. Another response along the same lines might go something like this: Yes, it is a chair, a table, a dust concealer, place taker, etc.; However, it remains a chair and not not a chair during this time. When it becomes a table, it remains a table and not not a table.

My turn: In both cases we are faced with a number of problems that can be boiled down to two things: preference towards one grammatical construction over another; and the problem of perspective. In the first case, deciding what something is and what it is not is determined locally by it’s use and not an abstract construction. The difference between “this is a chair, and a table, and a place holder, etc.” does not contradict the statement that “this is a chair and this is not a chair.” Therefore, “The chair is a chair and not a chair” is true. This construction is actually extremely helpful as a vehicle for expressing the many uses and names one object can have.

In the second case (perspective),the question, “what art is and what art is not” can occur in the same place. Often this is where productive discussions take place: “what is justice? What is it not?” The objection can be raised that from one perspective “something is X” and from the other, “something is not X.” However, from the point of view of the observer “something is both X and not X.” Of course, this brings up the question of power: for whom can these two seemingly contradictory views not be tolerated?

In sum, any attempt to absolutize truth byway of a grammatical construction must be met with much suspicion. I will end with a personal anecdote: I attended the first class of a graduate level seminar on epistemology. One of the professor’s opening remarks, a philosopher working almost exclusively in the analytic tradition, was that correct reasoning is only correct if you choose to accept the framework of correct reasoning. In other words, formal logic is universally true if you already accept that formal logic is universally true; those who do not conform to formalized logic are not devoid of truth — just not the logician’s truth.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (Zizek)

I have been participating in a Badiou, Zizek and Lacan reading group for a couple of years now. Reading these authors in the same reading group has been all the more productive since they overlap a great deal. Recently, we have been expanding our projects with these authors beyond just close readings of their works. For instance, we are currently finishing up a reader’s guide to Badiou’s most intimidating text, Being and Event. And last night, we finished our Lacan Ciné club, where we watched a few of the movies that Zizek analyses and ended with the two of Zizek’s own movies: The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.

Zizek is notoriously scattered. He continually bombards his audience with examples and bits of dense theory which are supposed to explain the examples. The examples are supposed to explain the dense theory. Usually, everyone ends up being confused. His movies are no exception.

Unless, however, one has watched these movies a number of times, as I have.

Tonight we ended the club with The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. The audience (made up of an assortment of people, not just my reading group) had a standard reaction: confusion.

The first few comments were basically this: he seems cynical; it was hard to follow; I didn’t agree with this one thing, etc. So, yes, pretty standard. But this is where it gets interesting. The conversation started to zero in on Zizek himself, rather than the film: he is too cynical, superficial, even evil, and so on. The confusion was slowly drained away, and it was replaced with confident scorn for Zizek. People even began to enjoy seeing him as an “empty shell” of a man.

The irony is that this is exactly what Zizek’s film was about: the reduction of complex ideas into an easily understandable enjoyable simplification, in other words, the critique of ideology. So, for Zizek, in the simplest of terms, ideology is being convinced that all of your problems can be explained through a single lens; this lens even allows you to enjoy your oversimplification. For Germany, The Nazis were able to explain that all of the problems plaguing them now and that have plagued them in the past could be explained by the foreign element of the Jew. In Capitalism, it is a little bit more varied: it can be communism, big business, terrorism, etc.

The basic idea is this: an ideology allows you to blame all of the complex problems of your world basically on one thing. But it also allows you to enjoy this scorn by giving you bits of pleasure here and there. And this is what happened tonight: I did not understand the entire film; bits of it made sense, and the bits that did I disagreed with what the author was saying; his words were to scary; he seemed evil; the author, as a person, must be flawed; So, we can reduce anything that he has to say to being problematic because he, himself, is problematic. He threatens our way of enjoying films and this should be avoided at all costs.

I claim, then, that Zizek’s films critique ideology in form and content: they give you a seemingly complex picture of how things are, and if you do not understand it right away, you reduce it to an easily understandable idea which allows you to retain and enjoy your superiority over what you don’t understand. However, you are able to break out of this ideology — If you investigate it further: watch it again, do some research, and watch the films he analyzes, then you are able to break out of ideology. This move, breaking out of an ideology, is painful. But it can also be revolutionary.

Ethical Music and Change

“Plato’s concern that changes in musical conventions threaten anarchy in society has been voiced repeatedly by those who resist change, and it echoes today among those lamenting current tastes in popular music” – A History of Western Music (Burkholder, Grout, Palisca)

So I sold my music history text book in my third year of undergrad; I needed some extra dough. But recently I’ve been wanting an intro text to music history to get some bearings on what the current understanding of the musical canon in history is. So I picked up a used text book for a very fine price. I’m loving it for both it’s simplicity and clarity as well as showing me where I can investigate further details that the text doesn’t have room for.

One interesting fact: “The earliest composer known to us by name is Enheduanna (fl. ca. 2300 B.C.E), an Akkadian high priestess at Ur, who composed hymns (songs to a god) to the moon god Nanna and moon goddess Inanna; their texts, but not their music, survive on cuneifrom tablets.” So that’s awesome. The first composer that we know by name is a woman. Pretty cool.

