Other Contemporary Thinkers: brief notes, in alphabetical order
Links: Imagining other home page
The death of French philosopher Baudrillard (6th March) gave several commentators an opportunity for some digs at French philosophers: after all, someone who said the Gulf War didn’t happen, or who described himself as a simulacrum of himself…. Yet I found reminders, in these ideas, of situationism (and existentialism): the situationists described ours as a spectacular society – our lives are mediated by a spectacle, and not directly lived. They got this idea by developing part of Marx’s notion of “commodity fetishism”. We can only watch, and passively consume, the spectacles with which we are surrounded (politics, finance, war). We cannot directly participate – the power of politicians, financiers, soldiers would be dissolved if we could directly control our lives, and that cannot be allowed to happen! Consequently, politics (etc) is all appearance: as such it does not have any meaning - though, and this may be where Baudrillard over-stated the issue, all these activities have very real effects on us…
The Guardian obituary is at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/0,,2028464,00.html
See also Zoe Williams, G 10.08.11 on the riots – she quotes, also, Alex Hiller (marketing and consumer expert, Nottingham Business School) – ‘consumption is a falsification of social life. Consumerism relies on people feeling disconnected from the world.’ See also csr5 the consumer updates (web pages).
2. Bhaskar, Roy obituary Guardian 8th Dec 2014: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/04/roy-bhaskar
See also other articles by Sudhir Hazareesingh
4. Gabriel, Markus: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/oct/30/why-world-does-not-exist-markus-gabriel-review - taught by Thomas Nagel, ‘post-postmodernist’ - i.e. while speaking of different ontological provinces, different fields of sense/multiplicity of discourses with their own object-domains, he does not conclude there is nothing to choose between the different perspectives. ‘New realism’...
in reacting against the creator-God of the Jewish and Christian traditions they (atheists, especially ‘new atheists’) have at the same time taken over many of their assumptions, e.g. ‘progress’ or faith in humanity, utopia. There is no automatic link between atheism and humanist or liberal values, and the “ Enlightenment values” so often appealed to were, even in the greatest Enlightenment thinkers such as Kant, Hume and Voltaire, likely to be tainted with racism and antisemitism. Surprisingly Gray expresses some sympathy with the eastern form of Christianity, with its emphasis on the incomprehensibility of God, beyond all words.
2014: John Gray on our innate tendency to evil: http://www.theguardian.com/news/2014/oct/21/-sp-the-truth-about-evil-john-gray
Blair is at one with most western leaders. It’s not that they are obsessed with evil. Rather, they don’t really believe in evil as an enduring reality in human life. If their feverish rhetoric means anything, it is that evil can be vanquished... [Rather, as the Greeks and Romans knew] destructive human conflict is rooted in flaws within human beings themselves... The restraints of morality exist to curb this innate human frailty; but morality is a fragile artifice that regularly breaks down. Dealing with evil requires an acceptance that it never goes away.
[our leaders hold to] some version of the melioristic liberalism that is the west’s default creed, which teaches that human civilisation is advancing – however falteringly – to a point at which the worst forms of human destructiveness can be left behind. According to this view, evil, if any such thing exists, is not an inbuilt human flaw, but a product of defective social institutions, which can over time be permanently improved.
[western leaders’ simplistic view of ‘evil’ may be what stops them from learning from experience...] They cannot accept that by removing one kind of evil they may succeed only in bringing about another – anarchy instead of tyranny, Islamist popular theocracy instead of secular dictatorship.
public discourse about good and evil continues to be rooted in religion. Yet the idea of evil that is invoked is not one that features in the central religious traditions of the west. The belief that evil can be finally overcome has more in common with the dualistic heresies of ancient and medieval times [Zoroastrianism, Manicheism] than it does with any western religious orthodoxy. [There were many different Christian views on evil]:
[St Augustine’s role]: Reflecting Augustine’s own conflicts, the idea of original sin that he developed would play a part in the unhealthy preoccupation with sexuality that appears throughout most of Christianity’s history. Yet in placing the source of evil within human beings, Augustine’s account is more humane than myths in which evil is a sinister force that acts to subvert human goodness. Those who believe that evil can be eradicated tend to identify themselves with the good and attack anyone they believe stands in the way of its triumph.
