September 13, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Simulacres et simulation – Jean Baudrillard
I had one more week to read something not related to my university work, and I decided to go hard in the proverbial paint. I’ve been wanting to read this since I’ve heard about it on a documentary showing off the philosophical content of the Matrix trilogy, and as it turns out it was a very pertinent read that I will probably cite and use in my 20th Century Political Ideas course. I think I’ve talked about French intellectuals and their tendency to write non-linear, elusive works much harder to digest than their english counterparts, and Baudrillard definitely fits right into this phenomenon. The theme central to the book is the constant cultural contact of modern westerners with “hyperreality”, an augmented reality where the latter is transformed through emulation or replaced by simulacrum, the copy of an original which never existed. This theme is faint throughout the book, and addressed by demonstrating the presence of the phenomenon of hyperreality in various aspects of life, socialization, arts, politics, etc.
As with any critical work, it is important that the reader take some and leave some when reading: Baudrillard goes to great lengths to interpreting many things in his chapters, and sometimes, you’ve gotta wonder what the hell this guy was smoking. Most of the analyses seems honest and grounded, but some of it definitely smell like conspiracy theory in certain parts. Mentions of “the system” are repeated over and over in many chapters, which at times evokes Kafka-esque uncoordinated systemic oppression, other times just sounding like the leftist conspiracy theorist. At some point, the author discusses how the attempted murder of figures of power confirms their power (that much I get), and goes and to say that Kennedy HAD to die, because he incarnated real power which is proscribed in the world of simulacrum in which we live; as if all events were to be blamed on this system of simulacrum, bar none. Forcing events to coincide with theory a posteriori is too easy, and Baudrillard does it throughout his essay. You have to stay on guard for the nonesense, yet with open-minded enough to read between the lines; this is exactly what makes it a pretty difficult read.
This book seems to be generally regarded as quite left-field even in it’s genre, since the university classified it in a code reserved for general literature, and not with the other works on philosophy. It’s real merit is it’s originality, predating Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent (which I will not doubt be reading very soon) and other serious works on media imperialism by a couple of years, but also it’s audacity in pushing the logic hyperreality to the furthest it can go. Some of the passages on mass culture and reality TV are even eerily prochronistic, perfectly applicable to the media environment of today with it’s social media and user-powered (inspired?) web.
Bottom line, if you can find a copy, definitely read it. It’s the kind of book you that you can grab when you reek of scotch at the of the night and want to talk metaphysical nonsense with a lady friend. It’s that book you mention right after you can use to say “meh, I’ve read worst” after going through something particularly stiff. It’s also great bookshelf fodder. But buy it used… prices are getting a little bit insane, as reprints probably haven’t been done in a while.
August 31, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Ethique à l’usage de mon fils – Fernando Savater
Another CEGEP read from my flat-mate’s bookshelf… the next book to be review is a quite rough read, so I had to read something lighter. While I didn’t learn much from this book, I’m still glad I got my hands on it.
As it’s title implies, this book is a treaty on ethics, from a father to his son. This implies many things: first and foremost, the tone is quite different from other works of philosophy, as you’d expect. First off, it’s terribly cheesy: maybe it’s the fact that this book was written in the 90′s, or the way is was translated, but some passages are totally cringe-worthy. We’ve all been through “serious” talks with out parents: were babies come from, why you shouldn’t smoke, money and how to spend it; that kind of awkward. Secondly, examples are abundant, and more often than not are very personal: Savater Jr. probably was really big into motorcycles, because that definitely came up a lot. Thirdly, the book cites occasionally, but generally refrains from laying down statements as if they were facts. As a descendant to existentialism with regards to the notion of freedom that the book exposes, Savater presents his content more as guidelines and pointers rather than rules, being obviously sensible to giving his progeny a free mind, one that through reason and experience can come to it’s own truth, and forge it’s own ideas.
This is the first work on ethics that I have read cover to cover, having only read bits and pieces of Aristotle, Epicurus and the likes. Because of it’s intent, I don’t feel like I have learnt too much; the flipside of the expository nature of this book is that the basics are brought back, important things like the different between ethics and moral, their place in the wider spectrum of philosophy and the implications of elaborating one’s ethical code. In both form and content, it is an excellent primer the philosophy of our time, with it’s implied agnosticism and tendency towards concepts relating to secular humanism; the perfect book to spark interest in philosophy in the heart of a young adult.
Really hoping I can steal this book off my buddy. I’m of the opinion that a general grasp of philosophy is essential for any cultured individual, and I’d love to give this to my own son some day.
