Tuesday, January 23, 2007


A nice piece in The Chronicle by Robert Soloman about the misrepresentation of the word "existentialism" in popular and contemporary culture, centered around a review of a new book on Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Camus called Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit. Sounds like the subtitle to my life story! (ha ha...sigh).

Uh anyways, Solomon agrees with the author's evaluation of pessimism as an "appropriate and realistic philosophy," but disputes his conflation of the term with existentialism. He admits that the assertion of the meaninglessness of human life and the "death of God" (Kierkegaard was, of course, a Christian) provokes anxiety, then adds that such notions are not necessarily nihilistic: The recognition of indeterminacy permits the valuation of subjective positions, an outlook that produces a more situated,* and, inherently just, conception of human experience.

Having read very few existential texts but a healthy amount of postmodernist criticism (and opposition), it's interesting to observe the manner in which both terms (the former being a precursor to the other) are so often exploited as straw men; existentialism is misrepresented as pessimism, postmodernism is portrayed as a product of the descent of traditional values and the rise of consumerism, deconstruction is written off as destruction, and multiculturalism is conflated with relativism. Which leads to the Big Question: Why are philosophical systems that privilege individual agency so often treated as scarecrows by the media?

*I know it's kind of obnoxious that I linked my own posts here, but they're revealing of my biases.


i know i'm whatever said...

Is there any philosophical system that the media does like? If you recall the Derrida obit in the New York times (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/10/obituaries/10derrida.html?ex=1255147200&en=bc84f1b2c5f092c5&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland)
[Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74], or any treatment of criticism in the culture wars, or the commonplace that Freud & Marx are "discredited" because their systems supposedly failed, that Nietzsche and Heidegger are "discredited" in the light of Nazism, etc. My point would be, all that bourgeois culture wants to do is draw a line beyond which we don't think about things. I hate to condemn "soundbite culture," since in the age of youtube, I am not sure that is even accurate, but the level of debate in this country (even on life-or-death issues like the war in Iraq, abortion) are hilariously/troublingly shallow. I (crudely) love the title of Derrida's "Who's Afraid of Philosophy?" where the answer is all too obvious.

In the wake of Snakes on a Plane, where our culture proved that it couldn't even wait for the thing to be brought into existence before we turned on it, I am not surprised that something as time-consuming and un-sexy as really-thinking-about-something consistently overstays its welcome.

By the way, have you read Kierkegaard? It is THE BEST. "Fear and Trembling" was easily the best book I read last year.

elmrockcity said...

I'm reading "Fear and Trembling" in this crazy class I have to tell you about.

I do remember reading the Derrida obit...With regards to the media, I think you're right about it antagonizing complexity rather than individual agency, but there are still "philosophical systems" that it approves; for example, mainstream arts criticism seems to privilege a brand of New Critical formalism. So I guess it comes down to your definition of a system.