Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I feel like I should preface this post with an apology.  These thoughts came to me while I was in an exhausted and apparently abstract mood.  I guess the burnout of finals can produce some weird philosophical thoughts?
Human beings seems to constantly produce major questions and, as a result, are always in search of major answers.  Modern science, for example, has produced a wealth of questions and has answered many of them.  But do scientific breakthroughs not simply ask at least as many questions as they answer?  One might argue that there will always be the same number of questions that humans have of their world.  A scientist may have discovered that stars are simply balls of hot gas, but is then left wondering why they came to be, or why we are even able to discover such things?  There will always be, in other words, a steady sea of human questions.
It just seems that the ancient Greeks had just as many questions as we do, despite any obvious technological advances.  Our questions are without a doubt, different and perhaps more "advanced," but are they any less prolific?  Perhaps existence is not as finite as we may think.  Our thoughts can never truly be a means to an end because there will always be more to ponder. 

Interpreting individuals

In Arthur Miller’s selection from the Death of a Salesman, a very interesting point is brought up that deals specifically with the interaction of people through an existentialist lens. Throughout the semester, we have focused mostly on the self and rarely addressed interactions of two people, except for when we studied Sartre, specially his claim that the interaction between two freedoms will always result in conflict. In Miller’s literary work, the interaction between Willy and his family occurs before he has died and at his funeral, his family attempts to make sense of his suicide, despite the fact that there is no way to know what was going on his mind right before he killed himself. What’s interesting to note is that while we do acknowledge that the world is absurd and that paradoxes emerge constantly, we seem to ignore that when dealing with other people, and attempt to rationalize them based on their actions. When we don’t understand them or the rationality that we ascribe to them doesn’t make sense to us, we tend to rely on an emotion to deal with those people.
Instead of attempting futilely to understand beings or more common, but even worse, take shortcuts and only analyze a few traits or a few actions, we need to acknowledge that they are freedoms like us and impossible to objectively define. A person is constantly changing. Preferences, thoughts, and actions taken are all fluid and rarely stay constant for more a few seconds, except when consciously forced. Leaving room for this unpredictability that ultimately arises and not attempting to rationalize one’s actions into an interpretation of that person, serves us better than exhausting our brain for an interpretation of events, where their only utility is to serve ourselves. But what I’m asking for is unreasonable.
Finding meaning in anything and everything, no matter how extremely limited and subjective it is, is what people do. It is just as much a way to survive and cope in this world as it is a way to make sense of this world. While we cannot change our way of dealing with other people and their freedom, we must at least acknowledge the way we ascribe meaning to them and how we view them. We must constantly question this rationale and at the very least make it as malleable as possible, since the rationale that may have explained an individual to us at one point may not suffice at a later point, yet we still use it and rarely question its foundation.

Monday, December 14, 2009

On the Conservation of Time

Where does time go? Where seems an awkward qualifier to use in discussing time, considering that where deals with physical space and time deals with, well, time. The creation of recorded time and dates and the distinction of past, present, and future control our perception of time. One might say time has passed but does time really pass? Perhaps life is like the sand in an hourglass, the top the future, the bottom the past, and the narrow stream in the middle our consciousness of its conversion. Time is therefore the name given to this conversion. And Life in general follows this metaphor, only with more sand. Where does time go? We capture it. We trap it in pictures, paintings, books, films, magazines, stories. We capture it and make it accessible to the present. As technology has developed, we have been able to capture more and more of it. First only through speech. Then writing. Then television. Now the best scientists estimate that we are able to capture around one percent of time as it passes. Even then, they admit, we are only able to capture it temporarily. Where does ninety-nine percent of the time go? Clearly it never happened.

The conservation of time. Our conception of time is nothing more than a conception. Time is not past, present, and future. Time is the instant. Time is the now. It does not pass. It is a focal point through which motion is permitted. The present does not include five minutes ago or five minutes from now. It does not include one second ago or one second from now. It has no range because it is not a duration. Time is conserved because it is continually the same instant. The past does not contain time. In fact, there is really no such thing as the past. This is because nothing exists except in the now. The past is only its effects on the now. The future. How wonderful to think about the future. So mysterious, a loose word to describe the indescribable. The future. What will soon be the now. Of course it is nothing. Nothing more than ideas in your head. It doesn’t exist. All there is is the now, the universe is constantly made new.

Of course this is why we have no perception of time. We live in the instant because there is nothing else. So on reflection of my day. Where did the time go? I had a large Thanksgiving dinner. How long ago that seems now. A number of hours, sure, yet it seems much longer. And my birthday last month? I scarcely remember it. Actually, at this moment, everything I think of seems as if it were hundreds of years ago. A different life even. I am restricted to the now. Everything else is nothing but what I manage to retain.

