I just wrote a review of a book about Plato to appear in the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. I wrote a couple of years ago about how I wanted to explore new ways of writing book reviews, and this is another one of those experiments.
|My first encounter with Socrates.
It's written as a Platonic dialogue between me and Socrates. And I'm pretty sure I avoided being a pretentious fuckwad, which is the biggest challenge of all when you approach any kind of writing with “I’m going to write this as a Platonic dialogue between me and Socrates.”
Part of what I talked about in that book review was the legacy of dead philosophers. How we remember them, and what role they play in our larger culture. My generation has seen philosophy losing a lot of its public relevance. It’s another discipline regularly bashed by right-wingers – most recently by Marco Rubio – as useless and worthless for the economy and wider society.
Rachel Lu's article critiquing Rubio's advocacy for ignorance is valuable for several reasons. It contributes to the growing awareness that education in all sectors is growing increasingly inaccessible and produces crippling individual debt levels.
She’s right to emphasize the importance of the soft skills of proper philosophical education. Actually exploring these texts in full is quite difficult cognitive labour. It builds the soft skills of analysis and abstract creativity that will be very useful in whatever future career a person chooses.
I was talking with a client the other day about how hard it can be to find genuinely creative people in some business-focussed careers like public relations and communications, where I ply my freelance contracts and day jobs.
A communicator might advise that you should build your company’s image as a creative force, but not actually know how to communicate that unique personality. I thought of this when I was reading Gregg Lambert’s essay on Gilles Deleuze and his thinking in the LA Review of Books.
Deleuze was a university professor, and embodied many stereotypes of the profession. Thankfully, it was mostly the positive ones. But Lambert chooses the death of Deleuze to meditate on a notion of the public intellectual that's disappeared in our culture for the most part.
It had to do with, in Deleuze’s words, the difference between the public intellectual as a “private thinker” who speaks her mind on issues and ideas, and a “public professor” who represents a particular dogma or brand.
Here's a really stark example. Jean-Paul Sartre discussed complex issues in public venues and challenged the French public on many problems of justice, especially, later in his life, anti-immigrant racism and post-colonial politics. Contrast Richard Dawkins, who has an impressive pedigree in science, but today mostly writes screeds advocating an aggressive, racist atheism that demonizes religious and ethnic minorities in Britain and Europe.
Deleuze was one of the last “private thinkers” in the academy, even though he had a reputation as a “public professor” because he was such an academic. But his life, work, and ideas were as singular as his concept of singularity.
Lambert doesn’t really explain it well in his essay. He mostly explains an illustration from Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, used in Deleuze’s last essay before his own death. The novel's villain Riderhood nearly drowns in the Thames, and the people of a bar who know the bastard well still work to save his life.
|Face it, he's always looked and acted like such a
stereotypical university professor.
The impersonal fire of life itself motivates people. That simple fact of being alive, in its very minimal sense, is the heart of humanity’s ethical call to care for each other. When Riderhood is a barely living corpse, he's precious, a life on the verge of sniffing out.
As he wakes up, his disgusting nature as an individual is apparent to everyone, and they turn away. Probably with regret.
The singular is the particularity of a process or an existent (really the same thing), but without a fleshed out individuality. It’s unique, but only in its facticity, as the singular alone has no nature. Identity is built on the singular, its a-personal foundation.
Lambert gets the illustration wrong. He talks about the scene as if it happens early in a short story. Really, it's a dramatic scene about 600 pages into a massive tome. He sort of skirts over Deleuze's point too.
We think of individuality as uniqueness, but that’s not quite right. Being an individual means that you have properties that can be described in general terms. Once you have an identity, you're the instantiation of universal properties. You can be subsumed into a category.
The singular, not at all. It’s pure existence, the indexical – this here it. All that it is, is what it can become. It’s pure potential. A process in the instant before it starts moving and roiling along. The ability to change that hasn’t yet changed. The transition between nothingness and the Big Bang.
Wrap your head around that, which even long-experienced academic philosophers have trouble doing, and you can explain the uniqueness of anything.