Sunday, February 24, 2008

Affirmation and the Slow Learner

If the universe does not have a moral structure, or perhaps any structure at all, I might not be able to distinguish, disentangle or separate the wheat from the chaff, the gold from the dross, within the calcareous dome wherein resides my brain and presumably my thinking mind ( which assumption is itself very relevant and interesting.)

Through habit I become very accustomed and comfortable with the “thought-processes” of a certain “I” with whom I have very definitely become accustomed and am quite willing to regard as completely self-certain and natural and as original, authorial, and foundational. In some ways, (but in what ways?), I doubt I have a choice.

This “I” suffers its miseries, its vicissitudes, its lapses, its learning traumas, and moves on.

Right now, I am interested in considering these learning traumas, moments where I either am unable or somehow in some strange way unwilling to assimilate new or different “thinking” or “thinking materials.” ( At this level of consideration I would like to keep the notion of what is assimilated or unassimilated as general and abstract as possible, partially because I don’t know what’s what here, and partially because the nature of this “stuff” –whether it blocks or facilitates “thinking”—needs to be kept in question.)

Upon the introduction of some new material or subject for learning, I have had the sensation of drawing a blank…I don’t understand, and I so thoroughly do not understand that I can’t understand where the disunderstanding originates, what’s triggering it…I can’t find or formulate the kinds of questions which would give me a foothold, either. I am stumped.

I feel as if I may be like the two characters at the top of this post – I wonder if I am a drooling retard. But the real problem of stupidity and of feeling stupid or mentally incompetent has nothing to do with the problem these two suffer.

I might interpret this being stumped as a kind of basic flaw or failure of my intelligence. Or I might suddenly decide “I don’t like this ‘stuff’—it is not for me,” and place some sort of emotional distance between myself and the subject – avoid it, and give myself a kind of cushion against the failure. Or, I can through some kind of probing operation try to find the reasons why I resist the assimilation, why I feel there is something wrong with the “thinking material”, why it would be incorrect, why I sense it to be harmful or incomplete or somehow incongruous with the way I think “thinking” should be.

In other words, I can take seriously the idea that I am not flawed, that my thinking does not lack intelligence, and if there is a problem, it is with the thinking which is presented to me. There is a daring to this approach – I am pitting an apparent personal incapacity (often enough shown to be an actual personal incapacity), assuming my thinking to be shrewd and capable, against material of some proven worth and veracity, vetted by great and thorough minds, the masters and authorities of rationality in the history of science and mathematics.

I took calculus in the last year of high school, muddled through, and at the end of the year scored high enough on the exam so I could have received college credit. I felt somehow fraudulent about the whole performance—I wasn’t convinced I had learned anything or that I knew calculus. In the first year of college, I wanted to put off taking any mathematics, and so I did. At the start of the second year, I decided I had forgotten what I learned in the first calculus course—I continued to feel fake about it—so I enrolled to take it again. My intention was this time to attend to all the intricacies and details of the thinking I had more or less willingly skimmed on my first time through.

This is interesting to me – from the standpoint of philosophy I think the most provocative, controversial and in general undecidable material in all of calculus is the material given during the first part of the first semester. The student is presented with a thicket and no way to orient in it. I encountered this material with my fresh resolution to thoroughly think it through, understand and master it, and this resulted in some kind of crisis—a crisis of the “I”, of this “I” which I am quite willing to regard as completely self-certain and natural and as original, authorial, and foundational. Its foundation crumbled, and the bottom fell out, and I was adrift.

The possibility of thoroughly and completely understanding the material in the way I envisioned did not exist. I think it does not exist.

I resolved this through what I experienced as an effort of the will—I did not want to fail the course, I did not want to give up, or to restructure my life in such a way that I would avoid all further mathematics (a fairly common response among students I think – and I would be very interested to know if it is triggered by experiences similar to what I am trying to describe here.) The actual operations of calculus are simple—the algorithms of calculus—are easy—are child’s play-- to learn and perform. I resolved to attend to these and not allow myself to drift away into the cognitive and perhaps philosophical difficulties which seemed to present themselves…I resolved to not treat these as necessary to learning and understanding. I resolved to treat these as imaginary, rather than real, difficulties. And this resolution did the trick and I never encountered a crisis of the “I” again in my college mathematical career.


