Philosophy

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The Rationalist’s Defence of Injustice

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Gandhi, when asked what he thought of Western civilisation, supposedly replied that he thought it might be a good idea. Taken at face value, we can presume that he was both contemptuous and cynical of the idea of civilisation of any kind existing in the West. Being on the receiving end of Western civilisational endeavours such as the one he experienced in India during his life, he would have been well aware of hollowness of the idea that actions and ideas emanating from the West were inherently virtuous. Indeed, very few people, especially in Ireland, need to be reminded of the great altruism with which the British Empire undertook the task of civilising the world. Although Great Britain is no longer the empire it once was, it continues to play the civilising game along with its master, the United States. Meanwhile, the notion that great powers undertake certain actions for the benefit of the “uncivilised” of the world continues to hold sway, along with the concomitant idea that such actions are inherently virtuous. They are inherently virtuous simply because said actions are being carried out by the U.S. and its allies. Nothing more needs to be said in their defence according to the reigning orthodoxy. Said orthodoxy resides not only in and around the centres of power, and not only emerges from the mouths of the most devoted nationalists and neoconservatives but can also be found in those who are considered to be sceptics and rationalists.

Two of the most vocal types of this are Sam Harris and his former colleague, Christopher Hitchens. Both men had become two of the four faces most associated with rationalism, specifically atheism, and the so-called New Atheism, that emerged more or less immediately in the aftermath of 9/11. In the case of Hitchens, advocating for a non-religious world due to the fact that he deemed religion a threat to humanity became one part of his public persona. The other part was as a cheerleader for the neoconservative movement. Counting amongst his friends Paul Wolfowitz, the former U.S. Deputy Director of Defence in the Bush II administration, Hitchens could be relied upon to decry the evils of religion in the same breath as declaring British and U.S. intentions in the Middle East as righteous. His views did not in any way evolve before his death in 2012 from oesophageal cancer. One year before his death, when asked if he thought the invasion of Iraq along with the subsequent chaos it unleashed was worth the trial and execution of Saddam Hussein, he responded in the positive; the fracturing and destruction of a country, from which it may never recover, was deemed a price worth paying for the regional interests of his acquaintances in the White House.

Although claiming to take a more nuanced view of things, Harris is arguably worse than Hitchens in his support for the British and U.S. interests around the word. Although Hitchens was outlandishly crude in some of his pronunciations, Harris on the other hand relies on the veneer of calm and respectable discourse in order to promote views that are far from respectable. Harris’ position is essentially that Islam in particular represents an existential and ongoing threat to superior Western civilisation and ideals. Therefore, it must be dealt with accordingly by those who have the power to do so. Being unmentionable is that it just happens that the balance of power resides by far in the hands of the U.S. and its closest allies, yet the threat apparently remains. This is half of the premise of Harris’ main point of contention with Noam Chomsky, the other half being that that our intentions are good regardless of the outcomes. In this view, because collateral damage is not intentional on the part of leaders, what we do that causes civilian deaths in the first place is therefore not judged by the supposedly unexpected outcome of collateral damage. The act is judged simply by its intentions. If the intention was to destroy a terrorist training camp via a Hellfire missile, and civilians were accidentally killed in the process, the civilians do not enter into any moral calculation. The initial act was carried out for the correct reasons, at least according to those in power and their supporters, therefore the unintentional deaths of civilians do not enter into any moral calculation of the hypothetical missile strike.

This is Harris’ stance on the nature of U.S. foreign policy, at least as he laid it out in recent correspondence with Chomsky, arguing that the U.S. is “in many respects, just… a ‘well-intentioned giant.’” The Clinton Administration’s bombing in 1998 of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, which resulted in the destruction of roughly half of the country’s medicines, including its entire supply of anti-malaria drugs, was a legitimate act according to Harris. The apparent intention, which Harris takes for granted, was to destroy a chemical weapons factory, with the resulting suffering unleashed on the country being of no concern. What matters are intentions, nothing else. Harris simply takes it for granted that what we do is right and proper simply by virtue of the fact that it is being done by us. Harris presumes, with no evidence, that “Clinton (as I imagine him to be) did not want or intend to kill anyone at all, necessarily.” The more likely reason, which Harris fails to mention or perhaps even realise, is that the plant’s destruction was in retaliation for the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania two weeks earlier. Although a terrorist attack on civilians in the Middle East or somewhere in the West may have the same outcome as the al-Shifa bombing and other similar acts by Western states, the two cases cannot be compared according to Harris conception of intentions. By logically extending his notion of intentionality, our crimes are not really crimes, and deaths caused by us are not really caused by us, a logic that would impress the most committed totalitarian ideologue.

