Zizek and Badiou, Where are You

by Kieran Healy on March 10, 2006

Today I was wondering whether it was worth buying Slavoj Zizek’s new book, The Parallax View and reading it, even in a spirit of ironic detachment or what have you. Reasons to Buy: 1. Some smart people I know like him. Selected Reason Not to Buy: 1. Life’s too short to deal with bullshit, even if it’s high-quality, triple-sifted, quintessence of ironic Lacanian crunchy-frog bullshit like this: “Zizek is interested in the “parallax gap” separating two points between which no synthesis or mediation is possible, linked by an “impossible short circuit” of levels that can never meet. … Modes of parallax can be seen in different domains of today’s theory, from the wave-particle duality in quantum physics [I assume he put this in just to irritate people—KH] to the parallax of the unconscious in Freudian psychoanalysis between interpretations of the formation of the unconscious and theories of drives. … Philosophical and theological analysis, detailed readings of literature, cinema, and music coexist with lively anecdotes and obscene jokes.” From this—especially the last bit—it’s clear to me that it’s not the Mainstream Media that has anything to fear from the blogosphere, but rather Slavoj Zizek—he will shortly be rendered obsolete by the universe of pop-culture enriched slacker grad-student/ABD bloggers. Even Zizek can’t write fast enough to keep up with them all.

Anyway, here’s another slightly breathless example, this time from the Chronicle about the philosopher Alain Badiou:

Monday’s discussion celebrated the publication of a long-awaited English translation of Mr. Badiou’s 1988 book, Being and Event … First, he dissects “being” with the aid of set theory, the mathematical study of abstract groups of objects (sets) and their relations to one another. … Indeed, Being and Event makes the striking claim that “mathematics is ontology.” And chunks of the book are studded with equations and theorems that may frighten off the scholar who fled to the humanities to escape mathematics.

The idea that set theory might be useful to philosophy is not exactly new, nor are claims about the relationship between math and ontology. (Maybe Kenny will show up in the comments with the relevant reading list.) On the other hand, although often ignored in English-speaking countries, it is nevertheless an important fact that an elite French education can entail learning quite a lot of math in addition to ploughing through the great philosophers. So your typical Next Big French Intellectual often has the wherewithal to bug the shite out of technoids and comp-litters, although only one of these constituencies is typically targeted. Badiou looks like he might be a rare double-header. He can alienate the humanities people with the set theory and simultaneously annoy the technoids with stuff like this:

“Love is an event in the form of an encounter,” said Mr. Badiou, and it has the effect of forming “a new relation to the world.” … In response to one question that asked Mr. Badiou to link his philosophy to contemporary politics, he noted that “names in politics are impoverished. … The weakness of politics today is a weakness of poetry.” The fall of communism, he continued, also influenced that impoverishment. “Marxism,” he said, “had a constellation of names” for political concepts. “It was a sky of names. We lost the sky.”

Lovely. The other great thing about French academic culture, by the way, is that in addition to producing high theorists like Badiou it also produces the best theory of the theorists. The cafés at the Collège de France sell bottled reflexivity instead of Evian.

{ 149 comments }

1

Belle Waring 03.10.06 at 11:59 pm

the set theory thing is already getting played out. I encourage forward-thinking english grad students to start applying algebraic topology to everything.

2

schwa 03.11.06 at 12:01 am

You know, I’ve been trying to pin down why I couldn’t give a damn about Zizek despite the enthusiasm many smart friends of mine show for him, and you’ve nailed it. Thank you. That was a mitzvah.

3

Seth Finkelstein 03.11.06 at 12:16 am

I cry Sokal!

4

catherine liu 03.11.06 at 1:51 am

Life is too short for pondering the parallax gaps of Zizek’s lacanopunditry. Badiou is another kettle of fish. Both of them are very energetic and good-humored. I do like that.

5

Pablo Stafforini 03.11.06 at 1:56 am

The popularity of Slavoj Žižek is truly disconcerting. Lacan, for all the nonsense he produced (and nonsense it was), was at least a man of intelligence. I suspect Derrida had some talent, too, as probably do many of the Frenchified intellectuals currently en vogue. Žižek, by contrast, is just plain dumb. Consider, for instance, the opening paragraph of his recent New Left Review essay, ‘Against Human Rights‘:

Contemporary appeals to human rights within our liberal-capitalist societies generally rest upon three assumptions. First, that such appeals function in opposition to modes of fundamentalism that would naturalize or essentialize contingent, historically conditioned traits. Second, that the two most basic rights are freedom of choice, and the right to dedicate one’s life to the pursuit of pleasure (rather than to sacrifice it for some higher ideological cause). And third, that an appeal to human rights may form the basis for a defence against the ‘excess of power’.

