In the ordinary business of science it is reasonable to claim that the moon causes the tides, and to refer to empirical data as evidence. In the ordinary business of literary criticism it is reasonable to claim that Gordon Geko was greedy or that house elves are moral stand-ins for the peoples of our world who are enslaved and oppressed – and to refer to various theories of literature, psychology or intuition as evidence. In these worlds of study the criteria according to which claims are deemed reasonable are both intuitive and well understood.
However, the analysis of social and cultural phenomena is rarely satisfying. At its least sophisticated, it consists of journos and their dwindling customer base spinning the five or six sociological truths they've collected over their life into tales which bear little resemblance to reality. At its most sophisticated, psycho-philosophers, “theorists” and sociologists spin the five or six volumes of cultural theory they've written over their life into tales which seem to catch reality by surprise. It seems that in the analysis of social and cultural phenomena there is no escape from a “para-empirical” style of explanation – explanations which sit uncomfortably alongside the data.
This ubiquitous para-empirical analysis is concerned with the interpretation of events. It is a mode of reasoning and understanding we all rely upon to make sense of the world, a process which constructs fictions fully analogous to literature (and it is on similar grounds Lacan avers, “truth has the structure of a fiction”). This highly politicized activity, however, is not a deliberate affair: what you find important will determine what you include in your account. If it seems to you that gun ownership is a major social problem, then the involvement of a gun in some “disastrous event” will be a key feature of the narrative you construct.
It is this mechanism of narrative generation that those invested in political struggles employ. From feminists to men's rights activists, from corporate lobbyists to Noam Chomsky - politically invested actors try to co-opt this process for their own ends. Not intentionally, however: a feminist does not decide “here's a cunning narrative” and then seek to push it – rather, he is himself convinced of the narrative and, finding it Moral, Good and True, feels a moral pressure to convince others of it. If the world is truly immoral in some fashion, it is right that this immorality be pointed out.
Disinterested studies of this process are possible (“critique of ideology”), but are usually filled with tremendous amounts of theory to paper-over the lack of a successful general approach to culture. The key problem is then how to unpack the narratives to resolve their contradictions and internal inconsistencies (and how to select “the best”). What's pressing, however, is that not only must we find a way to do this, but that it ought also to be successful in pre-existing old and new media war grounds: we need to be able to construct the right narratives in a world so often constructing the wrong ones. I believe some, such a Zizek, have brought us quite far in the key problem; but few have had much luck with the pressing one.
In discussion forums, at dinner parties and on CNN, politico-pen activists set up before the facts arrive and determine to offer an account which highlights their cause; of course, by the end everyone has agreed it's a “complicated situation” with “many causes” and “who knows” and so forth. The activity of debate here seems largely to deal with that moral impulse outlined: in being initially convinced of their narrative, they feel a psychological moral pressure to offer it up, and having done so can move on. Everyone gets their chance, and in the end we smooth over the argumentative fallout with amicable nods to the infinite complexity of all things (a re-appropriation of God's Mysteriousness for the Chardonnay classes).
Amongst these groups a recent slate of murders has provoked a great deal of reaction; here the motivations of the killer seem to be varied and complex. What counterfactuals are offered? If there were no mental health issues, this person might not have been homicidal. If there were no gender oppression, this person might have not killed anyone. If there were mental-health background checks on gun ownership, this person might not have killed anyone. These are our empiricist intuitions desperately clinging to the scientific mindset, in which a cause is merely that which, if present, elicits an effect (the ball was kicked, the ball moved; if the ball had not been kicked it would not have moved; therefore kicking caused the ball to move). The problem we face is that these counterfactuals are themselves prioritized and constructed in the very same process which creates narratives (“ideological onto-genesis”).
One admonition, from the perspective of a candidate for a new framework, is to not “exceptionalize events.” War, for example, is the normal state of affairs for America – and yet each war is presented as an exceptional circumstance requiring unique, more extreme steps (this is also the predominant narrative surrounding terrorism). It seems a homicidal interaction between mental health and ideologies of inequality may also be normal in America (I shall leave this to the reader to ponder). If so, we should consider whether placing the mentally ill in a milieu of excellent mental health care, social equality and a society which severely limits the ease of intentionally killing people is better than the reverse: a society of extremely poor mental health care and social inequality, and in which the tools of homicide proliferate. If these Events are exceptions, however - if society should just go on around them - are we able to make any political statement?
