August 8, 2015

Negating  Negation, Embracing "Negation"

Episode 120: A History of "Will" with Guest Eva Brann (Part One)
The philosophy podcast The Partially Examined Life is absolutely wonderful. This episode had me riveted.

We discuss Un-Willing: An Inquiry into the Rise of Will's Power and an Attempt to Undo It (2014) with the author, covering Socrates, Augustine, Aquinas, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Sartre, compatibilism, the neurologists' critque of free will, and more.

What is the will? Is it an obvious thing that we all can see in ourselves when introspecting? If so, then why is there so much disagreement in the literature about what it is? (e.g., Is it a causal force or just an epiphenomenon? Is it opposed to desire or the expression of desire? Is it an expression of individuality or is it a trans-personal force à la Schopenhauer?)

Eva (whom you may recall from our Heraclitus episode) thinks that the notion is a historical artificat that causes needless philosophical confusion, and worse, has had a damaging effect on our culture.

T= 38 minutes

PEL: When you say that Augustine introduces the notion of the will to the West, it is the notion of the ability to resist good, the good being God and subsidiary goods being self creation and the ability to say no to the commands of God and to resist the beings that are good in the world. That's the primary new characteristic that's embodied in this new notion that he calls voluntas. When you talk about Confessions, you bring up the famous scene of the pears, maybe you can recount that section ?

E.B.: He and a bunch of boys of about 14 years old adolescents went into somebody else's garden that had a pear tree that had nasty, bitter, unpleasant fruit and collected sacks of them. The point that was -at least for Augustine, I don't know if the other boys thought this, it was a lark- the point is that for Augustine , it means that he engaged in evil-doing, for the sake of transgression. He didn't want the fruit of this evil doing as something he wanted, he wanted, he did it in order to be bad.

PEL: You quote him as saying: "I loved my own fault".

E.B.: And this is what sinfulness is, not doing wrong but loving it.

PEL: And in that way, it's the birth of the will. This is the most clear sign of willfulness, of doing something sinful for its own sake.

T= 43 minutes

E.B.: When you think about the Old Testament, something becomes explicit about that when you think about that notion of sinfulness. That is to say of the person of the will, of a desire to do bad, of the sense of doing evil, for that to come about, you need the notion of the God who made you, of a creator God to rebel against. [...] The matter of issue here is that sin, evil, becomes desirable . In other words, Augustine's will is the will that makes sin desirable as being self assertion against the creator. It's a form of rebellion.

PEL: It's about independence [...] and there's something about Augustine's formulation that you want to undo.

E.B.: The reason why its a serious matter [...] it''s so closely connected to the notion of freedom and independence. It raises the question whether freedom and independence aren't some way allied to perversity.

I'm transcribing this bit from the PEL podcast, thinking about Recent Preoccpations, a blogpost focusing on Miro's statement that he wanted to murder painting, taking on face value from Briony Fer's book "On Abstract Art", that Miro came to this position from his association with Bataille and his Acephale group, which I understand as an effort to process the disruptive influence of collage on the development of modern art. I relished the fact that they walked the hazardous line between poetic interpretation and pig headed literalness in fetishizing dismemberment to the point of coming to the brink of selecting one of their group as the subject of a ritual beheading. The fact that they ultimately balked has a meaning more significant than the salvation of their souls or their humanity, I think that this is a salvation of their intellect in that they recovered the distinction between imagination and reality.

I transfer this theme to the general argument about transgression in painting, from my days in grad school where I balked at the presiding proscription against painting, the then already long running meme about the death of painting (it still persists today in most sectors of the art world despite the bloom of painting after the 90's). The Miro quote forces me to confront the depth of this meme in art history and ultimately I am trying to convey an argument to my peers that the recurring meme about the death of painting requires the provisional quotational frame. Instead of the death of painting, we should instead substitute the "death of painting", and therefore balk, like the Acephale group, at crossing the line from poetic flight into pigheaded literalness.

To the point delivered by Eva Brann above: Bataille was a seminary student prior to his conversion to (transgressive) art. Augustine was a saint of course and according to Brann, the primary philosopher of the will. Relish the contradictions of negation. Negation at the higher altitudes seems to require a certain kind of intense religiosity... faith. Could the murder... "murder" of painting require a certain, specific kind of qualified actor? A high priest of painting?

I feel compelled to add a reference to Paul Berman and his 2004 book, Terror and Liberalism, where his argument could be summarized as an effort to draw the line between liberty and libertinism. My summary of his opening argument lies below the fold:

Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism:

He's looking for the roots of totalitarianism in Western Civilization, of how Liberalism sprouted self hate, a death wish, of how this death wish corresponds and even coordinates with radical Islam

In the first hour of the book, he follows the following chain of reasoning, he traces the historical evolution of Liberalism's death wish:

Tariq Ramadan
-his starting point, he is asserting that what is happening in the MidEast is connected to the West
-Ramadan wrote about Camus, both are North Africans
-Berman does not say but I remember as I listen that Radical Islam loves death more than we love life
Camus, "The Rebel"
Victor Hugo, "Hernani"
-murder as an act of rebellion which ends in suicide
-a romantic expression
-aimed at freedom but ended with murder and suicide
Baudelaire, "Flowers of Evil"
-rebellion in the name of the absolute freedom
-murder and suicide for its own sake
-crime as poetry

(Sade is in the chain too)

to Dostoyevsky, "The Brothers Karamazov"
-the character of Ivan: "Everything is permitted"
-a world where values do not exist and everything is permitted
Andre Breton's Surrealism
-"The simplest of Surrealist acts consists of going down to the street,
revolver in hand and shooting randomly into the crowd"
-the theory of the gratuitous act is the culmination of the demand for absolute liberty

The culprit: Absolute Liberty.

From Berman:

...and now the deepest disaster of all got underway. The old romantic literary fashion for murder and suicide, then the dandy's fondness for the irrational and irresponsible, the little nihilist groups of Left Wing desperados with their dreams of poetic death, those several tendencies and impulses of of the 19th century came together with a few additional tendencies that Camus never bothered to discuss, the dark philosophies of the extreme right in Germany and other countries with their violent loathing of progress and Liberalism, the anti-semites of Vienna with their mad proposal to cleanse Vienna of their most brilliant aspects, the demented scientists of racial theory, all this which once was small and marginal began to metastasize and spread the cult of death and irrationality began to take hold of entire mass movements. The mass movements began to transform into something new and entirely different...of a new type... a hatred of liberal civilization...


This all goes to transgression and how we take it for granted, of how we underestimate how it is explosive/toxic to civilization. Transgression is like a substance like lead or radium or mercury which was treated initially in a cavalier manner, and only after disaster did people take the precautionary steps to treat it with the requisite safety procedures to conserve and protect life. I'm saying that the celebration and exploration of transgression in art should have similar prophylactic measures associated with it, intellectually. Otherwise, we, in our creative Liberal world will become unwitting collaborators in its (our) own destruction.

Posted by Dennis at August 8, 2015 8:59 AM

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