August 25, 2013 § Leave a Comment
A History of Modern Lebanon – Fawwaz Traboulsi
This is a book on historical facts about Lebanon, hence very hard to review since I am far from being an expert on Lebanon. As such, this post will not be a review, but rather a discussion on a contradiction that the history of this still nascent and politically unconsolidated country highlighted for me: the delicate balance of freedom and political power in it’s weberian sense.
Lebanon’s history, at least in what this book covers, starting from the early 16th century, is a story of colonialism. External powers have had a heavy hand with Lebanese internal affairs, from the Ottoman empire to European nations, to part of the Nasser-era Arab world and the Israelis, lots of nations have instrumentalized this strategic country. Mid millennia, technology didn’t allow political power to consolidate and centralize, so saying that Mount Lebanon was subject to meddling from external parties would be a bit of an anachronism; feudalism and/or tribalism and/or sectarianism was the norm. The problem is that where other countries politically matured and organized their power, Lebanon remained stuck between what was becoming numerous increasingly hard places (no need for the proverbial rock). Even when an arbitrary decision by European nations gave it fixed borders, it was never really able to assume them fully and get a firm grip on it’s internal affairs; the number of unrequested military interventions on it’s territory alone is a testament to the state’s fragility. This power-vacuum made Lebanon a wild west of the middle east, fertile ground for armed militias to flourish, which they did and still do today to a lesser extent.
Which brings me to my dilemma. What defines a strong state is it’s capacity to firmly control it’s sovereignty, in matters of territory (non-violation of it’s accepted borders) and policy (law and it’s application). In this sense, Lebanon was a weak state. Instinctively throughout my read, I kept thinking to myself that all the uncomfortable situations in which Lebanon put itself could have been avoided with one thing: a strong government. Had any faction truly dominated the country, these incidents would probably never had happened; political dominance of one sect, say, Maronites, would most likely have prevented the repeated Syrian incursions in the country, and further degradation of inter-sectarian relations from the cycle of swings in the balance of power. The separation of power amongst sects is surely a source of the country’s problems, and I don’t believe that a strong uni-sectarian executive would have solved that, at least not pacifically. Nation-building in an environment where social domination or homogeneity is unclear leads to bloodshed: in that sense, I don’t think that Lebanon could have come about without a minimum of violence. Closing the ethno-religious pressure-cooker with firm control over it’s territory could probably have been a catalyst to national unity though, at the almost assured cost of violence from minority sects.
Between a strong yet oppressive state and the incapable patchwork of political power that was (still is?) Lebanon, what is to be preferred? The rickety institutions of Lebanon at least get some credit for trying to fix sectarian tensions, but trying visibly wasn’t enough. Anarchic freedom resulted in years of bloody conflicts; could the constriction of this freedom in the hands of authoritative power have minimized suffering? The current state of affairs in Egypt seems to argue against this: authoritative rule has been unable to build a truly strong nation. How are we to reconcile freedom and power? Definitely not the topic for this blog post.
I’ll sleep on it.
August 22, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Je ne voulait pas en venir à ça. Le sujet m’emmerde profondément, parce que sous sa forme actuelle il s’agit plus de shit-disturbing de souverainiste plus qu’un enjeux véritable. Je doit tout de même l’adresser parce que l’ampleur du débat (ou plutôt du bruit produit de part et autres) l’exige: la charte de la laïcité de PQ.
Le phénomène est un peu surprenant, compte tenu l’attitude du PQ après la bévue de Parizeau en ’95. Après des années a chanter la chanson du nationalisme civique pour sauver les meubles, a promouvoir le rassemblement autour des “valeurs québécoises”, voila qu’on cherche maintenant à les redéfinir, une fois la poussière retombée. D’ou le recyclage du terme dans l’appellation de la charte proposée. Dans une mesure qui pue le nationalisme de fond de rang, on pense régler un “problème de société” qui en fait n’en est pas un, créant du coup de nouveaux problèmes, réels ceux-ci.
Le premier problème avec la charte proposé est qu’elle est assez clairement à deux vitesses. Son nom en soit évite d’implémenter la laïcité d’état comme il se doit, soit totalement et sans exception. D’où l’entêtement de Drainville a ne pas accepter la sobriquet que la presse a donner à l’initiative, qui ne renvoi seulement qu’à ce concept. Habile manoeuvre de la part des péquistes qui leur permet de ne pas avoir a faire oublier la ligne de partie des 18 dernières années, c’est aussi leur première erreur. J’ai bien hâte de voir par quelle gymnastique linguistique ils vont réussir a intégrer le patrimoine religieux québécois sans annoncer une religion d’état, ce qui n’aura que pour effet de créer des dissidents. Rappelons que des partis ont été crées pour moins que cela, et ceux qui veulent fuir ce nationalisme réactionnaire ont plusieurs camps où faire défection, des places où l’agenda progressiste ne permet pas autre-chose que la laïcité pure. Le crucifix à l’Assemblé Nationale est symbole de la prépondérance de la chrétienté québécoise, mais aussi du “pur-lainsime” qui fait l’attrait de l’initiative auprès des xénophobes politiquement mous qui n’en ont rien a battre de la religion ou du patrimoine. En ce sens, on peut s’attendre a ce que le PQ se battent bec et ongle pour lui, malgré qu’il soit en profonde contradiction avec l’essence du projet.
