Zij en Wij – Het Omarmen van de Paradox

Wat heeft hedendaagse filosofie te bieden in deze tijd waarin populisme van allerlei kanten op de loert ligt? In dit artikel ga ik in op werk van Boris Groys, Emmanuel Levinas en Bracha Ettinger om twee benaderingen van de Ander te analyseren.

Veel van de huidige politieke ontwikkelingen spelen zich af rond het fenomeen dat in de continentale filosofie wel met ‘het probleem van de Ander’ wordt aangeduid. Emmanuel Levinas omschreef dit ongeveer als volgt: Er is iets dat zich buiten mijn eigen wereld bevindt, waar ik niet langer omheen kan, waar ik iets mee moet. Het is anders, het is niet-ik. Dit probleem komt naar voren rondom het vluchtelingenvraagstuk, bij de discriminatie van vrouwen, en in Europese discussies zoals BrexitContinue reading “Zij en Wij – Het Omarmen van de Paradox”

Best Films 2013

It’s that time of the year to make lists, review what you’ve done, what you will do, etc etc. Here my 2013* top-10 films… [no spoilers]…

Martina Gedeck in “Die Wand”

1 Die Wand (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1745686/?ref_=nv_sr_1)
Austrian/German, 2012. It’s hard to say why this film came to be number 1 for me this year. This had to do with the way the audience responded. After it had finished, we all sat in silence for quite some minutes before anyone dared to get up and leave the cinema. It’s a film that stays with you, for many weeks.

2 Io sono Li (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2036388/?ref_=nv_sr_2)
Italy, 2011. Touching little gem. It’s one of those films that make you very happy about life, while being realistic and not a happy-happy film. In fact, I was so happy that after exiting the cinema and walking around town in a daze, my wallet was stolen and I didn’t notice until the next day…

3 Inside Llewyn Davis (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2042568/?ref_=nv_sr_1)
USA, 2013. Perhaps because I saw this film at exactly the right moment in life, this film made me cry for a long time. What does it mean to relate to this so much? Is it the music that finally got to me? No, there is much more going on, choices made. Excellent cinematography.

4 Matterhorn (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2650718/?ref_=nv_sr_1)
Netherlands, 2013. How to show the crazy habits of an extremely conservative Dutch town in which human relations are still the same as hundred years ago, without passing a verdict? By showing it, and introducing a stranger into town who is truly innocent, which makes the townspeople’s response extremely rediculous. And most funny.

5 Kid (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2365879/?ref_=fn_al_tt_2)
Belgium, 2012. Probably not too many people have seen this film, yet it deserves a mention. A chilling story of how children are resilient and find ways to be children, despite the inability of the grownups surrounding them to take care of them.

6 La Grande Belezza (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2358891/?ref_=nv_sr_1)
Italy, 2013. A reflection on the absurd by the king of the absurd normalcy we call the good life. Set in the extravagance of Rome’s nightclubs, a so-called-writer mourns his and his companions inability to exist.

7 Lore (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1996310/?ref_=nv_sr_3)
Australia, 2012. Set in Germany 1945, we follow a girl who was brought up to think like a victor in a world that turns against her.

8 Ginger & Rosa (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2115295/?ref_=nv_sr_1)
UK, 2012. By my favorite director, set in 1960s London, a wonderful story that needs to be told over and over – to defy the present authority, you need to find out who to trust, who you are, who you love and what it is worth to fight for. (See also previous post.)

9 Hannah Arendt (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1674773/?ref_=nv_sr_1)
Japan(??), 2012. Following Hannah Arendt and her work for The New Yorker into her work which we now know as the book ‘The banality of Evil’. I had expected more of this film, maybe because that book is so extremely good. But it does give a context, and with very nice images brings this topic to a bigger audience. Too bad the relation to Heidegger was forcefully brought up, without going into depth and thereby merely reinforcing the general thoughts concerning that relationship.

10 La cinquième saison (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2298820/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1)
Belgium, 2012. Most excellent, perhaps this should be the number 1. Not only due to the way it’s brought to the screen. But the story itself, the way people respond to the fact that after winter, no spring follows, is very original and perfectly shows humanity’s dependence on nature, and how ‘we’ behave in times of anguish and hunger. A must see film for everyone interested in life.

(Nymphomaniac probably also deserves a place… yet only came out this week…)
* Based on films that reached the Dutch cinema in 2013.

Problems of Existentialism Post-WWII

There was a time I was absolutely convinced: existentialism is the answer. Nowadays I’m not so sure anymore. Not because it is not an answer to many problems, because it is. But I happen to wonder whether it is a sufficient answer.

Existentialism became popular after the Second World War particularly in France under the influence of Jean-Paul Sartre. Although understanding its philosophical perspective can take you a lifetime, when you grasp the ‘existence precedes essence’ part, you surely get an idea of what is going on.

When existence precedes essence, this means that unlike regular conceptions for instance of religious institutions, the essence of a human being, that what defines who he or she is and in more general terms also what it means to be human, is not pre-supposed, is not already knowable and defined before it comes into existence. Instead, existentialism claims that by coming into existence, by the way one presents him- or herself and chooses to act (existence), he becomes who he is (essence). Or, as Sartre puts it: “…man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.”

