Search results for "work "

Life balance

Author: joe

Tuesday, 31 January, 2012 - 22:24

Bat, Bean, Beam recently wrote about the various parking, dismantling and deaths of blogs ‑ and I thought, hmmm, have I got a dead blog? Well I have several actually, but menticulture has always been where I've gone to Write Something In Blog Format, and where, recently, months have intervened without a whisper. Anyway, in true speech act style, this very clacking of keys on the bodywork and thin‑film transistors dancing on the light canvas exactly are the decision not to let the old menticulture blog sip away just yet.

In the autumn of 2010 I set myself the task of writing something every working day, in the hope (correct as it turned out) that a little writing leads to a lot of writing. I should try to be so disciplined again, though perhaps not with such stringent constraints. Lately the not‑writing has not been a symptom of gazing at the wall vacantly wondering what to do with myself ‑ quite the opposite: a family, a baby girl, a new county and other homely busy‑keeping has kept the small hours full, while I'm increasingly finding it impossible to squeeze as much out of working life as I used to. No longer willing to work moonlight hours for an increasingly demanding university, I have little time beyond what has become a grind of teaching to pursue the different strands of personal work ‑ research projects, PhD progress, digital practice ‑ not to mention the necessity of the freelance work which complements my part‑time position at the university.

All this has lately led me to wonder whether it isn't time to rethink the academic part of my life. A few years ago I had a brief conversation with a mentor who had taken a career‑path not very dissimilar to my own, bridging a primary role as a practitioner with subsequent work as a researcher and teacher. My mind blew out slightly when he suggested I should perhaps put the teaching on hold for a while and concentrate on the other things ‑ complete your research, focus on your professional work. I had gone to him hoping to find strategies for maintaining the different components in some vertically aligned way, and failed to see how jettisoning my main source of (admittedly small) income could possibly help.

Now however, I am starting to see the attraction of this option. Part of me is utterly aghast that it has come to this. For so long I've seen teaching as the most important aspect of my work ‑ teaching as the primary function of a university system which can then harness the intelligence of its community to conduct research. To be sure, I felt it would be a sort of charlatanism to 'just' teach a practical discipline which you do not also practice: if you daren't live by the wits of your practice, why should any student expect to learn anything from you? But what at the end of the day is the value of work that you don't want to share with others, to uncover the apparent mysteries of craft and invite people to experience the pleasure that attends learning how to make things?

The pressures in the institution have long been such that to achieve this balance of personal integrity and educational efficacy you have to sacrifice many other parts of your life. When I was a kidult single bachelor hedonist I could choose to subsidise the HE institution by working 70 hours a week in term time and recuperating other parts of my life in the breaks. That option is no longer open to me, and more than a decade of working in HE has shown me how people who dedicate their lives to a project like teaching, treating it as a vocation that invites devotion and commitment, often end up feeling betrayed by their institution's tendency to undergo changes of management, policy, funding imperatives and the blunt churn of turnover. When the line‑managers in your department are replaced by new suits with new executive orders and with the new odours of the political wind in their noses, those years of effort don't seem to count for as much as you hoped.

Categories: teaching, work-life balance, decisions,
Comments: 2

Anachronistic workers

Author: joe

Wednesday, 15 December, 2010 - 22:59

Someone asks, who are the workers? In so asking they suggest my Marxist reference to 'the worker' is anachronistic, or that by workers I must mean the 'chavs', or the immigrants who routinely take up the most menial jobs in society (and therefore could not possibly benefit from a Higher Education system).

Paradoxically, many people rebut polemics against the Coalition government's spending cuts, or criticise 'whinging' protesters, by demanding that they should get a job and stop relying on those who WORK! (The word is usually capitalised, thereby denoting what a RADICAL POLITICAL ACTION going to work really is).

The good honest worker, that mythical hero we all become when we think of how we sacrifice our precious free time to pay our way. All we must do is work, and the world around us magically transforms into a place of merit and recognition, advancement and reward, or a benign adventureland in which the vulnerable can finally sip from the luxurious cup of welfare.

The sign-system mobilised by such appeals to work carry the implication that the harder we work, the more deserving we are, and the better off we will be. He who works longest reaps the most reward. It feels almost insulting to point out the obvious fact - how can it be necessary to point it out!? - that it is generally those who work longest who earn the least, that value is transferred from the worker (whose labour value is diminished) to the commodity (whose fetishisation 'magically' creates value), and that those with the luxury of capital make a profit from those without it? It's Marxism 101, and I'd tire of teaching it if it were not so fucking fundamental to understanding the inequality in society.