How can some of Kieran Healy’s friends find this rubbish enjoyable is to me a genuine sociological mystery. Thoughts, anyone?

6

Anarch 03.11.06 at 2:19 am

Speaking as a set theorist… uh… no?

[Category theory, OTOH, I could believe…]

7

Ben Schacht 03.11.06 at 4:04 am

I’m an undergraduate philosophy major who actually studies what this blog seems to dismiss without too much serious thought, and I’m seriously disconcerted by the utter lack of rigor that has gone into the above commentary on Zizek and Badiou.

The bizarre dismissal of Zizek as dumb based on a short paragraph from one article is precisely the kind of specious logic that so many “hard-headed” analytic philosophers criticize in high theory. Moreover, I wonder how familiar the commentators actually are with Zizek and Lacan. Anyone who has spent a bit of time studying Zizek will realize that it’s the Lacanian nonesense that Zizek cuts through, preferring to focus instead on the logic that underlies Lacanian psychoanalysis.

Finally, the (to me) humorous appeal to Sokal is demonstrative of the kind of idiocy that still plagues the conversation surrounding theory. Sokal’s hoax is much more complex than a simple “He really got them with that one!” Spend some time actually looking into things instead of writing them off as bullshit without so much as a thought. Shame.

8

Danny Yee 03.11.06 at 4:15 am

My bullshit monitor no longer lets me read anything that applies the Axiom of Choice, Chaos Theory, Gödel’s Theorem, Relativity, or suchlike to literature or politics or history.

Maybe I’ll miss some good stuff as a result, but there are just too many books to read.

9

abb1 03.11.06 at 5:47 am

I just love Zizek; dialectics is extremely, extremely cool, bullshit or not. “Interpenetration of opposites” rules, man. If you like Orwell’s “1984”, you’ll enjoy Zizek too:

Liberal attitudes towards the other are characterized both by respect for otherness, openness to it, and an obsessive fear of harassment. In short, the other is welcomed insofar as its presence is not intrusive, insofar as it is not really the other. Tolerance thus coincides with its opposite. My duty to be tolerant towards the other effectively means that I should not get too close to him or her, not intrude into his space—in short, that I should respect his intolerance towards my over-proximity. This is increasingly emerging as the central human right of advanced capitalist society: the right not to be ‘harassed’, that is, to be kept at a safe distance from others. The same goes for the emergent logic of humanitarian or pacifist militarism. War is acceptable insofar as it seeks to bring about peace, or democracy, or the conditions for distributing humanitarian aid. And does the same not hold even more for democracy and human rights themselves? Human rights are ok if they are ‘rethought’ to include torture and a permanent emergency state. Democracy is ok if it is cleansed of its populist excesses and limited to those mature enough to practise it.

10

Matt 03.11.06 at 6:10 am

“it’s clear to me that it’s not the Mainstream Media that has anything to fear from the blogosphere, but rather Slavoj Zizek—he will shortly be rendered obsolete by the universe of pop-culture enriched slacker grad-student/ABD bloggers. Even Zizek can’t write fast enough to keep up with them all.”

Couched so cleverly in a post written in a spirit of such lame slackerhood, one wonders what’s gotten underneath your skin. Of course these ironies have not escaped the many Zizek fans (I am not one), nor those seeking to make a name for themselves at his shadow’s expense (even less so). But oh, the deeply-grooved tracks of habitual irony soldier on. Anglo academics hating on the French; how timeless! how rare! Such fine delight of preaching philistine to choirs hath never found, before Crooked Timber, its true home. When all else fails, at least you may sell some books!

“I cry Sokal”

Simply precious. Because it encapsulates pristinely the only knee-jerk antiquated chant this rather dumbly unoriginal post deserves.

11

soru 03.11.06 at 6:27 am

Badiou’s point seems valid (if florid), in that if you look at mainstream news reports or political discussions, they seem to use a vocabulary of about 20 words.

