Posts Tagged ‘Stanley Cavell’

Neverland Part Two

February 20, 2014

With the previous post (Neverland 2-19-14) Frontline’s Generation Like was looked at through some of the writing of Stanley Cavell. Within the quoted work (The Claim Of Reason) Cavell sometimes refers to society as “our lived skepticism” (our skepticism as to the existence of others). Slavoj Zizek’s philosophical investigations of individuals, collectives and culture are much more reliant on the social. Zizek writes from a “continental“ perspective integrating Marx, Lacan and Freud as well as popular culture and Christianity into his writing. The Parallax View (2006, considered his magnum opus) appears a good quarter of a century after Cavell’s The Claim Of Reason. Unlike Cavell’s lived world, the nascent social media considered by Frontline’s documentary was up and running, though barely (Facebook 2004, YouTube 2005, Twitter 2006). The Parallax View devotes quite a bit of space to the Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix, that period’s Hunger Games. On page 313 he writes:
“[T]he ultimate strength of the film, however, is nonetheless to be located at a different level. Its unique impact is due not so much to its central thesis (what we experience as reality is an artificial virtual reality generated by the “Matrix,” the mega-computer directly attached to all our minds) as to its central image of the millions of human beings leading a claustrophobic life in water-filled cradles, kept alive in order to generate energy (electricity) for the Matrix. So when (some of the) people “awaken” from their immersion in Matrix-controlled virtual reality, this awakening is not an opening into the wide space of external reality, but first the horrible realization of this enclosure, where each of us is in effect merely a fetuslike organism, immersed in the amniotic fluid… This utter passivity is the foreclosed fantasy that sustains our conscious experience as active, self-positing subjects – it is the ultimate perverse fantasy, the notion that we are ultimately instruments of the Other’s (Matrix’s) jouissance, sucked out of our life-substance like batteries.

This brings us to the central libidinal enigma: why does the Matrix need human energy? A solution purely in terms of energy is, of course, meaningless: the Matrix could have easily have found another, more reliable source of energy which would have not demanded the extremely complex arrangement of a virtual reality coordinated for million of human units. The only consistent answer is: the Matrix feeds on human jouissance – so here we are back to the fundamental Lacanian thesis that the big Other itself, far from being an anonymous machine, needs a constant influx of jouissance. This is the correct insight of The Matrix: the juxtaposition of the two aspects of perversion – on the one hand, the reduction of reality to a virtual domain regulated by arbitrary rules that can be suspended; on the other, the concealed truth of this freedom, the reduction of the subject to an utterly instrumentalized passivity.”

Compare this with some of what we find in the transcript of Douglas Rushkoff’s Generation Like (Rushkoff is the correspondent as well as one of the writers and producers):

“SETH GODIN, Author, Blogger: Why on earth would someone spend all those hours to make a YouTube video of them doing something absolutely stupid and insane? They’re only going to get a check for $3 for doing it.”
“DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: In other words, instead of selling the product to the audience, the idea is to get the audience to sell the product for them. They want to make the interactions seem open and transparent, but all that transparency takes a lot of planning.
DIMITRY IOFFE, CEO, TVGLA: It’s all about trying to figure out this pipeline of connected pieces that are going to continue that audience to be essentially your best marketer because that’s the hope.”
“BRIAN WONG, Kiip founder: There are nuances on how you present things that create different psychological responses. We don’t even call ourselves ads to consumers. Terminology we use is “rewards” and “moments,” and there’s really no mention of “ads” or even “media.” As we go out and we experience the world, the things that make the most impact on us are the ones that come up serendipitously. So that’s the psychological principle we’re offering.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Serendipity by design.”
“CEILI LYNCH: You get, like, 10 sparks or 15 sparks for sharing something or making something on Tumblr, whatever, Twitter, Facebook. So that’s basically what they use to, like, show how many— you know, how much stuff you’ve shared. This is basically how I find out, like, news about The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, like, casting information, you know, like, who’s on what magazine cover, like, stuff like that.
CEILI LYNCH: It’s a lot of work to, like, do all of this. It’s— like, it takes a lot of time to, like, retweet everything, to like everything. So I was liking and sharing all these posts for, like, four to five hours. My hands were so tired after! It makes me feel like a worker, but it’s all worth it in the end because I get more sparks.”
“JANE BUCKINGHAM, President, Trendera: Your consumer is your marketer, and I think that’s a real shift because it used to be a one-way conversation of the marketer to the consumer, and now the consumer is doing as much as the marketer is in getting the message across. There is this unique moment where they are wanting to be as much a part of the process as a company will let them be.”
“ACTOR: [“Hunger Games”] You really want to know how to stay alive? You get people to like you.”
“CEILI LYNCH: They have to, like, do things in order to get people to like them.

