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In the forword to Byung-Chul Han’s The Agony of Eros, Alain Badiou writes, “This work proves utterly absorbing precisely because of its unlikely combination of philosophical rigor (it concludes with a striking quotation from Deleuze and Guattari) and a wealth of far-ranging sources.”1

Now, I don’t usually associate quoting philosophers with philosophical rigor. If anything, the opposite is true. Quoting other philosophers often hides your lack of rigor. If there’s an argument, you let the other philosophers make it. Often there’s not–the quote is just a conclusion, supported only by the authority of the philosopher you quote. It also lacks rigor by eliding differences, pretending that you and the philosophers you quote are on the same page. Literally, that might be true (at the very least you’re in the same book). Figuratively, it is much more dubious, eliding differences, ripping passages out of context, and so on.

The Agony of Eros is the third book by Han I’ve read, Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese and In the Swarm: Digital Prospects are the other two. They are entertaining but entirely lacking in what I see as philosophical rigor. Sweeping conclusions, not arguments, are Han’s forte. Moreover, they’re often extremely dubious, contradictory conclusions. In Shanzhai he says copying and fakery is so common in China, as opposed to the West, because there is no idea of an original. However, Han also admits until recently copying and fakery was common in the West–one thinks of the different versions of Don Quixote that Cervantes decried. This would be acceptable if Han didn’t trace this to deep, fundamental differences between China and the West. He commonly cites Plato as a source for the Western view, though he’s more coy about specific Chinese sources for the ideas that everything is process and there is no creatio ex nihilo.

Moreover, his statements rarely withstand the slightest scrutiny. What would he think of fan fiction, for instance? Reading him one becomes aware at how authors guide one’s attention. As long as one looks at what the author wants you to see, they sound plausible. Turn one’s head, look at something different, and incongruities quickly emerge.

Still, Badiou captured something I enjoy about Han’s work, and I do (mostly) enjoy them else I wouldn’t have read three of his works in the last week. They remind me of John Ashbery poems insofar as one should read them more as language or philosophy at play. Taking them seriously seems fruitless. But if you can just surrender to them, they can be highly enjoyable.

Of course, sometimes something that is said might snap one out of one’s reverie. With Ashbery, for me it’s his poem “On Autumn Lake.” It reads:

Leading liot act to foriage is activity
Of Chinese philosopher here on Autumn Lake thoughtfully inserted in
Plovince of Quebec–stop it! I will not. The edge hugs
The lake with ever-more-paternalistic insistence, whose effect
Is in the blue way up ahead. The distance

By air from other places to here isn’t much, but
It doesn’t count, at least not the way the
Shore distance-leaf, tree, stone; optional (fern, frog, skunk);
And then stone, tree, leaf; then another optional–counts.
It’s like the “machines” of the 19th-century Academy.
Turns out you didn’t need all that training
To do art–that it was even better not to have it. Look at
The Impressionists–some of ’em had it, too, but preferred to forget it
In vast composed canvasses by turns riotous
And indigent in color, from which only the notion of space is lacking.

I do not think that this
Will be my last trip to Autumn Lake.
Have some friends among many severe heads
We all scholars sitting under tree
Waiting for nut to fall. Some of us studying
Persian and Aramaic, others the art of distilling
Weird fragrances out of nothing, from the ground up.
In each the potential is realized, the two wires
Are crossing.2

From the opening r/l confusion (which is a common difficulty for Japanese, not Chinese, English speakers) to the faux-Oriental syntax of the end, it’s impossible for me to surrender to this poem and be swept away by the language. For me it’s an ignorant, offensive poem. There are some similar moments in Han’s work, particularly when speaking of depression.

Han has some claims he enjoys repeating, e.g. that the Internet and social media is eliminating distance, making everything porn-like. One of them is that depression is narcissistic. In The Agony of Eros he writes, “Depression is a narcissistic malady. It derives from overwrought, pathologically distorted self-reference.”3 He says something similar in In the Swarm. Needless to say, he does not cite any research or give any evidence that is the case. It also largely seems to blame people who are depressed. If only they thought about others (or Others) instead of themselves then they would be well. I’m fairly certain depression does not work like that and that’s a claim, like Ashbery’s poem, that to me is astoundingly ignorant–made worse by Han’s self-confidence–and offensive claim. It also grinds my reading to a halt. No longer is the book a melange of various ideas,4 a philosophic reverie with all the logic of dreams. But it’s something real, making claims about the world which are deeply wrong.

