There is much talk of authenticity today. Like all of neoliberalism’s advertisements, it appears in an emancipatory guise. To be authentic means to be free of pre-formed expressive and behavioural patterns dictated from the outside. It prescribes that one must equal only oneself and define oneself only through oneself – indeed, that one must be the author and creator of oneself. The imperative of authenticity develops a self-directed compulsion, a compulsion to constantly question oneself, eavesdrop on oneself, stalk and besiege oneself. It thus intensifies narcissistic self-reference.
The compulsion to authenticity forces the I to produce itself. Authenticity is ultimately the self’s neoliberal form of production; it makes every person the producer of themselves. The I as its own entrepreneur produces itself, performs itself and offers itself as a commodity. Authenticity is a selling point.
The striving for authenticity, the striving to equal only oneself, leads to a constant comparison with others. The logic of comparison transforms otherness into sameness, and thus the authenticity of otherness consolidates social conformity: it only permits system-compatible differences, namely diversity. ‘Diversity’ as a neoliberal term is a resource that can be exploited. Hence it contrasts with alterity, which eludes any economic utilization.
Today, everyone wants to be different from others. However, this will to be different enables a continuation of the Same; we are now dealing with a higher-order conformity. Sameness asserts itself by going through otherness; the authenticity of otherness even perpetuates conformity more efficiently than repressive equalization, which is far more fragile.
Socrates as a beloved person is called atopos by his students. The Other whom I desire is placeless; they elude all comparisons. In A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, Roland Barthes writes the following about the atopia of the Other: ‘Being Atopic, the other makes language indecisive: one cannot speak of the other, about the other; every attribute is false, painful, erroneous, awkward […].’1 Socrates as an object of desire is incomparable and singular. Singularity is something entirely different from authenticity. Authenticity presupposes comparability; someone who is authentic is different from others. But Socrates is atopos, incomparable. He differs not only from other people, but also from everything else that is different from other people.
The culture of constant comparison does not allow the negativity of the atopos. It makes everything comparable, that is, the same. Thus it renders the experience of the atopic Other impossible. Consumer society strives to eliminate atopic otherness in favour of consumable, indeed heterotopic differences. In contrast to atopic otherness, difference is a positivity. The terror of authenticity as a neoliberal form of production and consumption does away with atopic otherness. The negativity of the entirely Other gives way to the positivity of the Same, in fact the same Other.
As a neoliberal production strategy, authenticity creates commodifiable differences. It thus increases the diversity of the commodities in which authenticity is materialized. Individuals express their authenticity primarily through consumption. The imperative of authenticity does not lead to the formation of an autonomous, self-possessed individual; rather, it is entirely co-opted by commerce.
The imperative of authenticity engenders a narcissistic compulsion. Narcissism is distinct from healthy self-love, which has nothing pathological about it; it does not rule out love for the Other. The narcissist, however, is blind to the Other. The Other is bent into shape until the ego recognizes itself in them. The narcissistic subject perceives the world only in shadings of itself. This results in a disastrous consequence: the Other disappears. The boundary between the self and the Other becomes blurred. The self diffuses and becomes diffuse. The I drowns in the self. For a stable self only comes about in the face of the Other; but excessive, narcissistic self-reference creates a feeling of emptiness.
Today, libidinous energies are invested primarily in the ego. The narcissistic accumulation of the ego-libido causes a depletion of the object-libido, that is, the libido that occupies the object. The object-libido creates an object attachment that conversely stabilizes the ego. An excessive narcissistic build-up of the ego-libido causes illness. It produces negative feelings such as fear, shame, guilt and emptiness:
But it is quite a different thing when a particular, very energetic process forces a withdrawal of libido from objects. Here the libido that has become narcissistic cannot find its way back to objects, and this interference with the libido’s mobility certainly becomes pathogenic. It seems that an accumulation of narcissistic libido beyond a certain amount is not tolerated.2
Fear results when there is no longer any object charged with libido. The world thus becomes empty and senseless. Owing to the lack of object attachment, the ego is thrown back on itself and broken by itself. Depression is attributable to a narcissistic accumulation of ego-libido.
Freud even applies his libido theory to biology. Cells that only behave narcissistically, that lack eros, endanger the organism’s survival. The survival of the cells also requires those cells that behave altruistically, or even sacrifice themselves for others:
(Perhaps we may also use the term ‘narcissistic’ in the same sense to describe the cells of malignant neoplasms that destroy the organism. After all, pathologists are prepared to accept that the seeds of these growths are present at birth, and to concede that they display features characteristic of embryos.) All of this being so, it would appear that the libido of our sexual drives is one and the same thing as the Eros evoked by poets and philosophers, the binding force within each and every living thing.3
Eros alone animates the organism. The same applies to society; excessive narcissism de-stabilizes it.
The lack of self-esteem that underlies self-harm, the act of cutting oneself, points to a general crisis of gratification in our society. I cannot produce self-esteem myself; I must rely on the Other as a gratifying authority who loves, praises, acknowledges and appreciates me. The narcissistic isolation of human beings, the instrumentalization of the Other and total competition destroy the climate of gratification. To have a stable self-esteem, I am dependent on the notion that I am important for other people, that I am loved by them. It may be diffuse, but it is indispensable for the feeling of being important. It is precisely the insufficient sense of being that is responsible for self-harm. Cutting oneself is not only a ritual of selfpunishment for one’s own feelings of inadequacy that are typical of today’s performance- and optimization-oriented society, but also a cry for love.
The sense of emptiness is a basic symptom of depression and borderline personality disorder. Borderliners are often unable to feel themselves; only when they cut themselves do they feel anything. For the depressive performance subject, the self is a heavy burden. It is tired of itself. Entirely incapable of stepping outside itself, it becomes absorbed in itself, which paradoxically results in an emptying and erosion of the self. Isolated in its mental enclosure, trapped in itself, it loses any connection to the Other. I touch myself, but I only feel myself through the Other’s touch. The Other is instrumental in the formation of a stable self.
The elimination of all negativity is a hallmark of contemporary society. Everything is smoothed out. Communication, too, is smoothed out into an exchange of pleasantries; negative feelings such as sorrow are denied any language, any expression. Every form of injury by others is avoided, yet it rises again as self-harm. Here, too, we find a confirmation of the general logic that the expulsion of the Other results in a process of self-destruction.
According to Alain Ehrenberg, the success of depression is based on a lost connection to conflict. Today’s culture of performance and optimization does not allow us to work through conflicts, which is time-consuming. Today’s performance subject only knows two states: functioning or failing. In this, there is a resemblance to the condition of machines: machines also know no conflict. They either function correctly or are broken.
Conflicts are not destructive; they have a constructive side. It is only from conflicts that stable relationships and identities ensue. A person grows and matures by working through conflict. The seductive aspect of cutting oneself is that it quickly releases accumulated destructive tension without the time-consuming act of working through conflict. The fast relief of tension is handed over to chemical processes; endogenous drugs are released. It works in a comparable manner to antidepressants: these too suppress states of conflict and quickly restore the depressive performance subject to a functioning state.
The addiction to selfies also has little to do with self-love. It is nothing other than the idle motion of the lonely subject. Faced with one’s inner emptiness, one vainly attempts to produce oneself. The emptiness merely reproduces itself. Selfies are the self in empty forms; selfie addiction heightens the feeling of emptiness. It results not from self-love, but from narcissistic self-reference. Selfies are pretty, smooth surfaces of an empty, insecure self. To escape this torturous emptiness today, one reaches either for the razorblade or the smartphone. Selfies are smooth surfaces that hide the empty self for a short while. But if one turns them over one discovers their other side, covered in wounds and bleeding. Wounds are the flipsides of selfies.
