Feb 3, 2011

Ideas or drifts of ideas I have noticed seem to be going on but haven't had time to think about yet

1. The world without humans
I've seen several photography projects dedicated to cities (London and New York, I think) that appear depopulated. The speculative realists think philosophy can only truly happen if we can get past anthropomorphic thinking in our thinking about "reality." There was a book -- a couple years ago? -- that was supposed to be a kind of ecological book about humanity's negative effect on earth that was what would happen as soon as humans disappeared, how long it would take cities to crumble, etc.

Both the "fast zombie" movies I watched, 28 Days Later and I Am Legend, have this moment at the end where you think the little band of people are the only people, but then the script pans out and you see that's not the case. In both cases, it felt like the movie was refusing to look at something -- tacking on hope for the popcorn public. Maybe this is what they were looking away from?

And is it a new nihilism/self loathing? An ecological concern? A deep pessimism about out ability to actually solve our problems or get out of this mess?

2. As Chesterton said, 'if you don't quote me, you'll quote everything
G.K. Chesterton seems to attract really idiosyncratic attention. There's kind of a standard use for C.S. Lewis quotes, for example, and J.R.R. Tolkein's might be used by a less orthodox group of people, but still within a certain range. Chesterton, though, shows up in the weirdest places. Zizek, for example, but also Marshall McLuhann. Why?

Also when Tolkein's quotes you can usually tell it's going to happen before it does. Same with Lewis. Chesterton comes up at you without warning in the weirdest corners. Also, the more idiosyncratic the place the more likely he is to be named Gilbert Keith instead of G.K., so it'll be that much longer before you recognize him.

3. You say you want a revolution, well yeah
On a popular level, Americans seem to almost universally support uprisings and revolutions, seeing them as outbreaks of liberty. The very defining feature of revolutions, though, is that they do not yet mean.

They are breakdowns in the symbolic order, a semantic excess that can't be translated so swiftly into a statement, a meaning in the symbolic order. The revolution can't be integrated into the ideological order of things until later, until after it's a) failed, or b)established a new order, or c) been co-opted by something else. They are not part of regulating mechanism of the order, but that order breaking down. They are not like elections where the "outburst" of activity, done by individuals for individual reasons, in regions with regional conditions, can be, overnight, transformed into a single voice with a single, God-like pronouncement, a "mandate."

Americans also seem to at the same time over estimate their (ideological) influence on revolutions and to underestimate their (practical/political) contribution to the conditions that create unrest. (No American president's rhetoric can be deemed responsible, yet, at the same time, the Egyptian army's tear gas was made in the USA).

4. Thinkers in vacuums
Neibuhr's name keeps coming up across a certain political range. Obama, famously, is a Neibuhrian and has a sense of politics grounded in the theologian/philosopher's thinking, but I've seen several other people from different parts of the political spectrum cite him too, esp. in the wake of the Tuscon shooting.

Could Neibuhr act as, say, the opposite of Leo Strauss?

On the other hand, there seems to be a certain type of thinking, maybe a certain class, who people use to try to fill a void, even though the thinker's ideas or theories don't actually ever do what people want it to. Milbank often strikes me this way. Robbie George, a little bit. It's as if the people quoting or touting the man do so more from a felt lack than because any positive content. With Milbank, for example, I've had several people tell me they were attracted to his work because of the project he is going to do. Almost an act of hope.

Perhaps Neibuhr is more like this -- more the product of a vacuum than a thinker of any suction?

5.Throwing oneself across the is/ought
Certain kinds of natural law conservatives are always attempting to get out of the problem that David Hume put down, that one cannot logically get from what "is," from what's natural, to what "ought" to be, to any sort of moral order or imperative. Any argument that appears to make that jump always hides, somewhere, an extra premise. Since gay marriage has been in court in California, I expected to see a rash of this kind of thinking in those quarters, and sure enough, Robbie George, First Things, et al have been working to revitalize an argument that could get them from "is" to "ought." But so have non conservatives, and non religious people, and I don't know why.

Sam Harris, the junior member of the New Atheists, apparently does this in his new book, which is all about how science can give us morals, which would be another reason we don't need religion. New Atheists normally heroize Hume, so this is confusing. I haven't seen any reason to respect Sam Harris, as a thinker, but I have now seen this same argument or this same drift on an idea -- that science can give us morals picked up in a number of places. I've seen several articles, here and there, pick up the theme, and, more generally, an increasing number of conversations that take evolution for the model of how something has come to be, something like human monogamy, and attempt to extrapolate a moral order from there.

I am very skeptical that anyone can throw themselves across Hume's chasm of the is/ought distinction, but am curious, more, as to why people are trying now?

Perhaps we feel extra ungrounded, at the moment? What with the financial collapse, and what that says about our overarching Western ideology, and with anti-secularist backlashes like the Taliban making it harder to embrace general or generic appeals to religion, and maybe our own Bush-era unmoored morals, with rendition and torture, and even our own internal divisiveness? Perhaps there's a felt need to appeal to something like science that feels sure, feels objective and "real" in a way that religion never can in pluralistic society?