TYLER OAKLEY: [on video] Push the Like button now.”


February 19, 2014

“[I] may be wishing to convey that you just do not know who or what I am. Far, accordingly, from wishing, or sensing a need, to define criteria with which we would be mutually attuned, I wish, or sense a need, to convey how perfectly, originally, I satisfy the criteria. We could say of my condition, or you could say it, that I had made myself morally incomprehensible, as Kierkegaard in effect says of Abraham. (There is the modern man for you: knife in hand, full of readiness to sacrifice, but in the absence of God, and of Isaac, and hence of an angel in the wings.) (The slave and the outcast have been made morally invisible.)
One in this condition does not feel unknown for the reason that the fact of his or her sentience is taken to be unknown. Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, and be known to have it, and others not? Expertise cannot be required to know of this life, but then what appreciation is wanted, what sentiment or sensibility would be fine enough to vibrate to one’s originality? Human beings do not naturally desire isolation and incomprehension, but union or reunion, call it community. It is in faithfulness to that desire that one declares oneself unknown. (And of course the faithfulness, the desire, and the declaration may all be based on illusion. The conceptual connection, however, would remain as real as ever.) The wish to be extraordinary, exceptional, unique, thus reveals the wish to be ordinary, everyday. (One does not, after all, wish to become a monster, even though the realization of one’s wish for uniqueness would make one a monster.)”
(The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy by Stanley Cavell, 1979 Pg. 462-463)

Cavell’s insight, written pre the age of social media and just post the age of free love, becomes acutely perceptive in light of Frontline’s recent critique of social media, “Generation Like” (2-18-14). The paradoxical relationship of the need to be exceptional and unique in order to be “liked” and belong, to be part of an “online community”, could not have been anticipated, or elaborated better. “(And of course the faithfulness, the desire, and the declaration may all be based on illusion. The conceptual connection, however, would remain as real as ever.)” Generation Like reveals the “illusion” appropriated by capitalist marketing (for profit everything avails itself to appropriation). What more can be said of this moral incomprehensibility? (There is the adolescent, holding video recorder in hand at arm’s length, full of readiness to cash in as the new Michael Jackson, but in the absence of the blinding lights of a vast stage, and an adulating hoard of grasping ticket holders, and hence of a Bubbles waiting in Neverland welcoming the royal pretender home.)

The Education Of The Immigrant

January 25, 2014

“Instead, then, of saying either that we tell beginners what words mean, or that we teach them what objects are, I will say: We initiate them, into the relevant forms of life held in language and gathered around the objects and persons of our world. For that to be possible, we must make ourselves exemplary and take responsibility for that assumption of authority; and the initiate must be able to follow us, in however rudimentary a way, naturally (look where our finger points, laugh at what we laugh at, comfort what we comfort, notice what we notice, find alike or remarkable or ordinary what we find alike or remarkable or ordinary, feel pain at what we feel pain at, enjoy the weather or the notion we enjoy, make the sounds we make); and he must want to follow us (care about our approval, like a smile better than a frown, a croon better than a croak, a pat better than a slap). “Teaching” here would mean something like “showing them what we say and do”, and “accepting what they say and do as what we say and do”, etc.; and this will be more than we know, or can say.” (The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy by Stanley Cavell, 1979 Pg. 178)