War, democracy, terrorism, human rights, torture, genocide, dictatorship, sanctions, a few others.

A 6 year old who used a vocabulary that size to talk about the most important things in their world would probably be spotted by the educational psychologists and sent to special measures class.

Problem is, of course, when you move outside the mainstream, you run into people using a 4000 word vocabulary, except that have very little idea what about 3980 of the words they use mean.

12

John Quiggin 03.11.06 at 6:46 am

Danny Yee beat me to it. I was wondering when the bogus reference to Godel’s theorem would make its appearance. Could I add fuzzy logic to the list, please?

13

abb1 03.11.06 at 6:56 am

Godel’s theorem is cool, man. It rocks. Along with the dialectics, freakin interpenetration of the opposites.

Fuzzy logic – I dunno.

14

Peter 03.11.06 at 7:14 am

If ideas and concepts from mathematics and physics (even if misunderstood and mis-applied) are influential in the huamnities and the wider culture, this is nothing new. Mondrian and Malevich, for example, were developing visual representations of geometric ideas prevalent in mathematics for the preceding half-century.

Indeed, there is a good argument that modernism itself was the playing-out in the wider culture of the 19th-century revolution in geometry, since these ideas concerned the mathematical implications of differing vantage-points as much as anything else (eg, doing geometry on a sphere instead of on an infinite flat surface).

15

Doormat 03.11.06 at 7:16 am

Godel’s theorem is cool, man. It rocks

Yes, but do you actually know what is says? Or that there are two Theorems under the title of “Godel’s Theorem”? Do you know if it applies to First Order logical systems, to Second Order systems, or to both? Do you know why this might be important if you’re trying to apply it outside of mathematical logic? Does Godel’s Theorem apply to the real numbers, for example?

I mean, Wiki will answer these questions for you, but it’s amazing how much Godel is misused, even by mathematicians (I have been guilty here, although I was swiftly corrected by some colleagues would are logicians). I am utterly with Danny Yee: Godel belongs in maths and philosophy, and not in sociology or politics…

16

abb1 03.11.06 at 7:41 am

Well, I knew the details years ago, but now all it means to me is that there are propositions that can’t be either proved or disproved. Isn’t it the idea?

Or is this something only experts like you can understand and the rest of us should shut up and stop embarrassing ourselves? Get over yourself already, Doormat.

17

Brendan 03.11.06 at 7:46 am

In Žižek’s defence it has to be admitted that he can actually write a line of coherent balanced prose when the mood takes him, although sometimes he chooses not to in order to impress the clever boys without girlfriends (aged 18-27). Whereas Lacan demonstrated on many occasions that this feat was simply beyond him.

Incidentally, who or what is a ‘Badiou’? Can anyone explain to me in two sentences or under why I should care?

18

Doormat 03.11.06 at 7:47 am

Nice abb1, nice. Thanks for the person attack. I was using “you” in the general sense. And no, Godel’s Theorems do not say that, which makes my point rather nicely.

Scientists get pissed off for exactly this reason: we point out that “you” (not you, abb1, that means “you” in general) are misusing some very technical idea, and then we get abused for being elitist or something. Well thanks a lot.

19

Doormat 03.11.06 at 7:48 am

Sorry, that’s “does not” for “do not”. I cannot type when angry.

20

Doormat 03.11.06 at 7:50 am

And, sorry, abb1, if you thought I was attacking you. I did mean the general “you”, or “one”. I should have phrased my reply better to make I clear I have a beef with proffesional writers who misuse ideas from science and maths…

21

Sean McCann 03.11.06 at 8:13 am

Thank god for Bourdieu!

22

Brendan 03.11.06 at 8:27 am

‘ I have a beef with professional writers who misuse ideas from science and maths’

How dare you. I have built what I laughingly refer to as my ‘career’ on misusing ideas from science and maths, and if I stopped now I would have to quit and get a job in the real world, and I think that’s the last thing anyone wants.

23

abb1 03.11.06 at 8:36 am

C’mon, Doormat, don’t be angry. Technical ideas do find their way into popular culture, there’s nothing wrong with that. Often they’re used merely for a methaphor. What’s the big deal?

24

Kieran Healy 03.11.06 at 9:02 am

The bizarre dismissal of Zizek as dumb

I never said he was dumb. In fact he seems pretty clever.

