Em oi! #395: I Kant Believe It


This started as more notes to myself on the noumenon, because I have been reading The Parallax View and had to look it up. I dragged through A Critique of Pure Reason in college and also parts of Critique of Judgement and (if I’m recalling correctly) The Metaphysics of Mortals, but I can’t say Kant’s theories ever really resonated with me. Yet since reading First as Tragedy, I’ve had a new respect for him. In particular, I was struck by this passage:

The recent Revolution of a people which is rich in spirit, may well either fail or succeed, accumulate misery and atrocity, it nevertheless arouses in the heart of all spectators (who are not themselves caught up in it) a taking of sides according to desires which borders on enthusiasm and which, since its very expression was not without danger, can only have been caused by a moral disposition within the human race.

Which is to say, while “actual history is confused” on the question of whether or not true [i.e. ethical] progress is possible, spectators across Europe were remarkably sympathetic to the French revolution (Zizek, First as Tragedy, then as Farce, 106).

I think now that this quote is less affecting out of context. Anyway, the remarkable thing was for me that I looked up the noumenon, made my notes, and then suddenly understood exactly the point Zizek was making and sailed on through another several pages. (Then he came to some argument rooted in Hegel and I got bogged down again.)

Anyway I should add that according to Wikipedia, the conflation of the noumenon and the ding-an-sich is not quite so straightforward as the Ziz makes it seem. But you probably already suspected as much.

At any rate, having read my comic, perhaps you are now in a position to appreciate this one by Zach Weiner.

Ok, I have now somehow passed an hour looking at pictures of cats on imagur. Probably time to call it a night.

We’ll file this one under B2799.N68 L86 2014, for Philosophy (General)–Modern (1450/1600-)–By region or country–Germany. Austria (German)–By period–Later 18th and early 19th centuries–Individual philosophers–Kant, Immanuel, 1724-1804–Special topics, A-Z–Noumenon. Before you say “Don’t hurt yourself on that topic heading there,” I just want to let you know that PT2100.K3 is German literature–Individual authors or works–1700-ca. 1860/70–Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 1749-1832–Biography and criticism–Biography–Personal relations–Relations to friends and contemporaries–Individual friends and contemporaries–Other friends and contemporaries, A-Z–Kant, Immanuel. So just be careful what you wish for.

By the way, I posted two reviews lately that you might have missed: this one of the play Red and this one of First as Tragedy. More reviews soon!

Okay, wait, I just remembered something I have to tell you about Kant. It’s a story my father told me when I was a kid: (and just to ruin it, I have forgotten the setup but) there is a guy in a neighborhood in Germany (well, Prussia). Every day he goes out for a walk at the same time. Every day he comes back at the same time. One day, his neighbor is raking leaves in the front yard and sees this guy walk past, and he has one foot on the sidewalk and one in the gutter. And half an hour later, sure as clockwork, back he comes, one foot on the sidewalk, one in the gutter. And that was Immanuel Kant. Later on, Dad told me that Kant broke philosophy, because he thought of it all. I don’t know if that is exactly true (philosophy has certainly continued after Kant, and gone down a lot of new and interesting alleys), but it perhaps explains to you what a huge and insurmountable obstacle he is in the study of philosophy. You Kant get there from here without going through him.

. . .

Ok, now I’m really going to bed.

Red: In which I review a play without discussing the acting

Note: This was written (originally as sort of a joke) for B’s younger brother, who is a theater person and has a a blog of his own filled with excellent play reviews. I realized when I got to the end that I’d not reviewed the acting so much as the play itself. (Or rather, I tried to avoid talking about the acting at all costs.) I guess this is what happens when you send a novelist to the theater.

Logan, John (author). Red. Directed by Laura Gordon, Forward Theater Company, Madison, WI. 2014.
Starring Jim DeVita as Mark Rothko; Nate Burger as Ken, his assistant.

Mark Rothko immigrated to the US from Latvia at a time when it was still part of the Russian Empire (1913) to avoid conscription into the Imperial Army (the same reason my ancestors left, at around the same time, actually). His parents settled in Portland, where he grew up one intellectual Jew in a big colony thereof. He attended Yale but dropped out. Nevertheless, he was extremely well-read. He was among the most important artists of the post-WWII era; along with such painters as Jackson Pollock and William De Kooning, he launched a movement termed abstract expressionism (by the critics, of course). In the later part of the 1950s, Rothko accepted a commission (to the tune of $35,000) to provide a series of murals for the (then under construction) Four Seasons restaurant in New York City. Drawing inspiration from a stairway designed by Michelangelo, Rothko said he was going to create a series of earth-toned paintings that would produce a claustrophobic effect and ruin the digestion of every son-of-a-bitch who dined at the restaurant. After completing some forty paintings, Rothko called the project off and returned the commission. Twelve years later, in 1970, he committed suicide.

