Commonplaces of Academic Life: NDPR Review of Levinasian Meditations

Since I wasn’t all that interested in reading it to begin with, I completely forgot Richard Cohen’s  Levinasian Meditations had already been published until I saw this review by Martin Kavka in the NDPR just now.  The review certainly  makes for some interesting reading.   While Kavka admits Cohen broaches some important, if not crucial topics in Levinasian scholarship (and beyond), there seems to be a defensive tone that runs through the whole book:

Levinasian Meditations, in its structure, embodies a claim frequently found in scholarship on Levinas, namely that Judaism and its other-centered ethics, through its countercultural stance, can play a role in saving the modern West from the historical evils that have resulted from the West’s tendency either to create social commonalities through political violence or to erase social difference through genocide and ethnic cleansing. Those who read these essays seriatim will quickly infer that many of them are, at least in part, responses to unnamed others who have offered dismissive responses either to Cohen’s approach to Levinas or to Levinas’s philosophy tout court. It strikes me as very possible that readers of Levinasian Meditations will misinterpret it as a result. Continue reading

A Serious Disapointment

Over the weekend I finally got a chance to see the Coen Brothers latest release, A Serious Man.  My initial reaction to the movie was a moderately enthusiastc “Meh.”  However, after I started thinking about it I found myself becoming a bit annoyed and this morning I woke up thinking the film was a total failure. David Denby, who wrote one of the few negative reviews, sums up:

The movie is a deadpan farce with a schlemiel Job as a hero—Professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physicist at a local university, whose life, in 1967, is falling apart. Gopnik’s wife (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for a sanctimonious bastard (Fred Melamed) who covers his aggressions against Larry with limp-pawed caresses and offers of “understanding.” Larry’s kids are thieving brats, and his hapless, sick, whining brother (Richard Kind) camps on the living-room couch and refuses to look for work. There’s more, much more, a series of mishaps, sordid betrayals, and weird coincidences, but Larry, a sweet guy and “a serious man”—upright, a good teacher, a father—won’t hit back. Occasionally, his eyebrows fluttering like street signs in a hurricane, he stands up for himself, but he won’t take a shot at anyone, or try to control anyone, verbally or any other way. He won’t even sleep with the dragon-eyed but sexy and highly available woman next door who sunbathes naked. (read the full review here) Continue reading

NDPR Review of Refractions of Reality

A review of John Mullarkey’s interesting new book, Refractions of Reality: Philosophy and the Moving Image (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) by Joseph Mai (from the NDPR):

Since the invention of the cinématographe at the end of the 19th century, a striking number of thinkers have taken a serious philosophical interest (sometimes exhibited as anxiety) in the ability to create and project moving photographic images. Over the years important authors such as Henri Bergson, Siegfried Kracauer, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, André Bazin, Gilles Deleuze, Stanley Cavell and others have returned to film over and over in their writings. Their investigations implicitly posed a curious set of questions that have come up more explicitly and insistently in recent film philosophy: Can films think? If so, how does film think? What are the implications of a film “mind” for philosophy? In his very original book, Refractions of Reality, John Mullarkey tackles these questions, but first approaches them through a diagnosis of the source of philosophical interest in them. For Mullarkey the persistence of such questions is symptomatic of a certain anxiety among philosophers. What he calls “film-envy” follows from the fact that both philosophy and film are concerned to describe reality (ix). The idea that film might think about reality, and in a different way than philosophy does, resounds with all the potential benefits and possible fears of the democratization of thought. Continue reading

Reading Quentin Skinner: History vs. Philosophy

I casually started Skinner’s Hobbes and Republican Liberty just to see what he’s up to lately (Skinner, not Hobbes who, I think, is dead) and I can’t put it down. Skinner is a self-professed intellectual historian and his style is very much different from another book on Hobbes that I am reading (an excellent book as well), but when I came across this review of it written by a self-professed philosopher, I understood why I am enjoying Skinner: Continue reading

Interesting Review of Hägglund’s Radical Atheism

I have expressed some reservations about Hägglund’s book in the past, but I do think it is a rather refreshing read, even if I disagree for the most part with its primary argument – here’s take on the book by Brian Rajski:

“[T]he openness to the other cannot be an ethical principle since it is not a matter of choice. Openness to the other answers to the openness to the unpredictable coming of time and is thus the condition for whatever there is. . . . Furthermore, nothing can guarantee that it is better to be more open than to be less open to the other (or vice versa). . . . The decision concerning how one should relate to the other can therefore not be dictated by an ethical injunction, but must be reinvented from time to time. Far from providing an ethical ground, the deconstructive thinking of alterity thus politicizes even the most elementary relation to the other.” In this explosive little book on Derrida, Martin Hagglund rejects the appropriation over the last twenty years of deconstruction as an ethical, political, or religious project. He denies that there is an “ethical turn” in Derrida’s thought (usually located around the publication of Specters of Marx), arguing Derrida’s work is informed by a single logic from start to end. 

Suicide Squad

“A tense and peculiar family, the Oedipuses,” a wag once observed. Well, when it comes to dysfunction, the Wittgensteins of Vienna could give the Oedipuses a run for their money. The tyrannical family patriarch was Karl Wittgenstein (1847-1913), a steel, banking and arms magnate. He and his timorous wife, Leopoldine, brought nine children into the world. Of the five boys, three certainly or probably committed suicide and two were plagued by suicidal impulses throughout their lives. Of the three daughters who survived into adulthood, two got married; both husbands ended up insane and one died by his own hand. Even by the morbid standards of late Hapsburg Vienna these are impressive numbers. But tense and peculiar as the Wittgensteins were, the family also had a strain of genius. Of the two sons who didn’t kill themselves, one, Paul (1887-1961), managed to become an internationally celebrated concert pianist despite the loss of his right arm in World War I. The other, Ludwig (1889-1951), was the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. Continue reading

Adam Kirsch Roars for Justice (Prequel to Zizek)

I cite has a reaction to Kirsch-Zizek virtual encounter that has an intriguing comment from a reader who suggests that one must not be surprised to read Adam Kirsch’s “review” of Zizek’s books, apparently, we’re dealing with a pattern. In October, Kirsch reviewed Raymond Geuss’s new book in a piece titled “The Roar of Justice” – enjoy!

