Archive for ‘Philosophy’

December 2, 2011

A Short Guide to Getting to Know the Human Species

About a year ago, I read this piece on a blog of a friend o mine, and loved it. (The original, for those who read Serbo-Croatian, can be found here.) With his permission, I translated it, and thus bring you

A Short Guide to Getting to Know the Human Species
by Miloš Luković

On July 15th 1972, the space probe Pioneer 10 left Cape Canaveral for outer space, designed to go beyond the Solar system. It was later followed by Pioneer 11, as well as Voyager 1 and 2. As part of the Pioneer 10 project, a gold-anodized aluminum plaque was welded onto the antenna support struts. Its purpose was to describe who we are and our location to potential extraterrestrials. Among other things, the plaque features a drawing of a man and a woman. They are drawn in the nude. Why? Why are they naked? How is it that nakedness describes people well?

the plaque attached to Pioneer 10

Don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not a puritan, against nudity for moral reasons. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, it is as far from the truth as a naked man is from a complete man. To be complete, a man has to have pockets, which I claim out of personal religious conviction.

I was once asked what I believed in. I said that I believed in pockets. Pockets are very useful. Useful to keep things so as to free my hands. Free to give the middle finger to people who ask stupid questions.

However, pockets have a utility that surpasses my needs. One carries all of oneself in one’s pockets. Alright, alright! I am aware that half the human population prefers to carry all of itself in its purse. As far as I’m concerned, pockets beat purses every time, if for no other reason, then because they are sewed to clothes and thus more practical. A purse I would constantly forget. I’d forget my own head were it not for my neck connecting it to my body. Now that we’ve settled that, let’s see about the contents. Here, I’ll empty my pockets onto the table. House keys, wallet, mp3 player and a mobile phone. Trinkets? Perhaps to the untrained eye.

If you were to try to describe humanity as a species, you couldn’t get around pocket contents. Pockets are incredibly important because they hold everything that anyone could ever tell you about Homo sapiens. Before we begin, let me mention that I know that I’m writing this for other Homo sapiens, and not some other, extraterrestrial species, so if you think I’ve left something out, you’re either an ET or you’re not paying attention.

Let’s go in order:
Keys – among pocket trinkets, this is the most common. Keys point to having a residence or a home, a place to harbor you from inclement weather, heat, cold, tiring members of your species. Your residence is where you live. A home is your personal space. Space for an individual. And people who say that the family is the basic unit of society, let them answer me this: why is it, then, important for each family member to have their own room? Wherever you chose to live, apartment, house, cottage, mansion, your house had to be made. This points to a myriad sciences, technology, crafts, trades that man has mastered. Mastered, not so much to build shelter, but to make this shelter adequate for its own kind (as opposed to shelters made by birds, termites, or beavers).
Billfold [1] – a most interesting object that could tell us something about man. Starting with its name: billfold. The word itself tells us it is meant for holding bills. Bills, money, these are universal equivalents in market trading. A sort of shortcut in exchange of goods. Instead of exchanging goods, you pay for things you need. Money indicates complex inter-human relations caused by an arbitrary division of resources on the planet humans inhabit. We call this the economy. However, the wallet holds within it other things characteristic for Homo sapiens – documents. In complicated familial, tribal, and inter-tribal relations, with the increase in population, we have arrived at the point of not knowing all the people from our own community. This is what documents are for. They tell us who we are. Where do we com from, when were we born, where we live, and most importantly, how we look? Documents are essential. When you are born, you are issued a paper recording the birth. You don’t even know that you are born if you have no papers. When you die, you are issued a paper. If there is no paper, you didn’t die.
Mp3 player – my favorite gadget. I prize it above the cell phone and wrist watch. Although I am not one of those who venerate so-called “single function devices,” I must admit that there is a certain elegance to them. Whence the mp3 player on the complete man? Simply because an aspect of the complete man ought to relate exclusively to art. This is why I don’t mind it being a single function device. It won’t cover all the arts, but that’s less important. It’s enough to make my point.
Cell phone – this object found in everyone’s pocket is most controversial. Plenty of debating can be done about this one, but I’ll say that we haven’t yet gotten completely used to it. Future generations, those growing up with digital technologies as inevitable part of their landscape, will not even consider this object especially odd or worth debating, but there is an aspect I would like to mention. Every cell phone has in it a phone book. A phone book with the numbers of people more or less important in our lives. Those more important we place on our speed dial list, for ease of access. The cell phone is a manifestation of man’s desire to have those nearest to him at hand at all times.