Categories: marxism 101, work, labour,
Comments: 0

Workers and intellectuals

Author: joe

Monday, 13 December, 2010 - 23:57

While thinking about Gramsci last week, I was reminded of his emphasis on the solidarity of intellectuals with workers. Who are these intellectuals he talks about? He distinguishes between two different kinds: the "traditional" and the "organic". The former, traditional, intellectuals emerge, seemingly legitimately, from the pre-existing structures of society, and thus appear to have relative autonomy, and somehow represent independence from political interference or interest: clericy, academics, philosophers, theorists - he calls them a "stratum of administrators". The latter, organic, intellectuals are those who are created as part of the emergence of social classes and structures. Gramsci offers the example of capitalist entrepreneurs who, as part of their endeavour, produce a host of technical advisors, organisers, managers and specialists who aid, lubricate and support their entrepreneurial adventures.

As I've said, I read Gramsci as a teacher who is wiser than me, so when troubled by something he suggests, I am forced to grapple with it seriously, rather than gloss over it. Gramsci is famous for his assertion that "all men are philosophers", but this simply entails the further question - what is the function of the intellectual dimension of each person, in the struggle for emancipation and enfranchisement?

The answer may seem to lie in the "traditional" intelligentsia, who have retained their autonomy from the dominant political class, rather than the "organic " intellectuals whose knowledge is infected by coercion into the dominant mode of production. What would be necessary, were this true, would be for the "traditional" intellectuals, the academics and scholars, scientists and theorists, to teach the lowly, "organic" intellectuals. Indeed much contemporary discourse on the threat to the university implies this analysis: rising tuition fees and withdrawal of funding from arts and humanities means that the university system is in danger of being co-opted into subservience to the dominant mode of neoliberal production, being stripped of its historical intellectual autonomy, and directed at instrumental, commercial subjects which will drive capital growth in the economy, because under the new arrangements it will be limited to the richest in society and through privatisation, arcane or unprofitable subjects will go to the wall in favour of crowd-pleasing employment-guaranteeing degrees.

But here's what Gramsci says:

The problem of creating a new stratum of intellectuals consists therefore in the critical elaboration of the intellectual activity that exists in everyone at a certain degree of development, modifying its relationship with the muscular-nervous effort towards a new equilibrium, and ensuring that the muscular-nervous effort itself, in so far as it is an element of a general practical activity, which is perpetually innovating the physical and social world, becomes the foundation of a new and integral conception of the world. The traditional and vulgarised type of the intellectual is given by the man of letters, the philosopher, the artist. Therefore journalists, who claim to be men of letters, philosophers, artists, also regard themselves as the "true" intellectuals. In the modern world, technical education, closely bound to industrial labour even at the most primitive and unqualified level, must form the basis of the new type of intellectual.
 
The Formation of the Intellectuals by Antonio Gramsci

Technical education, not education which aims at the production of the man of letters, must inform the new, necessary stratum of intellectuals - and this emphasis inverts the obvious answer outlined above. Far from valuing the autonomy of a layer of intellectuals detached from the dominant mode of production, Gramsci seems to critique intellectual activity that is not engaged with 'muscular-nervous' (i.e. practical) effort. Instead of lumping the "organic" intellectuals in with the dominant classes their efforts serve, he argues that it is this body of intellectuals that need to be fostered - and at that, through development of their practical, instrumental abilities, rather than their elevation into lofty academic "eloquence":

The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organiser, "permanent persuader" and not just a simple orator (but superior at the same time to the abstract mathematical spirit); from technique-as-work one proceeds to technique-as-science and to the humanistic conception of history, without which one remains "specialised" and does not become "directive" (specialised and political).

Or, you might say, all talk, no action. What is it in this critique of the "eloquence" of the traditional intellectual that is not enough? Isn't it the very separation of the academy from the consciousness of the worker that renders it extraneous? If that were all, then it might be enough simply to educate the worker into the concerns of the academy. But that would simply be an attempt to assimilate and thereby eradicate the very consciousness of the worker, in the mold of Matthew Arnold's vision of a universal education system that taught all children ancient Greek so that they could avoid being too anarchic. Actually Gramsci seems to be arguing that progress towards a new emancipatory hegemony requires a class of intellectuals that is not separate from the workers, but embedded in it and thus with its hands on the machines, engaged in the reproduction of the organs of society.

One of the most important characteristics of any group that is developing towards dominance is its struggle to assimilate and to conquer "ideologically" the traditional intellectuals, but this assimilation and conquest is made quicker and more efficacious the more the group in question succeeds in simultaneously elaborating its own organic intellectuals.

