Saturday, December 10, 2011

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Camus Tribute

My Video click on my link.
Below are two pages from Tanaka Yutaka's Ai-ren which adequately sumarize Camus' point in the Myth of Sisyphus.

Existentialism: A Mockumentary

By Patrick Harris, Tanner Evans, and Phong Lam.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


The Right to Desire

By Anna Lockhart, Sarah Malkowski and Allison Copley

A Note on Aporias, etc.

I think I've finally come to be able to articulate my visceral objection to the value of notions such as Derrida's "aporias" or "self-deconstructing concepts", though I might note that this objection itself raises issues that comport with the deconstructionist and post-structuralist ideas we recently discusses. One example of such a concept was that of giving accordng to Focault's interpretation, in some sense a gift is arguably never a gift, since we invariably expect to get one sort of benefit or another from the giving, even if it is only a feeling of satisfaction, making the supposed act of generosity a kind of transaction. In my view, a understanding of the way all linguistic concepts work makes this less subversive of our basic understanding of the world than it might first appear.

It's a basic insight of the field of linguisitcs (and one that I'm fairly sure precedes thinkers such as Derrida) that the objective physical world does not contain within it pre-packaged facts to which we assign names. Rather, the labels we attach to objects and phenomena frame our perceptions of them as distinct entities. Somewhat in common with Foucault's notion of the exclusionary nature of the text, we can only understand a given linguistic concept (boy, cat, dog, democracy, etc.) by contrast with all other elements of reality. What language does is to mark off segments of the spectrum of phenomena we percieve so that we can make sense of the whole.

In one sense, this is arbitrary. Colors are an excellent excample. Some indigenious cultures are known to have only two words for color, roughly corresponding to light or dark. This does not mean they cannot recognize the difference between say, blue and purple, but they would still conceptually view those shades as falling under the same category.

Yet this arbitrariness of the boundaries of lingusitic concepts does not vitiate them of meaning. Reality is always too messy for humans to construct a single conceptual system that perfectly captures it. We are entirely capable of recognizing some actions as "gifts" as opposed to every other kind of action (including related concepts such as "purchase" or "theft"), even if there are flaws in the abosolute logical construction of the concept as it relates to our experience. It may be that people expect something from gifts (such as good-will or a positive feeling), but we do not weight these facts in our recognition of the actions as "gift" in the same way that we do actual material transactions.

In essence my point is that any abstract or even concrete concept can be rendered apparently meaningless by attempting to precisely pinpoint the lines that segment the part of the spectrum of reality which that concept occupies. But perhaps those lines are more like asymptotes, meaning the exact point at which one concept is exchanged for another (the human and the non-human, say?) is impossible to define. But I still feel that gifts, humanity, and democracy are like porn. We know it when we see it.

Of course, sometimes we may in fact disagree over what we are seeing, but in this case we simply take a magnifying glass, as it were, to those segmentations of our experience in the world in order to see whether a given phenomenon fits within our concept. The concept itself need not have any kind of absolute rational integrity, because it is arguable whether any concept does. Even porn.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Impossible Precision

On Tuesday we discussed the idea of deconstructionism in Derrida’s post-modernist philosophy. I was very intrigued about studying his work because of a previous English class I had taken in which we used structuralist and post-structuralist perspectives to analyze texts.

Structuralism is seen as largely a criticism of communication – particularly in writing – because that is how it is often applied. However, it is actually an examination of the formation and expression of thought. Our language is made up of signifiers for signs – such as the arbitrary word “tree” to signify the particular plant that is ascribed to. From a structualist perspective, as we gain more signs for each part of the tree, we gain a distinctive understand of its components. We no longer see trees as trees but as oak, poplars, and chestnuts. We no longer know it as a tree but as a trunk, bark, leaves, branches, etc. The more signs we understand and perceive the more distinctions that are possible between all of the trees parts, and as a result, the further it can be broken down. It then follows that the language which a person uses to communicate has an influence on their thinking. You cannot truly perceive the leaves as leaves without knowing the name (or signifier) for them.