Most of this I learned from Wikipedia,[1] but I also learned it from the play Red, which attempts to solve the riddle of why Rothko called off the Four Seasons project and returned the money. As is clear from the play (and from Wikipedia), Rothko knew when accepting the commission what the restaurant would look like, what its clientele would be like, and so forth. So why did he finally decide that it wasn’t the right spot for his works? That is Red‘s central mystery; although it attempts an inquiry into other things, such as how an artist’s life might influence his work, the commodification of art, the shifting of art movements, or what exactly abstract expressionism even really means (as a movement, to the viewer, etc.), the solution to the Four Seasons question is really its unique contribution to whatever myth may have sprung up around Rothko, if there is one.

Much of the dialogue, at least on Rothko’s part, seems to have been lifted directly from things he said, and from all of that he seems to have been an extremely intelligent, well-read and well-spoken individual. The parts that aren’t so lifted fall a bit short of profundity—it is a bit insipid, in the middle of a dialogue about color choice in abstract art, to have the characters fall into a shouting match wherein they both name things that are red. I know that roses are red—I have looked outside from time to time. Instead, tell me what it means. And, as an aside, lobster aren’t red. Cooked lobsters are red.

Rothko’s assistant Ken is a fictional character, although Rothko did have assistants, and it was one such assistant who found him dead when he killed himself—there is a scene in the play with red paint that nods and winks at this fact, but the play stops short of delving too deeply into Rothko’s emotional life. He says, “I do get depressed sometimes.” Everything else is intellectual discussion. Ken’s life we see a little bit more of, but the central story of his character—that he was born in Iowa, his parents were murdered when he was young, he went through several foster homes and wound up in New York because he wanted to be a painter—is not sufficiently used, except to give Rothko a few moments to play Freud. In addition, it feels like the background of a fictional character–something created to be dramatic.

This lack of emotional connection is frustrating, because the play really does begin to feel like watching two people talk about art for ninety minutes. One feels, looking at his biography, that Rothko’s wife Mell may have been a not insignificant part of his life; he dined at the Four Seasons with her right before deciding to give up the commission, and committed suicide not long after they separated. There is a lot of potential in the story right there, without the need to introduce a fictional assistant. But she, and indeed his marriage, children, and family, is never mentioned. That said, it is nice to have characters who are emotionally resilient and don’t take the slightest criticism as an excuse to dissolve into melodrama. Imagine if after one fight we were treated to how depressive and potentially suicidal Rothko could be—this would be terrible.

Jim DeVita plays Rothko. He’s quite thin and manic, which . . . DeVita seems to be thin and manic in most of his roles. But I think this was a good fit for him. He has shaved his head—an odd choice, since I don’t think Rothko did that, but in context it works, although in combination with his glasses it looks a little bit Breaking Bad for my taste. His Russian accent was so subtle that I wondered at times if I were imagining it. Ken, played by a guy from APT whose work I have somehow totally missed, is a good actor, but his costumes did not strike me as sufficiently period. In one scene, he wears a t-shirt that looks like it came from the Land’s End catalog last season, not from 1958, when the play is purportedly set. But whatever he’s wearing, Ken carries off his role fairly well, refraining from lapsing into mawkish sentimentality in the scene wherein he recounts his parents’ murders. (Although perhaps he doesn’t avoid it altogether—in my notes, I see the words “My parents are dead!,” suggesting I found something hilariously Batman-like about the scene in question.)

I can see why this play won awards.[2] It is trying very hard to be smart. Having cribbed much of its material from a very smart guy, it largely succeeds at that. Perhaps in the end, its intellectualizing of the artistic process is its downfall. Rothko’s stated reasons for turning down the commission are emotional; however, since we have no access to any of his interiority, and lack an emotional connection with him, it is hard to take his feelings about/toward the paintings as seriously as perhaps we should, and it is hard to really evaluate his reasons to determine if he’s even telling the truth.

