Manchester Phenomenology of Geist reading group

I’m unable to attend but having attended one of these in Durham I can attest to the Phenomenology‘s life-changing power. Details here.

Marina Warner on worrying trends in academia

Here. Warner is so sick of government and bureaucratic interference in university life that she has resigned. Here’s a quotation:

What is happening at Essex reflects on the one hand the general distortions required to turn a university into a for-profit business – one advantageous to administrators and punitive to teachers and scholars – and on the other reveals a particular, local interpretation of the national policy. The Senate and councils of a university like Essex, and most of the academics who are elected by colleagues to govern, have been caught unawares by their new masters, their methods and their assertion of power. Perhaps they/we are culpable of doziness. But there is a central contradiction in the government’s business model for higher education: you can’t inspire the citizenry, open their eyes and ears, achieve international standing, fill the intellectual granary of the country and replenish it, attract students from this country and beyond, keep up the reputation of the universities, expect your educators and scholars to be public citizens and serve on all kinds of bodies, if you pin them down to one-size-fits-all contracts, inflexible timetables, overflowing workloads, overcrowded classes.

Among the scores of novels I am reading for the Man Booker International are many Chinese novels, and the world of Chinese communist corporatism, as ferociously depicted by their authors, keeps reminding me of higher education here, where enforcers rush to carry out the latest orders from their chiefs in an ecstasy of obedience to ideological principles which they do not seem to have examined, let alone discussed with the people they order to follow them, whom they cashier when they won’t knuckle under.

Richard Fletcher’s Moorish Spain

Some words from the delightful Moorish Spain by Richard Fletcher:

But Moorish Spain was not a tolerant and enlightened society even in its most cultivated epoch. The Mozarabic Christian communities whom John of Gorze met on his embassy to Córdoba were cowed and demoralised. Ibn Hazm, so often and misleadingly presented as a beacon of enlightenment, was learned but not open-minded. The Christians of al-Andalus were second-class citizens like Christians under Muslim rule elsewhere in the world such as the Copts of Egypt. What else should we expect to find? The treatment of the Mozarabs by their Islamic rulers foreshadows that of the Mudejars by their Christian ones. If the disabilities experienced by the Mudejars can be known in more detail than those of the Mozarabs, that is owing to the changing nature and survival rate of our sources: we know far more about the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries than we do about the tenth and eleventh.

…In the vast perspective of human history the critically important function of Moorish Spain was to act as a channel for the transmission of knowledge from east to west at one of the most sensitive periods in Europe’s rise to dominance. It is fashionable in some quarters to condemn this view as ‘Eurocentric’. This is rather bewildering. Like it or not, European hegemony is the most prominent feature of the world between 1300 and 1900. Anything that may assist in explaining the rise of the west is presumably of interest to the historian; or should be.

The interaction between Islamic and Christian civilisations in the medieval west was an extremely fruitful one…The traffic was all one way. Moorish Spain was the donor, western Christendom the eager recipient. The Muslims of al-Andalus had nothing to learn from their Christian neighbours and were incurious about them. Geographers’ accounts of Christian Spain tended to be cursory in the extreme: it was cold, the inhabitants were barbarians who ate pigs, you could get slaves there – that was about the sum of it. The Muslim discovery of Europe did not begin until several centuries after the fall of Granada. Christian reactions to Muslims as Muslims must be distinguished from western interest in the knowledge that arrived by way of al-Andalus. In this respect, the Christians were as incurious as their Muslim neighbours, as ready to accept stereotypes and myths, as unwilling to investigate the truth. Peter the Venerable was better placed, thanks to Robert of Ketton and Hermann of Carinthia, to understand the faith of Islam than any Christian had ever been before: but he didn’t want to. An image of Islam had already gained currency in the west and abbot Peter was satisfied with that. His attitude, on the Christian side, was paralleled by Ibn Hamza’s on the Muslim.

