Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Not Enough Ghosts: Ideas Man Watches Ghost Story

Not Enough Ghosts

Warning: This contains lots of spoilers, but you should thank me for that because then you won’t have to see the movie.

What if a demon crept after you into your loneliest loneliness some day or night, and said to you: ‘This life, as you live it at present, and have lived it, you must live it once more, and also innumerable times; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh, and all the unspeakably small and great in thy life must come to you again, and all in the same series and sequence - and similarly this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and similarly this moment, and I myself. The eternal sand-glass of existence will ever be turned once more, and you with it, you speck of dust!" (Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 341).

Provocation: The Eternal Persistence of Casey Affleck

Sadly, Nietzsche went mad before adding the only logical corollary: “AND, what if also, Casey Affleck were invisibly standing around in a sheet the whole time, silently asserting his ownership over the whole shebang.”

Such is the philosophically daring and admittedly pathbreaking provocation presented in David Lowery’s well-reviewed Ghost Story. It was those good reviews, along with an evocative trailer (a really lovely distillation of what turned out to be the only emotion that the movie could do well), that made Emily and I excited to see it.

That’s not what the movie bills itself as being about. The reviews told us, and the trailer implied, that this was a movie about Love and Grief, though they’d helpfully not told us whether the Grief in question was the grief of the Ghost or of the survivor. Perhaps, like the Love, it was supposed to be both of theirs.

And indeed, there are a few bits in the movie where it almost seems to be about Grief. When we watch a very beautiful woman crying. When we watch a very beautiful woman eat a pie and then puke it out. When we watch a very beautiful woman do what human beings do: move on and move out.  That occupies about twelve minutes of the movie.

No, that’s just a ruse so that we’ll stick around for the provocation. And we don’t get the provocation explicitly until around two-thirds of the way into the movie and by that point it was too late to ask for our money back, at least not without running the risk of The Sheet haunting us too. Dude has some jealousy issues.

It is a solid moustache
Of course, there’s foreshadowing before that. Before Affleck becomes The White Sheet, he and his soon to be really sad partner (played by Rooney Mara) are talking about their relationship to the house that they live in. Soon To Be Sad imagines herself as a leave-taker. But, she tells Not Yet A White Sheet, she always leaves some part of herself behind, in the form of a note, shoved unobtrusively into the cracks of the house. In contrast, Not Yet a White Sheet, is reluctant to leave the house because he feels that he has memories there. Later, Still Quite Jealous White Sheet Man has managed to scare Now Very Sad Woman (whose lovely, luminously sad eyes provide the best case that I’m wrong and the reviewers are right, this really is a movie about Grief and Love) away from the arms of a friendly enough looking fellow, White Sheet manages to use his newly acquired ghost powers to knock a couple of books off the shelf.  Prominently displayed amongst them? This guy’s moustache. I’ll have more to say about the Eternal Persistence of the Moustache.
But the kicker comes after Now Quite Sad Woman has moved out of the house, and after Grieving Angry Sheet has chased away a perfectly nice mother and her two kids, breaking all their china in the process (because Grief!) leaving it in the louche hands of a bunch of hipsters who ain’t afraid of no ghosts! Sheet, still in the house, walks past a few folks billed in the credits as Making Out 1, Making Out 2, Spirit Girl, Magician and Just Wants to Dance to a guy listed in the credits as The Prognosticator, who seems to think he is completing Nietzsche’s thought.

Why do we create, he asks his assembled audience. Do you believe in God? No, no, everyone assures him. Well supposing you do and you make songs or novels or symphonies for God, just like all symphonists did, what happens to the art without that belief in God?  Of course, this last bit about the motivation of symphonists is entirely wrong. Symphonies were a largely secular form, often made for rich patrons during the eighteenth century and still implicitly into the nineteenth, the grand era of the big symphonies when under the influence of Romanticism and absolute music, many symphonists would likely have proclaimed that they composed symphonies for the artist themself, or what may amount to the same thing, for art itself. This definitely isn’t the only time that the movie mistakes the artist for God.

But let’s forgive the Prognosticator his little mistake: Just because he sees the future, why should we assume he knows anything about the past.  The Prognosticator now launches into the rant that will end with the eternal return. Actually, though, it’s mostly stolen from Plato’s Symposium, where a woman named Diotima who Socrates identifies as the one who taught him about love, hypothesizes that we all desire Immortality (Maybe we all desire it, but only one Ghost seems to occupy this house. I’ll have more to say about that later). Because we all desire it, we all pursue it, following one or more of essentially four strategies. The Prognosticator actually runs the first three of Diotima’s strategies together: children, glory and works of art. These approaches, Diotima tells us, all strive for eternity in a form that Baruch Spinoza will later talk about as sempiternity, unending duration. But, Diotima, Spinoza, Nietzsche and the Prognosticator all agree, this sort of Immortality is illusory: even if one’s lineage, one’s reputation lasts for a really long time, it’ll eventually fade. The Prognosticator gets there near the end of his ferociously long rant, talking about the Earth getting swallowed into the expanding Sun, now a red giant (because he can see the future he does manage to get this date right: around 2 billion years from now) or the eventual  heat-death of the universe (which he not necessarily wrongly associates with the Big Expansion).
I worry this is what I look like when I'm prognosticating too

