Michel Serres

More than Deleuze (with or without Guattari), more than Foucault, somewhat more than Derrida, so different to Butler, but like her someone I returned to again and again, for the quiet care and poetry, for the love of movement, one of that first group of philosophers I got introduced to by the same person at a moment in my life where they resonated, and — like only Butler from those names — continue to, 25 years on. I knew it was coming, likely sooner, but still, I lost my breath for an instant, I stopped.

The more I dance, the more I am naked, absent, a calculation and a number. Dance is to the body proper what exercise of thought is to the subject known as I. The more I dance, the less I am me. If I dance something, I am that something or I signify it. When I dance, I am only the blank body of the sign.

and

To dance is only to step aside and make room, to think is only to step aside and make room, give up one’s place.
To leave at last the page blank.

and

Laughter is that little noise, uttered in blank ecstasy.

Reading: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak — An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (2nd Attempt)

I started reading this a couple of years ago, which might have already been my second attempt. It’s been giving me disappointed looks from my ‘currently reading’ pile ever since. But, having successfully reminded myself how to read dense theory again, while spending months on Edward Said’s Orientalism earlier this year, I thought it was time to suck it up and get back into Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. The problem is, she’s so fucking brilliant, I’ll read a sentence and spend half an hour just thinking it through.

On that, then, I decided to just quote some of these bangers. Ending the Preface, on page xvi:

Gender is the last word. Figure out the double binds there, simple and forbidding.

Starting the Introduction, page 1:

Globalization takes place only in capital and data. Everything else is damage control.

Next on page 2:

The most pernicious presupposition today is that globalization has happily happened in every aspect of our lives. Globalization can never happen to the sensory equipment of the experiencing being, except insofar as it always was implicit in its vanishing outlines. Only an aesthetic education can continue to prepare us for this […]

Quoting Hanna Arendt on page 3:

“The general future of mankind has nothing to offer individual life, whose only certain future is death.”

Page 4:

We want the public sphere gains and the private sphere constraints of the Enlightenment; yet we must also find something relating to “our own history” to counteract the fact that the Enlightenment came, to colonizer and colonized alike, through colonialism, to support a destructive “free trade,” and that top-down policy breaches of Enlightenment principles are more the rule than exception.

I spent most of breakfast on that page 1 Introduction quote, swearing at its magnificence, meme-ing Where is the lie? tru dat, and that’s the T, and realising it’s gonna take me about 2 years to read this at this pace.

Reading: Sean Carroll — The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself

Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself made it onto my reading list because of another theoretical physicist, Sabine Hossenfelder, who reviewed it mid-2016. I’m reading it now because I need my regular fix of sciencey, astrophysics stuff and it seemed to compliment the other stuff I’m reading at the moment (also all the other science books on my list are textbook affairs with commensurate eye-bleeding price).

I have to say from the outset I’m not the imaginary audience for The Big Picture, nor am I especially enjoying it. I wish I was because I enjoy the hell out of what he writes about, and appreciate he can do hard science without pissing all over philosophy and the humanities, unlike quite a few popular atheist science bros. He manages to rope in Wittgenstein (who is always wholly relevant and informative in any situation), my dear favourite Leibniz gets a go for calculus, as well as best of all possible worlds, and principle of sufficient reason; he even manages to have an entire chapter on gender and identity and I’m showing my age here but I’m still pleasantly surprised when I see how unremarkable these matters have become — even in the last decade, in fields not explicitly feminism/queer/gender studies/etc.

So why am I not enjoying it so much? It could be the recurrence of disproving Laplace’s and/or Descartes’ demons, or explaining from extrapolations of different parts of physics the impossibility of (or at least extremely unlikely) things like mind-body duality, having a soul, life after death, god. Which makes it an invaluable book for people who themselves have questions and doubts about these subjects, but from my personal experience kinda useless in persuading even the most casual of ‘spiritual’ types to give up their astrology.

