Violence and Metaphysics, part 2

Some rough draft I was working through today:

The best liberation from violence is a certain putting into question, which makes the search for an archia tremble. Only the thought of Being can do so, and not traditional ‘philosophy’ or ‘metaphysics.’ The latter are therefore ‘politics’ which can escape ethical violence only by economy: by battling violently against the violences of the an-arhy whose possibility, in history, is still the accomplice of archism.” (“V&M” 141)

The violence here comes both from theory and totality (knowledge) and from the search for foundations and hierarchy(ontology). Knowing is always a political act, often a totalitarian one, which subsumes the alterity of others (our act of theorizing them as existents reduces the possibilities of what they may be, and of what Being might be in general). For Levinas, then, there is a great suspicion of knowledge and the desire to know, of traditional philosophy and metaphysics, of any thought principally concerned with discerning archia.

Hence why Levinas insists that our relation to the other is not a knowledge (and Derrida repeatedly points out that Heidegger’s conceptualization of Being is not as a genre or category of knowledge). Our relation to the Other, or our relation to Being, both transcend positive knowledge. They are the something through which “knowledge,” and language as a precondition of knowledge, emerges. The transcendental relationship between Being and Other thus, from first principle, suspend all knowledge. The “thought of Being,” as Derrida puts it above, is the question of Being- a continual (let’s say deconstructive, to use the term in its “proper” sense) questioning of the transcendental property of Being. Such impossibility, emanating from the core of all knowing, opens us to an ethics mindful of the requisite violence of theorization, communication, philosophy, and rhetoric.

For Levinas, a suspension of the primacy of Being opens us to the ethical- rather than considering others as Beings (which requires an act of ontology, categorization, theorization, etc). Levinas places the thought of Being (a questioning of Being’s primacy atypical for traditional philosophy) at the forefront of his thinking. Derrida notes:

Not only is the thought of Being not ethical violence, but it seems that no ethics—in Levinas’s sense—can be opened without it. Thought—or at least the precomprehension of Being—conditions (in its own fashion, which excludes every ontic conditionality: principles, causes, premises, etc.) the recognition of the essence of the existent (for example, existent as other, as other self, etc.). It conditions respect for the other as what it is, other. Without this acknowledgement, which is not a knowledge, or let us say without this “letting-be” of an existent (Other) as something existing outside me in the essence of what it is (first in its alterity), no ethics would be possible” (137-38)

In the first line above, Derrida stresses that Levinas’s questioning of Being, though disrupting the classical foundations for ethics, actually seeks to extend the possibility of ethics by reducing the security with which we think “presence” and “truth.” Let me playfully suggest that the conditions of digitality, both social and material, that I have elucidated in chapters one and two suggest the possibility for “letting-be”: for experiencing and respecting the other as other. At the heart of this suggestion lies the transience, uncertainty, and anxiety attached to the medium. To be clear: such conditioning and respect does not promise to end violence- there is no final idealism here. But I do assert a hope, albeit a tentative one, that exposure to the conditions of conditionality, to the transience, uncertainty, and anxiety of the digital, can temper the violence of politics, ontology, communication, possibility, life. To understand how the digital might promote such “letting-be,” we must familiarize ourselves with another critical and complex Levinasian concept: the face, and its relation to metaphysical ethics.


Another Reason to Love the Interweb

So this obnoxious sports writer, Kevin Hench of Fox Sports, writes a weekly Hit List in which he takes shots at athletes swirling the drain. This past week, he made disparaging comments on Tampa Bay Ray's outfielder Rocco Baldelli, essentially arguing that Baldelli was faking an injury and was wasting his talent. Except Hench must have missed the press conference in which Baldelli explains that he has a as-of-yet unidentified life threatening illness that might end his career.

Well, a few Baldelli fans told Hench to go fuck himself. Then they sent the story to FireJoeMorgan.com, a site dedicated to exposing terrible sports journalism. Let me rephrase: an extremely popular site dedicated to exposing terrible sports journalism. So then a lot of FJM's readers went to the Fox Sports site and proceeded to tell Hench what a douche-bag he is. Some of us... er... them, went as far as to create accounts so we could post our complaints (which probably ensures that Fox won't fire Hench, since he's driving up the traffic). Still, there's nothing quite like a bunch of people coming together to tell some loud mouth asshole that he is, undoubtedly, a loud mouth asshole. Here's my favorite comments:

Hey, everybody needs to step back and appreciate what Hench has done here. It is very rare that every single comment says the same thing...usually there is one comment that says everyone needs to get a sense of humor; but luckily this is such a piece of BLEEP that it is unanimous that Hench is an BLEEP -clown. For that I say, thank you Hench for being so moronic.


