You are on page 1of 6

ALL THINGS SHINING is an ambitious book, that aims at helping us to find meaning in our lives by way of a philosophically informed

reading of some of the great classics of the Western Canon. It seeks to address a popular audience rather than a professional one: it has its roots in Heideggerian philosophy but the style is not that of academic prose and it uses examples taken from news items, the practice of sport, and readily available literary classics such as THE ODYSSEY, THE DIVINE COMEDY, and MOBY-DICK. It can be read without any major difficulty and with a great deal of pleasure, but it has the ambition of addressing the grand question of the search for meaning and for a life worth living in our contemporary world. This is a world that the authors, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly, describe as "postmodern", "technological", and "nihlist": a world where the "shining things" have been lost, where we are subject to a crushing burden of choice without the guidance of an unquestioned framework of meaning, such as served as a foundation for life and its meaning in previous epochs. According to these authors the world was formerly a world full of intensity and meaning, "a world of sacred, shining things" (cf. the preamble ), which elicited moods of wonder and reverence and gratitude and openness. This is the explanation of the book's title. However the shining things are now long gone, and life has become permeated with moods of sadness and lostness, a purely personal affair to be managed by the plans and choices of the closed-off "autonomous" ego. The solution proposed is a reappropriation of Homer's polytheism, now understood to be a polytheism of moods, such as we can see the outlines of in MOBY DICK. An important part of this response is the necessity to cultivate a specific skill that can help us discern when we can or should let ourself be taken up in the moods we encounter (example: a nonviolent freedom march) and when we should resist and walk away (example: a Nazi rally): this skill they call "meta-poiesis". There is something very attractive about the ideas in this book: the pluralism of understandings of being, the polytheism of moods , meta-poiesis, a subjectivity of openness to the world and wonder at its shining things. But there are ambiguities that make one wonder (in the other sense of wonder) whether the book avoids the trap of romantic nostalgia. Its vocabulary is often nostalgic: "lure back" the gods, "uncover" the wonder, "reveal" the world. Also there is the danger of proposing merely a new postmodern theology, however philosophically distilled and sublimated. Here we can cite the suggestive slippage from "the shining things", index of a world charged with intensity and meaning, to the more theological sounding "sacred things", as if that were the same thing. But surely a life based on intensities, on moods and on meaning without any reference to the sacred is worth living. A last worry is that with their constant evocation of moods that attune a subject and reveal a world the authors seem to be stuck in what Quentin Meillassoux calls the "correlationist circle", unable to talk about the world outside its correlation with subjectivity and with a particular understanding of the world. It seems that Dreyfus and Kelly are aware of this problem and try to undercut their grand narrative of a succession of incommensurable understandings of being with a different model based on Heidegger's notion of a thing thinging. One example that Dreyfus gives in his lectures is that of the feast in the film BABETTE'S FEAST, a focal event that assembles or gathers together elements in a way that makes them shine, that brings them out at their best. The polytheism of moods would then be reinforced by a pluralism of things thinging, but this is left undeveloped in the book. Another trace of this attempt to maintain the grand narrative and to make room for other ways is the concept of marginal practices and the things that embody them. One dominant understanding of being is only a hegemonic rather than a totalitarian paradigm, and each epoch contains many other things, events, practices as marginal phenomena. This model has the further advantage of making change conceivable. The other concept that merits developing is the notion of meta-poiesis which allows us to navigate