[Pelagius]: A rival heresy was promoted by the fourth century theologian Pelagius, an opponent of Augustine who denied original sin while strongly affirming free will, and believed that human beings could be good without divine intervention. More than any of the ancient Greek philosophers, Pelagius put an idea of human autonomy at the centre of his thinking. Though he is now almost forgotten, this heretical Christian theologian has a good claim to be seen as the true father of modern liberal humanism.
[But when so many people turn to or accept evil, then ‘liberal humanists’ turn to ‘dark forces’ etc to explain it... and] the result is a more primitive version of Manichean myth. When humankind proves resistant to improvement, it is because forces of darkness – wicked priests, demagogic politicians, predatory corporations and the like – are working to thwart the universal struggle for freedom and enlightenment. There is a lesson here. Sooner or later anyone who believes in innate human goodness is bound to reinvent the idea of evil in a cruder form.
[Gray then rejects Arendt’s view of the banality of evil: Eichmann did what he did because he wanted to...]
Liberal meliorists like to think that human life contains many things that are bad, some of which may never be entirely eliminated; but there is nothing that is intrinsically destructive or malevolent in human beings themselves – nothing, in other words, that corresponds to a traditional idea of evil.
[There is another view, though, which escapes the influence of religion]: What has been described as evil in the past can be understood as a natural tendency to animosity and destruction, co-existing in human beings alongside tendencies to sympathy and cooperation. [See Freud et al]
[violent beliefs are on the resurgence, and this is partly to do with societies under stress, but] Toxic ideologies express and reinforce responses to social conflict that are generically human. ..
The weakness of faith-based liberalism is that it contains nothing that helps in the choices that must be made between different kinds and degrees of evil... [Gray has just argued that there are some evils e.g. Nazism that are truly radical – and those that deny humanity to some group of people are also in this camp. Churchill chose the lesser of two evils when he sided with Staling against the Nazis... But ]Our leaders have helped create a situation that their view of the world claims cannot exist: an intractable conflict in which there are no good outcomes.
And my response (a brief version of this was published in the Guardian...):
A Response to John Gray on Evil.
John Gray's article ‘The Evil Within’ (the long read, The Guardian, Tues 21st Oct 2014: http://www.theguardian.com/news/2014/oct/21/-sp-the-truth-about-evil-john-gray) was fascinating, and in many respects convincing. I agree that we are not going to deal with ISIS by imagining (with Blair and Bush) that they can be destroyed. However, nor will we succeed by siding with a lesser evil in order to defeat them, which seems to be what Gray is suggesting. This is a game which can only result in further chaos, as he himself shows with the examples of Iraq and Syria. In my view, rather than simply modify our dominant view of ‘evil’ we would be better off not being obsessed with it – whilst recognizing that people do too often behave in ‘evil’ ways. A much bolder and very different approach is needed, and surely it should be based on a desire for us all to survive and flourish despite our differences - though I suspect this is beyond the imagination of any of our leaders at present.
What I most strongly reject is Gray’s view that the tendency to violence and evil is a fundamental aspect of our nature.
I also disagree that those of us who do not emphasise the 'natural evil' in humans must invent some other evil (e.g. ‘capitalism’) to explain why so many people sometimes go along with evil. We can identify institutions and social practices that allow evil acts, without saying they are in themselves evil.
Whilst it would clearly be ridiculous to claim that humans are never violent, the psychotherapist Carl Rogers (in 'On Becoming a Person' Constable edition 2004, pp 90 - 91) argues that his experience shows that 'the innermost core of man's nature, the deepest layers of his personality, the base of his 'animal nature' is positive in nature - is basically socialized, forward-looking, rational and realistic.'
