Sunday, August 22, 2010


My last post and the one about the "postmodern threat" might give the impression that I am against postmodernism or deconstruction or continental philosophy. I'm not particularly, although I do think that every type of thinking has its own dangers. What I had in mind when I referred to the turn to deconstruction was the fact that existentialism seems to have been left behind. Heidegger certainly was concerned with the questions that concern me (I don't mean that there's a complete overlap). Perhaps others since him have been too, but it's less obvious. Wittgenstein cared about them, but I don't think he considered them to be philosophical questions. Philosophy cannot tell us how to live, as he sees it.

What I think of as "the problem" might be what Coetzee calls "Empire" in Waiting for the Barbarians:
What has made it impossible for us to live in time like fish in water, like birds in air, like children? It is the fault of Empire! Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era.
I understand this not as a reference to imperialism in the literal sense, but to a kind of mindset that drives imperialism of all kinds. It's similar to Heidegger's notion of das Gestell as Julian Young explains it, the "frame-up," a "horizon of disclosure," a phrase that calls to mind the first sentence of Coetzee's novel: "I have never seen anything like it: two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire." This in turn suggests thoughts of Kant, whose central insight has famously been expressed (controversially) as analogous to the idea that if one wears coloured glasses then the whole world will appear coloured.

If there is no social, political, or historical solution to Empire, perhaps one can withdraw psychologically. This might be a sort of European Buddhism, but it would be detachment from Western Civilization as we know it, not a general detachment that happens to take place within Europe or the West. But diagnoses of the (alleged) problem seem more common than plausible solutions. I don't see Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Coetzee, Nietsche, or Young, for instance, having a credible answer about how we should live. Perhaps Heidegger's spectacular failure (he joined the Nazi Party) has put people off trying for solutions. The main candidates that are put forward seem to be something that looks like despair (Coetzee and Wittgenstein come to mind, although both probably have richer and more promising positions than mere despair), Christianity, and some version of the 1960s. On the last of these, see this from Hubert Dreyfus:
Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and other rock groups became for many the articulators of a new understanding of what really mattered. This new understanding almost coalesced into a cultural paradigm in the Woodstock music festival of 1969, where people actually lived for a few days in an understanding of being in which mainline contemporary concerns with order, sobriety, willful activity, and flexible, efficient control were made marginal and subservient to certain pagan practices, such as enjoyment of nature, dancing, and Dionysian ecstasy, along with neglected Christian concerns with peace, tolerance, and nonexclusive love of one's neighbor. Technology was not smashed or denigrated; rather, all the power of electronic communications was put at the service of the music, which focused the above concerns. (from "Heidegger on the connection between nihilism, art, technology, and politics".)
(Quotation copied from here.)

None of these solutions sounds right to me. If I ever figure it out I might write the answer under the title Neither Nuremberg nor Woodstock, in honour of this other failed solution.


  1. What about "some kind of Eastern thing, man"? (Sorry, Big Lebowski reference.) Seems like a certain kind of Cartesian individualism goes hand-in-hand with "Empire." Maybe, as Coetzee suggests of his own case, we should learn to be less interested in "cultivating a self." (I say "Eastern thing" insofar as the Buddhist no(t)-self view would seem to be useful here...)

  2. The Buddhist idea of no-self is relevant, yes. Individualism might well be part of the problem, but so are tribalism and corporatism, I think. It's something like greed or a bad expression of the will to power. Perhaps those are all forms of individualism really. I've been thinking of it as a modern problem, but if Buddhism is very relevant to it then perhaps it is actually ancient and nothing particularly to do with either technology or capitalism, for instance. Or perhaps somehow it has become worse in modern times. But I feel as though I'm being so abstract that I'm in danger of talking about nothing at all.