Bottom line: As we were walking into the theater, we met a friend of Bryan’s who is a professor at UW. This fellow said something like, “Well, I’ve done my sixty, sixty-five hours this week; I’m ready to have a beer and go sleep through a play somewhere” (except picture this in a charming New Zealand accent). The play was involving enough that for a fledgling art nerd like myself, it was interesting, and for someone looking for a relaxing evening, it was probably not overly taxing.

[1] I don’t mention Wikipedia here to suggest that the play is superficial in its treatment of Rothko’s biography, or not exactly. Rothko’s Wikipedia page was clearly written by someone(s) who was/were very deeply interested in him as an artist, and consequently it has a lot of information. But somehow, I had hoped that the play might provide something more in-depth than what I could have learned from skimming the wiki on my phone right before the curtain went up. On the other hand, I do wonder that this may not be a totally valid criticism, because obviously there’s only so much that can be known about someone’s life.

[2] It won the Tony award for best play in 2010, and also five other Tonys, although a few of them were things like scene design and lighting design that impact the performance and are not as pertinent to the text of the play itself. It also won a 2010 Drama League Award and a Drama Desk Award.

And yet, I am left with the feeling that we are still doomed: Slavoj Žižek’s First as Tragedy, Then as Farce

Note: I started a new job last week, which has temporarily reduced my available time for drawing. Also I am doing battle with the wallpaper in our first floor bathroom, so that is taking up a lot of my time. I hope I’ll have a comic next week. In the meantime, please enjoy a few of the reviews I write.

Žižek, Slavoj. First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. London and New York: Verso, 2009. 978-1-84467-428-2

So here are the things you need to know about Žižek: First, if you decide to write about him, his name is kind of a typographical clusterfuck for the English keyboard. Second, he’s a Marxist. Third, he’s essentially an intersectionalist[1], but because of point two, ultimately all the systems of discrimination are caused by capitalism. Fourth, he is extremely entertaining and charismatic, albeit in a weird way. He is often referred to as the rock star of modern philosophy.[2] He personally divides his books into the easy stuff (nothing books) and the deeper philosophical works (like The Parallax Effect). This book is one of the easy ones—it is a straight-up Marxist critique. Finally, he takes a psychoanalytic perspective toward his philosophy, with a particular focus on Lacan. This means the book is filled with terms like objet petit a and subject supposed to know. Don’t worry about it.

Ok, so the book: ostensibly, Žižek is comparing 9/11 and the 2008 financial collapse. But in reality, he’s mostly focused on the financial collapse and the implications for global capitalism. Basically, the story is that capitalism is inherently exploitive. Since 1968 we have this thing called cultural capitalism, which is where we pretend that capitalism is not totally bad because we can come up with these market-based solutions to our problems. Like Starbucks sells water and donates five cents per bottle to giving people water. Or fair trade coffee. Or organic (and nowadays, non-GMO) foods.[3] Essentially, there are these stories we tell ourselves about how we are not being terrible people because when we spend our money, we are affecting positive change as we simultaneously get ourselves a latte. But we are still lying to ourselves. When we buy bottled water, Starbucks is still taking the resource from somewhere and essentially screwing the people who live there out of their water, and they are exploiting the labor of the barista who is standing there making your triple-pump caramel macchiato heated to one hundred and eighty degrees. Organic foods have no real benefit other than costing more money but they make you feel like you’re doing something good for the environment. You are not really being an anti-consumerist rebel because you are still consuming things, but you can fool yourself into believing that you have done something good and anti-consumerist.

Ah, hell, go watch the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpAMbpQ8J7g. I’ll wait here.

There are a lot of things wrapped up in capitalism that are bad: It is inherently exploitative of workers. It is inherently greedy, and that greed is now so out of control that we are allowing the wholesale destruction of the planet to the point where we may render large chunks of it uninhabitable. Probably the 80/20 principle is the best example of this—the idea that twenty percent of the workers produce eighty percent of the profit. Because eighty percent of the profit actually amounts to more profit when you only have to pay twenty percent of your workforce with it, companies have (since the crash) taken up cutting down employees significantly, which is why we have so many damn unemployed people who can’t find a job, and meanwhile the stock market goes up when a company announces layoffs because even though the stupid fuckers who are buying the stocks are probably also workers and thus at risk of getting laid off if these trends continue, the having of more profits to share with stockholders is considered a net positive. We have poverty, disease, ever-increasing class divisions, anti-Semitism[5] and other forms of xenophobia, homophobia . . . more than that, we have a political system which is essentially built to make politicians more concerned about getting reelected than actually doing anything useful or effecting any real change in the world, and yet we continue to vote and pretend that we think that somehow, change is possible, that somehow this time it will be different.