However, the generally accepted view (amongst therapists as well as lay people), as Rogers points out, and Gray confirms, is that man's basic nature is destructive (of others and of ourselves) and has to be kept under control. One reason why this view is so widespread is that we do often feel, and therapy reveals, inside ourselves, layers of destructiveness, violence and anger; and it is easy to mistake these feelings as somehow fundamental. And, I would add, when we think about the violence and destruction in the world, our first reaction is one of anger and a desire for revenge. But therapy – and experience – shows that we are most likely to feel violent and destructive (often of ourselves as well as of others) when we are afraid to feel the deeper layers of love and trust.
So, when we go deeper into ourselves, and as happens when therapists work with disturbed individuals, then we find – in Rogers’ words – that these 'untamed and unsocial feelings are neither the deepest nor the strongest, and that the inner core of man's personality is the organism itself, which is essentially both self-preserving and social.'
Gray calls on evolutionary psychology to support his case, but I would simply ask: why would a species evolve that was fundamentally self-destructive? The desire for preservation both of self and others seems to me to be a much more likely product of human evolution. This is what we should call on to build a more peaceful world.
2013: review of The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths, by Peter Conrad, Observer 03.03.13. The most helpful perspective on Gray that I’ve come across: describes him as an anti-humanist, who believes that civilisation and humanism are ‘conceit[s] given sanctimonious support by religion.’ Progress is a myth, the world is full of horror. In history men are the playthings of a blind and amoral fate, which decrees the same mistakes will be made over and over again.’ Self-realisation is a pernicious myth (hence the enthusiasm for X factor etc).
Better to become an ornithologist (like JA Baker, who studied peregrine falcons).
Now I know why whenever I’ve tried to read Gray I’ve felt depressed! Whilst I sympathise with the Buddhist notion that life (as such – not just human activity) is imbued with suffering, and so we must exercise compassion for our fellow beings... Gray’s pessimism is too much.
25th Oct 2014.
The guardian published a long piece by Gray: http://t.co/8d4gz4Pmec (or: http://www.theguardian.com/news/2014/oct/21/-sp-the-truth-about-evil-john-gray)
and I couldn’t resist replying: http://www.imagining-other.net/responsetojohngrayconcerningevil.htm
In G2, 09.10.14: not on website...
Guardian Review – superb profile by Terry Eagleton: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/12/terry-eagleton-trouble-in-paradise-absolute-recoil-zizek-review (and there’s a video on the Guardian website)
– interviewed by Decca Aitkenhead, G2 11.06.12: notes his first important book was The Sublime Object of Ideology – 1989 – a re-reading of Hegel through the perspective of Lacan... Other titles: Living in the End Times...
She summarises his view: nothing is ever what it appears, and contradiction is encoded in almost everything. Much of what we think radical doesn’t actually change anything...
http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2012/jun/10/slavoj-zizek-humanity-ok-people-boring - not exactly helpful on his philosophy! But has some links...
15th Nov 2014:
This review by Terry Eagleton made me chuckle – I love the subversiveness of Zizek, and his linking of everything together in one big critique of liberal/conservative/mainstream ‘thinking’: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/12/terry-eagleton-trouble-in-paradise-absolute-recoil-zizek-review
Unlike Gray, he creates laughter while criticising the existing order.
Shiraz Socialist on Zizek:
The Perverts Guide to Ideology, reviewed by Matt Cooper at the Workers Liberty website:
It is difficult not to warm to a film that places a radical left wing philosopher into mock ups of various film sets to lecture on his theory of ideology. That is what film maker Sophie Fiennes has done with Slavoj Žižek.
So we have Žižek dressed as a priest talking about the ideology of fascism in the mother superior’s room from The Sound of Music, about the vampiric attitude of the ruling class towards the working class in the lifeboat from Titanic and about the nature of political violence in Travis Bickle’s single iron bed from Taxi Driver. All of this is amusing enough and makes a long and in places opaque lecture pass pleasantly enough, but the ideas that underlie it are rotten.
Slavoj Žižek has been proclaimed by some as the greatest political philosopher of the late twentieth century — there is even an International Journal of Žižek Studies. His work is popular with a layer of the radical left, although maybe the kind who consumes rather than acts on their politics.