I used to be a much more diligent atheist, until atheism was taken over by white hetero bro New Atheism colonialism and ruined it for the rest of us. I like Caroll in this regard because he isn’t absolutist. Paraphrasing here, he says while nothing we see or know about the universe requires a god, nonetheless that does not preclude one (or many), just that if there was a god or gods, they would have to adhere to the laws of physics like the rest of us do — as far as we can tell by the current, pretty bloody good state of our understanding of physics. He also says that irrespective of the existence or not of god or gods, religion serves a cultural purpose spanning millennia that saying “God doesn’t exist, because physics” isn’t going to miraculously cause mass conversion to atheism.

For a white, hetero male writing on the Big Questions — historically the domain of self-congratulatory alpha males — he’s done a banger of a job of steering through all that anachronistic baggage. But steer through that he does, stopping off along the way to describe then disabuse us of what’s fundamentally a Christian, or Christian-derived view of the universe.

Maybe it’s because he tries to cover so much that it feels to me he paraphrases philosophers’ and scientists’ ideas so they read like, “close enough”, as with describing Lucretius’ concept of the clinamen (which I don’t think he actually named, but was what he was describing), or Leibniz’ ideas. Or maybe it’s that he holds on somewhere to an uncritical belief that physics is above all this and is the one neutral — as well as correct — way of viewing and understanding the world. The correct part, sure, as far as we can tell now, but neutral? I wonder if some of the hostility directed at 20th century philosophers by scientists (which again, he isn’t doing) is because the logic in pointing out that language creates the world is pretty solid. Whether it’s Wittgenstein, Derrida, or others, even after throwing out whatever bollocks they wrote, we’re left with this. And to have a bunch of soft humanities academics repeatedly and in various ways tell the hard scientists their rationality and neutrality is dubious at best, because language is a limit on describing and experiencing the world, is going to get messy.

It’s not even a question of agreeing or not with him. Newtonian physics? Yup, same for Einstein’s relativity, general or special. Quantum mechanics also. It might be that I find the experimental side of things lacking by comparison to the theoretical. For example observations of cosmic microwave background by COBE, WMAP, and Planck observatories currently provide the best evidence for, and more or less confirm the Big Bang theory, specifically the inflationary model. Questions such as “What is the universe?” “Where did it come from?” “What was there before it existed?” while not definitively answered are comprehensively narrowed down. The discovery of the predicted Higgs Boson at the Large Hadron Collider and concurrent lack of discovery of new particles also set limits on possibilities, or at least pushed various other competing theories to do some heavy re-theorising. But mentions of these experiments seem sparse compared to Descartes and his cogito ergo sum. More of the former and less of the latter would have moved things along far more enjoyably.

But maybe all this, multiverses, the Planck era, macroscale quantum theory are too advanced for the intended reader, like introducing all the exceptions to the rules before explaining why the rules as are they are and where they came from. For my imagined intended audience, then: it’s comprehensive and brings together a lot of threads of physics from the history of Western science and philosophy that make it a good general introduction. It’s kinda boring though. I’d rather read Sabine Hossenfelder or Ethan Siegel, whenever they get around to writing a book.

Finally, the history of Western science since the Enlightenment has been one marked by arrogance, overreach and the worst of humanity given legitimacy through its declaration of rationalism. And one marked by frequent declarations of , “Yeah, we learnt our ethical lesson, we’ve got it right this time,” before cocking it up again. I’m not sure there can be a grand Theory of Everything, which is what Carroll is proposing. Like Mark Zuckerberg imagining he can reduce people and their desires to code, or transhumanists imagining they can upload their minds, it speaks of a smallness in understanding the world and a meanness in how they value it. There is always something that remains, that cannot be assimilated, a residue this reductionism cannot account for and cannot consume.