There. A religious confession. Like all confessions, limited to the interpretation of the one offering it. A pocket confession, appropriate to our modern age.

1. I am using the word billfold here because the Serbo-Croatian word novčanik contains within it the word for money, which wallet does not.

August 7, 2011

For Hölderlin’s Soul continued

Far be it from me to decide which of the two philosophical positions on Hölderlin is correct. Nor do I feel comfortable giving some deep literary analysis of Hyperion, since it requires at least one more reading from me and a lot more thinking.

However, I want to give you my impressions of these philosophic interpretations of Hölderlin’s work. I should probably disclaim that I have studied a little Hegel and have a (perhaps bad) habit of reading his philosophy into many a text. I am always suspicious of a text that sounds overly Hegelian, because I’m afraid that I’m just reading my own mind back to myself. So when I kept running across Hegelian thought throughout Hyperion, I was worried.

That being said, let’s try to leave an overtly Hegelian critique aside for a moment. The Nietzschean side of this debate (and here that does not mean all Nietzscheans nor solely Nietzscheans, but rather those who subscribe to that interpretations of Hölderlin) seems to me to be an incredibly sensitive literary analysis of Hölderlin. Not only of the thought, which we think as the important thing for philosophy, but the beauty of the prose, the rhythm of the words and sentences. So not just the content, but the style. In addition to that, the Nietzscheans are sensitive to Hölderlin’s relationship with ancient philosophy. Hyperion (the novel) takes place in 18th century Greece, but in Greece nonetheless. And although that civilization is irretrievably gone, the lessons are there, in their philosophy, plays, sculptures, temples. These lessons for Hyperion (the main character) are not just markers of the past, but ideals towards which me must move to live in a better world (to over simplify things).

This account, however, suffers from a kind of ahistoricity in two ways. The first is that it seems to talk about Man in ancient Greece and Man today in the same way: these are questions of metaphysics, of fate and freedom, of tragedy and suffering, as if Hölderlin’s eyes upon Europe of the 18th century are our eyes upon our world are the eyes of Heraclitus upon his world. Surely, our civilization (if we may broadly say that Hölderlin’s civilization is ours) and the ancient Greek are different enough? Surely, some development has taken place in the world in the last two and a half millenia to question such conflation?

The second ahistoric aspect of Nietzschean accounts is that reading it, one would think that this is writing pulled out of a personal suffering and tragedy and could have been written in the 12th century as well as in the late 20th. This is some kind of rarefied, metaphysical thought! No mention of the revolutions that rocked Europe, of the problem of living in turbulent times, when an old (Medieval) world is crumbling much, much faster than the new (bourgeois) can form. Greece may be the site of old Hellas, but it was also the site of the nascent modern Greek nation state, a cause célèbre of the literary world of the day (Lord Byron famously went to fight with the Greeks). Tragedy and suffering are noble topics, but the thought that Hölderlin might have also been thinking of the question “What now that the Turks are gone?” does not enter into the Nietzschean equation. (And if the question seems particular to Greece, consider that the French revolutionaries and German idealists would have had to ask themselves the same.)


I need to read more accounts of the Hegelian interpretation of Hölderlin, because Lukacs botched this one. In his zeal to stick it to the National Socialist and their ideologues (this was written in 1934, after all), he reads Hölderlin like it’s a decorated version of a philosophy stuck half way between Rousseau and Marx. Or else Hyperion is a poetic narration of the history of the failed French Revolution. Literature is neither veiled philosophy, nor a glorified diary of events.

Here is a passage form Lukacs’ essay. “His Alabanda says of the bourgeois: “One does not ask if you want! Slaves and barbarians, you never want! It is not you we wish to improve, for this would be in vain! “We wish to take care only that you get out of the way of the victorious advance of mankind.” A revolutionary Jacobin in Paris in 1793 could have spoken such words amid the rejoicing of the plebeian masses. In Germany in 1797, such a view signified a despairing and disconsolate solitude, for there was no social class to which these words could be addressed, none in which they could have found so much as an ideological echo.
Surely, this is torturing the text to fit one’s interpretation. Hölderlin uses the word bourgeois not at all, and it all reads like it is Lukacs who would like speak those words in Paris in 1793 amid the rejoicing plebeian masses.

