Artifice and Agency

Sunday, October 22, 2006

First Cradle to Cradle House Takes Shape in Virginia

Here's a link to an article in Grist about a new C2C house in Virginia. I'm not assigning it as reading or anything, but wanted to make it available in case anybody was interested. See you all Tuesday.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

On Cultural Taxonomy & Negation

In “The Lost Continent,” from Mythologies, Roland Barthes interrogates the manner in which the eponymous documentary in question does more than simply provide a glimpse at the then little-seen Malay Archipelago: under the banners of science and education, The Lost Continent colonizes, infantalizes, and commodifies the subjects to which it turns its gaze. Though the film claims to offer a vicarious journey to what may seem a deeply mysterious frontier to its intended audience, upon arrival it becomes clear that the landscape has been forced to cannibalize itself in a spasm of hunger for exoticism, for ‘the other,’ and for safe differences. Barthes describes how the filmmakers are shows cavorting with a little bear, and how “a mascot is indispensable in all expeditions: no film about the polar region is without its tame seal, no documentary on the tropics is without its monkey,” (pp. 95), and thus identifies the way in which the filmmakers treat their subject much like an innocuous gift-store.
Barthes writes that the Orient which is portrayed in the film is “flattened, made smooth and gaudily colored like an old-fashioned postcard,” and that “the device which produces [this] irresponsibility is clear: coloring the world is always a means of denying it” (pp. 94). As an illustration of this leveling of difference, Barthes describes the way in which the film frames the religions of the Orient, namely Buddhism, as ultimately equivalent or analogous to Western Christianity; by positing Oriental religions in this light, Lost Continent sees only itself wherever it looks, even in the realms of the metaphysical. Buddhism, the film would have the viewer understand, is simply Christianity written in some obscure code of antiquity, clothed in bright and unfamiliar liturgy; there is no real difference (read: danger, incompatibility) between East and West, just different names for folkways which are essentially the same. Barthes describes this attitude as a radical essentialism, one which strips localities and societies of their specificity, and which is quick to demystify “the paltry and contingent character of geographic considerations compared to this human nature of which Christianity alone holds the key” (pp. 95)
The invocation of Nature is crucial to the intervention in which Barthes is engaged; by attempting to delineate a immemorial Christian infrastructure, The Lost Continent not only strips its subjects of their specificity, it also sets up a pernicious fence around Nature and the so-called Family of Man: if all cultures are, as Barthes describes, “never related to a particular historical order... only to the great neutral forms of cosmic commonplace” (pp. 95), then beyond the leveling of difference of most cultures, the exile and marginalization of others may occur as well. If a recognizable Christian structure does not make itself apparent, or is not easily writ in color in the body of a population, then it appears to the institutions which both shape and regulate public perception as a violation of an elemental code of belonging: if a culture cannot be coerced into Nature, then it is relegated to outsider status, as something not similar, but neutralized as safely exotic, a curiosity. Even then, however, the will towards cultural essentialism has provided itself with safeguards to prevent such a loss of control by allowing societies eccentricities, local color; as Barthes writes, “By appending to Eastern realities a few positive signs which mean ‘native,’ one reliably immunizes them against any responsible content” (pp. 96.) Here, Barthes identifies a telling distinction made on the park of the filmmakers, one which make an argument between form and content: the paraphernalia, the visible actuality of a culture is not truly constitutive of its nature, but a local accident; it is the underlying similarities which ‘count’ and which unite the world under the unproblematic umbrella of essentialism. This, too, raises a provocative question: if there is a ahistorical, ageographic, acultural tradition which binds all of humankind, who is mapping this family tree, and how, and to what ends? “Faced with anything foreign,” writes Barthes, “the Established order knows only two types of behavior... either to acknowledge it as a Punch and Judy show, or to defuse it as a pure reflection of the West” (pp. 96.)
The stakes of Barthes contention with The Lost Continent extend beyond the immediate concerns of cultural narcissism, however; his interrogation reveals a larger anxiety of the West with regard to that which cannot either be rendered intelligible via taxonomy or safely exoticized. Documentaries such as The Lost Continent start to appear more as fairy tales than ethnography, stories which explain away that which would thwart the supposedly uniting (but ultimately eroding) forces of science and classification, so as to render the world endlessly explainable, reducible, and bereft of the perils of mystery and contingency.

Let us take a prolegomenous look at two excerpts. The first comes from Roland Barthes’s essay “The Jet-Man,” appearing within Mythologies:
“In fact, and in spite of the scientific garb of this new mythology, there has merely been a displacement of the sacred: after the hagiographic era (Saints and Martyrs of propeller-aviation) there follows a monastic period; and what passes at first for mere dietetic prescriptions soon appears invested with a sacerdotal significance …. Society eventually recognizes, a propos of the jet-man, the old theosophical pact, which has always compensated power by an ascetic life, paid for semi-divinity in the coin of human ‘happiness.’ So truly does the situation of the jet-man comprise the sense of a religious call, that it is itself the reward of previous austerities, of initiatory proceedings, meant to test the postulant (passage through the altitude chamber and in the centrifugal machine)" (72).

The second comes from Marcel Proust’s fifth volume of In Search of Lost Time, “The Fugitive” (published about 20 years prior to Barthes’s essay), and describes the narrator’s awe over one of Giotto’s hagiographic frescoes:
“This sky transplanted on to the blue-washed stone was peopled with flying angels … [and] watching the flight of these angels, I had the same impression of actual movement, literally real activity, that the gestures of Charity and Envy had given me. For all the celestial fervor, or at least the childlike obedience and application, with which their miniscule hands are joined, they are represented in the Arena chapel as winged creatures of a particular species that had really existed, that must have figured in the natural history of biblical and apostolic times. Constantly flitting about above the saints whenever the latter walk abroad, these little beings, since they are real creatures with a genuine power of flight, can be seen soaring upwards, describing curves, “looping the loop,” diving earthwards head first, with the aid of wings which enable them to support themselves in positions that defy the laws of gravity, and are far more reminiscent of an extinct species of bird, or of young pupils of Garros practicing gliding, than of the angels of the Renaissance and later periods whose wings have become no more than emblems and whose deportment is generally the same as that of heavenly beings who are not winged” (663).

What strikes me as particularly astonishing about these two passages is the nearly identical historical locus that both identify as the root of the human aspiration toward the skies. The “hagiographic era” that Barthes identifies as the inspiration for propeller aviation is precisely the era that gave birth to Giotto and his pre-Renaissance portrayals of Cherubs as buxom infants tumbling awkwardly in the heavens—the image of flight which invokes within Marcel an almost contagious “Envy” for three-dimensional mobility. We see an especially striking harmony between Barthes’s delineated categories of “propeller-man”/“jet-man” and Proust’s reading of the differentiated styles of Hagiographic and Renaissance winged-creatures: the bodily comportment of Giotto’s angels is distended—spines twist back upon themselves, hands are thrown in front of the celestial figures’ seemingly wobbling axes of motion, and certain human characteristics are omitted (feet, for example, are discarded in favor of ethereal trails). By contrast, the type of flying creature we see in a Renaissance masterpiece—take Michaelangelo’s “The Last Judgment” as an example—is identified as an Angel only by his or her suspension above the ground: we see that there is not a wing in the entire painting. The human conception of the celestial aviator, it would seem, has discarded the notion that avian appendages must be grafted onto the mortal form in order to achieve flight. Absolute mastery of three-dimensional motion is depicted here as an emanation of internal faith in the power of God that propels them.

What I think Barthes proposes in his presentation of the modern pilot hero is a compromise between the appendages necessary for the Hagiographic Angel to take flight and the monastic asceticism that is the only stipulation for the Renaissance Angel. For while the jet-man must first crawl into “the anti-G suit of inflatable nylon, the shiny helmet … a novel type of skin in which ‘even his mother would not recognize him'" (72), Barthes also specifies that his endurance “is not physical in nature: triumph in preliminary ideals is, truth to tell, the fruit of a spiritual gift, one it gifted for jet-flying as others are called to God” (72). Not only must the mortal aviator be gifted with preternatural eyesight and stamina; he must, before he is presented with the accoutrements that would enable him to defy gravity, pass through physical purgatory. The “altitude chamber and the centrifugal machine” exist as the final and objective arbiter of who shall be granted flight and who shall not, and because the average man could not—nor would wish to—live the monastic life of military austerity required to pass such an examination, the jet-man is by definition outside the realm of the ordinary. It is in this way that the jet-man is characterized as “less human than anthropological,” since the pilot-hero must renounce the pleasures of sensual happiness for the semi-divine ability to “overtake motion” (71).

