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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Philosophy Club Season Finale: Bringing it Home with the Body without Organs

It's amazing what you can find out there on the Internet these days. The attractive Deleuze and Guattari cosmetic bag pictured left can be had for $36.95 and is guaranteed, as the Zazzle folks responsible for its production point out, to "hold all your small items - rhizomatically!" This is a relief. Especially given this dynamic duo's suspicion of those more ordered, highly stratified, systems for arranging things. Just what D & G would make of staring out at the world from the surface of an item more in keeping with that other D & G is quite another matter. Capitalism and consumerism-gone-mad aside, these two heavyweight thinkers and frequent philosophical collaborators would no doubt get a posthumous kick out of the fact that the only decent online photograph to be had of them is on the side of a clutch. Did I mention that I've added it to my Santa list? Did I mention that all I really want for Christmas is a brand new, shiny red Body without Organs?

If only it was that easy: popping a Deleuze-Guattarian BwO into your online shopping cart and clicking on the checkout button. Trouble is, you can't do that. Fact is, a BwO is like one of those olde tyme Christmas gifts of yesteryear: you have to make it. And though, as Deleuze and Guattari remind us, it's a question of life and death to get one, it was the actual mechanics behind fashioning ourselves a Body without Organs (BwO) that had us worried as the season finale got under way last Thursday.

In many ways, it was an activity that brought our Autumn 2013 Philosophy Club series to a fitting close. Not that endpoints (or for that matter, starting points) count for much in the realm of post-structuralist thinking. Not that always-in-the-middle positioning isn't as integral to Gilles Deleuze's (1925-1995) general project as it is to that of the other post-structuralist thinkers we've looked at in this series.  But going out with a creative 'big bang' did help to shed important light on some of the less, shall we say, grounded post-structuralist pathways we've traveled down these last couple of months: rendering tangible and palpable Julia Kristeva's positing of the revolutionary semiotic; injecting corporeal vigour and flow into Jacques Derrida's critique of Western Philosophy's privileging of the metaphysics of presence. Besides which, it was fun: catching a thrill-seeking 'line of flight' out of those structures, systems, institutions, organisms - call them what you will! - that attempt to organize and tame us; grappling with the everyday practicalities associated with embodying Deleuzian concepts like becoming-imperceptible, becoming-woman, becoming-animal.

With regard to the latter, we had Marianne's new golden retriever Johnny Rover on hand to give us some pointers on becoming-dog - becoming a BwO - not through imitating him or acting like him, but through engaging with the world as he does: taking the time to smell the roses not in a figurative sense but quite literally; the act of 'seeing' life by way of our nose, as Johnny does, opening the door to new ways of experiencing and perceiving that are ripe with possibility, a riff of desire. For indeed, the BwO is desire in the Spinozist way of understanding the term: desire as in our very striving; desire as in an active life force. And it is perhaps not surprising that the influence that 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza (to whom our Spring 2013 Salon series was devoted) had upon Gilles Deleuze is at its most pronounced in the reading that we were bouncing off of as we made our bodies into 'desiring machines', into BwOs: "November 28, 1947: How Do You Make Yourself a Body without Organs?"

Taken from Deleuze and Guattari's door-stopper of a meaty text, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia (1988), the date noted in the above-mentioned 'chapter' title (the authors prefer to call it a 'plateau,' suggesting a continuous and experiment-ridden 'region of intensity' rather than the usual rise, development, climax and fall of the bookish 'chapter,' but you get the drift...) pays tribute to French playwright and poet Antonin Artaud's declaration of war on the organs whilst recording his radio play, To be Done with the Judgement of God, on this date. As it happens, the play was banned prior to broadcast, and France's radio audience wouldn't hear Artaud's thoughts on organs - "When you will have made him a body without organs, then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions and restored him to his true freedom" - until 30 years later. But Deleuze was an earlier convert to Artaud, and found much to his liking in Artaud's anti-organ crusade. More importantly, Deleuze derived from it a sense of where the true enemy lay: not in organs, as such, but in the organism into which those organs become organized, sedimented, stratified. No Flow, No Go, would seem to be Deleuze's rallying call. And in the spirit of 1960s-style radicalism, Let Your Organs Run Free!

In line with this bodily striving to free oneself from The Organism, from The Man, is the shedding of a firm point of view. Maintaining that standing firm detaches you from the vital flow of life, Deleuze insists that you get out there on the plane of consistency, in that energy field known as immanence, and CIRCULATE! The more encounters you make, the better. Vive experimentation and forgetting! Merde to interpretation and anamnesis! Freud is out - no more finding your 'Self'...Instead, get dismantled, man! Go forth and multiply, mutate and variegate, mate! - and so is Plato. All you need to know in life is no longer buried deep down inside you, waiting for some know-it-all Philosopher King to come along and help you birth it. Rather, it's just one big experimental swim out there and the more you dip your toe in - the more you don't know what you didn't already know - the more life has to offer. In other words, the object of the exercise is to get creative and connect, conjugate, continue; it's to bite off more than you can chew and, as American Idol's Randy Jackson might add, Make it Yours, Dawg!

Sound like a good time? Well, Philosophy Club members could see where the pitfalls might lie. And even Deleuze hastens to warn that, taking it to extremes - all line of flight, no plot to land - can be bad for your health. But on the whole, we were an interpellated lot: keen to clambour up there onto a launching pad and swing between the surfaces that stratify us and the plane that sets us free; keen to revisit our everyday practices and processes with an eye to being looser, somehow...Less invested in established meaning, more open to making anew and anew and anew. In a couple of weeks, wwp club members meet up North at the Nurtury to mark this challenging and exciting intellectual journey we have taken together with a potluck post-structuralist lunch. Let's just say that the proof of just how loose will be in the pudding.
    

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Strangers to Ourselves: On Getting to Know Julia Kristeva

In the penultimate session of our current six-week Philosophy Club series devoted to all things post-structuralist, we turned last Thursday to the question of 'foreignness' as explored and theorized by philosopher, psychoanalyst and novelist, Julia Kristeva. Born in Bulgaria in 1941, Kristeva made her way to Paris as a post-graduate student in 1965. She arrived, in other words, at that crucial moment where, out of the intellectual groundwork laid by  linguistic and anthropological structuralism, the first errant sparks of a new kind of thinking were erupting. Peculiarly French and particularly cerebral, the next few years would be marked by a proliferation of writings that hammered out the terrain of this heady and headstrong challenge to conventional wisdom: writings by people such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Philippe Sollers and Roland Barthes. At the epicentre of this literary maelstrom was the movement's mouthpiece, Tel Quel; and amidst the voices most vocal in this radical left-wing journal that heralded the plurality of language and the instability of meaning was a voice that was not male, not French: that of Julia Kristeva. And though she has always run with the boys and, unlike her more feminist-identifying philosopher contemporaries Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray, hastened to align herself theoretically and politically alongside the boys, her voice has continued to bring something to the post-structuralist table that is distinctly not of the boys. Nowhere in Kristeva's writing is this not-of-ness more apparent than in her painstaking investigation of what it means to be a foreigner, Strangers to Ourselves (1989).