He has somewhat replaced Chomsky as the author of the coffee table books of choice for the armchair radical, and he sold out the Royal Festival Hall when he spoke there in 2010.
His ideas have been developed in a series of books since the late 1980s, and fit with the themes of anti-globalisation, Occupy, and other radical struggles that are often one side of class struggle.
It is noticeable that Žižek does not attack capitalism as such. The exploitation of workers as workers is notably missing from this film. Rather he attacks consumerism, particular in its Coca-Cola/Starbucks form. This is despite, or maybe because, his philosophy is obtuse.
Although Žižek places himself in the revolutionary tradition and draws on Marx, he does not see himself primarily as a Marxist. He says he wants to reinvigorate German idealist philosophy, particularly that of Hegel, through the application of the French post-Freudian, Jacques Lacan.
There is no feeling in this film (or in Žižek’s numerous books) that this view emerges from a study of society and the forms of ideology in it. Rather, consistent with his idealist philosophical approach, the ideas emerge from the realm of pure thought, albeit cut with some empirically based psychoanalytic theory. The world is sampled, squeezed and (mis)interpreted to fit this theoretical view.
His evidence about society is what many of us would not think of as evidence — mainly film. This is not an affectation, but central to Žižek’s view of the world. Ideology is fantasy, and film is the purest form of the projection of such fantasy. Film is not the mirror which we hold up to ourselves, but feeds us the fantasies by which we constitute ourselves. The films are, for Žižek, reality. Thus M*A*S*H and Full Metal Jacket are used to understand the American military, Brief Encounter the nature of social control, and Jaws, fascism!
To say that the shark in Jaws stands for nothing other than fear itself is hardly a startling insight. Alfred Hitchcock spoke in similar terms about how the purpose of his films was not essentially narrative or plot, but to create an emotional response in the viewer. To say this kind of work gives us an insight into how the Nazis scapegoated the Jews is little short of ridiculous.
Onto his argument, Žižek bolts some bits of other people’s theories as if they were his insights. So he goes on to say that underlying the fantasy of Nazi ideology was one of a modernising revolution that preserved tradition. But the idea of fascism being “reactionary modernism” was asserted by Jeffrey Herf in 1984, and has antecedents stretching back to the 1930s.
Similarly, Žižek’s assertion that the riots in the UK were driven by consumerism (the “wrong dream”) is both unoriginal and, in Žižek’s case, seems to be based on the most casual of acquaintance with the evidence.
The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology also demonstrates a willful failure to engage with a Marxist understanding of ideology. In this film (and elsewhere) Žižek has dismissed the Marxist theory of ideology which he claims can be summarised by Marx as “they do not know it but they are doing it”. The line is a rather obscure one (from the first German edition of volume one of Capital, but not in future editions).
Nor is the line directly about ideology; the “it” here is people producing exchange values for the market. For sure, this has a relationship to ideology, Marx argues that it obscures the real nature of production to satisfy human needs, a veil that will only be lifted by once production is carried out by “freely socialised man under their conscious, planned control.” But the Marxist view of ideology based on the nature of social life is not understood, far less developed, by Žižek.
For Žižek both the nature of ideology and the liberation of humanity is based on the idea of fantasy. For him, people’s relation to ideology-fantasy is “I know very well what I am doing but am I still doing it.” The project of liberation is not to end fantasy, but to replace it with a better fantasy, or to dream with the right desire.
Thus Žižek goes down the road of anarchist cliché, we should “be realistic, demand the impossible”, and he argues that the dream should not be of wanting the working class to awake, but that new dreams and revolution become a subjective act of will.
Žižek’s politics are, ultimately, mere fantasy.
charliethechulo | October 11, 2013 at 9:32 am | Categories: AWL, celebrity, cinema, fantasy, film, intellectuals, Marxism, philosophy, post modernism, posted by JD, wild man | URL: http://wp.me/p3wKE-alw
A pretty good book review by Will Self, that includes a lot of what John Gray says about Zizek: