Zygmunt Bauman: The Art of Life – Review

[From Janaury] So in an extremely coincidental turn of events (for me) Bauman died the day after I finished this book. It was the first of his I’ve read and although this review isn’t the most positive I still feel it’s necessary to add my condolences. RIP to a great man.


Interesting in parts but on the whole fairly uneventful. The key theme of the book is that in order to come to terms with our ‘liquid modern’ world, we must view ourselves as ‘artists of life’:

So we are all artists of our lives – knowingly or not, willingly or not, like it or not. To be an artist means to give form and shape to what otherwise would be shapeless or formless. To manipulate probabilities. To impose an ‘order’ on what other would be ‘chaos’: to ‘organize’ an otherwise chaotic – random, haphazard and so unpredictable – collection of things and events by making certain events more likely to happen than all the others

The way he forms these ideas from a variety of philosophical and modern sociological sources was definitely interesting but I felt there was a little lack of focus on the whole. The idea of a ‘liquid modernity’ – a modernity that is constantly shifting; where values, relationships, and commitments are no longer fixed for more than a short period of time – is hardly a revolutionary one. Nevertheless there were definitely some gems of insight here and some extremely pretty passages. For example:

All things of the body stream away like a river, all things of the mind are dreams and delusions… What then can escort us on our way? One thing, one thing only: philosophy.

I particularly liked the introduction in which we get a brief overview of different conceptions of happiness through the history of philosophy, and later the anecdote of replacing the ‘uprooting’ of identity with a ‘reanchoring’ of identity:

Indeed, unlike in the case of ‘uprooting’ and ‘disembedding’, there is nothing irrevocable, let alone ultimate, in drawing up an anchor. When they are torn out of the soul in which they drew, roots are likely desiccate, killing the plant they nourished and making its revival border on the miraculous – anchors are drawn up only to be cast out again, and they can be cast out with a similar ease at many different, near or distant ports of all.

Definitely some post-modern influence here. (I’m sure the Deleuzians would be happy to see people getting away from those pesky arborescent roots!)

Overall I would say it was a fairly enjoyable read, but it lacked that lacked that spark of profundity that any good work of philosophy hits you with. Maybe I’m being slightly harsh but I think 3* is fair. In general I don’t think I’ll be coming back to Bauman’s work any time soon.

Gilbert Simondon: Two Lessons on Animal and Man – Review

Simondon

Gilbert Simondon (1924 – 1989) was arguably one of the most original and innovative thinkers in contemporary French philosophy. A student of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simondon’s work has has had an influence on a wide variety disciplines ranging from philosophy and anthropology, to media and cybernetics. As Aislinn O’Donnell describes: ‘On one page, he may describe an electrical field, on another, detail the genesis of the crystal, and on another, reflect on anxiety, anguish and spirituality.’

Although readily available in French, none of his major works have yet been published in English. For many of us who are familiar with his work through Gilles Deleuze or Bernard Stiegler, it is a real shame that a thinker who has been so influential to some of the most important philosophers of our era still remains inaccessible to so many readers.

However, what we have here in Two Lessons on Animal and Man is two lectures Simondon gave as an introduction to a course on ‘general psychology’ at the University of Poitiers in 1963-1964 –it is the first book length work of Simondon’s to be translated into English. This book is, in the words of O’Donnell , ‘a wonderful dance through centuries of philosophy’, that outlines the dialectical history of Man’s constantly developing ideas on the distinctions between human, animal and plant life from antiquity up to the 17th century.

After a neat introduction by Jean-Yves Chateau which tries to elucidate this book within the broader context of Simondon’s work on psychic and collective individuation (something I won’t elaborate on here) we come to the first lesson: Antiquity.

Antiquity

Socrates and Plato

In this chapter Simondon tracks humanity’s thought on animal and man from Pythagoras, through Plato and Aristotle, up until the stoics. Simondon argues that the Presocratics, interestingly enough, didn’t consider the human soul to be fundamentally different in nature from the souls of animals or indeed vegetal life. In fact, all living creatures have a vital essence which implies that the important distinction is not between human, animal, and vegetable but merely between all things living and those non-living. Here we can see some glimmers of Simondon’s work on individuation starting to shine through.