So there are two things. The instant. And me.

Everything else there is to say about time is fundamentally derived from these two.

Of course, this is just what I think.

Student Film: "Present-at-Hand vs. Ready-to-Hand"

by Erin, Ben, and Alex.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Roth and Nietzsche

I really liked reading the human stain, it reflected Nietzsche. It was a very at taking many of the existential ideas Nietzsche had and put it into an example that was easy to understand. Phillip Roth did a good job writing this story, I only wish that I could have read the whole story so I would hae gotten the full context of what was going on.
The idea that you should just keep dancing seems to be a theme from Nietzsche. It wasn’t in anything of Nietzsche that we actually read this semester, however Nietzsche once wrote that any day that is not spent dancing is a day wasted. I thought that this was really funny considering what was said in the human stain. The janitor woman keeps telling the man to keep dancing. She is trying to explain that we need to keep dancing, or we are wasting our lives, slowly but surely. The idea that we should only worry about the now, and create our own values is one that is central to Nietzsche philosophy. The idea of dancing is a perfect example for this story. In hindsight dancing seems like a meaningless activity, why do we dance, we don’t gain anything from it, it doesn’t help out society, its an activity that we do on a whim. Usually when we dance it comes from some small temporary impulse to move around and enjoy the moment. Dancing seems like a temporary joy that we pursue for our own pleasures, not for the pleasures of others. Dancing seems like an activity of the ubermensch. Nietzsche says that we should live a life that we would not mind repeating for eternity. A life spent dancing and celebrating does not seem like a bad life to repeat.
In addition I think this is obvious but the woman in the story is an obvious embodiment of the ubermensch. She does not care about the opinions of others, she makes her own values, and does what makes her happy not what other people tell her she should do. She is not only able to make her own values, and she is able to pull people away from the herd. In the story the janitor and the man she is with both realize their identity as value making beings, and they decide that they are going to live the life they want, not the life their spouse wants, or the life anyone else wants.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Choosing Temperament

Merleau-Ponty's examination of freedom differs from Sartre's, but I wonder how these different formulations of human freedom affect a diverse group of readers, all with dispositional differences. Sartre saw freedom as absolute or total; however, seeing freedom as something embodied, within a body that shares specific limitations with one's consciousness, seems to be a formulation from felt limitations. As Sartre supposedly never knew despair, anguish, or personal misery, perhaps he could feel the boundless freedom he attributes to consciousness, (269-270). Merleau-Ponty presents freedom as something within a field, for if freedom was absolute, inherently so, within humans, freedom would be both everywhere and nowhere. There would be no instances by which one could differentiate a free action from an unfree action; by recognizing limits such as these on any coherent discussion on human freedom, a human project is given meaning by our choosing it and holding fast to it.

Merleau-Ponty posits one's temperament is a matter of choice, as existing "only for the second order of knowledge that I gain about myself when I see myself as others see me, and in so far as I recognize it, confer value upon it, and in that sense, choose it," (278). He then goes on to explain how motives follow from decisions, as the motives behind a project lose their force once one has abandoned the project. An example would be me waking up at 7:30 this morning to write a post for this class, but I somehow decided in my grogginess not to get out of bed and write the post. Thus my motives behind the specific action of writing a post lost their force in the wake of my decision to continue sleeping. I have a difficult time taking this view of motivation as valid, as I often find myself trying to counteract my temperament in order to act in certain ways. Thus my action may be free, and my decision as well, but my temperament seems to be making a great dent in my ability to stick to a decision early in the morning that happens to be contrary to my temperament.

While Merleau-Ponty's version of describing human freedom differs from Sartre's, I have the same problem with both of their explanations for temperaments or sadness, despair, etc, as being chosen. I suppose the project of being happy would be given meaning by our choosing of this project, and motives will follow closely behind. However, for someone like a writer, who creates meaning for themselves and define their selves through the act of writing, the existential vacuum as described by Viktor Frankl seems to affect some in devastating ways while not others. We notice the particular temperament shining through one’s philosophical works, but we cannot hope to understand it through a clinical lens. Camus offers an anecdotal account of having fallen through the safety nets of philosophical and theological tradition and grappling with despair. By the persistent goal of philosophy to itemize the problems felt through specific human experiences as those of humans in general, we are driven to ask if those not experiencing the existential vacuum are in bad faith simply or simply do not experience these vexing issues. We must ask whether these problems are dispositional, contingent upon a confluence of environment and choice and culminating in the production of a philosophical work. Some writers are going to approach the project of happiness by darker means than other writers, such as between Frankl and Sartre, as Frankl writes of “tragic optimism” in the face of the “tragic triad,” “Optimism is not anything to be commanded or ordered. One cannot even force oneself to be optimistic indiscriminately, against all odds, against all hope. And what is true for hope is also true for the other two components of the triad inasmuch as faith and love cannot be commanded or ordered either,” (358).

