APA Blog Post

I have written a guest blog post for the American Philosophical Association’s website detailing the arguments from my book Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings. It includes an excerpt from “Chapter 9: Yukio Mishima and the Return to the Body.”

You can read it here:

American Philosophical Association

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The Page 99 Test

Ford Madox Ford wrote, “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.”

The website, The Page 99 Test, takes this advice very seriously, inviting authors to open their own books to page 99 and explain how what appears there reveals something about the work as a whole. I was asked to apply the test to my own new book, Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings. You can read what I found at:

The Page 99 Test

A New Semester

The Fall 2017 semester has begun at College of Marin. After a summer of relative leisure, I’m finding myself falling into some recognizable mental patterns of reflection now that I’m back in the classroom.

This semester, in addition to three sections of Introduction to Philosophy, I’m teaching Ethics, Logic, and World Religions; 18 units altogether. This is a normal load for a community college instructor, though for university instructors it seems excessively heavy. I recall, many years ago, when I was hired at my first teaching job at a community college back east, my graduate school mentor was incredulous when I told her how many units I would be carrying. She was convinced that teaching so many classes was an impossibility. Of course the difference between her position and mine is that she’s required to produce a consistent body of research while there are no such pressures on me. At the community college, the emphasis is on teaching, not research, and so most of my time is spent in the classroom or in my office preparing lectures and assignments, grading, or (more often than I like) sitting in committee meetings that go on for way too long and that accomplish way too little.

I think I would be doomed if I had to go back to working a regular 9-5 job at this point in life. I’ve become so used to the rhythm of the academic semester system that I just could not imagine working without the anticipation of midterms and finals, or the end of the semester and graduation ceremonies. These markers help to put a frame around the march of time, giving me something to look forward to and making it feel as if there is a predictable and finite span until significant goals are achieved. I like the beginning/middle/end structure of the semester. It suits my Aristotelian tastes.  Each term begins as I meet a new group of interesting (and interested) students while reconnecting with familiar ones. There is a sense of excitement about the material that we will study and the conversations that we will have. I enjoy the challenge of trying to maintain this excitement as the weeks draw on into months and the initial novelty of taking a philosophy class starts to wane for some students. It is usually around midterms that parking becomes easier to find on campus; an indication of diminished motivations and recalculated priorities. But nevertheless, as the semester races toward final exams, there is a crescendo of anticipation that seems inevitably to reinvigorate even the most lax students. They all want to finish strong, and so do I.

The fact that I’m the only full-time philosophy instructor on the College of Marin campus means that I get to schedule the times of my own classes. This is yet another aspect of my work situation that I can’t imagine giving up. While there are certain time slots that are in high demand with students, happily those are usually the very periods that I myself prefer in any case. Online classes are particularly popular, and the late morning and early afternoon on-campus classes allow a leisurely and refreshed start to the day, with time to study books that, even if I wasn’t a teacher, I would read during my free-time in any case. What other job pays you to read Plato, Nietzsche, Heidegger or Stirner? Most jobs probably discourage it!

But my greatest source of enjoyment teaching at College of Marin comes from having regular conversations about philosophy. Socrates, in his Apology, said that daily discourse about virtue is a necessary component of a life worth living, and while I have my own struggles with despair and meaninglessness, it would be much more difficult to endure these struggles without my daily conversations with students. There are mornings when I wake up gripped with fears about death and the pointlessness of doing anything at all, but then when I walk into the classroom and conversation takes off, I feel swept away by a flow of ideas and thoughts that make me forget about anything else. Often, I’m surprised (and disappointed) when the period comes to an end and I have to retreat back to my office to work in solitude on other projects. I often tell students that we are uniquely lucky to have the opportunity to discuss and entertain the most important questions of all time in our philosophy classes. Outside, in the everyday world, we are discouraged from asking these very same questions, as they are considered by many people to be troubling or useless. To me this always seemed odd and ironic. Why are the most important questions – Who am I? Why am I here? Does life have any meaning? – disparaged and dismissed by those we spend most of our waking lives talking to? Why, instead, do we spend most of our time engaged in activities that, in the grand scheme of things, really are meaningless; activities like watching stupid TV shows, shopping, surfing the internet, working at boring jobs, or making small talk? Is it because we are scared to confront the big issues? Or is it because we have allowed ourselves to be manipulated by others who want us to remain placid and complacent with the way things are?