We see in this analysis how deftly Barthes weaves together the historical Christian imagination of celestial flight into an elegant descriptive reading of the tangible advents of modernity. It is in this way that Barthes’s text functions: the technological developments of jet-flight and space flight, popularly thought inconceivable two centuries ago, are not without a long legacy of mythologies which have directed the trajectory of human progress for millennia. There is a reciprocal discourse here as well, in that only through landmark historical events such as jet-flight can historical collective imagination ever reach fruition. Only then can the aspirations that were precedents of jet-flight be truly appreciated, and it would seem to me that Roland Barthes is offering world alienation a sort of elixir for its supposed isolation from its roots: even the most technologically advanced artifacts of the hyper-modern are inextricable from the active minds of our great ancestors, to whom we owe the rich significance of our modern worldliness that simmers in mythological profundity.

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Einstein's Brain!

As a science major, I have learned to revere and perhaps worship the genius of Albert Einstein. In fact, I am willing to bet that most of us have been conditioned to feel and do the same. Why is this? And what exactly is it that we are idolizing? Beginning with Roland Barthes’ demystification of Einstein, I will consider the role and understanding of Einstien’s genius in our society. In addition, I will examine Hannah Arendt’s argument against “mathematical language” and her characterization of genius. Ultimately, the Barthes’ mythology of Einstein complements Arendt’s characterization of the human condition as it identifies society’s reaction to Einstein’s destabilization of man’s understanding of nature.
In his rather humorous and enjoyable essay “The Brain of Einstein,” Roland Barthes examines the myth of Einstein’s brain as machine. That is, Barthes recognizes society’s understanding of Einstein’s uniqueness as something that must be non-human. Einstein’s vast contributions to science in the form of deceivingly simplistic mathematical equations (what could be more simplistic than E=mc2?) has led to the perception of his brain as a machine. “The mythology of Einstein shows him as a genius so lacking in magic that one speaks about his thought as of a functional labour analogous to the mechanical making of sausages, the grinding of corn or the crushing of ore: he used to produce thought, continuously, as a mill makes flour” (69). The ability of machines to generate a product consistently and with great efficiency transcends the natural ability of a normal human being. Furthermore, in the case of Einstein, his brain works to mechanically facilitate the conversion of the natural into a set of symbols and figures that are all together unnatural. It is this basic understanding of Einstein’s genius that dehumanizes his person, and therefore naturalizes the power of science over nature.
This myth that science can conquer the mysteries of nature encourages our fascination with the scientific genius of Einstein. Einstein’s genius culminated his attempt to describe nature based on the relationship of mass and energy, and although he successfully developed the Theory of Relativity and contributed greatly to the field of quantum physics, he was never able to unite the laws of gravity with the laws governing electromagnetism. Despite these shortcomings, his discoveries have allowed physicists to understand and manipulate the forces of nature for the “benefit” of humanity. Barthes muses, “Through the mythology of Einstein, the world blissfully regained the image of knowledge reduced to a formula. There is a single secret to the world, and this secret is held in one word; the universe is a safe of which humanity seeks the combination; Einstein almost found it” (69). Here, Barthes identifies man’s belief that the key to life exists in a word, that it exists in the currency of human communication, and must therefore be intelligible to humans. The reality is, however, that our hero, Albert Einstein, has earned his designation as machine through his work with symbols.
In her book, The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt addresses the issue of the unintelligibility of scientific symbols to humans. For her, the loss of speech in math and science is detrimental to our human condition. “There may be truths beyond speech, and they may be of great relevance to man in the singular, that is, to man in so far as he is not a political being…Men in the plural, that is, men in so far as they live and move and act in this world, can experience meaningfulness only because they can talk with and make sense to each other and to themselves” (4). The fact that Einstein’s success was derived from a series of untranslatable equations contributes to his classification as machine. These equations, although truthful, will forever lack the ability to be fully understood in a society of sentient beings. “But the mathematization of physics, by which the absolute renunciation of the senses for the purpose of knowing was carried through, had in its last stages the unexpected and yet plausible consequence that every question man puts to nature is answered in terms of mathematical patterns to which no model can ever be adequate, since one would have to be shaped after our sense experiences” (287). Arendt recognizes man’s need to understand nature, but concedes that science may never adequately offer any answers. In some ways, the myth of Einstein embodies this reality; he died before he could unify relativity and quantum physics, and therefore never provided the key to life.
Einstein’s dehumanization in Barthes’ essay further resonates with Arendt’s arguments for the inability of “mathematical language” to appear intelligible or even natural to mankind. If his uncovered truths exist in the form of equation, then how could we help but understand his brain to function like a machine? Perhaps we must change our perception of Einstein’s genius. We must begin to understand Einstein as a man apart from his works. “The essence of who somebody is cannot be reified by himself. When it appears ‘objectively,’ it manifests the identity of a person and therefore serves to identify authorship, but it remains mute itself and escapes us if we try to interpret it as the mirror of a living person. In other words, the idolization of genius harbors the same degradation of the human person as the other tenets prevalent in commercial society” (211). Society’s preoccupation with genius arises from the uniqueness of its creations, not necessarily from the genius himself! Unfortunately for Einstein, his genius was his ability to transcend the limits of mankind. He has taken the world that we live in and dehumanized its terms. Consequently, man has taken Einstein and dehumanized his person

Astonished by Suicide, Biopower Reacts Unsurprisingly

Rather than take a privileged view of Foucault and Arendt, and draw comparisons that leave them orbiting each other tantalizingly I am going to take as my view the tantalizing orbit of two sentences of Foucault, and allow Arendt to offer poetic support (not that this division of labor should always hold). Specifically, they concern suicide, and society's astonishment at the persistence of this act amidst its claiming of life, a claiming whose conceit is the improving or guaranteeing of the life of the social body. I will argue that the sociological taking up of suicide kept this act from undermining the sovereignty of biopower, by making suicide one among possible social conducts, and thereby relieving it of its death-aspect, which threatens Human Biology.

“It is not surprising that suicide – once a crime, since it was a way to usurp the power of death which the sovereign alone, whether the one here below or the Lord above, had the right to exercise – became, in the course of the nineteenth century, one of the first conducts to enter into the sphere of sociological analysis; it testified to the individual and private right to die, at the borders and in the interstices of power that was exercised over life. This determination to die, strange and yet so persistent and constant in its manifestations, and consequently so difficult to explain as being due to particular circumstances or individual accidents, was one of the first astonishments of a society in which political power had assigned itself the task of administering life.” (138-139)

To take up the second sentence first: Why was it one of the first astonishments of a biopolitical society that so many people were determined to die?

This is because the biopolitical society has no way of reaching death. In the society of the sovereign Lord, death could be calculated as a political ceremony, namely the passing of sovereignty from the terrestrial lord onto God. Yet when power sets itself the task of administering life, it effectively relinquishes its 'right of death'. Any execution or genocide it perpetrates has to be justified in terms of life, or else that power is acting in relation to something other than itself: greed, sadism, pleasure, perhaps death itself. Meanwhile, the actual event of the death – the caskets returning home, the failed injections of the deadly serum – must be covered over, turned from, repudiated, and this is because biopolitical power always fails to make any death entirely political. With Lord sovereign, an individual's death made sense through and through: in whatever circumstance, one or the other authority has sent this person to God. With biopower, on the other hand, the actual event of death fails to reinforce that power. An individual has simply ceased to live, and biopower has had nothing to say in the matter, except, as in the case of the executed, the slaughtered en masse, or the heroic, that their death serves the life of the social body. Power, especially when it kills, has to “turn away from death” (138).