When I say "painstaking," I mean it in a double sense: pains-taking in that Kristeva's monumental survey of how foreignness in the Western world has manifested itself and been dealt with both historically and literally is extraordinarily thorough; pain-staking in that her evocative descriptions of the foreigner's experience stab you right where it hurts, go straight to the heart of the matter. In the chapter of her book that we had read in preparation for this session, Toccata and Fugue for the Foreigner, the pain that stakes was clearly in the driving seat - and this, one couldn't help but feel, because it drew on what Kristeva herself had lived firsthand. In light of Kristeva's assertion that it is only the foreigner who believes herself to have a biography - to have any life at all - this turn to the autobiographical for this particular exploration of the link between difference and identity (the meat and potatoes, as we have seen, of many a post-structuralist ponder) comes as no surprise. What did give us pause for thought, however, was Kristeva's main argument: that the foreigner in fact "lives within us," thereby troubling the line traditionally drawn between 'self' and 'other'; that only in resisting the urge to make of the foreigner's so-called 'otherness' a thing - something solid and permanent and nameable - can we escape the hatred, the burden, that so often accompanies our encounter with that 'other' (who is, at the end of the day, none other than our 'self').

So yes, pause for thought. And a demanding pause at that. Learning just how to treat otherness in a way that sidesteps the fall into damning and damaging 'thingness' was a challenge in itself: facilitated by listening to Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor - that combination of scurrying virtuoso flight and polyphonic contrapuntal exposition exemplifying, for Kristeva, the push and pull of an "otherness barely touched upon and already, it moves away"; rendered palpable through a recording of the wonderful May Swenson (1913-1989) reading her poem, Question - the rhythmic cantor of her voice bringing into sharp focus those bodily, extra-linguistic aspects of words that Kristeva feels we all too often neglect and that, through their disruptive workings, take the sting out of 'thingness'.

Having paved the way to an understanding of Kristeva's primary concerns through these exercises in aurality, we got down to some good old Kristevian brass tacks. Here was yet another post-structuralist take on the de Saussurian 'sign': in this case, its failure to account for the bodily drives and affects. Here was yet another post-structuralist reworking of a seminal structuralist construct: in this case, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's Symbolic Order.

With regards to that persistent 'sign,' Kristeva's main contribution has been to herald the arrival of a new player on the signified/signifier/sign scene: the realm of the semiotic, which is prior to 'the word' - in other words, a baby's sentient and tactile engagement with her mother (and other 'others') before she enters the language system - and yet, for all that it is prior, still integral to and constitutive of 'the word'.

As for Lacan, this latter assertion is what sets Kristeva apart from him. For whereas Lacan sees the child's entry into the language system (or Symbolic Order) as being accompanied by a violent break with those primal bodily impulses which, subsequently, can only manifest themselves within the new initiate (not to mention within language more generally) as a gap, an absolute loss, Kristeva is far less cut and dry: seeing in language's very materiality - its rhythms, its pulsations, its stops and starts and flows - plenty of evidence of those early semiotic stirrings; seeing in the Symbolic Order the presence of another kind of ordering mechanism that slips between the cracks of conventional meaning-making and signification.

Of course, it is easier to spot this particular aspect of language - language's material 'other', if you like - in certain forms of literary expression, such as poetry. But even when it goes unnoticed or unacknowledged, Kristeva insists, it is there: a fluid and motile genotext springing leaks in more meaning-focused phenotext; an unruly intruder into the smooth flow of information transmission that makes of language, of communication, an always split, an always impossible, unification. It's the relation that prohibits the totality. It's the other in the self. It is, as Kristeva would have it in the context of Strangers to Ourselves, the foreigner who lives within us. Which begs the question that Kristeva indeed asks:

"How to promote the togetherness that we all in fact are, rather than see foreigners as those that we welcome into our system so long as we can obliterate them?"

Pauline Marois, take note. Unless, of course, self-obliteration is the object of the exercise. A better option for Quebec? Embrace the heterogeneity of cosmopolitanism and, like the good toccata and fugue, keep repeating the differences of otherness rather than leveling, so as to forget, them. An interesting Kristevian twist, this, on "Je me souviens"...



Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Deconstructing Derrida: Philosophy Club Week 4


It's a strange thing, but only a day or so after this past Thursday's Philosophy Club session devoted to the ideas of the 'father' of Deconstruction, Jacques Derrida, did I realize that never, at any point over the course of the evening, had the subject of Derrida's life come up. For wine women and philosophy, I believe this is a first. Over the past 6 years of philosophizing together, there is always some biographical detail of whoever we happen to be discussing that seeps into the conversation. But with Derrida, nada. Not a word about his birth in 1930 into a Sephardic Jewish family in Algeria; not a mention of his teaching appointments at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris and the University of California, Irvine; not a whisper of his death at the age of 74 from pancreatic cancer. 

And perhaps, in a way, this is fitting. For the man best known for his coining of the now famous phrase, "there is nothing outside the text" (il n'y a pas de hors-texte), this omission of the biographical could be seen, perhaps, as the ultimate Derridean move. On the other hand, it could point to an understandable, if not entirely forgivable, oversight: a less than glaring absence wholly attributable to the relative blandness of Derrida's life story when compared to that of his more colourful Continental Philosopher confreres. Just seeing Derrida's life lined up alongside those that play a starring role in this latest Philosophy Club series on post-structuralism, for instance, supports this thesis: there is no murder of a wife and subsequent banishment to the insane asylum (Althusser); no death by laundry van after dining with President Mitterand (Barthes); no leather queen antics or controversial 'failure to disclose' stances following a diagnosis of AIDS (Foucault); no jumping from windows when handed - as Derrida was - a fairly dismal medical prognosis (Deleuze). No, it has to be said that Derrida's life doesn't exactly leap off the page (leap out of the text?!) when compared to that of his friends and colleagues. 

At the same time, it can't be said that this prolific and prodigious writer and thinker never caused a stir. For example, when in 1992 Derrida's name was put forward to receive an honorary degree from Cambridge University, more than a few donnish feathers were ruffled. In fact, what should have been, as the French say, "une simple formalite", turned into a bit of debacle, with certain senior members of the voting committee staunchly protesting his nomination on the grounds that what he was doing in the name of philosophy was not real philosophy, and even more worryingly, that his misguided contributions to the field threatened to dismantle the whole Western project known as philosophy. 

In the end, Derrida got his degree. But not before the debate over what, exactly, constituted Philosophy with a capital 'P' and who, exactly, got to call themselves a Philosopher (again, with a capital 'P') had shifted into the public forum and filled a good many inches of British newspaper. It was, in the eyes of some, a major showdown in a field not always seen as particularly newsworthy. It was, in Derrida's view, a perfect illustration of the kind of tyrannical hold that logocentric, origin-fixated, identity-based 'what is' thinking has always had on philosophy - a hold that his expose of the limitations inherent in seeing the world in terms of binary oppositions and his playful debunking of the age-old quest for a "transcendental signified" was actively challenging.

Er, right...So here we were again, caught up in that old de Saussurian love triangle: signified, signifier, sign. And not without the odd groan and grumble too. But the night was young. And hope lay in that dangling carrot of an adverb, 'playful'. Not that there had been much playfulness to speak of in our assigned reading for the week, Derrida's "Letter to a Japanese Friend" - none, at least, that was immediately apparent. Not that Derrida's attempts to clarify for Professor Izutsu the ins and outs of 'deconstruction' in order that the latter come up with a suitable Japanese translation of the word left us feeling any more in (the inner post-structuralist circle) than out. 