between different moods and different understandings, tracing out our own individual path. As such, it would seem to be the pluralist virtue par excellence. Once again I would put this notion of metapoiesis in relation with the ability to engage in marginal practices and assemblings, being able to take things out of their stereotyped uses and set them thinging, thus producing change, and allowing communication between incommensurable understandings. Dreyfus and Kelly seem to have realised that they were in danger of expounding an epochal solipsism, and gave indications for a way of communicating across the barrier of incommensurability. Once again we see, as both Deleuze and Feyerabend have emphasised, that openness must precede (logically) closedness or we will never be able to get outside our framework. Finally, for a book whose message is pluralist its bibliography is surprisingly monist. There is no mention of such pluralist philosophers as Paul Feyerabend, Michel Serres, Gilles Deleuze, William Connolly, or Alain Badiou. As regards Nietzsche, Dreyfus and Kelly seem content to repeat uncritically Heidegger's vision according to which for Nietzsche once the consequences of the death of God were drawn "the lone source of meaning in human existence would be the strong individual's force of will" (46). On this point I think that the fellow-pluralist William Connolly said it all in an article on Nietzsche (Nietzsche, Democracy, and Time). Connolly associates Nietzsche with an ethic of cultivation (meta-poiesis!), non-theistic gratitude, multidimensional pluralism, nobility as multiple nobilities (and not the Nazi deformation of Nietzsches thought as promoting a warrior ethic, strong will etc.), and even modesty as strength. In ALL THINGS SHINING Dreyfus and Kelly discuss DFWs This is Water as an example of his need to create meaning ex nihilo out of the individual (ATS, 204). They find that this project involves a pragmatic contradiction as creating meaning ex nihilo (= ex ego) and imposing it on a situation means that anything goes, any meaning is possible but only as forced on things by the autonomous individuals will. This is an impossible task: it would require the individual to have the inhuman strength of a solitary god, willing and creating meaning without constraints. DFWs ideal was to become a monster of self-control (ATS, 44), a master of exercising control over how and what you think (ATS, 38). So the key words summing up DFWs form of sensibility, or understanding of being are: individual, will, force, strength, control, imposition, difficult task, choice. What seems strange to me about this interpretation is that it describes exactly the form of sensibility and possibility of life that Wallace wants to make us clearly and burningly aware of, in THIS IS WATER, so that we can get out of it, and pursue our individuation according to a quite different model. This whole text is brimming with intensity and meaning and openness to the world outside of nihilistic clichs and stereotypes. If you havent read it already you should do so at once, it is an ethical text of great force. Force here means power to provoke a conversion, capacity to produce a transformation, and not the compelling power of an individual. Wallace does use those key words (power, individual) or their equivalents all through This is Water, but their sense is somewhat different when considered in terms of the alternative non-ego-centered form of sensibility that Wallace is trying to sketch out and get us to adopt. Wallace is not trying to advocate a new stance inside our current form of sensibility, hence his repeated insistence that he is not deploying didactic stories or giving edifying moral advice. That would be an intra-worldly manoeuvre. He situates himself at the meta-level so as to describe our current nihilistic form of sensibility, and also a different form of sensibility (or world, or understanding of being, or possibility of life), one where I am no longer operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world. Wallace calls this the so-called real world and wants us to see that living in its terms is a real possibility but that doing so will lead us into a state of death-in-life. This is very far indeed from the need to create meaning out of the individuals will (ATS, 204) that Dreyfus and Kelly find in DFW. Dreyfus and Kelly, in All Things Shining, give several examples of an ethical problem: What is

the appropriate response to the surging up of a pulse of physis such as a great moment in a football match, a speech by Martin Luther King, a Hitler rally. They envisage two types of response: let yourself be swept away OR walk away. Determining which response is appropriate in any given situation is the object of a meta-skill that they call meta-poiesis. This meta-skill is their response to the burden of choice that assails us in our post-modern secular world: it resists nihilism by reappropriating the sacred phenomenon of physis, but cultivates the skill to resist physis in its abhorrent, fanatical form. (ATS, 212) Physis is an ambivalent phenomenon leading us into a sacred affirmation of life or into its fanatical negation. We must learn when to leap in and when to walk away. Wallace in This is Water gives another type of example the mood of rage and frustration that whooshes up in a traffic jam or in an overcrowded supermarket. What is the ethical response that our meta-poiesis can permit in this situation? Wallace is closer to Dreyfus and Kelly than they seem to think as he proposes a sort of paradigm-change, a transformation in our perception. Faced with this whooshing up of negativity, do you give in to your natural hard-wired default setting, your certainty that everybody else is just in your way, that only you matter, that everyone else is rude and obnoxious and repulsive? Or can you use your freedom to rework this natural default setting, change your paradigm, cultivate a different form of affectivity, perceive people differently and be affected by them differently? This freedom is the meta-skill to transform our sensibility and to choose new bifurcations along our path of individuation. Dreyfus and Kelly dont see the meta-poietic aspect in DFWs speech. He is not talking about a new improved first-level skill in handling people or navigating traffic jams. He is talking about a metaskill for resisting being swept away by the whooshing up of negative affects. You cant just walk away from the overcrowded supermarket or the interminable traffic jam. Walking away is not always possible nor even desirable, and it is an ambiguous solution at best. DFW proposes a number of what can only be called spiritual exercises to allow you to experience the stressful or enervating situation differently. He suggests imagining another explanation for the behaviour of those we find obnoxious or infuriating. He is not advocating some sort of counter-factual ratiocination to alleviate the stress of the supermarket, he doesnt ask us to imagine that the repulsive lady screaming at her kids is really a giant squid disguised by a perception-filter (as in a DR WHO episode), but just that she may have been staying up every night with her husband dying of bone cancer, or something else of the same order of plausibility. The aim is not to impose an arbitrary meaning by sheer force of will. The aim is to make us aware that 1) meanings are already being imposed on the situation, preventing us from seeing it as it is 2) these already existing meannings can be subsumed under a single paradigm, our hard-wired default setting of fear and anger and frustration and worship of the self 3) other meanings are possible if we open our selves to the multiple field of gods to be worshipped 4) these other meanings can be subsumed under a different paradigm, one not centered around the ego but based on de-centered attention and caring for others. DFW wants to free us from our excessive ratiocination, our overintellectualisation, get us out of our hypnotic state of immersion in and servitude to our internal monologue. He wants to get us out of our nihilistic understanding of being where we as autonomous individuals each feel we are the center of the world, and everyone else is a help or a hindrance. The meta-poiesis that DFW describes subtends a different understanding of being where attention can dissolve the stereotypes of the nihilist versions of reality and open us to the multiple forms of the non-nihilistic sacred: be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles. These are the many gods we can worship and that give us meaning and life: pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. So DFW is all for luring back the gods to populate the now egotistical sky, as Dreyfus & Kelly,