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Rorty vids

Seeing as how our last reading mentioned the American philosopher Richard Rorty (and given that at least 3 of us will probably be reading for Shade in Senior Seminar next semester), I thought these two videos would be worth sharing, especially since Rorty orally expresses his ideas reasonably well for a contemporary philosopher.

The first is a short video where Rorty discusses his views on truth.

The 2nd is a long discussion between Analytic philsopher Donald Davidson and Rorty on truth, meaning, and reference. All topics that we've broached this semester to some degree in Existentialism, but coming at them from a different angle. This video is much longer; I think the whole thing is about an hour. It's also A LOT more technical. At this point in the semester, I doubt many people will have the opportunity to look this one over and reflect some on it, but it's probably worth listening when have an hour or so to burn over X-mas break. Be sure to check it out, if your interested.

Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EjWTuF35GtY
Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCwbPDnN_yU
Part 3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ls8fZZcPKk
Part 4: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPLShcPd7ao
Part 5: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGiLoly2_1Y
Part 6: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bqGhwnydOrQ

Monday, December 7, 2009

Student Film: "Little Freedoms"

by Manali Kulkarni and Courtney Martin

Student Film: "s-candy-lous".

a short film by brannen vick & sarah knowles:

"you seem like me."
"How do you know?"
"I can feel it."
"you know this is it."
"I know."
"We shouldn't wait around for another."
"I know. but what should we do?"
. . .
Be here.
Be with me."

Student Film: "Saw XVII"

Hey Y'all! I was not able to upload my video because the file was too large however, I did post it on to youtube.

The Link for Youtube is:


Can we ever truly get our point across?

The other day in class we began talking about Derrida’s idea of difference and differance. In French, difference can be defined as spacing between two things distinguishing them from one another, which is the same in English. Differance can be defined as to differ. These two different words with that vary in their meanings sound the same when pronounced out loud. Therefore, the meaning of the word is derived through the context in which it was said. It is up to the listener or the reader to interpret the message, yet interpretation in conversation and interpretation in reading are comparably different. The ideas of difference and difference exemplify how a listener or reader can misinterpret or create their own meaning of the sentence. This realization made me wonder which way of communicating more accurately expresses your opinion or if one’s ideas can ever truly be understood in the way by which the author wants them to be interpreted.

I’ve often thought writing is the most accurate way of communication. It gives us a chance to clearly develop our ideas and show the direct correlation of our thought process. These ideas can be expressed through our knowledge or experience, which can be explained in writing. Yet, the readers of our material may not have had those similar experiences or knowledge and their interpretation of the work can be skewed. Once the ideas are finalized in paper, the author loses control of someone’s interpretation of that work. It is up to the reader to derive meaning from what is written.

On the other hand, conversation allows people to communicate by responding to what is being said. If there are questions, then they are asked by the listener so a more clear way of expressing the idea can be attempted. Yet, conversation is not always as clear as writing. There is not always the flow from one point to the next, which allows for people to miss points or the exact meaning of the conversation. There is also the chance as we see in difference and differance that a word can sound the same, yet not have the same meaning.

After considering these two forms of communicating which we use daily to express ourselves, it made me wonder if I’m interpreting people the way in which they want me to understand. It also made me wonder if which way of communication would be the best for someone to fully grasp the meaning.

Being John Malkovich - Holy Existential Batman!

So, one of my favorite movies of all time, Being John Malkovich, is probably one of the most existential movies I've ever seen. Below is the trailer in case you haven't had the pleasure of seeing it. Now I will say, if you haven't seen it, you'll want to, so I apologize in advance for ruining it.