But as we struggled on in our quest to unpack deconstruction alongside other key Derridean terms -  differance, ecriture, supplement, pharmakon - Derrida's insistence that we embrace the play, hence proliferation, of meaning (rather than pin meanings down into single stable categories) and that we apply to structures, too, this same kind of thinking - seeing them as a 'play of relations' rather than as solid immovable entities attached to a central point of origin - brought with it a glimmer of insight into just what play could do. Furthermore, as he gently poked holes in de Saussure's limited understanding of difference - and this, in spite of the crucial role it occupies in de Saussure's conception of language as a system, as a structure, organized around the arbitrary relationship of signifier to signified - we began to see Derrida's deconstructive play at work. As Derrida pointed to the inconsistencies inherent in de Saussure's insistence that language was a system of differential relations whilst adhering, still, to the idea of an ordering and stable sign, the idea of play as a fraying and fracturing force - not a frolic with a game plan - became clearer still. 

This tendency towards inconsistency Derrida also saw in de Saussure's privileging of speech over writing, because it was - as de Saussure argued - that much closer to original thought. Challenging de Saussure's positing of writing as speech's poorer cousin - a watered-down derivative of, a step yet further removed from, active and fully in-the-now talk - Derrida not only counters this privileging of presence and origins by making writing his life's primary concern; he also shows how even difference-sensitive de Saussure falls into the Western philosophical trap of creating hierarchies through binary thinking (in this case, the privileging of presence over absence) and moreover, an identity-based binary opposition in which difference can find no identify, slips completely between the cracks. In privileging speech's inferior 'other', Derrida doesn't so much reverse the binary opposition as topple it: pushing difference into the equation and creating of it a writing, a textuality, that has a politics and is, in itself, a political intervention.

As for his famous statement that "there is nothing outside the text," Derrida always maintained that this idea - like so many of his ideas -  had been largely misunderstood. This, in part, because we are so used to comprehending things by way of those either/or, present/absent binary oppositions - that frustratingly reductive "you're either with us or against us thinking"; this, in part, because of our inability to see language as the structuring mechanism it is - as the only context through which we come to see and think our world. Replace the word 'context' with 'text,' Derrida seemed to be saying, and people wouldn't really have been so alarmed by it. 

And contrary to what people might have thought, Derrida was extremely concerned with what lay outside the text: things like the living and breathing and feeling affective body; things like those rare and odd human experiences that came to us unmediated by language and that worked away in us and on us prior to their taming by, and pinning down into, inadequate words. Suggesting that the only way to truly 'capture' those material aspects of life in writing would be to tap a syringe-like pen directly into a vein and let the body's life force pour straight out there onto the page, Derrida was somewhat pessimistic about ever getting to the real real of life through anything that stung of language. But in writing and rewriting and unwriting, he wrote difference into the picture. And he gave us an entirely fresh and revolutionary insight into making the meanings we think we have to live by anew - over and over and over and over again. 


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Taking the Low Road with Roland Barthes

I love Roland Barthes (1915-1980). I am not always the most faithful of lovers: breaking free of his enticements to route march through the stark rationalist landscapes of the razor-sharp Gillian Rose; sneaking out on the staccato of his sublimely crafted fragments to languish in the metaphysical meanderings of the beguiling Rebecca Goldstein. But I never stay away for long. In the end, I always find my way back to Barthes. To borrow from Carly Simon, nobody does it better. Not when it comes to textually pleasuring me, that is. To read Barthes, I always feel, is to lay myself bare to the shrieking, piercing, throbbing sensuality of words. He literally leaves me breathless, which is precisely what Barthes intends. As Susan Sontag reminds us, reading for Barthes was Eros. And writing, for Barthes, seduction. In other words, he plays his part and I play mine.

Sort of. 

Actually, not.

Fact is, if we're doing it better according to Barthes, we're both doing the writing - we're both producing the text. In my capacity as 'writerly reader' - a term Barthes uses to denote the reader who actively spins and weaves her own meanings out of the text(ile) trappings engulfing her - the pleasures (for they are multiple and often mingled) that come of the act of reading lie not in the consumption and ingestion of a seamless authoritative narrative. Rather, they lie in going against the grain of conventional wisdom and commonsense thinking; they lie in creating a polysemic space that is open to adventure and, more importantly, an open road. For the author may well be dead, as Barthes famously declared in 1968. But it is in the accompanying rebirth of the reader that we are finally released from structuralism's continuing allegiance to some universal and centralized stable Truth and handed, instead, free reign of the, er...post-structuralist reins.

Not surprisingly, this week's assigned excerpt from Roland Barthes' The Pleasure of the Text (1975) provides fertile ground in which to explore these ideas, as well as experience firsthand what reading in the absence of a grain actually feels like. Not that the shrieks accompanying many of our philosophy club members' initial reaction to Barthes' unabashed celebration of literary hedonism could in any way be interpretted as whelps of pleasure. But no matter...We had post-structuralism's shattering of the Saussurian linguistic sign to get on with, and a world left high and dry without a transcendental signifier to contemplate. Add into the mix Barthes' trip to Japan in the early 1970s where, adrift in the blur of a language and culture he didn't understand, his clearest thinking around the link between the Western fixation on stable points of origin (like authors) and our tendency to do all we can within said culture to reduce the play of meaning began to percolate and find expression, and we were in for a real hoot of a time. 

Things lightened up, somewhat, and Barthes' popularity rating soared proportionately, as we took up pen, paper and a random fistful of scrabble tiles and experimented with Barthes' favoured writerly trope, the fragment. This was fun. And it helped to shed light on Barthes' insistence that we shift the attention away from (endlessly deferred and hence ultimately empty) meaning and put the pleasure back into good old textual encounters instead. One way to do this, Barthes maintains - and it served as a prompter for one of our writing exercises - is to make your language 'stutter': that is, to scatter it with neologisms, sudden U-bends, sly quotations which slip in unaccounted for, shaggy dog tangents that wag their tails only to trail off, not really going anywhere.  

Still juggling our fragments, we also struggled to come to terms with Barthes' hunch that the thing that moves us to pleasure in all that stuttering, in all those literary hiccups, can be sourced back to the writer. Not, however, the writer in the original producer of meaning sense. That writer - that behind-the-scenes manipulator of plot and a point to it all - is, of course, dead. No, the part of herself that the writer leaves behind in the text is, according to Barthes, her body: her semiotic drives and impulses, the tick-tocking of her fickle heart, the every breath she takes. In other words, in taking pleasure in the text as readers, we take pleasure in the writer's body. 

Armed with this potentially unsettling knowledge about reading and writing and what the whole darned affair should feel like as opposed to mean like, we took an honest stab at it: returning first to our assigned reading to sniff out any discernible bodily traces of the affable yet ever-restless Barthes; searching next in our recently produced repertoire of fragments for an echo of our own pitter-patter across the page. And though we didn't exactly find ourselves reinventing the literary wheel by the end of this third session in our current philosophy club series, we did part company with a somewhat more nuanced understanding of just how prevailing ideologies inscribe themselves into a practice as simple as reading a book, and just what it entails to stage a post-structuralist uprising against the system a la Roland Barthes. 

And still, I love him. 

With every last beat of my achy-breaky heart.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Unraveling The Order of Things in Week 2 of wwp philosophy club take 3...Phew!