Le deuxième problème, plus grave celui-ci, est que la mesure d’une charte des valeurs québécoise est en une qui (encore une fois) ingère dans le social, en érigent des valeurs dictées par un parti minoritaire en ce qui se veut un intouchable morceau de législation. C’est une Charte des droits des pauvres que les péquistes les plus rêveurs se voient probablement déjà enchâsser à une constitution québécoise. C’est comme si l’on n’avait rien appris de l’histoire: quand les moeurs deviennent lois et que la pluralité est supprimée, la liberté souffre. La laïcité institutionnalisée sera à Marois ce que le clergé institutionnalisée à été a Duplessis. Certains dénoncerons ma paranoïa, avec raison peut-être, mais chaque initiative du genre me fait craindre une escalade de l’institutionnalisation des moeurs. On connait l’inertie du politique: si on en viens a imaginer des couvres-feu pour les jeunes automobilistes quand on vise le bilan routier sans décès, qu’arrivera t’il si l’on se mets la main dans le tordeur avec la question de la laïcité? Ceux qui me lisent connaissent mon opinion défavorable à la culture subventionné, un carcan inacceptable dans une société supposément libre; ajouter à cela des moeurs prescrits par la loi, c’est achever d’imposer le moule de la culture d’état a toute une population.
Le problème des accommodements raisonnables n’a jamais été un enjeux digne de mesures législatives. Je m’étonne qu’on me demande encore des stupidités administratives comme de posséder une carte d’hôpital malgré la gratuité de nos services de santé, mais qu’on soit incapable d’expliquer a un sihk qu’il ne peut pas porter un turban sur sa photo de permis de conduire. La bureaucratie a comme désavantage d’être froide et impersonnelle: pour une fois qu’on pourrait utilisé cette froideur procédurale à bonne escient, on passe complètement a coté. Les justifications nécessaires pour dire non à un accommodement déraisonnable existent déjà, le soucie pour la sécurité publique éliminant déjà la majorité des cas problèmes. Pour le reste des incidents anecdotiques que les médias généralistes ont polémisés a coeur-joie, par exemple les vitres givrées de la YMCA, la plupart de ces incidents impliquent des mollesses d’administrateurs privés qui ne sont absolument pas du ressort du gouvernement. Ces mineurs accrocs du vivre-ensemble n’ont jamais été plus que du fourre-page pour les journaux médiocres. Les tempêtes de verre d’eau que se crée les médias pour faire couler l’encre ne s’arrêterons pas, charte ou pas.
La charte que l’on propose est donc qu’un mesure purement opportuniste. Qui est gagnant si cette charte passe à l’assemblé nationale? Je ne voit que deux groupes possibles; les premiers, des nationalistes qui acceptent encore qu’une composante ethnique fasse partie des critères déterminants de la patrie, affiliées ou non au PQ, et qui voit dans cette mesure une occasion de crée (enfin) une majorité référendaire ralliée au oui. Les Bock-Côtés de se monde, qui savent ce qu’ils veulent et qui sont prêts a faire ce qu’il faut pour l’obtenir. Ceux qui savent que si on doit constituer une majorité pour le Oui, il faudra nécessairement créer une minorité du reste, et que la division ethnique est une ligne de coupe valable, qu’il faut exploiter avant qu’elle ne tombe hors de notre faveur. Bref, des caribous machiavéliques. Les autres, les membres et dirigeants du PQ, qui veulent manifestement une majorité, pour faire ou non la souveraineté, selon ce que les bonzes péquistes et son intelligentsia subventionnée déciderons.
La laïcité de l’état, c’est un chose; ça, on l’a atteint il y a longtemps en réquisitionnant au clergé ces prérogatives sociales, en éducations et en santé. La laïcité fonctionnelle dans la fonction publique, à la limite ça passe, par soucie d’équité et d’efficacité. Mais la laïcisation symbolique, par caprice collectif servant à pallier à notre incapacité a s’affirmer une identité, c’est inacceptable. Vivement des élections.