The solution, of course, is communism, because these harms are not harms that can be rectified by the system—they are harms that are embedded in the system itself. (And also, I suppose, because if you’re giving a Marxist reading, you have a certain responsibility to follow him along.) The Ziz places the blame for the failures of early twentieth century communism squarely on the shoulders of Stalin (with Trotsky sharing a little bit of it for refusing to take over for Lenin and thus opening the door for Stalin and his followers). His argument seem to be less of “this time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything” and more “try again. Fail again. Fail better.” At least he’s realistic.

I am willing to accept communism as the solution to our current problems. Not without some reservations, but for the sake of argument let’s assume that the Ziz is right and communism is the answer. So now we come to another issue: changing is difficult. In fact, it is very, very difficult. To judge from the sheer number of commercials, it is incredibly difficult to even get someone to change their breakfast cereal,[6] so how do we convince approximately 314 million people to change their government? Spoiler: You can’t.

Or at least, according to Foucault, you can’t.[7] According to Foucault, the way the power structure is set up, you can’t ever really change things, because the system is essentially set up to be self-producing. For example, truly revolutionary politicians can’t get elected—if they do, it’s because they moved their views into line with what the majority of people in the electorate think. The Ziz is somewhat dismissive of Foucault, leaving him behind early on after an argument about Freudian analysis, but he even provides evidence of the system doing this himself. Key quote:

Those who hold power know very well the difference between a right and a permission. . . . A right in a strict sense of the term gives access to the exercise of a power, at the expense of another power. A permission doesn’t diminish the power of the one who gives it; it doesn’t augment the power of the one who gets it. It makes life easier, which is not nothing. (Quoting Jean Claude Milner, Žižek, First as Tragedy, 59)

After a lot of revolutionizing (i.e. the 1960s), we have what Žižek terms “the permissive society” that allows for “divorce, abortion, gay marriage, and so on” (ibid.) without actually giving anyone more power or rights. The system shifted enough to relax the protestors, thereby preserving the system without ever really changing in any meaningful way.[8] This tendency of the system is something the Ziz doesn’t really deal with, which is too bad. The problem of how to change a system that is willing to bend to acclimate revolutionaries without actually changing is a big problem when one wants to be a revolution. The closest that he comes to resolving this difficulty is in the aforementioned Beckett quote: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” While it would be a stretch to suggest that each successive (Communist) revolution came closer to the workers’ utopia that Marx originally envisioned, it is possible that the sustained movement toward a goal (i.e. successive failed revolutions) might be a way to begin to improve the situation gradually. Maybe.

I personally, as I think I’ve said, find this convincing enough. I am certainly willing to give it a try, anyway. But where to begin? To paraphrase Žižek at the outset of this book, perhaps it is time to spend a moment in thought before blindly rushing off (c.f. p. 11). I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

Postscript: When I showed a draft of this essay to a friend, he asked if this was my attempt to make myself feel better about capitalism. It’s not; I don’t really “feel good” about capitalism. But when I wrote this, I didn’t have a job; now I have one again. So I feel a little better about the system, now that it’s working for me again.

[1] I just tried to read about Marxist-feminist theory and I had like a seizure or something because it was so boring. Whatever. I think this term is probably being used correctly here.
[2] Better him than Peter Singer, I guess.
[3] The single most hilarious joke of the twenty-first century is that someone has convinced a certain segment of the population that eating GMO food is bad for them. Organic foods are like the second most hilarious joke of our modern era.[4]
[4] There was a footnote here that I’ve decided to omit, but I don’t feel like renumbering the other notes.
[5] And/or anti-Islam sentiment, depending on how much you want to go with Said in defining anti-Semitism as being anti-all Semitic peoples or not. I just had an argument about this with one of my brothers.
[6] To be fair, breakfast cereal is an important decision.
[7] I think these arguments are in Discipline and Punish. But also in basically everything he wrote.
[8] The Ziz actually views social issues as a smokescreen that politicians (in particular conservatives) use to distract the people from what’s really important—this is essentially why low income voters so frequently vote against their own economic interests. I have mixed feelings on this point—of course he’s right, but social issues are also important (even if only in a tautological way).