The Existential Files

The Existential Files is a fun and lively podcast hosted by doctors Louie Savva and Matthew Smith, two psychologists from the UK who conduct interviews and discuss issues ranging from positive psychology to the existence of God.

Episodes #43 and #44 feature an interview with yours truly, John Marmysz, addressing issues in nihilism.

The podcasts can be found on iTunes, Sticher, Youtube, Cast Crunch or on The Existential Files website.

For a dose of refreshing despair and futility, you should also check out Louie Savva’s blog, Everything is Pointless.

Mathew Smith’s blog also features lots of interesting tidbits.

Existentialism

existentialismIt is widely claimed, both by its supporters and detractors, that existentialism is an unsystematic philosophy. I recall one of my own advisors in graduate school disparaging the “moodiness” of existential thought as “adolescent” because she found it lacking in rigor. In it she saw something resembling a dark “perspective” or “attitude” ruled by emotions and feelings rather than a coherent, rational philosophy consisting of clearly articulated and integrated claims about the nature of reality. Walter Kaufman, on the other hand, praised and admired what he saw as the passionate unruliness of existentialism, characterizing it as a healthy and exciting revolt against traditional philosophizing. The “unsystematic” nature of existentialism, thus, might be thought of either as a flaw or as a virtue depending on one’s attitude toward “systems” in general.

British philosopher David E. Cooper is a supporter of both systems and of existentialism. In his book Existentialism he presents a reconstruction of the philosophy as both coherent and logical, rejecting what he calls the “silly” view that it is at best a version of psychology and at worst a joke. Instead, Cooper contends that existentialism in fact constitutes a “movement of thought that, as our century closes, is increasingly perceived as the distinctive direction of that century’s philosophizing.” (p. viii) [This second edition of the book was published in 1999.]

The reason why it is so common to characterize existentialism as something other than a coherent philosophy stems from a number of sources, according to Cooper. For one thing, those thinkers commonly labeled as “existentialists” disagree about quite a bit; including whether or not they are indeed existentialists! Most centrally, Cooper highlights the friction between the ideas of Heidegger and Sartre (in fact devoting an appendix at the end of the book to this topic) in order to show the real problems involved in trying to square the ideas of two thinkers who, by any account, must be included in a book about this subject. Secondly, since key figures such as Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus were novelists, there is a tendency to rely very heavily on their fiction, rather than their philosophical texts, in trying to reconstruct existentialist ideas. But fiction is very rarely intended to be systematic, and so this may be more of a distraction than an aid in ferreting out a coherent existentialist philosophy. There is also the problem that some thinkers – like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche – are central to the development of the existentialist tradition, however they are more like precursors or influences than they are existentialists in the sense of Heidegger or Sartre. The overall problem, then, is that when we use the term “existentialism” to refer to thinkers, we lack clear criteria by which to categorize them, perhaps mistaking superficial differences between thinkers for deeper philosophical differences, conflating philosophical ideas with fictional narratives, and confusing influences on thought with the content of the thought itself.

Cooper’s project, then, is to clarify the meaning of “existentialism.” He does this by imagining an “ideal existentialist” who “embodies the best wisdom … to be gleaned from actual existentialist writers.” (p. 10)  By scrutinizing the ideas of a variety of thinkers associated with the tradition, Cooper focuses in on the common center of those ideas, funneling and solidifying them into a figure he calls the “Existentialist.” While the ideal Existentialist – like the ideal Christian, or Scientist, or American – may not exist as a flesh-and-blood person, this figure nonetheless embodies the core tenets of what Cooper claims to be a systematic existentialist philosophy.

The initiating issue that serves as the starting point of this philosophy, according to Cooper, is an engagement with the problem of human alienation and the explication of a strategy for its overcoming. In this regard, Cooper roots the existentialist tradition in the same issue that concerned Hegel and Marx, both of whom diagnosed human alienation as the result of historical conditions. However, unlike Marx, the Existentialist does not hold that alienation is a recent historical problem, but one that is “spiritual.” In this, the Existentialist agrees with Hegel, who also sees alienation as a step in the direction of the development of self-consciousness. But unlike Hegel, the Existentialist does not agree that the human mind is an extrusion of some greater, self alienated cosmic mind. It is the individual, human mind itself – not universal Geist – that experiences alienation, according to Cooper’s Existentialist.