So where’s the eternal return in all this? No, I don’t mean the seeming sempiternity of the speech, though it was really really long. (Emily, nine months pregnant, had to excuse herself in the middle to use the restroom. It was still going on when she got back.) No, because right at the end, the Prognosticator leaves aside banal truisms and hypothesizes the Big Collapse. And then it all begins again.

So, arguably, our Prognosticator had gotten as far as Nietzsche in his thinker. But it would be foolish to think that this is necessarily what the director believes. That would be unfair to the vision of the director. No, the Prognosticator does not quite see what the director ingeniously shows us: “AND, what if also, Casey Affleck were invisibly standing around in a sheet the whole time, silently asserting his ownership over the whole shebang.”

Indeed, soon after the Prognosticator’s speech finally ends, the movie, which has up until now been self-consciously, fastidiously slow, accelerates at a massive pace. We see the house in a low density suburb get destroyed. A corporate office building is put up. The ghost persists. The corporate office building is now a skyscraper in the middle of a giant futuristic city. Still-A-Sheet-Occupying-What-Is-Still-His-House-Damn-it (indeed, there had been another ghost in the house next door but when the houses are destroyed, that ghost finally gives up waiting and leaves. White Sheet Men don’t share places, despite the eternal finitude of place).

Writer/Director David Lowery. I'm not joking
Then, wham-o, bam-o, suddenly there are trees again and grass and a stream. Or we in some distant future, beyond Ragnarok, when the planet has finally shuffled off the clever ants who for a long time marred its surface? Sadly for Mother Earth, no. Because suddenly we see: the first human settlers coming to this spot: pioneers.  Well, the first white settlers I mean, but that’s close enough right? Soon enough, we’re back at the start of the movie. It’s almost as though we can hear some moustachioed guy: "This life, as you live it at present, and have lived it, you must live it once more, and also innumerable times; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh, and all the unspeakably small and great in thy life must come to you again, and all in the same series and sequence. AND, what if also, Casey Affleck were invisibly standing around in a sheet the whole time, silently asserting his ownership over the whole shebang.”

So that was the provocation I found myself faced with yesterday.  How should I have responded?  Nietzsche, again? “Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth, and curse the demon that so spoke? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment in which you would answer him: "You are a God, and never did I hear anything so divine!"

Given the Affleck-Addendum I propose a different option: “Give me more ghosts or else fuck off.”

I mean, really, can you imagine anything more awful than the Eternal Persistence of Casey Affleck?

The Periodic Recurrence of Fred

Come on, Ammon. These are just your own personal demons you’re working through. You really think we should trust your hot-take on the movie over other critics?

It’s about Grief and Love, damn it.

I humbly submit that I’ve already offered an arc of the movie that explains a lot more of the movie that the reviewers. That’s no criticism to them: reviews have to be short. By forgoing any audience I can, like the Prognosticator, or like a guy filming a White Sheet, take all the time I want.

But I also admit it’s my own issues. Coincidentally, earlier in the day, I’d been talking with a colleague about the eternal return. It’s not the bit in Nietzsche that interests me the most, but it recurs periodically. We’d been reminiscing that both of us had read Arthur Danto’s very weird essay where he’d tried to test the idea of the eternal recurrence as an actual metaphysical proposition about the natural world, as Nietzsche does admittedly sometimes imply, and had unsurprisingly found the argument to be invalid.

Certainly, the more common respectable take on the idea involves a sort of immanentizing take on Kant’s categorical imperative, which was itself a transcendental (as opposed to transcendent) take on the role that eternal forms play in Platonic standards of morality (I’m glossing very quickly from the 5th to the 3rd to the 1st phase of Nietzsche’s well known “How the Real World Became a Fable” whilst leaving the 4th and 2nd phases implicit). If there is no God and no eternity, then what becomes the standard by which we evaluate life? Well, it would be the capacity to affirm these things immanently, in this world, in which both eternity and sempiternity are illusory.

So why care about the eternal return? It’s a funny thing about ideas how easily they can transform themselves into their opposite. I’d mentioned how closely Spinoza, Kant and Nietzsche had all come to saying something that Plato already seemed to have said, but I left a few details out.

