August 25, 2010

Reflections on Philosophy: Ben Woodard Interview

I truly hope that philosophy is not focused on humans, or on learning only for ourselves or more about ourselves at the expense of the massive swirling world around us. If this is the case then philosophy is too much like folk psychology and the self help industry in my view.

The spread of philosophy across the blogosphere has changed the possibilities of community (since geography is obliterated) but the ego problem remains unaffected ... Ridiculously, blogs are derided at conferences as being trivial or unrigorous in some way yet their impact cannot be easily disregarded. This is something that will no doubt decay over time and we can have our academy and our solitude at once.

Brent Vizeau: First off, thank you for taking the time to have this conversation. I want to begin by asking, where does philosophy begin? I will preface this by making clear that I don’t mean with Thales or the “Greek miracle”. Rather, I mean to ask about the motivation for doing philosophy at all, and for taking the approach/perspective that you do? I want this to be able to go a number of ways, so I will suggest a few ideas to help hone in on the sort of place I think this question could go.

It is often thought that philosophy begins in “wonder” or curiosity. Simon Critchley argues, instead, that it begins in disappointment. It has been pointed out to me that philosophers like Hegel have “one great obsession” that colors their whole approach. Do you think that there is this kind of pre-philosophical element at the beginning of philosophy? If so, what gets you going? What is your experience of first moments/motivations?

Ben Woodard
The two terms you mention – wonder and disappointment both seem to place philosophy in relation to enchantment which I think is a fairly common relation. Since the widespread turn away from metaphysics, I think that continental philosophy has become too concerned with re-enchanting the world for humans against the overblown demons of science and technology. At the same time philosophy is always about us (as the only beings we know of capable of philosophizing) at least to the degree that our own pathologies drive where are particular interests go. So while our own lives as a series of accidents clearly forms our own intellectual obsessions it does not, nor should it, decide the broader contours of philosophy for us either personally or collectively. 

Since philosophy is at its base thinking about thinking, the motivation for pursuing philosophy can be any reaction (whether anger, frustration, confusion, etc) regarding the formation and ramifications of different kinds of thinking. Furthermore, I think philosophy, at its most interesting, is an attempt to populate the noosphere (or whatever you want to call it) with new engines for producing thoughts.

Personally the motivation for me was confusion, confusion in the face of large entities whether economic, socio-cultural, historical etc. that didn't make sense when you weighed their power/influence against their likely origins. For me philosophy was a way to approach the question of what goes on in peoples heads to make x, y, and z happen especially when these actions fly in the face of any sort of realism. Basically my personal reason for doing philosophy is the question “Why is realism so difficult and so opposed?”

BV: Do you take a systematic or principled approach to tracing out your initial motivation, obsession, or curiosity? If you are able to articulate a kind of beginning to your philosophizing, do you have a deliberate way of following through? Or is there a reason to avoid such a structured way of going forward? Perhaps, the assumed teleology of the question is problematic?

BW: I think what Paul said in his answer is right: it has to be a mix between rigor and fancy. An old bit of music teacher advise is good here: learn everything you can and then forget everything you know. That is, you don't want to get too bogged down in firming up a ground for yourself by having a vast knowledge of the history of philosophy but you cant ignore the classics either and barrel ahead without any regard for the past. And while you are obviously going to gravitate towards certain texts you have to maintain some level of structure. I think the real trick, at least for me, is the struggle over what kind of philosopher you are or want to be or whether this should even be a concern at all.

Here I mean strict metaphysician versus anti-philosopher, versus the more narrative focused kind of thinker etc. Or, it becomes a question of are you more like Hume, Nietzsche, or Deleuze or none of the above? This a programmatic as well as a stylistic concern. I think people tend to emulate the first few thinkers that inspire them but this doesn't make sense either programmatically or stylistically necessarily. That is, I don't think a lot of us ask why certain types of philosophy are done a certain way though I think this is something that Graham Harman has discussed here and there in an interesting way. But this is something figured out over a long period of time. Again, for myself, I approach writing philosophy as a hurried note taking which over time is meshed with an outline that eventually turns into a (hopefully) coherent piece of prose. I think Zizek says something similar in Astra Taylor's biopic of him, that writing disappears somewhere between notes and the finished product.

I think having a sense of a beginning or starting point is difficult as the reason why you are writing about something (other than as an assignment or to fulfill a speaking obligation etc) is probably due to an event which had an impact you only really think about retroactively. Something like the event of thought (in a somewhat jokingly Badiouian sense). Any teleological reasoning I think becomes either farcical (we think we always already know what we're doing) or depressing, because there's no other path. The latter has bothered me, for instance, ever since I've focused my work onto naturephilosophie since my very name is a condensed version of wood warden, of those who protected the forests.

It seems I was doomed to think about nature.

BV: What would you say the work of a philosopher consists in? Is it our job to create, polish and present ideas? Is it enough to learn for ourselves? I suppose I’d like to uncover some of the ideas we have about what we ought to be doing. There may be a number of perfectly legitimate occupations of the philosopher, and perhaps a number of illicit ones.

BW: I truly hope that philosophy is not focused on humans, or on learning only for ourselves or more about ourselves at the expense of the massive swirling world around us. If this is the case then philosophy is too much like folk psychology and the self help industry in my view. People are, to take a term from Julius Bahnsen (via Thomas Ligotti) merely self conscious nothings. The self-conscious bit of course is the tricky part and the reason why philosophy happens.