This individualized conception of human thought is related to the Existentialist’s preoccupation with phenomenology. Since alienation grows out of our own uniquely human ways of thinking, its overcoming requires that we examine and mend those patterns of thought that have brought us to our alienated situation. Existential phenomenology, in attending to the unfolding of lived, mental experience, helps to construct a description of the structure of inner human consciousness. In this description, the Existentialist comes to reject the idea of the “self” as a substance. Humans are not “things” determined by the influences of cause and effect, but conscious, non-substantial processes that strive freely toward goals and aspirations of their own making. The “self” of the Existentialist is a freely choosing and ongoing project.  Additionally, the Existentialist also embraces the phenomenological concept of “intentionality,” which holds that all of our conscious experience is experience of something. We never just “think” in an empty vacuum. Rather we always think about something, and  thus there must always be an interconnectedness between the thinking “self” and the things that “self” is consciously oriented toward. Our understanding of ourselves, thus, must always be developed within in a context of engagement with other things and other consciousnesses. (p. 47) We are, as conscious beings, always already “thrown” into relationships with others.

9780806501956The recognition of our “thrownness” into a world with others is a fundamental part of existentialist philosophy, according to Cooper. Phenomenologically, we are “beings-in-the-world,” already connected to others by the ways in which consciousness itself operates. We are not mere spectators, but actors embedded within lived, concrete contexts and relationships. It is our engagement in these relationships that brings meaning to existence. Humans are not substances that “exist in splendid logical isolation from anything else.” (p. 75) No, humans create themselves by choosing to interact with the “things” that they consciously encounter and confront. This is how we build our lives, making ourselves into “writers, criminals, cowards or whatever.” (p. 76) In contrast to the Cartesian notion of the mind as an isolated, nonphysical substance sitting apart and separate from the rest of the physical world, the Existentialist describes human consciousness as something that does not exist at all without the world it inhabits. This particular point is one that Cooper thinks has been obscured by Sartre, who, in Existentialism is a Humanism, referred to the Cartesian Cogito as his starting point. This assertion inspired a hostile response from Heidegger, who in his Letter on Humanism, rejected Sartre’s “dualistic” position, which he claimed made a false distinction between the worlds of mind and matter. But, as Cooper rightly points out, in Being and Nothingness, where Sartre gives a much more detailed account of consciousness, it is clear that he does not differ so radically from Heidegger at all, but rather concurs in the characterization of consciousness as a “nothing” or a “clearing” within the very fabric of Being rather than as a substance existing separately from the rest of the world. Human consciousness is like the hole within a doughnut, which cannot exist apart from the dough itself, but which is also distinct from the dough as a kind of “lack” or clearing in the dough. Similarly, human consciousness is like a clearing within Being itself, and so is not a substance determined by the causal laws governing the physical universe itself. Consciousness is a “nothingness” sitting within the physical world, free to construct its own perspectives and interpretations on the world into which it has been thrown (or torn?). When regarded as we actually are phenomenologically, human beings are not mere objects, separate and aloof from the rest of Being. According to the Existentialist, human consciousnesses are more like clearings within Being. Within consciousness, thought unfolds freely, and thus it is always actively involved in choosing how to comport itself toward the world it inhabits.