Following this understanding further, you can posit that language does not just giver precision to thoughts, but can limit them within arbitrary confines defined by that particular language (the way signifiers and signs interact). For instance, the Russian language does not define colors so broadly as blue, yellow, red, etc. Russian speakers have different terms for specific types of blue and red built into their language as a fundamental component – this lends to them an ability to more greatly express colors and distinguish between them – as if they could see them better than an English speaker.

Derrida understands this and takes it a step further, saying that without signs there is no meaning. Signs allow for the categorization and understanding of the world. As the signs, and their signifiers become more and more in the complexity of each grows (the degree to which each is complex is dependent on its relationship with other signs). This is where is famous line that “there is nothing outside of the text” comes from. He then uses this to turn the system and networks of meaning that compose the entirety of human intellect. He, in particularly, critics writing – especially philosophical writing – in his reactive, deconstructionist perspective which explains the ways in which these signs make precise, simply, direct communication impossible.

A main point of Derrida’s philosophy is that we repress the inexhaustible number of meanings each sign has by lying to ourselves and saying that the meaning is simple and understood. There is no way for the meaning of words to be completely nailed down. It is a futile effort according to Derrida, and any attempt made by the author or speaker to gain control of context is equally vain. Once projected out into the world, our attempts to express our notions – whether in writing or speech – are separated from us and for the world to view as they will. There is no way for them to be altered in the aftermath.

The Difference Between What You Hear and What You See

This will be long, but I promise that the ending will be worth your while.

Many from our class and I went to the ten minute play Seven Jewish Children: a Play for Gaza. Though there was some diversity in the attendance, the majority of the theatre-goers were of a Jewish background. After the play was over, the audience had a discussion about their feelings about the play and the nature of context. In my typical manner, I spoke up first to explain the nature of meaning as a product of what is taken out from a text.

With context in mind, a few people spoke of how they loved the depoliticalized/universalized version of the play while feeling the political context was anti-Semitic. It is important to note that a historian who voiced a negative view about universality got an applause. He believed that universality rather than being decontextualizing is putting the play into a Christian moral context. This leads to the claim of the impossibility for a production to both have a decontextualized message.

The historian also had a claim about Existentialism, stating that existentialism forces us to recognized our contextualized individuality. I responded to him by stating my story, which leads to a different existential version of universality. I prefaced by explaining my Christian context:
  [skip this indented part if you do not care about me]
During my Christian years, I believed that the individual had the responsibility for forgiveness, which contrasts with praying to god that he forgive on ones behalf. This sentiment is reflected by my attachment to verses from the Gospel of Matthew like "Forgive and you shall be forgiven," "Judge not, less ye be judged," "Those at the right hand of the Father have done upon me [Jesus] what he has done on the least of you."
Because of my pre-existing moral sentiments, I became attached to these beliefs in Christianity but not any of the others including belief in a god. When I was old enough to realize that I had these moral sentiments regardless of my belief in god, god became extra baggage in my belief system. Without god, I started justifying my morality in new ways, namely with the Existential ideas that I found in my readings of Camus and other philosophers.

This brings me to my criticism of the historians belief existentialism precludes us from universal sentiments. While the universality I found in my existentialism phase carried some unjustified notions from my Christian context, I think there is something to my following argument: To recognize that someone is human is to forgive them. The obligation to recognize humanity stems from my understanding of Camus's notion of integrity, the contrary of philosophical suicide. One has to forgive because we are all on the same absurd plane of human existence.

To demonstrate this point, I brought up the story of Wiesenthal from his book The Sunflower: On the Possibility and Limits of Forgiveness. Wiesenthal, a Jew in a concentration camp, encounters a Nazi asking him. The Nazi expressed that he had rediscovered god in his act of penitence. Wiesenthal reacts to the Nazi's religiosity very negativity. He believes that the Nazi disprove god everyday by committing atrocious acts without any intervention from god.

