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On Flusser in Artforum

In 1986, following the warm reception of his ‘Towards a Philosophy of Photography’, Vilém Flusser began a regular column in Artforum Magazine, New York. The recent volume ‘Artforum // Essays’ (Metaflux, London 2017) gathers together for the first time, in one volume, all twenty-nine essays, both published and unpublished, which Flusser wrote for the magazine until his death in 1991. As BRB reviewer Frank Karioris argues, the volume not only vividly illustrates the ability of Flusser to engage in dialogue across disciplines and fields, but also shows him to be a masterful theorist — in the original sense of ‘theoria’ as itself a view of view, viewing, and viewpoints. What is important is not so much what was said in these essays, but that the essays and thinking drive one out into an open field of thought.

Making a Masala Modern Anglophone Indian Philosophy

A handful of conventional narratives dominate the Western world’s view of Indian philosophy: while some commentators cling to the view that India’s pristine philosophical heritage has been preserved in Sanskrit texts, others dismiss pre-colonial traditions as ‘non-philosophical’. Philosophy, on this latter view, did not arrive in India until the onset of modernity under British colonialism, and whatever philosophical insights earlier traditions may have had, can only be unearthed through analysis from within the dominant Anglophone philosophical tradition. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth — or so argue the authors of ‘Minds Without Fear’, Nalini Bhushan and Jay Garfield. Epistemology — to mention just one example — was not transported to Indian shores by the ships of the East India Company, but was explored in intellectual communities and movements such as the Navya-Nyaya long before colonialism took hold. And the discomfort with using the English language after colonialism, as expressed by, say, Rabindranath Tagore, does not reflect any incompatibility of Indian thinking with philosophical traditions, but instead reflects the distrust of a colonial mindset that gave rise to Thomas Macaulay’s infamous remark ‘that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia’. In offering a historical explanation for this discomfort, Bhushan and Garfield place their philosophical protagonists in a broader, political context, while also making a case for the richness and intellectual depth of what they aptly call the ‘Indian renaissance’. By deftly combining criticism of established narratives with a positive case for the intellectual value of Indian philosophy, Bhushan and Garfield — argues BRB reviewer Monika Kirloskar-Steinbach — succeed in nudging their readers to seek a truly free knowledge, a knowledge which honestly faces up to its social grounding and which confronts the prejudices that stand in the way of truly globalizing our philosophical thinking.

The Changing Faces of STS

Four editions and counting: our BRB reviewer Gabor Istvan Biro takes the publication of the new edition of the ‘Handbook of Science and Technology Studies’ as on occasion to reflect on the changing character of the research field better known under its acronym ‘STS’. Whereas the first edition was very much programmatic, in that it set the tone for the consolidation of STS as an academic field and its methodological proliferation, the current — fourth — edition, with its thirty-six chapters, provides a snapshot of a multi-faceted ‘living’ interdisciplinary entity, rather than presenting a thoroughly pre-visioned and planned state-of-the-art narrative.

The New French Right

A growing number of French intellectuals, from Alain Finkielkraut to Jean-Pierre Le Goff and Michel Houellebecq, are dissociating themselves from liberalism, which they consider to be undergoing a crisis, and a few are openly aligning themselves with what one might call the ‘New French Right’. BRB reviewer Thorsten Botz-Bornstein examines two recent books in this vein:
‘The New Children of the Century’ (Les Nouveaux Enfants du siècle) by Alexandre Devecchio and Bérénice Levet’s ‘Twilight of the Progressive Idols’ (Crepuscule des idoles progressistes). Where Devecchio openly declares his sympathies for a new generation of right-wing activists and thinkers, whom he believes have little in common with the older Le Pen generation, Levet takes herself to be defending originally progressive Enlightenment ideals and reinvents many points that international critics of neoliberal education have been working on for years. Yet both books suffer from serious oversimplifications. Devecchi laments that cultural liberalism was the Trojan horse of the free circulation of capital, and Levet speaks likewise of a ‘tacit pact between cultural leftism and economic liberalism’. Yet such connections are merely asserted — and reflect a willful ignorance of the far more complex relationship between cultural and economic liberalisms and freedoms. Instead of obsessively fighting against liberalism, it would be more constructive and also logically cogent to fight against what Gilles Lipovetsy has called “hedonist capitalism” — yet such an analysis would require more depth and fewer polemical distractions.

