Heidegger and Nazism – a letter from the archives

From the London Review of Books, Vol. 12 No. 7 · 5 April 1990

Richard Rorty’s eulogy of Martin Heidegger (LRB, 8 February) is shamefully tasteless, insensitive, infantile, and vulgar in the extreme. He seems to think that one should not be angry with Heidegger because, despising democracy, as does every good intellectual, he also worshipped at the phallic shrine of Nazism, joined the Party (in both senses of the word), and betrayed his colleagues and his country to support a movement which, in one of its few instances of sanity, had the good sense to reject him in favour of an even greater mind, Alfred Rosenberg, whose position as the ideological and doctrinal theoretician of the most obscene, banal, puerile, and maniacal system ever devised in the entirety of human history Rorty’s hero coveted. The Nazi Heidegger was not a hypocrite; Nazism was Heideggerism authentically made flesh. To be a hypocrite would require Heidegger to think one way and act another, but surely all of Nazism is contained within the deranged, demented putrescence of his Teutonic furz, his Gesamelte Werke.


Sidney Halpern Temple University, Pennsylvania

Problems with interdisciplinarity in the humanities

At a recent workshop on interdisciplinarity for researchers from the Coimbra Group in Trinity College Dublin, at the Long Room Hub, there were some interesting presentations (especially by Britta Padberg of ZiF and Christoph Horn of Bonn University) and conversations had about the challenges and opportunities within this area. It got me thinking about some of the theoretical and structural peculiarities of the humanities that makes the discussion of interdisciplinarity in the arts and humanities different from the STEM, and perhaps also the social sciences. As always, there are counter-examples and caveats, but here are some thoughts under the follow headings.

(i) The place of common theoretical structures in STEM and AHSS interdisciplinarity

(ii) Disciplinary and professional drivers and barriers to interdisciplinarity

(iii) Intra- and interdisciplinarity – or precision versus purity Continue reading

An antecedent of Searle’s “Chinese Room” argument against A.I.

I should really say another antecedent, given that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy identifies three other versions of this argument. I take the following from Stanislaw Lem’s Summa Technologiae:

Physicist and science fiction writer Anatoly Dneprov has described an experiment in his novella, whose aim was to debunk a thesis about “infusing with spirituality” a language-to-language translation machine by replacing the machine’s elements such as transistors and other switches with people who have been spatially distributed in a particular way. Performing the simple functions of signal transfer, this “machine” made of people translated a sentence from Portuguese into Russian, while its designer asked all the people who constituted the “elements” of that machine what this sentence meant. No one knew it, of course, because the language-to-language translation was carried out by the system as a dynamic whole. The designer (in the novella) concluded that “the machine was not intelligent”… [p. 324]

Lem’s book was published first in Polish in 1964, and Anatoly Dneprov died in 1975, so this comfortably predate’s John Searle’s 1980 version of the argument. I haven’t been able to identify what novella Lem is referring to here, as his notes and bibliography have no mention of Dneprov’s work. It would be great if anybody out there did know, and I could make a note of it here.

The term “neoliberal” and the ecumenism of blame

This entire interview with Colum McCafferty is well worth reading, especially the parts referring to the contrast between liberal citizenship and republican citizenship, as well as the growing use of the word “consumer” in place of any reference to citizens. I want to mark the following for attention too though:

Regarding this use of language to limit of discourse, you refer to the expression ‘the political class’ as another term that has become widespread, even among well-regarded journalists.

Well, before this term arose you had a tendency to talk about ‘The Politicians’, which is also used as a way to eliminate discourse. It eliminates the very possibility that there are different politicians with different points of view. Michael D Higgins called it “an ecumenism of blame”.

You now see this term changing to ‘the political class’, so you have the political class and people change within it, but it’s permanent.

I have noted previously that we would do well to have a Godwin’s Law for the term ‘neoliberalism’, given that in the best case such references are exercises in taxonomy (I think I called them ‘trainspotting‘ in one of my more uncharitable harrumphs). Invoking neoliberalism is similarly a way to eliminate conversation. Zizek also refers to this rhetorical maneuver in the use of the term “fascist” as a way of shutting down an argument. There is both an ecumenism of blame as well as an agnosticism of responsibility here. If some politician or political act is identified as neoliberal, then room for alternative action and debate is effectively precluded. We don’t even think in terms of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’, ‘constitutional’ or ‘unconstitutional’. Something is simply ‘neoliberal’ – and that’s it.

This is at once a testament to how what is identified as ‘neoliberalism’ utterly suffuses our discourse. I think of the title of Zizek’s In Defense of Lost Causes here as a symptom of this, of which he is of course aware. The best an alternative to this status quo can be is to have the tragic honour of a lost cause, because the possibility of a real alternative doesn’t exist. This term is a testament to how impoverished the debate is in terms of constructing possible worlds, and scenario planning, and how so much effort has been expended in the equivalent of Late Scholastic taxonomizing of minutiae.

I recall a recent experience after a conference where the discussion of an academic by others (including one quite senior figure in the field) turned to what can best be described as a Blutreinheitsgebot. This academic, early career, on whom an anathema was declared was identified as ideologically suspect purely because he didn’t discuss the topics they did by invoking neoliberalism. His attempt to step beyond this term (for whatever reasons) was singled out as suspect and cause for censure in and of itself. This is the paranoia of the academy taken to its absurd conclusion. Thankfully, however, there may be an equivalent of the Gartner hype cycle for such ideas, and we can move beyond this limited and limiting idea, beyond the identification of problems, to a fuller concept of critique which is proactive as well as descriptive.

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Finding an alternative to the market discourse of culture via Iain M. Banks

This post started when I was reflecting on our inability to theorize culture, the arts, and humanities except within the paradigm of the market. We know the standard responses – and more often reactions – to this question of “what good are they?” (I will slip between culture, humanities, and the arts in this post, as I think they have many things in common in terms of theoretical justification).

There are various possible approaches. One might be via justification itself, and how to secure meaning and significance in a secular world (Hans Blumenberg, Charles Taylor, Karl Löwith). Then there might be an analysis of the market and its internal logic (Debra Satz). Another is via the matter of value, of the worth of arts and culture and the humanities. This is seen in terms of intrinsic or extrinsic value, and it is a difficult and indeed perilous route to take. It is, however, the road more travelled. Continue reading

A structural reason for technology’s ethical blind-spot

I want to offer here a possible structural reason for why when technology is subject to ethical critique that their response is often all too insufficient. I am thinking primarily of the inability of the targets of Evgeny Morozov‘s broadsides to respond either tonally or in terms of content to what he has to say. One reason I have heard in discussions is that those who are subject to attack want to somehow “rise above” what is being directed at them, but to me this misses the point, and the dual failure here (of style and content) is connected to something broader.

Returning for a moment to those doing the attacking, such as Morozov or Dale Carrico, they tend to view the ethical blind spot I mention here as wilful, as a sin of commission rather than one of omission.  The sense one gets in reading their pieces is that technologists are dastardly and malevolent in their intentions. I shall add a caveat here, and say the positions of Morozov, but especially Carrico are considerably more sophisticated than this outline can do justice to, but that neither of these figures (whom I agree with across the board) are the focus of what I am saying. Their critique is a staging area for my observations here. I am less vituperatively inclined Continue reading