There are many forces in an Event and maybe the best we can do is say that they have interacted. Yet from this interaction two questions arise: 1) What is our Culture (or, from what has this Event emerged) ?; and 2) What might our Culture be (or, what do we need to change)? If we are going to answer these questions, however, we must first establish the framework in which this can be self-consciously achieved.
Here we require a great deal of thought before offering up actions which merely run along the rails of oppressive narratives. Here activists caught-up in ideological warfare offer us nothing of use: they passionately push their narratives, each with its own contradictions and mythologies. They push analyses they produce in the environment of their own oppression, analyses which invariably have internalized and reflect the very immoralities they seek to address.
Here we require philosophers to interpret the world, in order that we might change it.
Great essay Michael,
Does this critique boil down to requiring a more “hollistic” approach to events? One where we move away from putting one issue (guns, mental health etc) on a pedestal and instead look at the interaction of many factors? It seems you still advocate a common-sense (scientific?) approach of visualizing a future, and then analyzing ways to get there.
Michael Burgess says
I dont quite know what I’m trying to say here, other than “slow down and think”. It’s a gesture at pointing out complexities where they exist rather than prescribing a solution. I may write a follow up which outlines my particular preference which, as hinted at, is along the line’s of Zizek’s method of ideological critique.
Heather Christie says
Maybe you have a fever that only thinking about intersectionality theory can cure!
Wayne Schroeder says
Michael–brilliant as always. And I think that you are appealing to what is needed for most of the people most of the time to stop and think–however I do not think most of those people are reading your blog–so much as us philosophical stop and think types.
I still remember my football coach in high school saying to me as a guard, “Wayne, why didn’t you pull? (left guard pull to the right and block for the ball carrier)?” I said “Coach, I thought . . .” to which he said “Wayne, don’t think–do it,” a constant echo in my head.
And so, I say to you Michael and to Zizek, to all of us stop-and-thinkers, there is value initially saying no to the no, of demythologizing the ideologically sublime, but when do we say Start-and-do-it, don’t think, just do it?
Good to hear that 1) “I dont know what I’m trying to say here” and 2) “I may write a follow up which outlines my particular preferences” –after all, what else is there?
For my own “just do it” (move over Nike): Rights are no more privileged than Responsibility. That statement is not my ideological claim, but my individual claim, which is one of our many, our multiplicity. There may be consensus or not, but that is another issue. Now I am about to become less relevant to others, more relevant to myself (just do it, carpe the f’ing diem): Gun rights are dependent on individual responsibility.
That’s enough for one carpe.
Join in the diem.
Heather Christie says
Your preference is only less relevant to others if they don’t care about it. I’m glad there’s a post about this topic here because the conversation about this matters to me. I think that rights come with responsibilities but I also think privileges and gifts do. The media isn’t well suited for cool, thoughtful dialogue because heat is what drives ratings and clicks. A sense of responsibility can extend to questioning in the choice of questions and the willingness to attempt to keep the temperature down when responding. I think that is a meaningful action. Public discussion creates significance and the tone of the discussion shapes the narrative. So I’ll be happy if anyone wants to talk about the history of this event in the context of whether thinking and discussion can create change. I mentioned intersectionality because there are 3 or 4 oppression narratives operating together and there is a lot to think about in that intersection. There are things to think about in the accessibility of ideas and it’s people who have the gifts or privilege of good thinking and communication who can translate new narratives and their responsibilities. Expansive dialogue is activism and a sense of responsibility in the use of one’s own resources and advantages is activism.
Heather Christie says
Michael, what I get from what you are saying is that philosophy is unlike other arenas because in philosophy it is more important to listen and think than it is to talk. Maybe I am unconsciously influenced by listening to the Schopenhauer podcast. lol
Great article Michael. Philosophy can facilitate this important task, because it acknowledges that it lacks any ‘final foundation’ for any claims (unlike any other branch of human knowledge or inference); in essence: it is only through such acknowledgment that you can quell the passions (and with this the extremes manifest from these passions, i.e. what are termed ‘moral outrages’). The problem though has never been with philosophy… it is in making everyone a philosopher (very much akin to communism…it’s an all or nothing approach).
