All entries for Thursday 25 May 2006

May 25, 2006

Seminar with David Wood: Negotiating Alterity

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David Wood's talk today was fascinating. Here is my summary of it as I understood it, although anyone who was there is welcome to chip in if there is something that I misread in typing up my notes.

At the beginning of the seminar, Wood describes his aims. He wants to think about interior and exterior relations and he used the metaphor of the moebius strip . According to Wood, the moebius strip is made up locally of difference – one side and an other and yet it is all one surface. He compares this with the idea of having two concepts in the mind that somehow become continuous. The thesis of his next book will be to examine patterns of thought suggested by different philosophers which do not have to reconcile oppositions. He desires to systematise these patterns of thought that represent post–dialectical forms of relation.

Part of Wood's project is thinking about violence and otherness. Why violence? He gives two snippets of news to explain. The first is a report that he read from Bombay – the story told how a Hindu poured gas over a local Muslim baker, a man incidentally that the Hindu had known for years, and set him alight. When asked why he had done such a thing, the Hindu explained that he had been told that there was a war between Islam and the Hindu religion. The fact that the man was someone familiar to him – his neighbour –was irrelevant.

The other news story is that of an Iraqi war veteran who killed his wife in the night when he mistakenly thought that the enemy was attacking. The husband unleashed his aggression on the wrong object, but then again isn't this the wrong response to have to anyone?

Wood believes that philosophy can help us to think about violence, yet he questions whether philosophy also has the potential to be complicit with violence. One example he gives is the idea of 'overcoming' in philosophy.

Another element that Wood considers is the distinction between the Other as a particular being and a quality of otherness. (Should otherness be capitalised too?)

Wood describes death as one of the shapes of the Other and he notes how failure to come to terms with one's own mortality could cause aggression towards others. He talks about this again later.

Wood also discusses the antipathy in philosophy considering dialectical thought in Kierkegaard and Marx. Apparently, the existentialist, Kierkegaard attacked the system, the rationalisation of God and the singular. (I'm no expert on Kierkegaard.) Marx attacked Hegel's notion of the spirit and the displacement of the history of the struggle. He describes a number of other philosophers – Nietzsche as being more resistant to dialectical thought, Heidegger similarly as being a believer in destiny etc.

Out of all of the philosophers, Wood notes the numerous reactions to Hegel. Levinas for example who uses Hegel as a straw man to oppose his own ethics: 'our great task is to free ourselves from Hegel’. Derrida, on the other hand, is apparently interested in the legacy of Hegel. Wood describes three problems with the legacy of Hegel:

1. Totality – 'the idea that truth lies in the whole system' according to Wood; a system that relegates subjectivity, singularity, the fragment.
2. Teleology and the notion of progress.
3. Dialogic – the oppositional matrix.

Wood sees in these elements the seeds of violence for the following reasons:

1. The privileging of the whole means the sacrifice of the part.
2. A teleology suggests a higher purpose that could justify violence.
3. Opposition and conflict are primary violent phenomenon.

Wood then asks the question, could philosophy be the underpinning for such phenomenon? Why does violence exist? He notes the example of Mayor Giuliani of NYC who stated: 'Terrorists have lost the right to be understood.' Wood asks, in the political sphere, where is the line between understanding and justification?

Wood states that it doesn't matter whether in considering these problems, we are being fair to Hegel or not. Here, Hegel is the code word for a figure that needs to be repudiated. Hegel is an 'other–assimilator', a 'cannibalistic thinker', 'who incorporates difference and reduces its capacity'.

Wood wonders how do 'grand future goals' and violence connect? Wood thinks of the First World War, 'the Great War', and considers Arendt's juxtaposition of lying and violence. (I'm not quite sure how this connected up, perhaps I missed something – I have in my notes: "Anticipating what will come. Destiny? Victory? Freedom?".) Wood ponders whether Hegel 'legitimated progressivism' and considers how in 'ignoring the interests of the individual', he endorsed the 'greater whole'.