Where to begin? This movie deals with language, everydayness, responsibility, death, meaning-making, and ridiculous amounts more. The film can arguably, perhaps unfairly, broken down like this: conflicting freedoms who resent their present lives, and will do anything to live forever. In this case, living forever means sacrificing your own body to live within another (a vessel, as its termed). This vessel happens to be the fiery John Malkovich. Why? I have no idea. Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) discovers a portal within his 5 foot tall office which leads into John Malkovich's head. Once inside, Craig (and anyone else who enters the portal) can live as Malkovich until eventually taking full control of his body. All that enter Malkovich's head also get a sort of sexual satisfaction (often feeling as though John's encounters are their own, alowing many to commit a form of adultery and many others to simply have sex as John Malkovich). Craig's experience becomes an addiction, which he begins to sell to other 'everyday-ers'. They keep coming back to re-experience the Malkovich ride, exemplifying their own dissatisfaction with their current lives. They fear making bold, free decisions that they can make while inside of another body, deflecting any real personal responsibility onto Malkovich.

Back to the vessel idea. Craig soon discovers that he can fully control Malkovich. He then uses Malkovich's socail standing to become what he's always wanted to be, a famous puppeteer. In doing so, he is forced to completely deletes the Craig Schwartz that used to be. In the end, a struggle for the vessel occurs. In order to illustrate my next point, a few things have to be outlined. So, here goes my best attempt at explaining something I still have trouble grasping. The vessel (John Malkovich) has always existed, from generation to generation. It just so happens that Malkovich is the current vessel. Just after the vessel's 44th (I think it's 44) birthday, any who enter the vessel will live on to the next generation, enabling to live forever. However, those still inside the vessel at the time of the 44th birthday, are trapped within the next vessel forever, having to sit and watch others live their lives within, never being able to escape.

So, Craig is inside the vessel at the time of its birthday, therefore sentencing him to watch from within another for the rest of eternity. This is the most unfree situation I can imagine, but even then, I realize that he is able to speak, but cannot do anything else at all. In the end, Craig sacrificed all the freedom he had in order to be someone other than himself, just to be sentenced to the most unfree existence imaginable. You can see how much is here. You could write forever on the stuff in this movie. There's so much more, and I'm doing this film a terrible injustice by not going the full mile, but it's late, and I'm tired.

Seriously though, watch it. You won't be disappointed.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Now

I have always been told to “ live in the now” or to live in the moment. I never understood really what the “now” was and how to feasibly to able to live in it if I never understood what it was. Also, I always wondered why I should live in the now when I always wondered about the future simply because of curiosity. I was always curious to know what my future would be like because of my actions in the present. However, thinking about the future while living in the present was not the “proper” way to live because we should only be concerned with living today as if tomorrow is not guaranteed.

After reading Roth’s story from “ The Human Stain” and his perspective about living in the now as he is concerned with simply” fucking to come” and nothing else. He is simply concerned with what he is doing now and not next or tomorrow. Roth explains his story about a man and women when they are in bed together but simply sleeping together with no other motives behind. When he states that she is teaching him, she says that she is not "teaching" and implies that all she wanting to do is sleep with him without any other purpose but what is happening presently. By leading life as the woman does, Roth seems to claim that it is only being concerned with the present that is fully appreciating the existence of God and his work.

I know that is sounds peculiar that Roth’s except helped me to further understand what the now was but the concept of not wishing you were anywhere else but the present made sense to me in the overall context of “ the now”.

However, many people have told me that living in the now is better way of leading life and appreciating God on a higher level. Not taking tomorrow for granted is the ideal way to lead life as you are not going to be taking life for granted. Through this, you are appreciating God’s creation to the fullest. The paradox that I do not understand from this concept of leading life is that everyone( who believes in God) that lives in the moment is doing it to appreciate God’s creation of today but not in fact to appreciate the actions that are being done.

I am not claiming that there is any religious motives behind the characters in Roth’s story but I still wonder if anyone can really ever live in the moment or the now if there is a religious purpose to appreciate God behind all their motives?

Blog Finale.

Last week we discussed The Human Stain by Roth. In it, Coleman and the janitor discuss the existence of God. To the janitor, meaning in her life is characterized by not wanting to be someone else somewhere else. In the case of a husband and wife having sex, it could be that one or the other imagines that he or she is with another person to whom they are attracted. This is an example of wanting to be someone else, somewhere else. Rather, we need to live in the "this," or the present moment, in order to place meaning in our lives. I immediately related this back to earlier this semester when we discussed thought as proof of human freedom. We can also think back to the idea of living the "eternal life" and avoiding living in the "this" would cause one great anxiety about his life.