Life, ‘Technics’, and the Decline of the West

With the unexpected resurgence of ‘völkisch’ thinking in German politics in recent months, and a concomitant revival of the old antagonism between ‘culture’ and ‘civilisation’, it may be high time to re-examine the philosophical sources of such thinking. The recent reissue of Oswald Spengler’s ‘Man and Technics’ (first published in 1932 as ‘Der Mensch und die Technik’) is a good occasion to reflect not only on Spengler’s dark vision of history and life, but also on the celebration of martial heroism, which — in the age of weaponized populism and American-style ‘Trumpism’ — seems once again so eerily familiar. ‘Man and Technics’, argues BRB reviewer Ian James Kidd, has many things in common with Spengler’s more well-known ‘The Decline of the West’ –- its brooding character, grand ambition, and agonistic vision of life. But there is also, underneath that, something different. For, only when the depth of ‘technics’ is properly grasped can the ‘soul of man’ be set free — or so Spengler suggests in his plea for a genuine ‘philosophy of life’, fuelled by the release of vast energies and power. ‘Man and Technics’ describes a restlessly stirring ‘will-to-power’ that ‘embraces the world’ in the ‘gigantic power of its technical processes’. Sleepless factories, roaring furnaces, tireless production lines –- all of these show the on-going manifestation of ‘technics’, the dynamic, agonistic force that Spengler conceived as a metaphysical force. There is, then, in ‘Man and Technics’, a rich (if deeply problematic) resonance with deeper currents in German intellectual history, including those that aligned themselves with the most reactionary and destructive political forces. Engaging with these tendencies, without thereby endorsing them, may be unavoidable, lest ignorance of the technological mediation of political hubris breed intellectual complacency.

Unity, (Inter-)Nationalism, and Science

One might think that there is only one genuine science, and that all the various disciplines and approaches are just historically contingent, or simply a matter of convenience. The general question of what provides the ‘cement’ that does the unification — whether this is achieved by laws of nature or shared concepts, say — is rarely asked these days. Partly this is because a major part of contemporary philosophy of science has moved towards the actual, micro-level description of scientific practice. Yet broader forces are at play too. Up until the mid-20th century, Unity of Science movements flourished since — in the minds of philosophers, at least — social and moral virtues were firmly attached to the epistemic virtues of unification, reduction, and conceptual economy. Yet during the Cold War period this link was permanently severed, and discussions about the Unity of Science were at best confined to questions of scientific knowledge in the abstract. A recent edited volume by the late Harmke Kamminga and Geert Somsen gathers new essays on the rise and decline of Unity of Science movements. As BRB reviewer Adam Tamas Tuboly argues, the volume makes a convincing case that questions concerning the Unity of Science cannot be separated from questions of ideology; indeed, that the history of science, philosophy, persons, and institutions can only be told successfully once this link is accepted and subjected to rigorous analysis.

