What is Stand Up Philosophy

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This blog charts my attempts, in whatever way I can, and whenever I can, and as honestly as possible, to stand up for thinking - real thinking, whether in philosophy or politics, or maths - Because thinking needs standing up for!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Performing Kant

One of the jokes made by those 'in the know' in philosophy, is 'I bet you can't perform Kant'. At which point I usually say, 'Well actually Yes, his essay "What is Enlightenment?" makes a good performance.' (you can judge that below). But at the same time I know what they mean, there is something about Kant's style, all the more so in his non-political work, that would appear to preclude performance. He gives all the signals of someone who is unapproachable and 'difficult'.
   However this is such a pity, for as both Hegel and much later Deleuze noted, Kant's ideas, taken in themselves are both pithy, and also have a violent urgency all of their own, Take for example his very famous division of the self into Empirical and Transcendental aspects - that is into our living self (in day to day life), and that which demands that to live at all, to have an experience, we must be a single self. It is a division which sets up or at least expresses, a profound schism in everything one is or could be. For the Empirical self, my life, based on memory and feeling is always someone less than that other self, the one that patterned the world and allowed me to be. Who I am is necessarily unworthy of whom I also am - the meta-me. The result of course is that the empirical self is always changing, and evolving, while feeling it is never good enough, never complete in the face of that other-me which in forming my world demands of it (and me) more than can be expressed in any experience. The problem is seen clearest in the Sublime, where logic demands the transcendental appear in the world, and rends experience, making the act of comprehension impossible and even painful. A feeling that Kant then says is only placated in Art, which the Meta-me cannot master or fully grasp.
   Here then in a nutshell, is very much the modern human experience. One is both at any one time the result of a certain subset of experiences and habits, and yet always aware that there are other things one was, and will be. From which it is follows that is is impossible to ever feel one has truly reached one potential, for the world might be (transcendentally) what the self makes, but it is what (empirically) makes the self. A doctrine, as full of poignancy as it is full of madness,  modernity and necessary futility.
   What is more, this same entanglement, with the same doubling of transcendental and empirical, infuses much of the way we understand the world, much of the way we dress it up and think it. Take for an example so much of traditional economics, where the lusts and desires of an notional self-interested individual, are abstracted and somehow writ large across a population (who all are hence forced become self-interested consumers). And this mandate is then used to attempt to comprehend (or at least contain) all of the highly complex interactions, developments, and innovations that pattern our working and leisure lives. Hence we take one aspect of what we are, render that aspect transcendental, and then think the world through that glass. The Myth of the Market, becomes a reality. The resulting doctrine only succeeds, in that the constant flux of that which the myth grasps at, means that the advocates of the transcendental doctrine, can endlessly re-invent their agency, and understand it anew, and so start the same process over again, and only a huge revolution in thought could ever stop this being the case.
   Kant's thought opens up a simple division of the mind, which is at once painful for the individual, and problematic for society as a whole. Hence Deleuze's repeated claim that Kant is the Hamlet of the North, for whom time has become unhinged. Thence the problem of performing Kant is not one of lack of substance, but of too much potential - too much to say. One must perform Kant as Hamlet, and condense the performance into a single dramatic moment....A tall order indeed, but one I think, if it can be done, would be wonderful Stand Up Thought, and so one that remains for me for now, very much a work in progress.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Finishing the Work - or Performing Spinoza's 'Political Treatise' as Post-Modern Tragedy

How do you finish off an unfinished work?
 This is a problem of course familiar to literature, drama or music ('The Mystery of Edwin Drood', 'Sanditon' etc) - But in philosophy?
   This performance of Spinoza's unfinished Political Treatise answers this problem, by turning the incomplete nature of the work actually into something ineffable about its argument. The last line I use actually comes from Spinoza's masterwork 'Ethics',  where it is its last line, but I use it here (quite erroneously) to describe democracy, and reflect something of its immanence, in Spinoza's argument at least. Hence I develop the idea in the performance, that the final argument of the book, actually captures political change in a dark spiral, where no government is really ultimately stable or ever perfect - a fact which renders the book necessarily incomplete.
   Moreover this unfinished state allows me to actually play with Spinoza and what he is saying. So that the argument I think I have him make, is that 'pure democracy' represents the limit of state understood as if it were the infinite god - as immanence (An argument found in Antonio Negri and the 'Savage Anomaly'). The problem is that this immanent but theoretical pure democracy does not translate at all into the actual, and finite, real situations we live in: As Spinoza says  - We all agree as we are in God, but not as we are in life.
   From which it necessarily follows that humanity faces the deep problem as to how to express their collective reality. The traditional answer, the Monarchy, involved dressing up that collectivity in a single ruler, and so expressed immanent collectivity as if it were a single transcendental unity. That is, as if it were a mystery, whose nature lay at a point  beyond us all, and given to us by God. The ruler is therefore somehow a meta-person. Spinoza's very original twist here is that this position is fine in transcendental theory, but in immanent (actually lived) reality, necessarily results in madness.
  It is far better, Spinoza suggests,  to enshrine arguments in meta-organisations-cum-political-parties which ensure debate, but which will, however, delimit what can be said and thought. The parties become transcendental (and so eternal) if you like, while their debates remains immanent, vital and creative. In our times, we see a number of very 'Aristocratic' parties -  which alone, it often seems, pattern debate, and define what can be thought or said: For example, the ideas of the Left and Right,  The Free Market and Capitalism...
   Spinoza thereby sets up a dual problem in such Aristocracies. On the one hand, debates have to be institutionalized: Revolutions themselves do not change anything, as the power/debates which eventually dominate the emerging system will tend to be the ones already there with their institutions and their organisations, and not the original revolutionaries (so armies and religious organisations win out over people). On the other hand, new ideas that cannot be expressed by the 'offical' argument makers (such as those concerning the environment) remain unsayable and unthinkable by the political system.
   The aim of this piece/performance is therefore to complete the Political Treatise by drawing out the fact that in a modern sense the book, like our political system, can never be finished, for no system is ever perfect, as it actually exists. Thence in the alchemy of performance, Spinoza's death becomes also our own tragedy, for our inability rethink the political system reflects the very nature of this posthumous work.
   Does it work as Philosophy? -  I think so. Does it work as performance? - I hope so, though it is darker and more difficult than I often am - but judge for yourself.