The idea of "eternal life" certainly relates to this reading. We can never fully experience our lives if we constantly wish we could do something else. A potentially lame example of this is a young adult who chooses their career according that what his family expects, instead of following his desires. He would would be in a perpetual state of the "someone else, somewhere else," which would cause him depression and anxiety. To imagine that life over and over would only cause more tragedy. The characters relate the idea of a man and wife having sex (particularly one wanting to be with another during the act of sex) to the existence of God. We discussed in class how this relates to God, in that humans always try to re-invent themselves despite the way they were created. This, to me, is a weak explanation of God's existence. Rather, it applies more to the focal points of existentialism. While it is inconvenient to constantly wish to be someone else somewhere else, it in a way proves us as free beings. When I take my math final on the 16th, I will desperately wish to be another student, one who is travelling home. My capability to imagine myself as another person supports existentialist philosophers' ideas that we are free beings to think what we wish. This contrasts the text, in that our desires to be elsewhere cannot necessarily relate to God. That suggests essence before existence, in that we were created to be a certain way yet we cannot help but to "want what we can't have." To say that we refute our "creation" rids the idea of existentialism entirely.

Philip Roth and Living in the Moment

It seems that the philosophy expressed in The Human Stain can be more or less summarized by the maxim: “live in the moment.” I think that this might be a notion of Existentialism most applicable to our lives.

When we live in the moment, we have no opportunity to imagine the past or the future, only what we experience in the present. We have no opportunity, as Sartre would say, to live in bad faith, to exist in the mode of not-being. It seems imperative to live without over-thinking the future or the past, because our past and future selves do not exist. By pretending that they do, we are not really living. We pretend that our present reality is false, that we do not exist. This is not to say that some sort of long term goals are wrong or bad, but they should not dictate the way in which we experience the present.
I think this is what Roth is getting at with the story of the couple dancing. The woman urges her partner, “don’t look at me now like I’m good for something other than this. Something more than this. Don’t do that. Stay here with me. Don’t go. Hold on to this.” This is Roth’s notion of an ideal life. It should not be one lived in moments of the past, or attempting to imagine the future. To actually live life, it is necessary to actively make meaning of the world. The couple in this example make the dance a symbol of human existence. They render the event significantly meaningful. They do not allow the past or present to nihilate, so to speak, their present selves.

The dance represents the rarity of modern life in which a person is actually doing what they’re doing. To be more specific, it is like another except from Roth. The woman posits, “You’re a man and you’re with your wife and you’re fucking her, but you’re thinking you want to be fucking the post office janitor. Okay—you know what? You’re with the janitor.” In this case, the man is not actually doing what he is doing. He is somewhere else. In his mind—and therefore in his “true” reality—he is fucking the “janitor.” Although perhaps this seems like a somewhat esoteric example, it actually is quite like the way most of us live our lives. We go to class imagining that we are outside or back in our rooms. We stay in and imagine scenarios in which we decided to go out, of all the fun we could be having. Thus, we rarely do what we are doing.

They actions of the couple are life affirming because they are inherently meaningful. They do not garner a sense of meaning from what might happen in the future, or what has happened in the past. They do not imagine that they are dancing with other people or that they are outside or at dinner. They are living in the moment. Thus, they are genuinely themselves. It seems that by acting in this way as much as possible, we can best apply the tenets of Existentialism. Too often we worry about the past or future and forget to live our lives.

Existialism (or lack thereof) in Roth

Aaah. At long last, something I know and understand: fiction. But of course, as per usual, a disclaimer: I’ve read other works from Phillip Roth in previous English classes, but by no means does that mean I possess some special insight into the meaning behind his words. I’ve analyzed his texts for their literary merit, not for their existentialist attitudes. But as before, I shall stride forward with accustomed blindness in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, I may stumble upon something spectacular.

In Roth’s “The Human Stain,” he employs the example of a man and woman having sex and states that the woman is neither having sex for the sake of having sex nor to attain physical pleasure, but rather because “it’s the right thing to do” (374). On this point, I’m completely and utterly confused. What qualifies having sex with one’s husband as intrinsically “right”? According to what principles? Does Roth attempt to claim that in any given situation, the expected or natural action that could occur in that situation is undeniably the “right” thing to do (but even on that premise, what distinguishes having sex as more “right” than sleeping or watching TV?), or is Roth simply being misogynistic? Quite honestly, I’m not entirely sure. My inner English major wants to gloss over the whole incident by claiming that Roth simply forgot to include the phrase “you think that” before “it’s the right thing to do” (that extra phrase would align this section of the metaphor with its later counterpart where he purports that if a man imagines in his mind that he’s with another woman, he is, in effect, with that other woman. Hence, one’s thoughts and convictions are what dictate the viability or “rightness” of a situation rather than what one actually does and who one does that action with).