...And if you think the title of this week's post is a mouthful, try saying 'Michel Foucault' twenty times whilst contemplating the illustration (see left) which accompanies the online version of the Preface to his seminal work, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966). That's right...Not easy. And not so pretty either. But then, Michel Foucault (1926-1984) never aimed to please. Rather, he sought to perturb, disrupt, unsettle. And if he created a frisson or two along the way, well that's alright too. During the course of his mercurial and highly motile life, this Poitiers-born intellectual did his damnedest to brush himself free of the bourgeois dust bestowed upon him by his doctor father and a privileged provincial upbringing.

A champion of those relegated to the margins of mid-20th Century French society - prisoners, immigrants, gays, the mentally ill - and a man  of charisma who, whether worshiped or cursed, never failed to trigger a strong response, Foucault was at once the debauched bon vivant, at once the intensely serious thinker. As a writer he was as prolific as he was poetic, as provocative as he was protean - his interests ranging from madness to sexuality, from the medical world to the prison system. As for his methods, they were as patchwork and innovative as his passage through academia. Starting in psychology, he got 'bored' and moved into philosophy. But he was also an historian, as demonstrated by his election to the chair of the newly created department, 'history of systems of thought,' at the erudite College de France in 1970.

Here, though, Foucault broke rank with those practitioners of History with a capital "H": strongly rejecting anything that stung of a grand narrative approach to the past; evolving instead a hands-on approach he termed 'archaeology.' This latter involved digging down through the material strata attesting to social, economic, political and cultural conditions of successive historical epochs - not to ascertain what happened 'back then' or to build a progressive picture of a world taking shape, but rather, to pinpoint those moments of rupture and mutation which shattered the smooth trajectory of History as retroactively assembled and assessed by us here in the present, and affected a shift in the way we think and speak the world and ourselves.

In other words, what interested Foucault was knowledge production tout court. In his excavations, Foucault wasn't looking for this or that knowledge that was circulating out there during any given period. After all, what use that 'knowledge' when the only sense I can make of it today - the only way I can in turn re-produce that knowledge in oral or written form for a present-day audience if I am an historian - is through the lens of my own epoch. Rather, what Foucault was looking for is what makes knowledge possible in any given place or time. If, to do this work, he had to locate the point of disjuncture between thinking the world through an old lens and thinking the world through a new lens, it was in tracing out these major paradigmatic shifts that Foucault got to grips with the defining knowledge-enabling practices of each paradigm itself (Foucault called a paradigm an 'episteme,' but same diff...). So, for example, Foucault's digs in the Renaissance unearthed a reliance on finding resemblances and taking a stab at an educated guess to make knowledge possible ('Wow, the sky looks like my face, there's one eye - the moon - and another eye - the sun - and a whole lot of stars all in a line, just like my teeth...Hey man, me and the cosmos must be linked somehow!') whereas in the classical era that followed, representation and analysis became the enabling trope of knowledge production: endless tables into which things in the natural world, once measured and carefully categorized, were inserted so as to be finally pinned down FOR ONCE AND FOR ALL!

All to say that in the course of our second philosophy club session devoted to all things post-structural we spent a good deal of time getting our heads around the ins and the outs of the central question Foucault asked - what makes knowledge possible? - before grabbing picks and ropes and setting off on a communal  excavation of his preface to The Order of Things. It was hard and challenging work, but there was light at the end of the tunnel: the revelation that it is only in trying to think through the ordering structure of a culture that we perceive as strange to us, as 'other,' that we begin to grasp the often arbitrary nature of our own ordering structures, and more importantly, start questioning them.


Friday, September 20, 2013

Welcome, wwp members, to our third Philosophy Club six-week series!

Yesterday evening we kicked off our latest offering in our Philosophy Club series with a right whaaa-hoolie of a topic: Bodies without Organs…Everything you always wanted to know about post-structuralism (but were afraid to ask). Alright, so for some of you this kind of learning experience is becoming old hat. For others, you were dipping your toe in for the first time last night. For my own part, I was both excited and filled with trepidation as we set off on this latest philosophical journey together. Excited, because the material is tough and challenging and unsettling. Filled with trepidation, because the material is tough and challenging and unsettling. All par for the course, I might add...For this sense of being all things and none, caught between incertitude and a hard place, buffeted by a warm summer breeze whilst caressed by the winds of change, is part and parcel of the philosophical realm known as post-structuralism. For this is a terrain of thinking where contradictions are embraced and paradox is the norm; where life becomes topsy-turvy and all that keeps you grounded might well disappear with a flick of a deconstructionist finger. 

And it gets worse! For whereas in our first two series much time and attention was spent in cultivating a voice with which to speak our lives (The Invisible Matron) and a position from which to fight for those lives (Rebel with a Cause), this time round we were being asked to drop that carefully cultivated ‘self’ altogether. Roughly translated – which is, incidentally, the case with all translation for your average post-structuralist – this meant stepping out into the abyss with all the protective covering of a newborn babe. Swept along by a strategic move that post-structuralism calls ‘decentering the subject,’ we had to be prepared to throw our illusions of personal agency to the winds and watch from the sidelines as those strands of belief and connection and origin that we once grasped on to like lifelines - at once identifying us as unique, at once defining us as Same not Other – began to shred and splay, leaving us dangling precariously. Which was, perhaps, the perfect place to find our bodies – with or without organs – as we struck out on this latest experimental adventure in philosophy. Not a bad place to find ourselves, either, as back in the 'real' world we, along with the rest of Quebec (and a good many folks from outside of our borders too) grapple with our government’s recent proposal for a Charter of Values that, through erasing visible signs of 'difference,' seeks to render us all 'self-same'.

Okay, so we're throwing around a lot of post-structuralist jargon, here, and that in part was the point of our first session together: glancing backwards to the place from whence post-structuralism had sprung, in other words 'structuralism'; considering what it means to be post-anything in our post-modern, supposedly post-feminist (and here we hear a well-warranted growl from Gloria Steinem) world. This line of questioning inducted us into the hallowed hall of semiological signifiers and signifieds, syntagms and paradigms, as understood by the founder of structuralism, Swiss Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). Grappling with de Saussure's  new and revolutionary (at the time) way of positing language as 'a structure containing no positive terms, only differential relations,' we pulled out the old chess board (as de Saussure once did) and drew on the rules governing game-play to better grasp how language, too, operates as a system of arbitrary rules that, because we are so caught up inside language, we end up seeing as a priori, as somehow 'natural'. 

If a plunge with Alice through the Looking Glass helped to illuminate how this inculcation into language and its taken-for-granteds work on us and through us, a brief survey of French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss's (1908-2009) application of structuralism to tribal rituals (revealing a basic universality across all cultures, though not without its inherent hierarchies) helped us to see the inner workings of structuralism in our own everyday lives and practices. By this stage, some of our participants were clearly chomping at the bit: ready to challenge the extent to which structures like language imprison us within their ideological tentacles; questioning the idea, pace Louis Althusser (1918-1990) that we ourselves become the primary custodians of our own entrapment. 

All to say, roll on post-structuralism with its 'response' to these very issues. We've hitched up the desiring-machine, we've bought our one-way ticket, and we’re set for a life-altering ride. As for a sneak preview of our itinerary...

