Posts tagged ‘philosophy’

26 May 2010

Revisioning Pragmatism

Conference honoring the memory of William James at the University of Hamburg, June 24 – 26, 2010.

This conference takes place on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of William James’s death. While we want to honor James — arguably the most famous American philosopher — as a great scholar and the father of pragmatism, the conference aims at much more: It examines the impact of pragmatism on various disciplines in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and tries to engage in a discourse that breaks new ground and advances new perspectives in theoretical debates that still seem to be largely dominated by European traditions.

As with James’s work itself, whose interdisciplinary character has inspired work especially in philosophy, psychology and physiology, this conference is also characterized by interdisciplinarity and transnational dialogue. Scholars from the fields of philosophy, literary and cultural studies, social science, and religious studies will explore pragmatism’s importance, potential, and current relevance.

27 February 2010

morale provisoire _ berlin

An event for Berlin discoursologists on Tuesday 2 March, 7pm in KW Institute for Contemporary Art.

Rado Riha: The Idea as Thinking Politics

Over twenty years ago Alain Badiou asked the question “Can politics be thought?”, which today he answers affirmatively via the notion of the idea of communism. For it poses a real reference point in terms of a “morale provisoire” both for our thinking and existence.

In order to fulfill these moral demands we—as “materialists of the event and the exception” (Badiou)—should not forget to ask how such a materialism of the idea could be manifested. In this context one has to consider whether Kant’s philosophy offers any starting points for this materialism of the idea.

Rado Riha is a philosopher at the Institute of Philosophy, Centre for Scientific Research at the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts in Ljubljana as well as professor of philosophy at the University of Nova Gorica (post-graduate program of Intercultural Studies). He studied at the University of Ljubljana and, in the 1980s, belonged to the so-called “Ljubljana school of psychoanalysis”. His research focuses on ethics, epistemology, contemporary French philosophy, the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan and the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. From 1996 to 2003 he edited the journal Filozofski Vestnik whose board member he has been since 1993. In English, Riha published “Politics as the real of philosophy” in Laclau: A Critical Reader (edited by Simon Critchley and Oliver Marchart, Routledge 2004); available as publications in German are Reale Geschehnisse der Freiheit(1993) and Politik der Wahrheit (1997, in cooperation with Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière and Jelica Šumič). Currently Riha is working on a book on Badiou and Kant.

Further discussions are planned with Lorenzo Chiesa, Peter Hallward, Alberto Toscano, Nina Power, amongst others.

21 February 2010

The communist hypothesis

I’m enthused. When there seems to be such a very widespread consensus that neo-liberalism, the entrepreneurial self, competitiveness, anti-immigration, securitisation, etc. are inevitable and unavoidable, it can seem that there is no way to dislodge this set of beliefs; no way to push an alternative hegemonic project into the mainstream; or to shift the discursive field.

Badiou to the rescue. To get out of the depressive malaise, he says, drawing on Lacan, we have to move from impotence to impossibility. Yes, of course getting rid of inequality or the desire for wealth is impossible, but we can still hold onto those points and ‘endure in the impossible’. Beyond Sarkozy, my favourite section in this book is Badiou’s resignification of ‘communism’. ‘Communism’ denotes a ‘very general set of intellectual representations’:

This set is the horizon of any initiative, however local and limited in time it may be, that breaks with the order of established opinions – the necessity of inequalities and the state instrument for protecting these – and composes a fragment of a politics of emancipation. In other words, communism is what Kant calls an ‘Idea’, with a regulatory function, rather than a programme. It is absurd to characterize communist principles in the sense I have defined them as utopian, as is so often done. They are intellectual patterns, always actualized in a different fashion, that serve to produce likes of demarcation between different forms of politics. By and large, a particular political sequence if ether compatible with these principles or opposed to them, in which case it is reactionary. ‘Communism’ in this sense, is a heuristic hypothesis that is very frequently used in political argument, even if the word itself does not appear. (Alain Badiou, 2008, The Meaning of Sarkozy, p. 99)

25 January 2009

Blogging discourse

A new discoursology feature: random roundups of what the blogosphere is writing about discourse (analysis).

On the empirical front, DrJayne2b is blogging on her research on gaming this looks like ergography in action). Robert’s PE-EFT Scotland blog describes how discourse analysis can be usefully employed to analyse the results gained from the ‘Helpful Aspects of Therapy (HAT)’ form (which “generates lovely qualitative descriptions of significant therapy events”). And the Mofit Ole Unit turns to the utility of Irit Kupferberg’s ‘four world model’ in understanding self-construction in computer mediated discourse. The four world model “positions discourse in relation to the past, the present and the future, and to the interaction taking place”.

e-Ako reports on the new issue of the Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, focusing on evidence-based articles useful for understanding online discourse. One in particular attracted my attention:

Wang & Chen, in “Essential Elements in Designing Online Discussions to Promote Cognitive Presence — A Practical Experience“, outline the importance of effective ‘rules’ for online discourse in order to maximise cognitive presence.