The religious history of the Iberian peninsula in the Middle Ages may be summarised, from one point of view, as the persistent and wilful failure of two faiths and cultures to make any sustained attempt to understand one another. Human enough; pretty bleak. The trouble with such a judgement is that historians making it have to rely on the testimony of those who could write. For most of the period discussed in this book that meant a small intellectual elite. Intellectuals are not renowned for their grasp of everyday reality, nor for cheerfulness and optimism. Judgements might have been rosier if one had found oneself spending the Easter vigil at a Mudejar pop concert in the local cathedral; or downing a few bottles of Valdepeñas with like-minded Muslim pals at one of Toledo’s monastic wine-bars.

MLW on bad writing from the academic left

Someone told me yesterday about the existence of the group Manchester Left Writers. Their website lists their ‘broadsides’, and this satirical attack on lefty academic writing is amusing and often spot on. The phrase ‘Deleuzian eel barrel’ is a keeper.

Byung-Chul Han on dataism and nihilism

In September last year, Byung-Chul Han published this article in Zeit Online. My rough translation appears here.

Dataism and nihilism

The current data collecting mania belongs not only to the NSA. It is the expression of a new faith, which one could call Dataism. At the moment it acquires almost religious or totalitarian features. Big Data euphoria worships this faith of the digital age.

Data is collected today for every goal. Not only the NSA, Acxiom, Google or Facebook have a rampant hunger for data; followers of the Quantified Self are also addicted to Dataism. They furnish their bodies with sensors, which automatically display all bodily parameters. All is measured: body temperature, steps, sleep cycle, calorie intake, calorie usage, weight profile, even brainwaves. Even in meditation, heartbeats are still logged. Yet to count the performance and efficiency of relaxation is actually a paradox.

Not only the body is equipped with sensors today. Ever more sensors in our environment transform us via data. We float simultaneously in a notable feeling of meaninglessness and plunge ourselves in hyperactivity and hypercommunication.

Can the collection of data contribute in general to us better understanding ourselves? Recording oneself was already essential to care of the self in antiquity. The Roman author Tertullian called it Publicatio sui – by which he meant the investigation of the self and the relentless publication of all thoughts. The sinner should show himself as a sinner and thereby free himself from his sins.

The Christian self-disclosure accompanies a sacrifice of the selfish I, in favour of a higher meaning: Ego non sum, ego. A higher I may be reached through the sacrifice of the small Ego. Publicatio sui is a practice of truth, it is bound to a higher meaning, just as ancient asceticism is no diet.

The Quantified Self, however, is merely a technique for the optimisation of bodily and mental performance. Amidst sheer data, however, the self-optimiser misses the real care for self. It is the display-system of the Ego that has become self-referential.

The smartphone as a mobile confessional box

No meaning emerges from the Ego alone. Collected data does not answer the question, ‘who am I?’ The smartphone as mobile confessional box delivers no self-knowledge and offers no entry to truth.

From data alone, however comprehensive it may be, no insight emerges. It answers none of those questions which depart from performance and efficiency. In this respect data is blind.

Data alone reveals neither meaning nor truth. By itself it makes the world no more transparent. On the contrary, it appears more eerie than ever. It becomes more difficult for us to differentiate the important from the unimportant. We are delivered over to almost automatic processes and optimise ourselves, without really knowing for what purpose.

The world moulders in data

Data-knowledge is a limited, rudimentary form of knowledge. It cannot make causality more discernible. Big data suggests an absolute knowledge. In actuality, it coincides with an absolute unknowing. To orientate oneself in big data is impossible.

We communicate intensively, almost compulsively. A gap in communication appears intolerable to us. It reveals an emptiness, which must be bypassed through more communication, more information.

Indeed, dataism goes hand in hand with nihilism. Dataism arises from the sacrifice of meaning and context: the data should fill the lack of meaning. The whole world moulders in data, and thereby greater, higher meanings are ever more lost to sight. In this sense, dataism and nihilism are two sides of the same coin.

Twain on German

You can read Mark Twain’s famous essay on German here. It’s rightly known for its wit and accuracy, even if a touch hyperbolic at times.

Frankfurt School in the New Yorker


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