Pacific APA 2013

402238_159649527482086_84650288_nThis year’s Pacific Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association was held right here in the Bay Area, at the Westin St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. I chaired a session in which Scott Jenkins, from the University of Kansas, presented his paper “What Does Recurrence Weigh On?” Commenting on Scott’s paper was Babette Babich from Fordam University, a world-renowned Nietzsche scholar who I was particularly excited to meet. The session was quite well attended, and the interaction between Scott and Babette gave everyone who was present a dramatic and spirited taste of the differing ways that analytic and continental thinkers approach the interpretation of  Friedrich Nietzsche’s works.

Professor Jenkin’s paper came from an analytic perspective and focused on trying to clarify the meaning of the “recurrence question,” (RQ) which is posed by Nietzsche in his book The Gay Science. The recurrence question, in a nutshell, asks us to consider whether or not we are able to bear the “heaviest weight” of thinking that the entirety of our lives might be lived again and again into eternity. The text upon which Jenkins focused his analysis comes from section 341:

What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your most solitary solitude and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over and over again, and you with it, speck of dust!”

The passage goes on to ask if you would greet this possibility with joy or with horror. Would it be a comfort or a burden to you to think that every single event in your life – both wonderful and terrible – was destined to be repeated infinitely into the future?

To may contemporary Westerners, the idea of experiencing any sort of afterlife is commonly thought of as a comfort, and yet in Eastern philosophy, reincarnation is treated as a kind of punishment. Buddhists, for instance, think of reincarnation as a sign of spiritual failure. Consciousness is recycled for repeated rounds only because of residual karma that has not been worked through in one’s present life. The reward for spiritual success, on the other hand, is final extinction or nirvana. It is interesting that in Nietzsche’s works, the idea of repeating life again and again is characterized, following the Eastern example, as something potentially negative; hence the title of the particular section of Nietzsche’s book that Scott focused on: das grösste Schwergewicht (the heaviest weight). The thought that you may come back again and again, reliving life exactly as it has been lived in the past, is the “heaviest weight” precisely because, according to Nietzsche, it is difficult to bear.

The question is, why? Why is this thought such a heavy and burdensome weight?

One possible answer is suggested by those who think that RQ acts as a guide to decision-making and deliberation. In this view, asking yourself the recurrence question becomes a way to decide if you are capable of willing your very next action into eternity. Cast in this way, the recurrence question resembles something like the various formulations of the Categorical Imperative in the writings of Kant. It is a device for deciding how enthusiastic you are in embracing some proposed course of action. If you are joyful about the possible repetition of an action into eternity, then that is a sign the action is good or valuable. If, on the other hand, you are distressed about such a potential repetition, then that is a sign the action is bad or to be avoided. In this view, the “weight” of RQ is the result of how it guides and constrains our efforts of deliberation.

The problem with this interpretation, Jenkins argued, is that Nietzsche clearly states that we must consider every single one of our past actions – “everything unspeakably small or great” – when entertaining the thought of recurrence, and this would certainly not aid in decision-making, but would more likely undermine our ability to act. Considering every single event in our lives, both the important as well as the insignificant ones, is not only a practical impossibility,  it would also reduce us to indecision and inaction. Therefore, Jenkins claimed, this can’t be the “weight” of RQ.

So what is the weight of RQ? Jenkins’ conclusion was that Nietzsche provides no adequate answer and that it remains unclear what purpose asking this question is supposed to serve.

Babette Babich replied to Jenkin’s analytical exegesis with an impressive response that called into question his entire approach to reading Nietzsche. Drawing on a wide and varied set of references (everything from Nietzsche’s other works to the Torah), Babich stressed the importance of thinking the question of recurrence within context, demanding that we avoid isolating RQ from the very thing that it is supposed to highlight: the issue of human finitude and the struggle with nihilism. “The point is the paradox!” she insisted, suggesting that it is not the answer that matters, but the vigor with which we confront the idea. RQ, in this way of thinking, forces us to face the reality of a life rooted in the here-and-now and which promises nothing more than what we make of it. For Nietzsche, since heaven and God have become untenable crutches in modern life, we modern humans must learn to live in this world as if this is all there is. In considering that all our actions will be repeated into eternity, we free ourselves from the thought that some force outside of ourselves can intervene to save or rescue us from our own decisions. How we react to the thought of eternal recurrence is an indication as to how well or how poorly we have come to terms with this reality. It is not a question that has or needs any particular answer.

