Foucault vs Chomsky

I’ve never seen this debate before, people, and I’m loving it. Whose brilliant idea was it to put in the same room one of the leading philosophers of the XXth century and a superficial populist? These guys exist on two planes of reality that do not intersect. It’s like a discussion between an old professor and a freshman who declaims the funny little slogans he learned in high school.

OK, the geek-out is over and we are back to our regular programming.

Who Offers Health Breaks?

I really suck at analyzing texts, it seems. For a long time, I’ve been preparing for my philosophy conference. We only get funding to visit one conference during this protracted budget crisis, so conferences have to be picked carefully. I’ve been dying to branch out into philosophy for a while. The Spanish philosopher whose work I discuss in my presentation will be at the conference, and I really wanted to listen to him, ask questions, and make an impression.

The conference committee took forever to send us a program. So I only discovered the horrible truth about this conference today when I finally received the program.

There had been hints, though. I could have guessed if only I’d paid attention. I got a pre-registration e-mail a while ago, which said that the registration fees would cover the reception, the lunch buffet, and health breaks.

Got it? Health breaks. I should have known right then and there. Who the hell offers health breaks? English-speakers give you coffee breaks. Spanish-speakers offer cigarette breaks. Only the French-speakers, may God be kind to them and their Mamma, schedule health breaks instead.

So finally I get the program of the conference, and as you must have guessed by now, it is in French. The entire flapping conference is in French. Except the talks by yours truly and a scholar from British Columbia. The opening and closing remarks, all but two of the talks, the presentation by the philosopher himself – everything is in French. The philosopher will present a new edition of his most recent book. Translated into French. And during the five years I lived in Quebec, I lost my spoken French completely. I will not be able to understand a word spoken at that conference. Unless it is spoken by me and the fellow sufferer from British Columbia.

The most annoying thing is that the conference’s title is in English, the promotional materials and the call for papers were in English, the conference takes place in Ottawa, and the organizer’s name is Spanish. Of course, the call for papers did say, “Papers will be accepted in English, French, and Spanish.” But we are talking about Canada, so I thought that this was simply the question of both official languages making it to the list.

And now I will feel like a total idiot, sitting there, listening to talks that I can’t even understand. Imagine what will happen if somebody starts asking me questions in French. That is going to be embarrassing.

Câlice de crisse de tabarnak d’ostie de ciboire du saint-sacement!! Tabarnak!!

An Intellectual Orgasm: Elisabeth Badinter

I’m experiencing an intellectual orgasm of incredible proportions, my friends. Reader Lindsay (a wonderful, kind person) recommended the books of a French feminist philosopher called Elisabeth Badinter to me. I’m now reading her book Dead End Feminism, and what a joy it is! Finally, I have encountered a renowned feminist whose ideas are very similar to mine.

I have received so much criticism from the choice feminists and the “women are victims of everything” feminists, that I even started to doubt my own ideas. I have been wary of saying exactly what I want to say. Now, however, I have managed to rid myself of this silly fear. I can finally stop mincing words and being uber-polite and can begin to talk about my kind of feminism freely.

Prepare yourselves, people. I am going to be as radical and direct as I always wanted to be but was afraid to. This feels so liberating, I can’t tell you.

Thank you, Lindsay, for recommending this great philosopher to me!

A review of Badinter’s book is upcoming. It has one huge defect: it’s way too short. Now, I will be buying everything she ever wrote. And if I have to resuscitate my French to read her untranslated writings, then I’m ready to do that. I’d learn Chinese to read her, she is that good.

More From Innerarity on Time

The reason why I like the Spanish philosopher Daniel Innerarity is that he discusses all of the philosophical issues that are of interest to me (identity, tolerance, multi-cultiralism, progress) but without the doom-and-gloom attitude that other philosophers practice with such dedication. In Innerarity’s world, everything is good and can get even better if we try to make it so. Look, for example, how he responds to the tedious complaint about the scarcity of time in the world we live in:

The watch and the calendar are nothing other than instruments that provide is with mastery over time. They don’t rob us of our time, but help ensure we have it.

Innerarity reminds us of something that should be obvious but that we keep forgetting because of our love of blaming progress even as we put to use its benefits in order to formulate our complaints: people who live in a post-industrial society have a lot more free time than their ancestors who had no access to time-saving technology.

I find Innerarity’s position a lot more honest than that of the philosophers who paint apocalyptic scenarios and sigh over the sad fate of the downtrodden and the exploited as they sip expensive wine in their antique-filled studies furnished with the money they make from these apocalyptic treatises.

P.S. For those who are bored with my posts on Innerarity, I’m sorry, but I’m writing a conference talk about him and it’s easier for me to figure out what I’m going to say if I do it in the form of blog posts. Also, I think it’s unfair that so few people know of this philosopher’s work simply because he writes in Spanish. Spanish writers and thinkers deserve to be promoted and this is what I’m trying to do.

Daniel Innerarity on Time and the Other

With the loss of the significance of the territory, space has been replaced by time as the central concept in human conflicts. Nowadays, strangers are not those who live far away but those who live in a different epoch. Margins are not a territorial category but a temporal one. . . The real inhabitant of the “provinces” . . . or of the “periphery” is a narcissist of his own calendar.

Ethics of Hospitality. (Translation is mine.)

