The Horror of Philosophical Language

In a recent blog post entitled “Philosophical Language“, philosopher Levi Paul Bryant highlights the way in which certain fields and areas of study, especially and specifically philosophy, seem to participate in a kind of subversion of language, that is, the distortion of normalcy in everyday speech. Bryant describes this endeavor as “an athleticism of language,” explaining this to be “an inventiveness that challenges and disrupts  what the analytics call ‘ordinary language'”. To which I respond with an excitedly affirmative “precisely!” This can be witnessed in nearly every philosophical work of merited weight, importance, and vigor. Commonplace words, terms, phrases, and even ideas are packed and loaded with a plethora of seemingly extraneous ‘meaning’, significance, nuance, and subtlety, making language that was commonly and ordinarily understood anything but. Here, as Bryant explains, “Philosophy breaks language from its moorings, sending it flying in new trajectories…and unheard of directions.” We may think we know but, we have no idea.

In one regard, I think this is not so much the insidious desires of the philosopher alone but, may actually be the evolutionary nature of language itself. Here, it would seem that the subversiveness of language with its disruptive un-mooring and inventive new trajectories is indicative of its emergent properties as a ‘complex adaptive system’, that is, a dynamic and fluid system in which behavioral mutations and adaptations evolve, and continue to evolve, individually and communally in conjunction with alteration eliciting events in agency interactions. In other words, language, adapts itself to the necessities, requirements, and demands of changing events within the progressive interactions of agents. Language reflexively twists itself into new permutations aiding agency in its ability to adapt to changes within the environment.
Lacan’s theory of the symbolic order proves useful here when he explains that “language is not man’s creation and instrument, it is man who ‘dwells’ in language.” Said another way, Laurie Anderson supposed that “Language is a virus”. It continually replicates itself, spreading infectiously, and the more we try immunize ourselves with its understanding the more it mutates into ever more resistant forms. It would appear that we may be in a kind of parasitic relationship with language, language is a parasite and we are the host. If this is the case language was never ‘ordinary’, never safe but, always already twisted, disturbing, and disruptive.
This, in a way, seems to be in keeping with what Bryant is suggesting when he proposes that Philosophy’s ability to disturb the commonplace usage of ordinary language is “always a bit grotesque and shares a resemblance to science fiction; even before science or fiction existed.” In his book, In the Dust of this Planet, Eugene Thacker attempts to outline and explicate Philosophy’s ‘sci-fi’ underpinnings and methodology, which also seems to go a long way in uncovering and explaining philosophy’s ‘monstrous’ use of language. He does this through horror…
Thacker writes that “one of the greatest challenges that philosophy faces today lies in comprehending the world in which we live as both a human and a non-human world – and of comprehending this politically.” Thacker expounds,
On the one hand, we are increasingly more and more aware of the world in which we live as a non-human world, a world outside, one that is manifest is the effects of global climate change, natural disasters, the energy crisis, and the progressive extinction of species world-wide. On the other hand, all these effects are linked, directly and indirectly, to our living in and living as a part of this non-human world.

Zizek writes that “speech does not only register or express a traumatic psychic life; the entry into speech is in itself a traumatic fact.” Zizek continues saying that “speech tries to cope with the traumatic impact of speech itself.” However, Zizek goes on to state that this reciprocity should also be reversed, stating that, “speech does not simply express/articulate psychic turmoils; at a certain point, psychic turmoils themselves are a reaction to the trauma of dwelling in the ‘torture-house of language’.”  Thacker suggests that this seems to be illustrated by the ‘fear’ induced by horror, or, more specifically, the horror genre. Here, Thacker proposes that “horror be understood not as dealing with human fear in a human world (the world-for-us), but that horror be understood as being about the limits of the human as it confronts a world that is not just a World, and not just the Earth, but also a Planet (the world-without-us).” Horror is indicative of the unknowable, the ineffable, “the paradoxical realization of the world’s hiddenness as an absolute hidenness” (Thacker, 171). This is the experience of the confrontation with an ecological totality that is ultimately and primarily ‘non-human’. Thus, Thacker proposes that this is “the paradoxical thought of the unthinkable” and “In so far as it deals with this limit of thought, encapsulated in the phrase of the world-without-us, horror is ‘philosophical’.” As such, horror is nothing short of an “attempt to think about the world-without-us philosophically.” Here, philosophy is horror, and horror is philosophy, in so far as it bears an air of mysticism, becoming a kind of ‘secularized/atheistic’, negative or apophatic theology.

