Monday, March 11, 2013

how can anyone take philosophy seriously?

For the last fifty years, those who have been paying attention have witnessed the death and burial of the dream of the Enlightenment, the final destruction of claims to originary points of certainty, of any universal claims, and of any pretender to a philosophical method. Only the most naïve of naïve realists has any hope to resuscitate positivism of any kind. Tough days for philosophy.

Those who have been paying a different kind of attention may have witnessed the implosion of meaning and the social (to use Baudrillard's words), and the unhinging of signs from signification. The form of advertising has liquidated the possibility of a discourse in which any of the problems of philosophy could be discussed, or could matter. Without a discursive home, well, that seems to about wrap it up for this whole philosophy business.

This would be the case if Baudrillard is right about the impact of "absolute advertising" -- a steering medium masquerading as a communications medium. If I'm reading Baudrillard right, he says that advertising has overtaken language and driven meaning to extinction. To give a simple example, a term in a language has a particular meaning by its differentiation from other terms and its denotative function. Tree can mean "tree" because tree isn't potato or Duane and because the arbitrary marker tree can designate the image/idea of "tree." Advertising language takes those same signs, and decouples them from those images/ideas, puts the denotative function out of play, and applies the unhinged sign anywhere, onto anything. Each term in advertising's sign system is still differentiated from the others, but none of them denotes anything in particular, so the differentiation doesn't make any difference.

Ads rarely use tree, of course. But they use freedom, love, natural, good, and any other word of the lexicon that seems handy. When the ad uses those terms, they do not mean anything in particular. All-natural is precisely meaningless, for instance.

Now, it's important to note that for Baudrillard it is not advertisements that have liquidated meaning and the social, it's the form of advertising, which he further elaborates as a vaguely consensual, vaguely seductive form of language in which signs serve as enticements and lures, bits of exposed skin, moods, etc. The form of advertising is a medium of fascination, ultimately, and that point of fascination is the abyss of meaning and the social.

What matters post-meaning is connection, exchange, feedback loops -- the merest nodal/modular transferral of signs. This form of the exchange of signs is too rapid, too thin, too ephemeral, and too brutal for meaning to be conveyed or understood. I think this characterizes very well the digital media environment of siliconized societies: Twitter, Facebook, Instragram, instant public opinion polling based on market research and demographic targeting, news media, and the constant, continuous, ubiquitous bombardment of data in all forms, everywhere.

The problem is not that any of us are duped by ads, the media, political parties, or any of the rest of it. That doesn't matter. What matters is that these media, taken as a system, operate as steering media to coordinate need and desire geared to production (again, as a system -- not the obviously stupid idea that an ad makes me want to go buy some product, which no one really believes happens), yet they appear to be doing the job of communications media.

In this social situation, I ask myself, more than I ask anyone else, how can anyone take philosophy seriously?

So I wrote a blog post about it. And I posted a link to that on Facebook.

(And yes, I have a response to my own question, but you'll just have to wait.)

Wednesday, March 06, 2013


Unrelatedly to finishing Baudrillard's book Seduction, I happened to re-read some stuff I wrote about the account of seduction in Jean-Luc Marion's The Erotic Phenomenon. Between one thing and another, I ended up imagining a rather charged conversation I could have (read that as subjunctive, please). I suppose that's my way of confessing that I found Baudrillard's account of seduction a little bit seductive.

Seduction is a game, following its own rules, that removes us from the real, law-bound dramatic situation of sexuality and desire. The aim of seduction is the seduction itself, not sexual pleasure (or conquest, or...); the relation between seducer and seduced is a conflict, a kind of agonistic struggle determined by the rules.

There is no real payoff, but for the game to be a game, there must be "stakes." I suppose that to mean that one can win or lose the game of seduction, but that nothing real is achieved. In a way, the point is to continue the game, because when something real happens, that is, sex or death, the game ends, and so too does its delight.

A main delectation of seduction is that the means of seducing, the chief tactic of the seducer, is to be seduced. Nothing is more seductive than one's own seductiveness, reflected in the counter-strategy of the seducer.

It's easy to imagine this game played to the Trois Gymnópedies and the Six Gnossiennes.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

perfectly normal

Without meaning to, I've ended up thinking through some of my questions about normal and abnormal lately. Because I read Beauvoir's The Second Sex on a bit of a whim, and then plunged into Baudrillard's Seduction, the question has been refracted by the concept of "the feminine." Strangely, Beauvoir and Baudrillard use it similarly.

I say "strangely," because Seduction is the Baudrillard book a lot of feminist philosophers love to hate. He seems to adhere to as essentialist notion of the feminine, and that involves feminine guile and weakness, both of which are characteristics Beauvoir criticizes in the patriarchal concept of the feminine. For what it's worth, I think Baudrillard's position is not an unreconstructed patriarchal concept at all, since the feminine is for him the origin of seduction, and seduction is a game outside of the regulatory law of desire and sex. Baudrillard's feminine isn't Freud's, and in that regard isn't the "second sex" (after all, it's outside of any relation that can be reduced to sex).

That aside, for Baudrillard as for Beauvoir, the feminine is not the normal, because normal is defined in terms of the masculine from which the feminine is said to depart, in discourses pertaining to sexuality. Whether the feminine is a socially constructed abnormal that appears as part of the situation of woman, or is outside of the normal because it is beyond the economy of sexuality and desire, there is still a presumed normal against which the feminine is being contrasted.

Which leads me to the terrific old essay by Iris Marion Young, "Throwing Like a Girl." Notable in Young's critical phenomenology of motility and transcendence (and of [male] phenomenologists' accounts of motility and transcendence) is the repeated negations. For Young, girlish motility is not fully transcendent, does not achieve a complete unity with the world, is not fully melodic, does not exhibit full range of motion, etc. Again, this is in relation to the presumptive/masculine (here boyish) norm. That's her point, of course, and the essay ends with a call for phenomenological accounts starting from the standpoint  of female embodiment, presumably without so many "nots."

This has me wondering about an essay titled "____-ing Like a Boy." What would fill in the blank, such that, as in Young's title, it indicated an objectifying or objectified embodiment, especially a privatively transcendent embodiment? What do boys do in ways that mark them as boys in the way that "____-ing like a girl" marks certain people as girls?