With this in mind, we can see why non-circumstantial, non-accidental suicide astonishes a biopolitical society. This is because it is an act that turns toward death at the expense of life. The social body, whose conceit was its commitment to life, sees 'one of its own' act clearly and emphatically in excess of that sovereign term. The suicidal death seems immune to occlusion by the notion of 'service to life', to which the criminal, hero, or enemy's death could be ascribed. Suicide is the purposeful enactment of an event everyone knows they will eventually, privately, perhaps even beyond their own awareness, partake in. Biopower fails to step up and speak as the ownmost fact of the living is stirred, and so death seems briefly like a power locus of its own. Even the hardiest of the biopolitical are welcoming ears, though they may repudiate this fact.

Otherwise left lingering is a form of power both outside that society and in its midst, at its borders and in its cracks. Indeed, the act of suicide testifies to a different understanding of power altogether. Rather than power as the struggle for life alone, life is a singular locus within power relationships overall (or perhaps the 'social body' can only play at power if it is sovereign, and is otherwise powerless). Death can quite emphatically be chosen over life, just as one can choose bodies and pleasure over sexuality; it is an active resistance. The stale opposition of the living social body and the criminal or the enemy (these two being at once adjectives, identifying nouns, and concepts) gives way to independent mortal bodies and the relationships of various interests (prevailingly plural, rather than strictly suicidal, we may hope).

A biopower that seeks to sustain itself thus has an interest in somehow turning away from suicide, just as it calculates covering over the actual events of death it propagates. This leads us to the first sentence: it is not surprising that sociological analysis is biopolitical society's answer to suicide. Why is this? It is because this analysis can treat suicide as an act of social conduct, specifically the negative of social conduct, when an individual perceives that society can no longer administer to their pain, or perhaps they perceive themselves as a threat to that society's life, or they perceive themselves as a means to sustaining the social body through death. Given these answers, the astonishment of the biopolitical society can give way to an understanding of it as one among many possible social behaviors. Each act of suicide is a temporary failure to commit to what Arendt calls a “dazed, tranquilized, functional type of behavior”, a failure to abandon what she calls “the still individually sensed pain and trouble of living”, namely one's individuality (322). Whereas previously, in Christian sovereignty, the committer of suicide was refused Christian burial as a usurper (316), now that person can become etched into the social imaginary as an aftershock of the social body's birth pangs, and a biopolitical Christian society may admit that person as temporarily failing life (perhaps the spiritual connection to God inherent in life).

In any event, sociological analysis covers over the astonishing event of suicide, which is an a-bio-political death. It causes the death-aspect of this event to be marginal, and its context within an imagined social body to be definitive. Indeed, when we consider committing suicide, first there to meet us is not the power of death, but the imagined social body, speaking of social conduct. (I recognize the absurd sound of the social 'we' and the suicidal predicate, and the possibility that this is a terribly flawed generalization of the experience of suicidal consideration).

This work upon suicide registers the fear that the purely biopolitical enacts the following: “the reality of the world and the living, where one is and appears to be either happy or unhappy, either free or slave, are eliminated to such an extent that they are not even admitted as spectators to the spectacle of self-delusion” (235). Real dissent fails Life.

Monday, October 09, 2006

The World of Perception through the Scientific Discourse

In the modern world, science is the solution to understand natural phenomena. Therefore, scientific investigation is a method by which we articulate natural phenomena for others can understand. Scientific discourse is this articulation of the world into something physical. In “The Brain of Einstein,” however, Roland Barthes sheds light to the limitation of this scientific discourse through different myths about Einstein’s brain. By narrating these myths, he shows contradictory views involved in scientific inquiries. In effect, Barthes reveals how scientific discourse traps us in a state of disability to understand the world.

Barthes introduces Einstein’s brain as a material in a scientific discourse to show limited perception we get through scientific discourse. The object of investigation, regardless of its abstract nature, is materialized into a concrete thing that can be investigated using scientific methods. This materialization shows the first misstep a scientist takes because he sets up the course of investigation based on this assumption that the object is just a material. Barthes illustrates this limited inquiry when he explains myths about Einstein’s brain.

Barthes represents Einstein’s brain that represents both “the greatest intelligence of all” and “an image of the most up-to-date machine” according to science. In other words, Einstein’s brain represents his knowledge and biological part. Although there are two ways to perceive his brain, scientists choose the latter to set a course of investigation.

For example, Barthes describes a photograph in which Einstein’s brain is wired to record his brain activities while he is asked to think about relativity. In addition to the treatment of the brain as a material, Barthes illustrates how the thought is represented as “an energetic material” that can be detected through wires (68). Although brain is more than just a material, scientists focus on this aspect of brain.

Since Einstein’s brain has been materialized into a machine, its production draws scientists’ attention as well. While Einstein’s brain has been materialized, Barthes observes mystification of his designed equations. The irony can be seen when he refers Einstein’s brain as “this machine of genius” (69) when he is about to discuss scientists’ perception of his equations. The etymology of the word “genius” shed light to his humor for juxtaposing it with machine. The word “genius” comes from “guardian deity of spirit which watches over each person from birth” (Online American Heritage Dictionary). Therefore, the word implies supernatural being who is behind a man’s genius. Machine, on the other hand, shows just a man who devised it to meet his needs. There is no mystery behind a genius if s/he is viewed as a machine; thus the treatment of his brain as a material does not intrigue us to question its maker.

By articulating genius as a machine, Barthes reveals how science draws our attention from a creator to created. Barthes formulates this tendency in man through a proportional relationship between increasing materialization and increasing mystification about the Einstein’s brain. He writes, “The more the genius of the man was materialized under the guise of his brain, the more the product of his inventiveness came to acquire a magical dimension” (69). This proportional relationship shows how scientists only see results not the process by which results come about through a genius. For example, Barthes notes “mystification” of Einstein’s historic equation E=mc^2 in a cartoon where he writes this formula without derivation. The cartoon demonstrates the equation apart from its formulator.

Barthes notes that this depiction of scientific language shows the simplicity of its nature that is discovered. Thus, he infers that we turn the world of knowledge into something that is hidden until it is revealed through scientific investigation. He quotes obituary about Einstein’s death: “Einstein died, it is said, without having been able to verify ‘the equation in which the secret of the world was enclosed’ (70). Barthes comments that “in the end the world resisted” (70) by burying “the secret” with him. This is the last contradiction that predicts unending inquiries after the knowledge of the world as though the secret is still hidden.

The last myth about hidden secret with Einstein’s death comes from the nature of scientific investigation which narrows our perception. Before the investigation starts, it forces us to separate intangible and tangible world to set a course of experiment. Therefore, scientists materialize Einstein’s brain and experiment it accordingly. When he formulates equations to describe the relativity, we look at the equation apart from the world he draws from. Finally, we unknowingly naturalize this process of dividing the world into known and unknown. In other words, we blind our own eyes from seeing intangible world in its nature.

The Modern Answer

The recent advent of digital technologies, online chatting, and virtual communities, are the products of the modern age’s attempts to control action. Though they have altered the Arendtian conceptions of speech and action, modern man’s attempts have remained unsuccessful. For Arendt, speech and action reveal the inherent uniqueness within each individual. Through their actions, others are able to discern the “who”, however this “who” was “hidden from the person himself, like the daimon in Greek religion…(179).” An individual’s actions are left to be interpreted by others and in their interpretations the weave a story of that individual’s life. Due to the unpredictable and boundless nature of action “nobody is the author or producer of his own life story. In other words, the stories, the results of action and speech, reveal an agent, but this agent is not an author or producer (184).” In this sense, man’s creation of the internet and virtual communities is an attempt to allow the agent to become the author and producer of their own story. This is the modern age’s answer to combat the boundlessness and unpredictability of action.

The internet has empowered and imbued individuals with the ability to see their daimon and actually shape it. In traditional speech, one cannot actually view one’s actions, however on the internet, one constructs blogs, websites, or chat room identities which the user has control over what information is released. In this manner, the user has the ability to create the identity that they wish others to see. Furthermore, the basic forms of interaction over digital mediums are less revealing than traditional interaction due to its lack of physical presence, expression, tonality, and so forth. The effect is that digital media limit an audience’s ability to distinguish between fact or fiction. An individual can present a falsified representation of oneself, in essence a purely fictional character, and the audience would never realize that person’s true identity. For instance, the Lonelygirl15 video blogs were actually the creation of an aspiring director and writer. They created a character and hired an actress to fill the role, and viewers took her life as the truth until it was revealed to be entirely fictional. The internet makes it nearly impossible to distinguish between fiction and reality. The internet is the modern age’s testament of an individual’s power to manipulate and master the digital media to create their own stories.