Having been trying to finish my thesis for the past few weeks I would say that the work of the philosopher consists in being hunched over a laptop and surrounded by a pile of books for days at a time. But in all seriousness, my view here is fairly Deluzo-Guattarian, that the work of philosophy is mostly about concept production, or at least, about producing something new in thought that hopefully does not remain in thought. But it is not up to the philosopher to bring philosophy outside of philosophy if it was, we wouldn't be philosophers. We should construct philosophies that others want to expand and apply elsewhere.But in addition to exploring the productivity of thought, philosophy needs to rigorously engage the limits of thought. This means thought not only in relation to itself, that is thinking about the process of thinking, but also thinking as a material process, as emanations from a hunk of gray matter or, maybe someday, something else.

Furthermore the production of thought is not just pulling ideas out of the blue but is a recycling and reconfiguring of ideas we have read and drawn from other kinds of research. This can, as already mentioned, become a burden as it is temporally impossible to read everything and still have some sort of non-academic existence.

BV: Would you say that you have a philosophical – in the sense of doing the work of a philosopher – program? For instance, one might have the goal of producing polished ideas to the public based on their philosophical interests. This might mean that one works on writing articles. Maybe you start with a research phase, followed by a write up, followed by a new research phase in a linear fashion. Some might write when the motivation strikes them, but never according to a work program. What do you do? And what would you like to do in this regard?

BW: In terms of a production strategy, I think that a philosopher is ultimately a creature that produces texts and that all other activities are corollary to this task except for teaching. Blog entries, conference papers, and finally essays are all test runs of our thinking to some degree. Though, because of shortening attention spans, philosophical texts might get further away from lengthy tomes and become something else entirely. But regardless of the form or length, I believe the philosopher is fundamentally someone who articulates their ideas in some kind of textual solidification. In terms of research versus production modes, or reading versus writing, I think the two always overlap to some degree though, at least for myself, one usually dominates the other for weeks at a time. Speaking for myself I tend to read two or three books at a time (usually one classic, one contemporary, and one non-philosophical text) just to keep things interesting. This makes it harder to become exhausted of any one thing and it tends to bring out interesting cross-connections that I wouldn't normally think about. I will get to a point where I come across something I feel like I need to write about and thats when I start writing. Writing, as a different mode, will take over if the thought process pans out, if it seems like it will bear something larger or be useful to a project I have already started. If it doesn't seem to go too far then I go back to reading.

Teaching seems to be a whole different animal as it is less about our own production and about fostering interest in philosophy in others. Our own interests of course will always seep in to what we are teaching, but it is less about a refinement of our own thoughts.

BV: I’m also wondering about philosophical communities. We work in spatial proximity to other philosophers (or students of philosophy, however you want to demarcate this), but rarely it seems do we work in close intellectual proximity. What do you make of this isolation? Or do you disagree that there is a lot of isolation from others in our field? Would you rather a different kind of community to work in? If so, are you able to begin articulating what it might look like?

BW: The philosopher is a fairly isolated figure – Heidegger in his cottage, Wittgenstein up the cold mountain side and so on. Though there is also a more social dimension, that of Aristotle wandering about with his students, or the proximity of giants such as when Hegel and Schelling (the two were roommates). In school we usually have our compatriots but ultimately our work concerns ourself and the world. I think this is mostly because philosophizing requires (for many) the elimination of noise in all sense of the term. It is self induced isolation because its just your brain and your texts.

My own experience with philosophical communities is a bit weird for a few reasons. For one, my masters was done at a low residency program so most of my interaction with the other students was online until meeting them for a brief but intense three weeks. Even in such a brief and strange environment factions form and not only between those loyal to particular schools of thought or particular philosophers but also the philosophers vs media students vs practicing artists/musicians and so on. Then there is the divide between those who stop the hard philosophy talk at the bar and those who keep going. But despite these divisions, philosophical communities (regardless of their proximity and longevity) force you to think in ways you're not comfortable, they force you to defend and fire back and to think out loud. There are of course obstacles to this with most of them being egos.

One thing I've noticed in the states (I have not noticed it outside so far anyways) is that when two philosophy students meet a legitimate conversation is blocked by the immediate instigation of a pissing contest. Instead of asking the other what they are interested it, one of the students asks the other what they've read and whether they liked that particular philosopher or not. These are fairly uninteresting questions and it would be far more stimulating, not to mention useful, if they simply shared their interests: if they diverge then there is something to learn in terms of texts you've never read etc and if they are closer then you can debate about shared figures and so on. But these options involve a certain amount of trust and vulnerability and that's where the egos get in the way. The unpleasantly more common alternative is a series of traps and challenges which immediately halts the possibility of gaining allies.

The spread of philosophy across the blogosphere has changed the possibilities of community (since geography is obliterated) but the ego problem remains unaffected. I myself have benefited greatly from blogs as Speculative Realism really took off because of them. I wouldn't of been able to co-create Speculative Heresy nor would I have made my strongest allies either with thinkers such as Reza Negarestani or Timothy Morton most recently. Ridiculously, blogs are derided at conferences as being trivial or unrigorous in some way yet their impact cannot be easily disregarded. This is something that will no doubt decay over time and we can have our academy and our solitude at once.


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