In annoyance, I once told an advertising specialist who was designing an ad campaign for the College of Marin, “I do not teach students anything. I learn along with them.” To my surprise, I later found these words emblazoned along with my own photograph on ads that appeared in local newspapers, on the sides of local buses and on a larger-than-life-sized banner that now hangs in the College of Marin Student Center. It’s rather funny how an off-the-cuff, irritated remark could be construed as a slogan that might attract students to the school. Now that I have some distance from that remark, however, I’ve come to realize that it does honestly sum up my own attitude toward teaching philosophy. While the Truth forever slips through our grasp, it is the process of  jointly (and vainly) searching for that Truth that is important. Nothing else.

 

Cinematic Nihilism Discount Code

Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings, is scheduled for release in September. The hardcover edition is available now for preorder from Edinburgh University Press, or in the US from Oxford University Press. You can use the code from the coupon below to get a $33 discount. The softcover edition will come out next year.

Philosophy in a Meaningless Life

There is a contemporary turn taking place in attitudes about nihilism. Previous to the publication of my book Laughing at Nothing: Humor as a Response to Nihilism in 2003, it was unusual to find scholars arguing that nihilism is anything other than a bad thing. Traditionally, nihilism has been treated as a problem in need of a solution; something to be solved and “overcome.” Laughing at Nothing broke that mold, arguing for a humorous response to nihilism that involves the possibility of “nihilistic progress”: a vain, unending but positive aspiration toward superlative goals. At the time of its publication, Alena Dvorakova, writing in the British Journal of Aesthetics, criticized my position as one that was distinctively American; the implication being that Americans are somehow unique in their superficial optimism. Today, however, as attitudes have changed, it is no longer only superficial Americans who embrace and endorse nihilism. Nihilism has become an increasingly popular philosophy all over the world.

One of the recent British advocates of nihilism is James Tartaglia, whose book Philosophy in a Meaningless Life: A System of Nihilism, Consciousness and Reality, proposes a systematic account of how philosophy itself can be reinvigorated by embracing life’s meaninglessness. Argumentatively sophisticated, quirky, and often times very funny, Tartaglia’s book is a noteworthy addition to the growing body of literature that characterizes nihilism as something that may act as a stimulus to the active and ongoing pursuit of philosophical thought.

Tartaglia contends that the one issue uniting practical and theoretical branches of philosophy is the question of life’s meaning. It is, he writes, “the keystone of philosophy,” (p. 7) giving special ethical weight to issues that would otherwise be of mere speculative interest.  This question, however, has come to be seen as something of an embarrassment in contemporary circles – especially in analytic philosophical debates where it has largely been dismissed as unscientific and associated with religion. When it is addressed, it is often treated as a social issue, involving the identification of particular goals or purposes that make particular human lives meaningful, rather than as a philosophical issue, addressing the ultimate purpose of human life in general. In his book, Tartaglia wants to refocus attention on the philosophical aspects of life’s meaning, and in so doing provide an unequivocal answer to the age-old question, “What is the meaning of life?” The answer, he tells us, is found in nihilism. Life has no ultimate purpose or meaning. But, he insists, this is not such a bad thing.

Tartaglia’s version of nihilism is of a very particular sort. It is related to the ontological condition of enframement. As humans, we live in a world where we must do things and pursue goals, and so we are naturally concerned with determining what sorts of goals and purposes we should pursue in order to make our lives full, valuable and meaningful. The ideals we aspire toward – both individual and social – erect the framework within which any life operates. They mark out the boundaries within which we identify and strive toward the fulfillment of our projects. “Activities can have a purpose within life because of the context provided by the framework,” (p. 48) Tartaglia writes, claiming that meaningfulness itself is, by definition, a function of purposeful, goal directed behavior. You cannot have meaning without some sort of objective that gives context to your activities. If you take away the objective, meaning evaporates.