The dominant class wishes to colonise and normalise both classes of intellectuals. The problem for the university is that it imagines itself to be separate from the bourgeoisie, but in solidarity with the worker. In fact the reverse is all too true. The university should be invaded by the masses, not because the academy can transform them into lofty thinkers, but so that the workers can put knowledge to their own ends. Resistance must be on those terms, not the protectionism that characterises much of the current defence of the HE sector. As Armin Medosch wrote a couple of days ago,

"[the university system] reproduces internally the class structure of society, where the show is run by non-teaching managers, while a few celebrity professors benefit and the majority are just intellectual wage workers adjusting to different levels of exploitation and alienation. If the students really care for education as a public good they would be well advised not only to defend the status quo but raise maximalist demands, and simultaneously, as already happens in the many occupations and self-teaching experiments, to seek to re-invent university from below, redefine what counts as knowledge and science, and to experiment with new learning and teaching techniques and devices which are more egalitarian and less tainted by the fetishisation of knowledge in the class structure of 'cognitive' informational capitalism."

The university is already private, rich-favoured, neoliberal. The fight should be to seize the opportunity to reform it in the image of the worker, rather than the rich.

Categories: Antonio Gramsci, intellectuals, university, solidarity, worker, hegemony, emancipation,
Comments: 0

Being and Knowing: World as Diegesis

Author: joe

Tuesday, 14 July, 2009 - 22:52

Another conversation, this time with Shaun, and more thinking through, thinking aloud, thinking thought. Shaun attended all the first year media theory lectures over the last academic year, including the six part series I delivered on narrative. So, he got to hear me rework and reiterate impressionistically over the same endless themes of diegesis and artifice, story and plot, world and representation which I surreptitiously pretended was an overview of narrative theory.

So I was attempting to explain how that period of intense focus on ideas about narrative and, in particular, the phenomenon of diegesis, had since inflected my thought. The diegesis is the storyscape - the integrity of the imaginary theatre we accept when we give over to a narrator the suspension of our disbelief. The diegesis is the internally coherent world of the story - and 'world' is the key word here, since the idea of a 'world' is one of the ways in which I'm trying to muscle into an understanding of Heidegger which I think is going to be central to my PhD thesis. If you are going to read on here, put your Kafkaesque reading hat on and read it all as subjunctive: "I would, God-willing, understand in this way..."

Using a combination of Graham Harman's lucid writing on Heidegger, Timothy Clark's valiant exposition of Heidegger's thought, Hubert Dreyfus' concordance and commentary on 'Being and Time', and the dense source text itself, I've been trying to work towards an understanding Heidegger's concepts of Zuhandenheit and Vorhandenheit, theoria and praxis, not to mention Dasein, being there, and being a 'thing that things'. The concept of 'world' in this realm of thought seems helpful to me. Clark says that Heidegger's use of the term 'world',

"is close to the common meaning of the term when we talk about the 'world' of the Bible, or the 'world' of the modern Chinese or modern English - i.e.the fundamental understanding within which individual things, people, history, texts, buildings, projects cohere together within a shared horizon of significances, purposes and connotations. [...] the more fundamental shared disclosure of things within which [we] find [ourselves] in all [our] thoughts, practices and beliefs, providing the basis even of [our] self-conceptions and suppositions."


- all of which seems to be a perfect definition of diegesis if understood as pertaining not only to the fictional worlds we muster, but also the fields of meaning we conjure in every aspect of what we still call 'real life'. In the tool analysis, Heidegger's hammer [makes sense | obtains | is grasped] as part of the world of equipment, which [makes sense | obtains | is grasped] as part of the world of human action. These realms cohere diegetically - they belong to, define and co-constitute each other. In action, we grasp the hammer as a tool, we extend our limbs and 'be' our intentional 'being' in the praxis of carpentry, and by extension, the praxis of existence. We act, and as we do, we are attuned to the world of action and meaning we inhabit: we experience the world holistically - we cease to be figures, and recede into the ground of the diegesis. Praxis is the means whereby we live and dwell - believe - in the diegesis.

The hammer when it breaks, shatters the diegesis: we are no longer engaged in praxis, but in the comprehension of material objects divorced from their diegetic meaning: an extreme Brechtian 'Verfremdung', or alienation from the essence of the hammer. A broken hammer is no hammer: it is a residue, a fragment, a memory, a concept, an idea, an object, a construct, a prop, revealed and separated from its function in the diegesis: a corpse in the theatrical sense - a moment in which the illusion is shattered, the figure of artifice processes and emerges from the ground of the theatre, and we are appalled enough by the shattering of the illusion to be compelled to laugh uncontrollably in the face of the futility of pretence. The broken hammer is an object of our reflective thought, which we diagnose in its symptomatic failure; it is seen as though from above, outside, from nowhere, divorced as it is from the field of praxis. Our consciousness of the broken hammer is the kind of consciousness we simply relinquish in the midst of being. It is empty, shell-like, valueless, objective. It is the transcendental knowledge to which the academy, science, Western materialist thought aspires - and as in the perennial cliche, it pins the butterfly to a board in order to comprehend it even as it dies.