Sils Maria, where Nietzsche conceived of the eternal return.
Thankfully moustache free.
Leaving aside the metaphysical proposition that Danto found wanting (and that the Sheet experienced), there’s at least one other thought that Nietzsche’s trying to work through with his understanding of the Eternal Return.) If the other two ways or metaphysical-scientific and moral, respectively this one is natural-aesthetic, an attempt to reimagine a circular sense of time after the disastrous linear teleology of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Unlike, say the Romantics, who were already thinking the Death of God in order to reimagine the Divinity of Man (indeed, this is the point of Schiller’s Ode to Joy that Beethoven put to music in that one symphony that you all know and that recurs periodically in Ghost Story, most annoyingly when the Prognosticator imagines its sempiternity), Nietzsche was keenly interested in what the poet Paul Celan would later call die “Lieder zu singen / Jenseits der Menschen” (“The songs to be sung beyond humankind.”)
The hypothesis of the  eternal persistence of Casey Affleck may be compatible with the metaphysical-scientific and maybe even the moral senses of the Eternal Return, it’s flatly inconsistent with the natural one.

The Eternal Persistence of White Masculine Possessiveness

Well, so what? I’m not worrying about this as a matter of Nietzsche interpretation. And although philosophically, I find the last sense the most suggestive, it’s not something I spend a ton of time thinking about it, not even the bit of Nietzsche that I personally am the most interested in.

And anyway, just because a writer/director models his moustache off of Nietzsche’s, that doesn’t mean that he is beholden to getting Nietzsche right. Can’t he just use a provocation from Nietzsche to tell a story of his own about Grief and Love? Aren’t Grief and Love more like the Eternal Persistence of Casey Affleck than the Eternal Recurrence of the Same anyway?

God, I hope not. But I do think that it might be true -- about what 21st century white men imagine Love and Grief to be, anyway.

Let’s leave my long complaint about Nietzsche aside and pretend that the movie really is about Grief and Love.

Ok, what does it say about Grief and Love? Well, as I mentioned, there really are about 15 minutes when The Very Sad Woman is Very Sad. And there’s a lot of bits when the White Sheet scrapes at the door jamb to get at the note The Very Sad Woman puts in there when she moves away. And the Sheet Across the Street (A Sheet with a Floral Pattern far more interesting than the Plain White Sheet that we’re forced to follow) talks about waiting for someone and then finally decides to leave. All those things are in the vicinity of Grief. And Pre-Sheet Casey Affleck does write a very lovely song for the Very Sad Woman that is kinda lovey dovey. And they are certainly convincingly fond of one another.

But I’ve only briefly touched on what keeps the movie moving: the dramatic narrative of Grief. The
Imagine a moustache under the sheet
Ghost at its most expressive shows his love: at his sadness when the Very Sad Woman Almost Gets Laid, at his sadness when the Very Sad Woman Leaves and we see her drive off into the sunset (Emily pointed out to me that that’s the only bit of the movie that really was affectingly and satisfyingly about grief). Her moving on is very sad for the Sad White Sheet. How do we know White Sheet Man remains very sad? Well, because he torments the nice mom and her kids who move in after them.

This family, constructed fully as interlopers by the ghost also happen to be Latinx, some of the only non-white characters in the film. As I watched this part, the only thing I could think about is what a douchebag Angry Grieving White Sheet Man was. Why not fuck off and leave the nice mom alone? She’s working hard to take care of those little kids and here’s Angry Grief Man waking them all up in the middle of the night and breaking all their dinnerware.

But maybe that’s the point of grief, right? You do things you shouldn’t, like torment a perfectly nice family. And they’re not the only perfectly nice family.  There’s also the perfectly nice family of pioneers that come and are the first settlers in the ghost’s recurrent life. Well, the first white settlers. They are also driven off, killed off actually, not by the ghost, but rather by arrows that clumsily imply indigenous people. Apparently hauntings only happen when you have property rights recognized by Western capitalism.

Look, maybe that is Grief. But if Grief is just the Eternal Persistence of White Male Capitalist Property Rights, maybe Grief is the thing we need to get over.

Jenseits der Menschen

There’s a moral failing to how narcissistic the centering of white male “grief” is, even if the movie thinks that the empty gesture of “letting go” at the end redeems that. But there’s also an aesthetic component. I mentioned that I wish we were following the story of the Other Sad Floral Sheet. Or that we had just stuck to the story of the Very Sad Woman. Or that we had let that house’s story become the story of The Nice Mom and her Kids. Or even the boring pioneers. Literally anyone or anything other than the Eternal Persistence of Casey Affleck.

But no, that’s all we get. And as we imagine the Eternal Persistence of Casey Affleck, White Guy Ghost, we even only imagine the most boring parts of that Eternal Persistence. What was it like to be a White Sheet after those big tall building crumbled? Did the earth freeze as it was incorporated into the giant Sun? As the universe crunched and re-exploded (magically, however, retaining the property of place)? Do ghosts feel the plates move over eons under their feet? How does it feel to be Sad Sheet during the Pleistocene? Did the Sheet learn anything watching millennia of people come and go? We’ll never know, because whatever is true of the Sheet, the camera is bored until whiteness shows up.