citing Melville, describe their project. The vision that he wishes us to convert to is not one of the ego-centred individual imposing his choices by sheer will-power, that is the paradigm he wants to escape from. True, he speaks in terms of choice, but this is not egoic volition but rather the noetic act (to use Bernard Stieglers term) of resisting the programmed response to the situation and and apprehending other ways of perceiving it and acting within it. Perhaps there is a component of self-defense in Dreyfus and Kellys critique of Wallace. After all DFW's writing does contain an anlysis of the hyper-intellectual reduction of life. A problem with ALL THINGS SHINING is the nature of its concrete examples. As university professors of philosophy they are targeted by Wallace, and it is not enough to turn to the opposite pole of physical accomplishment, whether in sports with Bill Bradley or in heroic rescue with Wesley Autrey if one wishes to escape from the stultifying dualism of mind and body, or of noesis and physis. Besides, not all depression is a dead-end, yet Dreyfus and Kelly stick to the bright Olympian gods and do not talk about Saturn and scholarly melancholia. In THIS IS WATER Wallace tries to open us to others as having their own lives outside their roles as inconveniences or obstacles to our desires, and all that Dreyfus and Kelly can see is an appeal to will-power. Dreyfus and Kelly have trouble seeing depression and boredom as intensities, and so associate them with the ego and the desire to transcend human life and the frustration that this is impossible. Hillman is not so simplistic, as can be seen here. For a good take on DFW in relation to Dreyfus and Kelly see http://letterstodfw.wordpress.com/2012/10/10/what-the-hell-is-water/ Another problem with ALL THINGS SHINING is its appeal almost exclusively to extreme examples. Meta-poiesis exists in their book when we refuse to give into the hate at a Nazi rally, but they accuse Wallace of hubristic will when he discusses how not to give in to the anger and frustration one can feel on a queue at the supermarket. Dreyfus and Kelly, despite their antimetaphysical intentions, would seem to be guilty of a metaphysical split manifest in the very type of extraordinary examples they give. Stanley Cavells Emersonian emphasis on a return to the ordinary is a useful corrective to their obsession with mastery. The coffee-drinking example (p216-219) with its distinction between ritual and routine is a step in the right direction, and they talk about the experimentation to discover how to bring things out at their best, and thus to respect both the singularities of the materials and acts comprising the ritual and ones own singularity. They contrast the generic way of doing where things are treated as exchangeable and meaningful distinctions are obscured, to a particular approach where we rise up out of the generic and banal and into the particular and skilfully engaged (p217). So we individuate an activity or domain while individuating ourselves at the same time. Yet Dreyfus and Kelly, while describing this struggle with the reign of the stereotype, use a language of uncovering and discovering, and so imply that meaning is pre-existent rather than emergent. Further, although I like their pluralism and immanence and polytheism of moods, I think that Dreyfus and Kelly have a one-sided view of intensities or what they call shining, that excludes both the ordinary and the pathological intensities, there is no room for shadow. All this talk of shining (really as pluralists they should be saying shinings) is somehow limited to best case scenarios, whereas shining is not supposed to be a normative notion. One could compare this with Deleuze and Guattaris cry in ANTI-OEDIPUS: Everything must be interpreted in intensity (p173) For D&G this is already what Nietzsche and Artaud were doing. And I would add David Foster Wallace. If we take this point of view of intensity then we may avoid what threatens to be a form of hermeneutic nostalgia over the supposed superior inventiveness of the Greeks and of mourning for the loss of the Greek event. For pluralists like Feyerabend, Deleuze, and Lyotard, our contemporary time is characterized not by the nihilist condition of the loss of meaning and intensity, but by an increase of novelty and inventiveness, a surplus of abundance. They refuse to endorse the narrative

