Levinas and the Sophistic Virtue of "Deception"

I'm reading this passage across Latour's insistence upon chains of translations (Pandora's Hope) and Susan Jarratt's explication of Gorgias notion of Apate (deception) as virtue); Levinas, from his interview with Philippe Nemo:

A radical reflection, obstinate about itself, a cogito which seeks and describes itself without being duped by a spontaneity or ready-made presence, in a major distrust toward what is thrust naturally onto knowledge, a cogito which constitutes the world and the object, but whose objectivity in reality occludes and encumbers the look that fixes it. From this objectivity one must always trace thoughts and intentions back to the whole horizon at which they aim [which includes the Other, the beyond Being, the question of God], which objectivity obscures and makes one forget. Phenomenology is the recall of these forgotten thoughts, of these intentions; full consciousness, return to the misunderstood implied intentions of thought in the world. This complete reflection is necessary to the truth, even if its effective exercise must in doing so make limits appear. It is the presence of the philosopher near to things, without illusion or rhetoric, in their true status, precisely clarifying this status, the meaning of their objectivity and their being, not answering only to the question of knowing "what is?", but to the question "How is what is?", "What does it mean that it is?".

Of course, the "rhetoric" Levinas dismisses here is an Aristotelian rhetoric of the enthymeme, the handmaiden to the Platoinc syllogism; the former persuades by hiding, the latter by abstracting. It is quite different the the sophistic rhetoric Jarratt and McComiskey extract from Gorgias, a rhetoric resonating with Latour's ethics of care, meant to expose the constructions, the limitations, the supplements, the excesses, the fissures, the cracks, the associations, the assemblages, the contexts. A rhetoric that trains its attention on the emergence into being; that transforms Levinas's ontological critique from "what is?" to "what can it do with others?" Levinas's emphasis is on the "whole horizon," on the question of the Other that haunts my relation to others, and my negotiations with neighbors.


New Media Production

This fall I will be piloting a New Media Production class for our PhD program. This aims to be different from my usual "read a colossal amount of theory" approach to graduate courses; the emphasis will be on that final word, production, and providing graduate students to experiment with and learn html and css coding, podcasting and video editing, and probably photography and photo manipulation. Here's the write-up for our catalogue I submitted this morning:

Course Description

Beyond familiarity with the ethical and epistemological implications of new media, 21st century humanists require intimate working knowledge of new media communicative tools and techniques. These tools and techniques include: html, css, javascript, rss, blogging, podcasting, vblogging, wikis, and Flash. This course provides students with a rhetorically-oriented introduction to using these tools. Additionally, course readings and discussions will address how the "newness" of these tools refigure the ways we conceptualize the relationships between writers, audiences, and media.

While this course is a production lab, I do not expect any students to enter the classroom with any level of technology skill above being able to save an MS Word document. We will learn coding languages from the ground up.

Course Texts (Subject to Change)

  • Ulmer, Gregory. Internet Invention
  • Holmevik, Jan Rune. Inter/vention: Free Play in the Age of Electracy
  • Rice, Jeff. Digital Detroit: Rhetoric and Space in the Age of the Network
  • Kalman, Maria. The Pursuit of Happiness

Additionally, we will read a number of contemporary articles. Furthermore, I have a recommended list of HTML and CSS tutorial guides, most notably Karl Stolley’s How to Design and Write Web Pages Today.

Course Requirements (Subject to Change)

  1. MyStory Project: Following Ulmer’s Internet Invention and its call for Egents ready to participate in the EmerAgency, we will construct websites that unpack our participation in four different socio-discursive networks (career, school, entertainment, and community)
  2. SF Zero Project: Building from Holmevik’s theory of play, we will evaluate the potential of real world MMO hybrids such as SF Zero for post-critical, post-pedagogy. If there is sufficient interest, we will begin development on USF Zero
  3. Derive Project: Using both Rice’s Digital Detriot and Kalman’s Pursuit of Happiness as relays, we will invent new forms for research and representation that seek to better integrate our logical, ethical, and pathetic/affective relations to spaces
  4. Portfolio Project: We will all construct Professional Web Presences show casing the print and digital works produced as members of USF’s Graduate Program. These portfolios should help students think about how they will market themselves on the job market (or, if MA students, how they will package themselves for PhD programs)