This is logically related to the existentialist concepts of authenticity and inauthenticity according to Cooper. Because of our freedom to choose, we experience an unsettling sense of responsibility for the course that our lives take while being-in-the-world-with-others. This sense of responsibility may at times feel overwhelming, and so there is a recurrent tendency for humans to lapse into inauthentic ways of life. We become tempted to lie to ourselves, and to claim, falsely, that we are substances among other substances, subject to the same push and pull of external forces that determine the movements of mere physical things. By lying to ourselves in this way, we experience relief from what can often be experienced as a crushing sense of guilt. After all, if the course of my life is determined by forces outside of my control, then I cannot be blamed for my failures or shortcomings. Rather, blame may be placed on my economic condition, or my upbringing, or my genetics, or my psychological constitution. While all of these factors may be a part of the pre-given world that my consciousness has been thrown into, none of them necessarily determines what I am going to do with my life once I exist within the world. Even a poor person, for instance, has to choose how to live with or react to poverty. When living in a state of inauthenticity, a human being forgets this, instead falling prey to the delusion, for instance, that the world of poverty determines a specific way of life, rather than recognizing that it is the human actor who determines what to do when thrown into a life of poverty.

The inauthentic way of life is encouraged by our absorption into the “They”; the society of others who seek to use us as means to their own ends. This is part of the ambiguous nature of our relationship with others. On the one hand, we need others in order to situate ourselves, to react against, and to see ourselves reflected. It is in relationship with “them” that we discover our own power of choice by way of negotiating a place within the world. However, in this there is also a temptation to fall prey to “them,” forgetting of our own power of choice, allowing ourselves to become cogs in the social machine. For instance, it may be tempting for a person living in poverty to view himself or herself as a victim of economic circumstances, and thus fall prey to others who offer rescue while promoting some sort of economic or political agenda.  In abandoning one’s self to the interpretations and schemes of others, a human being can lose sight of their own powers of interpretation, and instead of authentically taking hold of life, act like a passive pawn in someone else’s game. When we think of ourselves this way, be become inauthentic.

Inauthenticity is a form of thinking that covers over the truth of existential freedom, and for this reason, the term is loaded with normative/ethical connotations. As Cooper points out, this is one of the issues that seems to divide Heidegger and Sartre. While Heidegger emphasizes authenticity and inauthenticity as states of Being, neither good nor bad, Sartre tends to cast inauthenticity (or bad faith) in moral terms as something that is unethical. Cooper suggests that there may be something a bit disingenuous about Heidegger’s insistence that a word like “inauthentic” is not intended to have any normative connotations. Consequently, in Cooper’s characterization of the ideal Existentialist, he highlights the ethical importance of striving toward authenticity in one’s self and in others as a part of the existential philosophy. Existentialism, thus, is non a form of “amoralism,” but contains an essentially ethical message: Our own freedom is dependent on recognizing the freedom of others. “Only if I regard and treat others – or better, regard them through  treating them – as loci of existential freedom will I receive back an image of myself as just such a locus.” (p. 187) The ethical message here is articulated as what sounds like a version of egoism insofar as the grounding of Cooper’s existentialist morality lies in the desire for the individual to be treated as free, and not in some sort of altruistic desire to make others free. In other words, it is only because I want to be recognized as free that I treat others as free. Indeed, this focus on individual liberation, according to Cooper, imbues the Existentialist with a degree of elitism, since in pursuing personal authenticity, the focus is on “private perfection” (p. 193) rather than the more “grand,” democratic project of perfecting the world for everyone. And yet, in the end, the outcome may be the same. If I do unto others as I wish them to do to me, it may not matter that my motivation is egoistic. Others will still benefit.

Nonetheless, Cooper does suggest in the closing paragraphs of his book that there may be a more “grand” kind of existentialism that can be found in the very practice of philosophy itself. He points out that while philosophy is in one sense elitist – being pursued by a small group of people who withdraw from the mainstream of society in order to devote their lives to reflection on the human condition –  as a discipline, it is nonetheless devoted to making contributions to culture as a whole. The collective lessons learned by those who have withdrawn from the “They” in order to become “authentic” in turn flow back to society, giving guidance to others in search of their own authenticity. Perhaps, then, this is the final step in the Existentialist’s overcoming of alienation. By first withdrawing from, but then returning to, the They we may find the closing of a circle that is part of the ongoing rhythm of existential thought. Alienation is overcome when, after first resisting the world around us, we come to understand that such resistance is dependent upon our antecedent thrownness into that very same world that we find ourselves bristling against. Our reintegration is accomplished by authentically embracing the totality of the existential struggles that are part and parcel of being-in-the-world-with-others.