Following Harman, I understand the fate of the broken hammer not to be merely an event in the life of a lone doomed tool, but to be caught up in the being of all things that do their 'being' - the 'thinging' of things, people, starfish and coconuts - the dichotomy between Vorhandenheit (presence-at-hand) and Zuhandenheit (readiness-to-hand). All things which are capable of submitting to the gaze of other things and being translated into the intentional objects of contemplation are uncovered - as are figures processing and emerging from the ground of their diegetic existence - as lifted out of their being, their dwelling in the multiplicities of the interlacing diegeses to which they belong. The object of my reflection is a shadow of its being - the prehensile presence-at-hand of a thing, behind which all its indestructible being - the inexhaustibly rich readiness-to-hand of a thing - withdraws.

In this way, anything we care to articulate or speak of, any 'thing' to which we care to give edges through the process of signification, and by which we mediate a representation of that 'thing' to another, is reduced to a presence-at-hand - a mere one amongst its infinite resource of arbitrarily graspable facets - a reduction; a theory. Thus all representation, articulation and signification is work in the realm of artifice, mimesis - or presence-at-hand; a reductive distinguishing of a facet of an object from the ground of its diegesis - the world of its Romantic potential, its being, its participation in praxis. The insertion of the stethoscope between the healer and patient is no less than a conversion of the human subject into an object of instrumentation, a reduction of the being to one amongst its many facets: a mediated, rythmic, booming pulse stands in for the beating heart of a living being. The sound is a metonymic reduction of the living being of the beating heart.

***

A short recap then: praxis is the unification of human action and knowing - holistic. Theoria (and hence conceptual, reflective, objective knowledge) is the distantiation of the world from the experience of that world. This distanced, alienated knowledge, extracted from the diegesis of its being, is a projection, a paper-thin shell, a shadow - a presence-at-hand, available to our consciousness as no more than a facet of the fullness of being. Being itself never emerges from the ground of diegesis - the integral, coherent, self-consistent, co-constitutive storyscape of the world in which we un-self-consciously dwell.

From these thoughts flow other problematisations, to be dealt with another time, of impartial academic enterprises, traditional doctoral theses, and the very nature of the attempt to document the research process.

Categories: Martin-Heidegger, phenomenology, phd, working-through, Dasein, being, Zuhandenheit, Vorhandenheit, presence-at-hand, readiness-to-hand, knowledge, objectivity, research, praxis, diegesis, narrative, world,
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Wounded research #1

Author: joe

Monday, 20 April, 2009 - 23:03

Last week I attended a two day masterclass with Robert Romanyshyn, two days of incredibly intense thinking about the role of the researcher in the research: the work of research - or better, since the word 'research' comes with such a lot of alienating baggage, simply - the work - as a vocation which forms a part of the life of the researcher. I thought I'd write some notes here which emerged from the class for me. There was such a lot in it that it's taking time to disentangle the many ideas and responses, aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional, that unlodged themselves from unnoticed peripheral places and swam into view briefly before yet other currents took hold and carried them away. I managed to write some of them on a piece of paper in front of me, but even then, the words are simply spidery shadows of thoughts that are now gone.

Firstly, it isn't possible to summarise the two-day masterclass without being utterly reductionist. In fact the nature of reductionism, as opposed to a generative approach to knowing, was a constant underlying thought for me as the days passed. I've written about this before: the misleadingly common-sensical idea that the formulation of knowledge is about finding patterns of truth that account for many things in the world - the unity in diversity that is so beguiling. This characterises a pattern-view of knowledge dominant in empiricist and positivist fields like science, in which heterogenous phenomena are worked, and worked on, until they can be 'unified'. The accounting-for of the weak, strong and electro-magnetic forces, and the sought-for incorporation of gravity into this one model, is an exemplar of such an endeavour. Against this is the constructivist notion that the production of knowledge is an adding to the world of discourse, rather than an encompassing of diversity into an ever-shrinking set of axioms. We make knowledge, rather than either stumble into it blindly, or discover it deliberately; and the constant striving for more knowledge inevitably makes yet more knowledge in a self-fulfilling wish. The great fear and exhilaration of a 'theory of everything' is the paradox that such a theory explicates everything, leaving a universe made out of one algorithmic axiom, even while a theory of everything is just another moment of talking in a century-long conversation, another blade added to the collection of knives, a metaphorical doubling which, in the collision of new discourses with old, not only augments the inventory of the world but also piles up yet more tantalising ambiguity as a remainder of its workings.