These characteristics of digital media are the modern age’s attempt to combat the boundlessness and unpredictability of action, however modern man is no more successful than the ancients in achieving this. Individuals have retreated behind user avatars and the safety of their computers in order to assert control over their identities. People control the information that is released and create a specific identity on the internet that people may identify with. However their attempts to shape their daimon remain futile as their actions are still subject to the unpredictability of outcomes and the boundlessness of action. Individuals may seek to present a specific identity, however this identity must still be interpreted by others. Although an individual may assert some control over his daimon, as the daimon is placed within a webpage, there exists another daimon hiding behind the webpage. The internet is still bound to the “already existing web of human relationships, with its innumerable, conflicting wills and intentions, that action almost never achieves its purpose; but it is also because of this medium, in which action alone is real, that it ‘produces’ stories with or without intention as naturally as fabrication produces tangible things (184).” In this sense, an individual’s actions on the internet are still subject to the scrutiny of others and each interaction prompts a different reaction thereby creating new stories. As much control as one has over their daimon, one can never overcome the unpredictability of action due to its connected nature to others.

The internet has become a new digital polis, functioning similarly to the ancient polis of Greece that “multip[lies] the occasions to win ‘immortal fame’, that is to distinguish himself, to show in deed and word who he was in his unique distinctness (197).” Digital communities offer individuals to popularize their deeds and express their individuality through the dissemination of information. However, the ephemeral structure of the internet, in its constant evolution, actually threatens the ability of stories to be preserved. Information is constantly updated and lost, making it nearly impossible to maintain a steady stasis for purposes of preservation. The lifespan of a digital story, or histories of an agent’s actions, progresses exponentially faster than traditional stories. In this same regard, digital mediums allow for the mass dissemination of the story to occur with ease and blinding speed. This allows for greater opportunity for agents to be monumentalized and thus remembered and eternalized. The internet polis encompasses the globe, and in man’s need to be seen and heard by others, he has bound himself in a conundrum as the larger the audience, the more difficult it becomes to distinguish oneself. Agents are still dependent upon storytellers, poets, and historians in the shaping of their stories and their subsequent memory in the public mind. While the internet polis “assures the moral actor that his passing existence and fleeting greatness will never lack the reality that comes form being seen, being heard, and, generally, appearing before an audience of fellow men…(198).” The increased opportunity to be seen and heard by the world, has made it nearly impossible to be distinguished and therefore win “deserving fame [that] would not be forgotten, that it would become ‘immortal (197).’” However, the primary premise of the modern age’s polis and the polis of ancient Greece remain the same as it acts to “assure that the most futile of human activities, action and speech, and the least tangible and most ephemeral of man-made ‘products,’ the deeds and stories which are their outcome would become imperishable (198).”

The Futuristic Fetishized Commodity

Daniel Harris’ essay “The Futuristic” can be read as a clarification of Marx’s commodity fetishism in 'Capital.' By juxtaposing Marx’s figure of the overturned table with Harris’ seamless machine we can see that both present modern objects in a negative light, one that mysteriously strives to hide any evidence of human labor. Both argue that the consumer elevates the object into a superior role. As a result, the labor becomes a mystical process replaced by the spontaneous growth of the commodity without any human intervention.

Marx uses the figure of the overturned table to concretize his theory of commodity fetishism.

"The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than "table-turning" ever was…The mystical character of commodities does not originate, therefore, in their use-value." (Capital Chp.1 Sect. 4)

Marx addresses the disconnect between the commodity and the raw material that is used to make it. His description illustrates the mystification that surrounds the transition from natural material into commodity. He does not describe the skillful hand of the worker that transforms the object, but the ambiguity surrounding its transformation into a commodity. He concentrates on the mystical character of the commodified object that now has a “wooden brain” that can produce ideas that transcend human thought. Even thought the object is now practically useless it is rendered even more valuable by its consumer. The last sentence of this passage makes an important distinction between the new exchange-value that the object has obtained and the use-value of the original wooden table. Harris’ futuristic objects also mystify their origin, but they do this in order to make the consumer believe that they are perfectly organic.

Although Harris calls the mystifying character that commodities strive for ‘the futuristic,’ his description is strikingly similar to Marx’s.

"The startling contrast between the inside and the outside of our machine mystifies the process of their assembly, making it seem as if our appliances had assembled themselves, grown in one piece like real organisms…The futuristic abhors the seam, its Achilles’ heel, which offers incrimination evidence of welding nailing, gluing, the tell-tale signs of the grease spattered mechanic whose handiwork belies its pretenses of autonomy and omnipotence." (144)

Harris gives an even more explicit account of the obscured labor process. His description gives more salience to Marx’s argument in that he conjures the image of the appliances appearing without the mark of their human assembly. While the futuristic object strives to achieve the status of a spontaneous manifestation of perfection, the figure of “the seam” gives an oppositional image of imperfection. In its seamlessness, the object disconnects itself from the laborer that produced it, hence the dream of autonomy and omnipotence.

Harris imputes onto the object a desire to imitate a perfect original production by nature. Marx on the other hand, concentrates on the inflated exchange-value of the object through a transformation from object into commodity. Both description, however, bring to light an obscured labor process, transferring any potential credit that the laborer deserves to the object itself. Most importantly, the object in its new commodified form is regarded as superior to any object produced through human labor.

Wine Culture

Barthes Mythologies make biting arguments on commonplace routines and leisure activities that seem harmless, but with further investigation, somehow these cultural idiosyncrasies make up the backdrop of both our insidious and prominent endeavors. In Wine and Milk Barthes argues that we invent mythological social characters even to substantiate the beverages we drink. “Wine,” Barthes writes, “provides a sense of social morality, and is an ornament in the slightest ceremonials of French daily life.” (60) Its counterpart, milk, represents “strength, purity, innocence and restoration.” (61) Why do we put ourselves into character categories? Is someone “pure” because they drink milk or “intellectual” because they enjoy wine? What social purpose can these categorizations solve? Barthes explains the zeal with which French society embraces wine and the irony of wine’s enthusiasm. This myth is provocative because it forces us to think about the objects we consume and asks us why they are significant, it questions our beliefs; Barthes states “to believe in wine is a collective coercive act”, and it turns an object of nationalism into a tool that constructs and conceals realities.
Many consumable objects could be targets of cultural myths in the Barthesian sense. Diet Coke is a favorite of many with good and countless bad qualities that make it “special” for dieters and non alike. Engagement rings are worn on fingers for years and years without the promise of more. National anthems are almost only sung at sporting events, where the singers rarely if ever internalize the lyrics. There are numerous textures of everyday life and with them many signs and tales ready to unfold and mythologize. Luckily for us, Barthes’ quirky rhetorical characters and scenes play out for us in Wine and Milk, and we recognize the political overtones and undertones of the myth.
It is the “belief” in wine that is political. And Barthes develops the insight just enough to display the telling details and play out some startling ties. The idea that wine is pervasive in French culture, from the proletariat to bourgeois, and present at humble dinners as well as state functions is reflective of its fluidity. But this fluidity is made able by the fact that most French grape crops are grown in Algeria a colonized country where the Muslims have no need for the crop. This insight shows the hypocrisy of this beloved national defining pastime. National pastimes and traditions are ubiquitous and yet most of us fail to recognize the insincerity with which they are carried out. And for many it is not deliberate disregard, rather ignorant bliss. A perfect example is solidarity ribbons. While shopping with my mother in a posh area of Palo Alto we stopped in a swanky salon to by hair care products. And in a wicker bowl by the cash register sat two different colors of solidarity ribbons. Pink and Yellow; I was outraged. “What is going on here”, I exclaimed to my mom, “In a place like this they promote breast cancer awareness and support for our troops over seas? Give me a break.” These ribbons represent the “universality” that Barthes writes about when he laments the national construction and spread of concealed identities through objects. We can wear these ribbons to show our support of an important cause or we can join the bandwagon without any moral obligation of duty; everyone wears them, but who really wears them? The idea of putting a pink, or red or yellow ribbon on your lapel to propagate some self serving clichéd narrative is loathsome. But then again the problem in France when one refuses hegemony and decides on another beverage, beer, whisky, water; “exposes on to minor problems of interrogation and [explanation of one’s ] attitude”. For wine Barthes points out that it is “above all a converting substance, capable of reversing situations and states, for instance, making a weak man strong or a silent one talkative” Why humanity would depend on this liquid in situations of social awkwardness then comes as no surprise. I know plenty of people who hide behind inebriation in order to be blessed with liquid confidence or to just plain “fit into the scene”- no judgment.
Neither wine, neither milk nor colored ribbons are deceptive or reductive, but it is interesting to test the connections. If belief in something makes it a collateral coercive act, then we are all coerced by our hobbies and tastes; which is not necessarily a bad thing. Barthes short essay is incisive and the claim that objects of nationalism construct and conceal realities ring true in the case of French wine and countless other cultural eccentricities; but its is my belief that myths have always deluded people for better and for worse.