I just read Nietszche’s “The Gay Science” a while ago and this popped into my head:
“One is now ashamed of repose: even long reflection almost causes remorse of conscience. Thinking is done with a stopwatch, as dining is done with the eyes fixed on the financial newspaper; we live like men who are continually “afraid of letting opportunities slip.” “Better do anything whatever, than nothing”-this principle also is a noose with which all culture and all higher taste may be strangled”
While that’s not proof of your proposition, it certainly a poetic rendition.
I approve of the goal you set forth but I may be to pessimistic to regard it as a possible reality – for nuanced thought to be a part of a larger societal discourse. Everywhere you turn these days, there are easy answers and partisan thought. No one wants to “understand” , we only want to see our current world-view as constant and unchanged. If feel that we’d rather be miserable than feel as though our mode of thinking (that is not-nuanced, unflinching and constant) is wrong.
Michael finishes with a line that seemingly negates his subtitle: “Here we require philosophers to interpret the world, in order that we might change it.” The piece successfully brings to light certain problems that others have spoken of before, each in their own way.
It seems pertinent here to call upon the thinking of Martin Heidegger, who commented on the eleventh thesis of Feuerbach during the 1969 Wisser television interview in the following way:
“The question of the demand for world change leads us back to Karl Marx’s frequently quoted statement from his Theses on Feuerbach. I would like to quote it exactly and read out loud: ‘Philosophers have only interpreted the world differently; what matters is to transform it’. When this statement is cited and when it is followed, it is overlooked that changing the world presupposes a change in the positing of the world. A positing of the world can only be won by adequately interpreting the world. That means: Marx’s demand for a ‘change’ is based upon a very definite interpretation of the world, and therefore this statement is proved to be without foundation. It gives the impression that is speaks decisively against philosophy, whereas the second half of the statement presupposes, unspoken, a demand for philosophy.”
So can we now relax? Safe in the knowledge that philosophy is indeed ‘useful’? We can see how interpretation comes before action. We can even prove the value to all the scientists and pragmatists. However, we must be careful and not get ahead of ourselves. For is this not merely one interpretation of interpretation? Have we got at the truth of the matter, better than Marx could? What is truth anyway? Since God is dead aren’t we in charge of what is true? Who are we anyway? Apologies, I am being too philosophical…
For Marx: “To be radical is to grasp the root of the thing. The root for man however is man himself.” Marx’s thinking is therefore a ‘Humanism’ where in the absence of God, ‘man’ appears as the one who stands in the place of creation and production. Is this surprising considering the ground of Marx’s thought? Is his thinking not a continuation of the end of philosophy that began with Descartes assertion that humanity has absolute priority over every other region of being? So perhaps Marx was not so stupid after all, why would he be able to break free from the way in which metaphysics thinks? (Why do you think in a language that existed before your existing?)
We think ourselves able to think in any manner we please. Since after Foucault we can assert (with a universal) that there are no such things as universals. This suggests that we can simply choose what kind of philosophy we may do. (Notice however the common concern throughout the comments, that philosophy have ‘value’.) For Heidegger this is thoroughly problematic. For us, history is radically contingent, we are in no other way. The history of being befalls us.
From this insufficient discussion we can hopefully see the importance of questioning our own questioning. Without this rigor we do not know that of which has befallen us and now remains concealed, giving us to think. It is these ‘taken for granteds’ that despite being closest to us are the most hidden.
Let me now finish where I began, with a quote from Heidegger, who can make the point better than I ever could: “It is entirely correct and completely in order to say, “You can’t do anything with philosophy”. The only mistake is to believe that with this, the judgement concerning philosophy is at an end. For a little epilogue arises in the form of a counterquestion: even if we can’t do anything with it, may not philosophy in the end do something with us, provided that we engage ourselves with it?”
Wayne Schroeder says
Sakuraba: A call to action.
You are addressing the possibility of philosophers interpreting and having an impact on the world, if I read you correctly.