In his more recent publication (Philosophy The Day After Tomorrow 2005) Cavell begins the like named chapter with
“Such has been my somewhat strained way within the institution of philosophy in our America that I perpetually feel the need to introduce myself intellectually, that is, to provide some sense of the way moments of my work are meant to lead to one another. Call this need my identification with the stranger, even, as Emerson almost says, with the immigrant.” (pg. 111)

Although written at different times, to address different concerns within different contexts, the two quotes are challenging to reconcile. Indeed, the first quote addresses the education of a child, the origins of the extension of language and learning. The second speaks feelings, those of an accomplished philosopher. The first quote could likewise be considered as an accounting of the origin of tribes, of national identity, of the mystery of culture, with its borders, porosity and evolution. The second evokes folks like Said, Auerbach, and Adorno’s “it is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.” (the stranger or immigrant has a home and is at home, where?) Yet Cavell often references Wittgenstein in terms of philosophy being the education of grownups (soon after our second quote he writes “One of my early characterizations of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations was as a work of instruction. Initially I meant this to emphasize the role of the child in that work, a figure one does not expect to encounter in a major philosophical treatise, let alone in a principal role. Somewhat later I turned the emphasis differently, speaking of philosophy as conceived in Philosophical Investigations as “an education for grownups.”” Pg. 111-112). To a certain extent, and understood generously (based on his reading of Wittgenstein) this “education” of grownups differs not much from that of the child assumed within the first quote. Eventually, the educated must choose to be off on their own, hopefully (for Cavell) in the spirit of Emerson’s Self Reliance. All this begs the question as to the education of the immigrant.

It is all fine and good to say one “identifies” with the immigrant, all while not actually “being” the immigrant, in background, upbringing or survival. The first quote relies on a one to one relationship – teacher/student, mentor/ward, master/apprentice. One could almost say lover/loved as later in Philosophy The Day After Tomorrow he writes “If morals of silence in teaching may be drawn to the effect that the pupil must want to go on alone in taking language to the world, and that what is said must be worth saying, have a point (warning, informing, amusing, promising, questioning, chastising, counting, insisting, beseeching, specifying the location of pain, and so on), then is there some question left as to whether the pupil has to find warning, informing, amusing, promising, counting, beseeching, chastising, and so on themselves to be worth doing?” (Pg. 115). This account assumes the terms of sharing, support, accommodation and endearment that often accompany that of the lover and the beloved. Yet the immigrant mostly finds herself in not exactly that kind of environs. The one to one relationship (with its loyalty and commitment) is for the most part absent, difficult to establish. The “showing them what we say and do” can come from multiple, unrelated origins while a non-existence or direct opposition to “accepting what they say and do as what we say and do” may be the popular cultural response. The immigrant learns by the seat of his pants. Her education comes continuously from disparate sources – others like her, translation of quirky language/cultural differences/similarities, memories or nostalgia stained with the unpronounced certainty that THAT will never be again, keenly lived survival motivations, etc. There is no respite. That is the greatest difference between the education of the immigrant from that of the child/student Cavell recounts from Wittgenstein. There is no point at which “the pupil must want to go on alone” as that is the immigrant’s point of origin, a point from which there is no going back.

That Is A Happy Person

January 1, 2014

Various online news sources carried a report by Finnish researchers regarding how the human body (overall) feels different emotional states. Study participants were asked to rate how, and which parts of the body were affected (or disaffected) by different emotions. These plus or minus indicators of feeling were then mapped unto a color chart (deep blue max minus feeling to light yellow max plus feeling). The composite of statistically arrived at color indicators were then projected unto silhouettes of a figure so that a primarily darkened figure would be neutral, and various colored combinations would appear under a heading like fear, anxiety, etc. One report focused attention on the bodily “feel” of love, which appears to have the greatest max plus concentration, primarily in the torso and head (with the feet appearing deep blue!). Happiness, shown positively lighting up the entire body, was unmentioned by any report.