My criticisms of Cooper’s book are few, and mostly related to his strategy for constructing the ideal type of Existentialist. While I find very little to complain about in terms of the final “system” of existentialism that Cooper ends up with – it pretty much encompasses what I always took to be the major doctrines of the philosophy – I do question some of the choices he makes along the way. For instance, early on in the book Cooper insistently excludes Albert Camus from his consideration of existentialist thinkers. His reason for this exclusion is that “unlike the rest of our writers, it is not at all his aim to reduce or overcome a sense of alienation or separateness from the world.” (p. 9) But this makes it appear as if Cooper has already settled on a definition of “existentialism,” and rather than considering all of the evidence at hand, he has decided to leave out thinkers, like Camus, who don’t fit his a priori conceptions. While I personally question whether it is true that Camus really is unconcerned with the alleviation of human alienation (his essay The Myth of Sisyphus is focused precisely on this topic), could it nevertheless be the case that some existentialists while not necessarily offering a solution to alienation could, in a more general sense, simply be concerned with the issue of human alienation?  If Cooper’s definition was broadened in this way, then he could include the insights of Camus, a thinker who, like Heidegger, seems to me centrally important to an understanding of existentialism. The exclusion of Camus is especially strange as later on in the book Cooper, in various places, draws on the ideas of Iris Murdoch, a thinker only peripherally connected to the tradition, in order to shape his definition. Including Murdoch, but excluding Camus, is a very odd decision indeed.

20120617-154833A less serious criticism has to do with Cooper’s repeated denigration of certain subcultures – like beatniks, hippies, and punks – as misrepresentations, or hollow examples of, the lessons of existential philosophy. Cooper never gives much of a justification for these repeated attacks, which I presume are rooted in his assumption that the members of these groups are themselves shallow and unphilosophical. This is, of course, a sweeping generalization. I suspect that Cooper has not really studied these subcultures in depth, and so his comments in this regard are probably best just to throw away. However as someone who still has a bit of the punk rocker in him, I personally found such repeated insults annoying.

As a whole, I really admire the work that Cooper has put into Existentialism. I suppose there are those, like Walter Kaufman, who would object to the entire project of trying to delineate a systematic philosophy of existentialism. I don’t share such an objection, however. The philosophy articulated in this book is clear, sensible and – even if I don’t agree with all of its tenets – very attractive in its general contours.

Disinformation Interview

c1b2f1b7477fccd5e4efb469ff277332Brian Whitney interviewed me for Disinformation.com.

My Interview With a Nihilist Means Nothing, As Does Your Life

It looks like people are already getting all worked up over nothing!

Film-Philosophy Conference 2014

homepageImage_en_USAfter returning from a month and a half long visit to Scotland at the beginning of the year, I was back on the plane to Glasgow for the 2014 Film-Philosophy Conference, held during the first week of July.

Jet lag hit me hard this time around. I arrived the day before the start of the conference, not anticipating the adverse effect such an abrupt interruption in my normal rhythms would have. I was unable to sleep my first night in Scotland, and as a result I operated in a haze the following day until I was able to slip back to my accommodations out in the suburbs (a subway and a train ride away) to catch up on my sleep that afternoon. Over the course of the week, I struggled with a disrupted sleep cycle that only settled down once the weekend commenced and the talks had come to an end. In the future I’ll try to arrive a few days early to ensure that my old bones can cope with this sort of annoying reality about international travel.