To Inhabit the Nautilus’ Chamber or Buoy it with Gas: Worldliness, Action, and the Futurity Question

In the following post, Roland Barthes will be discussed. His description in “The Nautilus and the Drunken Boat”, raises interesting issues when looked at through an Arendtian perspective, especially when focusing on her conception of the world of homo faber. Barthes assigns three main “inclinations” to ships: “the joy of perfectly enclosing oneself, of having at hand the greatest possible number of objects, and having at one’s disposal an absolutely finite space” (66).

One of the most striking traits that Barthes attributes to the ship is that it is necessarily filled with objects. For Arendt the presence of durable objects, or things, is the quintessential condition for a world. (Evidence of this is all over The Human Condition, from page 9, when she posits that human existence "would be impossible without things", to page 173, where she describes the “home for mortal men” as the “man-made world of things”). By filling its inner chambers with possessions, the ship establishes its worldliness.

Barthes’ conception of the “finite space” closely corresponds to the Arendtian notion of permanence. For Arendt, permanence is essential for erecting a world because it “stands in direct contrast to life” (135). Life in this instance is “the life process”, which Arendt associates with “Nature and the cyclical movement into which she forces all living things” (96). Barthes also defines the finite against the infinite, which he describes as a raging storm that man “shuts himself up in” (65). Another interesting aspect of Barthes’ phrase is that he describes the finite space as being “at one’s disposal” (66). Unlike the unpredictable and unstable natural realm, the permanent world is a space that one can own and control, in the same way that Arendt’s homo faber “works upon” the world (136).

Barthes’ description of the “joy of perfectly enclosing oneself” is but one of many statements he makes alluding to pre-natality and the womb as a metaphor for the ship, which is described as a “cubby-hole”, a “cave” and a “bosom” (66). The namesake of “the most desirable of all caves”, the Nautilus, is a cephalopod whose soft body is protected by a hard outer shell. The “bliss of closure” found in the womb and in the ship is the bliss found in being completely isolated and protected from the earth and its harsh realities, magically and directly sustained by another being. But this is not necessarily a positive bliss for Barthes. He sees the desire for an enclosed and isolated space embodied in the ship as a facile and regressive one. It testifies to a tendency toward conservatism, not progression.

Arendt employs similar metaphors, but with more positive connotations. For her, birth and natality have “the closest connection with” action (9). Both are moments when “something uniquely new comes into the world” (178). No one can chart an action’s effects, just as no one knows how the newborn child will choose to spend all the following moments of its existence. For Arendt, natality signifies a futurity so radical that it cannot even be predicted. In this sense Arendt espouses the virtues of the Drunken Boat; she “says ‘I’” in her championing the inherent individualism of the human race and in so doing commits herself to a “genuine poetics of exploration” (Barthes 67).

However, Barthes sees the Drunken Boat as “the true opposite” of the nautical ship (67), a belief that Arendt does not share. In fact, Arendt believes that “before men beg[in] to act, a definite space ha[s] to be secured and a structure built where all subsequent actions [can] take place” (194). The seclusion, the separation from nature, and the thingness of the world does not impede exploration and progression, but rather preserves the place where it’s main vehicle, action, can occur. For Arendt, the future cannot happen in nature, because nature is cyclical and has no time because it just repeats itself. The world is the present, the space we occupy and share right now, and we need a good footing in it before we can embark in action, creating our future.

Ordinary Humanity and the Plight of Extra-Ordinary Inhumanity

“The Jet-Man” essay in Roland Barthes’s Mythologies depicts the mystification of the superhero in his transformation from ordinary man with enhanced-natural abilities to a magnified figure with no identifiably extraordinary abilities. In his essay, Barthes questions the heroification process, prompting the reader to wonder how heroes are imagined. Ultimately, “The Jet-Man” serves to eliminate the view of the Superhero as an ultra-humane figure, and to rather present him as, in fact, less human that ordinary men and heroes.

Barthes leads the reader on a narrative that attempts to layout how the pilot is heroified into “Jet-man”. He reflects on a time in which the pilot was a hero, and implies that before “jet-man”, pilots’ admiration stemmed from their ability to experience extremely fast motion, coming close to, but not over exceeding speed. He says, “the pilot-hero was made unique by…speed as an experience…of intoxicating motion” (71). For Barthes, the amazement of being a superhero was enveloped in a shared human experience – the commonality that we are all capable of moving, but that the pilot is able to experience it at a speed that others are not. Thus, people realize the original hero, whose abilities to accomplish a goal exceed common expectations.

Conversely, Barthes introduces the Superhero, Jet-man in juxtaposition to the hero, the pilot. He highlights that the difference between the hero and superhero is a seemingly unfathomable, magnified aura that highly praises Jet-man’s competence. According to Barthes, Jet-man is not a hero because of the tremendous speed that he reaches, but rather, the fact that his speed is so tremendous that it is immeasurable and undetectable by others. In moving, he seems motionless. Barthes describes the speed of Jet-man by saying, “the extravagance of his vocation precisely consisted in overtaking motion, in going faster than speed” (71). Hence, he highlights that people praise the superhero not only for his enhanced ability to complete normal human tasks (i.e. motion), but also for doing so undetectably.

“Jet-man” also encounters the conditions of humanity and inhumanity in discussing the Jet-Man. He states, “the hero of classical speed could remains a ‘gentleman,’ inasmuch as motion for him could remain an occasional exploit for which courage alone was required…it is inasmuch as speed was an adventure that it linked the airmen to a whole series of human roles.”
Barthes 71
In this passage, not only is Barthes privileging the hero (pilot) over the Superhero (Jet-man), but he is also attributing courage to the pilot, a human emotion. He characterizes the pilot as a man of control, who can manipulate speed at his own accord, all the while reserving himself as a gentleman who is admirable and composed. Though he qualifies heroism as a trait, illustrates Super-heroism as a temporary state of being, saying, “the jet-man, on the other hand, no longer seems to know either adventure or destiny, but only a condition…the jet-man is less defined by courage than by his weight, his diet and his habits (temperance, frugality, continence)” Barthes (71).
Thus, according to Barthes, the Super-hero personality is less humane because it does not shape the man at all, whereas the characteristic of a hero is a gentleman even outside of his adventures, a hero could have multiple outward characteristics that are not necessarily related to him being a superhero. Furthermore, the man cannot even shape his own condition because by principle, a condition is what acts upon him, and also because his condition is as unpredictable as his temperance and continence, as Barthes describes. Importantly, courage is hardly a requisite for Super-heroes. Courage, a common human emotion demonstrates a man’s control- positing himself to fearlessly combat his reservations to act in an appropriate and sometimes risky manner is an innate quality of a man and a hero. For Barthes to state that the Super-hero is hardly defined by courage deprives his personality of authority, thus raising concerns about the authenticity of the Super-hero’s aura.

Barthes criticizes the Superhero’s magnified aura by describing the effortlessness required to be the jet-man. He says the Jet-man is “assimilated by his name to pure passivity (what is more inert and disposed than an object expelled in jet-form?) (73). He sarcastically implies that the Jet-man is a passive “hero,” using a metaphor comparing him to a jet-propelled item that has no ownership over when and where it is launched or at what speed. Barthes highlights his commentary on the authenticity of the hero by saying that a quality of the pilot is that he is exceeds human ability (specifically while flying) without forgoing his humanity. (72-3).

