The Facticity of the World

Slavoj Zizek’s review of Andrew Wilson’s biography of Patricia Highsmith (Beautiful Shadow) appears in the currrent issue of the London Review of Books. (Subscription required.) In one of his typically brilliant asides, Zizek sheds light on modern art’s capacity to give rise to a kind of existential reflection on the “facticity” and utter otherness of the objective world. Here’s the relevant excerpt:

“Highsmith recognised that true art lies not simply in the telling of stories, but in the telling of how stories go wrong, in rendering palpable the interstices in which ‘nothing happens’. In art, the spiritual and material spheres are intertwined: the spiritual emerges when we become aware of the material inertia, the dysfunctional bare presence, of the objects around us. . .

“This feeling for the inert has a special significance in our age, in which the obverse of the capitalist drive to produce ever more new objects is a growing mountain of useless waste, used cars, out-of-date computers etc, like the famous resting place for old aircraft in the Mojave desert. In these piles of stuff, one can perceive the capitalist drive at rest. That’s where the interest of Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece Stalker lies, with its post-industrial wasteland in which wild vegetation takes over abandoned factories, concrete tunnels and railroads full of stale water, and stray cats and dogs wander the overgrowth. Nature and industrial civilisation overlap, but in a common decay: a civilisation in decay is being reclaimed, not by an idealised, harmonious Nature but by nature which is itself in a state of decomposition. The irony is that it should be an author from the Communist East who displayed such great sensitivity towards this obverse of the drive to produce and consume. But perhaps the irony displays a deeper necessity, hinging on what Heiner Mueller called the ‘waiting-room mentality’ of Communist Eastern Europe:

There would be an announcement: ‘The train will arrive at 18.15 and depart at 18.20,’ and it never did arrive at 18.15. Then came the next announcement: ‘The train will arrive at 20.10.’ And so on. You went on sitting there in the waiting-room, thinking, it’s bound to come at 20.15. That was the situation: basically, a state of Messianic anticipation. There are constant announcements of the Messiah’s impending arrival, and you know perfectly well that he won’t be coming. And yet somehow, it’s good to hear him announced all over again.

“The effect of this Messianic attitude was not that people continued to hope, but that, when the Messiah never arrived, they started to look around and take note of the inert materiality of their surroundings; in contrast to the West, where people are always frantic and never properly notice what goes on around them. In the East, people were more closely acquainted with the waiting-room and, caught up in the delay, experienced to the full the idiosyncrasies of their world, in all its topographical and historical detail.”

Reasons and Explanations

Kieran Healey over at Crooked Timber draws a distinction between reasons and causes in the ongoing discussion about US foreign policy in the Middle East and the invasion of Iraq. In “Reason, Truth, and History” (a title borrowed from Hilary Putnam’s 1981 book of the same name), Healy argues that when one looks into the explanation for why the war occurred, one’s finds multiple causes. Given the complexity of human affairs, this is what one would expect to find in almost any serious historical explanation. And notice that by emphasizing the causal chains leading up to an event, one has not addressed the ethical issues involved.

That brings us to the second part of Healey’s analysis. The flap over whether Bush lied to or deceived the American people in making the case for intervention turns on the reasons Bush had and the reasons he gave for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. To give reasons for something as important as going to war that are not the same as your reasons for doing so is manipulative and deceptive.

The question being raised now by his critics is whether Bush (Cheney, Rice, etc.) intentionally misled the public by giving reasons (e.g. the Niger “connection”) that could not possibly have been their reasons for invading Iraq. That, it seems to me, is a question of fact. Whether Bush (or any democratically elected leader in a similar situation) has a moral obligation to give his “real” reasons for going to war, reasons such as those offered by both Marshall and Den Beste — “to get America irrevocably on the ground in the center of the Middle East (thus fundamentally reordering the strategic balance in the region), bring to a head the country’s simmering conflict with its enemies in the region, and kick off a democratic transformation of the region which would over time dissipate the root causes of anti-American terrorism and violence: autocracy, poverty and fanaticism” (Josh Marshall), is unfortunately a much more difficult question to answer. Under what conditions, if any, is deception morally permissible?

Histories of Philosophy

It’s been a common practice among philosophers in the U.S. to distinguish the history of philosophy from "serious" philosophical work. Painstaking examination of the social, economic, psychological, and political contexts from which philosophical ideas often emerge is viewed as, at best, an interesting supplement to the rational reconstruction of a philosophical argument evaluated in light of “the philosophical problems of today”. In short, an account of the historical forces that may have influenced a particular philosopher’s views are far less important than the arguments themselves. (As a graduate student in philosophy, I was told by one of my mentors that "It’s not a bad idea to read some history of philosophy. That way you have something to do when you’re old and can’t think anymore.")
A conference at Princeton University in April, 2003, "Teaching New Histories of Philosophy", is a sign that an incremental shift in the received view may be underway. Over the course of three days, some of the most prominent figures in the field came together to examine both the importance of historical understanding of philosophical ideas and the role "new histories of philosophy" play in rethinking both what and how philosophy is taught in colleges and universities.
"Much recent work has stressed how important it is for students to learn about the contexts in which philosophy is done. Modern philosophers were often responding to dramatic developments in science, or to radical changes in European religious belief, or to social and political upheavals. They were frequently in dialog with their predecessors — using their work or deliberately rejecting it. Often they were arguing against authors we do not teach." (From the conference website.)
The questions raised go beyond the academic monitoring of professional practice. Anyone who wishes to engage with philosophical ideas and practices can benefit from considering how they were understood and how they functioned in the past. And I say that not as a dogmatic advocate of “tradition”, but to acknowledge the value of moving beyond the familiar and comfortable terrain of one’s own way of thinking toward a radical encounter with the unconventional, overlooked, and forgotten ideas of those whose experiences are very different from our own. Only then is it possible to think outside of ourselves and imagine things as being different than they are.