Specifically, your reference to Heidegger “Philosophers have only interpreted the world differently; what matters is to transform it,” the impact on the world issue and that “changing the world presupposes a change in the positing [interpreting] of the world, ” which is what Heidegger was all about.
You are questioning if interpretation can come before action, an issue I also raised with Michael’s Zizekian position. “Have we got the truth of the matter, better than Marx could?” suggesting your favoring of Marx: “‘man’ appears as the one who stands in the place of creation and production, breaking “free from the way in which metaphysics thinks.”
You are saying with Heidegger, “You can’t do anything with philosophy.” Though, rather than jettisoning philosophy, you are advocating that we become “engaged,” don’t just think philosophically from the Bartleby position, do something that engages.
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”― Karl Marx, Eleven Theses on Feuerbach [These words are also inscribed upon his grave]
Michael and Zizek would say check you ideology.
Thank you for your reply Wayne.
I frustratingly speak neither for nor against this argument of whether interpretation or action comes first. I do not seek to close this circle. Instead I attempted to bring to light Heidegger’s point by juxtaposing the thought of Marx and Michael:
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”
“Here we require philosophers to interpret the world, in order that we might change it.”
We could argue that both comments are different sides of the same coin. I am not after the “right” answer. I am not after a ‘project’ of philosophy that will allow us to manage the evils of today… the middle eastern conflicts, the economic crisis (feel free to add you own!)… My new and improved philosophy would alter things not a jot. Instead with Heidegger showing the way, I am asking after the coin itself. To uncover not what I think, but rather on what basis I think thinks at all. To uncover what gives my thinking what it thinks on.
Thus by placing Michael and Marx alongside each other I sought to bring in to the open what each of them could not not think (there is no mistake with the language here). I sought to show what is binding for them. This was to encourage us to turn the question to ourselves and ask after what is binding for us? (We could roughly translate this ‘us’ and ‘we’ as the West.) This is why I hinted at the fact that value drives much of contemporary thought, a fact that wouldn’t have surprised Nietzsche much at all and is why we can so easily and so often see what he speaks of.
I do not favour Marx in the sense I hear you to be using, I am no Marxist or Heideggerian (no more so than Heidegger himself…). Both are indeed great thinkers. However, I am not interested in supporting one philosopher over the other, as though they were a football team. Instead I ask after what each thought of. So that I may (in this instance) uncover what it is Marx thought of and how he was bound to think in such a way. I hinted at how the eleventh thesis was binding for Marx given his understanding of history.
This thinking leads us to ask after our own and our tradition. If I cannot not think other than in the way I am going to have to think, in what way do I think freely? This engagement with our own thinking allows us to see the Kantian concern that hides within this question. This more rigorous kind of thought is the engagement Heidegger speaks of.
Jake Z. says
What? I’m pretty sure the vast majority of people are aware of the complexities of the massacre. That doesn’t mean there aren’t observable factors, e.g. mental illness, misogyny, entitlement, and gun availability. Different people will harp on different factors. Some will point out all of them. I don’t understand what this para-empirical and narrative stuff means. Are you saying that the factors people invoke are false or have no truth value or something else? I agree that we can never “verify” what cocktail of factors “caused” the event but certainly there are factors that were involved. And you’re right to point out that people who are more cognizant of particular issues will be quicker to draw attention to their relevance, if that is indeed what you were talking about in reference to ideologies and their influence on narrative construction.
Michael Burgess says
I’m saying only that events have no determinate meaning. That anything meaningful we draw from them is constructed (, within an ideological process).
I’m not decided on how much of this is a problem or what we need to do to get around it. Previously my position was that one should ignore events altogether and speak only in terms of systems (that events are symptoms of)… im less certain about this at the moment.
Heather Christie says
The other week in the forums there was a post about something Neil Degrasse Tyson said on the Nerdist about his lack of interest in philosophy. His opinion made me wonder about the ends of philosophy and whether he had a point. The same day my coworker who is doing her masters in Art History handed me The Ends of the Sciences by Philip Kitcher and I looked at it a little bit and told her about the Tyson thing and we saw some funny connections in it. I don’t know why she’s reading about the ends of science for her Art History paper but she hasn’t written it yet so I’ll find out later. But the Ends of our work is in the air these days. It seems appropriate to examine the ends of everything we put our energy into right now. There’s a sense of urgency when we are able to understand problems so well that we can foretell our own doom along side a history of ideas whose influence has created new problems. New Work seems very much about this question of finding the best value in the ends of the diversity of work in light of what we know about the future.