I doubt Han, or for that matter Ashbery, intended his work to be read as a daydream, one that only superficially resembles the actual world but gets some of its strength from being a distorted version of it. But for me, it’s how I best enjoy him and it’s unlike any other philosophy I’ve read.

Notes:

1. p. vii
2. First published in Crazyhorse, here, later collected in Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror.
3. p. 3
4. I described In the Swarm to a friend as a Heideggerian rant against cellphones and the Internet. As such, it’s both immensely amusing, but like most rants not something to take to heart.

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Philosophy Talk:
3:00: Eleanor: What are you reading?
Chidi: [holding copy of Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals] “The Metaphysics of Morals” by Immanuel Kant. It’s a treatise on the aesthetic preconditions of the mind’s receptivity to duty. A book on how to act good.
Eleanor: Oh great! So you’ve decided to help me?
Chidi: I don’t know. There’s a thousand questions. Is there a moral imperative to help you? Do I have a greater obligation to my community? Are you taking someone elses’s spot, someone who deserves to be here?
Eleanor: Ooh, on that question, I honestly think I was just put here by mistake. Because Michael called me Eleanor Shellstrop, so he knows I’m me. He’s just wrong about my overall “quality” level. Please help me man. I swear I am worth it.
Chidi: Tell me one fact that you know about me. I mean, we spent the whole day together. You must remember something. What country am I from?
Eleanor: [groans] Is it racist if I say Africa?
Chidi: Yes, and Africa is not a country. I am from Senegal. Do I have any siblings? Where did I go to college?
Eleanor: Trick question. You didn’t.
Chidi: I was literally a college professor. Do you not remember one single thing about me?
Eleanor: Dude, things have been nuts around here. I bet you don’t know anything about me.
Chidi: You were born in Phoenix. You went to school in Tempe. You’re an only child. Your favorite show is something called “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” and your favorite…book is Kendall Jenner’s Instagram feed.
Eleanor: How did you know all that?
Chidi: Because you are constantly talking about yourself. You are the most self-obsessed person I have ever met.
Eleanor: You should see Kendall Jenner’s Instagram feed.
Chidi: Okay, this is my fear about you Eleanor. You are too selfish to ever be a good person.
Eleanor: Well, I think you’re wrong.
Chidi: What country am I from again?
Eleanor: Sen…sodyne.
Chidi: That is a brand of toothpaste. Look, the only thing that you are concerned with is your own happiness. [points to “SELFISH” written on chalkboard] That’s your problem.
6:56: Chidi: Eleanor and I would love to help.
Tahani: Ah, hurrah, hurrah, yay.
Eleanor: Dude.
Chidi: You want to prove you’re not selfish? Here’s the perfect test. There’s something fun that you want to do, and then there’s something less fun that people are doing for the common good. Which do you choose?
9:23: Eleanor: Well, I have had a pretty full day of being unselfish. I’ve made some new friends. My area’s almost garbage-free. So you’re gonna help me figure out how to stay, right?
Chidi: Well, that is a really tough question. Most great philosophers would say helping you is pointless, that you can’t try to be good, especially when your motivations are so obviously corrupt.
Eleanor: Yeah, but what do most great philosophers know?
Chidi: On the other hand, Aristotle thought that moral virtue is something that you could get better at. He–he compared it to playing the flute. The more you practice, the more you improve.
Eleanor: Aristotle! That’s my boy, right there. He was the best. I mean, most people agree he was the best one. So it sounds to me like you are on board the “help Eleanor” train.
Chidi: Well, I’ve narrowed it down to two possibilities: yes and no.
Eleanor: Well, no worries. Just hit me up when you’re done weighing my life in your hands. I’ll just keep doing what I do best: being superconsiderate and selfless.
11:18: Tahani: You know, sometimes a flaw can make something even more beautiful, like with Cindy Crawford and how short she is.
14:16: Eleanor: My bag broke, and I ditched the trash instead of taking it all the way to the dumpster. But in my defense, there were only five minutes left in flying and I wanted to go flying.
Chidi: How is that a defense? You made a bad choice.
Eleanor: I made a bad choice? We could have literally been flying, and all you wanted to do was talk about morals. I mean, you’re like the worst part of Superman.
Chidi: This is a relief. I can stop my deliberations. You’re a selfish person, and it is pointless to help you. You are on your own.
18:05: Chidi: What are you doing?
Eleanor: I went to all the places where I dumped trash earlier and cleaned it up so it couldn’t be traced back to me.
Chidi: Well, it looks like you cleaned up everything. You’re doing this because you feel bad. And you’re not even doing it to get me to help you anymore because I told you that’s not gonna happen.
Eleanor: Ok, yeah, fine, I felt bad for stupid Gunnar and stupider Antonio and the whole neighborhood. I felt bad about what I did. It was a weird feeling. Not used to it. Didn’t love it.
Chidi: Well, feeling remorse about being wrong isn’t as good as just doing something right, but it’s a start. Look, I think you’re capable of change. And I will help you try.
Eleanor: Oh, wow, man, I swear I won’t let you down.
Janet: Hi there. I’ve collected the worst-smelling garbage that I could find. Do you still want me to dump it inside of Antonio’s house?
Eleanor: What? No. I did not tell you to do that. You are loco, girlfriend. Okay, I won’t let you down starting now.
20:30: Chidi: Now you’ve got a long way to go to pull this off. It will take hours and hours of studying ethics and moral philosophy. We’re gonna have assignments and quizzes and papers. It’s gonna be so much fun.
Eleanor: Remind me what I’m getting out of this again.
Chidi: You get to avoid eternal damnation.
Eleanor: Oh yeah. Right. Hey, I got you a present.
Chidi: What?
Eleanor: Senegal.
Chidi: That’s not a present; that’s just common decency.
Eleanor: Yeah, but I forkin’ nailed it.
Chidi: Good talk.