However, the fact of the matter is that he did not include that phrase and though my inner English major may rally and protest, such an omission does raise an interesting and necessary question for this class: what, if anything, can be said to be undoubtedly “right” in existentialism? Throughout the semester, we’ve examined differing perspectives on how to live one’s life as put forth by various philosophers, but we’ve never established any baseline, any constructs that could act as general parameters for the field of existentialism. Even the claim by Jean-Paul Sartre – who’s commonly referred to as the father of existentialism – that “existentialism is a humanism” has been picked apart and argued against by his pupils and colleagues. If that’s the case, then perhaps it can be said that the number one rule in existentialism is that there are no rules, that there are no hard baselines against which to judge the viability of any action or situation. And that’s all well and good, but viewing the aforementioned excerpt from Roth through that premise begs the question: what qualifies Roth’s text as existentialist?

Existentialism (The Ending)

As it was in the beginning it shall be in the end (I've always wanted to say that and this was the perfect opportunity). When I first started writing on this blog I wrote a bloggraph about what I thought Existentialism was and what little I knew about it. Almost in the blink of an eye, the end of the semester has gotten here and we only have one more class in the semester. However, existentially, we knew the end was coming from the very beginning, because of this, the class participated like every class was the last class (with the exception of myself), like every moment was worth living; which, existentially it is. I can honestly say that before the class I don't ever recall having any existential crisis and, if I did, I just didn't know that's what they were. But after taking the class, the number of existential crisis (how the devil do you pluralize that word) that I had increased dramatically. I soon found myself walking around campus discussing with myself everything that I "think" I wanted to do, but they were really only out of the socially constructed portion of myself that say "these things" are what should be done anyway. For instance, I "think" I know that I want to go to graduate school and eventually work as an administrator in the Higher Education System. However, as I am walking, I then begin to think about what I really want....which is probably, living life to the fullest, to be on a cruise out in the middle of the ocean with the sun shining bright on me. But I know that if everyone lived to do exactly what they wanted then I start to question what would actually be able to get done....what if the captain of the ship that I want to cruise on doesn't want to be a captain...then I can't cruise. I am left to not only understand that my death is only mine, but may be the only thing that I will be able to look forward to. Now that I think about it, everything else that I look forward to, I look forward to it, and then it's over. If I know I am going to die...I might as well look forward to it and know that nothing else comes after. The knowing of the coming of death doesn't really cause too much anxiety. For those people that it does cause anxiety for I feel as if they haven't come to terms with it. I really enjoyed the class though. It was truly and eye opener. I had a many a brain ooozing out of my head moments but that's a good thing because it caused my brain to think, and to try and understand, and forced it to wrap itself around ideas that it had never been exposed to.


Last week, I thought our discussion on postmodernism and more specifically, Derrida's concept of words, was interesting. He gives the example of difference and the French word for differ, differance. These two words sound the same, but by their context, you are able to tell the well, difference, between the two. As words, they can always mean something else in another context. In this case, words and their meaning seem to parallel human beings--no two words mean exactly the same, just as no two humans' existences are exactly the same. Each differs in a certain context. One word can mean something entirely different in one sentence than another, and a human can act an entirely different way in one situation than another. If a human is put in a strange situation he/she is not used to, they may feel uncomfortable and act differently than usual--if a word is put into another sentence it is usually not used in, its meaning may change.

Also, this is kind of a silly example, but I actually think it works here-- a few weeks ago Professor Johnson mentioned again “the gaze.” “The gaze” however also sounds like “the gays.” It might have caught me off guard for a second, but I knew that in this context, she was obviously talking about existentialism’s “the gaze.” The point is, though they sound the same, they mean something completely different and one way or the other, changes the meaning and interpretation completely. It is just funny to think about stories told over time and texts, such as the Bible, where the verbal and written context of the same thing may mean completely different things to those who told the stories and those who wrote them; even those who are reading them.

There's no "u" in special

The existential video with the two dots raises an interesting question about existentialism.

One of the dots is upset because he depends on the internet for his happiness. I think that his use of the internet is very existential. When we create a facebook page, we are creating meaning for our lives. We decide which pictures to take and how they should look and which pictures to use to represent ourselves. We also describe ourselves: we list our jobs then describe them by saying “mindless but it pays,” or list books that we like to prove our intelligence or knowledge of culture. By picking and choosing “what matters” in our lives and what represents us, we are creating meaning and therefore engaged in an existential act.