In any case, what is revealed by this story is the basis for a partially primitive belief in the transmigration of souls at the origin of our western civilization, which implies that the soul is not a properly individual reality. The soul individualises itself for a certain length of time under the guise of a certain existence, but before this existence, it has known other existences, and after this existence, it could experience more still. (p.34)

He argues that this idea was a consistent feature of thought in antiquity up until the time of Socrates and Plato. It was Socrates, through the writing of Plato, who initially made the distinction between animal instinct and human intelligence; in particular between nous (reason), thumos (heart, elan) and epithumia (desire). Plato argued in the Timaeus that Man should be thought of as the center of the universe. It is therefore through a process of ‘reverse evolution’ from Man that all other forms of being have essentially been degraded. We could imagine a evolutionary tree with Man at the top, followed by women, animals, and finally plants:

At the source was man, which is the most perfect and which manifests in himself all the elements that allowed to create by degradation of the different species. … This idea from the Timaeus, which is in a sense monstrous, and in a sense genius, is the first theory of evolution in the Western world. Only, it’s a reverse theory of evolution. (pp. 39-40)

So, to Simondon, the views of Pythagoras through to Plato can essentially be seen as ‘axiological and mythological’, however an important dialectical shift from this way of thinking came via Aristotle.

Aristotle

Aristotle was the first thinker of Antiquity to formulate a theory of man, animal, and the vegetal that was an ‘objective naturalist doctrine of observation’ rather than the previous mythological, or axiological doctrines. Aristotle observed that the vegetal already contains a soul which relates to the developmental functions and growth i.e. plants take something from soil, air and light, in order to provide nutrition for themselves, but they also reproduce; their developmental functions are functions of growth but also of reproduction.

Through this observational understanding of plant life in relation to, and through the relationships between, vital functions, Aristotle had founded a new way to compare the similarities and differences between the human, animal and vegetal world. But importantly, he also saw that there was a notion of equivalence between these three worlds; although each species has their own defining characteristics (which, in the case of humans would be reason) we must admit that ‘there exist continuities and functional equivalents within the various levels of organisation between the different modes of living beings.’ For example, the growing in plants is a functional analogy to instinct in ants as habit in animals is analogous to human prudence.

The Stoics

However, as we trace this dialectic once more we come to the Stoics who returned to the ethical foundations laid down by Socrates and Plato:

The Stoics, in effect, deny intelligence to animals and develop the theory of instinctive animal activity. They contrast the human functions of liberty, rational choice, rationality, knowledge and wisdom, with animal characteristics that come by instinct. … They want to show that the human is a being apart from the rest of nature. (pp.52-53)

In other words, they opposed intelligence with instinct, putting intelligence, or nous, once again on a higher plane. So while animals may be superior to man in their attributes and instincts that are specifically adapted to surviving in nature, man is superior to animals by virtue of his reason. So, with the Stoics we have:

… a notion of instinct, [which is] essentially comprised of automatism. What the animal does that resembles man, it does by instinct. Whatever this may be, man does it by reason. Consequently man is of a different nature than animals and plants. (p.55)

However, at the end of Antiquity, Simondon observes that we are left with a legacy where, even though human intelligence and animal instinct are opposed, nevertheless ‘what occurs in man and what occurs in animals are comparable…not identical, but comparable’ (p. 58).

Christianity and Cartesianism

In the second lesson of his book Two Lessons on Animal and Man, Gilbert Simondon begins to trace what he regards as the beginnings of a substantial break from the thinking of Antiquity, which came in the form of a marked focus on spirituality, in particular Christianity and the development of Cartesianism. During these years, thinkers such as St. Augustine, Descartes, and Malebranche would work on the idea that there is a particular ‘interiority’ that is peculiar to man, and thus separates him from animal life:

… the intervention of the doctrine of spiritual activity, starting with Christianity, but much more still at the interior of Cartesianism, constitutes a dichotomous opposition, an opposition that affirms two distinct natures and not merely two levels. (p.59)

The Apologists to St. Thomas

Simondon notes that the Apologists, Tatian, Arnobius and Lactantius, were concerned with creating an ‘extremely powerful ethical dualism’ that would seek to establish Christian ethics not just between animal and man, but between Christian and non-Christian. St Augustine reaffirmed the idea that animals have souls that are comparable to humans, yet to St Augustine these are ‘sensitive souls’; souls that can suffer and dream but are essentially acting purely out of instinct. St Thomas also denied the concept of reason in animal life, yet argued that animals in some respect had intentions, i.e. ‘distant ends for which they work, and which are consciously perceived by them’.