Such questions also go to the heart of questions of objectivity, that dream to which so much knowledge aspires. Robert's project is to explore the necessary subjectivity of the researcher who undertakes the work. Far from encountering the world dispassionately and investigating it with valueless eyes, identifying questions because they are there to be identified, and answering them through the antiseptic, sceptical techniques of empirical enquiry - actually workers engaged in the business of making knowledge are human beings who laugh and love and sweat and labour and hunch with sore tension in their shoulders over desks burdened with elbows and scrawled-on books and distracting thoughts of lovers and meals and farts and fears and hopes. And these workers, persons, identities, these foibled animals haunted by angelic consciousness, do the work for a expanding universe of reasons, of which they may not even be fully conscious - animated by a dialogue with not only the ever-unfolding edge of the present but also with the sum of the individual and collective past.

Categories: research, work, subjectivity, objectivity, phenomenology, depth psychology, knowledge, Jung, masterclass, Robert Romanyshyn,
Comments: 0

Three things

Author: joe

Friday, 15 February, 2008 - 10:44

Three things

Firstly: having pack removed from nose redefined pain in ways I had not anticipated. Since I seem to be doomed to an eternity of pain in the head, I should at least give my head a reason to hurt. Therefore reading Heidegger, Gadamer and Habermas.

Secondly: so, yesterday, I began by reading about the divisions between Gadamer and Habermas on the co-extensivity of truth and method, and our relationship to 'authority and tradition'. For what it is worth, Gadamer seems to think that there are positive ways to view the inheritance of authority and tradition as a positive way of constituting truth. Meanwhile, Habermas seems to take a harder - 'strong-Enlightenment' line which says that anything 'handed down', as it were, from authority, is necessarily dogmatic and therefore should be rejected. In the maze of epistemology (empiricism over-assumes the ability to produce correspondence-to-reality statements from induction, while hermeneutics asserts the situatedness of any observation) perhaps the performance of the role of 'detached' observer should be rejected and (contrary to intuition) a fuller observational potential can be approached by more participation in the observed situation. Know by 'being-in', not know by 'looking-in' - immanence not transcendence (because the former is simply more honest).

A detour here led to Arthur Danto, who describes "the last historian". Of course the historian constructs a narrative out of the stuff of meaning, and the stuff of meaning is necessarily over-determined by the historian's present. Retelling the past is meta-retelling of the present. So much, so good. But consider what it would require for the adequate telling of 'truth' regarding histories (and here I suppose is where I do need to investigate Heidegger on time): the future will have historicity which is constituted in part by the present I create now from my own historicity. The only way to ensure that I responsibly pass on a historicity to the future which is consistent with the future's ability to act freely is to tell every possible history, or as Scheibler puts it "to give a complete description, historian would have to be able to see into the future, encompassing all possible future perspectives". And it is repeatedly observed by others, I see, that all historians must see themselves as this last historian (otherwise they would not feel any compulsion to write histories, surely?) but I would also add that we all therefore consider ourselves to be the last historians, telling ourselves the versions of the past we need to tell in order to construct the futures we wish to see.

And Danto seems also to help with the co-extensivity of truth and method. On representation, he emphasises what we might call the pre-semantic stage of the 'sign' (useless word). Consider the evolution of semantic codes. Something is given as a representation of something else - an idol represents a god, for instance. Danto dwells on the the fact that this is a two-stage process. Before we recognise the idol as 'representing' the god, we must first interpret the idol as identical to the god - the sign is the meaning. Only later do we bifurcate the sign into metonymy and synecdoche, and allow the possibility that the sign might be a lie - give it a semantic dimension, recognise the difference between sign and referent, and even signifier and signified. Truth is first constituted by the representation. Prohibition of the idolatry of the graven image by a jealous god for good reason, then, if you are a god.

Of course, when I say Danto helps with the co-extensivity of truth and method, I mean helps in the loosest sense of the word.

So anyway, yes I went on a huge detour, and at some point in the future, when I have to write something sensible about my methodology for my PhD thesis, I'll be grateful to myself for having written this loosely connected synopsis of a day's reading, which records in roughly chronological order the digressions I took. I still, of course need a proper bibliography to go with this, so I can retread my steps. So here it is:

Scheibler, I., 2000, Gadamer : Between Heidegger and Habermas, Rowman & Littlefield: Lanham
Ankersmit, F. R., 2003, 'Danto, History, and the Tragedy of Human Existence', in History and Theory, Vol 42, No. 3
Hesse, M., 1978, 'Habermas' Consensus Theory of Truth' in PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Vol 1978, Vol 2
McCarthy, T., 1978, 'History and Evolution: On the Changing Relation of Theory to Practice in the Work of Jurgen Habermas' in PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Vol 1978, Vol 2
Wachterhauser, B. R., 1986, Hermeneutics and Modern Philosophy, SUNY: Albany
Danto, A. C., 1965, Analytical Philosophy of History, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
Danto, A. C., 1997, Connections to the World: The Basic Concepts of Philosophy, UCP: Berkeley
Ormiston, G. L., & Schrift, A. D., 1989, Hermeneutic Tradition: From Ast to Riceour, SUNY: Albany
Dallmayr, F. R., & McCarthy, T. A., 1977, Understandinf and Social Inquiry, UNDP: Notre Dame, Ind.