However, one of the reasons that the dot becomes so dependent on the internet is because he needs to see that there are more things about him on the internet each morning. I take this to mean that other people need to respond or other people need to make reference to his life in order for him to feel fulfilled. It seems that he feels a need for other people to recognize the meaning he has made and if he cannot achieve this then he feels his meaning is not real. The friend dot’s response to the dot’s despondency pales in comparison to the honesty and realness of the dot’s statements and is characterized by the average everydayness of what “they say.” Using phrases like “oh, don’t worry about it” or “its ok” are examples of what “they say” and none of the responses from the friend dot are really comforting.

Also, I think the representation of the person as a tiny dot of color among a screen of color represents the person’s feeling of insignificance. Because the person is just like everyone else in the world he wants something to distinguish himself and wants others to recognize him. Towards the end of the film the dot states he wants to be a more famous version of God, i.e. he wants everyone to know who he is and to recognize the meaning he has made as objectively true. After that, color flashes across the screen, alternately disguises the dot and the friend dot until they both disappear completely in the field of color.

I think that this need for our meaning to be real would also be found in our desires to seek out relationships in which other people affirm our meanings. Therefore, it seems that the dot and humans in general tend to seek out objective meaning. I wanted to pose the question of what the existentialist would say about this. Obviously objective meaning is impossible to the existentialist but should we try to seek it out anyway through societal rules and organized religion? It seems that the existentialist would say that this would be shirking from our responsibility to freedom. Therefore I think that the existentialism would say that our yearning for others to affirm the meanings we make is a sign of weakness and dodging responsibility.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

New Human Existence

Today in class, we watched a video with two dots speaking to one another about one’s conquest to derive meaning in his life. Through seeing his sightings on the internet, he was able to find happiness. Yet when he did not see anything about himself, he was depressed. He was creating meaning through technology, which signifies the shift in our generation. Many of the philosophers we have read throughout the semester did not have the technological advances that we have made in the past decade. Dr. Johnson pointed out that technology brings about a new crisis of meaning or a new human existence. This new perspective on beings brings about a lot of problems in the existentialist world.

First, we must look at how the internet changes a being. The internet allows us to transcribe exactly who we think we are into a profile. We are able to create, destroy, leave out, or simply be ignorant to characteristics that make us as individuals. A profile may not be a complete lie, but it is our own perception of ourselves and what we want people to see. Alot of people can gain access to the profile or page; through scanning pictures or sighting different interests, people are able to make preconceived ideas of what we are doing or who we are. It allows people to judge others based off the web without even meeting them. That is the first problem. The second problem is for the being itself, which we briefly discussed in class. Through creating meaning on the internet, we have a chance of losing a meaning in the physical world. As a disclaimer, I do not believe that we lose our self by creating a profile or spending time on the web. If it is through those things that we find meaning, then in a sense one has created nothingness within their own lives. (I feel it will be interesting to see the generations below us who have grown up playing Wii instead of playing in the backyard)

There are many issues I feel that could arise with the philosophers if a “being” is communicating and deriving meaning through the internet. The two that stand out to me are Heigel’s master-slave dialectic and Sartre’s “The Gaze.” If two “beings” are not in contact nor know the others true strengths or weaknesses, then how can one gain superiority over the other? In this case, does the internet levels the playing field and acts as an equalizer? On the other hand, without being in contact one cannot be objectified by “the gaze,” yet it seems likely that some form of opinions can be drawn from the internet. Although I have thought about the effects of the internet on the fundamentals of existentialism, but have not yet figured out the way in which the society will deal with the new human existence.

Stupid Sartre!

"To be stupid, and selfish, and to have good health are the three requirements for happiness; though if stupidity is lacking, the others are useless. "
-Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)
A few weeks ago the North American Sartre Society Conference was in town at the University of Memphis. One particular lecture I attended entitled "Laughter and Forgetting," Nicolas de Warren of Wellesley College argues that towards the end of Sartre's life, he began to discover something essential about his existence through his writing on Flaubert in The Family Idiot (1971). Flaubert is known for bringing cyncism to an art form and his most famous novel was Madame Bovary.

The Family Idiot
is a psychoanalytic and existential project in which Sartre imagines how Flaubert forged his inner self during his adolesence and later on in his literary career. De Warren argues that Sartre discovers something essential about himself: that he must make himself stupid in order to not be stupid about the stupdity he is renouncing. According to de Warren, The Family Idiot is not simply an attempt to analyze Flaubert's life but also Sartre's own ridiculousness. Through his research, Sartre finds that Flaubert has made himself stupid with the promise of overcoming bad faith - to not be stupid in the mode of being stupid.