It is with trepidation that one chooses to speak or write about happiness, let alone a happy person. Zhuangzi (also previously known as Chuang Tzu, etc.) appears to hold top honors when it comes to producing a justification of third person knowledge of this subject with his The Joy Of Fishes. Comparing Yo Yo Ma (in performance) with a fish definitely stretches reader imagination (as well as credibility). Yet Yo Yo Ma, performing in concert or solo, appears to be a very happy person. “That is a happy person” would be met by a totally different response than “He’s a great musician” or “That was an amazing performance.” To say “That is a happy person” is to point out two things – the person, and something about the person (that happiness gathers there). The first seems ordinary enough, but what makes for the second affirmation (something Zhuangzi so eloquently addresses)? “That is a happy person” now becomes something other than a statement of fact.

Although Wittgenstein reminds us that “nothing has so far been done when a thing has been named” (The Literary Wittgenstein, ed. John Gibson and Wofgang Huemer 2004, pg.19), many would still claim that Yo Yo Ma is a celebrity, on stage, performing (as an actor), or that he has been gifted with his talent, position, or even that he is recompensed handsomely. How so that it can be said “That is a happy person”?

Without addressing The Joy Of Fishes (but rather the joy of Shakespeare), Stanley Cavell writes, “My idea is that, in varying ways, each of these sensibilities is one whom Shakespeare’s posing of the skeptical problem of the existence of others takes the form of raising the possibility of praise, of finding an object worthy of praise, and proving oneself capable of it.” (Philosophy The Day After Tomorrow Stanley Cavell, 2005, pg. 37) For Cavell, skepticism involves not only the “stuff” out there (and whether I can know it, if it exists, etc.) but also the psyche – other people or minds. With Cavell, part of the utterance of praising or cursing is the acknowledgement of this other. But how does this differ from naming, that is, that what is said becomes simply a kind of title for the person praised or cursed? The “possibility”, “worth’ and capability are considered, along with false praise (idolatry or iconoclasm), primarily in terms of acknowledgement of the other. Little concern is given for the actual attribute of the praise. Maybe that lies with the false praise, but it would be difficult to imagine someone who has never known happiness to say “That is a happy person.” Unless “That person exists” is interpreted as a performative utterance of praise or cursing (acknowledging existence), it appears that what is attributed as praise worthy is likewise acknowledged as existing. Saying “that is a happy person” not only acknowledges the existence of the other, someone not me, but also that happiness gathers there. If praise (or cursing) acknowledges the existence of an other then it is equally as important to be able to elaborate the qualities or attributes in conjunction with that person (OK, for the Finnish researchers, emotions). That is, what goes to make that person a person. As Wittgenstein elaborates, nothing is accomplished by simply naming. Simply acknowledging lacks character, the character of what is acknowledged. Conjoining an attribute or quality with the designated person likewise acknowledges the existence of that attribute. “There is happiness.” Praise (or cursing) deals with skepticism in a twofold manner. Not only does it acknowledge the existence of the other, but also the existence of qualities and characteristics which we may not gather to ourselves (“possess”), may doubt, or perhaps are unsure of in our own reasoning (the everyday guise of skepticism). “That is a happy person” affirms not only the existence of the person, but of happiness.

I Share Therefore I Am

December 29, 2013

“But I know it when I see it”, a quote attributed to US Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart reflecting his inability to define pornography with any kind of specific legalese. And yet he needed to rule on a case that evaded legal definition. The ordinary, everyday interacting with the highly nuanced, articulated and over defined legal canon can lead to just such expression. This conjures up an aspect of philosophy which, according to Stanley Cavell, has hamstrung the discipline since the Enlightenment, if not long before. Skepticism within not only the academic approach but our very culture has received his energy and attention. Cavell concerns himself with an “ordinary” language approach to this aberrant exercise of reason. Within the everyday it is as difficult to pin down as porn, though we would like to believe that we know it when we see it.