Now, the third and final thing: I want a way to access the information here in different ways. I want to be able to pull it around, and mesh it into other things. Biblipedia was designed to do some of the things I want to be able to do here - notes about books which can be grouped thematically. The use of the folksonomy creates a powerful tool that creates (heuristically and algorithmically, or what I want to call 'bottom-up') connections between notes and books. But I also want some top-down control too. I want to drag things together on the spur of the moment, as though they were index cards in my hands. Biblipedia can be susceptible to such manipulation (you can 'invent' tags for specific purposes, for instance).

But I want something with more power. The account I've given of my readings yesterday is clunky, because it is isolated here, on this web page. Sure I can grab it out via RSS, but that won't retain any of the semantic or chronological connections within it. Sure, I could sketch it on paper, because that could show the progression and map-like structure of the reflection, but it's made of atoms, and I still want the heuristic, crunching power that computerised meta-data provides.

So here's the kernel of my next project: a way of aggregating content like that in Biblipedia, (or any other webservice, for that matter) which, on top of the 'bottom-up' ability to analyse meta-data such as tags and produce expected and unexpected connections and groupings, also has a 'top-down' ability to sketch relationships in terms of time, theme, order, digression, space... a way to easily denote relatedness explicitly, rather than merely implicitly.

So that's summer 2008 sorted then. Hopefully my head will have stopped hurting then.

Categories: working-through, PhD, phenomenology, Heidegger, Gadamer, Habermas, truth, method, epistemology, ontology, Danto, history,
Comments: 0

Splitting the infinite

Author: joe

Monday, 09 July, 2007 - 22:48

Marx's appropriation of Hegel's dialectic was actually a reinvention. Thesis, antithesis and synthesis suited Marx's optimistic faith in the common man's ability to see reason, throw off the shackles and enjoy the fruits of the inevitable succession of progress.

Hegel, conversely, is mostly, to me, beyond comprehension, but his notion of dialectic I think is something more complex and deeper than the popular characterisation (no doubt Marx's too, but this is a blog, not a dissertation).

My personal reinvention of the Hegelian dialectic is as a fundamental diagnosis of the nature of human conception. The mind is a knife, and analysis splits the object of our contemplation into entities in a way that fools us into thinking we have concrete understanding, where in fact we only see the shadows in the cave. To comprehend the butterfly, we pin it and dissect it, asserting our mastery; in fact we have mastered dead flesh and traces - what is no longer a butterfly. To understand, we destroy.

Of course, the converse is equally true. In our mastery of the butterfly we have created more things than were previously in the world. We name thoraxes and epidermal membranes; we create intersubjectivities between each other as we share our new insights. We pattern the Lepidoptera, note consistencies and variations, engender entire fields of pursuit, and lifetimes spent chasing the fugitive knowledge of Fritillaries. We produce a meta-butterfly, an ur-insect. To understand, we create.

The dialectic - we destroy, we create - is pure perspective, commentary on the consequence of thought. Paradoxically opposed, mutually exclusive, in binary opposition, cleft halves of the whole. Each conceptual position we take deceives us into trusting its reasonableness, but a further examination reveals not only that it is merely an exclusion of the opposing position but also that both positions are, in fact, the same. My denouncement of you as evil is simply my fear that you are good. My definition of myself is also a definition of (absolutely) everything else. My simplification of complexity is nothing more or less than an augmentation of that complexity.

Categories: Marx, Hegel, dialectic, paradox, working-through,
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Life on the Web

Author: joe

Friday, 15 June, 2007 - 21:20

While I have the usual reservations about scientific positivism - not so much that it is a kind of imperialism, but rather that it is ultimately a totalising method, leaving little room for the qualitative experiences of people - I nevertheless have no sympathy for those nay-sayers, flatearthers, religious charlatans and general luddites who insist that anything that comes under the nomenclature of 'genetics' is FrankenBad.

Are we determined by nature? Are we determined by nurture? Why would the latter be so preferable to the former? Surely it is the 'determinism' itself that instils the fear. Or, if a creationist, why are you so reassured by the idea that you are determined by a God? How stultifying. And besides, why think of nature versus nurture, as though they are opposing ends of a spectrum? Why not think of nature and nurture as parallel determining, but open-ended, forces?

If the determinism of the physical laws of the universe is able to result in such a diverse and mind-boggling phenomenon as the universe itself with its dark matter, strange quarks, planetary nebulae, disc galaxies and comfortingly reliable gravity, why should we resent being also determined? Given that such determinism nevertheless is so convoluted as to produce the sense of agency that we so dearly cling to and to which we attribute our illusion of individuality, should we not be grateful for the laws that result in it? Wasn't Keats basically full of shit when he moaned about unweaving the rainbow? (I think that's a fair summary of Dawkins' book).

