Shock Waves: A Syllabus for the End Times

I’D LIKE TO START WITH A SIMPLE BUT EXPANSIVE ASSERTION: The fundamental epistemological problem of recent intellectual history has been the privileging of contradiction over contrariety.

To put it simply, contradiction is an opposition between “this” and “not-this.” Only one of the two can obtain at once; only one half of a contradiction can be true at once. A contrariety, on the other hand, is an opposition between two poles that describe a spectrum or difference of degrees. A single entity—your body, say—can be a little of both at once. “True”/“false” is an example of a contradiction. “Hot”/”cold” is an example of a contrariety.

So again: The fundamental epistemological problem of recent intellectual history has been the privileging of contradiction over contrariety. You can understand both “recent” and “history” as broadly as you like. Also “intellectual,” for that matter. The central conceptual battleground of my assertion is the convoluted, fractured domain often called “theory,” that odd, mostly mid-twentieth-century French assortment of ideas that for a certain stratum has either largely replaced or heavily inflected traditional notions of philosophy, politics, activity, and responsibility, and in the process had an enormous impact on creative and artistic activity.

Read more:

“Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re so Paranoid, You Probably Think this Essay Is About You,” from Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity by Eve Kosofksy Sedgwick

Sedgwick’s essay, brilliant and before its time, has lost none of its force or relevance in the thirteen years since its publication. It’s the best summary you can find of the Problem of Criticism in the Current Age. Sedgwick, among the most prescient and sharp-eyed critics of recent decades, didn’t just usher in an era of identitarian and minoritarian critique, she also cautioned against its pitfalls and got the hell out of Dodge way before anyone else had the sense to. Her untimely passing (from breast cancer, in 2009) was as tragic as her work was vital and this essay, for me, is among the enduring remains of my time with “theory.”

“Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,” by Barbara Smith

Despite my strong stance on critique above, I am equally committed to retaining any tool that might be useful. And to decide conceptually that critique as a project is invalid will not displace the vast, broken apparatus of call-and-response that is the engine of value-production for much of what we consider “culture.” If you’re going to write critically or think critically, it might make sense to start with a strong example. A point of intellectual origin for contemporary critical practices of inclusivity and diversity, Smith’s essay remains a sharp and valuable summary of how a cultural apparatus organizes to exclude or devalue certain kinds of production and certain kinds of producers. I especially appreciate its cogent negotiation of questions of authorial response and accountability. In its assertion that Toni Morrison’s opinion doesn’t really matter to a critical reading of her own novel Sula (1973), Smith’s essay is a timely reminder that critique, when needed, should strive to engage an audience, not simply contradict an author. Critique can be a project of reorganizing, elaborating, and communicating ideas: Nobody needs to watch two overeducated narcissists “exchange” arguments in public, especially not now.

Postmodernism: or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism by Fredric Jameson

Though hardly extra-canonical, Jameson’s oft-quoted brick of a book seeks less to define or explain than to tease out contradictions in the manner of Adorno. Depending on how your brain works, that will either prove a rigorous, enlightening exercise or a tortuous set of convolutions, but then, that’s true of most complex conceptual writing. Jameson, more than most critics of the 1990s, was aware of the present as a set of ongoing processes organized by wide-ranging ideological concepts, instead of neat, interlocking categories. Rather than nail down what “postmodernism” or “postmodernity” mean, each chapter of the book explores the concept from a different direction. The stuff on art is almost all wrong, and Jameson doesn’t get Warhol at all. But the reflections on ideology, on narrative, and economics remain extremely relevant for understanding the apparatus of cultural value-production into which much intellectual and creative activity, including this syllabus, is embedded. The book doesn’t just describe the complexities and effects of the postmodern condition, it performs them in its refusal to synthesize and in its iterative structure, which makes it a useful segue from the negating critique to which most of us are accustomed to the positively oriented concepts of joyous inquiry.

“Any Theory of the ‘Subject’ Has Always Been Appropriated by the ‘Masculine,’ ” from Speculum of the Other Woman by Luce Irigaray

This searing, typically abstract essay-cum–epistemological manifesto is one of the standalone sections sandwiched between the two halves of Irigaray’s epic Speculum of the Other Woman. Irigaray’s 1972 dissertation for the Ecole Freudienne de Paris was a brutally condescending attack on her former teacher Jacques Lacan, executed with clear intent and unambiguous effect but without once addressing his work directly or engaging with it on its own terms. (The entire book does not name him once or cite any of his work.) It’s a masterpiece of critique as attack, and an astounding balance of rage and rigor; if you have to go negative, do it like this.