Probably most, or even all, modern mathematics develops through some encounter with these very difficulties which splinter off from calculus and move out in very diverse and eccentric directions… In other words, these difficulties are real, not imaginary…Resolving them into the imaginary was convenient for me, but not really a victory for my thinking… My suffering "I" moved on, but by in some sense collapsing and retreating... The crisis of the “I” was real, even if disturbing and unsettling to academic success. I consolidated the “I” by choosing to treat the subject through procedures which terminate, which also terminated the creative potential of the subject.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Private Reason and the Slow Learner

I have a head, and in this head I am relatively certain there is a brain. And in this brain I am relatively certain there is something going on. What is it that goes on in there? Is it thinking or is it the whispering of the wind? Are those ideas scattered about, or hanging cobwebs made of neurons?

Can I decide for myself which it is?

Can I be said to "think for myself" if what constitutes thinking and what does not is decided by someone other than myself?

Can I be said to be daring to use my own reason if I cannot dare to say what is and is not reasonable? Dare to see what is reason, what madness?

I have some power to formulate my own thought, to attend to it, to develop or test those areas of it which seem important to me. But can I really know whether what I am doing in these instances is thinking, or rather elaborating upon my own idiosyncracy, eccentricity, weirdness, oddness, madness, perniciousness, perversion?

I often experience the consequences of my own stubbornness, persistence in stupid error, unwillingness to take good advice, unwillingness to be prudent, to avoid "unwarranted risk." But, I think, "I did it my way." Is there really any reward in that, at all? Should there be?

Are there people who learn quickly, or are there people who obey easily, without resisting? Are there smarter people, or are there people who are more compliant, submissive? Is the smartest thing to know which side one's bread is buttered on? If not, why not?

Educators often insist not only that we commit facts to memory, but that we "think" about them. At least, this is often heard in the classroom. Are the smart people the ones who take this seriously, or the ones who never take it to heart, who know it is bunk? Are people taught to think, or are they taught to obey without even realizing that's what they are doing? What master does a good student serve? Does a good student serve any master at all? The master of reason? But what master is that, exactly?

"Here is a quotation from Carl B. Boyer, who is more or less the Gibbon of math history:'But what, after all, are the integers? Everyone thinks that he or she knows, for example, what the number three is--until he or she tries to define or explain it.' W/r/t which it is instructive to talk to 1st and 2nd-grade math teachers and find out how children are actually taught about integers. About what, for example, the number five is. First they are given,say, five oranges. Something they can touch or hold. Are asked to count them. Then they are given a picture of five oranges. Then a picture that combines the five oranges with the numeral '5' so they associate the two. Then a picture of just the numeral '5' with the oranges removed. The children are then engaged in verbal exercises in which they start talking about the integer 5 per se, as an object in itself, apart from five oranges. In other words they are systematically fooled, or awakened, into treating numbers as things instead of as symbols for things. Then they can be taught arithmetic, which comprises elementary relations between numbers.(You will note how this parallels the ways we are taught to use language. We learn early on that the noun 'five' means, symbolizes, the integer 5. And so on.)

Sometimes a kid will have trouble, the teachers say. Some children understand that the word 'five' stands for 5, but they keep wanting to know 5 what? 5 oranges, 5 pennies, 5 points? These children, who have no problem adding or subtracting oranges or coins, will nevertheless perform poorly on arithmetic tests. They cannot treat 5 as an object per se. They are often remanded to Special Ed Math, where everything is taught in terms of groups or sets of actual objects rather than as numbers 'withdrawn from particular examples.'"--from David Foster Wallace, Everything and More: a Compact History of Infinity, pages 8 and 9.

Fooled or awakened? Taught or ordered? Slow learner, or intelligent enough to be critical of teachers' sleight-of-hand? Stupid, or simply someone whose thought processes are different and perhaps more profound? Someone incapable of abstract thought, or someone boldly and heroically true to their own sensuous apperception?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Enlightenment Eczema

On February 16, 2006, the same day Carl Sachs proposed his very brief theory of the historical Enlightenment,“Enlightenment is the overcoming of myth through critique,” he also asked the following questions:

-What was the Enlightenment?