Latour, Levinas, Vitanza, a Rhetoric of Obligation

A quick threading of my last few posts: Levinas, from the later essay "God and Philosophy" (a rather remarkable essay that integrates so much of Levinas's career--the discussion of insomnia from Time and the Other, the insistence upon (un)saying the said from Otherwise than Being, and the extremely difficult discussion of eros from Totality and Infinity):

Transcendence is ethical, and the subjectivity which in the final analysis is not the "I think" (which it is at first sight), or the unity of the "transcendental apperception," is, as responsibility for the other, subjection to the other. The I is a passivity more passive than any passivity, because it is from the outset in the accusative, oneself--which had never been in the nominative--under the accusation of the another, although without sin. The hostage for another, the I obeys a commandment before having heard it; it is faithful to an engagement that it never made, and to a past that was never present. This is a wakefulness--or opening of the self--absolutely exposed, and sobered up from the ecstasy of intentionality. (from Of God Who Comes to Mind 68-69).

I am reading this quote across Bruno Latour's call for a constructive ethos dedicated to protecting and caring in "Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam"):

My question is thus: can we devise another powerful descriptive tool that deals this time with matters of concern [rather than epistemological matters of fact and facticity] and whose import then will no longer be to debunk but to protect and care, as Donna Haraway would put it? Is it really possible to transform the critical urge in the ethos of someone who adds reality to matters of fact and not subtractreality? To put it another way, what's the difference between deconstruction and constructivism? (232)

To embrace what Latour elsewhere refers to as a might mightier than might (Pandora's Hope225, 239) is to embrace our primordial obligation to the commandment: "thou shall respond". I read this commandment across Burke's/sophistry's/Levinas/Latour: "thou shall not be absolutely certain." The ethical transformation Latour seeks requires this kind of pathetic motivation--a reminder of our obligation to the others (networks) and Others (the question of the beyond, transcendence). The Other (God/alterity/non-negative/beyond the negative-dialectics of Being and consciousness understood as intentionality) sobers me from my "joyous possession of the world" and commands to enter into the deliberations of the other and the neighbor, to make the difficult choices, to give.

To pay a debt, Levinas reminds us, that costs more than we ever have to give.

The University has scarcely ever committed itself to such an ethical obligation. It has, in the image of Latour's Modernity or Levinas's ontology, been the center of purification, order, kNOwledge (Vitanza's skepticism toward dialectics and negation). We can, I hope, construct a new mission built around Levinas's concepts of obligation and responsibility, wound around Latour's concepts of protection and care. A new poetics, Vitanza might say, dedicated to describing the networks that help us to be, scribbled in the shadow of our perpetual ignorance of what Rightly (or Mightly) lies (in an extra-moral sense?) beyond being. A perpetual questioning of myself brought on by the perpetual question of what is Other.

Response: "Ignorance is Strength"

Here's another post coming from a Facebook prompt. QV pointed me towards Krugman's column "Ignorance is Strength" in today's NYT. My response:

There is so much to say in response here. First: I do think the turn, in the humanities and sciences, toward materialist, ecological, and rhetorical theories does directly oppose conservative economy and ideology. If everything is "indebted" to everything else, then there is no robust individualism, no invisible hand, only a collection of bodies working on/through each other.

Second, the increasing economic disparity of the 1990's and 2000's, combined with a globalized economy, has left America with more people than careers (let's say careers instead of jobs to include under-employment). No amount of education will counter this problem (sorry, President Obama). But, on the other hand, cutting funding to education is not a solution either. (Sidenote: there was an interesting article in the NYT the other day on increases in tuition, stressing that it is much easier to cut funding to schools than it is to cut funding to prisons, since inmates can't pay for their incarceration). What we need is a change in ideology such that we recognize the extent to which our economic system does not provide equal chance to everyone, such that winners recognize they have an obligation to support "losers" (as part of a system that makes possible their success--back to the ecological, material, rhetorical model).