Nice article, Hench. I'd love to read your takes on Andres Galarraga's "cancer" and Mario Lemieux's "non-Hodgkins lymphoma." You are either incredibly insensitive or plain uninformed and are therefore either a d-bag or a hack


Future of Sports

For the past few years I've been arguing that the steroids controversy in baseball is about much more that the purity of sport- it touches the incredible transformations medical science will bring to biology. It is about our relationship to our bodies. We might go as far as to call it the next great imperialization, as we move "in."

Sports Illustrated has a story this week on Dr. Se-Jin Lee- a professor of molecular biology and genetics- who has isolated the genes regulating muscle generation. The slant of the story, of course, is how such procedures could further exacerbate problems with performance enhancement in professional sports; but this misses the larger point. From the article:

Lee is pushing the frontier of genetic research into muscle building because the same breakthroughs that could boost performance in sports might also bring about a medical revolution. Advances could not only mitigate the effects of diseases like muscular dystrophy but also give senior citizens back their strength--which, often, would amount to giving them back their lives.


Thanks to the Human Genome Project, someday all of us could carry our entire genetic blueprint on a microchip, which we'd present to doctors during medical treatments.

To be honest, I have mixed feelings about this article and the broader issue. Though I try to take care of my body (working out, Edy's slow-churned, etc.), I've never considered my body sanctimoniously. If it didn't work, and I could "replace" it, no problem. I've also always been sympathetic to Cipher from the Matrix- I'll take a nice, virtual existence over a shitty "real" world everyday of the week. No hesitation. Hey, its all virtual anyway.

I think what this story touches upon, the reason I felt compelled to post something, is that is signals the approach of the debate that will frame the early 21st century in terms of science, ethics, and humanity. If the atomic bomb was the symbol of the 20th century, then, perhaps, the microscopic gene will be the symbol of the 21st. We will have to articulate, and in that articulation limit, what a human should, and perhaps, will be (or be able to become). I sit somewhere in between the silent poles of the article: between an idealistic appreciation (and, as I approach 32, expectation) for the future and an apocalyptic sense of foreboding - a feeling that we tread in areas we are not ready to go. Throughout history, humans haven't always been the most responsible explorers.


Shouldn't This Be Bigger News

Came across this story on artificial intelligence this morning. Let's put it alongside this:

I say your civilization because as soon as we started thinking for you it really became our civilization which is of course what this is all about.

Cause, really, the thing is that four-year olds grow up so quickly.


Notes on Of Grammatology

It took me a bit to get started, but here we go...

If, as Derrida suggests, writing threatens language, then digital technology extends this threatening, by engaging so many more people in the “play.” As the actors gather, as the stage widens, the stakes increase. In 1968 Derrida suggested:

The advent of writing is the advent of this play; today such a play is coming into its own, effacing the limit starting from which one had thought to regulate the circulation of signs, drawing along with it all the reassuring signifieds, reducing all the strongholds, all the out-of-bound shelters that watched over the field of language. (7)

Forty years later, what better sign of this coming (change for Derrida is always a specter of the future) do we have than wikipedia? Wikipedia realizes much of what Derrida refers to as the death of the book, “the death of the civilization of the book, of which so much is said and which manifests itself particularly through a convulsive proliferation of libraries” (8). Rather than further replicate the logocentrism of language through a further proliferation of libraries, we are witnessing a transformation- a transformation incited by digital writing. Writing not as a noun, not as objects proliferated across places, but writing as an action "collected" in placeless spaces. We have a proliferation of writers, many of whom are alien to the traditional strong-holds of language and Thought. There work appears, but it does not multiply or collect arithmetically. It appears and disappears. It transforms. Dynamically authored and edited, texts transform. It is these new movements- especially the disappearance, that so differs from the culture of print, presence, and permanence. Rhetoric has long been the art of shifty wordsmiths; it is ready for a digital word in which words actually shift in real time. Digital writing, especially wikipedia, is a celebration of “the human and laborious, finite and artificial inscription” (15). Web 2.0’s open opposition to “expertise” is a rejection of a logocentric divinity that positions truth as external to humanity, especially to the masses. Rather than libraries, we have librarying (and, of course, LibraryThing).