Still, in his brash, self-congratulatory attempt to get to the bottom of politics—to replace illusion with reality, ideals with power—Geuss lacks the ruthless consistency of his patron saint, Thrasymachus. “The unjust is lord over the truly simple and just: he is the stronger, and his subjects do what is for his interest, and minister to his happiness, which is very far from being their own,” Thrasymachus says. It follows that the only logical course for any human being is to try to be happily unjust, rather than simple—that is, stupid—and just.

Yet this does not at all seem to be Geuss’s view. On the contrary, his attacks on the Bush administration and the war on Iraq, and his loathing of the bourgeois complacency of Rawls and Nozick, all suggest that he has his own conception of justice, which involves solidarity with the oppressed and resistance to the powerful. (He approvingly quotes not just Lenin but Brecht.) But it’s hard to see how, on his own showing, any critique of existing power arrangements could have any intellectual or moral coherence. The world of Thrasymachus is a war of all against all, in which the powerful will always win. If Geuss does not want to inhabit such a world—and who does?—he should acknowledge that the inquiry into the nature of justice, which has occupied philosophers from Socrates to Rawls, is not an ideological trick, but the necessary beginning of all attempts to make the world more just.

“Solidarity with the oppressed”? No way! How unjust is that? “Resistance to the powerful”? Nice…

Read the whole thing here.

The Insight That Never Was: More on Mark C. Taylor’s After God

Let’s start then from the end of chapter 1 (“Theorizing Religion”) – as Shahar insightfully points out – it is not clear from my two previous posts what exactly is Taylor’s big contribution to the theory of religion. Assuming a rather uncharacteristically humble position, I am thinking that maybe I am missing something in Taylor’s discussion of the definition of religion.  The first chapter ends with this statement of purpose:

My aim is both analytic and constructive: first, I seek to show how and why religion continues to play such an important role in the modern and postmodern world, and second, I attempt to provide a more adequate religious vision and ethical framework for negotiating the complexities and contradictions of life at the beginning of the twenty-first century. (42, emphasis mine) Continue reading

What Is Religion? Continuing With Taylor’s After God

So the reading continues from yesterday’s post.

In the previous episode, Taylor introduced his definition of religion and the main crux of his argument that religion is everywhere and is very dangerous seemed to be contained in the phrase “figure(s) schemata” – religion is a type of network of symbols, myths and rituals that “figure schemata of feeling, thinking, and acting in ways that lend life meaning and purpose.” However, Taylor adds, this would seems like a very traditional definition if not for an additional element: religion is also a network of symbols, myths and rituals that “disrupt, dislocate, and disfigure every stabilizing structure.” When I first read this definition, I thought Taylor was trying to say something like this: religion is a certain type of network of elements that, as a network, acts in a constructive and a destructive way. Now that I’ve looked at it again, due to the form of the verbs “figure” and “disrupt, dislocate, and disfigure,” it seems that Taylor is referring not to the network’s figuring and disfiguring, but to the work of the “symbols, myths, and rituals” which, I suppose, means that religion is a type of network that manages to put together symbols, myths and rituals that act here creatively, there destructively.

Once Taylor returns from his description of “complex adaptive networks” that he borrows from physics, he launches into a rather interesting, even if somewhat imaginary, description of how our “cognitive activity” works: here one finds all kinds of interesting diagrams, suggestions (“data” – “information” – “knowledge” – “meaning” movement), insightful comments and more. The basic idea is to understand how understanding works, or to be more precise, how “schematization” functions. After Taylor is done with the basics, he writes: Continue reading

Žižek’s New Book: In Defense Of Lost Causes.

Terry Eagleton reviews Žižek’s new book:

The self-consciously outrageous case the book has to argue is that there is a “redemptive” moment to be plucked from such failed revolutionary ventures as Jacobinism, Leninism, Stalinism and Maoism. Žižek is by no means a champion of political terror: the Mao he offers us here, for example, is the mass murderer who mused that “half of China may have to die” in the Great Leap Forward, and who remarked that though a nuclear war might blow a hole in the planet, it would leave the cosmos largely untouched. His aim is not to justify such demented views, but to make things harder for the typical liberal middle-class dismissal of them. In pursuing this goal, the book offers us a wealth of political and philosophical insight; but it is not at all clear that it validates its central thesis. […]

It is not the nave of its central thesis which makes this book so compelling, but its side chapels. Slavoj Žižek, as usual, seems gratifyingly unable to remember what case he has just been pursuing, and there are some splendid digressions, including an account of the changing role of the scherzo in Shostakovich, a disquisition on Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”, and reflections on Eisenstein’s lost masterpieces. In Defense of Lost Causes is a frenetic, eclectic parody of intellectual scholarship, by one so assured in his grasp of the finer points of Kafka or John le Carré that he can afford to ham it up a little. Read the whole thing.

I did buy Parallax View when it came out, but I think I only used it as a reference guide to see what Žižek had to say about certain subjects – I’m not sure if I could read it all the way through. Should I buy this new one or is Žižek’s fame slowly fading away and I no longer need to familiarize myself with his ever-increasing body of work to stay “hip”?