Reading: Asmund Havsteen-Mikkelsen — Generic Singularity

Some months ago (Which tells you how much I’ve slipped on blogging what I’m reading), I was in Saint George’s picking up something or other and talking with Paul, and found myself holding a rather heavy slab of pages bound in starkly impressive yellow. A book on the philosophy of aesthetics, art, and artists by a Berlin artist, Asmund Havsteen-Mikkelsen. It wasn’t so expensive as far as heavy philosophical publications go, so I took it home. I’d been reading a bit on aesthetics at the time, so it seemed fitting.

I began reading it last night, after finishing with Hannu Rajaniemi, and did the usual “peruse the index and bibliography” finding plenty of the current philosophical idols, Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, even Kristeva, Heidegger, Kant, Merleau-Ponty … Lacan … fucking Freud … ok, off to the table of contents then.

For a very long time I’ve had a simple, effective method to elucidate if an author is worth reading or is in fact full of shit. Germain Greer and Margaret Atwood are full of shit. Oh but their blahblah is so good and important and they are important writers, nay, National Treasures! They also happen to have made some extremely transphobic statements in the past that if they’d made such remarks about gays, lesbians, Jews, any other group whom we all have an articulate understanding of how they are stigmatised in society, we would always mention this in the same breath, just as we do with, say, Wagner and his anti-semitism. Yet it was perfectly acceptable in ’70s and ’80s feminism to advocate genocide for transgender people (largely at that time referring to trans women), and despite vast change and improvement, especially in the last decade, the level of stupidity emanating from people who should know better is tiresomely common. Hence my need for a simple, effective method of working out if a writer should be taken seriously, or if they’re ignorant, dangerous bigots: Has said person made transphobic statements or remarks, yes/no?

Which brings me to 2. OWN BEING. A. The intimacy of own being. 2. The monstrous body. 1. The sexual plane. of Asmund Havsteen-Mikkelsen Generic Singularity. ‘The monstrous body’. I have a little yawn. It’s as large a cliché – and misunderstanding – as ‘gender is performance’. A quote from Spinoza. I like Spinoza a lot. “No one has thus far determined what the body can do.” The lazy thing to do now in philosophy is to waste a few trees chanting ‘monstrous, monstrous’ until it forms a fetish in the utterer’s throat and one can feel all scatologically ‘edgy’. It’s become vanishingly rare in the current time of queer philosophy for any body that in some small way seems to jar against the claimed homogeneous norm to not be named monstrous and thus achieve awesomeness. My yawn at Spinoza and ‘monstrous’, and the conspicuous lack of female authors in the bibliography (around ten in total on fifteen pages of bibliography – or one for each Heidegger work cited) … well, we can see where this is going.

Page 65: “A sub-phenomenon is the question of transgendering.” I let out a “What the fuck!” right there. What exactly the fuck, Asmund, is ‘transgendering’? Oh, wait, let me continue! “These are instances where a man feels like a woman or a woman feels like a man and pursues this feeling to the point of altering his or her body through surgery, hormone treatments, name-change and clothing-change.” Which is where I put this waste of paper down and fight back the urge to spit. It’s the cis equivalent of mansplaining. (He then goes on to bizarrely conflate gender identity with sexuality, and later claims that neuroscience can differentiate male and female brains. I laugh a little at the mediocrity.)

I have no idea where he got the word transgendering from, but it’s not in common use on any of the queer, feminist, trans, anthropological, journalistic, human rights (and so on) websites and blogs I read, nor in any serious literature I can recall in around two decades of reading in this area. It does seem to be more associated with anti-trans sentiments, either of a right-wing or radical feminism perspective, which I think wasn’t the kind of ‘monstrous’ Asmund was aiming for.

The succinct point here is Asmund doesn’t know what he’s talking about by any reasonable measure when it comes to writing about transgender (bodies, issues, identities, legal and medical matters etc) and has merely co-opted the lives of transgender people of which he knows nothing about to push his own ‘edgy’, ‘radical’ philosophical aesthetic. This is bullshit, wrapped in academic language and propped up with two thousand years of western philosophers. And if he’s so wilfully completely incompetent when writing about trans people, we have to assume his incompetence on everything else he’s written. There are many, many brilliant works written in philosophy, on aesthetics, on art, on identity. This isn’t one of them. This is a work full of shit.

