Tag Archives: Ethics & Moral Philosophy

The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, a Philosophy, a Warning [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Justin E H Smith.

Smith The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is

This book written in 2020 reads more like a set of closely-linked essays than an integrated monograph. It is a pleasurable and stimulating read from start to finish, though. Author Justin E. H. Smith approaches the phenomenon of the Internet from a historical and philosophical perspective, emphasizing the human qualities and aspirations that it manifests, alongside the many ideas and achievements that anticipated it. Smith demonstrates its emergence from other inventions and enterprises within a larger sphere of technology, in a manner somewhat evocative of Heidegger, but Smith (rightly, in my view) slights Heidegger as “authenticity-mongering” (6-7). He expresses more sympathy with Foucault but criticizes and inverts that thinker’s emphasis on historical discontinuities of thought (12).

Current dilemmas of Internet experience are addressed in the chapter “A Sudden Acceleration,” which discusses the ways in which social media and other functions of the ‘net are hostile to the quality of attention, as well as subject to arbitrary dynamics of power and exploitation.

In “The Ecology of the Internet,” Smith not only questions boundaries between the Internet and other human inventions, but between human invention and the expressions of nature more generally. The mood here is both iconoclastic and heartening.

I found a little fault with Smith’s antagonism in “The Reckoning Engine” for what he called the “simulation argument,” in that he did not effectively distinguish between the simulation of consciousness and the simulation of its objects, sometimes falsely accusing expositors of the latter to be claimants for the former. I’m all for denigration of the “You might be an NPC” views of Elon Musk (who might be a boss monster), but I don’t think that’s the position reluctantly conceded by Neil deGrasse Tyson (90). This chapter also entails some discussion of “artificial intelligence” that alternated between useful insights and a few remarks that made me wonder whether Smith really understood why and how contemporary technologists distinguish “AI” from earlier forms of automation.

The final two chapters “The Internet as Loom” and “A Window on the World” are a return to strength, taking the angles of philosophically-informed cultural history and informal phenomenology respectively. The curiously upbeat ending reminded me a little of the Talking Heads song “Television Man” while addressing givens similar to those of Bo Burnham’s Inside.

On Bullshit

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews On Bullshit [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Harry G. Frankfurt

Frankfurt On Bullshit

Emeritus moral philosopher Frankfurt wrote a light magazine article disguised as a scholarly paper, which Princeton University Press proceeded to issue as a duodecimo hardcover with an austere, treatise-like cover styling. Surely there is an element of bullshitting involved in the very production of this enormously successful object. It has been through many printings since 2005, and is almost certainly far more owned than read — despite the fact that it can be polished off in less than a half hour. 

Frankfurt claims to offer a “theoretical understanding” of bullshit, commencing with a study of “the structure of its concept.” In practice, nearly the whole book — everything up to the final seven or eight short pages — consists of lexical comparisons and fussing over various denotative and connotative approaches to the term “bullshit.” In the end, however, a few significant issues are raised, or at least implied. Is bullshitting an appropriate implementation of an antirealist intellectual agenda? Does the bullshitter affirm or degrade his self-worth by his disregard for verity? Under conditions of sufficient ignorance, can sincerity and honesty be completely non-intersecting?

Dithyrambs of Dionysus

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dithyrambs of Dionysus [Amazon, Bookshop, Local Library] by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, trans. R J Hollingdale.

Nietzsche Hollingdale Dithyrambs of Dionysus

Dionysos-Dithyramben is a set of nine poems revised, written, and collected by Nietzsche during and after the composition of Thus Spake Zarathustra, and they are thus one of the “Werke des Zusammenbruchs” from the close of his writing career. They were dismissed by Aaron Ridley from his edition of all the other “Werke des Zusammenbruchs” (i.e. The Anti-ChristEcce HomoTwilight of the IdolsThe Case of Wagner, and Nietzsche contra Wagner) as “a collection of poems whose absence is not to be regretted.” It’s just as well that snotty editor forced me to acquire the Dithyrambs in a separate volume, since the bilingual presentation here — while at odds with the larger project of the Cambridge University Press series of Nietzsche’s works in English translation, in which Ridley’s edition stands — is essential for full appreciation of the poetry.