It can easily be seen why this was attractive to a nation, to a world that was facing a crime that was impossible to grasp. The Shoah made it rather impossible to continue accepting moral theories that relied on the inherent goodness of mankind. People were searching for explanations: how could this have happened, and also: how could individual people participate towards executing that plan.

Easy Fix?

Many individuals who participated in executing or organising the Shoah blamed the government, and legal systems were often at a loss, as individuals could only be tried under the laws of the country as they were during the act itself. So it is understandable people started looking for an explanation of human life and human actions that made it possible to blame individuals, irrespective of whether they (merely?) followed orders. If the actions of people are chosen and not predestined by their genes or by divine will, they become responsible for their own actions.

But there was another advantage. People who had no idea of what was happening in the camps, could feel relieved, they could not be blamed. And it also made it possible to at least partly blame Jewish leaders for participating in the grand scheme of the Shoah (see for instance Hannah Arendt). Existentialism was therefore an easy fix. Perhaps too easy.

Existentialism and Nazi Politics

But existentialism wasn’t invented only after the Second World War. Without any historical sources to back this up, I think it would be safe to say that existentialism even influenced Nazi politics. The Nietzschean Superman (Übermensch), although in that time greatly misconstrued (blame the sister, blame the existing paradigm, whatever), is essentially an existentialist view. The Übermensch is the individual who is not influenced by the order of society and is independently defining himself. The etymological relationship with the term “Untermensch” used by the Nazis to refer to the Jewish race, should not be overlooked.

Perhaps it can be said that existentialist thought also made it possible for Nazi politics to systematically degrade specific groups in society (Jews, Roma, gays, etc etc). The Nazis did not only claim a racial difference – which would be an essence before existence argument. No, they actively proclaimed that these specific groups had chosen their specific lives, they were responsible for their own actions and were therefore to be systematically eradicated. According to Hitler the Jews were behind all the moral and economical problems of Germany. This was not due to their race, but because of their actions (see for a good analysis of the development of this attitude towards the Jewish people in Germany and Europe the first chapters in the excellent book by Hannah Arendt The Origins of Totalitarianism).

Popularity of Existentialism as Mauvaise Foi

We can conclude existentialism can both be used as an argument in favour of executing the Shoah and as a way to free oneself of blame after it had taken place. This is problematic. But existentialism isn’t merely a theory of individuality. To explain this, allow me one more educational diversion.

Sartre introduced the term ‘bad faith’ (mauvaise foi) to delineate behaviour of people who thought themselves to behave as free individuals, but instead are just fooling themselves and are very much part of the social sphere and are not defining themselves freely, but are defining who they are based on their role in society. His classic example is of the waiter, who can wait on tables in different ways. Either he does this freely, he acts because he wants to act the way he does and this happens to be seen by others as actions of a waiter – the waiting makes him a waiter. Or, he acts as he thinks is required of him as he is a waiter – even if he freely chooses to be a waiter – his actions are therefore not free but based on what he thinks is expected of him – he is therefore in mauvaise foi.

Although for existentialists like me it is impossible to judge others (and this is also a problem, but I’ll leave the problem of relativism for another time), people who in post-WWII France claim their innocence on existentialist grounds were probably in bad faith. For, weren’t they just as free to find out about the truth of what happened to their Jewish neighbours when they were deported or threatened to be deported?

But even if it was not done in bad faith, it is a problem when existentialism can be used to silence a lack of moral persistence.

Consequence of Writing in English

Stamp Hannah Arendt
Stamp Hannah Arendt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I often wonder which language I should use. I used to be obsessed by the English language, trying to learn it as fast and as good as I could. Until I realised that whatever I would do, I would never be considered a native speaker, even when my command of that language would be well-above average. I even met native English speakers who were not pleased when I confronted them with their poor command of their own language. So, I decided to stop my obsession, and recognise my being Dutch above all. I even write plays in Dutch again. Who would have guessed!

But now I find myself writing my PhD in English. I actually prefer it over Dutch, my own native language, as it forces me to think more carefully. Dutch is still my high school language, anyone who tries to talk philosophy in Dutch, seems funny to me. Unless it is of course Heideggerian-language translated from German to Dutch. That can be considered the highest form of nonsense available in the Dutch philosophy circles, according to my humble opinion, of course.

So, I write in English. I translate my thoughts constantly. It makes my writing a little slower and more precise, if that is even possible in continental philosophical circles… And it makes me look up words that I write in the dictionary, words of which I don’t actually know the meaning, but seem to fit perfectly. So far, this has always been the case.

Writing in any language is problematic. Maurice Blanchot even says that language is killing the thing named (Work of Fire, chapter “Literature and the Right to Death”). But he was not the first. Plato’s agitation of focussing on the reflection on the Ideas on the wall of the cave and Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author play around with the same theme. And let’s not forget Walter Benjamin’s lovely reflection on translation.

Somehow I am still attracted by Hannah Arendt’s Denktagebuch, recently (2002) published in full (2 parts). It is extremely interesting even if just from the point of view of the use of language and translation. As she wrote her diaries only for herself, she writes an entry in the language that is most available. She does not translate. Greek quotes are commented upon in German. English entries become more frequent as Arendt resides longer in the US. Interesting how language works. But it would be extremely interesting how language works on thought. Exactly.