Could suicide attacks be perverse attempts to feel oneself, to restore a destroyed self-esteem, to bomb or shoot away the burden of emptiness? Could one compare the psychology of terror to that of the selfie and self-harm, which also act against the empty ego? Might terrorists have the same psychological profile as the adolescents who harm themselves, who turn their aggression towards themselves? Unlike girls, boys are known to direct their aggression outwards, against others. The suicide attack would then be a paradoxical act in which auto-aggression and aggression towards others, self-production and self-destruction, become one: a higher-order aggression that is simultaneously imagined as the ultimate selfie. The push of the button that sets off the bomb is like the push of the camera button. Terrorists inhabit the imaginary because reality, which consists of discrimination and hopelessness, is no longer worth living. Reality denies them any gratification. Thus they invoke God as an imaginary gratifying authority, and can also be sure that their photograph will be all over the media like a form of selfie directly after the deed. The terrorist is a narcissist with an explosive belt that makes those who wear it especially authentic. Karl-Heinz Bohrer is not wrong when he notes in his essay ‘Authenticity and Terror’ that terrorism is the final act of authenticity.4
NotesRoland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, transl. Richard Howard (London: Penguin, 1990), p. 35. ↩︎
Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, transl. James Strachey (London: Penguin, 1990), pp. 470f. ↩︎
Sigmund Freud, ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, transl. James Strachey, in The Penguin Freud Reader, ed. Adam Phillips (London: Penguin, 2006), p. 179. ↩︎
Karl-Heinz Bohrer, ‘Authentizität und Terror’, in Nach der Natur. Über Politik und Ästhetik (Munich and Vienna: Hanser, 1988), p. 259. ↩︎
Byung-Chul Han, The Expulsion of the Other – Society, Perception and Communication Today
Thursday, November 30, 2023
Wednesday, November 29, 2023
Costin Alamariu’s doctoral dissertation is attracting a lot of interest but it doesn’t add up to much.
Doctoral dissertations usually don’t make for interesting reading. They tend to be narrowly focused, tailored to appeal to a committee of three or four people, and often include mistakes that render them irredeemable—I should know; I defended one last summer. But Costin Alamariu, in acknowledgment of being “outed” as the pseudonymous Internet personality known as Bronze Age Pervert, has self-published his doctoral dissertation, and to a wide readership. When I first drafted this review, it was the fourth best-selling book on Amazon in the categories of political philosophy and ancient Greek history, in both cases right behind Plato’s Republic. Submitted nearly a decade ago to Yale’s political science department, Selective Breeding and the Birth of Philosophy mystified Alamariu’s advisors and failed to secure him long-term employment in a university. Now it is being consumed voraciously by his legions of online followers and critics.
Count me as mostly a critic, at least as far as this book is concerned. An introduction that attempts to reframe Selective Breeding as a clever commentary on edgy right-wing topics like involuntary celibacy and scientific racism falls flat. I don’t mean that it’s offensive, but that the rest of the book is simply not about those things, and Alamariu never gives the impression of having much that’s novel or interesting to say about them. What he does talk about is wide-ranging: the conflict of values that occurred when marauding steppe tribes conquered ancient farming communities; the concept of physis in Pindar and Plato; the question of whether morality dictates that the strong must not seize what they desire from the weak; the debate between Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojève about the relationship between philosophy and tyranny. Readers who have never encountered any of these topics will have the impression that they are learning a great deal.
But the mass of detail seems unreliable, and it is often presented with an acknowledgment that Alamariu’s sources are considered controversial within some debate that’s never addressed. Occasionally, there are elementary misunderstandings and errors of reasoning. And it’s disjointed; Alamariu’s claims shift as frequently as his topic, and none of the evidence he adduces is sufficient to establish those claims. At times, it seems like the book is mostly intended to establish a kind of ranking system of which things are good or bad—in online lingo, “based” or “cringe”—hunting is based, farming is cringe; tyranny is based, democracy is cringe; strength is based, morality is cringe; living fully is based, mere existence is cringe, and so on. He even reads this into Plato, writing that for the apparent antagonist (but, for him, actual protagonist) of Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, certain things “stand together on one side.” Though Alamariu is a much better writer than most social science PhDs, and has read much more interesting things than many of them too, it doesn’t end up adding up to much in this particular book.
The book begins with a new introduction, the first sentence of which reads: “The sexual market is the pinnacle of every other market.” It’s not clear what this means (I’m not even sure that’s the right way to use the word “pinnacle”). Alamariu announces that he is attacking a “modern faith” that includes notions like “the intrinsic worth of everyone and also the absolute freedom to be whatever we want to be.” We are not equal, he writes, and we cannot all achieve whatever we set our minds to. But there is a basic confusion here. That we ought to be free, if indeed we ought to, would not mean that we will achieve everything we attempt with that freedom. That we all have intrinsic worth, if indeed we do, would not mean that we all have equal worth, nor that that worth cannot be balanced against other interests. “To speak of superior and inferior ways of life,” he continues, “is necessarily to deny that every form of life has dignity or meaning. But, in particular, the net effect is to deny that mere life has any worth.” But he gives no argument for this connection. And why would it make sense? A quarter has more monetary value than a dime, a dime more than a nickel, a nickel more than a penny. But a penny is still worth something. Alamariu simply makes this claim without explaining it.
If there are differences between individuals, there will likely be differences between groups, Alamariu suggests. He shows us a graph with “behavioral similarity” on one axis and “genetic relatedness” on another, but he provides no citation nor any explanation of what this is supposed to mean. The graph is presumably either plagiarized or fabricated, and the link between these trendy, edgy topics and the material that follows is a bit weak. He writes: “Awareness of nature—the prerequisite of philosophy and later of science—is identical with awareness of breeding or what we might crudely term ‘eugenics.’” Most of the argument for these ideas has to do with how the ancient poet Pindar wrote about flowers and young men—not exactly enough to establish a necessary conceptual link between philosophy and eugenics.
In this new introduction, Alamariu talks a big game, probably in the expectation that his audience won’t muddle through the dissertation itself. Most people who write about tyranny, he says, think “tyranny represents a special and critical ‘disease’ of political life.” He might simply have said that most people think tyranny is bad. He suggests that he will offer an alternate view of tyranny in his dissertation, but that view is never clearly expressed, and in fact, at the end of the book, he says that his “chief intention” was to “offer an explanation for why the ancient city perceived philosophers as dangerous and as associated with tyrants” (something that never needed explaining—the tyrants studied with the philosophers). But within the dissertation itself, Alamariu says that there is a “fundamental connection I claim exists between tyranny and philosophy,” which goes far beyond explaining such a specific historical fact.
But perhaps the biggest problem with a dissertation titled Selective Breeding and the Birth of Philosophy is that it says virtually nothing about either selective breeding or the birth of philosophy.
The structure of the dissertation is a bit befuddling. To prove that philosophy and tyranny have something in common, for instance, we might expect to find a section about what philosophy is, a section about what tyranny is, and a section about where and how the two overlap. Instead, Selective Breeding has four chapters: one on life and politics in steppe tribes and farming communities before ancient Greece; one on the concept of nature in Pindar’s writing; one which gives an “esoteric” reading of Plato’s Gorgias, which claims that Plato puts himself on the side of the apparent antagonist, Callicles; and one on Nietzsche’s genealogies of philosophy and tyranny.
Selective Breeding is a difficult read even for someone trained in philosophy; it takes a lot of background for granted, as well as a certain perspective on that background. The perspective on these texts that is taken for granted is a Straussian one, named after Leo Strauss, a 20th-century philosophical historian and political theorist. Broadly speaking, Straussians take the view that historical texts need to be interpreted in light of the political pressures of their times. In order to avoid persecution, philosophers must write “esoterically,” with a superficial adherence to the norms of their times and a hidden, secret, more dangerous meaning, one which tends to be in line with the views of other philosophers (when also read esoterically).
In the introduction, Alamariu insists that he is not a Straussian theorist like his advisor—a petulant acknowledgment of just how much he owes to the Straussian tradition in which he was trained. What Alamariu means is that he, as Bronze Age Pervert, is willing and even eager to say offensive things rather than hide them, but his use of a pseudonym seems to confirm rather than undermine Strauss’s theories. However, once the door is opened to hidden meanings, it’s hard to close it. A friend of mine insists that Alamariu’s first book, Bronze Age Mindset, is written in support of Adolf Hitler, because it calls on readers to be “pirates” and Strauss uses the word “pirate” to describe Hitler, and virtually nobody else. This might seem like a stretch, but it’s the sort of interpretation that an esoteric approach seems to encourage.
