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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Quote: Indicative mood, subjunctive mood, and narrative

In recent centuries we speakers of this lovely language have reduced the English verb almost entirely to the indicative mood. But beneath that specious and arrogant assumption of certainty all the ancient, cloudy, moody, powers and options of the subjunctive remain in force. The indicative points its bony finger at primary experiences, at the Things; but it is the subjunctive that joins them, with the bonds of analogy, possibility, probability, contingency, contiguity, memory, desire, fear, and hope: the narrative connection.

Ursula Le Guin, “Some Thoughts on Narrative”, Dancing at the Edge of the World, p. 44

Quote: Style and the linguistic bases of Roman rhetorical devices

I decided recently to brush up on my Latin (it has been a damp week in Ireland so far), and so dug out old grammars, dictionaries, and anthologies. I turned to Cicero (kik-er-oh I keep reminding myself), as the flavour of some of the orations seemed appropriate to the times, and thus perhaps I was more likely to drive on with my revision. O tempora! O mores! I have a copy of J.B. Greenough and G.L. Kittredge’s Select Orations of Cicero (New York, 1896) which I picked up for a song somewhere, sometime (but html version here, and pdf here). Reading the introduction, I came across the following passage:

Of course he is not always at his best, but it is never safe to criticise his compositions without a careful study of the practical necessities of the occasion.

Thus Cicero’s style is often criticised as redundant and tautological, a criticism which must proceed either from ignorance or inattention. One of the great arts of the public speaker is to keep before his audience a few points in such a way that they cannot be lost sight of. To accomplish this, these points must be repeated as many times as possible, but with such art that the fact of repetition shall not be noticed. Hence the same thing must often be said again and again, or else dwelt upon with a profusion of rhetoric, in order to allow time for the idea to gain a lodgement. […] Literary tautology is in fact a special oratorical virtue. A spoken word you hear but once unless it is repeated, and there are things which have to be heard many times before they can have their effect.

Again, apart from “repetitional” tautology, it must be remembered that the Latin language was in a sense a rude tongue, lacking in nice distinctions. Such distinctions must be wrought out by a long-continued effort to express delicate shades of thought. Hence it often becomes necessary in Latin to point the exact signification of a word or phrase capable of several meanings, either by contrasting it with its opposite, or else by adding another word which has an equally general meaning, but which, like a stereoscopic view, gives the other side of the same idea, and so rounds out and limits the vagueness of the first. Thus the two together often produce as refined distinctions as any language which has a larger and more precise vocabulary. [‘Cicero as an Orator’, p. xliv]

This strikes me as a singularly incisive, hermeneutic overview of the myriad ways which a language can function. On the first level, it gives an explanation for those rhetorical devices I have long read about, and wondered how something so artificial, so formal, could be accepted by a listener. Surely the auditor would hear the first part of this figure of speech, and get bored. “Yes, I know what you mean, you don’t need to say it twice or thrice.” This passage shows up the condescending (not to say anachronistic) nature of my long-held assumptions.

Beyond this, it nicely distinguishes between formal and informal logics, the appropriateness of both, and the reasons for one being used rather than the other. We delve a little deeper into language, beyond the stage of it being spoken, towards the theatre machinery of the entire language’s vocabulary and grammar, and beyond this into the box office and foyer to the point of content with the outside world. We see language as it works, where it comes from, and what is beyond its remit or outside its control. Might be worth while drawing attention to the related figures hendiatris and hendiadys here, as the editors do further on.

Rhetoric, hermeneutics and the philosophy of technology

My approach to the philosophy of technology has been via the route of hermeneutics from day one. Within mainstream philosophy, there are established figures such as Heidegger who feature in all of the summaries of the philosophy of technology, yet they does not do much for me. There are the critical theorists such as Marcuse who are also often appealed to, and likewise I am unenthused. I feel I should set out how and why hermeneutics, and Hans Georg Gadamer specifically, set the tone for my engagement with the philosophy of technology and its sub-disciplines. The reason I choose Gadamerian hermeneutics is that it is a philosophy which puts rhetoric in a central position, and technology is a deeply rhetorical field.

