Thursday, November 5, 2009

An Occasional Occasion

I don't blog very much these days, largely because I'm a bit slack. Also, perhaps I still labour under the misguided notion that you should have something to say before you speak. I call this misguided because it tends to be precisely having the occasion to speak that prompts you to formulate something to say.

But although I am not a regular blog writer these days, I still do read a select few blogs. Infinite Thought, The Weblog, Voyou and k-punk are my main 'regulars'. But I have been reading these for years now.

Of late, however, I have added a new blog to my regular reading list. This is Object-Oriented Philosophy, the blog of philosopher Graham Harman. OOP regularly features advice about writing - that is, the art of the slog, of making yourself sit down and hit keys until something takes shape on the page. I appreciate this very much: there don't seem to be many occasions on which one can get advice about the everyday reality of creating academic writing, given that it is such a solitary pursuit.

So. The occasion for this post of mine was simply to say that I quite like-slash-am interested in some points that Harman makes in a recent post. He (via Zizek) makes the observation: "many “political” statements are really just efforts to posture as morally superior while risking nothing."

This is very true! And not only because I have taken on such vain postures myself in cringy undergraduate essays, writing conclusions full of vague, wafty handwaving towards some sort of 'coming emancipation' that only I, the essay's author, can conceptualise.

This is a topic that interests me. Can philosophical works be 'political'? And if so, in what sense is 'political' meant? (This topic was discussed somewhat recently at Ads Without Products, another blog that I have started following recently.)

I find that a desire to somehow 'be political' (what this means can be / usually is left obscured) motivates a lot of the postgraduate work I've seen in the humanities. But it's often an 'unconscious' motivator, one that isn't made explicit yet which would be the answer if you asked the presenter of a paper: 'yes, but why should we care about all of this stuff you've just presented?' Left unexamined and undeclared, this desire can produce some strange distorting effects.

Ads Without Products wrote about this sort of thing quite well recently. This anecdote rang true for me:
And then one day I was reading an essay about Conrad and imperialism, and noticed something. What the author was discussing was moderately valuable, interesting even. But the rotely grandiloquent claims at the front of the paper seemed to imply that she was in fact, in writing and publishing this paper, doing something about imperialism, racism, and gender imbalance. She gave a sense (and it’s not really her fault – this is just what one did or does in papers like these – it’s a sort of boilerplate that you insert at the front and the back) that a few more papers like this, and, well, we could expect a major improvement in the state of affairs whose backstory she was tracing.

AWP goes onto say that at best, academic writing - if well written, thoughtfully produced etc. - can hope for the achievement of "marginal usefulness". Probably so.

Nonetheless, it is undoubtedly the case that in some of the 'circles' I move in ("Catherine, the square that moved in circles"), what is wanted / expected from philosophy and theory is an antidote to political nihilism, to the feeling that nothing can be done to counter all-encompassing global capital/biopolitics. Indeed, philosophies and philosophers are often evaluated on these grounds by their students. And this by no means an unfair imposition: after all, the notion that one must find ways to genuinely do things is the guiding force in the work of popular figures such as Deleuze, Foucault and Badiou (obviously, each of these thinkers approaches this imperative quite differently).

In conclusion, I have no conclusion to draw on these matters, only an occasion to sketch out the fact that this is an area that interests me. Writers and thinkers are strange creatures, building webs and nests of ideas with monkeys on their backs.

I think this is my monkey.