Anglo academics hating on the French; how timeless! how rare!

Perhaps my closing recommendation to read Bourdieu escaped your attention. Based on several products of the system that I know, if I’d have had the chance to pursue an elite French education, believe me I’d have taken it.

25

Doormat 03.11.06 at 9:09 am

Abb1, Because they are *not* *just* used as metaphor. It would be great if they were: we all borrow ideas of this form from each other, and that’s brilliant. I’d fully support scientists trying to make their ideas more accessible (and of sociologists, literary theorists etc.: possibly more so, as I’m afraid I have little idea what literary theorists do). However, I’ve read pieces which go far, far beyond metaphor, and that’s where it becomes a problem. I know the Sokal affair was an extreme, but it illustrates the problem very well.

And chunks of the book are studded with equations and theorems that may frighten off the scholar who fled to the humanities to escape mathematics.

That does not sound like mathematical ideas being used as metaphor. It sounds like mathematical ideas being used as maths, and I would bet, badly mis-used. Godel’s Theorem as metaphor is great, and opens your mind to some pretty strange ideas. It’s when people try to “use” it, instead of just be influenced by it, that I get annoyed.

Similalry, as a mathematician, I might even write (and certainly think) about, say, numbers behaving in a “sociological manner” (there’s a chapter of a book by Diestel entitled “mathematical sociology”) Some numbers are “friendly” say. However, as soon as I need to prove something, I drop the metaphors and made sure I’m using logic…

26

Backword Dave 03.11.06 at 9:13 am

I know this is off-topic, but Slobodan Milosevic has died. Worth a CT post, I think.

27

John Holbo 03.11.06 at 9:37 am

“But oh, the deeply-grooved tracks of habitual irony soldier on.” Clearly Matt should be appointed deeply-groovier-than-thou habitual irony czar. Until then, the world will not be safe.

28

pollian 03.11.06 at 10:34 am

Posts like this at Crooked Timber grieve me. The reason I read this blog is because it takes ideas seriously and approaches them through thoughtful discussion and dialogue. Leaving aside Lacan for the moment, why should Badiou merit a different treatment? Shouldn’t we at least read his work before dismissing it? Rather than passing judgment based on a paragraph from the Chronicle and Badiou’s answers to two questions.

Now, I have read the book and I can say that it tends to be far more subtle and sophisticated than the typical application of maths to literature or history. His is not just another misappropriation of Godel. In fact, Badiou spends as much time working through proofs as he does using the results. And while there is much to disagree with ultimately, such meaningful disagreement requires a great deal more engagement than is currently on offer.

29

jt 03.11.06 at 10:40 am

Doormat — I think you are making two fundamental mistakes. First, using actual equations is not necessarily incompatible with using them as a device to convey a metaphor. I imagine that your idea is that equations could only be useful in a formal proof, and thus any use of mathematical equations for non-technical problem is necessarily mendacious. This isn’t quite right. E.g., many people interpret the use of equations in “The Social Contract” as a metaphor, rather than as a precise mathematical claim.

Second, it is not necessarily the case that the only legitimate way to use math is in mathematics itself. E.g., my understanding is that Cantor’s Diagonalization Theorem, Goedel’s Theorem, and Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem are all applications of the same mathematical idea. (As a disclaimer, I only completely understand the Diag. Theorem.) So, to use sloppy language, we could say “The Impossibility Theorem is Goedel’s Theorem as applied to public choice theory.” If that is the case, there might be misuses of that logic, but it would never be prima facie *stupid* to apply [the idea behind] Goedel’s Theorem to some apparently unrelated topic.

Likewise, if someone told me that they had applied some esoteric bit of math to public choice theory — Zorn’s Lemma, say — I would have no idea what that could possibly *mean*, but I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.

30

hellblazer 03.11.06 at 10:44 am

abb1: Technical ideas do find their way into popular culture, there’s nothing wrong with that. Often they’re used merely for a methaphor. What’s the big deal?

The big deal is that — since people relate better to rhetoric than to math — there is a risk that the wider culture thinks that the technical ideas *are synonymous with* the metaphors. Then you get people who claim that fluid dynamics is sexist (actually I’m misquoting, can someone more familiar with Impostures Intelectuelles help me out with the reference?)