If this is the case, as Thacker suggests and Byant alludes, then how else could such a realm be explored or thought about but by the contagion of an infectious linguistic viral fluxing, the grotesque mutations of philosophical speech, the twisted and tumultuous inexpressibility of traumatic trajectories, and the whole new, ‘wholly other’ disturbing directions of a mysterium tremendum. Language, in symbiosis with philosophers, becomes like elves transformed to Orcs, once serene, beautiful, majestic, and regal creatures “taken by the dark [daemonic or daimonic] powers, tortured and mutilated” evolving into a brand new species aimed at ending the reign of man, that is, revealing the ecological essence of the world. As Thacker elucidates, this is not “the world-for-us” of the ‘World’, nor is it the “world-in-itself” of the Earth, but a nebulous in-between, “impersonal and horrific,” it is the “world-without-us” of the Planet.
Zizek suggests that “Language, by itself, is lying.” “[H]ow” then, “does one rethink the world as unthinkable? – that is, in the absence of the human-centric point of view, and without an over-reliance on the metaphysics of being,” as Thacker asks? Here, Zizek expanding upon Elfriede Jelinek answers, saying “‘Language should be tortured to tell the truth.’ It should be twisted, denaturalized, extended, condensed, cut, and reunited, made to work against itself.” In between gods and monsters may we summon challenge and disruption, invention and subversion, with the horror of philosophical language.

Ecology of the Incarnation: A/theology, Ecocriticism, and the Gospel

A few months ago was involved in a discussion in which I was being asked to explain my commitment to veganism/vegetarianism. Throughout the course of the conversation I focused primarily upon ecology but, peppered my dialogue with religious, or more specifically Christian symbols, rhetoric, and language. Although, I did my my undergrad in Religious Studies, I am something of an outspoken atheist/non-theist/post-theist, a fact my conversation partner was all too aware. Needless to say my extended reliance of ‘Gospel’ language struck my associate as odd and questioned the intentionality of it use in our dialogue. Below is a bit of my explanation and response. I welcome your thoughts. Enjoy!
My use of gospel language is both intentional and habitual. This is indicative of my background and my residual framework. It still is something of a lense through a view things. But, there is something else going on that is intended. I remain sympathetic to not only the gospel language but, the impetus of what I believe the gospel tradition to be. Ecology, has, for me, allowed for a methodological bridge to discursively and dialogically reconcile my Atheism and my latent Christianity into something of a reflexive union. It provides me ethical practices but, it also opens the door for my atheistic ethicality, rooted in philosophic materialism (i.e. reality comprised of matter and energy), to have an enriched significance through an ecological or ecocritical partnership with Christian symbols.
For example, the incarnation, the idea that God became man, the Word became flesh, is the utter embodiment of God. This is the most philosophically materialistic of any of Christianity’s theological concepts or ideas, as its operative significance is wholly hinged upon divinity merging completely and bodily with ‘earthenness’. Here, God becomes indistinguishable from ‘creation’ and is kenotically self-emptied into the world and into matter. The ousia specific and essential to the incarnation “is not only specifically human, it is also creaturely” (10, *my emphasis added). This is because, as Sallie McFague makes clear, “the model of the body includes all life-forms, indeed, all matter on our planet,” and thus, the “body is a model that links us with everything in the most intimate way” (17). Thus, the modus operandi of the incarnation is not ‘God’ become ‘man’, this would be a diminution of the radical and revolutionary potentiality of the incarnation as its severely limits its scope.  Instead it is God become ‘creaturely’. The incarnation is ecology. This means that the applicability of the concepts and ‘ideas’ of incarnation, redemption, even resurrection do not and cannot stop at the door of the human. It does and must extend down to literally everything ‘earthen’. The orphan, the widow, and the stranger is synonymous with the sow, the calf, and the hen, the land, the water, and the air, dispossessed and disenfranchised. Who are ‘the least of these’ equated as the disguised ‘Christ’ anything and everything in need, ravaged by the wiles of empire, and voicelessly defenseless;  the ground hungry and needing something to eat, thirsty and needing something to drink; the environment itself as a stranger, or what Timothy Morton aptly calls “strange strangers”, needing to be invited in; the land stripped naked and yearning to be clothed; species in prison and sick needing to be visited. Who is my neighbor? All of the above and more.
Here, I’m trying to extend the circle of care and concern wider than simply our own species, realizing that the human/non-human/animal dichotomy is a false binary. Here, I’ve often quipped that I am religious but not spiritual. Although this is stated with a bit of sarcasm it is quite evocative of my position, I am devout, not in the way of a commitment religious institutions, dogma, or doctrine, but in the way of being devoted to the rigorous routinization of  ‘ritualized observances’ (terms used loosely) of moral and ethical praxis. This to me is essential to any and all philosophies, how is it lived out? Where, when, how, and what does it look like with boots on the ground, and carried through to their fullest conclusions? If it doesn’t translate into practical application and the alteration of one’s engagement with what Husserl referred to as the “life-world” I greatly question its validity and usefulness.
Linzey, Andrew. Animal Theology. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995. Print.