I could probably say more, especially given the Texas-Florida (Perry-Scott) fiasco. Without delving too deep into conspiracy theory, there does seem to be a calculated assault on humanities education in higher education, no doubt driven by a belief that the industrial sciences will be far less vocal in opposing conservative economy and ideology (especially since their funding, via grants, is tied to those industries). But, I think, Krugman's post shows the extent to which we still need social anthropology, beginning at home.


Messiness as a Virtue

I'm re-reading Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous today for my New Media class and really appreciating his chapter "Messiness as a Virtue." Two passages worth sharing (i.e., remembering):

Simplicity was the only reasonable strategy before we developed machines that can handle massive amounts of data and metadata. (182)

To know a thing, thought Aristotle, is to see what is essential about it (that humans are rational animals) and not be fooled just by what happens to be true about it (that humans have their navels on the front). The definitions of those essences determine which things are in a category and which are turned away. Here there is no messiness, only an order so precise and harmonious that it is beautiful. Or so Aristotle and generations of thinkers assumed. So do we when we argue about, say, how to define race, knowledge management, or blogging. But suppose this sort of Aristotelian categorization-through-definition were shown to be an essentially artificial way of approaching the world. Suppose the neatness it strives for is impossible. Suppose messiness is not a flaw in our thinking but enables it. (183)

That second passage resonates with Vitanza's rejection of negative dialectic in Negation, Subjectivity, and the History of Rhetoric, that ontological categorization via the negative (definition) is an attempt to kNOw others (to either reduce them to the same or to eliminate them entirely):

While the negative enables, it disenables. As I've said, it's mostly a disenabler because it excludes. Something is by virtue of Nothing, or what it is not.
The negative--or negative dialectic--is a kind of pharmakon, and in overdoses it is extremely dangerous (e.g., a little girl is a little man without a penis! Or an Aryan is not a Jew! And hence, they do not or should not--because in error--exist). The warning on the label—beware of overdoses—is not enough; for we, as KB says, are rotten with perfection. We would No. That is, say No to females, Jews, gypsies, queers, hermaphrodites, all others. By saying No, we would purchase our identity. Know ourselves. By purifying the world, we would exclude that which, in our different opinions, threatens our identity. (12-13)

And, of course, this is Levinas's problem with philosophy--that it puts ontology before ethics, rather than recognizing that it is the "messiness" (alterity) inherent in the ethical relation that always, already precedes the ontologically-capable thinking self/subject. What Weinberger stresses is the extent to which the negative is a function of literacy (in Ong's terms), and how our new technologies afford us a new perspective to rethink our moral dedication to neatness. Can messiness be akin to Godliness (hint: I think they can, if Godliness calls upon Levinas's notion of the Other beyond Being)?

Question and Answer

On Facebook, someone asks: "Come on people, is it so hard to have manners?"

I would say "yes" because having manners rests on a recognition and prioritization of the other person. So much of our contemporary technological life aims at the obfuscation of other people (iPods, iPhones, e-readers, nintendo DS, etc), at filtering the external world out and amping my internal world up. It takes more and more effort to keep oneself tethered in reality, to acknowledge the face-to-face with others.

I am thinking of D. Diane Davis' discussion of Nancy in the introduction to her Inessential Solidarity. She reminds us that Levinas's primordial concept of the face-to-face "is a relation of nonindifference, Levinas tells us, that pivots neither on shared meaning nor on identification but on an obligation, an imperative that precedes understanding [...] You might whip out your Blackberry or plug into your iPod or feign sleep or complete absorption in your magazine, iPad, or Nintendo DS, but the active refusal to be responsive is a response and so no longer simple indifference" (11). I am tweaking this a bit, suggesting that our contemporary technologies obliviate the other--such that the encounters that trigger the "conscious" responses of avoidance (of avoiding my responsibility toward the other, my hospitality, my repaying the debt) Davis articulates do not present themselves to consciousness. Of course, we still are left with the conscious decision to put these technologies away, and to invest our time in the presence of others. But such investing can be hard, hard work. Worthy work, though.