August 19, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Discours de la méthode – René Descartes
The low end of higher education is frustrating because you are told plenty of very interesting things which were thought up by very interesting people, but usually totally out of their original context, thrown at you to understand and memorize; exam fodder basically. In my CEGEP philosophy classes, one of the authors used as such was Descartes. Rich and concise from the hundreds of years of criticism, analysis and interpretation, the ideas of the “father of modernity” were presented to us as revolutionary in their context, and beautifully crafted quotes were compared to the bleak general ambiance of pre-enlightenment Europe. How we marvelled: this guy’s a genius!
A genius, that he was. Some say that no one man has given more to science than Descartes, and while I am in no position to proclaim this true, I am certainly inclined to believe it. Pertinent in today’s philosophy however, that is a whole other thing. My reading of Discours de la méthode was a disappointment in this respect, because I felt that I was tricked by the artifices of CEGEP into believing that this read would change my life.
This book was intended as an introduction to more technical works, and as such, it is a much more of a methodological guide than a philosophical work. The greatest philosophers, to me, are the ones who had a unitary and internally coherent vision of the mechanics of existence, from ontology to the preferred government, with a conception of freedom and ethics to match. Descartes himself states that a system with only one author is always more coherent, yet he exposes his ideas on ontology as a prelude to his method without filling in the rest of the blanks. Epistemologically, his appeal for pure reason is interesting and absolutely pertinent; in the larger context of philosophy though, it is hardly consistent enough to be satisfying. The format of this books shows how little there is to be understood from Descartes directly: the edition I have read is a bit under 50% actual transcriptions of the original work, and the rest is contextualization and analysis of it by various authors, citing more heirs of Descartes than the man himself. It’s the extrapolation of Descartes by others that makes him interesting. As a consequence, I really cannot recommend this book to anyone who has previously had Descartes explained elsewhere.
Don’t give yourself the trouble of decoding old french and suffering through a 350 year old description of the functioning of the human heart; you can get a much better idea of what Descartes is about, much quicker and more pleasurably, elsewhere.
Lesson learned: not everything is meant to be read. Sometimes, quotes and class notes ARE good enough.
August 10, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Fin de cycle – Mathieu Bock-Côté
Mathieu Bock-Coté is another author whom I had the pleasure of being able to listen to, and speak to, before reading his book. Here again, the habits in writing are very similar to his manners of speech. In a conference I had in my CEGEP days with him, one thing that struck me is the extreme attention to diction that he has, in stark contrast to the typically quebecois spoken french which usually exhibits characteristic slurring and peculiar pronunciation of vowels. Anywhere outside of Montreal (and probably inside it too), there is a word for this way of talking: we refere to it as un parlé radio-canadien, in reference to the almost un-naturally pure french spoken on state TV. The expression has negative connotations, implying that one who talks Radio-Canada french is a highbrow, a pompous intellectual, and maybe even a traitor, an alien to the rest of the quebecois who all use joual.
In that sense, I felt Bock-Coté’s book to be very radio-canadien, which made for a very interesting contrast with the theme it discussed, namely sovereignty. It’s more or less as if a tibetan wrote an essay on freeing his country in Manadarin, but intended it for his own people. Not that joual and standard french are mutually unintelligible, or even so radically different, politically or otherwise; besides, writing in joual has be relegated in the past century to writing poetry and text messages. It’s the choice of words that made this book feel so weird, namely the quantity of -isms that can be found per page, many of them newly minted by the author. We social sciences folks love our cool-sounding words, but comes a time in this book where you start wondering if he’s deliberately attempting to fill the page with neologisms just for the sake of doing so.
All this pedanticism doesn’t harm the point he’s trying to make. I get it, and as a self-describe conservative, he touches upon many aspects of the national question which I also don’t feel comfortable with, things that in retrospect I have been criticizing for years concerning the nationalist movement. The almost leninistic method of propagating a fully-fabricated and inflexible conception of national sentiment through the institutions after the quiet revolution, the narrow association of nationalism and social-democracy, the demonizing of the rest of Canada on ideological grounds, all that definitely speaks to me. The pedantics are but a bit of madness in a relatively well constructed method, but considering it’s target audience, it might be enough to alienate a potential readers.