“In that essay, “Knowing and Acknowledging,” the ordinary is discovered not as what is perceptually missable but as what is intellectually dismissable, not what may be but what must be set aside if philosophy’s aspirations to knowledge are to be satisfied. There I articulate my sense of what happens to philosophy’s aspiration by saying that skepticism is not the discovery of an incapacity in human knowing but of an insufficiency in acknowledging what in my world I think of as beyond me, or my senses; so that when I found, in a following essay on King Lear, that Shakespearean tragedy enacts the failure to acknowledge an other, hence forms a lethal set of attempts to deny the existence of another as essential to one’s own, I came to wonder whether Shakespeare’s tragedies can be understood as studies of (what philosophy identifies as) skepticism.” (Philosophy The Day After Tomorrow by Stanley Cavell, 2005, pg. 12)

This everyday approach to the workings of culture (and one of its manifestations – Shakespeare) brings to mind a past Moyers and Co. interview (October 18, 2013) in which the guest was Sherry Turkle, psychologist, author, MIT professor and Director of that school’s Initiative on Technology and Self. She and Bill discussed her recent book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, and contemporary technology with social media (all quotes Sherry Turkle from the transcript of that interview).
“Well, I call it “alone together.” That we’re moving to a space where we feel free to respond to the three promises that technology now makes us, that we can always be heard, that we can be wherever we want to be, and that we never have to be alone.”
“John McCain recently, under the pressure of the discussion of the Syrian crisis, said that was boring. And he needed to go to something that was more stimulating. And so he went to a game. And what that showed is that what we’re going to is something that revs us up and puts us, we know, neurochemically in a state where we’re less able to come back and be part of the give and take of human conversation.”
“They could not say no to the feeling that somebody wanted them. Somebody was reaching out to them. The neurochemical hit of constant connection is what we are — is what we have now.”
“And so what concerns me as a developmental psychologist, watching children grow in this new world where being bored is something that never has to be tolerated for a moment. You can always go someplace where you’re stimulated, stimulated, stimulated, is that people are losing that capacity.”
“Sending is being. It’s starting to be that sending is being. And I think that this has a, potentially a downside, because, you know, you begin to not have as much a feeling of autonomy and sense of self if your way of thinking about yourself is so tied into sharing and texting and being enmeshed that way.”

Turkle proffers an antidote, an alternative to this pervasive cultural condition she describes:
“No, it really is a different way of seeing the self. And again, I come back to the importance of solitude, the sense that people need to learn how to gather themselves and be alone and experience solitude, which is different from loneliness. Because the way things are now, you know, people think that loneliness is a problem that needs to be solved and that only technology can solve.”

This all becomes very strange. Solitude and being alone were considered officially subversive in many countries in the 1930’s, and even today still carry a covert cultural stigma of “anti-social”. This juxtaposition of Turkle with Cavell is even all the more strange in that the cultural phenomena that Turkle describes appears to be the antithesis of what Cavell takes to be the definition of contemporary skepticism. “(a)n insufficiency in acknowledging what in my world I think of as beyond me, or my senses” appears to be blunted by a culture of constantly promised reaffirmation and acknowledgement through continuous connection. The “technological fix” to what all bothered Descartes, Hume through the likes of Kant now finds its own “fix” as being a life cultivated and promoted by those very same folks, namely one of solitude and being alone (at least within the exercise of their discipline). To a certain extent, Turkle and Cavell would find agreement in the writing of Cavell’s hero, Emerson, and his essay Self Reliance. But in terms of language, they may be miles apart. What seems to separate these two descriptions of very analogous states (skepticism and Turkle’s “Alone Together” culture) is the difference in, and evolution of, language brought about by ever new technology. Ordinary language appears to be employed when I “send”, “receive”, “share” and am “acknowledged” (affirmed) through the “connections” afforded by technological culture. And yet “I share therefore I am” doesn’t at all resemble what Descartes was saying.