On the philosophical side of things, CyberDemocracy pleas for indulgence with the limitations of postmodern positions on politics, i.e., indulgence with the logic that “If a postmodern perspective is to avoid the limits of modern theory, it is proscribed from ontologizing any form of the subject” which means it “is limited to an insistence on the constructedness of identity” and “sharply restricts the scope of its ability to define a new political direction”. On LiveJournal, Dmitry Kremnev posts a far more damning critique of postmodern philosophy.

FeelPhilosophy argues that the difference between Zizek and Lacan is largely formal. Zizek, that is, adds to Lacan’s thinking primarily in terms of form rather than content.

The Accursed Share turns attention to ontology and its independence (or not) from politics. And links to a fascinating post on the relation between neuroscience and philosophy (incl. a full lecture by Scott Bakker which “aimed to provoke high-minded critical theorists out of their self-contentment, arguing that the results of neuroscience have far more radical implications for philosophy, the subject, and meaning than any poststructuralist critique”. Which begs the question whether neuroscience and poststructuralism really need to fight for the right to claim the “most radical” position, or whether they would be more productive if they joined forces).

By far the most interesting post this month on power and the subject – that ever-fascinating topic – is on Good Girls Don’t, which criticises overly simplistic/moralistic views on sex workers that class all sex workers together as victims of trafficking, forced/violent sexual bondage and patriarchal oppression:

I find this position more than frustrating. I find it hypocritical and insulting. To the person of this ideological position, there are no sex workers, just prostituted women. The person is reduced to the sum total of what happens to her body (because the sex worker is always a woman in this analysis). The person has no voice, no personal autonomy. She is only what happens to her body. Which, for a group of people so interested in women’s liberation, is pretty contradictory.

Also on identity, ThinkingWritingLiving considers central questions which become relevant when we think of identity as a multimodal discursive performance. The Postmodern Conservative argues against tentative blogging because “the humble blogger knows his humiliation is coming, but argues assertively until it arrives, secure in his confidence that, when it does, it won’t be that bad.”

And Infomusings is musing about academic writing and the first person. S_he muses that s_he’d like to “throw all other work aside and start a discourse analysis of the LIS literature combined with a survey asking authors to reflect on their use of voice and person”.

Finally, an extended book review has been posted on Law & Politics Book Review of Michael J. Struett’s (2008) The Politics of Constructing the International Criminal Court: NGOs, Discourse and Agency (New York: Palgrave Macmillan).

12 December 2008


I had the rare pleasure of attending a debate with two excellent speakers on “The Power of Tolerance” last night. Wendy Brown, author of Regulating Tolerance, and Rainer Forst, author of Toleranz im Konflikt [Tolerance in Conflict], two political theorists/philosophers who have obvious respect and liking for each other discussed discourses and conceptions of tolerance, the normative premises involved and the possibility of reframing or drawing positive use from the term. [Update: a video of the evening should be online soon. The third Spannungsübung – thanks Sara for the link.]

Both were keen to point out their shared perspectives, agreeing, for instance, that the term tolerance operates on a field of power, that it constitutes subjectivities, and that a critical view of the discourses involving tolerance is necessary. Given their intellectual backgrounds and their books on the concept, they strove (successfully) to avoid reducing the debate to, in Brown’s words, a “tired” Foucauldian (Brown) vs. Habermasian (Forst) argument. And they aimed (again successfully) to avoid turning the debate into an anti-tolerance (Brown) vs. pro-tolerance (Forst) argument.

What instead ensued at Berlin’s ICI was a sophisticated, subtle exploration of the two approaches to studying the term. I could never do justice to their arguments here. Nevertheless, what I can do is firstly, briefly outline their comments, and note that although I do still find Wendy Brown’s perspective more convincing, I wholeheartedly agree with her comment towards the end that she now more fully understands what Rainer Forst’s project is about.

Basically, he divides “tolerance” into a “permission” conception and a “respect” conception. The first is what is often criticised; you can only tolerate something if you are operating from a position of power and dominance. Giving someone permission to do something (examples used frequently this evening were gay marriages or wearing a headscarf in public office), if you are in a position of domination over them. It means no longer persecuting thyat group but also not giving them equal rights. At the same time, however, Forst foregrounds the dynamic of an emancipatory dimension of tolerance when it functions as a strategy to resist domination. If minority groups claim their (equal) rights through invoking tolerance, they invoke a respect conception of tolerance.

