Reflections on philosophy and culture

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Titular Poetry

It's amazing how beautiful a title can be. At their best, titles can be works of art in their own right.

My favorite examples in music are the magnificent titles used by the Cocteau Twins, which all seem taken from a fever dream haunted by Finnegans Wake. For example, the track titles in their 1985 EP Echoes in a Shallow Bay collectively evoke a constellation of images concerning Lepidoptera - the order of insects which includes butterflies and moths: "The Great Spangled Fritillary," "Melonella," "Eggs and Their Shells" and "Pale Yellow White."

Other nice musical examples:

*Natural Snow Buildings - "All Animals in the Form of Water"

*Nurse With Wound - "Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella," (stolen from Lautreamont, of course).

A couple of examples from literature:

*Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveller...

*China Mieville's The City and the City

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Joy of Not Knowing

Jacques Lacan is famous for having said that desire is the desire to go on desiring. I often think that this thought appeals to philosophers because it is an apt description of a deeply rooted but secret impulse to which philosophers are prone: to hold on to puzzlement, to have the questions we ask continue to go unanswered, or when they are answered, to find new and more perplexing questions to ask.

The obvious joke here would be that this is what keeps us in business. What business is that, I wonder, given the fact that many of us live in relative poverty?

But even if the joke has something to it, there is nevertheless a deeper, ethical impulse I have in mind. I say "ethical" because it concerns the question of how to live. We often pretend we would like to be a Kant: magisterial, with systematic answers to all the most fundamental questions of philosophy. But really, I suspect that many or most of us would really rather be a Socrates: Socrates, who didn't resign himself to ignorance so much as live in joyful ignorance. No matter how vociferously we defend the terribly fragile philosophical views we formulate, we choose to live lives in which we constantly give ourselves and each other vivid reminders of our own cluelessness. Otto Weininger once said - perhaps with such a life in mind - that philosophers are consumed by self-hatred. Maybe I'm wearing rose-colored glasses, but at least for now I prefer to think of myself as someone immersed in the joy of not knowing.*

*Image courtesy of

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Love of Books

To be the genuine article, falling in love must strike you as the work of blind chance. This is true even when you set out to fall in love and get exactly what you seek. When it happens, you can't help but think: "What a bizarre coincidence it is that I got the very thing I wanted using the very means I was fully convinced would get it for me!"

This is as true for books as it is for people.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Robert Overweg's Virtual Derive

Recently, I came across a fascinating new kind of found art - the virtual photography of Robert Overweg. Each 'photograph' is a screen cap taken by Overweg while wandering through video game landscapes in ways that flout the purposes for which they have been constructed. His practice amounts to a kind of virtual dérive, and his photographs are the documentation thereof.

Particularly impressive are the works in his "Glitches" series. Overweg's paths through virtual space naturally lead him to points of view that an ordinary player would never inhabit - and thus to constructions that no game designer thinks to account for or correct. It is these constructions which Overweg documents: glitches - remainders which exceed the design of the game in the same way the grain of the stone exceeds the design of the sculptor. And in doing so, Overweg reveals what dérive has always had the capacity to reveal: that dimension of things which Heidegger called 'the Earth.'1

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Badiou on Beckett

I've yet to make heads or tails of Alain Badiou's systematic philosophy, but some of his critical and historical essays are fascinating. For example, this essay, entitled "Figures of Subjective Destiny: On Samuel Beckett," contains insights about Beckett I've never seen articulated quite so well.

Badiou really understands Beckett, especially the significance of Beckett's distinctive way of abstracting from the concrete vicissitudes of human life. This characteristic operation in Beckett's works always functions to outline what Badiou calls a 'figure': an image of the human subject and its encounters with others and the world - what Badiou calls "forms of the destiny of the human subject." These aren't images of a universal human subject - of what a human being is at anyplace or anytime - but of particular ways a human being might be.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

From Structure to Rhizome

I recently discovered the Backdoor Broadcasting Company, a company in the UK which records academic talks, conferences and the like and then posts them online. A recent addition is audio from the talks delivered at the recent "From Structure to Rhizome" conference on transdisciplinarity in post-WWII French thought, which took place at the embattled philosophy department at Middlesex University last month. Included are a fascinating talk by Etienne Balibar on the concept of structure and one by Eric Alliez on the concept of rhizome.

The conference is not only an interesting one, but one which is a testament to the vibrancy of work going on in Middlesex's philosophy department, now under the ax.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

First Impressions:

"Timecrimes" (2007)

The past few years have seen a number of very good, low-budget science fiction films, including Richard Schenkman's "The Man from Earth," Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore's "Special" and Shane Carruth's "Primer." None of these is a truly remarkable film, but together they indicate to me an encouraging trend in sci-fi filmmaking. Cinematic sci-fi is usually confused for science fiction tout court. And since sci-fi films are known best for their obsessive fans, flashy fx and tedious allegory, the genre as a whole has struggled to be taken seriously. But, while these films employ some of the same well-worn sci-fi tropes we see everywhere in Hollywood schlock - the time traveler, the superhero, the Methuselah - they aspire to something much higher than the lazy quotation of familiar narrative forms.

"Timecrimes," the feature-length debut of Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo, is the most interesting of this recent spate of films, and a good illustration of what I have in mind.