I’m operating on the basis of pure presumption, but if this book is an attempt to reconcile conservatism and nationalism, and to start a new Quebecois social cycle in which the pluri-ideological objective of obtaining nationality is brought back to center stage, it’s doing so in a rather weird manner. As the author himself describes it, the nationalist political elite, if not the whole of our political and bureaucratic elite, are now resolutely social-progressivists which envision independent Quebec as a means of indulging in this progressivism. He blames the stalling of nationalism on this very definition that the movement has come to give itself. Through it’s semantics, this book is clearly not for the masses; even if it remains accessible, it’s vocabulary and length is in my opinion enough to alienate the masses. If this is so, why is Bock-Coté attempting to convince the very elite he denounces? It’s no secret that what’s left of conservative Quebec is mostly rural, and definitely not very present in the metropolitan intelligentsia; in that sense I fail to see how a book with such an academic tone is a useful endeavour.
I can understand how the method was more or less forced upon the author: a more populist approach to advocating things like the end of multi-culturalism, and the consideration of ethnic nationalism would have had him shot down by the other academics who pray at the altar of progressive-nationalism every morning. For such a young man, why risk that? In it’s current form, the book and it’s author are already controversial enough. But what is the point of controversy in an arena where the status-quo is already equipped to win anyways?
In that sense I think that this book uncovers a stale debate: the definition of official nationalism in Quebec has been written half a century ago, and there’s little hope to changing any of that, especially in the context of the western world more or less reaching a consensus on the concept of cosmopolitism. The usefulness of this book is reminding us that national pride isn’t necessarily what is taught to you in school, and that there are other ways of considering the question of nationality. As a practical effort, I feel that this books fails at inspiring it’s the proper audience, specifically because it’s doesn’t target them directly. A good read none the less, if only for it’s originality… just don’t expect it to be derived into a manifesto by anyone any time soon.
August 3, 2013 § Leave a Comment
L’existentialisme est un humanisme – Jean-Paul Sartre
I used to be very weary of the philosophical writings of the second half of 20th century, particularly that of France. Introductions to the subject given in CEGEP seemed to highlight the fact that everything concerning philosophy coming out of France was somehow or another an off-shoot of marxism. Obviously, the post-war context made marxism a very important, but was post-war France such a apologist of the soviet model? As it turns out, no. My CEGEP teacher left out a very important nuance when describing the post-war philosophical experience on the old continent, namely that the left branched out in multiple currents which in some cases where a quite radical departure from marxism in it’s bastardized form as deployed east the Federal Republic of Germany.
The one thing I really like about Sartre’s description of existentialism is exactly what I loath of classical marxism: the role of responsibility. Sartre’s idea that human existence is experienced in subjective consciousness, and that this subjectivity is a condemnation to choosing one’s own becoming gives the individual the full power over his existence. Existence precedes essence; in other words, you are what you do. By ignoring God and the divine, Sartre also ignores the possible existence of divinely inspired human essence. Where Nietzsche invites the individual to pillage the corpse of God acquire his power to define existence, Sartre ignores that these powers even exist, and asks us to define them ourselves. If existence where a lock, Nietzsche would have stolen the keys, whereas Sartre would have impressioned them: fashioned them through the tangibility of our subjective experience. I see in this some sort of enthusiastic nihilism, which exalts man as the master of it’s own destiny, the creator of it’s essence through it’s both his individual and collective actions.
Sartre seems to see the burden of creating our essence as a good thing, as he states that through this obligation to choose the morals which define our being, man always chooses what is righteous (p.32). To me, this presents a flaw in his philosophy: if we always choose righteousness, then how can we explain wrongful behaviour? His definition of free will allows this to be true, since it implies moral relativity. I was under the impression that relativists consider moral outliers to be necessary yet unmeaningful, the extreme values of a set which cancel each other out when the sum of the set is averaged. While Sartre implies relativism, he doesn’t seem fully committed to it. The enthusiasm he demonstrates through the mention of “righteous” moral choice and not moral choice per se, and his being a proponent of socialism (NOT marxism, as the book tells us), a project which definitely champions certain moral values, is not typical of a relativist. It’s as if he hoped that the moral outliers will be more abundant on the side of good; this is obviously incoherent with his conception of free will. This is where I think Nietzsche makes more sense: where he empowers man and gives him the freedom to do what he will, good or evil, Sartre empowers us, only to then discreetly asks us to be nice. Once man is empowered, he has no obligation to listen to anybody other than himself.
This book, because it is basically the transcription of a conference, is easy to read. Being derived of the spoken word, it doesn’t bear the tricky formulations inherent to philosophical treaties which fully exploit the acuteness of the written word with the trade-off of increased complexity. It’s relatively short too. Really, there’s no reason why this book should not be read; if not for the philosophical content which is very good sample of what modernism has to offer, it is an interesting read for the insight that it provides on the post-war philosphico-political debate.
Bottom line: read it.