Friday, 24 October 2008

The Continental Philosophy Blogosphere: Noosphere or Public Sphere?

I'm deep in the throes of editing a paper for an academic economics journal, so my thoughts here will have to be impressionistic and require future unpacking. But I'm in a playful mood and need to unwind for a moment. Suffice to say, I'm struck of late by the serial effect of so much of what passes for critical analysis in the blogosphere: take the latest Continental philosopher who refers to "capital", and then apply said reading method to the film, dubstep album etc of your choice. In my earlier "Crash" post I touched on a few characteristics of the kind of "interpretive community" that may have generated these tendencies, and I've wondered ever since if they could bear closer examination in terms of a sociology of knowledge, or the perspective I'm more familiar with, social epistemology.

The questions asked would need to be reflexive ones about why these people blog, which should ideally help to elucidate any commonalities between them. It would also have to be determined why this reading method has proliferated to the point where it seems to be the preferred option when it comes to sociocultural theory in the blogosphere. A cynic might argue that it has to do with Donald Campbell's infamous "fish scale model of omniscience", where those who conduct the least amount of empirical research are particularly suited to the mobile conditions of a network society. When such individuals have tenureship, one can expect to find them disproportionately represented at international conferences. When there is no tenureship, cyberspace substitutes as the preferred space for generating network connectivity. Crosscutting both situations, however, is the tendency for depth of knowledge to explode in direct proportion to interdisciplinary/transdisciplinary mobility.

What typologies could potentially be used to draw the relevant distinctions? As I see it, there are essentially 3 choices. Surprisingly, in a moment of rare lucidity, Slavoj Zizek has managed to sketch 2 of these, which could serve as heuristic devices when investigating the blogosphere of Continental philosophy. In his words:

If I understand this point of a one-mind-entity correctly, then it's a version of cyberspace I didn't mention. I first of all mentioned the deconstructionist version of cyberspace which is this post-Cartesian one: Each of us can play with his/her identities and so forth. This is the feminist, deconstructionist, Foucaultian version. But as you probably know there is another, let's call it the New Age school of cyberspace-ideology. It is this neo-Jungian idea that we live in an age of mechanistic, false individualism and that we are now on the threshold of a new mutation...
...the Noosphere...
Slavoj Zizek: Yes, that's precisely the idea. We all share one collective mind.
The first alternative is clear enough, but I'm wondering if the second has any explanatory power when it comes to understanding the curious phenomenon in which capitalism is portrayed as increasingly emancipated from human agency, and that it is this inherent tendency that might explain its current dysfunction? I suspect the answer would be "yes", insofar as the Continental response, for all of its rhetorical appeal to complexity, merely complements the widespread disenchantment with human subjectivity as the driver of change on the contemporay scene. We are typically presented with portrayals of the "alien" nature of capital, which affords the Continental commentariat the luxury of just in effect sitting back and anticipating how the disaster will play itself out. Only at that point may the rising crescendo of voices proclaim the emergence of a "new mutation"; in Deleuzian terms, for example, something like "a non facialised individual", and/or a realisation of the promise of "the multitude" (Hardt & Negri). If these preliminary speculations are amenable to further analysis, then their provenance might also be traced back even further.
For example, here is how the social epistemologist Steve Fuller interprets the opportunism of the Continental movement [sic]:

Intellectual pathologies of our times I: Continental philosophy

Generally speaking, today’s stereotype of the intellectual is the continental philosopher – a quasi-literary, somewhat deep figure of French or German origin. The origin of this image is normally traced the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, who regarded himself as a ‘universal intellectual’, very much on the model of an Enlightenment figure like Voltaire. However, this image came under serious reconstruction after the disappointments of the student revolts in the 1960s. At this point Michel Foucault emerges as a downsized and more academicised version of the Sartrean intellectual. Here we shall explore how continental philosophy provides intellectual rationalisation for political impotence that has spread to cover a wide range of movements, including feminism.
The third alternative is one which I am more familiar and sympathetic with. What needs to be determined here is the extent to which the blogosphere can be modelled on a public sphere. Unlike the Continentals, it is a perspective less preoccupied with the complexities of "the virtual", than the development of new concepts and their practical, collective applications, such as "information war". A key figure here is Frank Webster, who is one of the most renowned, sociologically influenced, critics of the idea of "the information society". A further advantage of his work is that it spares one from the option of having to endure the crude polemicism that oftentimes features in exchanges between the Continental blogosphere and its opponents. Like Fuller then, Webster has developed a detailed system of thought which offers the promise of constructive criticism when engaging with the mediation of ICTs by capitalist interests.
I did once come across a superb Adorno quote from Minima Moralia that speaks to the sense of how the historical moment can give the tenured Continental philosopher an innate sense that they are a fraud (which I'll have to track down again). It's particularly frightening when this sense of powerlessness is compensated for by the overzealous marking of students' work. The image which came to my mind was of some of the younger dons, who are more likely to perceive students as future competition, thereby increasing a feeling of insecurity, as resembling Jack Torrance in The Shining; except in the philosopher's case the university substitutes for the Overlook Hotel. In each scenario, the place where they toil merely teases out the innate destructive capacities by giving them a space for their free reign. Word counts and body counts hence become indistinguishable as writing transmutes into a form of serial violence repeated ad infinitum (Mark Seltzer style)........
But rather than end on such a pessimistic note, I can at least report that my preliminary research on the noosphere has yielded an interesting science fiction find: the anime, intriguingly titled, in light of my last remarks, Serial Experiments Lain. I hope I can track it down some time.

Oh yes, and I can't forget about some other pertinent observations concerning the death of libertarianism at this point in our economic history. It would follow that seasteading is merely a retreat into degenerate utopia once the signs of market failure have become too obvious to ignore (and in the case of the seasteaders, too obvious to deal with).


Farhan Mannan said...

Make sure you're in a good mood when you watch Lain

NHuthnance said...

Thanks for stopping by, I'm keen to see Lain as soon as possible.
Don't worry about my moods, it's just that I've got a sardonic sense of humour sometimes.

Anyone who doubts the things I said in that post about the surrender of agency should head over to Pinnochio Theory for the latest [very blunt] confirmatory admission by Steven Shaviro. I hadn't even read that when I wrote the post, so it just proves how that Continental approach has not lost its momentum by any means (look out for abundant references to Deleuze and Guattari in that context too).