See Astra Taylor’s Documentary Examined Life, Featuring Judith Butler, Peter Singer, and Cornel West
“One of the Gestures of Deconstruction Is to Not Naturalize What Isn’t Natural” — Derrida Kinda Sorta Almost Defines Deconstruction
Simon Critchley’s latest book How to Stop Living and Start Worrying picks up where his last work, The Book of Dead Philosophers, left off. Both works explore what Critchley contends to be the signal problem of all philosophy; namely, how one might live a meaningful life against the backdrop of inevitable death. In Dead Philosophers, Critchley plumbed this question by surveying the deaths of dozens of famous philosophers, ultimately affirming a positive reality in death (both our own deaths and the deaths of others), and arguing that philosophies (and religions) that advocate the idea of a spiritual afterlife ultimately negatively disrupt human existence and lead to inauthentic lives. How to Stop Living reiterates these themes in a new form, essentially arguing that in asking “how to live,” we must also ask “how to die” — and also how to love and how to laugh. How to Stop Living takes form as a series of conversations between Critchley and Carl Cederström, an Associate Professor at the Institute of Economic Research at Lund University in Sweden. There’s a warm rapport between the pair, and although Critchley does most of the talking, there’s a genuine dialog in play, not merely a flat interview. The book unfolds over six chapters. The first, “Life,” is a discussion of, well, Critchley’s life, both personal and academic. I originally thought I’d be doing a lot of skimming here, but it’s actually kind of fascinating; more importantly, though, it establishes Critchley’s contention that a philosopher’s work cannot be divorced from his biography. To philosophize is to live. This idea is reiterated succinctly at the beginning of the second chapter, “Philosophy,” when Critchley states—
The first thing to say is that philosophy is not a solely professional or academic activity for me. Philosophy is not a thing, it’s not an entity; it’s an activity. To put it tautologically: philosophy is the activity of philosophizing, an activity which is conducted by finite, thinking creatures like us. Now, my general view of philosophy is that this activity must for part of the life of a culture. Philosophy is the living activity of critical reflection in a specific context; it always has a radically local character.
What follows in “Philosophy” is a somewhat discursive overview of the philosophers who will pop up again and again in the book: Heidegger, Husserl, Kant, Nietzsche, and, of course, Derrida. While I’m laundry listing, I might as well add Freud, Lacan, Beckett, and Hegel as key figures in How to Stop Living. In the third chapter, “Death,” Critchley discusses how many of these philosophers frame a subject’s individual relationship to his or her personal death. In a particularly enlightening passage, Critchley explains Heidegger’s “possibility of impossibility,” the idea that to be authentic, to lead an authentic life, one must internalize and master the finitude of a personal death. The chapter continues, working through other conceptions of death, including those of Freud, Beckett, and Derrida. Perhaps because of its dialogic structure, How to Stop Living often feels like a rap session, a big brainstorm, a work in process, and nowhere is this more evident in a chapter called “Love,” where Critchley moves from Hannah Arendt to The Song of Solomon to Lacan and Freud to a story about his marriage proposal. It’s all a bit messy, a bit watery, a bit undefined, and therefore difficult to summarize, so I’ll let Critchley dish on love in his own words—
Love is the attempt to break the logic of masochism that defines the subject, and to behave in a different way. That’s something that has to be wound up everyday . . . and it’s something with no end; and it requires a constant experience of faith. That’s the only sense I can make of love.
The next section, “Humour,” is better defined—and one of the highlights of the book. Critchley discusses jokes against a backdrop of psychoanalysis and anthropology, ultimately arguing that humor has the power to disrupt an individual’s relation to time or place, and thus reconstitute that relation in some meaningful way. Critchley’s book itself is indeed a meta-joke, a play against the sophistry of New Age self-help books. Indeed, the very name of the book is an inversion of Dale Carnegie’s 1948 “classic” of the genre, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. If you find the cover of Critchley’s book as off-putting and cheesy as I do, just remind yourself that it’s a parody of Carnegie’s cover. And yet Critchley’s sense of humor is not ultimately black irony, but rather a humor of affirmation of — and confrontation of — the absurdity of contemporary life. It’s not irony but authenticity he wants. “Authenticity” is thus the final chapter of this relatively short book, and here Critchley invites his friend (and partner in the International Necronautical Society) novelist Tom McCarthy to participate in the conversation. The chapter is lively, almost frenetic, and frankly all over the place, as Critchley and McCarthy rocket from subject to subject — Finnegans Wake, the Challenger explosion, Terrence Malick, J.G. Ballard, Levinas, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, McCarthy’s first novel Remainder — each reference seems to slip into the next, reined in occasionally by Cederström, who steers the conversation back to its center (leave it to deconstructionists to get off center). Good stuff.