Another Straussian theme in Selective Breeding is the distinction between nomos and physis. In the ordinary understanding, the distinction between nomos and physis is the distinction between, respectively, the artificial (today we might say “socially constructed”) and the natural. Like moderns, ancients debated whether social arrangements were natural or merely conventional—in Plato’s Cratylus, this debate is about naming conventions, for example. The relationship between this kind of dispute and other philosophical debates was itself contested. Two philosophers of the time might agree that social arrangements are determined by social forces, but with one holding that it is equality that is natural, the other holding that it is inequality that is natural.
Other philosophers might reject the distinction in one way or another, believing that it is natural for humans to follow the law, even if the law itself is a convention, or that it is natural for human conventions to follow natural principles of justice, even if they do so imperfectly. I’ve read that Aristotle distinguishes between different senses of physis as well—better and worse natures, nature as actual versus aspirational, and so on. Alamariu doesn’t really make room for these sorts of details or distinctions; overall, his writing often seems to parrot back Straussian perspectives on these concepts to his Straussian professors, which is hardly a good fit for the sort of public-facing, generally accessible book Selective Breeding aspires to be.
One of the most controversial claims attributed to Strauss is that Plato's Republic—a classic of political philosophy concerning justice and how it applies to the city, the state, and man—is written in secret, esoteric agreement with one of its apparent antagonists, Thrasymachus. Thrasymachus takes the nomos-based, “conventionalist” view that justice is a matter of following the laws, and that the laws will be made to the advantage of the lawmakers, so that justice tends toward the advantage of those who have the power to make the laws. In The Republic, Socrates objects that lawmakers sometimes err in making the laws, so that the laws are to their disadvantage; in his lectures, Strauss notes that Thrasymachus could easily have modified his answer to hold that justice is what the stronger believe to be to their advantage. In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Rachel Barney notes that “no one ever finds Socrates’ arguments against Thrasymachus very satisfying or convincing,” and this is one of the sources of the (alleged) Straussian view that Plato is really on Thrasymachus’s side. Alamariu, again rather uncreatively, just takes this approach one step further: if Plato is really on the side of The Republic’s antagonist, Thrasymachus, perhaps he is also really on the side of the Gorgias’s antagonist, Callicles.
In the Gorgias, Callicles—a character who, unlike Thrasymachus, has no clear historical analogue, and thus may have been an invention of Plato—challenges Socrates’s moral vision of justice, just as Thrasymachus did. However, it is wrong to therefore infer that Callicles and Thrasymachus have similar philosophies. While Thrasymachus claimed that the strong make the laws to their advantage, Callicles claimed that, in a democracy, the weak make the laws to their advantage, to prevent the truly strong from taking what is or could be theirs. So, Callicles adopts a physis-based view of “natural justice” as the strong refusing to comply with laws that are not to their advantage, and instead taking what they want. In some sense, Thrasymachus and Callicles agree that justice is the advantage of the stronger, but Thrasymachus says that this is by convention or nomos, whereas Callicles says that this is by physis or nature and contrary to convention and the law.
The philosopher with whom Alamariu is most closely associated is Friedrich Nietzsche, and he is sometimes called a “Nietzschean vitalist.” I take it that “vitalism” here refers in some very broad sense to a love of life and an eagerness to embrace risks and large projects. I don’t know much about Nietzsche, but his notion of an Übermensch, a superior man whose efforts give meaning to life on earth without a need for transcendent religion, certainly echoes Callicles’s preference for strength, and his genealogies of moral attitudes, which undermine them by unmasking their amoral roots, echo the cynicism of both Thrasymachus and Callicles about conventional justice.
Selective Breeding’s odd structure and presumptions about the reader’s familiarity with other texts give the appearance of wide-ranging knowledge. But Alamariu makes odd mistakes when it comes to discussing more ordinary topics. For example, he claims that when breeding and matchmaking were taken seriously as political matters, “a point of view like that implied in John Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance, or any idea of ‘accident of birth,’ would have seemed absurd for the simple reason that neither marriages nor births are random or incidental.” But the Veil of Ignorance doesn’t require any assumptions about marriage and birth, and the notion of “accident of birth” is not talking about birth being accidental in the causal sense but in the moral sense: that people don’t earn certain advantages, and that this might matter for resolving questions about who deserves what. Some asides against utilitarians also appear; perhaps Alamariu is not aware that utilitarians have faced criticism for making precisely the distinction between better and worse lives, and lives worth and not worth living, that he endorses. In general, Alamariu’s skeptical attitude toward morality sometimes seems to be due less to conviction and more to incomprehension.
The first chapter of Selective Breeding, on “prephilosophical political life,” is the most interesting, but also the hardest to evaluate; it’s not always clear what Alamariu’s sources are or where they stand with respect to scholarly consensus on the historical period in question. Tellingly, this chapter’s first section, “General Features of the Prephilosophical Political Mind,” begins with a reading of Strauss, Hume, and Nietzsche. In this section, Alamariu introduces the ancient nomos/physis distinction, but he doesn’t include an explanation of how that distinction is commonly understood, or the ancient debates surrounding it, and so it’s hard to know what to make of his references to it.
A lot is done through association and insinuation; Alamariu introduces a distinction between “breeding” and “taming” approaches to the world, for instance, but doesn’t say how it relates to nomos and physis. As applied to human relations, at least, this distinction doesn’t seem to hold up; Alamariu himself suggests that even in a regime where “breeding” is important, people need to be “tamed” (trained, incentivized, whatever) in order to “breed” in the way desired by the state. Often, just a few examples are marshaled to justify an enormous claim, like the claim that aristocracy always emerges from a foreign, pastoral population conquering and then living with a native, settled population. When so many pairs are radically opposed, but distinct things like philosophy and tyranny equated, we might hope for some explicit argument. The love of opposition is reminiscent of Alamariu’s love of Nietzsche, with his distinction between the Apollonian and the Dionysian.
While every tribe has its laws and conventions (its nomos), for Alamariu it is only when one tribe conquers another that “a principle of nature, physis, emerges from the exigencies of the way of life of the conquering elite. ... The principle of nature acknowledges for the first time a reality that exists outside human law, tradition, and convention ... and which is somehow associated with biological observations regarding breeding or blood.” This contention is pretty odd—the notion that before being conquered, a native tribe would have no idea that there were exigencies that were not merely conventional. Plus, it’s not clear what it means for a principle to acknowledge something. A person might acknowledge something by stating or coming to believe a principle, but a principle itself is just a sort of abstract linguistic or conceptual entity. Later on, Alamariu writes that “nature, phusis, phue, refers first of all, and always, and above all, to a concrete material reality, to a biological reality that means very plainly: ‘the body.’” But bodies are something all humans will always know about. So it’s not at all clear what acquaintance with this “principle” is meant to amount to.
Alamariu uses the Pindar exegesis to substantiate a bunch of claims about physis, toward his claim that knowledge of some principle of nature somehow related to breeding is foundational to philosophy. But the thread of argument here is a weak cobweb. From the contexts in which Pindar uses the word, Alamariu concludes that it has “botanical associations” and a “fundamentally aristocratic meaning.” So for him “nature” is something like “full bloom,” or maybe “genuine life” in a sense that opposes it to the “mere life” Alamariu despises. But he never explains how nature in this reinterpreted sense could be the foundation of philosophical thought. In fact, he never explains how nature in any sense is the foundation of philosophical thought. I had to infer that he is simply citing Strauss as an authority for this, without even explaining Strauss’s meaning or reasoning. I think Alamariu simply took for granted that this claim was correct and comprehensible because it came from Strauss, in whose tradition he was working—a remarkably uncritical approach.