I say all this by way of pre-emptive defence. If you don't like an idea, the easiest way to attack it is to attack its author - and once you have dispensed with that author, all his subsequent ideas become anathema. E. O. Wilson, author of Sociobiology has incurred the wrath of the aforementioned nay-sayers, since his ideas can be caricatured as the basest form of genetic determinism - a gene for homosexuality, a gene for liking people called Alicia, a gene for grazing your knee when you're 12. Evolutionary psychology is an easy target for those who wish to further their own agenda - such as continental philosophers, proponents of the 'blank slate' (not in themselves objectionable, just intellectually weak as demonstrated by Pinker), cognitive scientists, sociologists with no knowledge of biology, and the like.

But I repeat - if there were, say, no gene for altruism after all, would we suddenly cease to bother being altruistic? And if there were found such a gene, would it mean our altruism were worthless? There is category error in abundance here.

So, having attempted to head off, at the pass, the common criticism of Wilson, I stand in awe at the project that is the Encyclopedia of Life. An electronic page on every species known to man. A collaborative project between a number of biological research institutions to make available to everyone our accumulated knowledge of earthly diversity:

When completed, www.eol.org will serve as a global biodiversity tool, providing scientists, policymakers, students, and citizens information they need to discover and protect the planet and encourage learning and conservation.
[EurekaAlert]

An excellent intervention of knowledge into the public domain, and an awesome implementation of the power of our network, the determinedly FrankenBad Internet.

Categories: science, biology, genetics, determinism, encyclopedia-of-life, sociobiology, agency, network, public-domain,
Comments: 0

A History of Madness... i

Author: joe

Monday, 14 May, 2007 - 23:34

A new edition of Foucault's A History of Madness (previously translated as Madness and Civilisation) was published earlier in the year, and there has been some notable turbulence in its wake. Foucault, (along with Derrida, Baudrillard, Lacan, Latour, Deleuze, Kristeva) seems often to be a lightning rod for the different sections of the left who were split in the culture wars in the US in the 90s, and more recently for the scientific disciplines' criticisms of contemporary humanities - the lack of rigour, and indeed, the lack of attention to 'reality' itself. Meanwhile those same critics are often referred to by Foucauldian sympathisers, rather disparagingly, as members of 'the reality based community', as though anchoring oneself in an objective world were naive and unintellectual, rather than an obvious choice.

I don't intend to attempt to resolve any of the antipathies here, or even to single out the likeliest candidate for 'correspondence to truth'. This piece of reflection is simply a working through. Much of my time is, besides, spent explaining the relevance of Foucault to undergraduate media students, a task which is itself not without some irony. More to the point, I'm currently embarking on a (currently nebulous) research project, which will involve attempting to unite various domains of knowledge which range from rhetoric, hermeneutics and creativity to health and physiology. As part of my search for and resolution of an appropriate research methodology, it seems a good idea to grasp what it is about Foucault that polarises scholars and their disciplines so much.

In order to complete my bachelor's degree in Eng Lit, I sat, amongst interminable others, an exam on medieval literature, for which I later discovered I scored a distinction. I remember distinctly one of the essays I wrote was a response to a question along the lines of: what is the relevance of medieval literature (I think it referred specifically to Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls) to contemporary society?

I responded confidently with my assertion that the nature of human experience is no different today than it was in the 14th century. While the complexity and number of cultural 'things' may have increased, and there may be more 'units of meaning' in the world today than there were then, though many social values may have changed, though the way society is structured may have evolved - nevertheless, what it means to be a human being has not. We still are born into a world as humans, experience it as only humans can, and die a human death as an unavoidable symptom of living. While there may be worlds of nurture and convention between me, Chaucer, Plato and Ugh the caveman, if we all somehow came together in some timeless place, we would look at each other with recognition.

We are defined, I argued, by our species. The challenges, both philosophical and sociological, involved in living together as creatures with will and freedom, desires and sympathies, have not permuted. The compromises of rule and negotiation are constant; the paradoxes of society and the individual are immutable; the human instinct to compete, and our propsensity towards altruism, do not alter from one generation to the next. Humanity, while it may be a temporary phenomenon on the face of the earth, is in itself an eternal thing. Hence, (I argued with reference to some talking birds), the challenges of Chaucer's protagonists are the challenges of our own brothers and sisters, and therefore of ourselves.

At the time I imagined I got the distinction because my argument was sound. Now I think I got it because my argument was conservative, and met with approval. It was a British answer, sound in the face, back in the early nineties, of French post-structuralists. I remember it must have been 1992 when I got my first lecture on deconstruction, delivered by a young turk of a lecturer, rather than any of the old grandees who prefered to keep their fragrant noses in Shakespeare and Hardy.