Irigaray’s work has been rightly associated with a tendency to transphobia or transmisogyny, a fact I offer as a caveat rather than an excuse. Like the two previous essays, I include this text because it addresses the kinds of conceptual, epistemological, and personal difficulties that confront our efforts to build something that doesn’t already exist.

Categories and On Interpretation by Aristotle, and Isagoge by Porphyry

Oddly enough, between, oh, the first century and about 1650 or so, these were three of the most widely read texts in the world. By that I mean in Europe, in the Levant, in Byzantium (“Asia Minor”), and in North Africa, not just in the monasteries of Ireland and France. The former two texts are the first in Aristotle’s Organon, the six books of logic that formed the basis of virtually every education in the Middle Ages. Muslims read the Koran; Jews the Tanakh; and Christians the Bible, but all three read Aristotle’s Organon and Porphyry’s late antique commentary on the first book, the Categories. In addition to the possible value of knowing there even was a book as universally canonical in the Western and Mediterranean worlds, a reading of these brief, dense texts will also reveal the origin of the distinction between contradiction and contrariety. Honestly, the first step to a true revolution in the history of Western thought would be the throw Plato out the window. #TeamAristotle

Letters by Seneca; Meditations by Marcus Aurelius; and Discourses by Epictetus

Basically, these texts are either the last great writing of the Stoic tradition before its untimely death or the first examples on record of what we today would call “advice columns,” depending on how you choose to look at it. In its early days in Hellenic Athens, Stoicism was a rigorous school that boasted the most advanced logical system of its time, one that would not be matched in complexity until the later nineteenth-century. In this early, more rigorous Stoic tradition, it was mastery of this complex predicate logic that led to gradual engagement with more social concerns and ultimately ethical philosophy. By the later Roman Republic, Stoicism had become less a rigorous metaphysical system and more an attitude; it is from the later Roman Stoics that we derive our sense of the term “prepared to face adversity calmly.” These are less rigorous philosophical texts and more examples of lives that strive to be lived rationally, with the evident fact of self-interest as a motor, rather than as a hindrance, to a reasonable and efficacious social existence.

The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics by Martha Nussbaum

Since I decry also the fetishization of novelty, I should note that all of these texts have been extensively written about and there is plenty of secondary scholarship. In the case of the Stoics, that scholarship is especially important because hardly any original texts survive. Nussbaum’s book on philosophy as a mode of life rather than a search for ultimate truth inspires expansive thinking about what philosophy can do.

The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius

Written as Boethius waited to be executed for treason by the Gothic king of Rome, this treatise, famous for centuries afterwards in the Latin-speaking world, is an extended meditation on the irrationality of despair and the self-evident necessity of joy. One of the last traditionally trained Roman statesmen on record, Boethius’s “philosophy” was the odd, loose mix of Plato and Aristotle that characterized later antiquity under the dominance of Neoplatonism. The text’s genre is impossible to pin down, shifting unexpectedly from verse to autobiographical musings to conceptual exposition, and its arguments are as flawed as its exposition is subtle, but The Consolation remains an excellent example of philosophy as an attempt to cure rather than cut.

The Opinions of the Inhabitants of the Virtuous City by Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn Muhammad “al-Fârâbî”

The concept of the ideal polity is a familiar one in European and American political philosophy, but in that sphere the notion often derives from Augustine, the Christian dogmatist who posited the Heavenly City as an abstract one, come after death, and the reality of earthly existence as irrevocably corrupted (original sin, and all that). This notion—that true joy comes only after a lifetime of drudgery and humble penitence—was later eagerly seized on by Protestantism, the ideological engine of mercantile capitalism, and we recognize it today in the now-antiquated concept of “pensions.”

This is just one example of the ways in which intellectual and philosophical developments dovetail with history and politics, and of how ideology becomes a kind of selection mechanism by which concepts that don’t reflect a certain status quo are weeded out. To think differently, we must also find different concepts and archives, not “virtuous” or “good” concepts free from any “problematic” associations but simply concepts embedded in less rancid parts of the same historical shitpile.