In my existential phase, I would have argued that Wiesenthal is misunderstanding the Nazi's humanity. He could discover this by reflecting on his own Jewish context. The Jewish holy texts tell us of a people who commit of acts of genocide as commanded by their god in order to have a place to live in the Promise Land. In other words, should it be very strange for Nazis to have a Gott Mit Uns belt and desire Lebensraum (literally, living room/space).

Through this act of reflection, humans develop a solidarity that recognizes the contextualization that occurs because we are both beings-in-the-world and beings-with-others. This solidarity acts like universality for me.

Not to long ago, I had my anti-existential crisis. While I found it easy to forgive others and was prepared to lose anything, I realized in my studies of the Algerian Revolution that this ideal was never going to be achieved by humanity. Not everyone can forgive because they are much more attached and prone to anger. For every saint who can forgive his or her torturers, there are thousands who cannot. The Algerian Revolution taught me that people do learn something else rather than humanity from suffering. I learned that some of the same people who tortured by the Nazis ended up using the same torturing techniques on people in Algeria and what is now called Israel. That when one hears that someone suicide bombed your family, even those confident in their liberalism will be moved to extremely dehumanizing measures like torture to protect those they love.

Sartre expresses this idea I believe in his introduction to Henri Alleg's La Question in an essay called A Victory:
“It is normal for us to kill each other. Man has always struggled for his collective or individual interests. But in the case of torture, this strange contest of will, the ends seem to me to be radically different: the torturer pits himself against the tortured for his ‘manhood’ and the duel is fought as if it were not possible for both sides to belong to the human race…. Anyway, if he accepts the Moslems as human beings, there is no sense in killing them. The need is rather to humiliate them, to crush their pride and drag them down to animal level.” (Sartre xxxix, xli)

With that said, many people started echoing sentiments expressed in my existential period, including a Muslim scholar and a Christian seminary student. Until the end of the discussion, people continued to express very pro-pluralism views. As probably you know, I am quite cynical. People often hide prejudices under the silencing effect of pluralism.

At the very end, we were allowed to stay longer and donate to three causes. One was for Palestinian children, another for Memphis children, and the last for the Jewish Community. I kept my eyes out, and I quickly noticed that someone had placed the Palestinian collection basket on its sign. Later I noticed that someone had moved the money out of the Palestinian bowl, which was low already. I waited to the end to put five dollars in the bowl, so that no one had the opportunity to take it out. In retrospect, I was cynical enough to notice the quiet prejudice in the room, but too morally weak to bring it to everyone's attention at the time the acts of mal-intent occurred. This regret is my burden for being rightly suspicious.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “A Victory.” Alleg, Henri. The Question. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2006. Print.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

God in the absolute

After class last week I stopped Dr. J and asked her about God. First of all I believe that the idea of and for God, in the existential sense, can be replaced with absolute. This is what I think to be the common ground between Christian existentialists and their atheist counterparts.

The next point that we talked about was whether or not the ideas were even more closely related then that. If God was created by man (or at least the way we perceive God) then wouldn't the ideas of both theories have originated from the exact same thing historically? Also, if Yahweh is the right way then the ideas of atheism that are discussed by the existentialists then their ideas were borrowed from that of religions. Both view points focus on the individual; as long as they take responsability for their actions, or at least believe they play a part in their telos, then I believe the two concepts to be compatiable.

Patrick's and Phang's examples of the cloud and the two ideas connected and being intertwined seems to have a strong likelyness in my view. While their core beliefs are not the same they originated from one another, and in order for something to exist and take meaning its opposite must as well.

Does this make sense and do you agree? Can God be interchanged with the absolute? Do these ideas stem from the same concept? Are these even some of the links that atheist and Christian existentialists have in common?