Among other problems, Strauss specifically says that nature is the foundation of philosophy only in the sense of nature as “form” or “idea.” This is a pretty simple notion: philosophy starts by asking “what is” questions about things instead of simply accepting our customs or conventions. In other words, philosophy inquires about the natures of things. Alamariu’s view is little more than a bad pun about this contention: philosophy is founded in “nature” in one sense, but Pindar uses it in another sense, and Alamariu acts as though those senses are the same. It’s like saying that philosophy has something to do with fish, because people study philosophy in school and there are schools of fish. So there is absolutely no reason to think that philosophy is founded, either intellectually or politically, in beliefs about superior or inferior natures or in the differing natures of different groups of people. Not to get into a disciplinary catfight, but the tools of Anglophone analytic philosophy could have been helpful here: defining key terms, laying out arguments, and in general prizing clarity over show.
After the Pindar chapter come chapters on Plato and Nietzsche. The Plato chapter might be the most academically surprising. Alamariu argues that Plato takes Callicles’s side in the Gorgias, the side of strength over morality, so to speak, and of the idea that it is better to hurt others than to be hurt oneself. Alamariu writes that “the distinction between nature and convention is inextricably tied to the distinction between superior and inferior human natures.” But why would this be the case? This “tie” is just another free association, yet another kind of pun on the word “nature.” There is a recurring interest in whether Socrates “distances himself” from one idea or person or has a “close relationship” with another. This is a vision in which philosophy is less about reason and argument and more about some sort of alliance or pure psychological vibes.
Why is Alamariu convinced Plato was “esoterically” writing in favor of this view? He calls certain arguments Socrates makes “bizarre” and says that it’s “difficult to see how any reader can take Socrates seriously” by a certain point in the Gorgias. He complains that Socrates “has covertly moved the conversation away from Callicles’ main focus,” which is a pretty silly complaint: there’s no discursive obligation to focus on what your opponent focuses on; objections might come from anywhere. When Alamariu’s points are clear they’re pretty underwhelming. He says that Socrates illicitly shifts from Callicles’s language when talking about the idea that the superior should be able to take things from the inferior. Callicles used a word for “superior” with more “moral (or more plainly speaking, behavioral) connotations.” But Alamariu doesn’t say just why or how this helps Callicles in the dispute. After all, Socrates is explicitly posing to Callicles the question of just who the superior are. That is the query Callicles utterly fails to answer. Alamariu does not offer an answer of his own, which one might think would be a precondition for taking sides against Socrates here.
Alamariu performs his own sleight of hand by suggesting that Socrates thinks licentiousness is good because Socrates thinks it is good for someone with a healthy soul to do what they desire. But of course it can easily be that Socrates thinks that with a healthy soul we desire the good and the good only. Indeed, Socrates opines against akrasia or moral incontinence, meaning that for Socrates, everyone always does what they think is best. Alamariu thinks it might be the case that Callicles simply has a healthy soul, and that he and Socrates are talking about the same things. But this gets things the wrong way around. One way of thinking about this is that Socrates is trying to figure out what a healthy soul would, in fact, desire. We cannot, without begging the question, simply assume one has a healthy soul and then allow them to be licentious. Rather, we must use philosophy to figure out what the desires of a healthy soul would be—what the “good” is. Alamariu seems to assume that a person with the right kind of soul might desire just about anything, but that’s exactly what Socrates is contesting.
Alamariu argues that Socrates “radicalizes” Callicles’s notion of superior and inferior because Socrates says that, by trying to win power by pandering to the masses, one submits to the masses and their conventions. But this imposes a very odd lens on the dialogue. Callicles is saying that it’s good to have power and get what you want, and Socrates is explaining why this isn’t necessarily the case. Alamariu writes that Socrates and Callicles “seem to agree on the fact that the [superior man] and his salvation and preservation is what matters; that without this, there is neither philosophy, nor tyranny, nor the ‘original’ and raw, wild biological matter from which each uniquely grows.” None of this is even remotely suggested by anything Socrates actually says. No line in the Gorgias comes close to expressing these sorts of notions.
According to Alamariu, Socrates’s view on rhetoric is “limited, contradictory, and all but a ruse.” Socrates’s position in the Gorgias contradicts his position in another dialogue, the Phaedrus, and he even compares rhetoric to medicine in opposite ways in the two dialogues. But this could just be due to the two conversations proceeding in different ways because Socrates has received different answers from his interlocutors, or from an ambivalence about whether there are truer and falser forms of rhetoric. As Charles L. Griswold puts it in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, we might think of the apparent conflict between rhetoric and philosophy as being equivalently a conflict between unphilosophical and philosophical rhetoric. Alamariu allows that Socrates makes this distinction, but says that “Socrates at no point defines two types of rhetoric.” But this is more likely an oversight or an error in reasoning than some hidden message. Further, if Plato does in fact contradict himself, or have Socrates contradict himself, it’s not clear why this supports Alamariu’s thesis. If Plato is doing everything he does in the Gorgias to pretend that philosophy is opposed to tyranny and rhetoric, when actually they’re allied, why do the opposite in the Phaedrus?
Alamariu doesn’t spend much time with the rest of the Platonic corpus. It would be interesting to know what he thinks of the status of various interlocutors. Is every Socratic dialogue esoteric? Alamariu would have done well to examine the Cratylus, which is a dialogue about what’s conventional and what’s natural in a different context. There too, Socrates seems to take the view that apparent human conventions do in fact follow nature. Alamariu also says little about the Crito, in which Socrates accedes to the decree of the court that has sentenced him to drink hemlock. Alamariu gives something of an interpretation of the Hippias Major, the authorship of which is contested, but then says that if the dialogue is fake, it’s even better for his argument, because that shows what other people expected that Plato might have thought. This just makes me wonder why he is doing so much work to creatively and tendentiously interpret while doing so little to clearly state his own views about politics and philosophy and offer clear evidence for them.
The Bronze Age Pervert’s opinions on Socrates, Plato, Strauss, and Rawls are probably not what attract his fans to his writing, though. And they weren’t the sole impression I got from it, either. Alamariu writes with undeniable energy, and like his idol Nietzsche, he manages to generate ideas and impressions in the reader without necessarily being especially careful in his scholarship or logical in his argumentation. Most essays on Alamariu, especially qua “Bronze Age Pervert,” have focused on worries about his political radicalism, speculation about just who he appeals to, and so on. Five years ago, I wrote a double review of a book by Jordan Peterson and a book by the guys from the Chapo Trap House podcast, and it seemed to me that both books were meant to appeal to disaffected, disorganized young men who needed something to believe in. The same goes for Alamariu’s work, I think; this is a demographic that remains up for grabs. It seems to me that in some sense, all Alamariu thinks is that they should believe in themselves, their own natures, lest they become the dreaded bugmen. This doesn’t seem so scary to me. Then again, “Selective Breeding” is not exactly a phrase redolent of political correctness, and there’s every possibility that his appeal contains something darker, too.
For all that it got wrong, Selective Breeding did leave me wondering whether I should be leading a fuller, more vital life, whether I should stop eating so much ice cream and watching so much Netflix. Various obstacles I’ve faced have come from feeling too constricted by the conventions of my times and insufficiently focused on my own strength and desires. It is rare for a document like a doctoral dissertation to transmit even an inchoate conviction of that sort. I can’t speculate on Alamariu’s motives for writing his dissertation as he did, or for publishing it now, but if his goal was to get across this feeling of the urgency of actually trying and testing one’s life, of not being satisfied with mere existence, then he achieved it. On the other hand, if his goal was to convince the reader of his explicit claims about philosophy and political theory, then Selective Breeding should have gone the way of most doctoral dissertations. It should have been forgotten, cast aside as malformed and weak, to leave attention and resources for stronger, better works.
Tuesday, November 28, 2023
German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s dilemma of the prickly porcupine is his wistful parable on the fraughtness of human connection: in seeking intimacy, we inevitably push each other away.
In his 1851 collection of short philosophical essays, Parerga and Paralipomena, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer reflects on a whole range of subjects, one of which is the oft-fraught nature of human connection.
To illuminate his thoughts, Schopenhauer offers a parable involving a group of prickly porcupines. He writes:One cold winter’s day, a number of porcupines huddled together quite closely in order through their mutual warmth to prevent themselves from being frozen. But they soon felt the effect of their quills on one another, which made them again move apart.The porcupines seek each other out for warmth, Schopenhauer tells us; but in becoming close, they scratch and prickle one another with their sharp spines, and draw apart in annoyance and pain.