In a second move, he delineated three components of tolerance.

  1. Objection (we can only say we tolerate something, e.g., homosexual marriage, if we think it is wrong. If we think it is good, we would not speak of toleration; if we think it is interesting but strange, we would also not speak of toleration).
  2. Acceptance (if we can provide proper rational, reasoned justification for why this something should be tolerated)
  3. Rejection (if we can provide proper rational, reasoned justification why this something goes beyond the limits of tolerance, e.g., racism, homophobia)

From a discursive perspective there are a number of tensions within these arguments. Where do the power relations figure in this analysis? Who decides what is ‘proper’ justification or defines the limits of ‘rationality’? If the concept of ‘tolerance’ already constitutes the candidate for tolerance (the homosexual, the female Muslim teacher) as deficient, deviant, wrong, then how can it have the positive twist which Forst gives the respect conception? Is the discourse of tolerance not operating instead as one element which (re)produces liberal democracy, secularism, etc. as today’s hegemonic formation; the contemporary horizon of intelligibility and justifiability?

Brown made all of these and more arguments, while repeatedly stressing that her project is simply different from Forst’s, rather than contradictory. And she gave an imposing list of what interests her about ‘tolerance’; about the normative discourses of tolerance:

  • how do discourses of tolerance constitute political identities (the West as a civilisation; the homophobe who is “against gay marriage” but “for tolerance”)?
  • why did the New York Times declare the election of Obama a “triumph of tolerance”?
  • how does that utterance discursively resubordinate the object that it claims to free?
  • how have openly Zionist museums of tolerance managed to steal the mantel of tolerance for their explicit project of sanctifying Israel and demonizing Palestinians?
  • why would most Europeans today normally associate tolerance with the “problem” of immigrants?
  • how does tolerance discourse manage to fuse culture and religion and to render culture and religion ontological, i.e., something to be tolerated at the very level of being?
  • how did the Netherlands manage to make tolerance of nudity and gay sex into a threshold of citizenship for its potential Arab citizens?
  • how and why are individualism, secularism, enlightenment, civility and tolerance linked in civilisational discourse, such that western liberal democracy becomes identical with tolerance (despite fascism, slavery, etc)., whereas Islam becomes identified with intolerance?
  • how was tolerance deployed to justifiy the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan?
  • what do the operations of discourses of tolerance reveal about contemporary liberal democracy?
  • why has the notion of tolerance had such a renaissance in the last 15-20 years?
  • how is it ontologising the differences that it claims only to negotiate?
  • to what extent does this discourse figure contemporary societies as inherently riven by these naturalised differences?
  • what happens when tolerance shifts from belief as its object to identity as its object?
  • what happens when police, schoolchildren, social workers, etc, are taught tolerance as a way to negotiate their encounters with one another as transgender, Muslim, Jewish, homosexual?
  • how does tolerance substitute for equality while claiming to be the same as equality — or to be at least supporting equality?
  • how does tolerance subtly stratify and abject certain people?
  • how does tolerance today recentre certain hegemonic norms (e.g., when someone speaks of tolerance towards Arabs, immigrants, etc, what norm of nationality is being recentred)?
  • how do contemporary discourses of tolerance comprise a set of normative operations that often hide themselves as such?
  • how do contemporary discourses of tolerance manage challenges to cultural hegemony by construing those challenges as naturalised (antagonistic) differences or deviations?
  • how is tolerance a dimension of multicultural governmentality?

This focus is — unsuprisingly given this blog’s name — far more plausible for my perspective and interests. It felt like a large part of the audience also shared this view. In fact, a good deal of the evening was spent deconstructing Forst’s arguments. Nevertheless, precisely through his subtle and reflective responses to this deconstruction, he has in turn deconstructed the straw man of Habermasianism which is quite often wheeled out by theorists of a discursive colour.

And he pointed — albeit implicitly — to one strong advantage of his position. He offers tangible, feasible, immediate, pragmatic, reflective, contextualised tools for political actions and even policy-making. For example, working up the ‘respect’ conceptualisation of tolerance in specific discussions and policies rather than the ‘permission’ conceptualisation would by making a first step towards equal rights.

Where does discourse theory leave us (or where does it take us) with respect to political action? This is a question I have often been asked: what actions — what actual political change — does/can my discursive research lead to? Is it enough to answer that it opens the discursive terrain to reflection and critique? That by paying close attention to hegemonic formations — to struggles for power and hegemony, to the emergence and destabilizaiton of discourses, to the contingency and situatedness of identies and truths — analysis opens the terrain for a more de-essentialised, de-naturalised engagement with political issues? A sometimes unsatisfactory answer and a still open question.