Wood then turned to early Sartre and his thought about the relation with others and Wood describes Sartre's vision as one of 'failure and frustration'. He pointed us to the following quotation from Being and Nothingness :

Up to this point our description would fall into line with Hegel's famous description of the Master and Slave relation. What the Hegelian Master is for the Slave, the lover wants to be for the beloved. But the analogy stops here, for with Hegel the master demands the slave's freedom only laterally and, so to speak, implicitly, while the lover wants the beloved's freedom first and foremost . In this sense if I am to be loved by the Other, this means that I am to be freely chosen as beloved. [...] Actually what the lover demands is that the beloved's being-in-the-world must be a being-as-loving. The upsurge of the beloved must be the beloved's free choice of lover. And since the Other is the foundation of my being-as-object, I demand of him that the free upsurge of his being should have his choice of me as his unique and absolute end; that is, that he should choose to be for eth sake of founding my object-state and my facticity. [...] Thus my facticity is saved. It is no longer this unthinkable and insurmountable given which I am fleeing; it is that for which the Other freely makes himself exist.

Wood talks of how Sartre translates the bad ethical parts of Hegel. Yet his formulation still demands a solution, not from God but from love. Wood describes Sartre's desire as ' a hopeless passion that cannot succeed' because 'the Other cannot provide an absolute guarantee' and the Other 'cannot do the job that God is supposed to be doing'.
Sartre is on a 'doomed quest'. Just as there is no God, there is 'no absolute justification in the Other'. For the Other always retains a freedom and instability. Wood sees love leading to sadism and then to masochism.

Spectrality is important in Wood's theorising. He refers to Derrida's The Spectre of Marx in which Derrida discusses the 'spectre of communism'. Wood explains that to Derrida, 'Marx cannot simply be buried with the fall of the Berlin Wall'. His legacy is spectral and not reducible to matter. Wood describes Derrida as calling 'on a less reductive reading of Marx'. The language of ghosts teaches us not to think in terms of putting aside the past.

Wood speaks eloquently about the charges and criticisms made of Derrida during the Cambridge Affair and in the New York Times Obituary and he compared those charges to ones made about Hegel – that he was a charlatan, that he was only pretending to be a great thinker, that he was unintelligible. These criticisms indicate that for some these philosophers were 'fearful and frightening', that they became 'bogeymen'. Particularly in the case of Hegel, Wood wonders if he is misread concerning the relation, violence and the Other.

Part of Wood's project is considering the relation to the Other and the relation to a more general otherness. He introduces Heidegger's account here, What is Called Thinking? .

To acknowledge and respect consists in letting every thinker's thought come to us as something in each case unique, never to be repeated, inexhaustible - and being shaken to the depths by what is unthought in his thought, [which is] not a lack inherent in his thought. What is un- thought is there in each case as the un-thought . The more original the thinking, the richer will be what is unthought in it. The unthought is the greatest gift that thinking can bestow.

One thing is necessary, though, for a face-to-face encounter with the thinkers: clarity about the manner in which we encounter them. Basically there are only two possibilities: either to go to their encounter, or to counter them [ einmal das Entgegengehen und dahn das Dagegenangehen ] . If we wish to go to the encounter of a thinker's thought, we must magnify still further what is great in him. Then we will enter into what is unthought in his thought.

Wood sees Heidegger's view here as being that one is 'engaging with the other as someone already engaged with something of deep importance' and that this gives the relation 'greater complexity'. When approaching another thinker, one has to 'bring with [one] an illuminating idea'. One will have 'some question in mind'. In fact one is 'not going to be able to encounter this other person unless you being an illuminating thought'.

Wood admits that there are problems with this approach. There is the question of prejudice which can be 'a recipe for imposing our narrative on this other person'. However, In Heidegger, the focus is apparently different. What he is saying is that if you do not bring with you a concern of the same order as the person that you are reading, you cannot read that person. You have to 'come to the table with the same level of seriousness'. You have to be willing 'to be wrong' or you 'cannot ever be right'. Wood states: 'Risk and seriousness are intimately connected'.

Heidegger tries to present a much more complex picture of the relation:

–talks with himself, his predecessors
–talks in relation to a fundamental set of questions

–talks with himself, his predecessors while reading
–reads the thinker in relation to a fundamental set of questions

Heidegger is consequently animating internal relations. Wood gives the example of the photograph; the conventional way to set up a photo is with each person in the photograph having a direct relation to the camera smiling face on. Yet Wood remembers an exhibition that showed in its photographs the relations that subjects were having with each other as well as with the camera. Wood finds it illuminating to examine such a 'multiplicity of relations'. Heidegger's work then means the multiplication of relational complexity.