This is just brilliant, people. This Spanish philosopher – who deserves to be a lot more widely known than he is – has come up with the perfect definition of what the Other is today. Ethnic conflicts that are based on disputes of territory are moving into the past. We are seeing more and more ethnic tensions that are based on the differences of calendar. People of the post-industrial, feminist, secular societies and the inhabitants of the feudal, patriarchal, fundamentalist cultures begin to clash more and more often in the countries of Western Europe and North America.

This is one of the reasons why the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians cannot be resolved by Israel withdrawing to pre-1967 borders. You can settle the territorial aspect of the conflict but that will do nothing for reconciling the temporal contradictions between a culture that has moved (albeit not without its problems) into the modern era and one that has not.

Daniel Innerarity on Human Dignity

Please remember the name of Daniel Innerarity, one of Spain’s leading philosophers of our time. I am preparing a conference talk based on his work and will be sharing some of Innerarity’s ideas (as well as my ideas on his ideas) with you on my blog. Spanish philosophers (artists, scientists, writers, etc.) find it quite difficult to make themselves known outside of their country even when their work is definitely worthy of being widely known. Innerarity is a philosopher who definitely deserves being read but it is hard to find his books in North America even in the original, let alone in an English translation.

The translations of all the quotes will be mine. I warn you that I don’t translate word for word. My translations always sacrifice the similarity of the form to the original text in favor of remaining faithful to the content.

So here is what Innerarity has to say about chance and human dignity in his book Ethics of Hospitality:

The fact that all of us get born as a result of actions whose outcome is more or less uncertain serves as a guarantee of our human dignity. It is as if not being intentionally created by anybody gave us the right to escape anybody’s absolute domination in the course of our lives.

It is very impressive that Innerarity is not afraid of talking about chance and eventuality in his work. Fatalism is one of the qualities that, in the mythology of national character, has been associated with the Spaniards. Consequently, anybody from Spain who wanted to pass for a serious thinker had to be very careful not to play into this myth. However, after a while, trying studiously not to be what your national mythology expects you to be becomes quite limiting. Innerarity overcomes the fear of appearing old-fashioned and nationalistic in order to take his ideas in the direction he needs.

Ernesto Laclau’s On Populist Reason: A Review

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I have to confess that I’m extremely disappointed by Laclau’s 2005 book On Populist Reason. One thing you need to figure out before you start writing is what your audience will be like. Are you trying to address the specialists in your field or do you want the book to be accessible to any reasonably educated person? Once you have decided who it is that you are writing for, then you need to make sure that both the ideas you express and the language you use to transmit them are on the same level.

In On Populist Reason, Laclau seems to have forgotten how important it is to know your audience. He uses extremely complex, jargon-ridden writing style to transmit ideas that are beyond basic. If I am to struggle through the author’s convoluted sentences and displays of erudition, I expect his argument to lead me to something better than the kind of trivialities that Laclau offers in this book.

Laclau begins his study of populism with an overview of the existing definitions of this concept. He points out that  the perception of populism as something that is a priori negative is the only reason why such definitions only succeed in demonizing populism in terms that are as negative as they are vague. Instead of analyzing populism, political theorists attempt to demonstrate how much they condemn it and then allow this condemnation to taint every conclusion they make. Laclau attempts to move away from such facile definitions and offer a more profound analysis of populism. However, he fails at that task quite spectacularly.

More often than not, it felt to me that Laclau was talking to people he considers to be deeply unintelligent and unaware of the most basic tenets of political theory. He does it in the kind of language, though, that would prevent these ignoramuses from following his line of reasoning. Here is one of the many examples:

The complexes which we call ‘discursive or hegemonic formations’, which articulate differential and equivalential logics, would be unintelligible without the affective component. . . We can conclude that any social whole results froman indissociable articulation between signifying and affective dimensions.

This statement concludes over 100 pages of a very convoluted discussion and does nothing more than announce in this extremely technical language that communities are bound together not just by reason but also by emotions. Well, duh. This idea has been studied, discussed and argued ad nauseam for over 100 years now. There is hardly any need to convince those of us who are capable of reading Laclau’s texts of something so banal.

In a similar way, Laclau offers a very plodding discussion that is supposed to lead his readers to the earth-shattering conclusion that – believe it or not – populist movements can exist both on the Left and on the Right of the political spectrum. I am sure that there are people who are unaware of this fact but these are not the same people who can get through 40 pages on floating signifiers.

I have also discovered from On Populist Reason that in the US populism has been hijacked by the Right that, against all reason, managed to convince farmers and blue-collar workers that the Republicans represent the interests of the regular folks as opposed to the Democrats who supposedly only defend the rights of the long-haired East Coast elites. I know that you must have already yawned twice as you have been reading this paragraph. We all know this, we have all heard this said a gazillion times. Why Laclau believes that it needs to be pointed out yet again is beyond me.

The book is filled to the brim with inanities of the most disturbing kind. On page 177 (close to the end of the book), we find out that in order for the populist appeal to be effective, there have to exist some problems in society. A society where institutional stability is complete, will not respond to populism. But, of course, perfect societies do not exist, so this situation is completely hypothetic. “Surprise, surprise!” I wrote on the margins when I read this. For the most part, this was my reaction to the entire book.