Technology is most often described as being connected with science, in that it is technology which exemplifies a scientific principle brought to bear on the world. It is science made practical, science made to serve our human ends. Were this the full story, in all its neutral glory, then turning to Heidegger or Marcuse would not seem quite so problematic to me. If technology was only ever merely “application” then it would invite such interpretation as Heidegger and Marcuse seem to offer. But it is not. There are two ways to demonstrate this, Continue reading

Values versus ideas

The problem with values is that they are accepted. They are the “givens” of the world as we are born into it. They are something people “have”. The euphemism of values as being “shared” is incredibly misleading, as the social ideal which underlies all values is authoritarian, coercive, and based on a closed identity. There is the obsession of hoarding, of possession, of not sharing. Values are ineluctably tied up with property as the highest ideal. With values, there is a finite social capital/energy/etc., and the idea of this comes from racist notions of purity and a pre-modern obsession with finitude. This is a social rhetoric which has the “Decline of the West” in the back of its mind at all times. It is fear of the alien, of the new, of blood being polluted. This rhetoric will always be used as a weapon by conservatives of all flavours. “Values” are the last gasps of a dying order. They are the zero sum game dragon atop the pile of gold.

In contrast with this we have ideas. Ideas are vital, they are something we encounter when we are ready for them, or interested in them. Ideas are created, debated, developed. They are dynamic, a process. More than that, they are open. The sociality of the idea is open to all who are willing to engage. It is not closed, it does not define an us and a them. You can know of values, but nevertheless be excluded because you do not “share” them. In contrast, you can be familiar with ideas, and even disagree with them, but even at that you are caught up in the network of debate and discussion which are the life-blood of all ideas. The ideal behind ideas is not finite, but unbounded. There is no zero sum game for ideas. The impulse behind ideas at all time is to open up, to reach beyond, to embrace, to search.

The rhetoric of ideas, then, is a positive, enabling rhetoric. It is a rhetoric of those committed to some type of progress, to change, to development, to the improvement of a social situation. They do not call for a falling in to line. So, a charity based on values can go to a country in need of assistance in some manner, and may coercively offer assistance once you fall in to line with their values. By contrast, a charity based on ideas doesn’t care if you even known the idea which informs their action. Ideas are possibility, values are an attempt to hide from failure. So, if a discussion of “values” comes up, note that it is a monologue which you are being allowed to listen in on – for now. But you may be excluded at any moment. Ideas have the lowest entry costs of all. All that is required is your interest, and your willingness to engage. Ideas make a community of the entire world.

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Is philosophy just making us maladjusted?

A basic fact which we have to accept is that philosophy – no matter what the tradition – is predicated upon being at a distance from society. Philosophy is investigation, interrogation, and even if we don’t follow a Platonic notion of the world as sheathed in illusion, philosophy is not simple acceptance of the way things are. The point of contention here becomes whether this distance is more often than not adversarial as a seeming matter of principle as well as course. As noted, interrogation and investigation entails being at a remove from matters, and eventually opposition to a situation may follow a critique. I am questioning whether there is something about the way we philosophize – while reading, writing, or talking to other philosophically-inclined types – that rhetorically sets us up to be at a dangerous remove from society, state, our fellow citizens.

Dangerous here, because I am unfashionably democratic in my fundamental political convictions. I follow the somewhat idealized notion of the wisdom of crowds, before giving in to the demonized notion of the idiotic mob as the governing metaphor of political life. Or at least I try. Continue reading

Philosophy of technology notes: 3

Consider technology as a nexus of problems of solutions. I want to suggest that philosophy of technology then would be more concerned with the form of the solution rather than the content or the actual materials used; how rather than what.

In their everyday, vulgar ontology, people interact with the world in a fairly standard manner. We rely upon rules, prejudices, established procedures. This is the realm of “this is the way it’s done”. (Aside: indeed, Gadamer developed an entire philosophy predicated on just this fundamental mode of interacting the world, via his hermeneutical analysis of what is – not wholly felicitously – translated from German as prejudice, the praejudicium or “prior judgement” of medieval law.) That is to say, on a daily basis, we encounter an entire constellation of already existent solutions that long precede us.  Continue reading