In his discussion of humanity and the hero, Barthes prompts the reader to question how he creates his heroes and which one he values more- the active, courageous hero, as Barthes presents him, or the passive, over mystified Superhero. In answering this question, he must consider the effect of heroification. Are heroes the figures upon which people place their desires to be closer to a higher power? Are they deemed to be gods on Earth? To what does the creation of heroes grant us access? Barthes attempts to answer these questions when describing how heroic powers are an indicator of one’s religious calling. Thus, it seems that in creating a hero, people realize their own heroic abilities while maintaining humane qualities.

Wine and the Dionysian

In the essay Wine and Milk, Roland Barthes takes up the critique of French national culture using through the lens of the figure of wine and juxtaposes this with American culture in the figure of milk. This figure of wine is prominent in antiquity: Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, is associated with things of the body, equality, spontaneity, drama, and chaos. In opposition, Apollo, is often associated with the mind, rationality, calm, hierarchy, and order. This Dionysian-Apollonian aesthetic dichotomy underlies the wine-milk opposition that Barthes draws out in the essay.

Wine and Dionysus are integrally connected, often associated with images of hysteria and drunkenness. However, for the French, drunkenness is only a consequence and not a means for an end. Drinking wine is merely for the sheer pleasure of drinking itself. It is a performance or display of ones “control” and “sociability” that defines one as being French. (59) As such, it requires practice, understanding protocols of how to go about drinking. Drinking wine, in this performative sense, “evokes the theatre,” which Dionysius, as a patron deity of theater, has comes to represent.

Similarly, wine is described, by Barthes, as creating equality. For the worker, wine “enables him to do his task with demiurgic ease.” (58) Injected with creative energies, the worker is able to escape the tedium of his work. On the intellectual, wine has the opposite function. It “removes some of his intellectualism,” making “him the equal of the proletariat.” (58) Both intellectual and worker, in the act of drinking wine, can perform equally. This temporal equality created by drinking wine resonates with the mystical intoxication of the Dionysian and its subsequent equality of classes.

Conversely, the anti-wine, according to Barthes, milk, has many points of intersection with the Apollonian. Milk is associated with its “purity” and “calm, white, lucid, the equal of reality.” (60) The color white, commonly associated with the heavens, reflects Apollo’s dwelling ground. Calm, lucid, and reality connote the processes of a rational, calculating mind that contrasts greatly with the Dionysian concepts centered about the body.

Milk, for Barthes, is tied to hierarchy and organization. Barthes mobilizes an anecdote about Mendès-France, the former Finance Minister of France who “drank milk during his speeches in the Chamber” to advocate the consumption of milk. (60) Mendès-France, as a former government official of France, symbolizes this idea of hierarchy and organization, which is representative of the Apollonian. This further emphasizes the link between milk and the Apollonian.

Behind the wine-milk dichotomy in Wine and Milk is greater distinction between the Dionysian and the Apollonian. Drama, equality, chaos and drunkenness, all qualities of the Dionysian are associated with wine. In contrast, milk is linked with Apollonian rationality, hierarchy, and mind. In seeing wine and milk in this type of opposition to each other, ‘milk’ is also understood as a myth. From this standpoint that Barthes, in his project, analyzes the aesthetics of culture and naturalized ideas, it’s not surprising that the language of Greek aesthetics and the Apollonian-Dionysian dialectic is once again taken up.

Wine As A Crime?

In Wine and Milk Roland Barthes says that "to believe in wine is a coercive collective act"(59). Barthes presents the myth of wine as a charasterically French myth which involves undercurrents of guilt and redemption. Wine is a substance which apparently bestows freedom,: "There is no situation involving some physical constraint which does not give rise to dreams of wine" It seems, however, that wine, insofar as it is a mandatory national myth, is a rather restrictive force. Barthes says that any Frenchman who does not believe in wine is viewed as "disabled and depraved". "Wine gives thus a foundation for a collective morality, within which everything is redeemed"...the evil it generates is in the nature of fate and therefore escapes penalization"(59).

Barthes' text is rife with this language of guilt and crime. He talks about wine as requiring an alibi(58) for its consumption and points out that [characteristic of France]the converting power of wine is never openly presented as an end.
Of all the selections from Barthes' Mythologies I found 'Wine and Milk' to be in the most direct conversation with the Modus Operandi that Barthes' sets out in the preface. Barthes is resentful of the nature of wine being confused with the historical myths of wine. They are "very engaging mthys which are however not innocent"(61). Barthes suggests that the national myths of wine are instrumental in supporting and propagating French capitalism and imperialism. The ignorance of such factors is, Barthes' believes, the cause for widespread alienation because wine cannot be "an unalloyedly blissful substance, except if we wrongfuly forget that it is also the product of an expropriation"(61).

Barthes' issue with wine and all other myths is that they are full of contradictions:
"like all resilient totems wine supports a varied mythology which does not trouble with contradictions"(58). Because humans identify and integrate myths into their personal being they are basically ingesting these contradictions. This can be especially alienating in a country like France where moralistic themes of guilt and redemption still hold sway with mass consciousness. So, to believe in the french myth of wine is not just to appropriate the aesthetic values and cultural solidarity associated with said myth, but simultaneously to accept the imperialist expropriation and social injustice involved in the production of wine. Such contradictions do not sit well within an individual conscience, especially when they are ignored.

The Work of Einstein’s Thoughts

One of the most interesting ideas within The Brain of Einstein is how Barthes looks at Einstein’s brain as a sort of machine, “used to produce thought, continuously, as a mill makes flour…” (69). Physically, Einstein himself was merely a figure that represented his mind, which allowed for the creation of utmost importance, thought in the form of equations. Thus thought becomes a sort of mechanical process of labor, grinding out equations through the mind, and death was the only way to terminate this function. This reasoning of thought resembles Arendt’s philosophy of work and durability, through which thought can be measured and explored as an object that eventually is used up.

In order to explore The Brain of Einstein in an understanding in which Arendt would approach it, first a general explanation of her theory of work must be laid out. As she understands, “The work of our hands, as distinguished from the labor of our bodies fabricates the sheer unending variety of things whose sum total constitutes the human artifice.” In regards to the idea of an infinite supply of our labor, Arendt states “The durability of this human artifice is not absolute, the use we make of it…uses it up.” (136) In other words, work allows us to create things, as homo fabers (or fabricators), which once created must have a certain time restriction placed on is usability. Barthes will later explore the idea of thoughts as objects able to fall under these limitations.

To further explore Arendt’s philosophies in relation to Barthes, it is important to immediately focus on how Barthes views Einstein’s thoughts as measurable, “energetic material”. Barthes explains about how scientists would connect probes to Einstein’s head and measure a change in seismograms as he thinks of complicated subjects such as relativity. Thus from now on thoughts can be thought of as things not only in the realm of the subconscious but also as physical objects produced through work.

“Failure on the part of Einstein is necessary” (70) in the sense that “god’s share” of the earths vast knowledge be preserved. Had Einstein not met his death, “the equation in which the secret of the world was enclosed” would have been discovered. In Einstein’s case, Arendt would explain that the thoughts created by Einstein eventually were all used up (symbolized by his brain dying) and thus no more new thoughts or expansions of old thoughts could be created.

Although he used them all up before he was able to fully understand and explain the equation of the world, even if he never began thinking about it his mind would eventually decay, time would continue to pass, and eventually it would still die. Barthes states that this no win situation is necessary in order to fully create the “myth” of Einstein, or in other words how close mankind once came to unlocking the secrets of the world.

Ardent would say that Einstein’s thoughts that had already left his brain prior to its death are destined to roam the earth as empty electrical currents. Just as a rotten chair will eventually decay and return to the earth’s soil, the electrical currents that Barthes sees Einstein’s thoughts as will eventually end up in the clouds, mixed in with earth’s other natural electrical phenomenon. Only the machine of Einstein’s mind was able to make use out of these thoughts.

