Even the Dead Will Not Be Safe

Simone de Beauvoir Smiling Brightly

This came to me by way of a friend. It makes me a little angry and a little sad on a lot of levels. When Gordon talks about memes as archonic retroviruses? This is the sort of thing I think about.

I have spent a fair portion of my life studying philosophy. When I first came across Gilles Deleuze (a tangent from my interest at the time in Jung), I spent a summer closed in my room hunched over Thousand Plateaus, his work with Felix Guattari. I tried the academy thing but it didn’t work for me–so many reasons, but in part because philosophy is a good deal closer to my ‘religion’ than about anything else.

When I first starting reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit for a class, it was a revelation–overwhelming, dark, inspiring. The dead rising up onto the shoals to sing and remember themselves. When I later read Foucault talking about Hegel waiting for us at the top of the stairs, there was a visceral component to that. It’s why I inevitably settled on the label of gnosticism, because back in the day, my sort of philosophizing and my sort of religiosity comingled well under that moniker.

It’s okay to make jokes like this, but there is a point at which the joke becomes an affront to the truth, where the laughter becomes the mechanical replacement for understanding. The comic dresses itself up in knowing by dropping buzzwords and encouraging those who don’t ‘get the joke’ to do some reading, but ‘getting it’ has next to nothing to do with understanding the philosophers in question.

From the very first panel, we are subjected to a Simone de Beauvoir who is nothing but a vaguely drawn parody of Sartrean existentialism. Apparently as a woman she doesn’t have philosophical views of her own that merit mockery? Or, perhaps more to the point, there isn’t enough social cachet to feigning knowledge of her work?

The woman who examined oppression as an effort to deny the freedom and agency of others? Ah, she gets to be nothing more than a caricature for the views of a man she loved.

Maybe I should just take comfort in not seeing her views made a punchline. The punchline of all of this, of course, is that French thought is namby-pamby navel-gazing with no stomach for action. Ha-ha, Kant storms out because he at least knows how to do what you are supposed to do; he knows how to do his duty.

Foucault and Derrida, meanwhile, plays at being the beautiful souls, critical but unable to act while spouting some empty and pointless undergraduate shit about moral relativism. Perhaps Sartre comes off best, since the strip at least parodies Sartre’s conception of suicide.

To the extent that the strip captures a genuine sense of difference between Kant and his French colleagues at the table, the substance and meaning of that difference is utterly lost.

Between the French that are mocked and Kant there looms the Holocaust. I believe it was Adorno who observed that the genocide of Jews, Romani, gay men and women, and other no-good folk was carried out under the banner of doing your duty, doing what you are supposed to do. Part of the reason why Kant’s conception of duty and social rules seems so inadequate lies with the way in which it is mirrored in the discourse of Nazism.

But, no, ha, ha, ha, the book says to kill the orcs, so Kant does. Dress yourself in glory.

It’s a bit unfair, too, to make fun of Kant in this way. There were some nasty wars he could point toward and he himself was deeply concerned with people as moral agents. That manifested, however clumsily, with a concern to act in ways that treated people as moral agents rather than material means. Kant sought out peace, too, as the proper medium to realize our human capacities. After all, in war (or orc stabbing), people must treat their enemies as objects to be neutralized, not moral agents.

The gap between Kant and the other philosophers at the table is not so broad as all that.

It would help if it showed that there was even a glimmer of awareness as to what goes into deconstruction or genealogical thought or existentialism is. ‘Anxiety’ or ‘freedom’ or ‘historical context’ or ‘words mean things based on other words around them’ are the sorts of things you talk about before you start reading any of them.

To think Foucault is simply ‘chaotic’ and Derrida ‘neutral’ overlooks the profound concern both men have for the power of law. It is their deep respect and awe for it that makes them critical.

Yes, they say things that sound (and sometimes are) silly, but the imperative of truth is not to laugh and ignore them. The challenge of truth is to move through their limitations and into a deeper and more full understanding. You don’t have to take up that challenge, but to deny its existence with easy laughter is a kind of moral failure.

I know it is just one comic, but it irks me so because it is so characteristic of broader trends that replace play and laughter with sober engagement.

2 thoughts on “Even the Dead Will Not Be Safe

  1. Pingback: On Seeing and Naming Color: Blue Alienation | Disrupt & Repair

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