Love in the Time of Swarms

What sort of life has digital technology given us? The techno-utopians of Silicon Valley claim to have the answer: connectivity — the ‘neutral’ fact of creating links between nodes in a network — has the potential to transform and improve every aspect of society, from economics to politics and culture. In a series of recent books, Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, who teaches cultural studies at the Berlin University of the Arts, has explored a diametrically opposed vision of digitally mediated societies: The vanishing, in the digital age, of established norms of privacy has not led to the promised condition of transparency and openness, but has only furthered neoliberalism’s project of surveillance and control, while the constant demand for self-improvement and an entrepreneurial notion of the self has given rise to a pandemic of existential fatigue. In his two most recent translations, ‘In the Swarm: Digital Prospects’ (2017, original German 2013) and ‘The Agony of Eros’ (2017 [2012]), Han turns his eye to the digital terrain of contemporary social relations, in politics as well as at an interpersonal level. And in both cases, the promised means of transformation turns out to be a very real hindrance: In politics, digital connectivity does not facilitate, but more often than not precludes, the establishment of meaningful political collectives; likewise, the ubiquitous availability of pornographic images does not liberate sexuality, but rather impedes intimacy. Yet, as reviewer James Daniel concludes, Han’s incisive criticism of boilerplate techno-utopianism raises a thorny question: How can we effectively condemn the supremacy of the digital without at the same time appealing, at least implicitly, to technophobia?

Knowledge in a Conspiratorial World

Do conspiracy theories merit belief? Of course not, or so a nascent consensus of political commentators tells us. But conspiracies do happen — think Watergate — so an outright dismissal of theories that do not fit with a given consensus might risk overlooking important facts. In his recent book ‘The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories’ (2014), philosopher Matthew Dentith — a self-professed ‘conspiracy theory theorist’, i.e. someone who researches belief in conspiracy theories (rather than proposing conspiracy theories himself) — tackles the thorny epistemological questions that emerge from the nexus of secrecy, ideology, and the social world. As BRB reviewer Ori Freiman summarizes the gist of Dentith’s argument, while some (or perhaps most) conspiracy theories are irrational, some conspiracies are rational, and we must therefore not dismiss a theory *only* because it invokes, or asserts, the existence of a conspiracy. Once we acknowledge that a belief in conspiracy theories can be rational, we can further investigate the existence of a conspiracy and the evidence the theory cites. If we succeed in making a tight connection between the conspirators and the events in question, we can consider the conspiracy theory in relation to other possible explanations. Dentith’s book, Freiman concludes, is a thoughtful exploration of the world of conspiracy theories, based on vivid examples from history and fantasy, and rigorously argued.

Vanishing Points of Representation: How They Change and Why

How does science manage to represent the world around us? Beyond the abstract question of how scientific theories represent the world, in recent years the material practices and the important role of formats and media have come into full view. More than twenty years ago, the volume ‘Representation in Scientific Practice’ (MIT Press, 1990) did much to bring out the material side of scientific representation as a process. Now, the original editors, together with a team of younger-generation scholars in science and technology studies, have returned to the question of representation in their ‘Representation in Scientific Practice Revisited’ (MIT Press, 2014). An important new dimension: the digital processing and representation of data. While there may not be, in the end, such a thing as a unified notion of ‘scientific representation’ simpliciter, and hence, as BRB reviewer Gabor Istvan Biro argues, the exact location of the ‘vanishing points’ of the discourse on representation may not be found in this volume, it nonetheless has much to offer in terms of insight into how and why scientists struggle with scientific representation in the digital era.

The Living Truth

The Russian thinker Alexander Herzen (1812-1870) is an elusive figure: just when you think you’ve got the right idea about him, a central insight, he turns away. In her book ‘The Discovery of Chance: The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen’, Aileen M. Kelly makes a heroic effort to give unity and coherence to Herzen’s oeuvre. Correctly seeing Herzen as an anti-systematiser in an age of grand theories and projects, Kelly grounds her subject in the natural sciences. She casts him as a humanist par excellence, who nonetheless started with a fierce interest in science, developing into a Darwinian before Darwin, later taking evolutionary theory to be a paradigm for exploring all that is contingent, messy and disruptive. And yet, argues BRB reviewer Andre van Loon, for all her intellectual brilliance and elective affinity with Herzen, Kelly focusses too much on the brain, often remaining neutral or silent about the heart, in a way her subject certainly did not. But this does not diminish Kelly’s achievement: to synthesise Herzen’s enormous literary output into various interconnected themes and strains.