Nihilism, as Tartaglia conceives it, denies the existence of meaningful final objectives and purposes, and thus it undermines the idea that the projects within human life can themselves be ultimately meaningful in the grand scheme of things. In order for life to be ultimately meaningful, there would have to be some sort of framework of goals toward which all of our worldly life goals are directed and by which they are justified. However, that framework of goals would, in turn need to exist within some sort of larger framework in order for it to be meaningful, and in turn, that larger framework would also have to exist within a greater framework, and so on. It seems to follow, then, that either there is a final contextual framework that itself exists for no meaningful reason, or there is no final meaningful contextual framework at all. In either case, life within the grand scheme of things lacks ultimate purpose, and thus meaning, and there is no final answer to the question of why we pursue our chosen life projects. Reality, when regarded as a whole, ultimately makes no sense and has no justification. It is groundless:

As such, in contemplating the fact of existence, we come to see that the sense we make of our lives must be ultimately groundless, since our actions can hardly have a purpose in the grand scheme of things, if the grand scheme of things has no purpose and is consequently no ‘scheme’ at all. (p. 36)

This is the “truth” of nihilism, according to Tartaglia: “there is nothing that we ever have to do.” (p. 21). This “truth” has over the course of history spawned a variety of “misguided coping strategies” (p. 41) – including religious devotion and existentialism, humanism, relativism and postmodernism – all of which purport to overcome or solve the problem of meaninglessness through various psychological, social or devotional means. However, none of these approaches to life are legitimate according to Tartaglia because as reactions against nihilism they deny what he takes to be a simple fact about reality: human life is ultimately meaningless, and nothing can change that fact. Nihilism, in this way, is not something that can be overcome. It can only be ignored, denied or accepted.

Even if the “truth” of nihilism is accepted, according to Tartaglia, there are no real practical consequences following from it for how we should live our lives. This is why he considers the issue of nihilism, in a practical sense, “boring.” (p. 7) It has no implications other than potentially freeing non-nihilists from their false beliefs and commitments to illusory final aims . The awakened nihilist is free to do whatever he or she pleases, and there are no positive directives or particular rules of conduct that are entailed by its acceptance. Since nihilism was the truth all along, life goes on just as it always did once this truth is understood.

What I have summarized thus far comprises only one aspect of Tartaglia’s argument in Philosophy in a Meaningless Life. To me, it is the most interesting part, although it does not occupy the majority of the book’s pages. The bulk of the work consists of another argument, loosely connected to the first, which defends philosophy as a tradition rooted in the question of the meaning of life and issues related to “transcendence.”

In Chapter 5, Tartaglia proposes “The Transcendent Hypothesis,” which he writes “is the key to the book” (p. 11). This hypothesis suggests that a world of time and space (what Tartaglia calls an “objective” world), is transcended when it is dependent upon another world that exists outside of that time and space. And further, if something outside of time and space exists, it cannot be studied by science, since science studies only the “objective” world within time and space.

Conscious experience, according to Tartaglia, transcends the objective world and thus itself is not part of the world of time and space. He makes heavy use of a dream analogy to establish his point. When we dream, our consciousness presents us with an objective world (a dream world) within which our own minds/brains themselves do not exist, but which depends upon our minds/brains for its objective existence. In this way, the dream world exists within consciousness, and thus consciousness transcends the dream world, exceeding the boundaries of dreamed time and space. This same relationship, Tartaglia suggests, may hold for all objective, time and space bound worlds (and not just dreams), and if it does, then this solves traditional metaphysical puzzles like the mind/body problem. If consciousness is always “outside” of the objective world of time and space, then it has no objective place within that world and so it would be spurious to try and explain causal interactions between physical objects and consciousness. Conscious experience would transcend the objective, physical world.

There are good reasons to believe this is true, according to Tartaglia. For one, to be conscious of an objective world, there must be a consciousness that is somehow orientated toward that world, rising above it in order to objectify and experience it. Experience itself, then, must exceed the objective world. Second, whether we are consciously introspecting on ourselves or perceiving things other than ourselves, experience itself is always direct (p. 120) and instantaneous, suggesting that raw, conscious experience is not bound by time or space. However, consciousness, in its operations, always necessarily processes and misrepresents experience in objective terms, since it is locked into the utilization of concepts like time, space and universals.  In so doing, it creates an objective “picture of reality,” a representational falsification that “we cannot climb out..but we have no reason to want to.” (p. 121) And we should not want to climb out of our falsified picture of reality, according to Tartaglia because “we have no reason to think that the reality outside [consciousness] is any less meaningless than the reality within [consciousness].” (p. 121)

The general line of thought pursued here is very similar to what Kant argues in The Critique of Pure Reason; and even closer to what Schopenhauer argues in The World as Will and Representation (insofar as Tartaglia emphasizes the misrepresentation of reality as well as its ultimate meaninglessness). However, Tartaglia distances himself from Kant, claiming that whereas Kant “prioritizes the mind,” “the transcendent hypothesis prioritizes the objective world.” (p. 119) What he seems to mean is that for Kant representation is ultimately “mental,” while for Tartaglia, representation “need not be construed as mental.” (p. 119) So, in other words, Tartaglia is not committed to any particular claim about the fundamental nature of transcendent reality. It could be comprised of mind, matter, or something else. We can never know since it always transcends any sort of objective characterization.

Although religious thought attempts (illegitimately, according to Tartaglia) to address the nature of transcendent reality, Philosophy is the only discipline that rationally, systematically and thus legitimately concerns itself with transcendence. Since grand, philosophical questions about the nature of reality and the meaning of life are perennial human concerns not adequately addressed by either science or religion, Tartaglia comes to the conclusion that philosophy must remain a uniquely important area of study. While it can offer no final answers, has no practical consequences for life, and promises to discover very little about the true nature of reality, humans should continue to use philosophy in order to feed a natural desire to explore the realm of transcendence in the only way possible.

This second aspect of Tartaglia’s argument is pursued over the course of five chapters that involve some very complicated (and sometimes confusing) digressions into analytic debates about the nature of consciousness, time, space, and universals. In the end his conclusions are, by his own admission, “completely lacking in consequence for nihilism,” (p. 121) which is a topic that is only returned to in the Conclusion. For me, this made it feel almost as if I was reading two separate books: one on nihilism and another on transcendence. Indeed, there is a sense in which these two aspects of Tartaglia’s bok clash with one another, for as he himself suggests, the second argument opens up the possibility that there is a transcendent realm of meaning, and if this is possible then “nihilism might not be true.” (p. 179) Tartaglia dismisses this as a mere “idle possibility,” akin to worrying “how long is a piece of string?” (p. 180) or whether Heidegger’s death was faked (p. 171). However, I think this is an evasion on his part. After all, Tartaglia writes in the Introduction that the question of life’s meaning is in fact among the most important of perennial philosophical questions. To conclude that it is possible life really does have meaning, but that such a possibility is not worth exploring, undermines one of the book’s main theses.

Nonetheless, I tend to agree with most of the particular conclusions that Tartaglia reaches in Philosophy in a Meaningless Life, the majority of which are convincingly and carefully reasoned. The complaints that I have are matters of style and emphasis. First of all, as already noted, although there is a loose connection between the two main arguments presented in the book, to me it seems as if the connection between them is too loose. I picked the book up because I thought it was a work on nihilism, but was a bit disappointed by the detour into transcendence and the heavy emphasis on contemporary analytic philosophy. While Tartaglia does engage with some of the classic continental (or as he puts it “post-Nietzschean”) philosophers like Heidegger and Sartre, he doesn’t engage with any of the contemporary continental thinkers who have recently written on the topic of nihilism. I was eager to read more about nihilism, and to see the author engage more deeply with the contemporary scholarship on the subject.

Second, while I agree with Tartaglia that philosophy is a uniquely important discipline, I also feel as if he has overemphasized the boundaries between philosophy, science and religion. His intent is to to draw hard and fast distinctions between these various approaches to understanding, claiming that they are all fundamentally distinct. Religion is superstitious and irrational. Science studies the objective world. Philosophy studies the world of transcendence. But all of this fails to account for the simple fact that there are such things as the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of science. Philosophy itself, I believe, is most important as a way of thought rather than as a body of knowledge. Philosophy encourages us to raise new questions and speculations, and in so doing, it overlaps with other disciplines, pushing them further and further in their attempts to articulate the Truth. I agree with Tartaglia that there is no final end to the issues that philosophy addresses and that this is not a bad thing since it encourages us to continue using reason to address our orientation toward the world and to take part in a tradition that has produced important art, literature and other cultural artefacts. However I disagree with his claim that philosophy has no effect on religion or on science. We philosophize about both religion and science – as well as art and other topics – in order to develop and hone our understanding of the issues they are concerned with. Without philosophical questioning and speculation, these disciplines would become stagnant.

Finally, while I, like Tartaglia, consider myself to be a nihilist, I am not as confident as he is in the “truth” of nihilism. While he treats nihilism as a mere description of reality, I think of nihilism as something more complicated. It is a philosophical orientation toward the world rather than a final conclusion that is reached through the powers of philosophy itself. Perhaps because he does not engage with the full history of the concept of nihilism, Tartaglia adopts what I think is a rather thin definition of the phenomenon. And while I agree that the issue of human meaning and purpose is an aspect of nihilism, it is not the whole issue. Metaphyisical/ontological nihilism is one kind, but there are also moral, political, epistemological, existential, aesthetic, religious and other forms of nihilism that don’t fit neatly into Tartaglia’s account. Perhaps a more detailed engagement with the history of, and the contemporary commentary on, nihilism (as noted in my first criticism) would help to give more texture and nuance to the first line of the book’s argumentative strategy.

There is a lot more that I could comment on, but that is just an indication of how thought provoking and stimulating a read Philosophy in a Meaningless Life really is. In this book I feel as if I have encountered a kindred spirit with whom I could productively debate the meaning of life for quite some time.

Seattle APA 2017

The 91st annual meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association was once again held in Seattle, Washington this year. I was invited to present a paper, “Humor, Nihilism and Film,” to the International Association for the Philosophy of Humor, which met as a part of the conference.

My last visit to Seattle was also the first time I had ever been to the city. My wife and I had a great time, so we looked forward to seeing the place once again. Deciding to try something new this time around, instead of flying we travelled the 800 miles by car, with stops in Ashland and Portland. After the conference we drove back to the Bay Area in one day; a test of endurance that proved, due to torrential and blinding rain, to be the biggest challenge of the entire journey.

The quickest route from Marin County to Seattle is to get on Interstate Route 5, point the car north, and hit the accelerator while dodging 18 wheel big rigs and Highway Patrol speed traps. Route 5 through California is straight, long and mostly boring, cutting through farmland and rural towns up until you reach the area around Mt. Shasta, near the California/Oregon border. It is here that the road begins to get more interesting and curvy while the scenery becomes more awe-inspiring. As we climbed in elevation through the Cascades, we were treated to beautiful views of Mt. Shasta, Black Butte, and breathtaking vistas from the mountainous pass into Oregon.

Along the way through this region of California, we began to see signs proclaiming that we had entered the State of Jefferson; a proposed 51st US state. The push to carve this state out from Northern California and Southern Oregon dates all the way back to 1941, but recently there has been a renewed burst of enthusiasm, with the Siskiyou Board of Supervisors voting in 2013 for cessation from California. While much of the motivation behind the creation of Jefferson is rooted in the feeling that this area of California is more conservative – more “red” – than the rest of the state, there is, apparently, also an alternative, punk-inspired energy associated with the movement as well. On a recent visit to Yreka, the proposed capital of Jefferson, a friend of mine discovered a flyer authored by “Jefferson Crew,” a coalition that strives to foster a sense of community among small town punk scenes in the area:

Passing through Jefferson, we entered into Oregon and stopped for the night in Ashland. We had visited this destination many times before; both as a convenient stop while on motorcycle rides and as attendees at the town’s famous Shakespeare Festival. This time around we had dinner with a friend who had recently moved here with his wife and his new family. We had pints and mushroom burgers at the Standing Stone Brewing Company before turning in for the night and then continuing our quest.

A short, 300 mile northward jaunt took us to Portland, where we stayed the night at The Kennedy School, an elementary school, first opened in 1915, that has now been converted into a boutique hotel. The classrooms (complete with chalk boards) have been converted into rooms, the cafeteria into a restaurant, the offices into bars, and the gymnasium into a movie theatre. The school is located in the middle of a suburban area, and serves as a meeting place for locals, conference goers and travelers. Visitors wander the hallways, sipping beer and wine that has been made on the premises, browsing the restored decorations, antique equipment and old photos, or lounging in the soaking pool. That evening, after a salmon dinner, we went to see Rouge One at the movie theater, relaxing in one of the very comfortable couches that serve as audience seating. The seating was so comfortable, in fact, that I fell asleep halfway through the film.

The next day we set out on the final leg of our journey, arriving in Seattle after braving our way through a torrential downpour that made things downright terrifying. Visibility was only a few feet, and I spent much of this part of the drive keeping my eyes on the glowing red tail lights of the car in front of me, hoping that they didn’t drift off of the freeway while we played follow the leader. Happily, as the skies cleared, and as we saw signs for Sleater-Kinney Road, we knew that we were getting close to our destination.

The APA Conference was, once again, held at the Westin Hotel, in downtown Seattle. I’ve written in previous postings about how the character of the APA has changed over the years. It has evolved from an organization that was at one time mostly unwelcoming to non-analytic philosophers into one that now seems enthusiastically to embrace a wide range of continental and non-western perspectives. In addition to the session on humor and philosophy that I participated in, I attended a fascinating panel discussion that addressed Hegel’s response to nihilism, another panel on the positive aspects of negative emotions (like envy and disgust), and a really interesting symposium addressing inconsistencies in the arguments of Socrates as he is depicted in the early Platonic dialogues. Conversation was lively and people were friendly.  I had the chance to meet and chat with an advisor of mine who I had not seen in many years, as well as discussing potential book projects with a commissioning editor from Palgrave Macmillan. This felt the way a conference ought to feel. We were able to mix with people of like interests, gaining exposure to new perspectives, and sharing ideas with others. The conference was certainly a success.

On our previous trip, we didn’t explore the downtown sections of Seattle too extensively, but this time we spent more time walking the streets and exploring various neighborhoods. One of the places we visited was  Left Bank Books, an anarchist collective that sits on prime real estate, right in the middle of the tourist area at Pike Place Market. I love the fact that this radical, independent bookseller is nestled among overpriced restaurants and souvenir shops, sitting right down the street from the very first Starbucks cafe. It has an amazing selection of literature, ranging from poetry, to philosophy to history to fanzines. While there, I purchased a copy of Beating the Fascists and dropped off a couple of copies of my own book, The Nihilist: A Philosophical Novel. 

Afterwards, we walked up to Belltown, where I dropped off more copies of the novel at Singles Going Steady, an incredible punk rock record/DVD/memorabilia shop. I spent a while talking with the guy working the counter who, as it turns out, originally comes from my own home of Marin County. We reminisced about old times, sharing memories and swapping opinions about our favorite bands. Afterwards, across the street, my wife and I played videogames and pinball at Shortys, a hipster bar with lots of atmosphere, good pints and friendly staff. We also went shopping at Gr8Gear, an old-time, no nonsense army/navy surplus store where we were attended to by a very friendly Sikh man who helped us find the correct sized hats and pants while also recounting his adventures in the navy. We then wrapped things up by joining a street march and protest that was conveniently winding its way through the streets as we emerged from the store. While the protest was no “battle in Seattle,” it was, I think, an appropriate capstone to our visit.

I’m looking forward to seeing Seattle again. After this second visit, I feel as if I’m more familiar with the lay out of the city and the areas that I would like to return to for further exploration. The place feels friendly, and the culture is agreeable to my tastes. If they could just dial the rainfall back a notch and raise the temperature, I could even imagine living here.

 

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.