Back to the first quote. It’s false. The claim that certain kinds of music affect one’s character has indeed been used by many thinkers. However, the authors in the text imply that it is inherently a conservative claim. Luther, and later Mattheson, argued that if music had the power to move people in secular situations, the church should have no reservations in bringing that same music, albeit with different texts, into the liturgical worship of the church. Here, Luther and Mattheson are pushing for change not resisting it, as the textbook claims. Furthermore, there is an implicit suggestion that character and music have absolutely no correlation, which further implies that the culture and situation where the music itself arises is irrelevant. And this is simply not the case.

Textbooks try to be as clear cut as possible so that the reader can nuance their ideas in their later studies. Perhaps this is okay. But I don’t think it’s okay to present an idea as fact if it is opinion.

Yoder on faithful living and Marion on faithful seeing

Similarities between the theology of John Howard Yoder and Jean-Luc Marion may not be immediately evident. At the same time, I suspect that Marion’s work will become more helpful to my own theological work if I can tease out some of these similarities and put them into conversation with each other. One such similarity I think I’ve found is their shared conviction to act as if the world is God’s and is loved by God. Yoder often voices this conviction in terms of faithful living and Marion in the terms of faithful seeing. However, for both true sight and living well are so closely joined that they are almost the same thing. This is what I am trying to point towards with my quotations from Marion and Yoder below.

Before getting to those passages, I’d like to clarify one aspect of ‘true sight.’ Often true sight is a euphemism “for a beautiful vision to impose from above by authority,” to use Yoder’s words in just one of the many passages where he critiques such methodology. For both Yoder and Marion, an emphasis on seeing does not start with a large vision, but with the particular and with letting particular people, places and things speak with their own truth and beauty. Marion’s term “saturated phenomena,” speaks to this and to the excessive profundity of the world when we see that it participates in love before being. If it isn’t explicit I hope that this aspect of sight is at least implicit in the following passages.

“We are not called to love our enemies in order to make them our friends. We are called to act out love for them because at the cross it has been effectively proclaimed that from all eternity they were our brothers and sisters. We are not called to make the bread of the world available to the hungry; we are called to restore the true awareness that it was always theirs. We are not called to topple the tyrants, so that it might become true  that the proud fall and the haughty are destroyed. It is already true; we are called only to let that truth govern our own choice of whether to be, in our turn, tyrants claiming to be benefactors.” – Yoder, For the Nations

“The same distance designates the same world as vain or as ‘beautiful and good,’ according to whether the gaze perceives the distance through one pole or the other: from the world as vain or as ‘beautiful and good,’ according to whether the gaze perceives the distance through one pole or the other from the world, on the fringe that opens it to the excess of a distance, the totality appears to be struck by vanity; from the inaccessible point of view of God, at the extremes of distance, the same world can receive the blessing that characterizes it in its just dignity….

For another gaze – the gaze of God – boredom no longer arises; the gaze that can love strikes no longer with vanity, but prompts ‘goodness.’… [V]anity arises from a gaze that exceeds Being/being without yet acceding to charity, a gaze that discovers the world as being beyond Being/being without seeing it loved – by God…. Vanity comes from the boredom of man, not from the boredom of God; for God loves, and from the gaze of charity comes the ‘goodness’ of the gazed at….

That which is, if it does not receive love, is as if it were not, while that which is not, if love polarizes it, is as if it were: the indifference to determination according to ontological difference reappears as the responsibility of love…. To give the world which is, empty of love, for that which is not but belongs to the domain of love – there is nothing more reasonable and even advantageous.” – Marion, God Without Being

What’s the point of morality?

I’ve avoided using the word “moral” for quite sometime. I’ve never found it helpful in discussions. I feel like when people talk about what is “morally” acceptable, they are talking about some sort of universal judgement. But by using the word “moral” in some form, they distance themselves from talking about the particular situation in more detail. Maybe I’m wrong. Are there situations in which the word “moral” adds clarity, nuance, or, really, anything that could be said without using the word?

This makes me excited about philosophy

“The imperative of the world, which is the imperative of short-lived pleasures, simply sets down: ‘Live only for your satisfaction, and live, therefore, without Idea.’ Against this abolition of life-thought, philosophy declares that to live is to act so that there is no longer any distinction between life and Idea.This indiscernibility of life and Idea is called: Ideation” – Badiou (Second Manifesto for philosophy)

The Selfish Beetle

Recently I had a discussion about what makes a choice “rational.” My interlocutor held the position that if a choice made sense to the one making the choice, then the choice, was, in fact a “rational” decision — even within the context of suicide. “If it makes sense to me, then it is a rational decision.”

Wittgenstein’s beetle in a box came to mind.

I couldn’t remember exactly how it went. So I was unable to use it as a good example to point to the collective meaning of words. I watched it again and I forgot that the beetle in a box also addresses the annoying proposition: “Everything that we do is selfish” In any case, the discussion was a long and enjoyable one. I won’t reproduce it here. But here is the video.