Week 1: Thursday, September 19, 2013
Post-what? : A look at Structuralism and what, why, where, when, how came next…

Week 2: Thursday, September 26, 2013
Michel Foucault: Preface from The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences, Routledge: London, 1990

Week 3: Thursday, October 3. 2013
Roland Barthes: Excerpt from The Pleasure of the Text, Hill and Wang: New York, 1975

Week 4: Thursday, November 7, 2013
Jacques Derrida: Letter to a Japanese Friend (Prof Isutsu) from Derrida and Difference, ed. Wood & Bernasconi, Parousia Press: Warwick, 1985

Week 5: Thursday, November 14, 2013
Julia Kristeva: Toccata and Fugue for the Foreigner from Strangers to Ourselves, Columbia University Press: New York, 1991

Week 6: Thursday, November 21, 2013
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: November 28, 1947: How do you make yourself a body without organs? from A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Continuum: London, 1987


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Announcing Our New 2013 Philosophy Club Series

Our New Philosophy Club Series starts on Thursday the 19th of September - same time, same place. The theme this autumn will be Bodies Without Organs...Everything you always wanted to know about post-structuralism (but were afraid to ask). The dates are below. We will be contacting current philosophy club members in the next week to confirm their participation in this series. If places open up, these will be offered to other wwp members on our waiting list.

19th September 2013
26th September 2013
3rd October 2013

7th November 2013
14 November 2013
21 November 2013

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A joyful day at the Nurtury

A few of our philosophy club members join us for lunch at the Nurtury.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Spinning off Spinoza in the UK, May 14 - 28, 2013

Here is a photographic taster of my recent research trip to the UK...We'll be picking up on details of the two conferences I attended on Spinoza (one at Birkbeck, the other at Queen Mary's College, London) at next Saturday's member's lunch at the Nurtury, bringing the ideas of some of the Spinozist folks I met while over there -  Moira Gatens, Sue James and Hannah Grosse Wiesmann (pictured left) as well as Caroline Williams, Simon O'Sullivan, Rosi Braidotti, Beth Lord and Peg Rawes, to name just a few - into the conversation.

I'll speak to some of the other images in this blog at the lunch as well...Highlights included my afternoon with the curator of UCL's Galton Collection, Subhadra Das; hanging out in the library (and fantastic cafe!) of the Wellcome Trust Institute; 'hanging' with Jeremy Bentham at UCL; following the trail of DNA trail-blazer Rosalind Franklin; finding the way home for Spinoza the Cat with Eve; learning about mathematics, Mary Noble Fawcett, and countless other matters from my great aunt Octavia Bridget in Oxford; spending time with inspirational UCL geneticists Ursula Mittwoch and Dallas Swallow; outstanding stays with Gil and Di, Mike and Heather; great travel talks with Helen at Goldsmith's House; discovering interesting connections with Susanna in Totnes; visiting Virginia Woolf's Richmond home with Eve and Marilyn; and stumbling upon the engaging members of the Judi Dench Fan Club!
























Sunday, May 12, 2013

Spinning off Spinoza One Last (And Perilous) Time: Dangerous Emotions

This past Thursday we concluded our six part salon series organized around the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza with a trek down the rocky road of emotions. Considering that Spinoza saw emotion as 'suffering' - albeit suffering which could, when carefully examined, pave the way to unfettered joy - we were not without trepidation as we set out on this last leg of our Spinozist journey together. Attaching 'dangerous' to the venture did little to quell our fears. On the other hand, we were well aware that poor old peace-loving Spinoza - though wary of conflict and prepared to do almost anything to avert a quarrel - still succeeded in scandalizing his contemporaries and turning philosophy into that most 'dangerous' of pursuits both during his lifetime and for centuries afterwards. What to do with this cruel twist of fate? we asked ourselves. We decided that in a world where you just can't win, you don't have much to lose. We went for it.

Taking a deep breath, we plunged headlong into the emotional quagmire: grappling first with Aristotle's approach to 'educating' the emotions so as to tame them, master them, and put them at the service of less volatile reason; comparing this to Spinoza's somewhat more holistic way of dealing with those pesky passions, which was to accept that you were stuck with the damn things, do all you could to form "a clear and precise picture of them," and use what you had learned about yourself and nature more generally through this exercise in active thinking to inch your way towards blissful and eternal life. In Spinoza's simple no-nonsense words: "Do not weep; do not wax indignant. Understand."

With Spinoza's infinitely practical approach to those 'inadequate' yet inevitable and ultimately salvageable emotional highs and lows in mind, we re-visited our take home exercise from last month's 'unleashed traveler' salon evening. Participants had been asked to take two walks in the company of their Deleuze and Guattarian Body without Organs or BwO...Using this portable little experimental milieu that each of us is born with (it's our risk-taking, system-bashing side!) to test out the differences between tracing a familiar route and mapping out an unknown route as an affected and affecting body moving through time, space and a whole host of other affected and affecting bodies.

Okay, so it sounds complicated...Perhaps you had to be there...But for those who were, interesting light was shed on the exercise when we looked back at it through emotion-tinged spectacles and wondered how to reconcile this ambulatory attempt to 'lose the self' in nomadic movement with the shaken and stirred 'moving out of oneself' suggested by the Latin origins of the word, e-motion. A walk in the park taken by Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway provided some additional food for thought as we considered what it meant to "slice like a knife through everything" and to no longer be able to say with any degree of certainty, "I am this" or "I am that."

And yet, in spite of Virginia's best laid plans, here we still all were...Trying to make meaning of our emotions and feeling, in the process, more like pottering potato peelers than cut-throat knives. We found our way to "the mattering map" - an alternative way of exploring what it's all about which, unlike the more constricted terrain of meaning, can stretch itself to "encompass and enfold, to embrace meaning and caring, mind and heart, feelings and ideas" (Ellyn Kaschak, 2011). Interestingly, this feminist 'construct' or 'tool' for working with what Kaschak calls the "complexity, multiplicity and motion or morphing of the energetic field of mattering" also led us back to where we had started out on our Spinozist journey: to Rebecca Goldstein, our first literary touchstone for exploring Spinoza's life and ideas, and also the thinker behind "the mattering map."

Bringing this emphasis on 'what matters' together with ethno-philosopher Alphonso Lingis's (2000) intriguing suggestion that the source of our emotions lies in the environment - in the "troubled ocean currents...the continental plates shifting and creaking...the whimsical fluttering of butterflies" (18) - we explored Lingis's insistence that our emotions, in turn, are "forces we discharge" and which, at the end of the day, are more visibly present to others than our body's own physical contours. If all this talk of forces and energy fields connected us back  to Spinoza insofar as he treats the nature and strength of the emotions in terms of motile and geometric lines, vectors and planes, the time had also come to get down to work: designing our own personal Spinoza-style signet ring reminiscent of the one he wore; incorporating into our designs the image each of us felt best illustrated our way of being in the world (Spinoza’s chosen image was the thorny rose) and our personal ‘watchword’ for getting through life (Spinoza’s was ‘Caute’ – ‘Cautiously’). 

Using this exercise as a springboard to pinpointing the ‘dangerous emotions’ which we felt most curtailed our personal passage to greater perfection (joy) and most encouraged our passage to lesser perfection (sorrow) - Spinoza’s were doubt-filled ‘hope’ and ‘fear’ respectively - we brought the series to a close with a revealing exploration of our selves as emotional beings: striving in true Spinozist fashion to understand the nature of those forces which threaten to rob us of our vitality and put a damper on our joy; finding in our very striving a possible road map towards greater fulfillment and happiness. It has been a challenging, exciting  and life-enhancing journey with you all over these past few months, and it has been a joy to discover Baruch Spinoza in your company. Thank you. 