De Warren argues that stupidity can be described as reimagined bad faith in that through the dissasociation of truth (transcendence) and evidence (facticity), evidence is nuetralized and an understanding of that situation results in something that can be true despite any evidence or particularity. It was really hard for me to pin down what exactly he was saying here but I think de Warren was getting at ironic bad faith. When we act ironically, we have an understanding that the action we are taking is not actually a reflection of ourselves. The action itself still takes place, but looses it's transcendent meaning as the nature of irony involves a preconception that one's actions are opposed to one's transcendant identity.

De Warren also discussed the tone of stupidity. When we are speaking we give particular sounds meaning (even though the words themselves do not occupy that meaning). The nature of tone "turns materiality into meaning." For example, the phrase "deeply profound" is a nonsensicle one, as depth is implied in profundity. However, the use of the "deeply" makes the phrase more emphatic, changing the statements percieved meaning without changing the statements actual meaning.

In 1964, just before The Family Idiot was published, Sartre was awarded, and subsequently rejected, the Nobel Prize for Literature. De Warren argues that it was a ridiculous move to refuse such an honorable prize and Sartre was well aware of that. De Warren compares the rejection of the nobel prize to the act of graffiti. In both cases, the person is enscribing their subjectivity on an object in order to affirm themselves over that object and also deny it. So stupidity, he argues, is a consequence of our freedom over objects.

De Warren described bad faith as a kind of "vaudville comedy of stupid people." For de Warren, stupidity is the way in which conciousness dupes itself. De Warren's argument makes intuitive sense to me. People often make themselves into the subject of ridicule in order to make other realize their own stupidity. Additionally, it is commonly understood that one ought to be able to laugh at one's self, or at least not take things to seriously. So for Sartre, it was only through being stupid that he could elevate himself above stupidity all together.

I think that de Warren provides a way of looking at some of Sartre's basic consepts in a new light. Howver, I wonder if Sartre would consider bad faith an essential consequence of human freedom. According to existentialism, nothing is essentially anything as any meaning in the world is ascribed. But if we are all destined to act in bad faith and there be stupid, then would that be an essential component of human nature?

(Sorry if the arugement seems disjointed. I wish I had the whole paper, because the guy really only spoke for twenty minutes.)

Coleman and the They

The selection from Philip Roth's The Human Stain shows the capacity of literature to powerfully convey existential themes more effectively than most abstruse philosophical argument. Literature helps us to feel the conflicts that are often stripped of their force through attempts to translate them into a philosophical language fitting an academic form. The refreshingly vulgar and human characters display many of the same sentiments shown by other conversational writers such as Camus (see The Fall). Camus' conqueror in The Myth of Sisyphus echoes the imperatives put forth by Roth's character in stating that in reacting to the absurdity between human life and the universe, man has one luxury, "that of human relations...Taut faces, threatened fraternity, such strong and chaste friendship among men--these are the true riches because they are transitory," (Camus, 88). The emphasis on authentic interpersonal relations is, although appearing somewhat idealistic and pathetic in Roth's character, contiguous with Heidegger's description of an altered hold on everydayness characteristic of authenticity.

Authenticity begins not with placing oneself above or apart from the They but rather knowing specifically against whom one is distinguishing oneself, the particular perspectives being forced upon you. Coleman's female friend recognizes the lack of emphasis on personal, meditative thinking endemic to "all the social ways of thinking" and the leveling down of Dasein caused by these social expectations. All of this analysis may be misguided without knowledge of the actual characters' background stories, as Eric rightly pointed out in his precis. However, despite Coleman's "living a lie," being absorbed into the kind of being of "the others," he seems to be in line with Camus by keeping touch with the gratuitousness of his existence and the absurdity of his life, as displayed by his "proof" (or lack thereof, depending on interpretation) for God's existence.

Even the atrocious film version, with Nicole Kidman as the poorly played janitor, exhibits the influence of the They, as Coleman's wife dies from the shock of his disgraced departure from the university. I cannot agree with Eric's comparison of the janitor with the Uebermensch both as I have only read this excerpt and probably witnessed Hollywood destroy another important book, yet it is obvious how instrumental this new love interest of Coleman's influenced his conception of his own being and his being-toward-death. This merely demonstrates the malleability of the self and the ease with which something like love can influence one's worldview. However, it can only be argued that the janitor is working toward Nietzsche's ideal of the Uebermensch in that she creates her own values, her own meaning to her existence, as something apart from conformity to the herd mentality and the warm comfort and easy consent that comes from being indistinguishable from one's social environment. The Uebermensch arises in Nietzsche's thought from his preoccupation with self-creation and self-perfecting but also was an ideal that neither himself or another has or necessarily will have embodied.