Nietzsche bustBoth presenters were fascinating to me in their own ways. I was impressed by Scott Jenkin’s clarity and his analytical rigor in trying to clarify the meaning of Nietzsche’s doctrine of the Eternal Return while I was also impressed by Babette Babich’s wide-ranging scholarly erudition. Ultimately the difference between the two boiled down to the difference between analysis and synthesis. For Scott, the meaning of RQ needed to be sought in the analytical dissection of the idea while for Babette, its meaning was to be found by synthesizing an understanding of its place within Nietzsche’s entire body of work, his overarching philosophy and his worldview.

It was a pleasure to meet these philosophers. It was also a pleasure to see that the APA these days seems much more open to the inclusion of presenters advocating a continental perspective. Doing so makes for a much more lively, rich and intellectually stimulating environment.

The Specials

8671220.87I was walking up Market Street, hand-in-hand with my wife, past drug dealers, loud teenagers and tourists, the smell of stale urine and beer wafting from each alleyway that we passed. San Francisco may be a “yuppie” city today, but it still has a rough edge here and there. These edges were much more obvious when I was a youngster, but since then Market Street has been transformed from a sleazy, grindhouse-lined thoroughfare into something more like a tourist-friendly location. The part of the street that my wife and I were walking along lies in a transitional location, sandwiched, on the one side, by venues catering to monied theater-goers and, on the other, by porn palaces advertising free “ladies nights” and lap dances. I kept smelling marijuana as we passed the crowds of well dressed theater goers. I assumed they were not the ones smoking pot, although maybe I was wrong.

As we approached the Warfield Theater, the sight that greeted us provoked a strange sense of comfort in me. The Specials, one of my favorite bands from the early 1980’s, was on the bill and outside of the venue, it looked as if it was 1982 all over again. There was a line of Mod scooters – customized Vespas and Lambrettas – lining the sidewalk, surrounded by a throng of young and not-so-young mods, rockers, skins, punks and two-tones. I felt uncharacteristically happy, swept away into a world from the past. “I should be ashamed of myself,” I thought. “Here I am, a tenured philosophy professor, and all I want to do is to race around on a scooter and hang out with weirdos.” Nonetheless, I can’t deny that scooters, music and socializing were always much more fun than department meetings or faculty dinners. How could any sane person disagree with that?

Once inside the venue, we made our way upstairs. The show was sold-out, and the only available seating was high above the stage in the middle rows of the balcony. It initially struck me as a rather lame arrangement for watching a ska band, but in middle-age I’ve come to realize that I just don’t have the physical stamina to endure the crush and the violence of being in the midst of a dancing crowd anymore. The last time that I waded into such a group, I lost my glasses and was almost knocked unconscious by a whirl of bodies slam-dancing to the Angry Samoans. When I was in my teens, that was exhilarating. Now, in my 40’s, it is just unpleasant.

A two-piece rock group from San Diego called Little Hurricane was on stage as we entered the theater. They seemed like an odd choice as an opening act, but their music and stage presence were interesting and entertaining enough. The female drummer was very deliberate as she pounded out a beat, while the male guitarist/vocalist was full of manic energy. There’s nothing wrong with that; although their music didn’t really set the proper mood as we waited in anticipation of The Specials. I suppose there are very few acts that could live up to such a task. However, I think I would have booked a local, ska/punk band (like the Uptones) to play the role instead.

Once The Specials hit the stage, no one was sitting. From our vantage-point up above, the dance floor appeared as a sea of bodies, heads bouncing up and down in unison to the beat of the 0906021019261185646_v3music. In the balcony, we were all, likewise, on our feet, dancing and swaying to the rythyms, while singing along with all of the familiar lyrics. At points I felt like I was in a trance, which was very close to the truth. My own physical movement and vocal engagement produced a meditative point of focus that became more and more intense as the show went on. Just as monks in monasteries practice prayers and mantras in order to enter a different level of consciousness and touch the Holy, so too did I feel as if I had somehow transcended the mundane, time-bound world around me in order to enter a different reality. Of course, The Special’s version of the “Holy” is an especially nihilistic one, pointed to by lyrics such as those in the song “Do Nothing“:

I’m just living in a life without meaning,

I walk and walk, do nothing.

I’m just living in a life without feeling.

I talk and talk, say nothing.

Nothing ever changed,

Oh no. Nothing ever changed.

My wife said to me during the course of the show, “It’s weird how their music can be so bouncy and happy, while their lyrics can be so sad and depressing.” But this is precisely what has always attracted me to The Specials. The lead singer, Terry, seems perpetually depressed, but with an ironic and angry edge. I identified with this from the first time I heard their music. The band as a whole resists despair, demanding of its audience an upbeat and active orientation toward a crappy world. They jump about and dance on stage, all the while complaining about how stupid people are, how fucked-up the world is, and how miserable life can be. The best solution to our troubles, they seem to be suggesting, is music. Sing out about your misery and through this, you tend to feel a bit better, even if in the end “nothing ever changes.”