Saturday, April 20, 2013

Spinning off Spinoza 5/6: The Unleashed Traveller

"I want to race through life with the wind in my face!"

So exclaims the heroine in one of the many novels about daring-do women penned by renowned British "lady-explorer," Rosita Forbes (1890-1967). A worldwide wanderer par excellence, a prolific writer of both adventure-packed fiction and personal travelogues that read like fiction, Rosita Forbes and the fictional characters through which she expressed her hell-bent and windswept attitude to life would seem to epitomize the trope of the unleashed traveller. More than this, Forbes and her flamboyant alter-egos appear to fly in the face of the more sedentary and home-bound image we have of well-to-do Edwardian womanhood.

As wine women and philosophy members well know, however, anything that ruffles the feathers of the expected is likely to be given its fair due during the course of a wwp salon evening, and this past Thursday was no exception. Let's just say that in our race through the potentia and perils of unleashed travel, no stereotype was left unturned, no mappa mundi left untrammelled. And if a Spinozist wind was blowing a fine gale all around us, the knowledge that it was ultimately there to maximize our motile joy and minimize our all-too-static sorrow definitely propelled us along.

We began the evening with the usual etymological unpacking of key terms, though on this particular occasion it was more like an exercise in what to pack: determining just how much 'unleashing' - how much 'freedom from constraint or control' - each of us was willing to throw into our kit-bags as we struck out into uncharted territory; balancing the somewhat dubious weight of 'travel''s Old French and Latin roots (from travail - 'hard work' - and trepalium -  'instrument of torture') against the unbearable lightness of expeditionary expediency in the era of Expedia.

As if this didn't present departure gate dilemmas enough, we brought Gilles Deleuze and Rosi Braidotti on board: probing the difference between travelling arborescently (think the rooted family tree) and travelling rhizomatically (think crab grass with its web of sprawling and criss-crossing connections, disconnections and re-connections) courtesy of the former; dipping our toe into the swirling post-identity whirlpool of nomadic becomings and ethics courtesy of the latter. In addition to helping us understand the difference between tracing and mapping our way through the world, we couldn't help noticing how these thinkers' rejection of starting points and end points in favour of a fluid, always-in-the-middle sense of Self and Location resonated with Spinoza's call to develop 'the View from Nowhere' (see our first Spinoza session back in December 2012).

As for the actual mechanics of shedding those Spinozist 'passive markers' when travelling either physically or virtually, an exercise in writing ourselves into our own travelogues highlighted the difficulty of seeing our body as nothing more than a force entering into fleeting composition (and decomposition) with a multiplicity of other forces. On the bright side, the prose to emerge from this writerly experiment was pure poetry in motion. Creative juices a-flow, we tumbled into our next task: ripping into an old road atlas; using the salvaged fragments to map out a Nomadic Cartography of the Self. This graphic rendering of a life lived not only gave us important insight into Spinoza's itinerant boarding house lodger lifestyle as compared to our own respective lifestyles; it also illuminated Rosita Forbes' suggestion that the charm of the map lies in the lines that lead off from, and surpass, it - that "other side of the horizon where everything is possible."

With this lofty thought in mind, we took leave of each other - committing as we did to doing a spot of homework (read legwork) in the coming weeks in preparation for our final Spinning off Spinoza session in mid-May. This consists of taking two walks with Spinoza...One in the form of a tracing, one in the form of a mapping, both in the spirit of Spinoza's notion that travelling bodies, when unleashed into the world, are necessarily defined by their chance collisions and encounters, by their capacity to affect and be affected...Neighbourhood Watch Committees be warned.






Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Spinning off Spinoza Take 4: Perfection(ism)

Though it is tempting to wax lyrical about last Thursday's salon evening - to see in this particular coming together of lively minds and creative energies and adventurous spirits a felicitous happening that came close to, well...Perfection! - there is something about Baruch Spinoza's take on the "P" word that makes one wary of throwing it around too blithely. Certainly, a sobering qualifier like "close to" is required. For to call the evening pure perfection would be to fly in the face of Spinoza's key assertion about perfection: that only infinite Nature can lay claim to such a state; that to say we've attained perfection is akin to saying that we have the whole Big Picture sussed, that there's nothing left to learn, that it's game over...time to pack up our bags and call it a day.

Spinoza is pretty confident that that day never comes - that knowing everything there is to know about everything is, well, a pretty tall order, nay an impossible one, for us humans. Spinoza also feels pretty safe in assuming that perfection is just one of those destinations we're never going to arrive at: not in the context of a wwp salon evening; not in any of our respective lives. This isn't to say that we shouldn't keep trying to get there. Indeed, for Spinoza, our very striving to understand the true nature of Nature - to think through what makes it Real (with a capital "R") and hence, what lies at the very heart of its perfection - ensures that we ourselves become more perfect. In fact, this thinking ourselves towards ever more knowledge about Nature's perfection (or Reality) is what making yourself a 'good life' is all about. And perhaps it is here, in this very Spinozist notion of actively thinking yourself into a good life (as opposed to living up to some craggy old philosopher's ideal of the good life) that we get closest to Spinoza's conception of perfection, and incidentally, to the original meaning of the word itself.

Perfect: from the Latin roots for per - "thoroughly" - and fect - "to do, to make".

So here's the big question: why is it that what we have come to understand as perfection (and certainly perfectionism) in today's world has to a large extent lost this vital Spinozist aspect of doing, of making, and become focused on the more obsessively compulsive thoroughly instead? If unpacking the "P" word was a collective task we embarked upon early in the evening, our discussion of what happened as we nouned it, verbed it, adjectified it and adverbed it shed important light on perfection's journey from those original etymological roots to the anxiety-ridden perfectionist who can never quite make it thoroughly enough.

To help us with this task we drew on a number of prods, prompts and props. Youtube videos of Lou Reed's 'Perfect Day' as delivered by artists ranging from Susan Boyle to U2's Bono eased us into the topic at a visceral level. The myth of the 'deliberate imperfection' as expressed in the 'humble blocks' of Amish quilters, for example, allowed us to explore perfection's fallible (albeit debatable) flipside, as well as celebrate those mistake-makers who serve as important 'moral exemplars' for girls and women. I'm thinking here of Le Tigre's Kathleen Hanna who, in her rebellious riot grrrrrl Bikini Kill days, saw hitting a sour note up there on the stage and carrying on anyway as sending an important feminist message to aspiring female musicians whose fear of failure was stopping them from at least giving it a go.

Prompted by one of our Scottish members, Kim, who participates from afar in our various wwp activities, we turned to a clip from Oprah's Super Soul Sunday: an interview with Dr. Brene Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection. Brown's suggestion that our fear of being seen by others to be anything less than perfect means that we not only refuse to show our real selves to the world, but that the cloak of perfection becomes our "20 tonne shield"  protecting us from that world, led us to speculate on the contrasting place of 'the Real' in Brown's version of perfection, and in that of Spinoza. If Brown's striving for perfection found her becoming less true to who she actually was, driving her further away from her own reality the more she propelled herself into the wider world, it was clear that an increase in Spinoza-style perfection would have the opposite effect: making Brown truer to her own reality, propelling her closer to her own nature and - because she and Nature share the same Substance in Spinoza's metaphysical understanding of the human psyche - closer to that wider world as well.