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Left Forum Talk: “Cybersocialism”, by Dr Paul Cockshott

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Left Forum Public Meeting: “Cybersocialism”

Left Forum public meeting on the subject of “Cybersocialism”, by Dr Paul Cockshott of University of Glasgow.

The talk will explore questions around how a centrally planned socialist economy could be realised using mathematical techniques supported by advanced information technology.

For anyone who read the novel “Red Plenty” this should be right up your street.

Time: 7:30pm, Tuesday 18 November

Place: Unite Hall, Middle Abbey St., Dublin 1

Facebook event notice

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Same Same but Different

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Book Review: Event, Slavoj Žižek; The Most Sublime Hysteric, Slavoj Žižek and Hegel and the Art of NegationAndrew W. Hass 

Event, Slavoj Žižek (Penguin, 2014)

A difficulty in reading Žižek is that he often seems to be juggling with too many balls, making dizzy the reader who tries to track the course of a single idea as it speedily travels from one page to the next before somersaulting in a paragraph. The challenge is not in grasping the idea but in following it amidst the inflections and involuting digressions. The whole asymptotic shebang can become just too much and the exasperated reader is tempted to close shop on the whole act by slamming the book shut.

What makes Event easier to read and follow through from start to finish is that this time one of the balls is bigger and more brightly coloured than all the others. The reader can keep this master ball in focus, safe in the knowledge that the smaller ones circulating with it are all derivatives, examples or reduplications of the one defining conceit: Event.

Ordinarily an event is just something that happens but with an Event something is realized in a way that is extraordinary. Rust Cohle in True Detective is far from being an ordinary police officer because of how he actualizes and fully realizes, in a Platonic way, the Idea of the detective.  For Plato, everyday empirical reality is a pale shadow of the bright and substantial reality of Ideas, an originary and eternal order not to be confused with the fleeting world of appearances. DunmanusBay that I see outside a window, and every other bay that anyone ever sees, only participates in the Idea of Bay by virtue of being a surface copy. Žižek gives Platonism a twist by saying, yes, there are absolute Ideas but they realize themselves purely in appearance. Rust Cohle, in the pursuit of his investigation embodies what it authentically means to be a detective, he enacts the truth that belongs to the concept of detective and in him the Idea of detective shines in all its purity. The essence that he embodies is there, unhidden in the material reality of his behaviour. In Hegelese, the distinction between appearance and essence is inscribed within appearance – because appearance is all there is.

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Desiring Hegel

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Book Review: Subjects of Desire, Judith Butler (Columbia University Press, 2012) and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit Stephen Houlgate (Bloomsbury, 2013)

Originally published in 1987, this new edition reflects the renewal of interest in Hegel and the overcoming of the obstacle that has for so long bedevilled an appreciation of his tremendous philosophical achievement. The obstacle is the label that has attached itself to Hegel as the omnivorous philosopher of totality, the thinker who espouses the holy grail of a final and all-encompassing state that unites thought and reality. The rejection of this prevalent view is the basis for Butler’s understanding of Hegel as a philosopher of antagonism who recognises the impossibility of a grand and harmonious reconciliation between knowledge and the subject. Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit details the journey of the subject attempting to reach a point where its sought-after plenitude and knowledge of the world are at one, but this is a journey defined by its failure. The absolute is the recognition of failure and of the inherent antagonism that robs being of the oneness that it would wish to embody. The satisfaction that is sought is kept at bay by the restless play of negation.

What, though, is meant by the negative, where does it reside and why cannot the subject find a final satisfaction for desire? Reality as we understand it has to be seen as a construct in the sense that Kant propounded – shaped and given form by our conceptual apparatus — but there is no solid kernel resting in the background behind our horizon of meaning. There is only what Žižek describes as a ‘chaotic non-all proto reality’, the virtual multiplicities and proliferating pluralities that are evoked in the language of quantum physics. It is reality itself that is out-of-synch, riven with gaps and discontinuities, and its non-unity is the ultimate ground and truth behind the assertion that ‘there is no big Other’. Butler, writing two years before Žižek’s first major book in English (The Sublime Object of Desire) appeared on the scene, does not acknowledge or rely on such an ontology in her introductory chapters in Hegel but it helps in understanding why she lays out the ground in the way she does.

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Diary of an Escape – Antonio Negri

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Book Review:Diary of an Escape – Antonio Negri (Polity Press, 2010) “The recent days have shown the enormous gap that exists between our capacity to produce truth and the court’s inert expression of its unbelievable…

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