The Renaissance

Next, during the period of the Renaissance, came a ‘a renewal in the relation between the animal and human psyche’. Simondon argues that this interest was driven by a desire to avenge the dualism of the Apologists in order to restore the importance of the animal Psyche ‘in order to teach us lessons’. Giordano Bruno describes an all ecompassing theory of animation which leads simondon to refer to him as ‘one of the most powerful philosophers of the Renaissance’:

According to his doctrine, animation, which is to say life, is not merely a fact for beings at the scale of life as we know it, but can also be a fact for stars … life can exist in elements where we don’t believe it to exist …  To this extent, it is certain that animals … should not be considered inferior beings or caricatures of man. (p.67)

St Francis of Assisi took up this theme of harmonious unity by positing the notion of the Great Being. Animals are part of the entirety of Creation and thus, in their own way, adore and honor God. Montaigne also rejected the dualism of animal and man, and thus adopted a monist perspective by observing that all psychical faculties in animals are the same as those existing in man. For Montaigne animals are superior because they do not have to pose the question of knowing what to choose since they act out of instinct, an instinct that can’t make mistakes.

Yet, this move signals a break in the previous thinking; in stating that animals did not have to pose the question of knowing, the supposition is that rationality is fundamentally different to instinct, which, in Simondon’s words, ‘is the door to dualism’ which will lead us to Descartes and Malebranche.

Descartes and Malebranche

…according to Descartes, animals possess neither intelligence nor instinct. The animal is a machine, an automaton … Descartes is the first who said animal behaviours are not instinctive… they are mechanical. (p.73)

So, as Simondon describes, animals act not out of instinct, something that could at least be comparable to man, but out of pure automatism of the body; they do not operate on a psychological frequency any more than machines do. Animals are, thus, res extensa, without consciousness and without interiority whereas humans are res cogitans.

Similarly, Malebranche took up the Cartesian doctrine in one of it’s strictest forms, he argues that animals cannot suffer, desire, or know anything whatsoever, however he puts forward a touching theological explanation for this:

…animals cannot suffer, because pain is the result of original sin, and nowhere is it said that animals ate the forbidden fruit, and as a result, animals cannot suffer, it would be an injustice towards them because they did not commit this sin. (p.77)

To Simondon this doctrine is ‘excessive, bizarre, scandalous’ however he argues that it was Cartesianism that dialectically paved the way for 19th-20th century science to study human behavior. Descartes was the necessary stepping stone for out modern understanding of animality (which of course is still highly debated).

Bousset and La Fontaine

Simondon concludes with a brief outline of these two lesser known thinkers. Bousset, a German theologian, argued vehemently against Cartesianism, stating that ‘Man is an animal. We have the experience of what is inside us and what comes from reflection and reason. The grandest, most complete being is man. And man is an animal.’ This argument essentially tries to reconcile Cartesianism with the thinking of St Thomas.

La Fontaine similarly defended the animal kingdom through his fable-like poems, considering it to have been violated by systematic thinking and Simondon quotes a substantial portion of his poem ‘Address to Madame de la Sabliere’ which can be found here.

So what we have in this short book is a critique of the notion that ‘what is newer is better’, and the idea that we have witnessed progress in human thinking in regards to the relationship between animal and man is severely challenged through this dialectical journey; a journey which explores and questions both critically and imaginatively the foundational assumptions that underpin concept formation in both psychology and philosophy, revealing stories and influences that, in some cases, both disciplines may have initially ignored.

It’s a great shame that there is not more of Simondon’s work translated into English but this book gives us a small insight into the mind of one the most under-appreciated thinkers of the 20th century.