-What was the Counter-Enlightenment?

-What is “the dialectic of Enlightenment?”

-Why is the Enlightenment currently under attack?

-Why did the Left abandon its traditional defense of Enlightenment principles and ideals?

Responding to Carl’s questions with Carl’s own very brief theory of the historical Enlightenment, do we or do we not obtain the following:

Question: “What was the Enlightenment?”
Answer: “Enlightenment is the overcoming of myth through critique.”

Question: “What was the Counter-Enlightenment?”
Answer: “The Counter-Enlightenment is the overcoming of critique through myth.”

Question: “What is ‘the dialectic of Enlightenment’?”
Answer: “The ‘dialectic of Enlightenment’ is progressive sublation of myth and critique.”

Question: “Why is the Enlightenment currently under attack?”
Answer: “Assuming the Enlightenment is currently under attack, it would be because the relative value of critique to myth has changed.”

Question: “Why did the Left abandon its traditional defense of Enlightenment principles and ideals?”
Answer: “Assuming the Left did abandon its traditional defense of Enlightenment principles and ideals and that the Left has not become corrupted (i.e., assuming that the Left is still the Left,) it is because overcoming myth through critique is no longer progressive.

However this may be, Carl’s very brief theory of the historical Enlightenment contains three elements: 1) myth; 2) critique; 3) overcoming.

Carl gives us some idea of what each of these elements mean. For example, he says that myth is totality.

As I remarked in my last post, I found the making of myth into totality a very surprising move. I expected myth to be interpreted as appearance, while critique would be interpreted as the uncovering of reality; or for myth to be illusion,while critique would be discovery of underlying truth; or for myth to be a preference for beauty and feeling,while critique would respond to a need for clarity, essence, and utility. If Carl had proposed myth as appearance and critique as the uncovering of reality or something to that effect, his theory would have been quite conventional; it would also have corresponded to way I have always assumed the actors of the historical Enlightenment understood themselves.

But myth as totality? A critique of this totality leading to an infinitization of the historical Enlightenment? There is, I think, a peculiar jump made in that, and it has taken me a long time to see it. Seeing it, though,may help us to move forward in our inquiry of the historical Enlightenment in terms of the subject, the “I” and the “We” and whether the subject, the “I” and the “We” are useful or harmful in concept creation for autonomy.


I think taking myth as totality skips over Kant and the 18th Century Enlightenment as we’ve considered this to be defined, almost altogether. We move suddenly into Hegel’s realm. What happens in Hegel’s realm? Reason and rationality lose nearly everything of their revolutionary potential (which is present even in the earlier Hegel,) and become State forms of thinking. You as an individual can dare to use your reason to draw your own conclusions, but these conclusions must be always equal to the conclusions which have already been drawn by the State. You may desire whatever you want, as sanctioned by the State. One's own reason leads one to ineluctably conclude that obedience is always the very best idea.

(Note: I’m as incompetent in Hegel as in Kant. I’m trying to reach into Carl’s “myth is totality” idea and draw out something of its desire. Why I need to reference Hegel and Kant, I don’t know. Probably simply because I think it is making things easier for me.)

Monday, February 04, 2008

Enlightenment Hives

Carl Sachs, in his very brief theory of the historical Enlightenment posted here at the Enlightenment Underground on February 16, 2006, stated “Enlightenment is the overcoming of myth through critique,” providing a nice succinct starting point for discussion and inquiry.

Immediately following this nice succinct starting point, Carl partially backtracks when he says, “However, the predisposition to mythic thinking is inscribed in the cognitive structures through which any complex, hierarchical society is produced and reproduced. Therefore, the task of critique is without end. An infinite and incompleteable critique.”

This backtracking on his original succinct statement seems to lend a great deal of support to my own brief theory of the historical Enlightenment: that it is an acceptance of extreme anxiety at the very heart of a project of selfhood…Enlightenment is the overcoming of myth through critique HOWEVER myth, as Carl conceives of myth, cannot really be overcome and so in a sense there is no such thing as the historical Enlightenment—we’re just anxious that Enlightenment be possible (even knowing that it isn’t.)