This failure of imagination naturalizes the illusion of white ownership. The director makes the connection between this sense of ownership and identity. Both Pre-Sheet Casey Affleck and Sad White Sheet are defined by belonging to the place they occupy. Indeed, it’s necessary to the Eternal Persistence of Casey Affleck, and to its difference from Nietzsche’s Eternal Return of the Same. Here’s the bit I’d left out of the Lowery Provocation that he’d lifted from Nietzsche: “And similarly this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and similarly this moment, and I myself.” Where Plato (through participation in the forms) and Kant (through the rational postulate of the eternal soul) and the White Guy in a Sheet (through property rights over women and place 4eva) all imagine an eternal identity over time, this is exactly what Spinoza and Nietzsche are trying to un-imagine. The only successful way to participate in eternal life, in Spinoza, is insofar as we intuitively understand ourselves to be part of the whole universe, whose eternal recurrence is the constant internal happening by which it affects itself. In this way, eternal life is not a property of human minds. For all the obsession over the Death of God in Nietzsche, this is a prelude to probing the limits of human subjectivity, the brevity of the illusion that a contingent configuration of the roiling motion of the will to power will last forever.

So many wills, so many ghosts wandering over the landscape, and the camera can only imagine the brief moment of the temporarily mortal coil of the White Sheet that it imagines itself to be:

Nietzsche again:

“It was in the marvellous art and capacity for creating Gods in polytheism that this impulse was permitted to discharge itself, it was here that it became purified, perfected, and ennobled; for it was originally a commonplace and unimportant impulse, akin to stubbornness, disobedience and envy.  To be hostile to this impulse towards the individual ideal, that was formerly the law of every morality.  There was then only one norm, "the man" and every people believed that it had this one and ultimate norm.  But above himself, and outside of himself, in a distant over- world, a person could see a multitude of norms: the one God was not the denial or blasphemy of the other Gods!  It was here that individuals were first permitted, it was here that the right of individuals was first respected.  The inventing of Gods, heroes, and supermen of all kinds, as well as co-ordinate men and undermen dwarfs, fairies, centaurs, satyrs, demons, devils was the inestimable preliminary to the justification of the selfishness and sovereignty of the individual: the freedom which was granted to one God in respect to other Gods, was at last given to the individual himself in respect to laws, customs and neighbours.  Monotheism, on the contrary, the rigid consequence of the doctrine of one normal human being consequently the belief in a normal God, beside whom there are only false, spurious Gods has perhaps been the greatest danger of mankind in the past: man was then threatened by that premature state of inertia, which, so far as we can see, most of the other species have long ago.  For all of them believe in one normal type and ideal for their species and they have translated their morality into their own flesh and blood.  In polytheism the free spiriting and poly-spiritism of manaheived its preliminary form - the strength to create for ourselves new eyes - and again new eyes that are even more our own.  Hence, man alone, of all the animals, has no eternal horizons and perspectives” (Gay Science, 143).


As bad as the movie was, I’m still glad that we went to see it. I had a great time watching the movie with Emily and parsing exactly what made it so bad. We’ll be having a baby soon and it’ll be increasingly hard to see movies in public for a while.  I’m looking forward to having a baby in the house again, and so are the kids. Not going to the movies isn’t a big deal. Anyway, it’s not that far off in the grand scheme of things until I can see real movies with him. I’m already almost there with Elena, who is really starting to have her own take on things. It would be silly to obsess over having seen one bad movie.
I only hope that when they’re grown up, they’ll want to still hang out with me and Emily at the movies sometimes. And that the movies we watch will be full of more beautiful ghosts.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017


I am pleased to announce the latest in cryptocurrency. It's called Poetzcoinz. What happens is: you send me $100 USD, and I send you a poem of my choice converted into numerical format by an algorithm of my devising. This will be registered on a public, anonymized register that will record all transactions, making it uncounterfeitable. As with Bitcoin a fixed number of 21 million Poetzcoinz will be released over the next hundred years. Because only real poetry is used, this product resists the problem of large scale mining operations (since writing poetry is the real "hard problem"). And because only real poems are used, and everybody knows that real poems are increasingly rare, value is guaranteed to go up! So you should get in on the ground floor. Act now before you miss out on this cutting edge opportunity!

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

The Prehistory of Mexitarianism

When I was 11 or 12 I came up with a teleological theory of history: tired of the warmed-over and Americanized Christian discourse with which my Mormon coreligionists went after my beloved Romans for persecuting early Christians, I proposed the antithesis: the Roman imperium was necessary for Christianity to flourish and to expand beyond its Hebrew confines.