Borges and Murakami: Philosophy in Fiction

Borges and Murakami

Philosophy in fiction has had a long and storied history, from the mythology of Ancient Greece to existential fiction of the 19th and 20th centuries, but in more recent times there have been two authors that have stood out to me, not because they are philosophers writing a philosophical treatise in the form of fiction, like Sartre or Camus, but because they are authors who seamlessly weave philosophical problems into their stories. Their tales are fictional, of course, but the thoughts they leave you with reverberate around the inside of your skull in a way that some of the world’s greatest philosophers can only manage through dense academic prose. One of the these authors is Jorge Luis Borges, the other is Haruki Murakami.

Upon first inspection there seems to be very few similarities between these two: Murakami, a literary superstar who is a regular at top of the bestsellers lists, often writes lengthy books in startlingly simplistic prose. His longest being 2011s 1Q84, which is comprised of three parts totalling 1325 pages. Borges on the other hand is renowned for his conservative, minimalist style. He is possibly the only writer in history with the ability to encapsulate the idea of infinity in the space of a few lines. Take for example Borges’ beautifully short piece of prose poetry A Dreaman infinite paradox captured within the space of 7 lines of text. The longest Borges story I’m aware of is Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, the tale of a world of pure idealism that reaches a whopping -wait for it- 20 pages!

Whereas a Borges story plunges you face first into the depths of the universe, Murakami writes pages upon pages of prose which unassumingly carry you away like a stream drifting into the deepest corners of the author’s mind. Despite their completely opposite literary styles the two of them take places 1 and 2 on my GoodReads top authors list. I’ve now read 7 of Borges’ works, and 5 of Murakami’s and their similarities and influences are becoming increasingly clear to me.

Dreams

Murakami’s works tend to engage in a form existential meditation, often incorporating elements of the surreal and fantastic. Yet where Murakami’s real strength as an author lies is in his exposition dreams and the unconscious mind, the ideas of Psychoanalysis, in particular Carl Jung, play a major role in Murakami’s work. The Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With Thousand Faces being the foundation of many of his books, each of which contain a series of reoccurring archetypal images: water, wells, shadows, cats, and libraries, for example. As he states in this interview with the Japan Times:

I think that perhaps, in a way, my novels run parallel to the phenomenon of “the diffusion of logic.” When I write a novel, I place more importance on the subconscious world than the conscious world. The conscious world is the world of logic. What I’m pursuing is the world beneath logic.

Borges, on the other hand, was often very critical of psychoanalytic methods of interpretation arguing that ‘the secret of the success of psychoanalysis resides in people’s vanity’, however he was nevertheless also interested in the work of Carl Jung. Much like Murakami, we see in Borges a repetition of a specific set of archetypal tropes that appear throughout his works: books, mirrors, labyrinths, libraries, and yet again, dreams, being just a few.

This fascination with dreams is undoubtedly one that both authors share; they both, in their own way, use dreams as a literary device through which they can attempt to express the inexpressible. For Murakami, dreams give us access to the conceptual realm separate from our day to day existence, a realm that exists inside every one of us. The line that divides waking and dreaming is being constantly rubbed out and redrawn to produce a world of subconscious imagery in which fiction and fact seem to merge effortlessly together.

Although this blending of dreams and reality is in itself extremely Borgesian, Borges tends to favour the metaphysical over the surreal, with many stories incorporating philosophical puzzles and paradoxes. Borges’ story The Circular Ruins depicts an infinite paradox of a man who, at the end of the tale, comes to the revelation that his whole life ‘was a mere appearance, dreamt by another.’

Philosophical Influences

Both Borges and Murakami’s influences are wide and impossibly varied. Borges was influenced by a great many literary writers throughout history including Cervantes, Shakespeare, Swedenborg and Stevenson, yet philosophically speaking he was probably most greatly indebted to Arthur Schopenhauer. Borges would often cite Schopenhauer’s proposition that life and dreams are pages of the same book, reading them in order is to live a waking life, picking pages as random is to dream. Dreams, for Borges are not an inferior dimension of reality, but the only place in which we can formulate accurately the enigmas of living. One of which is the essential multiplicity of our writing, reading and experiencing selves.

