In our new column, Investigations, we invite writers to delve into topics that intrigue them. The first Investigation comes from Andrew David Stapleton, who earlier this year decided to study philosophy.
During my honours year, a research methods class was offered in the first semester. In part, the class was held to attend to the problem of research for creative arts students. How does a short story, a collection of poems, a dance, a piece of theatre or a painting constitute research?
By and large, the answer referred to the discursive nature of knowledge – that it is generated rather than discovered – and there was often talk of other cultures whose storehouse of knowledge was transmitted through oral storytelling or dance or painting. There was, of course, an appreciation of different categories of knowledge – no one thought a novel, say, produced the same type of understanding as an advance in pure mathematics, but, it was stressed, this difference needn’t necessarily imply a hierarchy. Even the idea that the sine qua non of research was that it be of immediate and practical value was rejected.
Art, it seemed, within the ARC-sanctified creative arts departments of the modern university, was epistemologically sound. There was, however, a catch.
Each piece, no matter the discipline, would become host to a terrible parasite: an exegetical essay engaging with some already constituted field of research relevant to your practice or output. Exeunt Art and enter Theory.
And so, in class, as our lecturer – an ashen-haired, black-clad, rimless-spectacled Joyce scholar – enthused about some thinkers who might prove intellectually significant for our burgeoning theoretical mindgrapes, a student soon interrupted her.
“So, like, does that mean we have to read Foocolt?”
(Of course, ‘Foocolt’ here was just a placeholder for any obtuse, presumably French, sophist.)
At the time, I found this resistance confounding. Attempting to understand something from a theoretical standpoint seemed not only beneficial to my writing, but apposite when doing that writing within a university.
One of my supervisors rightly pointed out, though, that it wasn’t theory I was engaging with, it was philosophy. Whereas for some, to study creative arts in an institution meant becoming, at the very least, capable of reading and regurgitating that nebulous discourse sometimes pejoratively referred to as ‘Theory’, for me, doing philosophy alongside writing fiction not only proved helpful with that writing, but also for engaging with other disciplines and, however minimally, also affected the way I lived. Simply: philosophy could do, albeit in a very different way, some of the things I valued in fiction, and vice versa.
And so when earlier this year I took my first classes with the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy (MSCP) I had some questions for my teachers that touched upon these tensions – the relationship between art and philosophy, and the role of this discipline, as well as the university, in cultural life more broadly. Jon Roffe and Bryan Cooke of the School sent me their answers via email. These are (an edited version of) two of them:
From reading Cameron Shingleton’s account of the MSCP’s inception, the School seems to have begun in frustration. What do you see as the MSCP’s role in mitigating these frustrations, and why aren’t the universities fulfilling this role?
BC: While I was not present at the founding, I think that that frustration (mainly at the state of the modern university and the poverty of its philosophy programs) has played a role not only in the formation of the school, but in its continuing existence and even its success. I think our work has – as a result – always spoken to the increasingly large number of students who find themselves shocked and depressed by the cynical emptiness of undergraduate (and post-graduate) life in our increasingly profit-driven, bureaucratically governed, ‘quantification’-obsessed degree factories.
At the same time, I think that it’s important not to exaggerate the role of the MSCP’s critical or negative self-positioning: if the MSCP was, indeed, born in frustration, it also emerged out of, and is sustained by the joy that each of us takes in the subjects, thinkers, problems, and approaches to thought, that we think of as neglected, excluded or simply disdained by the universities and their degree structures. For many of us, what the MSCP stands for is not so much a ‘rogue’ or ‘eccentric’ area of philosophy, but rather everything about life, thought, art, history, politics and cultural memory, that is abandoned by or even invisible to the university in its present state.
JR: Looking back now, I would say that frustration was certainly a central concern: frustration with the lousy state of education, with the poor grasp of the philosophers we cared about, frustration that we felt, from the point of view of the education sector in Australia, more or less invisible.
Coupled with this motivation, though, there was a very real sense that, simply put, we could do something good, that the material we were going to discuss was philosophically significant, exciting and pertinent to the contemporary situation. What is still called, in a somewhat derogatory fashion, ‘continental philosophy’ had and has its share of charlatans and prostitutes who are more interested in the dizzying parade of proper names and the contact high of what passes in the academy for celebrity, to the very great detriment of the genuine philosophical concerns championed by the thinkers that have been the core of our curriculum since we began (Lacan, Kant, Deleuze, Lyotard, Hegel, Derrida, Žižek, Heidegger, etc.).
In sum, the MSCP began because this frustration found a group of talented philosophers in whom it fomented the desire to do something positive. The directedness of the School, the passion the lecturers have for their material, and the forward momentum that still seems to derive from enthusiasm about philosophy itself, all of this retains a brute charm that, to me at least, signals at least the possibility of genuine thinking.
As for why the spirit of genuine thought has departed the university, I don’t know if there’s any easy answer. The sociological responses come easily to mind, and they seem convincing: the difficult economic context for educational institutions (if this is really what they still are), the backwards social context here in Australia and no doubt elsewhere in the West. It is true that we are in mourning for the university; we imagine ourselves to have lost an invaluable public sphere in which the genuine pursuit of knowledge could take place untormented by the vicissitudes of everyday life, but this increasingly looks to me to be a fantasy.