The atmosphere at the Film-Philosophy meeting was different from most US philosophy conferences I have attended. First of all, as might be expected in Europe, the vast majority of presentations were in the Continental tradition, with the ideas of thinkers such as Deleuze, Heidegger, Sartre, Nietzsche and Badiou playing the most prominent roles. While I admit that it is precisely with such thinkers that my greatest interests lie, I must also confess that there were points at which I began to sympathize with some of the complaints voiced by my Anglo-American/Analytic friends concerning the obscurity of much Continental thought. At some of the talks I wasn’t sure if the effects of jet lag were interfering with my comprehension, if I was stupid, if the presenters were being unclear, or if the ideas being discussed were just very difficult. There was probably a bit of all four of these things going on, to tell the truth. Nonetheless, it was good to feel like I was being challenged with new and sometimes unfamiliar ideas.

A welcome surprise was how polite the attendees were with one another. Every comment made by audience members was prefaced with thanks and appreciative remarks to the speakers. There were no personal attacks or hostilities at any of the sessions I attended; things which are, unfortunately, not uncommon at many US philosophy conferences. Hostile verbal abuse became so bad at US conferences that at one point there was an official plea from the offices of the American Philosophical Association imploring its members to remain civil and tolerant with one another at meetings! In fact, the first time that I myself ever delivered a paper in the US, I was angrily attacked by a couple of men in the audience who heartily agreed with one another that I was both a racist and a sexist due to my interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Ironically, it was a group of women philosophers who came to my defense during that episode. (A funny side note is that the following year I was on a panel with one of my attackers who did not even remember me!) In any case, there was none of that sort of nonsense at the Film-Philosophy conference, where the atmosphere was quite friendly and welcoming.

One criticism I have concerns a number of the speakers, some of whom should have been more organized and prepared to operate in the time-frame scheduled for them. Most of the panel participants had 20 minutes for the reading of their papers while the various keynote speakers had over an hour to deliver their addresses. It was unfortunate that quite a few of the participants tried to cram too much information into their talks and thus found themselves editing their presentations as they went along. This was complicated by the fact that a lot of them also wanted to show film clips; something that was not always possible within the time constraints. The chairmen and chairwomen of the sessions were pretty good at enforcing time limits; however this resulted in presentations that sometimes ended up a bit fragmented and rushed.

I was part of a panel titled “Globalized Myths of Anywhere and Elsewhere.” Lucy Bolton, from the Queen Mary University of London, was the session chair, and Tiago De Luca, from the University of Liverpool, kicked things off with his paper “Humanity as Allegory in the Multi-Narrative Film.” His presentation analyzed films such as Babel, The Edge of Heaven and Amores Perros, all of which contain multiple, parallel, but only loosely connected narratives. His argument was that this sort of narrative structure reflects current trends in globalization in which people worldwide find their lives intertwined in ways that can lead both to meaningful connection and to a sense of passive fatalism. Andre Fischer, from Stanford University, continued the session with his paper “Mythic Thinking in Werner Herzog’s new grammar of images,” in which he drew on the ideas of Nietzsche to suggest that Herzog’s films express a Dionysian leap into the abyss, and the attempt to create a “grammar of images” that offers a mythic response to our modern malaise. I concluded the session with my paper “The Myth of Scotland as Nowhere in Particular,” in which I applied Heideggerian insights concerning art to an analysis of movies filmed in Scotland. I argued that there is currently an emerging cinematic countermovement against past Scottish mythologizing that I call “the myth of Scotland as nowhere in particular.” In this new “myth,” Scotland is used as a setting for dramas that downplay traditional Scottish stereotypes, evoking worlds that could be anywhere at any time.

Our session went well, and afterwards there was an interesting, friendly conversation among the participants and the audience. I had a really good time and met some very interesting people with whom I hope to remain in contact.