A typical Murakami book on the other hand might draw on influences ranging from Kafka to Hegel, Vonnegut to Bergson, or Franz Liszt to The Beatles. Murakami himself has mentioned that in one of his most famous books (and my personal favourite) Kafka on the Shore he incorporates elements of Hegelian dialectic into the story, a fact that is subtly hinted at towards the end of the book by a beautiful prostitute-come-philosopher:

“Hegel believed that a person is not merely conscious of self and object as separate entities, but through the projection of the self via the meditation of the object is volitionally able to gain a deeper understanding of the self. All of which constitutes self-consciousness”

Later in the same scene we’re treated to a short lesson on Bergson’s Matter and Memory:

“The pure present is an ungraspable advance of the past devouring the future. In truth, all sensation is already memory.” Hoshino looked up, mouth half open, and gazed at her face. “What’s that?” “Henri Bergson,” she replied … “Mame Mo Mamelay. You ever read it?”

Murakami (perhaps knowingly, perhaps unknowingly) also draws parallels with some of the more contemporary theories of philosophy of mind. In chapter 25 of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World we are given an exposition of the mind which is strikingly similar to the functionalist models of the 20th century (i.e. the idea of mind as a product a functional algorithm produced by the brain) infused with elements of Freud:

‘The cognitive system arisin’ from the aggregate memories of that individual’s past experiences. The layman’s version for this is the mind.’ 

Murakami by no means presents a strict philosophical treatise but he selectively chooses to adorn his work with gems of brilliance in a way which will really get your brain cogs whirring.

Borges’ Influence

Whereas Murakami picks and chooses snippets of philosophy to bring out the underlying subconscious elements of his fiction, Borges, in his own right, was, unintentionally, a huge influence for many of the most important post-modern philosophers of the 20th century. Giants of philosophy such as Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze have both cited Borges as a reference in their works. Foucault famously tips his hat to Borges at the beginning of his book The Order of Things:

This book first arose out of a passage in [Jorge Luis] Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought … breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other.

Furthermore, Deleuze, in Difference and Repetition, cites the Borges story in which Pierre Menard reproduces the exact text of Don Quixote as a quintessential repetition: the repetition of Cervantes in Menard takes on a magical quality by virtue of its translation into a different time and place. Art, to Deleuze, is often a source of repetition because no artistic use of an element is ever truly equivalent to other uses. Similarly Deleuze often likes to cite Borges’s famous story, The Garden of the Forking Paths, in which a ‘virtual world’ is described in the labyrinthine book of a Chinese philosopher named Ts’ui Pên:

In all fiction, when a man is faced with alternatives, he chooses one at the expense of others. In the almost unfathomable Ts’ui Pên, he chooses—simultaneously—all of them… In Ts’ui Pên’s work, all the possible solutions occur, each one being the point of departure for other bifurcations.

And finally Borges’ influence can be seen just as evidently in Murakami who claims Borges as one of his own literary heroes. In Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World many of the characters and settings seem to be drawn out with Borges pen: Libraries, dreams and mythical creatures all take center stage throughout the book. In fact there is a reference to Borges’ wonderful Book of Imaginary Beings in which the protagonist tries to understand the meaning of a unicorn skull through an analysis Borges’ classic bestiary.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

To conclude, I think nothing sums up the philosophical and literary connection between my two favourite authors better than The Carnegie Library’s statement that we should

Think of Borges as the “heads” to Murakami’s “tails” on the post-modern literary “coin”; or, preferably, don’t think of either as either.

Both writers are brilliant in their own way, and both writers are completely different in their own way, but they nonetheless share the same love for the importance of philosophical ideas and how they can be used to influence and shape the literary world.

Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Non-Fictions – Review

Another Borges book. Another 5 stars.

I mean this man is so brilliant I’m starting to turn into a dithering fanboy when reading his books.

Now, I’ve only actually owned this book for a couple of days, and to be honest I’ve only read a few of the hundred plus essays in here, but this isn’t exactly a book to be read from beginning to end. In fact that seems like a pretty pointless exercise. You can gain so much from reading so little of Borges’ writing that it seems like I may as well write a review now.