Sunday, June 17, 2012

Standing on the Brink...

One of the things I love philosophy for, one of the things that really keeps me coming back to it, is its ability to say the unexpected, and argue convincingly the apparently perverse. It is a discipline adept in turning the oddball into radical thought. And yet this move is so difficult. It is easy to become a mere curmudgeon or contrarian. That is, an individual, who for all their own opinions, remains caught by the discussions of their times, and so fated to be caught by their implicit maxims and preconceptions. It is so very easy you see for debate to become the thing in itself - the arena in which we strike attitudes, become a people and a power - and so stop being what surely every discussion ought to be (if it can) - namely a genuine attempt to look at, and perhaps to understand how we are already caught by movements and powers, that lie beyond and inbetween us all.
   In short, for me philosophy should, if it can, confront what is hard to talk about, and if cannot it should at least proceed in the light of the 'unthought'. If it does not, then the heart surely drops out of it, and it becomes merely a 'discussion' topic, a register of opinions and 'arguments' past and present: a set, or collection of legal cases and precedents. Even more problematically, its thinkers risk always becoming mere heroes of thought - the Men who  taught us all this or that, popular thought or partial prejudice. Names become then attributed to simplified arguments and routinised dilemmas, which are to be presented as if they were philosophy - and as if they were what actually thinking was about.
   The 'Argument-as-philosophy' credo has for me a double disadvantage. Firstly it loses sight of actually what you are doing when you are thinking. We are simply lying about what thought involves, by presenting it always as fait accompli (a standard teaching strategy). But even more importantly, in this rush for argument, we are doing thought a disservice, and making it feel more alien than it is. Real thinking, starts (and ends) with that quiet confrontation with 'that which lies between or beyond us', which we are (occasionally) caught up in. Thought starts the moment  a world I thought I knew begins to feel feel 'uncanny' and tricky. A moment that demands not a sophisticated argument, so much as an openness to what is other than ourselves.
   It is the communication of this last point, that for me forms the bedrock to the stand up philosophy performances, and what makes it different from so much academic philosophy. If you are teaching the subject you need to explain the argument, and summarise a formula and move on - but if you are performing it, you are free to stay with the dilemma, and to explore its passion and power.
   Hence, again speaking personally, stand up philosophy, lies very close to Kierkegaard, in its intent and ethic. It exists as the paradoxical attempt to communicate something irresolvable in words, or formulae, and yet palpable and highly accessible for all, for all of that: - For it is the very power, the very urgency to think. All of which (perhaps) explains why, of all the pieces I perform regularly this is the one I find myself returning to, and watching again and again - for I think is says something about what I feel I am trying to do in genuinely performing thought.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Socrates' Trial - Or Making philosophy for everyone

The Trial of Socrates is the moment in philosophy - the moment it became what it was, the moment if you like, thst Philosophy stopped being a disparate and marginal series of discussions, and became, in the light of Socrates' death, a true subject, distinct in its own right. The questions, the problems, the issues which the trial raised, about the nature of enquiry, and the relationship of thinking with freedom and morality, have remained the mainstays of philosophy, and its legacy. And yet there is of course a barb here. Philosophy in becoming 'a discipline' started the long road to becoming 'too difficult' and so more and more marginalised. One had to become a philosopher, and that took more time, and money, as well as concentration, than most people could ever hope to afford. The Trial of Socrates is the essential story in which philosophy for good or ill is born. But this role as philosophy's 'founding legend' gives it a unique power to reach beyond the normal audience for either philosophy or more widely, performance art. It has a lyrical and dramatic quality all of its own. It was this power that the performance below is trying to get at. A power that meant that even though the performance was at the end of a local Respect Festival, just as people were starting going home and in indifferent weather, it still reached out and built an audience. People who had never heard of Socrates, or only of his name, or wondered where and when western philosophy (and eventually scientific method and democracy) started, stopped and listened, and were caught by the drama that has lost none of its power, and poignancy after well over two thousand years...