With all the seriousness that only makes sense in child's play, I became convinced that my life's purpose was to prove this very bold thesis and, like any good equal parts entitled and precocious kid, wasn't about to let my lack of any real knowledge about ancient near-Eastern religion or even more than a highly amateur in the most literal sense of the term knowledge of Roman history and culture stop me from being right. Nor was I aware that I was simply pushing a caricature of the worst possible reading of Hegel.

Of course, I didn't have to worry about being shown up, since my adult religious leaders lacked even that level of amateur knowledge or, let it be said, any desire to show me up when they could just push me around.

I also had access to a major university's research library, and so I threw myself into the task of acquitting my beloved Romans as quickly as possible. Soon stacks of books filled up my room whilst the overdue fines piled up. I'm not sure what I got out of any of this, but it sure did make me feel like a real scholar the virtues of being which I had not yet realized were overrated.

I'm reminded of this as my equal parts entitled and precocious daughter hits this same age.

Of course, even so none of this would be worth remembering now, were it not also for the fact that this was also how I discovered Lucretius, who put an end to the whole silly exercise and also made it all worthwhile.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Academic Opposition

I've worked with several of my good friends and colleagues on drafting a "November Statement" articulating shared objections and principles in the wake of the disastrous U.S. election of Donald Trump to the presidency. I've heard from a few people essentially asking "what's the point of just another online statement?," so let me talk a little about why I helped to write this statement, and why I urge all my friends and colleagues in the academy to sign it. Let me be upfront: Although I helped to write the statement I'm asking you to sign, what I'm writing below are simply my own reflections. I think that irrespective of what happens in the next weeks and months, that the stability of our democracy is in serious jeopardy and I think that many of the institutions whose job it is to protect that stability are themselves compromised. I know that we like to decide just how scared we should be by asking who we should compare Trump to. Is he a Hitler or just a Berlusconi? I think in asking these questions, we're partially jumping the gun. I'm inclined to agree with Plato and suspect that most tyrants are undisciplined thieves, ruled by their own desires and fears. The extent to which they become totalitarians and the extent to which they just remain kleptocrats depends as much on how the institutions that they interact with respond to them and how other polities do as it does on any of their own machinations. This is why I think it behooves all of us to bring whatever force is at our disposal to bear against Trump from the beginning so that the lazy, cowardly man's easiest course of action will be to acquiesce to those democratic institutions who stand up to his current threats and who insist upon protecting those vulnerable groups who he is going after. Of course, the institutions we'd like to rely on first and foremost are those constitutional checks and balances which should reign in the executive. But we also already know that those are broken. That's why I think that those of us involved institutions such as the press and the academy need to commit ourselves in advance to serving as the democratic bulwark that we at our best are. That's going to require collective action, absolutely. But the first step in collective action is identifying a shared position and asserting that we in fact occupy that position. The sense of collective identity of institutions like the academy has already been thoroughly shaken: by decades of managerialism and by the erosion of labor through the precaritization of the profession. So I think it's critically important to begin the Trump presidency by re-asserting that there is in fact such an identity, fundamentally committed to a democratic polity. Speaking of precaritization, it's been my experience that the younger folks who have been more shaken by it get this point much more readily than other folks. I've also heard from a few people who have agreed with the statement below in principle but who are afraid for their own position. If you're in a precarious position, this makes complete sense. It also indicts those of us whose positions are less precarious though. What makes their position so precarious is a lack of solidarity, the willingness of those of us who are more safely protected by what remains of the academy to commit our voices to anything at all. It seems to me, then, that the objection "what does this do?" and the objection "won't I be making myself a target?" cancel themselves out. So that's why I'm sharing this. I respect those of you who can't sign it because of the precarity of your position. And I respectfully disagree with those of you who can, but think that committing yourself publicly doesn't amount to anything. And the reason why I helped to write it, and the reason why I sign it is to commit myself and to hold myself, and other signatories to the promise of action in the future. Because if we fail to bring the force of our institutions to bear against fascism, then we will also be called upon (and I am committed) to bringing the much weaker but also final and most desperate, force of our own bodies.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Wherein I talk smack about my governor over on the Guardian's opinion page.

The Guardian was kind enough to post my piece on what's wrong with Kasich's education proposals:

Unfortunately, it is often the rhetorical flourishes of Kasich’s anti-union diatribes that get the most attention. But what looks like a populist attack on the intellectual elite turns out, on closer inspection, to be a boondoggle for the propertied class. 