If the Nietzschean interpretation is too esoteric, Lukacs’ is too limiting. In attempting to situate Hölderlin’s thoughts at the time of the French Revolution, an admittedly crucial aspect his thought, Lukacs writes like the circumstances exhaust this text. Because Hölderlin was German (and not English like Shelley), and because the industrial revolution was more successful earlier in England than in Germany, Hölderlin’s thought is therefore more abstract and ends in pessimism. Or because Hölderlin could not comprehend the inherent contradiction in bourgeois society, he never developed a Hegelian understanding of post revolutionary reaction. As if just because they dealt with the same problem, they have to have arrived at the same conclusion.

It is clear that Lukacs is trying to wrest Hölderlin away from the Nazis and place him in the list of pre-Marxian leftists. This in itself is not a weakness. But there lacks a literary analysis, something to support the politico-ideological pronouncements, such as this. “But with all its defects it is one of the great paths which leads to the future and to the elaboration of the materialist dialectic.” Really, George, really?


As I said, my impulse in general is to side with the Hegelians, but I feel that the Nietzschean side has a better literary analysis of the novel. And even if I find something better than Lukacs, there is much to be learned from ‘the other’ side.

I leave you with a letter between two friends. Here is Hölderlin to Hegel in 1794.
I am certain that you have occasionally thought of me since we parted from one another with the watchword — Reich Gottes! [Kingdom of God] I believe that we would recognize each other throughout every metamorphosis with this watchword. I am certain that whatever you become, time will not efface this trait in you. I think that this will also be the case with me. Every trait that we love one another for is exquisite. And thus can we be sure of everlasting friendship. Otherwise, I often wish that you were nearby. You were so often my genius. I thank you very much. Only since our separation have I felt this so completely. There is still a good deal that I would like to learn from you, and I would also like to occasionally impart something of my own.
Writing letters, of course, is only makeshift, though it is something. Therefore, we should not neglect it altogether. Occasionally we must remind ourselves of how greatly entitled to one another we are.

August 6, 2011

For Hölderlin’s Soul

Sometime after he returned from France, in 1802, the German poet, Friedrich Hölderlin started to unravel. In 1803, one of his old school buddies from Tübingen wrote to another mutual school buddy.
The saddest sight I’ve seen during my stay here was that of Hölderlin. Since his journey to France, where he traveled on Professor Ströhlin’s recommendation with a completely false conception of what the duties of his position were to be, and whence he immediately returned again, since it appears that demands were made of him which he was incapable of fulfilling, and which were not compatible with his sensitivity — since this unfortunate journey, his spirit has become completely disturbed, and although he has proved capable of a few works, such as the translations from the Greek, he is otherwise thoroughly absent of spirit. The sight of him was unsettling to me: he neglects his appearance to the point of repugnance, and though his speech is less suggestive of madness, he has taken on the outward mannerism of those in such a condition. There is no hope of being able to restore him to health here.

The thing was that  there was not much hope for poor Hölderlin. He went crazy and basically stayed that way until his death in 1843.

I was prompted to read some of his stuff because I kept running across books and articles with titles something like Hölderlin, Nietzsche, Heidegger, or Hölderlin, Heidegger, Adorno or some such. So I read Hyperion, Hölderlin’s epistolary novel from 1797 or 1799 (it came out in two parts). And it is…well, it’s fantastic. I mean it’s got beautiful poetic language, passionate, moving passages, a passionate friendship, a tender love-affair, a fight for freedom (the novel takes place during the Greek rebellion against the Ottomans of 1770)…everything. It is also overtly philosophical and fully of truly profound thoughts on nature, man, freedom, etc. The other thing the novel is full of, is references to ancient Greece. This becomes relevant for all those philosophical papers I mentioned.

There are two diametrically opposed philosophical traditions, both claiming Hölderlin as their own. Let’s call them the Nietzscheans and the Hegelians. Freddy (Nietzsche) thought Holderlin a kindred soul, because they were both obsessed with ancient Greece and its philosophy, poetry, tragedy; they were both misunderstood in their respective times (or so Freddy thought, he was more popular than he knew), both went mad, etc. The personal similarities never end. Early on in his career, Freddy wrote poetry in honor of Hölderlin and scholarly essays about him that were poorly received partly because they were coming from him, partly because the subject was somebody who was on his way to be forgotten (or so it seemed in the 19th century).