Wood then went on to discuss encounters and counter movements in philosophy. As negative, reductive or counter readings, he identified:

*Levinas on Heidegger,

*Kierkegaard on Hegel,

*and Rose on Derrida.

As productive readings or encounters, Wood identified:

*Levinas on Descartes,

*Sartre on Kierkegaard,

*and Irigaray on Descartes.


First Wood discusses Levinas on Heidegger in Totality and Infinity . He talks of how Levinas (?) sees the death of the other as the primary ethical phenomenon not one's reconciliation with one's own mortality. Wood suggests that Levinas' ethical reversal does not help. He asks: 'Why should I care about your life if I am mortal?' Wood sees the two things as connected. The depth of one's response to the other directly correlates with one's capacity to understand one's own death. Levinas might see this process as narcissistic, but Wood argues against this. The consideration of death can extend to anything or anyone. Wood thinks that Levinas closes down the relational complex.

Next Wood deals with Kierkegaard on Hegel, noting Kierkegaard's comment that Hegel built his castle but lived in the hut next door. Kierkegaard presents an existential critique of Hegel, but in doing so he writes himself out of his own thinking via the bloodless category of the individual. Kierkegaard has to have a transaction with universality. Wood sees Kierkegaard as making a reductive reading of Hegel, because Hegel is open to the question of how a singular, 'unhappy' consciousness can be overcome. Kierkegaard does not escape from the absolute individual.

Wood challenges Rose for her 'misrecognition' of Derrida. Wood believes that Derrida and Rose make structurally parallel claims in different discourses. He suggests that the two perspectives need to be made into oppositions in order to avoid translations that would involve an enormous work of negotiation, mapping and translation.


Wood describes Derrida's reading of Rousseau as an encounter, when Derrida compares writing and speech to masturbation and ordinary sex. Both comparisons work with the idea of the supplement, which is both something added on or extra to the completed whole and the thing that completes the whole. For Rousseau, writing is the supplement that make speech complete. Wood describes Rousseau as thinking: 'If I didn't write no one will know how great I am'. Rousseau becomes the person he would like to be through writing. This involves drawing out structures imminent in the text. Derrida has a supplementary relation to Rousseau's own writing. Derrida is needed to complete the whole. Thus Derrida is engaging in Rousseau's relation to a fundamental question.

Next Wood discusses Levinas and Descartes.

The thematization of God in religious experience has already avoided or missed the inordinate plot that breaks up the unity of the 'I think'. In his meditation on the idea of God, Descartes, with an unequalled rigour, has sketched out the extraordinary course of a thought that proceeds on the breakup of I think [...] The idea of God breaks up the thought which is an investment, a synopsis and a synthesis, and can only enclose in a presence, p-present, reduce to a presence or let be [...] The idea of an Infinite, Infinity in me, can only be a passivity of consciousness. Is it still consciousness? [...] as though the idea of the Infinite, the Infinite in us, awakened a consciousness which is not awakened enough [...] a demand, and a signification.

Levinas treats Descartes’ reference to God as a break from Cartesian consciousness. Descartes deals with the spectral and there is a dualism. Merleau Ponty and Levinas attempt to say that Descartes cannot be reduced to his opponents' need to supersede his philosophy. There is an unresolved problem.

Wood also discusses Sartre on Kierkegaard in 'The Single Universe, referring to the idea of becoming–an–atheist. The thought of becoming is dealt with in relation to the question of atheism. Kierkegaard keeps the question of what faith and God might be like in suspension. For Kierkegaard, faith equals irresolution. My notes trail off a little here (they state "Kierkegaard vivant > Sartre – kept alive by Sartre – giving life, not exactly – keeping as powerful conversation").

Finally, Wood talks about Irigaray's reading of Descartes. He talks about the wonder that Irigaray finds in Descartes and how she applies this to sexual difference.

To arrive at [...] an ethics of sexual difference, we must at least return tow hat is for Descartes the first passion, wonder. This passion is not opposed to, or in conflict with, anything else, and exists always as though for the first time [...] Whatever identifications are possible, one will never exactly fill the place of the other - the one is irreducible to the other [...] Who or what the other is, I never know. This feeling of wonder, surprise and astonishment in the face of the unknowable ought to be returned to its proper place: sexual difference.


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