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Category: Reading Project

Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics

Posted on September 29, 2009 in Reading Project

So this is pretty much a classic, and even more dull than that label would imply. I read the second section, which is where Aristotle outlines the foundation of his ethical structure which, to summarize crudely, is the assertion that balance between two extremes is what constitutes the good (or maybe The Good, or even THE GOOD.) The only thing that I found particularly intriguing about all of this was the certainty with which Aristotle uses words. It’s always a little amusing to me to come across things that are old enough to have a bit of that.

Well, that was a bit dull, and the next book is Aristotle too. Following that the As round out with “Imagined Communities,” because apparently I’m just too free-spirited to actually alphabetize things. A grim stretch, to be sure. Once I muddle through, however, there are a bunch of Barthes volumes in a row, so that should be good for a change of pace.

Arendt: The Human Condition

Posted on September 20, 2009 in Reading Project

I’m pretty sure that The Human Condition is about the reasons that modern people aren’t as fulfilled as the ancient Greeks, but what I am absolutely sure about is that it’s a big fat apologetic for slavery. I read the “Labor” chapter which basically ends up concluding that working people are a bunch of disgusting cretins.

A hundred years after Marx we know the fallacy of this reasoning; the spare time of the animal laborans is never spent in anything but consumption, and the more time left to him, the greedier and more craving hist appetites.

Along the way, Arendt claims that Marx

predicted correctly, though with an unjustified glee, “the withering away” of the public realm under conditions of unhampered development of the “productive forces of society,” and he was equally right, that is, consistent with his conception of man as an animal laborans, when he foresaw “socialized men” would spend their freedom frmo laboring in those strictly private and essentially worldless activities what we now call “hobbies.”

and then, as if it supports her position, she quotes the passage from The German Ideology in which Marx claims that people in a socialist society would be free to

Do this today and that tomorrow, who hunt in the morning, go fishing in the afternoon, raise cattle in the evening, are critics after dinner, as they see fit, without for that matter ever becoming hunters, fisherman, shephards or critics.

(N.b.: Not sure what’s going on w/ the plurals there; in My Tucker Marx-Engels Reader all of the professions in the last sentence are singular, but whatever.)

Now the first problem here is that Marx does not, with of without glee, predict the withering away of the public realm. Instead, the final accomplishment of socialism is the withering away of the state. In a society free from oppression there would no longer be a need for an external apparatus the regulate behavior. The goal then is human interaction with fewer sources of mediation and regulation.

Reading through The Human Condition it’s hard to escape the conclusion that this conflation is based entirely on contempt for working people. It takes a pretty strong sense of indifference to the needs of those whose pants aren’t as fancy as one’s own to think that we live in a laborer’s society and that the mechanisms used by the people who live off of the sweat and blood of the animal laborans to keep their subjects in the dark are somehow an indictment of the character of those subjects. Like the Helenes she clearly idolizes, she assumes that someone’s status as a laborer allows her to understand their essence completely, and condemn them without qualms to serving her so that she might contribute to the public realm rather than soiling her own hands taking care of herself.

Agamben: The State of Exception

Posted on September 12, 2009 in Reading Project

The State of Exception is where Agamben says that we shouldn’t let casualty figures get in the way of acknowledging the fact that from a legal perspective there is no difference between Guantanamo Bay and a concentration camp. I read the first chapter, which is a brief history of how constitutional governments have attempted to codify the transgression of the law by authorities in times of crisis. This is good because it means he gets away from badmouthing Foucault for not addressing “exceptional circumstances” which Foucault recognized as totally normal.

This is an important shift, because really the exception is only really interesting inasmuch as it is, in fact, indistinguishable from the norm. Pathology is really nothing more than common sense examined closely, as any history of political contortions to justify powers will show. Our national state of emergency extends for another year because it is our reality now. God bless America, folks; god bless America.

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Agamben: Homo Sacer

Posted on September 6, 2009 in Reading Project

So I really did my level best to read all of Homo Sacer, but I found myself getting hung up on the Arendt citations, and the abuse of Foucault. I did a fairly good job of getting through the broad coverage at the beginning, and that’s the best part anyways. When we get to particulars, Agamben seems to forget the way power obfuscates the interior/exterior dichotomy, and we end up discussing the differences (!) between how life is politicized under fascism and whatever we’re calling the corporate democracy of The West (as such) these days.