What, then, can the porcupines do?
Schopenhauer continues:Now when the need for warmth once more brought them together, the drawback of the quills was repeated so that they were tossed between two evils, until they had discovered the proper distance from which they could best tolerate one another.The porcupines settle on a compromise: close enough for warmth, with enough distance for minimal scratching.
Schopenhauer then rather unceremoniously applies this parable to human society:Thus the need for society which springs from the emptiness and monotony of people’s lives, drives them together; but their many unpleasant and repulsive qualities and insufferable drawbacks once more drive them apart.Just quickly, can we appreciate Schopenhauer’s use of “many unpleasant and repulsive qualities” and “insufferable drawbacks(!)” here… one gets the sense that he was a very prickly porcupine indeed.
But back to the point he is making: while we might seek human connection, trying to be intimate or vulnerable with others often leads to frustration and disappointment.
We scratch and annoy each other with our varying needs and opinions, before — like the porcupines — settling on a compromise, Schopenhauer writes:The mean distance which [people] finally discover, and which enables them to endure being together, is politeness and good manners. Whoever does not keep to this, is told in England to ‘keep his distance.’ By virtue thereof, it is true that the need for mutual warmth will be only imperfectly satisfied, but on the other hand, the prick of the quills will not be felt.Manners and etiquette emerge to smooth the roughness of our individual wants and demands; such polite society, however, simultaneously blocks any true intimacy or connection from occurring.
Thus the dilemma: we seek out genuine connection, but can often only tolerate a sort of mitigated closeness. We both need and put up with one another.
What, then, can we do? How can we overcome the porcupine’s dilemma?
If here we think Schopenhauer will provide us with some interesting strategies for how we might overcome the needles of closeness and go on to forge true intimacy, then unfortunately we will be left bitterly disappointed.
For instead, Schopenhauer — great pessimist that he is — actually goes in the other direction. Rather than put up with people’s infuriating ways, he thinks we should cut our losses and withdraw altogether into solitude, and focus on generating some warmth for ourselves. He writes:Yet whoever has a great deal of internal warmth of his own will prefer to keep away from society in order to avoid giving or receiving trouble or annoyance.Indeed, who needs the company of others when one can enjoy one’s own company? Everything we are seeking connection-wise can be provided by a kind of refined solitude, Schopenhauer thinks.
For, he goes on to write, solitude can be made ever more blissful the more we develop our intellects and deepen our appreciation of art.
We can spend our time reading, listening to music — appreciating the best cultural achievements of humanity — without ever having to actually contend with or be annoyed by any other humans themselves.
In another essay on self-sufficiency, Schopenhauer doubles down on this position, writing:As a general rule, it may be said that a man’s sociability stands very nearly in inverse ratio to his intellectual value: to say that ‘so and so’ is very unsociable, is almost tantamount to saying that he is a man of great capacity. Solitude is doubly advantageous to such a man. Firstly, it allows him to be with himself, and, secondly, it prevents him being with others — an advantage of great moment; for how much constraint, annoyance, and even danger there is in all intercourse with the world.Of course, it is rather convenient that Schopenhauer attacks sociability and praises the intellect of those who embrace solitude — for he himself lived a life primarily of isolation (the philosopher never married, had a famously hostile relationship with his mother, and was notoriously bad tempered).
But however we may feel about Schopenhauer’s own prickliness, his parable lit the imagination of Sigmund Freud, who popularized it as the ‘porcupine dilemma’ (or ‘hedgehog dilemma’, as it’s now sometimes known).
Freud thought it encapsulated an important insight into human psychology: in seeking intimacy, we often push others away.
Remove the guardrails of etiquette and polite society, and we often just end up annoying each other.
What do you make of Schopenhauer’s parable?
Do you think the imagery of porcupines seeking to warm themselves aptly reflects the nature of human connection?
Do you agree with Schopenhauer’s recommendation — i.e. that to avoid being annoyed by others, we should renounce sociability and find ways to enjoy our own company?
Or do you think that occasional conflict is a necessary (perhaps indispensable) part of forming genuine connections, and that we can learn to live with (even love) each other’s prickliness?
Sunday, November 26, 2023
"Today, all time-consuming practices, such as trust, loyalty, commitment and responsibility, are disappearing. […] I think trust is a social practice, and today it is being replaced by transparency and information. Trust enables us to build positive relationships with others, despite lacking knowledge. In a transparency society, one immediately asks for information from others. Trust as a social practice becomes superfluous. The transparency and information society fosters a society of distrust."
The philosopher on how we might respond to a world of digital alienation
Byung-Chul Han is a philosopher with a broad following in the artworld, where his writings, originally in German, on such perennial modern conditions as alienation, loneliness, the fragmentation and disintegration of reality, and the role of technology in fostering so many ills have found traction as well scepticism. The South Korean-born, Berlin-based thinker’s latest book, Undinge (Nonobjects), was published earlier this year.
ArtReview [AR} Undinge revolves around our loss of connection to things in favour of digital information. What do objects have that new technologies don’t?
Byung-Chul Han [BCH} Undinge proposes that the age of objects is over. The terrane order, the order of the Earth, consists of objects that take on a permanent form and provide a stable environment for human habitation. Today the terrane order has been replaced by the digital order. The digital order makes the world less tangible by informatising it. Nonobjects are currently entering our environment from all sides and displacing objects.
I call nonobjects information. Today we are in the transition from the age of objects to the age of nonobjects. Information, not objects, now defines our environment. We no longer occupy earth and sky but Google Earth and the Cloud. The world is becoming progressively less tangible, cloudier and ghostlier. Nothing is substantial. It makes me think of the novel The Memory Police , by the Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa. The novel tells of a nameless island where objects – hair ties, hats, stamps, even roses and birds – disappear irretrievably. Together with the objects, memories also disappear. People live in an eternal winter of forgetting and loss. Everything is seized by a progressive disintegration. Even body parts disappear. In the end it’s just disembodied voices, floating around in the air.
In some respects, this island of lost memories resembles our present. Information dissolves reality, which is just as ghostly as those disembodied voices. Digitalisation dematerialises, disembodies and eventually strips away the substantiality of our world. It also eliminates memories. Rather than keeping track of memories, we amass data and information. We have all become infomaniacs. This infomania makes objects disappear. What happens to objects when they are permeated by information? The informatisation of our world turns objects into ‘infomat’, namely information-processing actors. The smartphone is not an object but an infomat, or even an informant, monitoring and influencing us.
Objects don’t spy on us. That’s why we trust them, in a way that we don’t trust the smartphone. Every apparatus, any domination technique, spawns its own devotional objects, which are used to promote submission. They stabilise dominion. The smartphone is the devotional object of the digital-information regime. As a tool of repression it acts like a rosary, which in its handiness the mobile device represents. To ‘like’ is to pray digitally. We continue to go to confession. We expose ourselves voluntarily, yet we’re no longer asking for forgiveness, but rather for attention.
AR Undinge emphasises the ideas, found in many of your books, that in the place of building relationships with others – or the other – humans are increasingly mirroring themselves. Nevertheless people do live in relationships and even today remain attached to objects that they don’t want to throw away. What’s the difference between then and now, then being the time before globalisation and digitalisation?
BCH I don’t know if people who spend all their time looking at smartphones still have or need objects that are close to their heart. Objects are receding into the background of our attention. The current hyperinflation of objects, which has led to their explosive proliferation, only highlights our increasing indifference towards them. They are almost stillborn.
Our obsession is no longer for objects, but for information and data. Today we produce and consume more information than objects. We actually get high on communication. Libidinal energies have been redirected from objects to nonobjects. The consequence is infomania. We are all infomaniacs now. Object fetishism is probably over. We are becoming information- and data-fetishists. Now there is even talk of datasexuals. Tapping and swiping a smartphone is almost a liturgical gesture, and it has a massive effect on our relationship to the world. Information that doesn’t interest us gets swiped away. Content we like, on the other hand, gets zoomed in, using the pincer movement of our fingers. We literally have a grip on the world. It’s entirely up to us.