And why would we be anxious that it be when we suspect it to be impossible?

In the same post I’ve quoted from above, Carl makes a tricky but probably well-meaning move: he says that “myth is totality: the total and complete picture of the real.” I was relieved Carl bothered to give us some idea of what he understands myth to be – my immediate reaction to this “myth is totality” thing was that it might be useful, might be workable. However, I don’t really think it is. For one thing, I don’t see any reason to assume that myth is more totalizing than rationality or anything else it might be contrasted to. I don’t think it is obvious that myth is totalizing while critique is not; in fact, if critique is without end, doesn’t that mean that what is critiqued (myth) is also without end? Then Carl’s theory collapses in false problems…Myth isn’t total; what overcomes it (critique) doesn’t overcome it (if critique did overcome myth, critique would be total, and then critique would be myth,) and myth is apparently necessary anyway, (in cognitive structures through which any complex, hierarchical society is produced and reproduced.)

If myth is necessary, then the historical Enlightenment was unnecessary…I think there’s an eerie resonance here…Myth does seem to be retained by post-Enlightenment western social systems for precisely the reasons Carl lists – society requires it for its own production and reproduction—which suggests that myth is productive of polis-socius, of the “WE” while the Enlightenment tears that apart, producing an “I” which actually turns out to be something of a phantasm, or fake.

In order to make this brief theory, “Enlightenment is the overcoming of myth through critique” work, I think it needs to be understood that several totalizing sub-theories (but can a sub-theory be totalizing?) would be required. To know what a myth is and how a myth works, we practically need a complete theory of mind, the notorious theory-of-mind, (ToM.) My opinion is that to know what “totalization” is and how “totalization” would work, we also require a very extensive and, bluntly put, total and complete theory of mind. Is that what we aspire to here? Isn’t it more true we as a group share a suspicion of some areas of thought as massive fly bottles, and wish to avoid those so we can continue surfing free? I don’t think we can treat totality without becoming trapped by it; let’s not call myth totality and let’s not theorize the historical Enlightenment in terms of reactions to totality. Theorization of becoming doesn’t require a concept of “totalization” in order to overcome it, although how and why that is turns out to be mind-blowing, and I can’t go into it now.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Pause, Disruption, And Trauma of Thought

Yusef’s stimulating despair (yes, the adjective fits the noun!) of the project of this blog and its fixation on the Enlightenment, and especially the Underground version of it, leads to the whole question of why Kant’s thinking in the late 18th century is so captivating.

Sapere aude is not only powerful in its insistence on rationality, but also in its emancipatory, revolutionary potential. It is the rallying cry of reason versus superstition, of man versus gods, of agency versus passivity, of hope versus fatalism.

And yet the 'the courage to use your own reason!' also automatically means the use of that faculty to undermine that very statement and its philosophy of the implied sacrosanct subject.

That in itself is an affirmation of the validity of the motto of the Enlightenment.

Indeed, the very problematization of Sapere aude proves its veracity and usefulness.

That’s why Yusef’s despair is “stimulating”, since it provokes fresh thinking. And as Deleuze pointed out, following Bergson’s example, the pause between action and reaction is what constitutes the human as a particularly complex brain-body assemblage. This pause allows a certain amount of freedom and the possibility for a more creative response to the world. Put differently, today it is important to change speed (intensity) to slow down sometimes, and even to remain still.

The pause does not mean tranquility, but often its opposite. As Deleuze also often argued, thought is not a natural disposition, but requires a disruptive encounter that engenders thinking within thought. The rest of the time we are simply stimulus-response machines governed by the model of recognition or the familiar.

Lacan (always overdramatic!) states that thought requires a trauma, an encounter with something missing from its place, the failure of something to be where one expects it.

So, “The Enlightenment Underground” is not where we expect it to be. Great! Let’s disrupt it.

Old Immanuel would have appreciated that.

But the question remains: Can we talk about the courage to use one’s reason today without sounding ridiculously metaphysical?

Can we even use the singular first person or the plural ditto?

What is the “I” or the “we”?

Or is the “I” “we”?

Does the subject have a present or a future?