Probably the most intriguing insight in Homo Sacer is the categorization of state violence as a lifting of the law, rather than the law being brought into force, and that this suspension is, in fact, originary to law. Unlike the structure suggested by the so-called “social contract” the sacrifice of individual liberty is part of a bargain that is essentially one-sided. Further, the conditions of the contract are malleable from the perspective of the authority, but not from the perspective of the subject, meaning that abiding by the law is no protection against it. Instead, an individual is compelled to act in such a way that their status under the law is preserved. Security states produce subjects who are always involved in a manic avowal of the status quo, as this is the condition of maintaining your protections.

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More Excuses For Delays

Posted on September 2, 2009 in Reading Project

The next book I’m going to write about is Agamben’s Homo Sacer, and it’s taking a while because I’m reading the whole thing. It’s not particularly long, but I have lost the habit of plowing through works like this while retaining their high-points. Hopefully this will come a little easier as things go on. By the time I get to Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism I’ll get the reading done in a day and the only thing that will push the review back is me running out of synonyms for “fucking awesome.”

What has already been called clearly to mind, however, is that Homo Sacer is a real mixed bag. While it is full of interesting and original insights it tries to carve out additional territory for itself by basically claiming that Foucault didn’t observe or analyze things that any honest reading will show quite clearly that he did. I don’t know if it’s cojones or craziness that drives a man to suggest that he has one-upped Foucault in the realm of penality (I know, right?), but it doesn’t come off well. My margins are full of comments like “fuck you” and “shut up,” and there is even a paragraph I scratched out (although not so densely that I couldn’t refer to it in the future.) Definitely some first-rate disingenuous bullshit going on with ol’ George.

Nevertheless, the good part is serious grade-A, and with this out of the way the next entry will almost certainly be unadulterated praise.

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Adorno and Horkheimer: The Dialectic of Enlightenment

Posted on August 26, 2009 in Reading Project

The Dialectic of Enlightenment is a collaboration between Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Horkheimer didn’t attain the fame of Frankfurt School peers like Adorno and Marcuse, but this was at least in part because he took on more responsibilities than they did, chairing the Institute for Social Research in its various locations and editing its publications. At any rate, the book is basically about how the project of The Enlightenment seemed pretty great for about 160 years or so, but that now (and by “now” I mean 1944, the year of the book’s release) are the direct result of those things that seemed good at the time.

Easily (and understandably) the best-known section of The Dialectic of Enlightenment is the essay “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” One of the earliest work of proto-cultural studies (no Robotech jokes, please), it considers the dangers inherent in the power of mass media to form consensus. While it is clearly haunted by the specter of Walter Benjamin, it focuses more on the fusion of the sub and super structures, rather than the inversion of the traditional Marxist understanding of their relative importance.

This is also plagued by the cranky and dismissive tone that makes Adorno’s jazz essay so funny, but much of what is here is interesting in prescient. In fact, there are a lot of points at which the reader is inclined to think, “wow, you dudes have no idea how good you had it.” The most obvious cause here is their inclination to think that mass media creates its own ideal consumer. Now, I’m sure that back in 1944 it seemed like the one-way street of radio communication seemed pretty dictatorial, but compared to the ostensibly user-sensitive pigeonholing technology of the internet that stuff comes off as a bit amateurish.

In true modern style, then, it’s the form of the warnings in “The Culture Industry” that make it interesting. The corollary to the outdated feel of their particular instances is the rather stark fact that this now quite venerable understanding of the risks involved in the compliance-creating power of media technologies has done nothing of any kind to disturb that power.

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Adorno: Minima Moralia

Posted on August 18, 2009 in Reading Project

I have a permanent bookmark in this book. It points to this (haphazard punctuation in original):

Had Hegel’s philosophy of history embraced this age, Hitler’s robot-bombs would have found their place beside the early death of Alexander and similar images, as one of the selected empirical facts by which the state of the world-spirit manifests itself directly in symbols. Like Fascism itself, the robots career without a subject. Like it they combine the utmost technical perfection with total blindness. And like it they arouse mortal terror and are wholly futile. ‘I have seen the world spirit’, not on horseback, but on wings and without a head, and that refutes, at the same stroke, Hegel’s philosophy of history.