Philosophy Books:

2:54:Screen Shot 2018-02-11 at 11.45.33 AM

Left pile on table: The Basic Works of Aristotle
Middle pile: Unknown, David Hume A Treatise of Human Nature, unknown, Aristotle The Metaphysics, unknown, unknown, Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics, unknown.
Right pile: Martin Heidegger Ponderings II-VI
Chidi is holding Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

20:32: Screen Shot 2018-02-11 at 11.31.44 AM.png

Left pile: unknown, Martin Heidegger Ponderings II-VI, unknown, unknown.
Middle Pile: John Stuart Mill Utilitarianism, unknown, unknown, Martin Heidegger The Concept of Time, Henry Sidgwick The Methods of Ethics, Thomas Sowell The Quest for Cosmic Justice
Right pile: Martin Heidegger On the Way to Language.

Chalkboard:
2:54:

Screen Shot 2018-02-11 at 11.46.26 AM

Other:

Quick Thoughts:

11:18: Cindy Crawford is apparently 5’9″, Jameela Jamil, the actress who plays Tahani, is 5’11”. Most people would assume Crawford’s flaw is her mole. Tahani makes up a flaw in order to appear more beautiful than Crawford.

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When speaking of true love, two ideas generally spring to mind: first, that the love is genuine, that when the lovers say “I love you” it corresponds with how they feel and second, that they are soulmates and have found who they truly belong with.

There is, however, another way of understanding true love. That is to take it is as love based on trust. This trust is of two types.

First, one must trust one’s beloved. This means one needn’t know everything they do, one needn’t be involved in every aspect of their life. As Proust shows in Remembrance of Things Past, the attempt to know everything about one’s beloved leads to jealousy and futility. Though a lover is often said to love the entire person, no one can know another person entirely. Instead, one can only know a limited part and trust them.

Second, one must trust that one’s own self will not drive off one’s beloved. We all have aspects of ourselves we are ashamed of, that we do not love. Were our beloved to see those aspects, we worry they would no longer love us. Perhaps so. Yet we must trust they will continue to love us for otherwise our relationship will be contaminated by obfuscation. This does not mean that we must show our beloved the worst aspects of ourselves or tell them all the awful things we have done, but that we must not deny or hide them.

Without either type of trust, it is hard for me to see how a loving relationship will last.