A particularly interesting session was conducted later that afternoon by Laura U. Marks, from Simon Fraser University. Her keynote speech, “A World of Flowing, Intensifying Images: Mulla Sadra Meets Cinema Studies,” addressed issues in Islamic philosophy and applied them to film analysis. Marks focused on the idea of the “imaginal realm,” which is developed in the works of the Persian philosopher Mulla Sadra. Islam is often thought to be hostile to the use of images and representations, but Marks argued that this is not always the case. In Shi’ite Islam there is a great degree of tolerance for the use of images that are believed (in a Platonic way) to be capable of functioning as conduits for the Truth. In the writings of Mulla Sadra, the concept of the “imaginal realm” – a realm of imagery existing halfway between the illusions of  the senses and the absolute Truths of the eternal Forms – offers a way of thinking about filmic representations that grants them a role in the human aspiration toward ultimate reality. This was fascinating stuff.

DARK-LIGHT-SCREENING_Poster2-160x160I began the last day of the conference by attending a screening of the film Dark Light, at which the filmmaker, Maria O’Connor, was present to discuss her work. The film consists of a 70 minute montage of horse imagery overlayed with an audio track in German, French and Italian. The audio consists of enigmatic utterances referencing thinkers such as Nietzsche, Heidegger and Badiou, provoking viewers to consider the relationship between humanity and animality. Alongside images of horses being groomed and galluping we hear about Nietzsche’s collapse as he protectively threw his arms around a horse that was being beaten by its owner. There are references to Heidegger’s views on how animals don’t “die,” but simply “expire.” All of this raises questions in the viewers mind: What is the difference between how a human and a horse experiences the world? Are horses aware of death? What sort of spiritual bond exists between horses and humans? I found myself a bit befuddled by the film, and I confessed to O’Connor that I felt “discombobulated” after watching it. She laughed and seemed to be pleased with this reaction. On the first day of the conference she had been on a panel where she made comments about how her film experiments with ideas about the withdrawl of Being, and with ideas about how Being is revealed through the lives of children. As I later reflected on these thoughts it shed some light – even if it was a dark light – on the significance of her work. In any case, I enjoyed the opportunity to see her film and to hear her speak about it.

Over the course of the three day schedule I attended a number of other notable sessions dealing with the ideas of Deleuze, the politics of film, and the nature of remakes. By the time the conference concluded, my jet lag had passed, and once again it was time for me to hop on a plane and head back home to the US, away from the grey, cloudy, wet Glaswegian summer.

Film-Philosophy Conference 2014: A World of Cinemas

pageHeaderTitleImage_en_USThe 2014 Film-Philosophy Conference will take place July 2 to July 4 on the campus of the University of Glasgow in Scotland. I will be making a presentation on July 3 titled “The Myth of Scotland as Nowhere in Particular.” Here’s the abstract:

In a number of recent films, Scotland has served as the setting for dramas that could have taken place anywhere. This has occurred in two related ways: First, there are films such as Doomsday (2008), Perfect Sense (2011), and Under the Skin (2013). These films involve storylines that, while they do take place in Scotland, do not require the country as a setting. Second, there are films such as Prometheus (2012), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Cloud Atlas (2012), and World War Z (2013). These films, while being filmed (at least partly) in Scotland, have plots that do not involve Scotland. Scottish locations, in this second group of movies, act as stand-ins for locations in other cities, or even other worlds.

This phenomenon, in which the uniqueness of Scottish locations is deemphasized so that they may act as mere backdrops for the primary action in films, is a relatively new one. It is in sharp contrast to another, more traditional tendency in movie making in which Scottish locations are foregrounded to dramatize myths and stereotypes uniquely Scottish; such as Kailyard, Tartantry or Clydesideism. In this paper I pursue an analysis, drawing on the work of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, that characterizes this trend as part of a new Scottish myth in the making: the myth of Scotland as nowhere in particular.

The myth of Scotland as nowhere in particular takes the countryside and cities of Scotland as raw material for the telling of stories having transcultural interest. In this, Scotland becomes a space or clearing with no particular defining characteristics of its own to distract from the dramas themselves. This allows for the unfolding of narratives that, while they use Scotland as a setting, have little if anything to do with Scotland, and thus appeal to anyone, anywhere.

The conference website can be found at:

http://www.film-philosophy.com/conference/index.php/conf/F-P2014