Barthes may agree with this, but instead focuses on the idea of Einstein’s myth serving as a preservation of both current research as well as God’s secrets of the world. Because Einstein was never able to fully complete this equation, the world can continue to function as it always has, research can continue to be conducted as usual to find out the many secrets of the world, and most importantly God’s secrets will remain as they should, only within his mind.

Arendt explores the ideas of work and durability throughout her work chapter. When looked at together with the overlapping of Barthes' The Brain of Einstein however, a deeper understanding of each work of writing can be understood. Arendt explores the subject of thought much more closely later on in The Human Condition but using Barthes ideas exploring Einstein’s thoughts, the subject can be analyzed through her depiction of work as just focusing on thoughts solely.

In Foucault’s discussion of power he touches on the relationship with power and that of life and death. He points out how power in the past was given to the sovereign ruler who had the right to give life and to take it away. The act of war in those times took place because one ruler was protecting himself even though it was at the expense of others lives. However, the purpose of war has evolved from protecting the single sovereign ruler to now the population as a whole. Another point that is mentioned concerning the new meaning of life and the power to sustain it is that of the scaffold killings. This form of punishment took place because the sovereign would exercise his power to take away a life if they went against him. This process over time ceased to take place because life was to be sustained rather than taken away.
This idea that power is used to sustain life rather than take it away has been portrayed even in the media today in many films. Films portraying the past reveal how king’s would kill in order to obtain respect for their laws or for the protection of their throne. As Foucault states, “Wars are no longer waged in the name of a sovereign who must be defended; they are waged on behalf of the existence of everyone; entire populations are mobilized for the purpose of wholesale slaughter in the name of life’s necessity: massacres have become vital.” (Foucault 137). Then there are other films which portray how the sustaining of life is the utmost importance ,compared to the past, in films that show modern day wars, where the main reason for the war is for freedom and the protection of life on the part of the population as a whole. The 911 attacks and the fight against terrorism is just one of many examples where life is of much value. As a result the U.S. ,in response as a nation, takes action and uses its power to avenge the deaths of our nations casualties. This reveals the importance of life and that how the role of power has taken on a completely different position.
Later, Foucault argues that “it is over life, throughout its unfolding, that power establishes its dominion; death is power’s limit, the moment that escapes it; death becomes the most secret aspect of existence, most “private” .” (Foucault 138) So, in response to Foucault’s thought on life as the establisher of power and death the limit of power, life has only power within its domain. This then would follow that one who has life would have power only among the living. Also in the act of death if an individual who holds a high position in the society compared to that of a peasant is set at an equal status at the moment of death for both are without power equally.
Lastly ,the act of suicide is the last stance of individual power, for it is at this moment that the individual takes the power away from the sovereign regarding the individuals life. Foucault states that the act of suicide was a crime because to commit suicide one was taking the power away from the sovereign or from the Lord above. I however, do not agree with this thought completely. An individual may take power away from an earthly human who holds a sovereign position however, he cannot take it away
from the Lord above. For example, even though Lucifer in the beginning claimed that he wanted to be like God it didn’t change the fact that he would ever actually follow through with his claims. His act was a sin, but not something that would ever be. So, even though an individual would commit suicide, the individual would just be committing the sin of thinking in their minds that they could take power away from God. The act however, still doesn’t take away the power from God, but rather the act of his attempt is the sin. Even though an individual seems that they have won power through suicide it was ultimately the Lord who allowed it according to Christian belief systems.

The Critic as "The Drunken Boat"

Roland Barthes’ “The ‘Nautilus’ and the Drunken Boat,” spends most of its time exploring the mythology of Jules’ Verne’s famed ship. But as the chapter title implies, this essay compares two versions of seafaring. Barthes doesn’t mention Rimbaud’s Drunken Boat until the final paragraph, but it is here that the essay really picks up steam, for with the Drunken Boat, Barthes offers a metaphor for the project he lays out for himself in the Preface. Through this metaphor, Barthes at once more fully describes and realizes his role as cultural critic.
As he states in the Prologue, Barthes’ mission is to distinguish between the natural and the historical, and thereby liberate reality from mythology. His methodology is to examine the objects of everyday life, fitting them into the covert language of mythology. To do this he must extract himself from the “coercive collective act” (59) of believing in everyday objects. He becomes an outsider, making the familiar seem strange and foreign.
The Vernian fantasy of the Nautilus represents the conformism Barthes seeks to resist. On the surface, the ship is a symbol for departure, but at its core it is the ultimate “emblem of closure.” (66) Barthes compares liking ships to liking houses, and what could be more domestic and quotidian than enjoying the comforts of the home? To enjoy the enclosure of the ship is to long for the original enclosure of the womb, where immediate surroundings provide complete protection and satisfy all needs. With the Nautilus, Verne has re-invented the fantasy of the womb and projected it onto reality. On a ship, man can travel the world in a padded vessel of protection—but the farther he travels, and the more vast and vague the view through the window-pane, the more tightly he clings to his enclosed habitat, and the less he truly knows of that world beyond the window.
In his own literary project, Barthes rejects the pseudo-exploration that the Nautilus offers. Mythology builds barriers and muddles perspective—in the Nautilus, one feels as if the outside world is a vast and swarming chaos, and the only thing that makes sense is the boat-home that acts as a shield. Barthes opens himself up to the chaos—becomes part of the chaos. Unlike the Nautilus, Rimbaud’s Drunken Boat is not afraid of the infinite. From the cave-mythology of the Nautilus, man is protected from the terrifying infinity of the world; from the perspective of the Drunken Boat, man can engage in “a genuine poetics of exploration” (67) of that infinity.
To Barthes, the critic is like the “traveling eye” (67) of the Drunken Boat. In nautical terms, to truly understand the world is to leave the stultifying comfort of the ship’s quarters and take on the perspective of the ship itself. This experience is “drunken” not because Rimbaud’s ship is particularly inebriated or silly, but because to be a ship on choppy waters in the middle of the vast ocean is to expose oneself unshielded to the infinite, and it must be a rather drunken experience. Though it may offer within its confines a myth of security, the ship itself travels the torrid waters without protection. Bearing itself to the world, the world doesn’t hold itself back on the ship—this is the reward that Barthes’ seeks in taking on a “Drunken Boat” perspective. Even the meta-structure of “Mythologies” follows the motion of the Drunken Boat. Just as the Drunken Boat “constantly begets departures,” Barthes’ collection of essays meanders from topic to topic, without a mythical substructure to organize it. Barthes’ mission to explore what is natural behind mythology is bound to be a “drunken” voyage—one that seems ridiculous from within society’s conformity, but that offers its own kind of sense and perspective.
But Barthes does not fully retreat from the mythology of society. If the Drunken Boat is his escape, it is an escape that he finds from within the existing mythology of seafaring (67). His method is not to abandon the ocean altogether, but rather to shift the expected relationship to the ocean. He does not simply dwell within the ship, but rather takes on the entire ship-identity. To be an effective critic, he must inhabit the precarious position of straddling two worlds. Barthes is an outsider and an insider at the same time—inside and outside of society, and inside and outside the ship. In doing so, he is able to experience the world in all its drunken, wild glory.