This is not to say that I think we should all lie back and think about a Certificate IV in Business – to the contrary. The desire for real education will never find a natural satisfaction, but must be the object of a creative effort. And certainly this is what the MSCP has as its goal.
David Foster Wallace once described the function of fiction as being to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comforted. Philosophy too seems to be characterised by this dual function – the lofty, edifying humanist project of cultural betterment or emancipation, and a more anti-humanist or shocking, and perhaps even violent, eruption of the new or monstrous. As philosophers, how do each of you negotiate these poles, or perhaps you think the very opposition between them is bunk?
BC: I like David Foster Wallace very much, and I think that his remark is entirely applicable to philosophy, about which he, of course, knew much.
At the heart of his comment is I think a simple truth: that philosophy exists neither to give comfort to nor to simply shock the bourgeoisie.
This is because on the one hand, there are few things more pathetic than the self-avowedly ‘radical’, which is too often a tedious posture of the most slavish and timid conformity. At the same time, I don’t think philosophy can be comfortably assimilated to humanist ideals if for no other reason than philosophers will always reserve the right to question what is being defended or venerated under the name of ‘humanism’. For example, why wouldn’t a given philosopher, mock, as for instance Nietzsche did, the humanist veneration of ‘culture’, as a symptom of precisely the absence of the ‘culture’ to which humanists were apparently so devoted?
Another thing in favour of anti-humanism: I like the fact that philosophers do things that make educated, cultivated, urbane people splutter, even as they exert a strange fascination for this same class: think of Socrates. At the root of this is the fact that there is something necessarily monstrous about philosophy: even and especially because philosophers inevitably turn to questions of politics. Philosophy has always been about taking thought to its limits, into regions where sensible people fear to tread, thereby risking not only mystifying abstraction, but stupefaction, melancholia, ‘utopianism’ and even insanity. To think otherwise is, as Deleuze points out, to mistake thought for recognition.
And who would want this? We live in a world in which there are forces (tectonic, intergalactic, financial, political, military, technological) whose power and influence precisely suggest the limits of the humanist model for understanding the world. If ‘humanist’ means ‘minimally concerned with human beings and their lives’, then, yes, philosophy is humanist. The problem, however, is that people too often imply that concern with human beings and their lives demands a devotion to that which the present moment or society already counts as interesting or important. And I think philosophy perpetually refuses, even exists to refuse, this blackmail: it is eminently concerned with practice, but never pragmatic in the sense that makes bureaucrats and business managers happy.
JR: I think that Foster Wallace is half right, and in turn so is your analogy between philosophy and literature. In fact, I think the word ‘function’ here could use some disambiguation. What is commonly called literature does indeed both trouble and comfort, as does what we tend to call philosophy. It seems to me, though, that art, like philosophy, should only strive to trouble us. Philosophy and art both are, or ought to be, as relentless as they are fugitive, brooking no resistance in their drive to tear the skin off of the normal, to shine darkness into daylight.
Why, or rather how, do literature and philosophy comfort, if they are nothing but the tip of the spear or the sharp edge? I think the answer lies at the level of sympathy: it is when we find ourselves in the company of the equally unclothed, ill-prepared, dispossessed and reduced, that is to say in the company of the great artistic figures, or at the edge of thinking, bereft of certainty, in the company of great thought, that our own precarious situation is rendered capable of being thought and felt.
The deep feelings evoked by Beckett, for example, arise on this basis. The visage of a head in a jar, a couple confined to trash cans, or the lost ones whose minimal forms of movement constitute their lives inside of a world constituted by a giant rubber cylinder, these resonate with us not because we want to destroy what is human in us, but because this is what we are – a few words, a few small stones, a couple of decisive gestures, or one or two still lives and a bowl of fruit (Cézanne).
This sympathy is, I think, a contingent secondary effect of some art and some philosophy, and the fact that it is not and ought not be the goal of either to produce this effect does not render the help it provides us with void. In fact, the more that art tries to offer succour to the suffering, the less it is capable of doing so, just as the more philosophy strives to comfort our mute but terrified sense of our place in the world, or hold up the bourgeois life as the pinnacle of human history, the more inhuman, cruel, disgusting and finally illegible to human beings it becomes. There is nothing less comforting than the intellectual commodification of comfort, and there is far more unthinking cruelty, in a certain respect, in the writings of Alain de Botton than there are in those of Friedrich Nietzsche or Georges Bataille.
For many years, I held to the kind of humanism that you’re invoking here, but to demand of art and philosophy that they provide us with comfort – even and above all at those moments when we need it the most – is to excuse ourselves from having to do philosophy and create art, and to denature philosophy and art themselves. I have always felt Adorno’s claim – that ‘Art remains loyal to humankind uniquely through its inhumanity in regard to it’ – to be deeply true.
Enrollments for the MSCP’s semester two classes are still open; they’re offering courses on Deleuze, Kant and Derrida. And if you want to get a sense of some locally published, but by no means parochial, contemporary philosophy, you can check out Parrhesia or some of re.press’s titles.
Andrew David Stapleton is a writer and philosophy student working in Melbourne.
The standard but nonetheless sincere caveat that any mistakes here are mine and all insights those of the interviewees.