 I'd generalize this point to the entire Republican field.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

In Praise of the Ontometaphorical God(s)

Because he could see the future — because his name, after all, means Forethought — Prometheus had a knack for staying on the right side of history, and his brother Epimetheus was happy to follow his lead.  That’s how they wound up arrayed alongside their cousins (those upstarts who’d later become known as the Olympians) against their own Titanic forebears.  Call it the demand for justice, if you like.  After all, their uncle Kronos was the first but one tyrant, whose scythe turns up everything the earth produces and whose teeth grind all grain to dust.  And when Gaia unleashed her destructive powers in the form of giants and monsters bent on dragging Olympos itself back into the omphalos of the earth, Prometheus’s help again proved decisive.  Here, the chief assistance he provided was to have created something capable of worshipping the gods:  mortal human beings, whose lack alone of all the great lacks in the cosmos (for lack is both the first and last word of all that there is) were capable of experiencing their lack as lack.  It was only with the assistance of we human beings, we limitless lackers, we constant fantasists, we inconstant, restless lovers, we betters on all the bad horses, we pathetically limited, weak, pathos-laden, frankly a little pathetic, certainly quite ridiculous human beings, that the Olympians for all their might could manage to eke out a victory against the Earth’s overwhelming desire to return all that she’s ever made in her infinite creativity back to the even more infinite embrace of her own slumber.  We came to the gods’ aids by letting their powers come to enough presence to assume an effective form.  And we did this by worshipping them, by looking up to the heights of Olympos and choosing the divine attributes arrayed thereupon from all the infinite possible divine attributes (that Spinoza assures us there are) and saying:  “This, we worship.  These are the things we aspire to.  They are ours, these powers we identify with.”
You might think I’ve just repeated the same basic idea three times, obeying, no doubt the dictate of some overblown, high-falutin’ rhetorical theory, inspired equally by my lack of adequate sleep and the just human enough grandeur of foothills of the the Italian and French Alps parading themselves outside my train window.  But don’t let yourself by fooled.  Every one of those claims is different.    

And in this, I’m simply following Prometheus’s lead.  Prometheus, who had a knack for staying on the right side of history.  This does not always mean: remaining faithful to the Gods.

Moreau recalls the ruse of the Muses
Hesiod tells us that Prometheus eventually betrayed Zeus.  First, by stealing fire for his human creations and then (after that first betrayal had eventuated an equably Epicurean settlement) by tricking Zeus into taking the worst cut from the flesh of the animals the gods commanded that we mortals sacrifice to them, and which they taught us to eat.  This is all true, of course.  It happened just like the Muses told Hesiod it did when they appeared to him on the slopes of Parnassus.  But Hesiod wasn’t one for irony so he missed the import of the bit when the Muses paraphrased without explicitly citing Plato.  And so he failed to identify the deepest lie they told, in the grips of which they were in collusion with Prometheus.  (Let’s call this not the most noble, but the most human lie:  the myth of the truth).  Hesiod, then, failed to notice the rebellion by the youngest Olympians against the very idea of Olympos, in the name of the idea of the idea itself.

Prometheus stole fire so we could compensate for our awareness of our own lack.  In what at first appeared to be the compromise of sharing our meals with the God, Prometheus in fact taught both us and the Gods that we were locked in a struggle with them for the best bits of that of which there is never enough to share.  But Prometheus, the first transcendental philosopher (here I follow the Muses in paraphrasing without citing a philosopher we would all do better to cite less), had already set up the condition for these conflicts in the very first gift he gave us, the one he tricked Zeus to ask of him.  Our capacity to feel lack, our ability to worship the gods, was premised on our sharing with Prometheus — something even the gods for the most part lack — the capacity to see the future, not in the sense of predicting it accurately, but in the sense of seeing that there’s such a thing as the future at all.  In this, he was colluding with the young Olympians who he knew would someday eclipse the tyranny of their parents.

Because Hesiod failed to identify Prometheus’s original betrayal, he also failed to notice Prometheus’s revenge.  Aeschylus had intimations of it, but because he failed to recognize that the reason Prometheus knew the root of Zeus’s eventual (inevitable) downfall, was that he was a coconspirator, perhaps its primary author, he imagined the story ending with a reconciliation between Zeus and Prometheus.  Thousands of years later, Shelley finally heard Prometheus’s laughter.  But he too, in his triumphant humanism, in his conviction that surely the justice that motivated Prometheus was recognizable as justice to we humans, failed to hear the echo in that laughter, in which Prometheus and a few of the younger gods had hidden themselves.

