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The Red Ink

In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware of how all mail will be read by censors, he tells his friends: “Let’s establish a code: if a letter you will get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it is true; if it is written in red ink, it is false.” After a month, his friends get the first letter, written in blue ink: “Everything is wonderful here: stores are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, movie theaters show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair - the only thing unavailable is red ink.”

And is this not our situation till now? We have all the freedoms one wants - the only thing missing is the “red ink”: we “feel free” because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom. What this lack of red ink means is that, today, all the main terms we use to designate the present conflict - “war on terror,” “democracy and freedom,” “human rights,” etc. - are false terms, mystifying our perception of the situation instead of allowing us to think it. The task today is to give the protestors red ink. (95)

[1] Žižek, Slavoj.  Žižek's jokes: (did you hear the one about Hegel and negation?).  Ed. Audun Mortensen.  The MIT Press. 2014. 

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The Central Attitude

Inspired by the paintings of Da Vinci, Valéry described a monster of pure freedom, without mistresses, creditors, anecdotes, or adventures. No dream intervenes between himself and the things themselves; nothing taken for granted supports his certainties; and he does not read his fate in any favorite image, such as Pascal’s abyss. Instead of struggling against the monsters he has understood what makes them tick, has disarmed them by his attention, and has reduced them to the state of known things. “Nothing could be more free, that is, less human, than his judgments on love and death. He hints at them in a few fragments from his notebooks: ‘In the full force of its passion,’ he says more or less explicitly, ‘love is something so ugly that the human race would die out (la natura si perderebbe) if lovers could see what they were doing.’ This contempt is brought out in various sketches, since the leisurely examination of certain things is, after all, the height of scorn. Thus, he now and again draws anatomical unions, frightful cross-sections of love’s very act.” He has complete mastery of his means, he does what he wants, going at will from knowledge to life with a superior elegance. Everything he did was done knowingly, and the artistic process, like the act of breathing or living, does not go beyond his knowledge. He has discovered the “central attitude,” on the basis of which it is equally possible to know, to act, and to create because action and life, when turned into exercises, are not contrary to detached knowledge. He is an “intellectual power”; he is a ‘man of the mind.’ (21-2)

[1] Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Sense and Non-Sense.  Trans. Dreyfus, Hubert L. and Patricia Allen Dreyfus.  Northwestern University Press 1964. 

Related: The Most Blameworthy IgnoranceThe Red Ink

The 'Claro, Pero' Paradox

After everything we have said it is worth considering whether, if we immediately demand a propositional explanation of the highest idea, we are proceeding in a truly Platonic manner. If we ask in this way we already deviate from the path of authentic questioning. But inquiry into the idea of the good generally proceeds along this false track. One straightaway wants to know what the good is, just like one wants to know the shortest route to the market place. The idea of the good cannot be integrated into this uncomprehending way at all. It is thus no wonder if through this way of questioning we do not receive an answer, i.e. if our claim upon the intelligibility of this idea of the good, as something to be measured in terms of our ruling self-evidences, is from the very beginning decisively repulsed. Here we recognize – how often – that questioning also has its rank order.

This does not mean, however, that the idea of the good is a ‘mystery.’, i.e. something one arrives at only through hidden techniques and practices, perhaps through some kind of enigmatic faculty of intuition, a sixth sense or something of the kind. The sobriety of Platonic questioning speaks against this. Instead, it is Plato’s basic conviction, which he expresses once again in his old age, in the so-called Seventh Letter (342 e-344), that the highest idea can be brought into view only through the method of stepwise philosophical questioning of beings (asking down into the essential depth of man). The viewing succeeds, if at all, only in the comportment of questioning and learning. Even so, what is viewed remains, as Plato says (341 c 5): ‘it is not sayable like other things we can learn.’ Nevertheless, we can understand the unsayable only on the basis of what has already been said in a proper way, namely in and from the work of philosophizing. Only he who knows how to correctly say the sayable can bring himself before the unsayable; this is not possible for just any old confused head who knows, and fails to know, all kinds of things, for whom both knowing and failing to know are equally important and unimportant, and who may accidentally stumble upon a so-called puzzle. Only in the rigor of questioning do we come into the vicinity of the unsayable. (70-1)

[1] Heidegger, Martin. The Essence of Truth.  Trans. Ted Sadler.  Continuum 2002. 

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Socratic Midwifery

But my art of midwifery, though it has in other respects the same conditions as theirs, differs in these points, that I attend men, not women, and that I inspect the labour of their souls, not of their bodies. The most important skill in our art is, the being able to test in every way whether the sound man’s mind is bringing forth an idol and an unreality, or a genuine and true progeny. For to me as well as to the midwives belongs the following condition. I am incapable to producing wisdom, and the reproach which many ere now have cast on me, that, while I question others, I myself give no answer about anything, because I have no wisdom in me, is a just reproach. The reason of it is this: the god compels me to act the midwife, but hindered me from engendering. I then am not indeed perfectly wise myself, nor have I brought to birth any discovery of that kind, as the outcome of my own soul. But of those who resort to me, some indeed appear in the outset utterly ignorant, but all, as the intercourse proceeds, and the god gives opportunity, make wonderful progress, in their own opinion and in that of others. (113-4)

[1] Plato. Theaetetus.  Trans. Benjamin Hall Kennedy.  Cambridge University Press 1881. 

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