of decline that we see at work in ALL THINGS SHINING. To convince us of the contrary we need only be attentive to the multiplication of invention in the domains the sciences, the arts, politics, religion, and personal relations. The proper mood is not nostalgia and regret, but openness and affirmation. The goal is not to bring back the shining things, but to be attentive to the shinings that are already present or being produced. Mood and concept are closely linked. To dispel one we often have to deconstruct the other. The Greeks is a false unity, a concept that belongs to the dogmatic image of thought. The idea of the Greek miracle cuts them off geographically and chronologically from the multiplicity of sources, influences, encounters, exchanges, and rivalries. This creates an image of their inventiveness as stemming from some absolute break and absolute beginning, such that the Greeks become incommensurable with what went on before and elsewhere. This poses the novelty and inventiveness of the Greeks as some impossible to attain norm. There seems to be no way that we can ever make such a leap again, so we are reduced to just adding footnotes to Plato. Incommensurability, however, is not the final word. Beneath the hermeneutic closures and incommensurabilities lie the pragmatic encounters and exchanges. The philosphers have always been something else, they were born of something else, claim Deleuze and Parnet (DIALOGUES II, page 74). Michel Onfray develops the same idea for the Greeks: Protagoras the docker, Socrates the sculptor, Diogenes the assistant banker, Pyrrho the painter, Aristippus the teacher are not professionals of the profession in the postmodern fashion. This something else is not just another profession, but also another site, the outside with its freedom from the semantic police and the hermeneutic priesthood. The forum and the agora allowed philosphers to address and discuss with anyone, as does the blogosphere today (potentially!). Hermeneutic novelty is often the illusory construct of the retrospective projection of striated structures onto the past. Pragmatic novelty is far more ambiguous and fluid, tied to the intensive encounter rather than the regulated exchange. This is why Lyotard too sees no difference between the ancient Greeks and us, in terms of the withdrawal of Being and the loss of inventiveness: Nothing has withdrawn, we have not forgotten anything; the ancient Greeks, Heraclitus the inbetween of faith and knowledge, are no more originary than Janis Joplin. The comparison with Deleuze (and Guattari) is interesting as I often think of Deleuze and Parnets DIALOGUES II in relation to ALL THINGS SHINING, and of Deleuzes oft expressed desire to construct a pop-philosophy which I think expresses part of Dreyfus and Kellys ambition for ALL THINGS SHINING. Pop-philosophy does not mean a demagogical anti-intellectual hostility to theory or concepts or erudition, it is philosophy that has an immediate appeal to readers who find something useful for their lives (and thinking is essential to the human form of life); but it must also have enough conceptual backbone to make it really a contribution to philosophy and not just opinionating or free-associating on a theme. I have been frequenting the two sets of thinkers (Deleuze and Guattari, Dreyfus and Kelly) for some time now, and the question arises for me of the relation between them, between their respective philosophical understandings. The relation is clear in terms of my overall project of a diachronic ontology, of pluralism and individuation in a world of becoming: both sets of thinkers are pluralist; they decenter the subject, its sovereignty and its agency; they give great importance to affects or moods; they reject the domination of technological rationality; they situate themselves firmly after the death of God; they seek to go beyond any nihilism that this may be thought to entail. The points of convergence are many and varied. ALL THINGS SHINING is quite Heideggerian in orientation and talks in terms of physis, poiesis, technology, and meta-poiesis. The level of physis involves the "whooshing up" of moods that are transindividual and that draw people to perceive and to act in certain ways. Poiesis is an affair of skills that allow us to perceive important distinctions in a material and act on it to bring it out at its best. Deleuze and Guattari and talk in terms of affects, assemblages, and autopoiesis. The tone is quite different, being more open and diverse in their bibliographical references and in their

sensitivity to social and political dimensions. The notion of assemblage is used powerfully to decenter the notion of human agency and distribute it throughout the superordinate groupings or assemblages of humans and things that whoosh up, if you will, perdure and vanish. This is physis in a deleuzian sense; and I have always found the ALL THINGS SHINING sense too limited, as it seems to be restricted to the upsurge, perdurance, and vanishment of publicly shared moods and their associated perceptions and actions. But objects and agents and events are important parts of the assemblages we confront or belong to. There seems to me to be a complementarity between the two sets of thinkers that I can bring out in terms of what I think is a hesitation in Deleuze and Guattari over the meaning of the word affect, which sometimes is closer to physis and sometimes is closer to poiesis. Physis-affect characterises a plateau of affective tonality, a haecceity, that can last a moment or an afternoon, or several years. Poiesis-affect characters the powers of being affected (of perceiving differences that matter) and of affecting (of provoking and revealing differences). The whole notion of skills and crafts that ALL THINGS SHINING finds so important signals the necessity of a cultivation of affects, of the discipline of working on our affects to favorise more affirmative, more creative perceptions and actions. This is a process of individuation, the poietic path of developping one's skills, an apprenticeship for which, according to Deleuze, there is no method but only a long preparation.