McFague, Sallie. The Body of God: An Ecological Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993. Print.

Ecofeminsim and the Act of Theoretical Praxis

I recently completed a philosophy course in Environmental Ethics. It was immensely insightful and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Below is a short essay I wrote in response to Janis Birkeland’s article “Ecofeminism: Linking Theory and Practice,” which was included in the book, Ecofeminism: Animals, Women, Nature, addressing the relationship between theory and practice. I have attached a pdf of Birkeland’s original article directly below. I encourage you to read her text and then, my reply and response. I hope you enjoy! Please feel free to comment! I always greatly appreciate your feedback.

Ecofeminism_Linking Theory and Practice


In his book, Ecology without NatureTimothy Morton writes the following:

From an environmental point of view, this is not a good time…The sky is falling, the globe is warning, the ozone hole persists; people are dying of radiation poisoning and other toxic agents; species are being wiped out , thousands per year; coral reefs have nearly all gone. Huge globalized corporations are making bids for the necessities of life from water to health care. Environmental legislation is being threatened around the world. What a perfect opportunity to sit back and reflect on ideas (10).

While Morton’s comments have a note of sarcasm, Morton assuringly suggests that, in fact, “there could be no better time” for reflection (10). Indeed, Morton implores that we “must reflect – theorize, in the broadest sense,” especially “Since ecology and ecological politics are beginning to frame other kinds of science, politics, and culture, we must take a step back and examine some of ecology’s ideological determinants” (10). Morton highlights that while “There is an ideological injunction to act ‘Now!’, there is a futility and a toxicity in the ‘act now’ imperative (117). In this way, Morton points out that “There is a meme that theory is the opposite of practice (117), however, this is a pathological fragmentation and a false binary. “If we value life,” as Janis Birkeland explains, “then we must transform the cultural and institutional infrastructure – our frameworks of thinking, relating, and acting” (15). To do this we are then “tasked with slowing down, using our minds to find out what this all means” (Morton, 117). In short, we must practice theorizing.

In this regard, as Janis Birkeland demonstrates in her essay, “Ecofeminism: Linking Theory and Practice, ” from the book Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, Nature, an ecofeminist paradigm can help us to redress the historical split between experiential/individual and critical/institutional orientations,” which, “On a practical level,…can enable us to link environmental theory and practice,…to develop new strategies for social change” (16). This breaks the dualism that arbitrarily rests between theory and practice. Theory, then, is neither the enemy nor the opposite of practice, nor is practice the antithesis of theory. Theory is practice and practice is theory. Theorization is a kind of activism. It is an activity. Theory is a form of political demonstration and “political analysis” (Birkeland, 18). It is the necessary means in which to “uncover our ‘blind spot,’ or what we are denying,” that is “what we are trained not to see” (32).
“[U]ltimately,” then, “theory is not supposed to make you a ‘better person’ in any sense. It is supposed to expose hypocrisy,… to examine the ways in which ideological illusions maintain their grip” (Morton, 12).
Birkeland, Janis. “Ecofeminism: Linking Theory and Practice.” Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, and Nature. Ed. Greta Gaard. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010. Print.
Morton, TimothyEcology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007. Print.
—. The Ecological Thought. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010. Print.