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Supernatural and Existentialism

Existentialism recreates concepts like the human and morality by stripping them of existentialist framework and defining them in relation to freedom and the question of Being. This subject emanating phenomena also has a lot to tell us about the nature of the Supernatural questions of being that we have. Since existentialism has a very anti-objective bent to it, supernatural beliefs are easily created within its methodologies. This is clear given the sheer commonality of the use of existential concerns to justify belief in the supernatural.

God the Watcher
One common concern of theistic existentialism is the need to be watch in order to restrain ones freedom. Without this watching god, the sense of vertigo arises, in which one does not trust oneself not to go on a killing rampage. As an atheist, I often hear this argument directed towards me. This argument has a long history that goes before Existentialism, per se, developed, but it is a properly existentialist idea. 

The Watcher allows a person to feel that no one can get away with evil. Some people feel a need for ultimate justice, a need everything in this world will make sense. This was one of the specific drives for Camus's concept of Philosophical suicide. The positing of a God is used to correct the lack of justice that is the condition of an indifferent universe. It is easy to conclude from the way Camus paints the subject's relation to the Absurd that philosophical suicide might indeed be inevitable given a desire for meaning, justice, and the lessening of the burden of freedom.

Intrusive Manichean Forces

Since gods are often used existentially to lessen the burden of freedom, especially given the burden of morality, supernatural struggles between good and evil are posited as well. This is where the Devil comes from. Temptations and other self-oriented facts of human life often get attributed to the Devil because of this distrust of the self. 

In extreme forms of this, the self is seen as completely at the mercy of the direction of the struggle of good and evil that occurs in the self. In Angels in America, the character Joe when he describes the temptation of sinful homosexuality and the struggle with God as being analogous to Jacob wrestling with an Angel, wherein losing means you lose your soul, so you cannot win against the angel, but you must not lose. This struggle makes humans prisoners to supernatural forces, absolved of freedom yet strangely held responsible for the consequences. In the Disney version of Hunchback on Notre Dame, the villain absolves himself of responsibility for the temptation for having a gypsy in a similar struggle but between man and the Devil. His line "It is God's fault for making the Devil so much stronger than a man" is just one line in this song (see video below) of the villain relinquishing his freedom to external forces. 

I-It has meaning

In class on Thursday, we discussed a selection from Buber which makes a distinction between two different types of interactions: I-Thou and I-It. Buber emphasizes the dialogical mode of being through the I-Thou rather than the monological mode of being through the I-It.

The I-Thou interaction stresses mutual, interdependent, holistic existence between two beings. The interaction is a concrete encounter that is real and perceivable, yet unprovable and devoid of content. Such an interaction occurs between two people or between a person and God. The important distinction about the I-Thou interaction is that there is something about God that is revealed, meaning infinity and universality are made actual.

In the I-It interaction, the two beings do not actually meet; rather a person encounters the other being as an idea -- an object. Such an interaction occurs between an object and a person or even two people.

Buber argues that the I-Thou relationship is that of a dialogue, while the I-It relationship is that of a monologue. In the I-Thou relationship, the two beings interact in a manner that has resistance, while the I-It relationship does not have resistance, but rather submission. For example, Dr. J mentioned in class that a relationship between a person and a cup is an I-It interaction because the cup is not resisting the person in any manner.

Now that we have a grasp of the distinction between I-It and I-Thou, we can address my question. In class, Dr. J mentioned that the I-It relationship is the “cripple” relationship because it is vacant of meaning, while the I-Thou relationship has meaning. Why can’t the I-It relationship have meaning?

I would argue that the I-It relationship can have some degree of meaning. How else do we gain knowledge? We encounter objects and ideas through I-It interactions, which advances technology and knowledge. I acknowledge that technology also advances through interactions with other people but that isn’t my focus. Wouldn’t this mean that there is a degree of meaning in the I-It relationships? If there isn’t any meaning, then how does advancement of knowledge fit into this idea? Would Buber argue that the I-It interaction is devoid of meaning because of the lack of a presence of God/universality/infinity?