That’s how the smartphone amplifies our ego. We subjugate the world to our needs with a few swipes. The world appears to us in the digital light of complete availability. Unavailability is precisely what makes the other other, and so it disappears. Robbed of its otherness, it is now merely consumable. Tinder turns the other into a sexual object. Using the smartphone, we withdraw into a narcissistic sphere, one free of the unknowns of the other. It makes the other obtainable by objectifying it. It turns a you into an it. This disappearance of the other is precisely why the smartphone makes us lonely.
AR You write, ‘Objects are resting places for life’, meaning that they are charged with significance. You cite your jukebox as an example, which holds an almost magical power for you. What do you reply when someone accuses you of nostalgia?
BCH Under no circumstances do I want to praise old, beautiful objects. That would be very unphilosophical. I refer to objects as resting places for life because they stabilise human life. The same chair and the same table, in their sameness, lend the fickle human life some stability and continuity. We can linger with objects. With information, however, we cannot.
If we want to understand what kind of society we live in, we have to comprehend what information is. Information has very little currency. It lacks temporal stability, since it lives off the excitement of surprise. Due to its temporal instability, it fragments perception. It throws us into a continuous frenzy of topicality. Hence it’s impossible to linger on information. That’s how it differs from objects. Information puts the cognitive system itself into a state of anxiety. We encounter information with the suspicion that it could just as easily be something else. It is accompanied by basic distrust. It strengthens the contingency experience.
Fake news embodies a heightened form of the contingency that is inherent in information. And information, due to its ephemerality, makes time-consuming cognitive practices such as experience, memory or perception disappear. So my analyses have nothing to do with nostalgia.
AR In your work you repeatedly circle around digitalisation for how it makes the other disappear and lets narcissism blossom, as well as facilitating voluntary self-exploitation in the age of neoliberalism.How did you initially conceive of these subjects? Is there a personal angle to it?
BCH At the core of my books The Burnout Society  and Psychopolitics  lies the understanding that Foucault’s analysis of the disciplinary society can no longer explain our present. I distinguish between the disciplinary regime and the neoliberal regime. The disciplinary regime works with commands and restraints. It is oppressive. It suppresses freedom. The neoliberal regime on the other hand is not oppressive, but seductive and permissive. It exploits freedom instead of suppressing it. We voluntarily and passionately exploit ourselves believing that we fulfil ourselves.
So we don’t live in a disciplinary society but in a meritocracy. Foucault did not see that. The subjects of neoliberal meritocracy, believing themselves to be free, are in reality servants. They are absolute servants, exploiting themselves without a master. Self-exploitation is more efficient than exploitation by others, because it goes hand in hand with a feeling of freedom. Kafka expressed this paradoxical freedom of the servant very fittingly in an aphorism: ‘The animal wrests the whip from its master and whips itself in order to become master’.
This constant self-flagellation is tiring and depressing. The work itself, no matter how hard it may be, does not lead to profound tiredness. Even though we can be tired after work, it is not the same as a destructive tiredness. Work at some point comes to an end. The pressure to perform that we apply to ourselves, on the other hand, outlasts the working hours. It torments us in our sleep and frequently leads to sleepless nights. It is possible to recover from work. But it is impossible to recover from the pressure to perform.
It is especially this internal pressure, this pressure to perform and optimise, that makes us tired and depressed. So it is not oppression but depression that is the pathological sign of our times. Only an oppressive regime provokes resistance. The neoliberal regime, which does not suppress but exploits freedom, does not encounter resistance. Authority is complete when it masquerades as freedom. These are insights that lie at the heart of my sociocritical essays. They can be summarised as: the other disappears.
AR You don’t shy away from terms like magic and mystery. Would you classify yourself as a romantic?
BCH To me, everything that is is magical and mysterious. Our retina is completely covered by the cornea, even overgrown, so that we no longer perceive it. I would say that I am not a romantic, but a realist who perceives the world the way it is. It simply consists of magic and mystery.
Over three years I established a winter-flowering garden. I also wrote a book about it with the title Praise to the Earth . My understanding from being a gardener is: Earth is magic. Whoever claims otherwise is blind. Earth is not a resource, not a mere means to achieve human ends. Our relationship to nature today is not determined by astonished observation, but solely by instrumental action. The Anthropocene is precisely the result of total subjugation of Earth/nature to the laws of human action. It is reduced to a component of human action. Man acts beyond the interpersonal sphere into nature by subjecting it entirely to his will. He thereby unleashes processes that would not come about without his intervention, and lead to a total loss of control.
It is not enough that we now have to be more careful with Earth as a resource. Rather, we need a completely different relationship with Earth. We should give it back its magic, its dignity. We should learn to marvel at it again. Natural disasters are the consequences of absolute human action. Action is the verb for history. Walter Benjamin’s angel of history is confronted with the catastrophic consequences of human action. In front of him, the heap of debris of history grows towards the sky. But he cannot remove it, because the storm from the future called progress carries him away. His wide eyes and open mouth reflect his powerlessness. Only an angel of inaction would be able to defend himself against the storm.
We should rediscover the capacity for inaction, the capacity that does not act. So my new book, which I am working on at the moment, has the title Vita contemplativa or of inactivity. It is a counterpart or antidote to Hannah Arendt’s book Vita activa or of the active life (Vita activa oder vom tätigen Leben, 1958), which glorifies human action.
AR In Undinge you write, ‘We save masses of data, yet never return to the memories. We accumulate friends and followers, without encountering an other.’ Similar incantations were heard at the time of the invention of the letterpress and later newspaper and television… Could it be that you are catastrophising the situation?
BCH My aim is not to catastrophise the world, but to illuminate it. My task as a philosopher is to explain what kind of society we live in. When I say that the neoliberal regime exploits freedom instead of suppressing it, or that the smartphone is the devotional object of the digital-information regime, it has nothing to do with doom-mongering. Philosophy is truth-speaking.
In recent years I have worked on a phenomenology of information in order to make today’s world comprehensible. In Undinge I have made the proposition that nowadays we perceive reality primarily in terms of information. As a consequence, there is rarely a tangible contact with reality. Reality is robbed of its presence. We no longer perceive its physical vibrations. The layer of information, which covers objects like a membrane, shields the perception of intensities. Perception, reduced to information, numbs us to moods and atmospheres. Rooms lose their poetics. They give way to roomless networks along which information spreads. Digital time, with its focus on the present, on the moment, disperses the fragrance of time. Time is atomised into a sequence of isolated presents. Atoms are not fragrant.
Only a narrative practice of time brings forth fragrant molecules of time. The informatisation of reality thus leads to a loss of space and time. This has nothing to do with doom-mongering. This is phenomenology.
AR You are currently in Rome, the epitome of a place of patina and history, where life happens on the streets, food with friends and family is important, and the Vatican is omnipresent. Do you not have the feeling that your grievances about the isolation of man and digital substitute-satisfactions only concern certain groups or situations?
BCH What is the point when people meet and mostly just look at their smartphones? Despite interconnectedness and total communication, people today feel lonelier than ever. We turn you into an available, consumable it. The world is running short of you. This makes us lonely.
In that respect there is no difference between Rome, New York or Seoul. Rome impressed me in a different sense. For happiness we need a towering, superior other. Digitalisation gets rid of any counterpart, any resistance, any other. It smoothes everything over. The smartphone is smart because it makes everything available and removes all resistance. Rome is especially abundant in towering others.
Today I again cycled around the whole of the city and visited countless churches. I discovered a beautiful church that bestowed a now very rare experience of presence on me. The church is rather small. Once you enter, you find yourself immediately under a dome. The dome is decorated in patterns formed by octagons. These decrease in size towards the centre of the dome, so that the dome creates a strong optical upwards pull. Light bursts in through windows arranged around the peak of the dome, where the depiction of a golden dove floats. The whole forms a sublime other with a vertical pull that effectively made me float in space. I was lifted up. That’s when I understood what the holy spirit is. It is nothing other than the other. It was an exhilarating experience, the experience of presence, right inside a holy object.
Dome of San Bernardo alle Terme
Dome of San Bernardo alle Terme, Rome. Photo: Architas / Wikimedia Commons
AR In your opinion, what has to happen for the world to once again concern itself with real objects, charged with life – and most of all with other people? How can we learn to deal with the dilemmas of our time?