Doormat: seconded. What does Diestel have to say about mathematical sociology, by the way?

Oh, and does “parallax” have a special meaning in philosophical or sociological discourse that is different from the usual (scientific) one? Cause if it doesn’t then it’s appearance in the (review of?) Zizek’s book is an absolute stinker.

31

Ben Schacht 03.11.06 at 10:52 am

Kieran, if you had read the comments closely, you would see that I was referring to the fifth comment, which, as a matter of fact, calls Zizek “just plain dumb.”

32

hellblazer 03.11.06 at 10:53 am

jt: I imagine that your idea is that equations could only be useful in a formal proof, and thus any use of mathematical equations for non-technical problem is necessarily mendacious.

I don’t know if that’s doormat’s point of view, but I’m afraid it is one I subscribe to. Sorry, I just think it *is* specious, if not mendacious. The point is of course that using equations is like using words like “specious” — it’s an attempt to disguise the fact that the writer is vague on some point ;-)

ibid. So, to use sloppy language, we could say “The Impossibility Theorem is Goedel’s Theorem as applied to public choice theory.” If that is the case, there might be misuses of that logic, but it would never be prima facie stupid to apply [the idea behind] Goedel’s Theorem to some apparently unrelated topic.

With respect, I think that wouldn’t just be sloppy
language, that would be sophistry. Better is to say that Arrow’s theorem is cantor’s argument applied in a model of public choice (which I still think is a bit loose) — or why not say Arrow’s Theorem *is* the principle of diagonal selection? The only disadvantage of this equally snappy formulation is that one hasn’t attached a famous name to the underlying math, and is therefore not getting as much rhetorical leverage as one could by being dishonest.

33

Doormat 03.11.06 at 10:53 am

but I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.

Well, I did say that I agreed with Danny! He said that, basically, life’s too short to check every single case, but that his bullshit detector would go off immediately. I’d certainly have a hard time understanding how Zorn’s Lemma could apply to choice theory, but yes, maybe it’s possible. If someone was using Zorn’s Lemma in lit. crit. and I was deciding on a book to read for fun, then I think my bullshit detector would tell me to find a better book…

Arrow’s theorem is a good example actually: it *is* a mathematical statement, and it has clear applications. However, it does not mean that “no voting can ever be fair”, for example. And, while the (very) basic ideas may be similar to Cantor’s argument, or Godel’s argument, I think I’d call you if you said “The Impossibility Theorem is Goedel’s Theorem as applied to public choice theory.” If one were correct, then you’d probably be re-proving Arrow’s theorem via Godel (no doubt that’s possible). It’d be more likely that one was actually quite confused (as why not use Arrow?)

Hellblzer: Diestel is trying to quickly explain Ramsey Theory, and uses definitions like “Set A ‘accepts’ set B if…” It’s a (typical Diestel) joke, but the words help one to quickly understand some rather definition-heavy mathematics. To me, that’s a great example of metaphore working.

34

hellblazer 03.11.06 at 10:54 am

aargh, can’t tell the difference between it’s and its. Sorry: my grammar’s not what it used to be.

35

Peter 03.11.06 at 11:14 am

jt: You are correct to link Cantor and Goedel. I don’t know if the Arrow proof also fits this framework. Indeed, mathematician Saunders Mac Lane developed a neat category-theoretic model of the common diagonalization process in these proofs.

What is odd about the debate here is that some people seem to be objecting to the use of metaphors from mathematics in other disciplines. But mathematicians do this all the time. They use metaphors from other parts of mathematics and indeed from other disciplines, both as high-level inspiration and as low-level detail. I don’t see mathematicians becoming corrupted by the errant use and mis-use of metaphor, so why should anyone else be corrupted by doing the same. If this was really a problem, large numbers of string theorists would have to locked away, given the extent to which they now make use of category-theoretic metaphors to generate ideas and concepts, and to create mathematical structures which may only later be assessed for compliance with reality.

And if people confuse the metaphorical idea with the reality, of, say, an equation, so what? This just shows the power of the metaphor to speak to the audience. Mathematicians should be grateful that ANYONE is quoting their equations, given just how arcane most math is.