And so it was we who were the ones who offed the Olympians, as we finally proceeded to realize our ideas were either simply in the world by virtue of its nature, or else perhaps of our making.  As we proceeded to emancipate ourselves of the last vestiges of the superstitious worship of that more than human natural world to which, our mother/father/progenitorbeyondgender though it may be, we owe absolutely no worship, a force of whom we cannot fail to notice that justice is lacking, we have failed except in a few glimpses to notice the ominously but entirely immanently divine nature of the forces by which we effected this liberation, in whose mighty nature the youngest, most human of the Olympians hid themselves:  the Muses, whom I’ve already mentioned, and their dreamy bandleader, Apollo, and his sister Artemis, who scorns the safety of fire at night to master  the darkest corners of the wild, and wise, crafty Athena and slow but cunning Hephaestus, and yes even savage Ares and, okay, I’ll concede to you mad Dionysos, and madness making Aphrodite (but watch out!  They’ve just tricked you with their young looks as they are in truth the oldest, least human divinities of all) and alongside them, Prometheus, deliberate philosophical architect of this cosmic Trojan horse, this world deprived of the divine in which the most human gods have smuggled themselves.

To what end?  To join us or to have further sport with us?

And what of Prometheus’s faithful brother?  Was Prometheus really so faithless and fickle as to have abandoned him?

Or, in cosmic history, in the long genealogy of phantasms Gaia jealously dreams, are we really the final thought?  Is our victory so assured as we are inclined to think?

Friday, February 27, 2015

In Lovely Blueness: Protagoras's revenge.

I'm not going to summarize the issues in the "debate" over whether what you are seeing here is white and gold or blue and black, because I'm sure 24 hours or so in, you're all up to speed. At Daily Nous, Justin Weinberg asks what philosophers will make of this as an opportunity for public philosophy  My prediction (and this already seems to be playing out), most philosophers will tell you that this is really a conversation about color perception, and descend into a discussion of qualia.  Is there a difference between what color something "is" and how we "experience"color?

I'm hopeful for something slightly different.  Maybe this will be a chance to redress a long standing wrong in public philosophy. Maybe the time has finally come for:

Protagoras's Revenge!

Protagoras was, of course,  the most famous of the sophists and the person with whom the worst sort of relativism is often associated.  His claim that "The human is the measure of all things: of the things that are, that they are, of the things that are not, that they are not" has been taken as early as Plato's Theatetus to be a claim that truth and reality are subjective functions of perception. If you experience a certain wind as hot, and I experience the same wind as cold, we aren't particularly bothered by this.  (We're willing to ascribe contrary properties to the "same" wind.  I'll return to winds at the end of this post).  It was, of course, also Plato who put this idea definitively to rest.  The problem is that the very ideas of truth and reality are normative, and universal in scope.  That is, Protagoras seems to be saying that when I say (say): that dress is blue and black, what I'm really saying is that that dress is blue and black for me. But if I go into any discussion thread on the internet right now, I'll see that that's untrue: what I seem to really want to claim is that everyone should see the dress as blue and black.  Now, Protagoras can of course come back and say: "yes, but you shouldn't want that" (this, after all, is the movement my students want to make in their lazy relativism*).  But here's where Plato's trump card comes in, because in order for Protagoras to make that claim, he needs to appeal to the normative, universal properties inherent in our understanding of truth.  (He's making a prescriptive claim).

Fine, Plato.  The dress is really blue and black.  Depending, of course, (to go back to another famous blue dress) on what the meaning of is is.

There's another philosophical problem that enters into discussion here, and that's the problem of the image.  Because we aren't talking about the dress.  We're talking about one particular image of the dress.  Now, presumably because that image is of a photograph, it merely reproduces the property of the actual dress, but science (of the "I fucking love science" variety) can tell me why it's actually more complicated than that.  There is, of course, a rich philosophical conversation about the image, which (again) goes back to Plato, but which isn't immediately connected there to the issues of perception and truth where Protagoras comes up (the line between these issues is short, of course, but I'm not going to traverse it right now).  More recently, Kendall Walton has considered the difference between the kinds of claims that "photographic" images make from, say, "drawn" images, although I think that that discussion needs to be updated in the light of digital photography.  (A person less lazy than me would go research that topic now, but although that's a detour I'm interested in, it's not one I need to take right now as I've reason to be confident it wouldn't for a major revision of my point here).  Walton's point is that when we take something to be a photograph, we take it to be an image of that thing, so that we take the photograph to be reproducing the properties of the thing.  (It makes sense to have a debate on the basis of a photograph about what color a dress really is, but it wouldn't make sense to have that debate on the basis of a painting of it.)  (I'm leaving to the side Walton's views on fictionalism also for now).

Why this detour into a discussion of the image?  Because as much time as we spend with images, we don't linger on images nearly enough.