I think I may have answered my own question, that I-It can’t have meaning, but I think there must be more to the argument than such a simple answer. What do you think?

Gender Is Not Merely Subjective

In class this week, I was intrigued by our discussion regarding the contrasting definitions of sex and gender; particularly Professor Johnson's question as to whether or not we should assume that this dichotomy has become so ingrained within our modern culture that we now take the distinction for granted. I pose that this is indeed the case, however, it proves a detriment to our understanding. We have grown so accustomed to separating the concepts into two distinct identities that we neglect fully comprehending their differences; if analyzed, i believe there exist certain discrepancies that would complicate a complete separation of the two concepts.
We defined sex as purely biological, consisting of physical human anatomy. This definition, in contrast to its "opposite," implies that gender does not have such an objective existence; it does not have an innate, comprehensive form, rather it consists of mere subjective expressions. In this sense, while we are objectively bound to our sex (ignoring the issue of transgenders), we are free to choose our own gender. This freedom to choose implies a conscious decision, which I found problematic during our discussion. I do not find it realistic that such an intentional consciousness is present when expressing a gender identity. If consciousness is absent, however, its lack of presence would not imply freedom, but rather a substantial innateness.
Ben provided a counterargument, suggesting that culture and society has, in a sense, stolen our subjectivity and subsequently informs our perceptions of what is considered "normal." I agree with this statement, to a degree. Modern culture, insofar as it is an extension of ourselves, informs our perspective of the world to a large degree. However, the problem with this argument, I find, is that it does not leave room for social change, which itself becomes the strongest argument for an innate gender. If society provides the definitions that we must adhere to, why would anyone instigate change? Unless people are reacting for the sole reason of rebellion (which I do not think is the case), then such desires to change the norm must stem from an innate inclination to change the standard...which would imply a certain objectivity within the definition of gender.

Gender and Bad Faith

This week during our discussion of Simone de Beauvoir's work, we examined the difference between sex and gender. The former is a biological technicality, written clearly and explicitly on your birth certificate. The latter, on the other hand, is a social performance or project, something and individual must develop for him or herself. As Beauvoir herself says, "One is not born a woman, but becomes one." Such a claim is consistent with Sartre's claim that "existence precedes essence." A person is male or female before he or she becomes a man or a woman.

What I found most interesting was the notion that gender is not a constant; it is not a trait that a person creates for themselves but then never evaluates further. If we consider gender to be a spectrum or gradation rather than an either/or distinction, it becomes easier to imagine an individual being closer to one end on some days and closer to the opposite end on other days. Bad Faith was mentioned in class in relation to one's sexuality, but I began to think of its application to this gender spectrum. If it is the case that each individual is constantly fluctuating between masculinity and femininity, in some ways finding themselves male and in other ways female, then would calling oneself wholly male or wholly female be acting in Bad Faith? It certainly is reminiscent of Sartre saying that we act in Bad Faith when we consider ourselves to be wholly transcendent or wholly at the mercy of our facticity.

Consider a woman who calls herself a woman, yet also claims to identify much more with the male gender. She is not easily overcome by emotion, she is not delicate or feminine, and she does not dress in "pretty" clothes. She is fully aware of her departure from the woman gender, but she still considers herself a part of it. Is this Bad Faith?

Of course, this may be an unfair evaluation. It's very likely that this hypothetical woman would not be aware of the difference between sex and gender. It's even more likely that she would not believe gender to be a spectrum. But if she were told those things, would she still consider herself a woman or would she consent to being, at least in part, a male?

The example of drag queens is especially interesting when considering Bad Faith, because it would seem that they are the most sincere in their gender role. They recognize both their feminine and masculine characteristics and don't try and throw themselves into one gender.