The history of human thought is constantly being “ret-conned”: Concepts and schools of thought fall in and out of fashion, but one of the central tasks of traditional intellectuals in Antonio Gramsci’s sense is to establish an historical continuity for the ideas that support the status quo. (That’s where the “traditional” part comes in.) It’s easier to forget there was ever an alternative to the Augustinian lifetime-of-drudgery model than it is to systematically refute it, but there’s always an alternative model. Someone, at some point in the history of human thought, has been annoyed by the same kinds of ideas you’re annoyed by.

A very different notion of political and personal efficacy than Augustine’s is suggested by a parallel tradition of philosophical writing among the great Muslim and Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages and the early modern period. For al-Fârâbî, as for his direct or indirect successors ibn Rushd and Maimonides, there wasn’t “a” Heavenly City that we would all either get into or not. Like David Byrne, al-Fârâbî and ibn Rushd would have been amused by the idea of Heaven as the ultimate club, with a long-ass line that lets in two or three people at a time.

For the cosmopolitan thinkers of the medieval Levant and Maghreb, who lived among a complex set of interlocking and diverse regimes unified by their religious ideals if not their religious practices, every regime was just one of many. The ideal polity wasn’t a Platonic Idea impossible to attain, but the ultimate goal of a long path of progress. Al-Fârâbî’s best-known political text, The Opinions of the Inhabitants of the Virtuous City, was an influential political treatise whose ideas appear later in the writing of Maimonides (who wrote mostly in Arabic) and Spinoza, who knew Maimonides’s writing inside and out. For all these thinkers, political reasoning is a process of weighing pros and cons, rather than of lamenting the corrupt nature of humanity and the impossibility of improving it. Since we still apparently consider Plato’s Republic an essential part of a political philosophy curriculum, we could do far worse than add a dose of medieval Islamic Aristotelianism to the mix.

The Guide of the Perplexed by Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon

A medieval doctor, Torah scholar, and philosopher, Maimonides is one of the greatest medieval thinkers and a foundational name in the intellectual tradition aimed against anxiety. Most summaries of or footnotes about The Guide of the Perplexed describe it as Maimonides’s effort to “reconcile” religion and philosophy. But a close look at the Guide, along with Maimonides’s letters and other sources, suggests that its intellectual purpose was much subtler: The guide isn’t really intended to “reconcile” the assertions of religion and philosophy, but rather to help the reader through the anxious realization that on certain points of dogma (the nature of God, the createdness or uncreatedness of the universe) religion and philosophy might just remain forever irreconcilable. The question is not, “How do we make all these assertions agree without contradiction?” Rather, the question Maimonides asks is, “As we deepen our thought and our study and discover apparent contradictions among increasingly complex ideas, how do we push past the resulting anxiety to continue working to know?” For Maimonides, as for his approximate contemporaries ibn Rushd and Anselm of Canterbury, intellection was an endless process. Where Platonic and post-Platonic philosophies sought to arrive at a definitive, ultimate truth, the anxiety-oriented Aristotelianism of the early medieval philosophers aimed instead to remove stumbling blocks to progress.

Ethics by Baruch Spinoza

Spinoza’s Ethics is the most perfect philosophical text ever written. It’s the culmination both of Aristotelian metaphysics and of the tradition of philosophy as a living cure for anxiety.

The Ethics is committed to pure positivity: It succeeds in thinking through existence and being without negation, without positing negation anywhere in existence except as an error of thought. Its immaculately constructed reasoning begins by looking up at all of existence and realizing that to grasp its nature we must first grasp the nature of the individual mind. From there Spinoza moves on to the relation between the mind and the physical world, then to the relations between physical bodies that produce what he calls “affections,” or sensations. When the interacting bodies have a consciousness, we can call those sensations “feelings” or “affects.” Those affects, for Spinoza, form the basis of human reasoning and the basis of social relations, because it is in and through our affections that we think, relate, interact, and, most importantly, believe.

Unlike Descartes, Spinoza does not situate mind and body in opposition, but in parallel, and that makes all the difference. Instead of a self resolutely and irrevocably opposed to everything around it by the very nature of its self-conception, Spinoza offers a mind that understands itself as a single nexus in an infinite chain of relations, a single piece of the universe but equal in nature to any other piece except by order of magnitude. Everything that is is part of the same substance, but there are smaller things than us, and bigger things than us, and our existence cycles in the vicissitudes of those differences.

Spinoza offers a way out of the encircling negations and contradictions insisted on by deconstruction and its various identitarian and minoritarian progeny. Here is a practical Ethics, a livable intellectual commitment that is infinitely flexible and entirely joyous. I kind of like Spinoza. I think you should read him. I recommend the Hackett edition. I recommend the Hackett editions of everything—they’re the best.