In the case of Heidegger and Marx the problem of totalitarianism is glaring. But there are other voices in other disciplines. The lineage after Marx and Heidegger becomes diverse with other voices and a multidisciplinary approach. Hannah Ardent would be the next logical person to spring into my mind.
It was only two years ago that Melissa Harris Perry got a show where she mainstreams current approaches to political science that come out of her work academia with an ends of diversifying perspectives. Of course it focuses more on voices that are sidelined in mainstream media but the approach is intentional. The fact that she is famous at all is evidence that the suppressed voice of the oppressed has been freed in an attempt at socially responsible ends. Social responsibility and responsiveness can be questioned as an ideology but the question is still going to be to what ends.
The MRA and PUA communities are a glaring manifestation of the problem of oppression ideology as a means to drive fair outcomes. The narrative of these two communities is a nightmare that has completely digested its own tail in its recursive logic. Their oppressor is both the feminist whom they hate for feminism and the non feminist for a lack of submission that they attribute to deceitful trickery and in this way they are able to label all women as their oppressor and act accordingly to assert their rights. Now to the point of threats, intimidation and violence. The only way to break that circle is to question the oppression narrative and that in itself makes it difficult to publicly discuss from any one point of view. I haven’t been reading the online response to the shooting incident because I’m prone to get emotional about it being that I am the supposed oppressor here. There’s something about the act of violence that makes me want to stop and think about whether I am going to keep rejecting the role of oppressor as a preposterous claim and how I would respond as an oppressor. It gives me an opportunity to consider problems of equality from the vantage point of the one in power. I have no choice in my moral framework but to think about it deeply. I can’t see any other way into it but through it.
I can make a narrative of my oppressorship. I remember my dad taking me aside when I was maybe 14 and patiently explaining to me the concept of emasculation and why I should stop constantly doing it. I also remember wondering why he expected me to stop doing something that I saw as harmless and unintentional and why I was supposed to care so much about other people’s feelings when he was constantly hurting mine and then explaining it away when I challenged him on his sexist attitudes. He gave me my skeptical feminism. It has always felt like a radical and dangerous position to me and it still does. I know that any activism around it has the potential to create problems. It is becoming less problematic but the problems for me still lie in the question of the ends of thought and the correct exercise of influence. Problem solving. I would say that all my feminist activism since I first thought about these problems as a kid has been scientific, consisting of small experiments in personal interactions. Attempts to have authentic and mutually respectful relationships with sexist people. I am still unsure of how a concept of positive masculinity can be approached when it’s the tradition to label traits like freedom and self mastery as masculine and then not trust ‘others’ to exercise enough responsibility in owning those traits. How can you give something back that you feel has been stolen from you in the first place? Are freedom and self mastery commodities? I know this is Zizek territory and I have only seen his movies and not read him. One of the things that stuck out to me in the conversation about Neil Degrasse Tyson was he said that he considered himself to be doing creative work and I think that’s where I got stuck because I don’t know who sees the ends of science or philosophy as creative but it seems to me that surely they have to be. I can’t see Slavoj Zizek as uncreative. If creativity is synthesizing knowledge and finding a spin in the direction of solving a problem or filling a gap then surely philosophy has creative ends.
Wayne Schroeder says
“Kids are never the problem. They are born scientists. The problem is always the adults. They beat the curiosity out of kids. They outnumber kids. They vote. They wield resources. That’s why my public focus is primarily adults.”― Neil deGrasse Tyson
For philosophy as creative, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DskjRer95s
I wonder how many who are drawn to philosophy were inspired by unreasonable fathers? Working through Nietzsche is a great study in the nature of true power as strength, male or female (you just have to ignore his view of women).
Heather Christie says
Thank you for the link! I watched it. My father was an elementary school teacher and Neil deGrasse Tyson reminds me of a certain irritating paternalistic teaching style sometimes haha. I still love him though.