BCH Every book of mine ends in a utopian counternarrative. In The Burnout Society I countered I-fatigue, which leads to depression, with Us-fatigue, which brings about community. In The Expulsion of the Other  I contrasted increasing narcissism with the art of listening. Psychopolitics proposes idiotism as a utopian figure against complete interconnectedness and complete surveillance. An idiot is someone who is not networked. In The Agony of Eros  I propose that only Eros is capable of defeating depression. The Scent of Time  articulates an art of lingering. My books analyse the malaises of our society and propose concepts to overcome them. Yes, we must work on new ways of life and new narratives.
AR Another book of yours is called The Disappearance of Rituals . How do rituals, people and objects help to root us in our lives? Can we not manage by ourselves?
BCH Rituals are architectures of time, structuring and stabilising life, and they are on the wane. The pandemic has accelerated the disappearance of rituals. Work also has ritual aspects. We go to work at set times. Work takes place in a community. In the home office, the ritual of work is completely lost. The day loses its rhythm and structure. This somehow makes us tired and depressed.
In The Little Prince , by [Antoine de] Saint-Exupéry, the little prince asks the fox to always visit at the exact same time, so that the visit becomes a ritual. The little prince explains to the fox what a ritual is. Rituals are to time as rooms are to an apartment. They make time accessible like a house. They organise time, arrange it. In this way you make time appear meaningful.
Time today lacks a solid structure. It is not a house, but a capricious river. The disappearance of rituals does not simply mean that we have more freedom. The total flexibilisation of life brings loss, too. Rituals may restrict freedom, but they structure and stabilise life. They anchor values and symbolic systems in the body, reinforcing community. In rituals we experience community, communal closeness, physically.
Digitalisation strips away the physicality of the world. Then comes the pandemic. It aggravates the loss of the physical experience of community. You’re asking: can’t we do this by ourselves? Today we reject all rituals as something external, formal and therefore inauthentic. Neoliberalism produces a culture of authenticity, which places the ego at its centre. The culture of authenticity develops a suspicion of ritualised forms of interaction. Only spontaneous emotions, subjective states, are authentic. Modelled behaviour, for example courtesy, is written off as inauthentic or superficial. The narcissistic cult of authenticity is partly responsible for the increasing brutality of society.
In my book I argue the case against the cult of authenticity, for an ethic of beautiful forms. Gestures of courtesy are not just superficial. The French philosopher Alain says that gestures of courtesy hold a great power on our thoughts. That if you mime kindness, goodwill and joy, and go through motions such as bowing, they help against foul moods as well as stomach ache. Often the external has a stronger hold than the internal.
Blaise Pascal once said that instead of despairing over a loss of faith, one should simply go to mass and join in rituals such as prayer and song, in other words mime, since it is precisely this that will bring back faith. The external transforms the internal, brings about new conditions. Therein lies the power of rituals. And our consciousness today is no longer rooted in objects. These external things can be very effective in stabilising consciousness. It is very difficult with information, since it is really volatile and holds a very narrow range of relevance.
AR You enjoy the German language in an almost dissective way and celebrate a paratactical writing style, which gives you a unique voice in contemporary cultural critique. It is like a mixture of Martin Heidegger and Zen. What is your connection to them?
BCH A journalist from the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit once said that I can bring down thought constructs that hold up our everyday life in just a few sentences. Why do you write a 1,000-page book if you can enlighten the world in a few words? A 1,000-page book, which has to explain what the world is about, perhaps cannot express as much as a single haiku can: ‘The first snow – even the daffodil leaves bend’ or ‘Temple bells die out. The fragrant blossoms remain. A perfect evening!’ (Basho)
In my writings I do indeed make use of this haiku effect. I say: It-is-so. This creates an evidence effect, which then makes sense to everyone. A journalist once wrote that my books are getting progressively thinner, that they will at some point completely disappear. I would add that my thoughts will then permeate the air. Everyone can breathe them in.
AR At the end of Undinge, where you quote The Little Prince, you refer to values like trust, commitment and responsibility as being at risk. But aren’t these core human values that outlast any era – even during dictatorships and wars?
BCH Today, all time-consuming practices, such as trust, loyalty, commitment and responsibility, are disappearing. Everything is shortlived. We tell ourselves that we will have more freedom. But this short-term nature destabilises our life. We can bond with objects, but not with information. We only briefly make note of information. Afterwards it’s like a listened-to message on the answering machine. It’s headed towards oblivion.
I think trust is a social practice, and today it is being replaced by transparency and information. Trust enables us to build positive relationships with others, despite lacking knowledge. In a transparency society, one immediately asks for information from others. Trust as a social practice becomes superfluous. The transparency and information society fosters a society of distrust.
AR Your books are more widely read in the arts than in philosophy. How do you explain that?
BCH Effectively more artists than philosophers read my books. Philosophers are no longer interested in the present. Foucault once said that the philosopher is a journalist who captures the now with ideas. That’s what I do. Moreover my essays are on their way to another life, to a different narrative. Artists feel addressed by that. I would entrust art with the task of developing a new way of life, a new awareness, a new narrative against the prevailing doctrine. As such, the saviour is not philosophy but art. Or I practise philosophy as art.
The Hobbesian point, which is a very hard point, hard for many people to accept, is that a tyranny can be less harmful in human terms than Anarchy. And that's a kind of Point which in the 20th century was hard to understand, because the greatest Crimes of the 20th century the Holocaust. the Soviet gulags, Poi Pot, and China's repressions were all done by States, by very strong States, so liberals thought that the State is the enemy, we've got to not do that, we can do without it and said we've got to limit it, we've got to have, count, rights, we've got to have huge systems of law to to confine it as narrowly as possible to its'...[essence]. It can do things like welfare but it's all got to be confined with them, a strict straight jacket of law to avoid these terrible crimes of States. And I think that was reasonable in the 20th century, but we're now almost a quarter of the way through the 21st century. And in the 21st century we have the evidence of Iraq, what happened in Iraq, and then later on after everyone said after Iraq, immediately after Iraq, you never do this again, they went and did it in Libya. That wasn't mainly the Americans they went along with it, but it was mainly Cameron David Cameron in this country, and the French, who wanted to do this. And it was almost obvious that the same result would happen there. In fact it's been almost worse because the state of Anarchy into which Libya was plunged after the toppling of um Gaddafi continued, and for a long while there was no government. Now there are two, at least two, and people smuggling, and organized human trafficking uses this vacuum of power as a base, and so by the way, when Western people hear British and other Western leaders say, "Well the solution is to lock up the people so its' going to be okay," but there's no State in Libya at least two governments. Who's going to do the locking up? How's it going to work? There's nothing there whereby you can do it. And the West in particular, the British and the French created this vacuum, so nothing was learned. The basic Hobbesian lesson was not learned. And I think that even now. So I say, I'm usually overly optimistic, contrary to what people say about me is. I thought the lesson, it hasn't been learned even now. To what extent can we view those choices as tragedy, as tragic decisions?
You know the tragic viewer accepts that they are irresolvable dilemas. Either you accept Saddam's continued tyranny, torture of the Kurds, Etc., or you depose him and you have the chaos and Anarchy of Isis, and the power vacuum.
Can anyone spell "Ukraine" or "Israel"? Hobbesian Trap?
The Hobbesian trap (or Schelling's dilemma) is a theory that explains why preemptive strikes occur between two groups, out of bilateral fear of an imminent attack. Without outside influences this situation will lead to a fear spiral (catch-22, vicious circle, Nash equilibrium) in which fear will lead to an arms race which in turn will lead to increasing fear. The Hobbesian trap can be explained in terms of game theory. Although cooperation would be the better outcome for both sides, mutual distrust leads to the adoption of strategies that have negative outcomes for both individual players and all players combined. The theory has been used to explain outbreaks of conflicts and violence, spanning from individuals to states.