Martin Heidegger, following Nietzsche (we’re putting him in that camp for our purposes here), also spent a lot of time reading and writing about Hölderlin. He gave a series of lectures in 1942 about Hölderlin’s poem The Ister, this being the ancient Greek name for the river Danube (at least the part downstream in the Balkans). Marty (Heidegger) fancied himself the greatest philosopher of all time, and the greatest expert on all things ancient Greek, so he deemed it appropriate to render judgment on previous thinkers. Here’s a passage from his Introduction to Metaphysics.
Of all the early Greek thinkers it is Heraclitus who, in the course of Western history, has suffered the most transformation along un-Greek lines, and yet who in recent years has provided the strongest impulse toward rediscovery of the authentic Greek spirit. Hegel and Hölderlin were both under the great and fruitful spell of Heraclitus, but with the difference that Hegel looked backward and drew a line under the past while Hölderlin looked forward and opened up the way to the future. Still different was Nietzsche’s relation to Heraclitus. Nietzsche was a victim of the current (and false) opposition between Parmenides and Heraclitus. This is one of the main reason why in his metaphysics he did not find his way to the decisive question, even though he understood the great age of Greek beginnings with a depth that was surpassed only by Hölderlin.

In a paper entitled Between Hölderlin and Heidegger: Nietzsche’s Transfiguration of Philosophy, the author quotes another Heideggerian scholar. “Föster writes that Heidegger ‘entered into a dialogue with the poet that continued throughout his life,’ whereby ‘Hölderlin represents the alternative to the entire metaphysical tradition that reaches its peak in Hegel’s system.'”

Which is a stunning pronouncement all on its own, you see, because the letter I quoted at the beginning was written to Hegel by another philosopher of German idealism, Friedrich Schelling (I know, they were all Friedrich, including Hegel). Hegel and Hölderlin were born a few months apart in 1770, and roomed together (along with the slightly older Schelling) in Tübinger Stift in the 1790s. Meaning that in one bedroom in the 1790s, the world contained one guy who was the pinnacle of an ‘entire metaphysical tradition,’ and one guy who represented its alternative. (One wonders: a well timed earthquake…)

Which is why there are people who want to claim Holderlin back into the Hegelian tradition. Like Georg Lukacs, the Hungarian philosopher and Marxist. He has a 1934 essay, in which he is trying to reclaim Hölderlin from the Nazis, since he had by then been revived and become a Nazi favorite.

For Lukacs, Holderlin was an unfinished Hegel. They were both swept in the fervor of the French Revolution and both dismayed by the Terror that followed it, and disappointed by Napoleon. (They also both translated Sophocles’ Antigone from ancient Greek, Hegel too being obsessed with the ancients.) Clearly, they were both trying to make sense of the new bourgeois world emerging in Europe at the time. But whereas Hegel overcame this problem (the only other person to have overcome this problem as well, according to Lukacs, is Balzac) and saw the Terror, Thermidor and Napoleon as necessary phases, Holderlin’s pure, aesthetic soul could not bear the defeat of the French Revolution, and he got lost in mysticism in his writing, and madness in his own life. Thus Lukacs.

To be continued…

March 30, 2011

Key to the World

– for Cait

Recently, I have been told to put Bruno Latour on my reading list. I was further encouraged by a post on deconcrete that led me to an article Latour wrote about the Berlin Key.

Of course, for Latour the key is an entry point for discussion about objects, technology, society, social relations, humans… “Shall we say that the social relations between tenants and owners, or inhabitants and thieves, or inhabitants and delivery people, or co-owners and concierges, are mediated by the key, the lock, and the Prussian Locksmith? […] Give me the society of Berlin, and I will tell you how the key is shaped!”

The name of the Prussian Locksmith, whom Latour says he does not know, is supplied by Wikipedia: Johann Schweiger. (further from Wikipedia.) “It was designed to force people to close and lock their doors (usually a front door or gate).”  Apparently, it “continues to be a distinctive feature of the city of Berlin…”.

For a careful explanation of how the key accomplishes its goal, and interesting thoughts about what its mediation means for the world, read Bruno Latour’s article here.