A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume; Empiricism and Subjectivity by Gilles Deleuze; and The Creative Mind by Henri Bergson

Hume’s first mature philosophical work was also, incredibly, his greatest. He spent the rest of his philosophical career trying to simplify and re-explicate what were essentially extracts from the Treatise for an audience he rightly felt did not sufficiently appreciate the complexity of his magnum opus. As is often the case, I didn’t really understand what Hume wanted until I read Deleuze’s explication of his thought. Hume’s goal was to realign the dominant oppositions of the early and later Enlightenment, including the familiar Cartesian one between rationality and emotion or passion, which continues to haunt us and which Foucault so awesomely elucidated in the History of Madness (1961).

Like Spinoza before and Bergson after, Hume posits the human mind as a series of impressions or sensations on the basis of which we build inferences and draw conclusions. And like Spinoza, Hume doesn’t assume that there needs to be a substantial distinction between mind and body if they are understood to work in parallel. For Hume, institutions are a collective effort to recreate the affective bonds of kinship and other close emotional relationships on a larger scale. His arguments about the relation between the self and the social relations in which it’s embedded prefigures Gramsci’s in its insistence that we misunderstand the nature of human relations if we imagine that institutions and ideals exist apart from the mechanisms and people that embody them. The outcome of this insistence is a purely positive ethics of social relations. I think Hume is really missing even from many “canonical” educations.

Black Reconstruction by W. E. B. Du Bois

Long before Foucault stopped reading Sartre, Du Bois was doing what Foucault would call “archeology”: constructing a counterintuitive but plausible narrative out of clear evidence that had seemingly been lying ignored in plain sight. Assembling a mass of data of every possible variety, Du Bois built a history of Reconstruction in the post–Civil War United States that not only rewrites an accepted narrative but asks how that narrative came to be constructed in the first place and what interests it serves. His interrogation of the historians at elite institutions who came before him is an important reminder of the complicity of scholarship in existing relations of power, one whose lesson we have yet to fully internalize.

The Prison Notebooks by Antonio Gramsci

Few philosophers smash to pieces the theory/praxis contradiction like Antonio Gramsci, among the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century and beyond, who wrote his most important work, The Prison Notebooks, while in jail under Mussolini for his leading position in the Italian Communist Party. As we watch late capitalism shudder and wrack, turning back to Marx isn’t the worst idea: Putting aside debates over whether economic factors were “responsible” for Trump’s election (economic factors don’t vote; people do), it’s clear that at stake in the coming years is the basic standard of living and the survival of increasingly draconian labor conditions not only for the poor but also for the middle and upper-middle classes. Like Nietzsche, Gramsci left behind a vast accumulation of notes, plans, sketches, and drafts that were edited and published after his death and which determined his intellectual legacy. And like Nietzsche, Gramsci’s thought is an incredible array of fragmentary ideas, tools, and analyses that weave together not a definite group of arguments but an elaborate set of flexible principles.

Gramsci doesn’t so much return to Marx as rewrite him. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, Marxists everywhere were confronted with the basic problem of teleology: If Marx insisted that Communism would emerge only after a distinct set of stages, the last of which was full industrialized capitalism, why did the only successful Communist revolution take place in an agrarian empire still burdened with the residue of medieval serfdom? Where Stalin and later Mao decided to make history happen and industrialize their countries so they could become “properly” Communist later, Gramsci instead paused to ask, very sensibly, if maybe the problem was the assumption that socialist revolution required a definite, predetermined teleological progression.

Gramsci finds the weaknesses of Communist theory not in history’s stubborn refusal to cooperate but in Marxism’s reliance on Hegel’s philosophy of history, with its arcane and ludicrous spiral of contradictions and necessities. The Prison Notebooks rewrite Marx without Hegel, replacing familiar oppositions—theory/praxis; base/superstructure; revolutionary/reactionary culture—with suppler, immanent concepts that remain unparalleled for understanding history and culture and complex constellations of forces not as a nesting doll of contradictory hierarchies. Spinoza is the ethics we need today; Gramsci is the political philosopher who most boldly prepares us for the endless possibilities of the future.

Fuck Theory is not a real person, but that doesn’t seem to stop them from having a lot of opinions. You can find their work on Twitter and on Tumblr, and at a new lecture series beginning December 18 at Postmasters Gallery in New York.