To get an idea of the spectacular diversity of his interests let me give you a quick list of some of the most intriguing essay titles:

A History of Angels
The Duration of Hell
Narrative Art and Magic
A Defense of the Kabbalah
A History of Eternity
On the Cult of Books
Personality and the Buddha

And if that seems a bit heavy for some people there’s also things along the lines of:

The Art of Verbal Abuse
and
A History of Tango

But of course, essays make up only a part of this collection, there are also book reviews, film reviews, biographies, prologues and lectures – my favourite being simply titled ‘Immortality’ (I mean how can you not love this guy? It requires some serious audacity for an 80 year old man to give a lecture on the art of living forever…)

I think the reason why I immediately fell in love with this book was because of the way Borges manages to analyse a huge variety of infinitely complex themes using his trademark short, concise style. The minimalism of his fiction writing translates excellently into his non-fiction. In fact, many of these are essentially pieces of writing you can pick up and read in the space of 5 minutes, yet you could probably read the same piece a hundred times and still gain something from it. Borges will always find a way to surprise you.

Another reason for the 5 star rating is that from reading it you really get a sense of getting to know the author, from his wicked sense of humour to his (almost) overly critical view on the role of literature and film. You find out, for example:

1. He doesn’t like King Kong.
‘his only virtue, his height, did not impress the cinematographer, who persisted on photographing him from above rather than from below’.
2. He thinks Aldous Huxley, although writing with ‘almost intolerable lucidity’ is highly overrated.
His Stories, Essays and Poems being dubbed ‘not unskillful, … not stupid, … not extraordinarily boring, they are, simply, worthless’.
3. He loves Kafka.
He argues Kafka’s work shows us that ‘each writer creates his precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.’
4. And from a young age he was a huge fan of James Joyce.
‘I will always esteem and adore the divine genius of this Gentleman, taking from him what I understand with humility and admiring with veneration what I am unable to understand’.

That last quote pretty much sums up my Borges fanboyism. I’ll never claim to fully understand, down the last details, every aspect of Borges work, yet at the same time I take huge enjoyment in trying to figure out the labyrinthine puzzles of his fiction and get to grips with the mystifying depth of his non-fiction.

In short, if you’re a Borges fan, or have any interest in some of the things mentioned above, buy this book. Considering the length of the majority of the essays it will keep you entertained for hours just skimming through the pages and finding something that grabs your fancy. I may change my mind on it after reading through it a bit more but somehow I find that pretty unlikely!

Aldolfo Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel – Review

Ok, so I decided to pick this up as I found out Bioy was a friend of Borges (who just happens to be my favourite writer), and, in fact, Borges described this as a ‘masterpiece’ of plotting. How could I resist?

There’s not much I can say about the story that doesn’t lead to spoilers but I’ll try and summarise what I got from it. The plot here is wrought with philosophical problems. I couldn’t help but see the influence of Henri Bergson’s ‘Matter and Memory’ when reading it. If someone were to write a short novel based on those Bergsonian ideas this would be it – the issues raised are all to do with the question of images, perceptions, memory and how these can affect, or indeed create, our perception of time.

It makes a lot of sense that this book was a key inspiration for Last Year In Marienbad (a film we were shown at university during a lecture on Bergson – maybe that explains the connection), so any fans of French New Wave cinema will probably get quite a lot from it.

There are also a lot of questions raised about the relationship of man to technology, in particular cinematic technology, and how these projections can affect our sense of self (or the ‘soul’ that Morel refers to) – ideas that are explored by Bergson, as well as by Deleuze and Stiegler (who is one of my favourite philosophers).

So it’s a book recommended by my favourite author and has conceptual parallels with my favourite philosopher, surely this was my favourite book ever? Unfortunately not. Apart from these philosophical musings, which will probably make me reread this book again at some point in the future, I thought the story was relatively uneventful. The prose were quite stripped down and plain which made for easy, quick, but not particularly enjoyable reading.

Overall I gave this book a solid 3 stars, it definitely made a lasting impression on me, but more for the philosophical aspects of it rather than for the story itself. I don’t think I could agree with Borges (for once!) on this one, but then maybe I’ll change my mind after a second reading, something The Invention of Morel definitely seems to require!