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Over the next few months and years I expect I’ll be reading a lot about Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. Two books I’ve read recently are Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth Century America and Ira Berlin’s The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States.
 
One of the themes of the first book is how so much of progressive policies I love–Social Security, strong unions–were only possible by catering to white (male) supremacy. I had hoped that we had reached a place and time where that was no longer necessary. Instead, one could create policies that would be central to one’s campaign that directly addressed the needs of other groups.
 
I thought Clinton’s campaign largely did that, though no doubt imperfectly. She started her campaign with a speech against police brutality, she wanted to repeal the Hyde Amendment, and so much more. Even small things, like her letter to the Toast, indicated a shift. It was wonderful seeing so many female friends happy about being catered to.
 
She nearly won. But “nearly” means she didn’t and now we’re faced with years of a Republican controlled government. My fear is that Democrats will turn away from that and instead, ironically, turn to her husband’s successful campaign (or for that matter Sanders’ unsuccessful one). Perhaps they should. Perhaps America isn’t ready for white (male) concerns to no longer be the center of politics and must hear as little about the needs of other groups as possible. After all, Trump may not have won the popular vote but he won promising to Make America Great Again, which means make whites supreme again (as if they no longer are).
 
But that’s not the America I want to live in, not the sort of campaign I can get enthusiastically behind.
 
The second book is more hopeful. It stresses that emancipation did not happen simply due to the Civil War or the actions Lincoln. It was a long process. One spanning a hundred or more years, involving countless people, but especially black slaves. At times, things got worse, but the movement was never stopped.

The hope I derive from the book, however, is not the hope that things will get better. They may not and even if they do they won’t undo the pain and suffering Trump’s victory has already caused. The hope springs from a sense that one’s efforts, small as they might be, barren as they might seem, are nonetheless necessary, especially if we are to see any change.

And that’s something I must believe in right now.

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I rarely drink beer, so being drunk is an unusual experience to me.  But whenever I do drink (like now) one of the surprising things is how it produces a sort of double-consciousness. One hand, I act drunk-my motor skills are a little off, I can no longer remember things (e.g. the Tarkovsky movie that involves the lighter [actually did remember,  just took me longer than it should have]). Yet I am also aware that my motor skills are off and that I should know something. Therefore I feel that I am two selves–one that is almost a clarified version of myself, pure intellect, and another that is affected by alcohol. Part of the reason I feel that I am pure intellect is because I no longer can take short cuts. Each action, each thought, must now be deliberate in order to be accurate. This was most experienced as I descended the stairs. In order to avoid tripping, I needed to pay specific attention to where I placed my feet. Similarly when arguing about Proclus and aesthetics (n.b. the “and” is disjunctive–those were two separate arguments). But here I might even argue that my reasons were particularly exact because I had to pay attention to how I was thinking. Whitehead in his An Introduction to Mathematics observes that one of the values of advancement in mathematics, say analytic geometry, is that one no longer has to think. Thinking is time-consuming, and if one thought every little thing one had to do, little would be done (a common example of this is playing a sport–a tennis player simply hits the ball, she does not think about hitting it). But when one is drunk, one needs to examine those steps individually. Otherwise, one is liable to slip up. Since philosophy requires thought and close attention, alcohol  may indeed promote philosophy (see the Symposium).

Yet that is far from the complete picture. One thing I observed about myself and others, is that while we may express our own ideas best (proving, perhaps, in vino veritas), we can pay attention to the ideas of others. There is a certain solipsism that comes with being drunk. One may listen to what the other person says, but one rarely changes one’s views because of it. Instead, I say what my thoughts on a matter not dissimilar is. Perhaps this is how we normally interact, just when drunk it is more blatant. I suspect not. But for some reason when drunk, while our innermost thoughts are revealed, we are unable to accommodate the thoughts of others. We must incorporate them into what we want to say. One reason I think this is not just a personal failing, is because drunks do become unusually insistent. I am unsure how the division between self and drunken self leads to this solipsism. Perhaps it does not, but I would be surprised.

Any case, while the Scythians made a decision first while drunk and then while sober, I am posting this immediately. Hopefully grammatical errors are the only I will find when I am sober.  Certainly, that is what I predict. We shall see.

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