A task that I will face: is librarying logocentric? This is not a question I as of yet feel qualified to answer. But my initial suspicions are yes... and no. Digital technologies are not an absolute break from print/literate culture. They are a transformation. Just as with the transitions from orality to literacy and then from literacy to print, the transition from print to digitality will retain much of what has come before: especially the desire to know, to learn, and to exchange. What will be different, I suggest, is that our knowing, learning, and exchanging will transpire with a stronger exposure to the Face of others. Our contact will knowledge (and others) will be tempered by the ethical encounter with the Face of the Other. Words will not be dead, but uncomfortably living.


Sometimes the "Rhetoric of Change" Really Means Change

I wanted to share Norm Scheiber's article "The Audacity of Data" on Obama's economic theory. It seems that Obama strays from traditional political philosophy in favor of something which Scheiber labels as "non-ideological" but which I might refer to as more complex (in a Mark C. Taylor sense), dare I say more rhetorical. Let me explain.

First, Scheiber explains that contemporary economic theory is going through a kind of sea change- the old (read:modern) methods, which relied on a mythical "perfectly rational" human actor as a foundation for its theory, are being challenged. If you've read anything on the history of complexity theory, then you know that this actor has never existed. Economic theorists were among the first to see the social significance of complexity. The radicals began abandoning top-down, hierarchical models for explaining ALL human behavior in favor of messy, but more valid, insights into particular... well let's call them economic ecologies (see Waldrip for a very readable if annoyingly hero-izing account of complexity's rise). All the development of modern economic theory is a prime example of what goes wrong when you become a slave to your deductive theory: you create a wonderful, "perfect" model that doesn't in anyway relate to how people actually live their life. D'oh. Perhaps it explains how people should live their life- but that's a very, very different thing. I'm thinking here of a favorite saying of my friend Nathaniel Rivers from Kenneth Burke: beware of confusing "is" with "ought." Hey, Nathaniel, can you give me a source on this?

On to Obama. First, let's not make the mistake of labeling Obama as non-ideological. Everyone lives according to an ideology, if we understand ideology to mean the systems of representations that underlie and inform our daily lived experience. And I'm recalling that definition from Althusser, thanks to Google I can add: "the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of life" (qtd. in Michael G. Cooke). Scheiber, of course, belongs to a different discourse community- I just don't want any Marxists breathing down our neck for the next few paragraphs.

What we might say, however, and what Scheiber details quite clearly, is that Obama's theoretical approach to economics (and politics) is anti-idealist and anti-deductive, eschewing overarching theories in favor of localized action. And Scheiber works hard to detail that this doesn't equate to being non-academic; if anything, Obama is working to put himself in contact with cutting-edge academics whose non-traditional approaches run against normal political wisdom. Quote: "the Obama wonks [and this is a loving term] tend to be inductive— working piecemeal from a series of real-world observations." He compares the Obamanauts to the Clintonites, noting that while the latter wanted to institute massive top-down changes, the former works within existing paradigms, tweaking what works and exorcising what doesn't. Here's a kick-ass metaphor:

Think of the contrast here as the difference between science-fiction writers and engineers. Reich and Galston are the kinds of people who'd sketch out the idea for time travel in a moment of inspiration. Goolsbee et al. could rig up the DeLorean that would actually get you back to 1955.

O.k., maybe a bit over the top. But it makes my brain tingle. Lest we think this approach isn't rigorous, Scheiber follows up:

And yet, just because the Obamanauts are intellectually modest and relatively free of ideology, that doesn't mean their policy goals lack ambition. In many cases, the opposite is true. Obama's plan to reduce global warming involves an ambitious cap-and-trade arrangement that would lower carbon emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. But cap-and-trade--in which the government limits the overall level of emissions and allows companies to buy and sell pollution permits--is itself a market-oriented approach. The companies most efficient at cutting emissions will sell permits to less efficient companies, achieving the desired reductions with minimal drag on the economy.

The biggest change Obama might bring to politics is a grass-roots, complex, contextualized approach to politics forgoes the rhetoric of "big changes" in favor of something different- something non-utopian but a pragmatic sensibility that works from within. While this approach might not be quite as aptly rhetorical for the current political field, it just might change the way the game is played.

Let's try that.