Reading: Michel Serres — Variations on the Body (trans. Randolph Burks)

Michel Serres is probably my favourite philosopher. Of the crop of post-68ers, Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, all the names that are almost compulsory to be able to at least nod knowingly about if one wants to seem relevant in the contemporary dance milieu (to speak nothing of elsewhere) he goes strangely unmentioned. Possibly it’s changed in the last few years, but it was for me only by hanging out with some philosophers in Auckland and Melbourne who were dead keen on Serres that I know of him at all, as I am pretty certain I’ve not come across him otherwise, or not in a way that I can pin down as notable.

It’s because he wrote on dance, specifically ballet, that think so highly of him. Or perhaps it’s because when I first encountered him he wrote so beautifully, so poetically, so unlike every other philosopher, sometimes incomprehensibly (though never in the way that say, Derrida or Lacan did). I photocopied all the books of his I could find in the University library: The Parasite, Rome: The Book of Foundations, Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy, of course Genesis … his brilliant essay Gnomon: The Beginnings of Geometry in Greece in A History of Scientific Thought: Elements of a HIstory of Science (along with every other essay in there, especially Catherine Goldstein’s Stories of the Circle), photocopied because otherwise impossibly expensive. Even by the affordable prices of Germany, I can seldom afford what translations exist of his work: Variations on the Body caused me to wince and look the other way when I handed over the cash, and it’s tiny, a mere 162 pages. Beautifully bound and presented though, which honestly makes up for a lot for me when it comes to buying academic-ish texts; it’s really a book to hold and enjoy the tactile pleasure of the embossed cover and heavy paper.

This translation then, by Randolph Burks (member of the Unemployed Philosophers’ Guild: The Lens Grinders) I have in two versions: latterly this printed one, an actual book; formerly a pdf which I think I snagged on the most excellent blog devoted to Serres. Same translation, different work. The French version is lavishly illustrated, something of a habit for Serres (Angels: A Modern Myth, for example). The English translation in book form is entirely bereft of illustrations, a compromise to getting it printed at all, which likely indicates the relative popularity of Serres compared to other French philosophers. The illustrations and photographs are not careless decoration, so the printed translation actually is substantially a lesser work, despite the work of Burks, who I think – based on the other translations I’ve read – makes me feel like I’m reading Serres without a go-between.

Serres does have his problems: there’s a distinct heterosexual male perspective in both his choice of words and choice of metaphors, similes, examples, which if nothing else shows his age (83, born in 1930), and Variations on the Body, with long sections devoted to romanticising mountaineering as an understanding of the philosophy of the body seems prone to this more than others. Ah, but it’s beautiful, it’s really not frequent for philosophy to make me smile with joy, but Serres, he does it all too often. He sometimes writes in a way which reminds me quite a bit of Chuang Tzu’s The Inner Chapters. So I’m enjoying this book immensely and think I will take seriously my desire to go on a Serres bender.

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jacques is dead

Jacques Derrida is dead.

I met him in 1997, when I was at VCA and Elizabeth Presa had organised the Jacques Derrida Commemorative Exhibition. My work, zeroDegrees was highly commended and now I have a signed copy of one of his books. Along with Gilles Deleuze, and Jean Baudrillard, he is one of the biggest influences on my work.

Derrida, who divided his time between France and the United States, argued that the traditional way we read texts makes a number of false assumptions and that they have multiple meanings which even their author may not have understood.

His thinking gave rise to the school of deconstruction, a method of analysis that has been applied to literature, linguistics, philosophy, law and architecture.

It is heralded as showing the multiple layers of meaning at work in language, but was described by critics as nihilistic.

“In him, France gave the world one of the greatest contemporary philosophers, one of the major figures in the intellectual life of our time,” French President Jacques Chirac said in a statement after learning of his death.

“Through his work, he sought to find the free movement which lies at the root of all thinking.”