At Daily Nous, I summarized the "debate" about what interests me about the dress as follows:

"1) the first debate is over what color the dress really is, not what the colors in the picture are
2) but once they’ve been told it, people will be willing to grant that the “real” dress is blue and black.
3) the question then becomes whether the picture is “really” white and gold or blue and black.
4) eventually pop-science is brought in to explain why our eyes might “over compensate” for a “bad” picture.
5) at this point, both sides can see how the other side can hold their “mistaken” views, and can identify the terms of the “debate,” without being able to actually make their eyes see it. [I know what the brains of the white-goldies are doing, but try as I might I can’t make my brain do it.] except for a squishy middle who now says they can see both (or sometimes vacillate between seeing both.)
6) descent into aporia ensues (LOLs, emojis, etc).
7) consequently the linguistic turn is never made, whereby people realize that the problem is with the realistic and normative biases in our ordinary concepts.
8) and the realization that “debate” is less important than the education/experimentation of one’s aesthetic sensibilities.
9) my prescription is that people ought to read more Protagoras, Hume, and Nietzsche."

In the previous paragraphs, I've tried to start fleshing out what I mean in claims 7, 8 and 9.  (I presume everyone is familiar enough with the first 6 that I don't have to go into too much depth).  I can't help but notice how bad we are at talking about images, and I suspect that's because we seem to be congenitally inclined to have realist intuitions.  That is (and here I'm granting Plato's point), we tend to think that when we speak, we're referring to universal, common and shared properties, and that consequently agreement can be reached about the truth or falsity of the claims about these properties through rational dispute.  Protagoras's mistake seems to have been that he tried to neutralize that shared ground, and that's what philosophers across the spectrum have been giving him shit for for nigh on 2500 years now.

I exempt Nietzsche, and Hume and a few others from this gross, but forgivable error.  After all, most of us have to interact with others, and we spend a lot of time dealing with bad, inconsistently applied versions of Protagoras's argument, with that lazy relativism that is in many ways indistinguishable from fanatical absolutism insofar as both of them aim to neutralize any grounds for rational debate.

But, of course, when it comes to images, we're willing to grant that things might function differently.  This, is why it's so important to salvage our realist intuitions to emphasize what a shitty picture the original blue dress picture is, and show all the ways that we can "correct" it (without acknowledging that we are thereby changing the terms under discussion).  If it turns out that the image really can be blue and black AND white and gold, and that we can understand what the other person means when they say it's white and gold (because c'mon you guys, it's obviously blue and black), it's because we're willing to suspend some of the universalistic and normative properties of our ordinary language when we're talking about images.  We're even willing to grant that there might be room for aesthetic education here.  (I can learn more about an image by trying to experience how others see it.  I can appreciate food and music that I didn't before if I learn about what the properties in it are that other people are experiencing).

It's too bad we can't take this point about aesthetic education further, because frankly I think this particularistic, anti-normative sort of experiencing is of far more importance to how we can live happily together than any normative ethics.

You might think I'm advocating extending imagistic thinking beyond the image.  But, actually, I'm simply advocating for us to follow Nietzsche all the way down the imagistic rabbit hole (Plato's forms/ideas are themselves forms of images).  Call this revolutionary fictionalism if you like.

But I'll call it Protagoras's revenge.

Lately, I've been spending a lot of time thinking about how we can bend philosophy away from its normative biases.   (How we can, like, just let it be, man.)  But this post has already gone to long, and so I won't trouble you.  But I feel I'd be remiss if I didn't offer you some form of edification on that question.

We began with a click-baity, manufactured internet controversy.  By way of apology (or to reward you for your patience in getting to the end or to punish you for your prurience)** let's end by imagining dialogue in the context of one of the great poems of the twentieth century, Celan's Sprachgitter (or Speech Grill).***

Eyeround between the bars

Flittering lid
propels itself upwards,
sets free a glance.

Iris, swimmer, dreamless and drab:
Sky, heartgray, must be near.

Athwart, in its iron socket,
the smoldering chip.
By lightsense
you hit on the soul.

(Were I like you.  Were you like I.
Did we not stand
beneath one tradewind?
We are strangers.)

The flagstones.  On them,
Thick on each other, both the
heart gray pools:
mouthsfull silence.

(Augenrund zwischen den Stäben.

Flimmertier Lid
rudert nach oben,
gibt einen Blick frei.

Iris, Schwimmerin, traumlos und trüb:
der Himmel, herzgrau, muss nah sein.

Schräg, in der eisernen Tülle,
der blakende Span.
Am Lichtsinn
errätst du die Seele.

(Wär ich wie du. Wärst du wie ich.
Standen wir nicht
unter einem Passat?
Wir sind Fremde.)

Die Fliesen. Darauf,
dicht beieinander, die beiden >
herzgrauen Lachen:
Mundvoll Schweigen.)

[UPDATE:  Leigh Johnson responds to this post, here and here (see the comment thread in the latter link also.]

* in an ensuing discussion about this post with Johnson, I was reminded that she was the person who originally started calling this view lazy relativism. (I used to just call it "weak relativism").  

**there's another hint about aesthetic education, hidden in the form of a rickroll in the links I've put in this blog.  You're welcome.

*** my translation.