The Good

August 9, 2013

Recollection returns the admiration Dr. Tew expressed for the single, solitary bee during some long ago assembly of Ohio beekeepers. He was awestruck that this individual would exit the colony where there is the support of her fellows, and the safety of numbers, to fly off into the great unknown. I guess it stuck with me by the way he presented it, rather analytically from a scientist’s perspective – someone who has spent his life studying bees. We tend to knee jerk anthropomorphize anything not “like us”. Forgotten is that butterflies, bees and other insects don’t “know” what is out there. Off they go into the very, and always, immediate unknown.
My neighbor is not right. No, not in an argumentative sense, rather he has been unlike his fellows in thought, behavior, and socialization since birth. Today I guess he would be described as challenged, or severely disabled though he gets around and lives alone. Many of us who live around him would describe him as a pain since it is almost impossible to communicate with him. He demands, and if the demand is not met, he curses loudly and vehemently (disabilities are not always as portrayed by Hollywood). Of late he has deemed himself to be our self-appointed evangelist. Have you gone to church? No matter what the response, he condemns you to hell (perhaps he’s lonely?). The latest is asking what is written on a piece of paper in his hand (which the committed do-gooder is more than willing to read for what he believes to be an illiterate. Not!). The scrawl spells “dread”, and of course, a sermon on going to hell with a veritable Whitman’s Sampler of assorted gospel invectives follows.
In The Gleam Of Light: Moral Perfectionism and Education in Dewey and Emerson (2005) Naoko Saito tries to show the close connection between Dewey and Emerson, through some of the writing on this matter by Stanley Cavell (who considers the opposite). Emerson’s influence appears in Dewey’s early work and then in his later writings according to Saito. She addresses a major criticism of Dewey in a chapter entitled The Gleam of Light Lost: Transcending the Tragic with Dewy after Emerson, something both Emerson and Cavell address and wrestle with but Dewey is considered to have elided (all problems can be solved through a sound pragmatic approach). Curious insights that speak to our time arise out of the considerations of these various thinkers that Naoko brings together. Emerson (and then later Dewey) mourns/bemoans the “lost individual”, asleep to the life within/without ( Shades of the unexamined life is not worth living!). The emphasis with Emerson, and later through Saito’s interpretation of Dewey, is on setting forth, struggling to create/achieve meaning, to learn, to grow. Of course, no apparent end is given for all this setting forth, learning and growing. In contemporary times, this has been perverted as “process” – i.e. process art, or “the learning process”, etc. (but not processed food). The “process” has become the end (something Saito points out is NOT the case by referencing the role and place of imagination with morality in both the writings of Emerson and Dewey). Saito works hard to stress the difference between the valorization of today’s “process” and the role or place of struggle, setting forth, growth, etc. with Emerson, et al. She writes: “[T]he good is anything but guaranteed in advance; it is to be created ahead, as “consequences” in the future, or as Cavell says, proven only on the way. Potentiality is not “a category of existence” that is being unfolded. Instead, “potentialities cannot be known till after the interactions have occurred” in terms of “consequences”” (pg. 116).
And so the bee returns to the hive loaded down with pollen and a gut full of nectar after her adventure in the great unknown. Its fellows will be nourished by this contribution achieved with such great effort and peril. The future of the colony will be determined by this struggle with what it knows not. I think this is what Saito is pointing at. The scrawl of today, held up with any considerations of democracy, education or growth (taken in whatever sense), spells out “dread”. Forgotten is that a known outcome, a machine determined inevitability is not exactly how things happen. “The good is anything but guaranteed in advance; it is to be created ahead, as “consequences” in the future, or as Cavell says, proven only on the way.”