Minima Moralia is a book of epigrams, so really you can drop in anywhere. I just read 10 pages on either side of my epigram of choice. They revealed a lot of the sort of things Adorno is known for: racism snobbery, homophobia aaaaaaaand, lest we forget, profound insights. In particular my epigram of choice (clocking in at 3 pages, which is a real heavyweight for an epigram) has much to offer besides the incredible quote above (as if that weren’t enough.)

Entitled “Out of the firing line,” it starts by mentioning the fact that news coverage of air-attacks never fails to name the manufacturer of the aircraft involved. The scale of war, Adorno suggest, is now too great to be comprehended in human terms. Mechanization means that destruction is both tremendous and anonymous. The epigram, written in 1944, ends with the observation that there can’t really be an acceptable course of action in the aftermath of the war that was raging at the time.

To the question of what is to be done with defeated Germany, I could say only two things in reply. Firstly: at no price, on no conditions, would I wish to be an executioner, or to supply legitimations for executioners. Secondly: I should not wish, least of all with legal machinery, to stay the hand of anyone who was avenging past misdeeds. This is thoroughly unsatisfactory, contradictory answer, indeed one that makes a mockery of both principle and practice. But perhaps the fault lies with the question and not only in me.

I really like this too, and if my first reading of this work had come later than age 20, I may well have put the bookmark on the next page. The inability, or pig-headed unwillingness, to engage with contradiction (or, frankly, even gradation) is hallmark of the disastrous state of our discourse. Great philosophy is always applicable to current events, and this does that with real class.

So the whole going-easy-on-myself phase of this process is about to come to a screeching halt. The next book on the shelf is the Adorno/Horkheimer collaboration The Dialectic of Enlightenment and I will, of course, be compelled to read “The Culture Industry.” Now, this is better than it would be if I owned a copy of Negative Dialectics, but it’s not going to be a cakewalk.

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Adorno: Prisms

Posted on August 16, 2009 in Reading Project

I made some vague allusions to reading only “the musicology,” but in truth I only read the infamous “Perennial Fashion — Jazz” essay. Luckily, this was not out of laziness, but because I found it more intriguing than I remember it being. This is not to say that it isn’t still hilarious (because boy howdy), but there is something interesting to it.

The upshot of the piece is that jazz is quite shit, and also boring and repetitive. For the most part, he seems to be talking about commercial/big band jazz which, to be fair, is awful and banal. Still there is a lot of snobbery at work here, and Adorno is always talking about “real music” and the degree to which jazz isn’t it. To give you a little context that may explain what he means by that, I’m pretty sure that Adorno would have called Schoenberg the greatest musician of all time. Take that how you will.

So aside from simple snobbery, Adorno is concerned with letting you know that enjoying a commercial product in a non-critical way makes you prone to fascistic thought. There’s a lot of stuff about how dancing to syncopated rhythms is one (dance) step away from marching at a rally. It is tempting to greet this with a facepalm, but he presumably had musical numbers in films in mind when he wrote this, and it’s hard to say that there is nothing there. Further, Adorno makes much of a commercial product’s ongoing effort to efface history in order to present recycling as innovation.

Also, the article ends comparing the victims of commercial culture to “one of those Russians, accused of a crime, and who, although innocent, collaborates with the prosecutor from the beginning and is incapable of finding a punishment severe enough.” Presumably this is a reference to Bukharin, who will be making at least one appearance later in this process.

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Big Plans for Everyone

Posted on August 15, 2009 in Reading Project

The ladyfriend and I have been wrangling our bookshelves into shape. It has been quite a struggle, but the end is definitely in sight. This fact, however, throws into stark relief the fact that I have a ton of books that I ought to at least touch base with from time to time. The classics of the genre that one should recall upon occasion. Stuff like that.

So I’m going to do it. I’m going to read an excerpt from each of my philosophy books every couple of days and post about it. It’s going to be awesome. Serious! For the record, when one collects a certain type of book predominantly, one tends to fold other books into that type. This means that some sociology and psychology and assorted other types of books will be included here, but that’s probably a bonus, if you think about it.

I’m going to go in alphabetical order, so in a couple of days you’ll get my treatment of noted crank Theo Adorno’s Prisms. Because I want to go easy on myself in the early days of this endeavor, I think I’ll be sticking to the musicology.

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