Martin Buber and The Case for God

Essentially, human beings have two natures when it comes to interacting with the world, with each other, and with God. The first relationship that we have is called the I-Thou, which is the absolute relationship that we have with the others. The second relationship is the I-It. In this case, the I-It relationship between the human subject and objects. The reason that it is separated is due to the way we interact with others and with objects. Individuals do not interact the same way with objects as they do with other individuals. Because we recognize that the individual is unique in the sense that there are no specific defining qualities that define our being, the individual to individual relationship is absolute. The I-Thou relationship is that; it is the dialogue, the conversation, and the connected-ness that we have with each other. We understand them as a whole. It is not the facticities of the individual's life that we just recognize in this relationship, but it is everything else that make them who they are that we recognize. The I-Thou relationship is special in this sense. Because we can see value in the others, it is the reason that the emphasis of the two natures is in the I-Thou.

On the other hand, there is the I-It. The I-It relationship, is just the opposite nature. When we are not interacting in the I-Thou nature, then we are interacting with the world in the I-It nature. The I-It nature, even though has a value, it does not connect with us wholly. People do not recognize objects as they do others. For one, they cannot fully communicate with objects. The fact that we cannot is enough to understand that the interaction is not absolute. The I-It relationship allows the the subject to only understand the object for what it is. For the most part, it is the facticity that we recognize; we recognize the use of the object, and that it can be reproduced (for the most part).

Even though we can treat subjects as objects and vice versa, it ceases to be the I-Thou relationship. Because at the I-Thou relationship, there are no mediated forces that act between the subject-to-subject. It means that there are no influences and or other social ideas that divide the relationship between the subject-to-subject.

So how does this relate to God?

Well God is the ultimate. He is the absolute absolute relationship that we recognize. In this relationship, there are not any mediating forces between the I-Thou. Also, in the I-Thou with God, God is revealed to the individual directly. There is no need to find God. He is directly with the individual.

If you believe in a God: I believe that since God is the foundation for all other interactions, God is important in existentialism. God is necessary to define our human realities and to examine our world that we live in.

If you do not believe in a God: It is still necessary to understand how the others interact with the world; thus giving credit to some of the formations of our ideas and responses to the others' world (Even though I think this will be argued).

This is what I get out of it.

If I am interpreting Buber wrong, let me know. Also, please add on to it if you interpret it differently.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Understanding the I-Thou

Today in class we discussed Buber’s conception of the I-thou and the I-it. One of the most important structures of the I-thou relationship is that ‘I’ encounter the Other in its radically alterity. Dr. J made the point that insofar as I interact with another, there will always be some part of her experience that I cannot experience. Even if we have the ‘same’ experience, she will have it as her and I will have it as me. We can’t ever know what it is like to be the other because if you did, you wouldn’t be yourself.

Fundamentally I agree with this. However I think it depends on what is meant by the I-thou relationship. I agree with Dr. J insofar as the I-thou relationship is seen epistemologically. There are definitely parts of the other that I do not, and more importantly cannot know. There is a radical epistemological alterity in the other. I also agree that such an unmediated epistemological encounter would indeed be infinite and absolute.

However if the I-thou relationship is seen ontologically, then I don’t agree. Taking a look back at Heidegger, Dasein, as Being-with, has its relationships with other Dasein as a primordial ontological structure. Dasein wouldn’t be Dasein without those relationships. Of course, other Dasein will have their own relationships with other things that I, as Dasein, am not directly interacting with (care for/about). However, I don’t see those as having the status of radical alterity implied in the I-thou. Dasein, for Heidegger, is a relational being, not an individualized being.

While Buber is not explicit in the way he describes the I-thou, he seems to be more interested in the ontological relationship between the I and the thou. I at least would argue that the ontological relationship is more interesting, if not more important than the epistemological one.

Is this an unfair characterization of Buber’s thought? Is there another way of interpreting the I-thou relationship?