In the role of translator, R.J. Hollingdale is impressively accurate, but he is more intent on the semantic content of the verse than its poetic form. For example, he sacrifices meter, line emphasis, and some end-rhyme in this penultimate stanza of “Die Wüste wächst: weh dem, der Wüsten birgt . . .”:

Die Wüste wächst: weh dem, der Wüsten birgt!
Stein knirscht an Stein, die Wüste schlingt und würgt.
Der ungeheure Tod blickt glühend braun
und kaut –, sein Leben ist sein Kaun . . .

It is rendered thus by Hollingdale:

“The desert grows: woe to him who harbours deserts!
Stone grates on stone, the desert swallows down.
And death that chews, whose life is chewing,
gazes upon it, monstrous, glowing brown . . .” (39)

Hollingdale was one of the great 20th-century anglophone champions of Nietzsche, and I take his notes to reflect a conservative, establishment strain in Nietzsche scholarship. The introduction is a helpful, if brief, overview of Nietzsche’s work as a poet and its relationship to his philosophical output.

Hollingdale’s remarks on the individual poems emphasize the autobiographical dimensions of the poems, somewhat to the exclusion (I thought) of their literary value to readers. On the biographical front, he insists (in 1984) that the syphilitic genesis of Nietzsche’s madness is a fully established fact (87-8), although I have read persuasive arguments by Siegfried Mandel (1988) and Geoff Waite (1996) questioning that allegation, and in the case of the latter challenging its supporting narrative assumption of Nietzsche’s heterosexuality. 

The nine poems are really gorgeous. Although three of them, with slight alterations, also appear in Thus Spake Zarathustra, I found them more powerful here, and thus I was inclined to agree with Hollingdale that “they were inserted [in Thus Spake Zarathustra] capriciously and by force” (85). The significance of “Klage der Ariadne,” for example is almost inverted in the context of the Dithyrambs, and it was so affecting for me, that it may serve as the touchstone of a new ceremony in my private canon of ritual. This slender volume is a treasure.

The Transparency of Evil

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Jean Baudrillard, translated by James Benedict, part of the Radical Thinkers series.

Baudrillard The Transparency of Evil

The Transparency of Evil was written in the late 1980s, and first published in French in 1990. But as I read it in 2020 it often felt up-to-the-minute. It was hard to believe that some of these observations were not rooted in the internet-mediated social environment of the 21st century.

“This society now produces only ill-defined events whose ultimate clarification is unlikely. In earlier times an event was something that happened–now it is something that is designed to happen. It occurs, therefore, as a virtual artifact, as a reflection of pre-existing media-defined forms” (41). “The new technologies, with their new machines, new images and interactive screens, do not alienate me. Rather, they form an integrated circuit with me. … We have left the hell of other people for the ecstasy of the same, the purgatory of otherness for the artificial paradises of identity” (58-9).

Moreover, Baudrillard’s frequent attention to epidemics and virality, composed in the 1980s under the cognizance of AIDs, sounds today with the amplifying echoes of novel coronavirus. His identification of terrorism as the paradigmatic form of the “transpolitical” was likewise both current and prescient.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part is untitled but has epigrams relating to the book’s subtitle of “extreme phenomena.” It is chiefly oriented to describing a historical moment “after the orgy” of the liberation movements that followed the middle of the 20th century. He outlines a situation characterized by “gross systemic conjunction and malfunction caused by hypertelia–by an excess of functional imperatives, by a sort of saturation” (31).

In both the first and second parts of the book, Baudrillard references the work of the French ethnographer and critic Victor Segalen (1878–1919). While The Transparency of Evil is clearly informed by Baudrillard’s own signature concepts of simulation, hyperreality, and so forth, these are not called out explicitly, and there is no scholarly intertextual apparatus.

Much as I enjoyed the first part of the book, I got more out of the shorter second part titled “Radical Otherness.” In it, he returns to the theme of Evil that he raised late in the first part, and he coordinates this focus with a distinction between difference and otherness. Difference allows for, perhaps even demands, assimilation through the positing of a shared continuum, whereas otherness presents genuine discontinuity. Baudrillard identifies otherness with the foreign, and relates it to traditional concepts of hospitality. He proposes that ritual and seduction are counterstrategies by which the other can and will preserve itself in the face of coercive regimes of reconciliation.

“Whereas the Good presupposes a dialectical involvement of Evil, Evil is founded on itself alone, in pure incompatibility. Evil is thus master of the game, and it is the principle of Evil, the reign of eternal antagonism, that must eventually carry off the victory” (139). Is this optimism?