Enjoying Spinoza's liberating spin on perfection and seeing in it a possible way to 'treat' the pathological perfectionist, we built some text book 'patients' out of selected quotes and props and, working in pairs, created first a psychological treatment plan for them, and then a philosophical one. If this exercise triggered some interesting discussion around why we tend to go to a psychotherapist with our personal 'problems' rather than take them to a philosopher, it also allowed us to explore how philosophy might provide an eye-opening and life-enhancing alternative to the more traditional session with the 'shrink'. After four weeks of exploring Spinoza together, most of us seemed ready to go the metaphysical route and ask our doctors for a reference to him.

Certainly, Spinoza makes life into a wonderful puzzle: our primary task being to use our power of thinking to tease out the most elusive details of what makes Reality real; our reward coming from the sheer joy - or as he would see it, that passage to greater perfection - that the activity of thinking tout court affords us. In treating life as a puzzle - as some great tantalizing mystery that objectively exists 'out there' and that is ours for the taking, if only we take the time to figure it all out - Spinoza is not alone. Austrian mathematician Kurt Godel - he of the two "incompleteness" theorems - saw mathematics in this way: as a whole slew of numbers actually flying around out there like Platonist Forms in some abstract but tangible reality, just waiting for a good logical head to come along and figure out as much about that reality as could humanly (and therein lies the fallible incompleteness of it all) be grasped. Physicist Albert Einstein saw the "utterly surprising physical reality" of light beams and speed of sound and gravitational pull that exists "out yonder" in much the same way: as some "great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking"*.

There is something about each of these meta-thinkers that sets the seemingly static world into beautiful poetic motion: that makes you want to hop onto a passage to greater perfection or a curling '2' or a beam of light and go for a ride. Such journeying will be the subject of the next salon evening, on April 18, when we take a look at the Spinozist 'unleashed traveller'. In the meantime, we want to thank Marianne for suggesting the topic of perfection(ism) to us, and all of our wwp salon participants for stretching their minds in such elegant style last Thursday. In Spinozist terms, I think we all became just that little bit more perfect as a result of pooling our power of thinking and generating some collective joy.


*Rebecca Goldstein, Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel, 2005, 42-43.


Friday, March 8, 2013

Happy International Women's Day to all our Members and Friends

This past year we have been contributing regularly to Women for Women International which is doing some terrific work for girls and women caught in war zones around the world. We also signed the petition to get rid of page 3 girls in The Sun newspaper in the UK. Check out these links to both these causes if you want a little inspiration on this special day for women everywhere.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Spinning off Spinoza Take 3: Desire and Appetite

Last Thursday - 336 years to the day of Baruch Spinoza's death from consumption at the age of 44 (February 21, 1677) - wine women and philosophy members came together to explore this unconventional philosopher's take on desire and its more bodily sidekick, appetite. Given that desire was central to Spinoza's metaphysical positing of a life lived freely, happily and ethically, the subject matter itself would seem a fitting choice with which to honour his life. That Spinoza's understanding of desire strays wildly from that of the majority of his Western Philosophical confreres renders the synchronicity downright uncanny.

For whereas desire for these latter is generally about what isn't there - a longing or a yearning for some object outside of us that we lack - Spinoza's desire is our very essence: the very life force of our life. And Spinoza went all out and celebrated this life force. Along with joy, there wasn't much more to life for Spinoza than this active and self-actualizing striving to be named desire. In fact, for Spinoza death was a far less worrying prospect than being alive but only passively so: devoid of desire, emptied of essence, just going through the motions, thinking other people's thoughts. To desire your own desiring, to think your own thinking - these were the active ingredients constituting 'the good life' for Spinoza. In other words, what better way to mark the end of Spinoza's life all these many years after the fact than to unpack the affect (life force) and essence (fundamental nature) that gave him life.

Desire, for Spinoza, is synonomous with conatus: a term explored over the course of our first two sessions in this series, and which is best understood as the endeavour of each person to persevere in her or his own being. We began the salon evening with a review of this term and other terms encountered on our Spinozian journey thus far: in part to bring those participants new to Spinoza up to date with our recent meanderings through his Ethics and Tractatus Theologico-Politicus; in part to get those who had been present at earlier sessions reflecting pace Nel Noddings on "what sticks" - the little bits of insight and information that do remain in our memory bank being akin to those burrs that just seem to attach themselves to your clothing as you make your way across a field.

Pooling our Spinozian 'burrs' enabled us to collectively cobble together a fairly good picture of his philosophy as explored by the group to date, as well as to see how desire and appetite fit into it all as the evening proceeded. And here's the rub: in addition to getting closer to 'getting' Spinoza, the tide was also turning for Spinoza at an affective level. From an initial hostility towards this most rationalist of philosophers who used Euclidean geometry to ascertain the best route to ethical behaviour and for whom giving your passions free rein is to seriously curtail any chance you have of any real freedom, the crowd was definitely starting to soften towards him as round three hit the midway mark.

 'I'm actually starting to like this guy," commented one of our regulars as we delved into Spinoza's refusal to assign values like 'good' and 'bad' to objects in and of themselves, but rather to see goodness (or badness) in the degree to which an individual's desire to affirm her moment in time and live it fully (ie. desiringly) is either increased (or diminished). Bringing Spinoza's greatest twentieth century supporter, post-structuralist philosopher Gilles Deleuze, into the conversation certainly helped to notch up those popularity points. You cannot throw around Spinoza-inspired Deleuzian terms like "Desiring Machines" and "Bodies without Organs"  and "Lines of Flight" of an evening and not feel a certain fondness for the man behind it all. Countering the self-negating and object-driven 'desire as absence' hypothesizing of classic psychoanalysis with Spinoza's self-reliant and self-generating 'desire as life' approach wasn't a bad way to get people on board with the man either. Hand a group of intelligent women a spirited challenge to Freud's Penis Envy or Oedipus Complex theories and you're bound to attract some fans.

It was an envigorating task, working desire through a Spinozian lens. As a society, we are so entrenched in the "desire as absence" mindset that it takes some good hard thinking to think it otherwise. This, one suspects, would have delighted Spinoza, as would our concerted efforts to build desiring 'assemblages' of Christmas baubles, cribbage boards, and various other nuts and bolts. Thank you to all those who took part...We just relished your good grace and gusto. Next time - Thursday, March 21 - we'll be looking at Spinoza's understanding of Perfection. All you perfectionists...Time to start preparing right now!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Joy and Sorrow: Emotions?...Affects?...None of the Above?

Our second salon to spin off Spinoza kicked off 2013 for wine women and philosophy members this past Thursday, and a joyful experience it was too. This was fortuitous, given that half of the evening was devoted to the topic of joy...The other half revolving around joy's more sober relation, sorrow, which impacted our understanding of joy if not our communal mood. It was good to get the old wheels turning again with our valued 'veteran' members. It was good to welcome new members into our midst and benefit from their energy and insight. It was good, in short, to be back in the salon saddle.

We began the evening with one of those questions we return to every so often..."What is philosophy for you today?" The responses always inspire us, enabling us to build upon our ongoing conception of what philosophy is and how it can enhance our lives. They also affirm for us that the way we engage with philosophy at wwp is helping to break philosophy out of the elitist and exclusive packaging that all too often surrounds it. That philosophy is seen by our members as a creative and experimental activity - as an exciting route into both the ordinary and extraordinary experiences that make us and the events we live through what they are - is reassuring news indeed.