How to Stop Living and Start Worrying, despite its tongue in cheek title and cover, and its discursive flow, is serious (if playful) about philosophy. Those interested in the thinkers and topics I’ve mentioned in this review may be interested, but it’s not necessary for one to have a working knowledge of Continental philosophy to enjoy Critchley’s latest. Recommended.
How to Stop Living and Start Worrying is available now from Polity Books.
Lacking the lexicon to describe your aporia? Need the right words to negotiate a particularly difficult text? Try the Dictionary of Postmodern Terms then. Fun for solipsists, sophists, and psychoanalysts of all ages.
NYU physics professor Alan Sokal wrote a paper entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” which was published in 1996 in Duke University’s Social Text, a cultural studies journal. The same day the article was published–with no peer review, incidentally–Sokal announced in Lingua Franca that the whole thing was a hoax, a collection of nonsense, buzzwords, and jargon, making liberal use of recontextualized quotes. Sokal’s intention was to provoke the postmodern tendencies of humanities professors, whom he viewed as having a poor understanding of the science they critiqued.
Now, anyone who has spent any time in any university’s cultural studies department or English department (they tend to be the same thing nowadays) knows that postmodernism is all the rage: the dominant thinkers tend to be of the deconstructionist/post-structuralist school of thought–Derrida, Kristeva, Deleuze, Foucault, Butler, and so on. The major goal of deconstructive analysis is to disrupt the traditional, metaphysical groundings that have been accepted as “natural” to philosophy–to free up marginalized and subjugated areas of thought and break through the layers of sedimentary “givens.” In this sense, deconstruction takes a major queue from the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. In many ways Nietzsche provided not only some of the major questions that initiate a deconstructive philosophy, but also a model for how those ideas would be presented in writing.
Nietzsche’s writing is poetic and often ironically self-reflexive. In his essay “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” he makes the claim that all language is an anthropomorphic jumble of metaphors, that concepts are only constructed upon other concepts, all understood through an anthropocentric viewpoint that is impossible to abandon. Nietzsche’s writing contains this awareness; he frames his argument in a series of illustrative metaphors and similes, arguing that language does not permit people to reach the true essence of “the thing in itself”; rather, concepts are the “fractured echo[es]” of the ego seeking recognition—deceptions and illusions. In Nietzsche’s view, science can only build on these empty metaphors and therefore all scientific, empirical knowledge is a house of cards waiting to collapse. Nietzsche prefers an irrational, intuitive, liquid approach to life—a “playing with seriousness”: by abandoning stoic, static reasoning, one will gain “illumination, cheer, and redemption.” This joyful disruption is one starting point for the deconstructionists who Sokal attacked in his hoax.
Sokal obviously disagrees with Nietzsche: as a physicist, Sokal clearly values empirical, rational thought. But his real disagreement is with his perception of an abusive misuse of scientific and mathematic terminology by humanities professors. Sokal views the majority of post-modern theorists as perpetrators of hogwash, arrogant elitists who obfuscate their hollow ideas in jargon.
Okay. Now. So. Is Sokal right? Is there a tendency in humanities departments toward obscurantism with elitist undertones? Absolutely. However, I see this as the academic byproduct of the writers under attack, the detritus of myriad misunderstandings and misreadings. Nobody’s perfect, obviously. I disagree that certain of the writers Sokal attacks–Julia Kristeva in particular (a hero of mine, whose writing I find to be both wonderfully lucid and poetically profound)–are purposefully difficult. Most of the deconstructionists mentioned above take their lead from Nietzsche, and thus employ a strange, elliptical, roundabout and often poetic strategy to their writing. The deconstructionist methodology itself is an affront to easy readings–simply put, it’s meant to make you think. Furthermore, philosophy, for most of us, is not beach reading.
Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, Sokal’s gesture is an essentially postmodern move, a deconstructive move–a challenge to the new establishment of academic humanities and cultural studies. Even his use of recontextualized quotes is an affirmation of Derrida’s concept of iterability. The greatest value of the hoax is that it reinforces the tenets of deconstruction: to upset the places we feel are comfortable and safe, prompting constant re-examination of our aims and goals. Sokal’s hoax initiates a dynamic rethinking of the way we write and the way we read. Who are we writing for? How are we presenting our ideas? Do we understand what we are saying? More than anything, Sokal’s hoax calls attention to the constant need for peer review, for academia to question itself, its products, its institutions.
In a sublime synthesis of traditional folklore and imagistic surrealism, Lydia Cabrera’s Afro-Cuban Tales questions the normative spaces occupied by bodies. Deriving from animist tradition, her characters exist in an impossible multiplicity of spaces, being at once animals and plants, humans and gods. Cabrera’s characters endure trials of biological identity and social co-existence, and through these problems they internalize authority, evince taboos, and create a social code. Cabrera’s trickster characters provoke, challenge, or otherwise disrupt the symbolic order of this code. In “Bregantino Bregantín,” a story that recalls Freud’s primal horde theory, as well as the work of more contemporary theorists such as Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler, narcissist Bull kills all the males of his kingdom and takes all the women for himself. The sadistic titular turtle of “Papa Turtle and Papa Tiger” uses the power of his dead friend’s antlers to shame, torment, and torture the other animals of his community. And in the magical realism of “Los Compadres,” Capinche seeks to put the horns on his best friend Evaristo by sleeping with his wife–a transgression that ends in necrophilia. This union of sex and death, creation and destruction is the norm in Cabrera’s green and fecund world; the trickster’s displacements of order invariably result in reanimation, transformation, and regeneration—the drawing, stepping-over, and re-drawing of boundaries. A couple of days, Bob hipped me to this really cool Run Wrake short film called Rabbit. While not directly related to Afro-Cuban Tales, this film nonetheless captures the book’s key themes and motifs of death and resurrection, transformation and language, and the trickster’s power to disrupt social and familial codes. Highly recommended.
Scott Martin was kind enough to loan me this book. Did he know that it would forever change the way I read? It was the first semester of my freshman year in college, and I was slowly reaching beyond stuff like Henry Miller, Wm Burroughs and Franz Kafka. David Foster Wallace’s short story collection Girl With Curious Hair introduced me to a whole new world of writing. Reading DFW is like having a very witty friend tell you a moving and funny story over a few beers. He’s hilarious, thought-provoking, and not nearly as hard to read as people seem to think (by the way, simply googling “David Foster Wallace” will yield several vitriolic essays by people who think that DFW is somehow duping his readers. He’s not. These people don’t know a good story when they read one.)
Girl features “real people” like Alex Trebek, David Letterman, and Lyndon Johnson as characters, but constantly destabilizes any realism these figures might lend to the story. The novella included in this collection, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, alludes directly to John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse (another book I’ve loaned out and never gotten back). Westward takes a critical but humorous look at how culture is commodified: the plot centers around a reunion for everyone who has ever acted in a McDonald’s commercial. At the reunion, plans are revealed for a series of real-life “Funhouses,” based on the work of “Dr. Ambrose” (Barth’s stand-in in Westward).
Girl with Curious Hair is probably the best starting point for anyone interested in DFW but daunted by 1000 pages of Infinite Jest (IJ is yet another one I loaned out and never got back). Girl‘s stories have a little more ‘pop’ to them than DFW’s latest collection, Oblivion, and Girl tends to be easier to find used than DFW’s other collections, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (actually a better collection, in my opinion) and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (a collection of hilarious essays and nonfiction).
To sum up: if you still haven’t read DFW go consume this book; when you’re done you’ll be left wondering: “What other good stuff have I been missing out on?”