(lindsay meisel)

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Making Waste

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt discusses the effects of what she calls “world alienation”, a condition of separation from ones immediate surroundings brought about by increased global interaction and consciousness. She traces the beginning of this phenomenon to the successful mapping of the globe and increased knowledge of the limitations of the universe.
Precisely when the immensity of available space on earth was discovered, the famous shrinkage of the globe began, until eventually in our world…each man is as much an inhabitant of the earth as he is an inhabitant of his country (250).
Knowledge of and communications with the rest of the globe allowed us to interact with parts of the world we do not physically inhabit, removing us from the limitations of our own surroundings. The effects of this alienation are most profound when linked to the (un)sustainability of modern economic conditions, which inhabit the paradoxical situation of success being dependent on waste and destruction. Arendt finds the ideas of world alienation and the rise of private property and wealth to be seminal ideas in the creation of the modern waste economy.
The modern waste economy is a global one and world alienation is the first condition of globalization for it emancipates us from dependence on the limitations of our own local resources. The shrinking of the globe and more importantly, the elimination of time from distance thanks to modern transportation such as ocean liners, cars, and airplanes is instrumental in creating conditions which allow nearly instantaneous access to resources from around the globe. Since “men now live in an earth-wide continuous whole where even the notion of distance…has yielded before the onslaught of speed” (250, physical locations and relationships lose their importance and so our awareness of our immediate environment diminishes.
The irrelevance of space and distance creates easy access to resources anywhere around the globe, which is the key condition of the waste economy. As long as there are cheap readily accessible resources somewhere in the world, societies can feel free to waste the ones they have. This would perhaps be unimportant, but the ability of our global interconnectivity to spread both information and economic activity means that as we look ever further away from our own society to replace our exhausted resources, we inspire others to follow our model of fast profit earned through negligence of our resources and responsibilities to future generations.
The accumulation of wealth for its own sake is Arendt’s second condition of the modern economy whose origin she finds in the Reformation. Expropriation of church property in favor of individual wealth, created the familiar cycle of ceaseless striving for more wealth, which creates the condition of waste central to the success of the modern economy. As she describes it, “the relentless process of depreciation of all worldly things” (252) is the result of this cycle, as we strive for more and more, things begin to lose value the minute we possess them, for they no longer have the magic of being potential wealth. Their worldliness is proof of their finitude, yet because we are engaged in the process of accumulating infinite wealth, the tangibility of possessions decreases their value in our minds.
Arendt finds that the condition of waste is a key element of modern society and that "under modern conditions, not destruction but conservation spells ruin, because the very durability of conserved objects is the greatest impediment to the turnover process" (253). With the economic success of society dependent on the destruction of the worldly environment, the survival of humanity is placed at a difficult junction. If we continue the process of wealth accumulation and waste, we ensure that we will not be able to survive. But if we shift our focus from the accumulation of wealth to the elimination of waste, our physical survival is ensured through the death of our economic survival. This may explain why Arendt does not offer us a worldly solution to this dilemma. The next step in man’s alienation from the world is foreshadowed in the prologue where we find man venturing out in space in search of a way to avoid the catastrophic collapse set to occur in our own world.

Word and Deed

Arendt believes that “with word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth, in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical appearance.” (pg 176) The “second birth” that Arendt describes is our arrival into the political realm. We bring forth words and deeds in order to preserve the space necessary for action to take place. In this new beginning we are validated as individuals, while simultaneously celebrating our oneness as a species.

Arendt emphasizes words and deeds because they are what give humans immortality, thus thrusting us into the eternal cosmos. She extrapolates that “the process of a single deed can quite literally endure throughout time until mankind itself has come to an end.” (pg 233) But this endurance cannot be achieved alone, it is dependent on other humans to record and historicize events and occurrences. Remembrance cannot occur neither in isolation nor “wherever and whenever trust in the world as a place fit for human appearance, for action and speech, is gone.” (pg 204)

Through this “second birth” we are able to enter into the public realm in which action can occur. And power is what maintains this realm, “the space of appearance between acting and speaking men.” (pg 200) Words and deeds are central to the creation of power, because “power is actualized only where word and deeds have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and where deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.” (pg 200) In this sentence, Arendt turns back to ancient Greece during which erga was used to describe both words and deeds as “durable enough to last and great enough to be remembered,” allowing no distinction between them. (pg 19) Through this definition of power she creates her own reality in which intent effects the final vision and determines the overall perception of the action. She separates power from strength and force and expounds it through its natality. From these arguments she begins to posit her theories on forgiveness and the contractual promise.

Words and deeds are the glue that congeals Arendt's space of appearance, yet she also emphasizes their futility. Arendt postulates that “the 'doing of great deeds and the speaking of great words' will leave no trace, no product they might endure after the moment of action and spoken word have passed.” (pg 173) In this instance she strips words and deeds of their immortality and maintains that, like humans, they cannot exist outside of their interactions with other people in the public realm. For we are defined as much by our plurality as we are by our own individuality, which is what raises our behavioral patterns from that of animals to humans. We are as dependent on one another for our survival biologically as we are politically. Only in conjunction with other people will our erga persist beyond our mortal selves.

As we enter into our “second birth” we are bearing both words and deeds, whose power fixes the potential to create the space of appearance. An interdependency is assumed amongst humans, our erga and the artificial space in which action takes place. Ultimately, what we create and the reason why we create it, defines our space in this “new world”. We are all bound together by our human artifice, which preserves through our words and deeds the “remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.” (pg 204)

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


So, I'm thinking by the time we finish talking about "Jet-Man" tomorrow afternoon I'll scarcely have time to talk about all the interesting things happening in the Foucault passages I've assigned -- short though they are. Given this, it is probably foolish to assign more reading in the Barthes. And so: here is a link to the additional Barthes I was considering assigning. The section under the heading "Myth is Depoliticized Speech" seems to me especially useful (a passage about the "memory of things" is especially nice, given our course themes), however, consider it optional and supplemental instead of required.

Monday, October 02, 2006

A Little Prayer For Arendt

While Arendt discusses religious iconography and uses Christian metaphors in her work, she does not really address how the practice of religion relates to the labor/work/action distinction. This post will analyze how easily prayer can be placed into any one of these categories. Afterwards, this post will try to address what this might mean for Arendt’s theories as a whole.

Defining prayer as a type of labor does work on some levels. Praying can almost be compared to the Arendt’s example of tilling the field, where work is constantly required to produce anything – prayer does not produce something permanent or reusable. However, this is about as far as the similarities go. Prayer really cannot function as a laboring activity for several reasons. Arguably, prayer is not undertaken to “provide the necessities of life,” a key characteristic of labor (83). While that statement is up to interpretation, it would make sense that it fits with Arendt’s assumed meaning. As a result, prayer does not have the enslaving characteristics that true labor possesses. Additionally, prayer does not necessarily occur in private. Prayer may be considered to be an intimate matter, but it often occurs in public areas – synagogues, churches, and so forth. Finally, Arendt makes it very explicit that the growth of the laborer, animal laborans, is specifically tied to the secularization of the world and the decline of the Christian era (320).

Viewing prayer as a type of work is a little more effective. The prayer produced is judged by its value when it is presented to the open market – in this case, the market is one (or potentially one of several) universal beings. In many religions, particularly Judaism, a strong emphasis is given to the acceptability of a prayer, and that the prayer will be judged worthy by God. But once again, there are major problems with the ability to categorize prayer as work. First, a prayer is not a durable creation – prayers do not constitute a part of the human artifice. Using prayers is not destructive in nature, because prayer is not necessarily used in the same matter as a handcrafted chair or desk. Finally, prayer is not a work of our hands (136).

Finally, prayer can be viewed as a type of action. Prayer straddles, to a certain extent, both speech and action, both of which Arendt feels are somewhat intertwined.
Prayer does fulfill Arendt’s qualification for action in that it is a distinguishing act. Different prayers by different individuals reflect different religions, different sets of beliefs, varying levels of spirituality, and separate identities. Additionally, prayer often utilizes story and metaphor, making it reliant on the actors and speakers – another of Arendt’s characteristics for action. However, prayer does not follow the dynamic of uncontrolled continuation of a force that Arendt elaborates upon. This is coupled with two other problems. First, prayer is based on interaction between man and something nonhuman, making the extension of the purpose of action somewhat more opaque. Additionally, prayer is possible in isolation from other people. While an action categorization may be the best fit for prayer, it is far from a good or functional fit.

With prayer not well defined as a type of labor, work, or action, it is time to identify why this is important. First, the topic is almost inherently important because billions of people worldwide think that religion is important, and have made it a prevalent part of their lives. If Arendt has not taken this into account, it does raise some issues as to how this affects her definition of the human condition. Particularly, it also exposes a potentially major assumption in Arendt’s work: that people operate on a certain level of rationality, that people operate according to their needs to labor, that they operate in the political, and so on. Arguably, religion requires that some of that rationality be suspended, and Arendt does not account for when that happens.

Ultimately, prayer does not function well within Arendt’s distinctions between labor, work, and action. This makes the practical applications of Arendt’s work very difficult, given the highly religious nature of billions of people in the world. It would be nice to see some clarification on this, but otherwise, it exposes some holes in The Human Condition as well as some of the assumptions that may be fundamental (and flawed) contained therein.