It seemed to me that this view was unassailable; and of course, I will now problematise it, though I may still leave it unassailable: the question is not simply, what if I were wrong, but also, how would we know? And even if humanity at base were the same, if we say that social values have changed, how can we dissociate those changed values from measuring whether our nature were the same? What does it mean for two human beings to have a similar nature, but see the world in entirely different ways? Mightn't we just as well be members of different species? If our values and hence ways of apprehending the world metaphysically are incommensurably altered, what can we possibly share, except a physiology, which we're unlikely to bring together, unless by force, since we clearly have no common values through which to court?

In the other, Borges tells the story of how he, as an old man in his 70s, finds himself sitting on a bench with a young man who turns out to be himself, 50 years earlier. As we may think, the child is father to the man, but whether we consider the youth or the elder as the leading edge of a man moving into the transdimensionality of potential, it turns out that nowhere can they commune, or establish a point of common recognition - even with oneself there can be no intersubjectivity:

"Half a century does not pass in vain. Beneath our conversation about people and random reading and our different tastes, I realized that we were unable to understand each other. We were too similar and too unalike... Either to offer advice or to argue was pointless..." (Borges, 1979, p9)


Borges, J. L., 1979, 'the other' in The Book of Sand, (London: Penguin)

Categories: michel-foucault, epistemology, knowledge, human-nature, jorge-luis-borges, history-of-madness, working-through, endlessly self-similar universe,
Comments: 0

Don't bogart that totalitarian regime, my friend

Author: joe

Sunday, 21 May, 2006 - 14:23

p2p. It stands for peer-to-peer. It refers to a kind of network architecture. Some people fall into the trap of thinking it refers to the way people connect on a one-to-one basis over the Internet, as in, for example email conversations. Metaphorically it may do. But that really isn't what it means. You might think I'm being a pedantic asshole, here, but the reason why I'm quibbling is really important.

The 'traditional' architecture used in interconnected networks, which allows web-servers and mail-servers to work is called 'client-server' architecture. You connect to a webserver in order to get 'served' web pages. When you do so you are a 'client' - actually your browser is the client, rather than you.

The reason this is important is because if you take out the server, you can't get the webpage. Okay, some content may get cached on other servers, or copies of the content may get hosted somewhere else, but the bottom line is that client-server architecture makes it easier to attack the distribution model. Hence you get, for instance, cease-and-desist orders against people hosting copyright-infringing content on their servers and they legally must oblige and comply, and law-enforcers can make it so.

Peer-to-peer technologies use a different kind of architecture, in which transactions between what would otherwise be called 'clients' take place between each other. This is not to say that 'servers' don't come into it. The old Napster, for instance, used a central server to connect peers to each other. The eDonkey file-sharing network uses servers to index users' files for searching. A Bittorrent file requires a 'seed' which may sit on a server rather a user's computer. The key thing, though is that the network is distributed across nodes, rather than centred around a server.

Now the reason I say all this is because I've been reading dissertations from media students about to graduate who think that email is a p2p technology, or that anything that isn't TV (i.e. a one-to-many relationship) is therefore p2p. I've even heard people who should know better (teachers!) call it 'person-to-person' technology, which is clearly bollocks. Peer-to-peer specifically refers to architectures which attempt to bypass centralised models. The benefits include things like reduced cost and bandwidth for distributors (webservers charge you for the bandwidth required to provide a copy of a file to everyone who wants it, while p2p means you may only need to provide one copy), but also it means that you have more chance of circumventing centralised controls and even snooping mechanisms.

It's important to get these things right because over the last decade, governments' desires to gain ever more control over and access to digital transmissions has gradually produced ever more draconian laws such as, in the UK, the RIP Act, and in the US, the DMCA. Even as transmission of data moves away from easily controlled central servers, governments try to get more control over the other centralised conduits by which your data moves: requiring, for instance, ISPs to store user activities, demanding encryption keys for encrypted data, etc. It might even be worth mentioning that the UK government currently wants to allow ministers to enact any laws they please - the very definition of totalitarianism. Don't you think an unregulatable and unsnoopable, and more importantly, an indestructable distributed transmission mechanism might be useful in such a scenario?

Now in the US, the NSA is spying on US citizens with the happy assistance of AT&T. Who, incidentally, want to start differential charging for different kinds of data carried across their fibres. Do you think they'll resist government pressure to make it difficult for you to use p2p architectures in privacy? When you might be a pirate terrorist making money from kiddie-porn? Do you think they'll care if you're actually sharing photos of your holiday with your friends?

Why is why, boys and girls, p2p is, most importantly, a network architecture, not a metaphor for personal conversations or a hippy alternative to mainstream media.

Categories: p2p, network, architecture, law, governmental power, totalitarianism, file-sharing,
Comments: 0