The first example of a Hobbesian trap reasoning is Thucydides's analysis of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides presented that fear and distrust towards the other side led to an escalation of violence. The theory is most commonly associated with Thomas Hobbes. Thomas Schelling also saw fear as a motive for conflict. Applying game theory to the Cold War conflict and the US nuclear strategy, Schelling's view was that in situations where two parties are in conflict but share a common interest, the two sides will often reach a tacit agreement rather than resort to open conflict.
Steven Pinker is a proponent of the theory of the Hobbesian trap and has applied the theory to many conflicts and outbreaks of violence between people, groups, tribes, societies and states. Issues of gun control have been described as a Hobbesian trap. A common example is the dilemma that both the armed burglar and the armed homeowner face when they meet each other. Neither side may want to shoot, but both are afraid of the other party shooting first so they may be inclined to fire pre-emptively, although the favorable outcome for both parties would be that nobody be shot.
A similar example between two states is the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fear and mutual distrust between the actors increased the likelihood of a preemptive strike. Hobbesian traps in nuclear weapons' case can be defused if both sides can threaten second strike, which is the capacity to retaliate with nuclear force after the first attack. This is the basis of Mutual assured destruction.
The Dark Forest, a science fiction novel by Liu Cixin, incorporates a Hobbesian trap into its narrative. The dark forest hypothesis, both diegetically and non-diegetically to the novel, is a form of the Hobbesian trap that has been used to answer the Fermi Paradox by arguing that any two advanced space-faring civilizations will inevitably seek to destroy each other rather than risk being destroyed by the other, like two scared armed men prowling through a dark forest, ready to shoot at anything that so much as snaps a twig.
The Hobbesian trap can be avoided by influences that increase the trust between the two parties. In Hobbes' case, the hobbesian trap would be present in the state of nature where, in the absence of law and law enforcement, the credible threat of violence from others may justify pre-emptive attacks. For Hobbes, we avoid this problem by naming a ruler who pledges to punish violence with violence. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, Kennedy and Khrushchev realized that they were caught in a Hobbesian trap which helped them to make concessions that reduced distrust and fear.
Interview excerpts continued:
How do you define populism and where do you see it in British politics?Well I define them as being into hyper-liberalism or neoliberalism, which can have more or less extreme forms, as being interrelated, or complimentary, or some people used to say "dialectically [intertwined]". So what what liberals call popularism is the political backlash against the social disruption produced by their policies, which liberals don't understand or deny. That's what popularism is the I'm see it. Why did this
happen this populism, where did it come from? Where did it come from this devil? Was it just solely whipped up by a few demagogues? I mean there have been demagogues throughout the last 50, 30 40 50 years, forever! So why won't, why did they start attracting popular support? Why did the voter does and start supporting them?
The reason, I thin,k was that the type of liberalism that prevailed after the end of the Cold War was a kind of narrow, shallow type of Market liberalism which hadn't learned the lessons that liberals and social Democrats of earlier Generations learned after the second world war. After the second world war all of Western Europe including Britain adopted forms of social democracy and government intervention with the aim of preventing another Great Depression. The people who were around there then had either lived themselves directly through those, that depression. They knew that capitalism was a fragile system and prone to booms and busts. So they thought that a whole range of measures, welfare measures, Financial measures, fiscal, all kinds of policies needed to be implemented by governments to prevent that happening again. And so in Western Europe at least, you had 30 years of peace and stability. That lesson was forgotten at the end of the Cold War, or repressed at the end of the Cold War. The idea then was that, you could set up a system of rules. Central banks would be given Independence so they would apply these rules, and the system would be self-stabilizing. And if there were losers in this and it would become of course by then, from the globalization that was advancing. It was a much more open system than the the post second world war system would be, so there was a global competition forsome kinds of wage labor, and wages of particular parts, manual workers and others, and particular regions, suffered badly in this. And in America, a large parts of the middle class experienced no growth in incomes, or hardly any, or even Falls in incomes during 30 years in which the whole society got richer taken you made all, or some people were getting that, but not parts of the middle classes. And other parts of the population were completely abandoned because production was offshored. So if you're working in a a factory and and the facility, the production facilities of the factory were offshored into China or somewhere, or the Philippines, or somewhere then, of course the wages there would be much lower for a long time, and you would just become unemployed and you become more less permanently unemployed. So it was from THAT that what liberals called "populism" emerged.
Liberals think of populism as a sort of mixture of malevolence and stupidity. The malevolent are these Wicked Politicians. I don't deny that Trump is like this. For one, there are many examples in Europe where there are politicians hanging about in the background, always there, who will um exploit this. But what they're exploiting is something that they did not, themselves, create. That's why they didn't have any influence, or hardly any influence in the 1960s, say for example now in Germany. To take, I'll come back to Britain in a moment, an example, the AFD, which is a far right party has 20% of the vote. For many years the right-wing parties in far right parties in Germany were kept beneath the level, I think it was 4%, there was a level below which there were, couldn't go without trigging various responses. There were 2%, 3. Why did that happen? Was it that the demagogues got clever, more demagogic, more wicked, more evil? No, they remained exactly as they've been all along. It means that various problems, various "real life situations" to do with economic and other kinds of security, became more grave as a result of liberal overreach. As a result of that kind of the liberalism, of that. I mean in this country I did a broadcast on BBC Radio, and even before that I did an early podcast kind of thing in America saying that there would be a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union, and I believed then that it would the result would be "leave". And that was a very off the wall kind of view at that time. But the reason I believed that was that the policies that had been pursued up to that point had left large parts of the country, and large parts of the population, in stagnant or even declining, and or even despairing conditions. So I thought that that would be taken. I thought that the Brexit opportunity, which from Cameron's and the Conner point of view, and the point of view Rania should never have happened. I mean if that was a mistake on his part
would result in the result that it did do. But not because, and this is one feature of that debate that I very much disliked, not because masses of the population were stupid, or racist, or had been misled by Nigel Farage, no doubt all or the all because the Russian had intervened in some sinister way, and no doubt they did, but it wasn't for any of those reasons. It was because large sections of the population which, who, were not doing well, or even doing badly, were, believed correctly, that they weren't being listened to, that no one was listening, and that no one would listen unless there was a big upheaval. The upheaval in Britain was brexit, in America it was Trump. So I wasn't surprised by either of those debates, either of those results. In fact I expected both of them for a kind of simple intuition there were large enough sections of society that did not want, and even feared, and dreaded, a continuation of the status quo. So they were willing to take a gamble on brexit, on Trump, even if they didn't trust Trump, even if they disliked or even hated him. It was, and in Britain, even if they didn't know what brexit really meant, or it was a sufficiently radical upheaval, they felt, to let their voices be heard, and for something or other to happen. So I wasn't surprised in either case, So the kind of Revival of centrism, now kind of one of the more entertaining absurdities of back in the age of absurdity now. Which is that there are now podcasts, there are newspaper columns, with everything was sort of, was going swimmingly in the 1990s. Everything was going wonderful while I lived, to "it wasn't that wonderful." The Golden Age, golden wasn't The Golden Age. And from from that period, lots of other things emerged. um
The Blair government which, then the Brown governments, which did do some good things and did expand welfare spending, they also had an obsession with house prices. And for them, that was almost the cause of economy. And that led, I think directly, indirectly, to a situation now, in which a whole generation of young people can't find any way to live affordably. So the problems of that period were problems that we suffer now were rooted in that period. So the idea that you can unwind, if only we could have avoided. Avoided what? We avoided, we've had to avoid the financial crisis of 2008. Where did that come from? Was that from the Glorious 90s? I mean, who did that? Who actually was responsible for that? If we only avoided that. If we'd only avoided the pandemic. You might say nobody anticipated it. If we, what about the disastrous Wars that the West got involved in? If all of that had been avoided, we could actually have an indefinite continuation of the '90s.
Things have moved on since then. It's completely empty nostalgiaism revealing the complete paucity of political thinking, whether it be of right or the new center, or the left. I mean these sort of withered, shriveled castoffs from that period and now returning, zombie like, as it were to tell us that everything would be would be fine if we could only get back to the center ground. See, the key thing about the center ground is that the center that THEY represented, first of all, excluded huge parts of the population, parts of the north and coastal towns, and others.