Then it was time to draw on some of those experiences: opening our discussion of joy and sorrow with moments of one or the other that had come over us during the holiday season - a time that often triggers these contrasting states on the emotional spectrum. Having established that though frequently seen as opposites, the line between joy and sorrow can be thin, we looked into whether the word 'emotion' should even be applied to joy and sorrow: exploring first, through the 'Emotions Game,' just how easy a wide range of emotions are to recognize in others; examining next, through Aaron Ben Ze'ev's tautology of a 'typical' emotion, whether joy and sorrow actually qualify. Happily, the jury was out on the matter - confirming that good philosophy is more about dissensus than consensus. Our lack of agreement over joy's and sorrow's respective statuses as emotions also provided an excellent segue into Spinoza's contribution to the evening's procedings: both in terms of his celebration of thinking as an action designed to free us from conformity of thought, and in his positing of joy and sorrow not as emotions but as affects - that is, as energy-charged passages between greater or lesser states of being rather than as states in and of themselves.

For Spinoza, our movement towards joy and our movement away from sorrow are key to living pleasurably and freely, without pain and without fetters. For Spinoza, everything hinges on how we 'manage' these two affects: for manage them we can, using good clear thinking ('adequate' ideas) to bring us closer to who we truly are, and by extension, to joy; rejecting the kind of 'sad' same-old-same-old thinking that stunts our ability to grow and thrive, and by extension, drowns us in sorrow. Within this equation - and an equation it certainly was, Spinoza's whole Ethics emerging out of a mathematical approach to working things out reminiscent of Euclidean Geometry - our ability to act increases with joy, decreases with sorrow. And to act, for Spinoza, is paramount to living well: acting (or thinking) our way to greater perfection - to being more 'real,' more true to our nature - falling within the affective realm of joy; failure to act (or think) leading to a state of lesser perfection, and with it, a tumble in the affective realm of sorrow. Naturally, this being the reasoning of the greatest Rationalist philosopher of them all, it is better to strive for active joy - that is, joy that you actively think yourself into, and hence is of yourself - than passive joy, which is dependant on an object beyond yourself, and hence might better be understood as a passion. Given that freedom of mind and spirit for as many people as possible is the ultimate good for Spinoza, it is easy to see how the joy you make for yourself is a better bet by his reckoning than the joy that depends on some other thing or self.

Thinking joy and sorrow through a Spinozian lens led us to re-think the link between joy and sorrow - pulling out the old construction paper, coloured pens and cellotape in true back-to-school fashion and creating joy/sorrow connections in the form of flip-side bracelets, edge-defying Mobius Strips, and experiments with the fold. If these latter jettisoned us out of Spinoza's monist universe (everything is an expression of one single Substance) and three centuries on in time into post-structuralist Gilles Deleuze's 'Origami Cosmos' - more on this next time! - it also served as a bridge between these two philosophers. For Deleuze saw Spinoza as a "Prince" among philosophers, and was hugely influenced by his emphasis on active, affecting bodies when it came to evolving his own version of a 'doing' philosophy. Incidentally, Einstein too was a fan of Spinoza...A point that was not lost on us as the evening drew to an end and with it, considerable confusion over which boots belonged to whom. An indication of Einstein's brilliance, it has been said, lay in his inability to tie his own shoes. An indication of our members' brilliance, it follows, must lie in them going home in each others' boots.

It was an evening of intense and joyful thinking. It was an evening of which Spinoza would have no doubt approved. Thank you to all who participated. We look forward to seeing you again on February 21, when we take a flying leap into Spinoza's provocative conception of desire and appetite.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Spinning off Spinoza into the Realm of Joy and Sorrow

This Thursday - January 10 - will see wwp salon members coming together to consider those oft-twinned states of being, joy and sorrow. One aspect of our communal task on this first salon evening of 2013 is to grapple with a number of different ways that joy and sorrow have been philosophically positioned - as personal feelings, as unruly passions, as passages between greater and lesser states of perfection, as impersonal affects...to name just several of those ways! Another is to examine why joy and sorrow are so readily twinned - probing not only the relationship between joy and sorrow, but the nature of the connection and its relevance to our own lives. Yet another task is to continue our exploration of Baruch Spinoza -  a 17th Century philosopher whose unconventional approach to ethics hinged on joy and sorrow, and around whom this year's salon series revolves.

At our December salon we embarked on our journey of getting to know Spinoza...For those of you who attended, this quick recap can serve as a post-holiday season refresher. For those of you who weren't able to make it out to our introductory session, let's hope it whets your whistle!

Born in the relatively tolerant city of Amsterdam in 1632 to Jewish parents who had fled persecution in Portugal, Baruch Spinoza was a solemn and thoughtful if unusually questioning student - quietly challenging his teachers at the Hebrew school he attended when ideas presented as 'written in stone' struck him as illogical or inconsistent; leaving formal education at the age of 16 to pursue private studies with some 'free thinkers' of the time when his views about God and the Torah began to conflict too radically with the 'Truth' as presented by those responsible for his education. Accused of betraying Judaism and labelled a heretic, he was ex-communicated in his early twenties for basically, believing in nothing - notably waiting until after the death of his father (his mother had died when he was six) before going public with his reasoned deduction that "God is nothing but nature" and that "there is no world-to-come after death" so as to spare his parents the shame and humiliation that his stance, not to mention his ex-communication, would provoke. As philosophers go, Spinoza was unconventional in that philosophy was his pastime - his job as a lens-grinder providing him with his income as well as precipitating his early death from TB at the age of 44. Given the scandal that bubbled around him in life and the blacklisting of his small body of work that dogged him for centuries after his death, it is incongruous that his motto was 'caution' and his general countenance private and unassuming.

These details of Spinoza's life and the background against which it unfolded - a Europe caught between a Papist reign of terror that saw tens of thousands of Jews either killed or forced to convert to Catholicism and a dawning of the Enlightenment era characterized by rapid scientific advances and the rise of rationalist thought - were unpacked through a lively Q&A session. Bridging the life of the man with the ideas that made Spinoza what Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, in her fabulously insightful and highly readable Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (2006), terms "the first modern Jew," we grappled with one of the tasks Goldstein sets for herself in her book: reconciling Spinoza's extraordinarily rationalist and impersonal philosophy with our personal interest in him!

Moving on, then, to the philosophy itself, we picked up on Spinoza's central concept of conatus - that is, a thing's special commitment to itself, or more simply, each individual's drive for self-preservation - to begin our look at what constitutes a 'Self'. Some small group exercises enabled us to come up with our own lists of what it is to be a Self. We compared our lists to Spinoza's list, which eshews those traditional markers of identity such as religion and ethnicity (markers which Spinoza sees as mere "accidents" of identity assigned us by history, and thus nothing more than passive yet deeply divisive impediments to creating a world made up of truly ethical Selves) in favour of a Self defined by rigourous and logical thinking - by rational activity alone. We experimented with stepping outside of our selves in order to cultivate a Spinozian Self and with it, what Spinoza sees as our place of ultimate salvation - that is, a place with a "View from Nowhere."

Pictorial depictions of what we and other things look like from this 'place' - should it be understood as a utopia? a dystopia? an atopia? none of the above? - were attempted, and briefly discussed. We are holding on to these artistic representations and plan to return to them as our understanding of Spinoza expands over the coming months. In the meantime, our task over the holiday break was to make note of those moments where joy or sorrow crept up upon us or completely overtook us or never even made an appearance...Stay tuned as we Spin off Spinoza for a second time.