36

hellblazer 03.11.06 at 11:17 am

To get back to topic: I’ve just reread
Comment #9
and if that is, as I assume, a quote from Zizek, then I’d have to agree with a lot of his analysis. The bit about torture at the end is a bit strained, but the bit about democracy only for those who can handle it is spot on.

However, I still don’t understand where the parallax comes in. (I’m pleasantly surprised to see that there is presumably no copyright infringement on the book title.)

37

abb1 03.11.06 at 11:21 am

The quote is from Against Human Rights, linked in #5

38

Doormat 03.11.06 at 11:34 am

Peter, you’re willfully not reading what I write. I’m not arguing against metaphor: I’ve said I think it’s great. However, when jt writes:

“The Impossibility Theorem is Goedel’s Theorem as applied to public choice theory.”

That’s not metaphor! That (in this hypothetical situation) is not understanding Godel, and then mis-using it. This has two pernicious effects: it’s an argument from authority (maths is rigourous, look I’m using some maths, hence my argument must be good). Also, as Hellblazer said, it leads to some extreme positions where bits of mathematics are accused of being “white” or “male” or some such nonsense.

In short, one can take a metaphor too far!

I have interest in non-comm geometry, where the central idea could be said to take metaphors from normal geometry, and then generalise them to operator-theoretic viewpoints. However, I’d be laughed out the room if I simply wrote “This is true in the normal case, hence by our metaphor, it is true in the non-comm case”. Metaphor is a basis for getting ideas and developing models. It’s not a basis for arguing or proving points.

Eurgh, anyway, this is getting rather off topic. Having re-read the link to the MIT Press website, I have to admit that there is little to complain about there, even if it does annoy me on some level.

39

Daniel 03.11.06 at 11:35 am

I actually like Zizek but I am not going to write anything about him soon because it would just join the back of a long queue of unfulfilled promises to write various things.

I completely disagree that Godel’s Theorem can be quarantined in maths and philosophy. There are a whole load of things in politics, sociology and economics where people get completely tangled up about the concept of a rule and make mistakes that they wouldn’t make if they understood Godelian arguments.

40

hellblazer 03.11.06 at 11:41 am

peter: I had typed quite a long response but on reflection it was getting a bit ranty and green-inked. Can I just ask instead if you’ve got a reference to MacLane’s abstraction of the diagonalization proess? is it in CWM, for example?

And if people confuse the metaphorical idea with the reality, of, say, an equation, so what? This just shows the power of the metaphor to speak to the audience.

I think confusing metaphor with an empirical model of reality is a *very* dangerous habit to indulge in. Anti-science cranks seem to get away with arguing against the metaphor, and this leaves an audience unaware that more is at stake.

The problem is – I think, although here I’m very much out of my depth – that mathematical metaphors have extra baggage, because of their rhetorical status as an appeal to elite knowledge. The (apocryphal?) story of how Euler beat Diderot in a court debate is an extreme example of what I’m thinking of.

Mathematicians should be grateful that ANYONE is quoting their equations, given just how arcane most math is.

Surely inspiring fools, if they are the ones doing the quoting, would not be something to be proud of?

41

hellraiser 03.11.06 at 12:07 pm

Let’s see…

Preemptive dismissal of an entire body of work made without having read much of said work? Check.

Reference to Sokal hoax without further explication or qualification? Check.

Post demanding that thinker’s ideas be explained in “two sentences or less.” Check.

Yep. It’s 1997 again. Thanks for raising our intellectual standards CR!

42

Ben Schacht 03.11.06 at 12:09 pm

The various comments about metaphor miss the point entirely and draw a sharp distinction between metaphorical language and conceptual language. This distinction is flawed. Take, for example, Nietzsche’s point in “Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense.” He shows there, through a long list of metaphors and metonyms, that what we like to think is conceptual language is really metaphor. Moreover, Richard Rorty in his excellent book “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” shows, through reference to the Wittgenstein of “Philosophical Investigations,” that much of philosophy since Kant is the product of a particular metaphorical game.

It’s neither as simple as Aristotle (metaphor is a derivative of coneptual language) nor Nietzsche (conceptual language is a derivative of metaphorical language). Adorno, I think, shows quite well in “Metacritique of Epistemology” that metaphor and concept are engaged dialectically with one another.

As a final note, I’m really quite tired of the accusations that theory misuses mathematical and scientific language (even metaphorically) when terms like “deconstruction” are tossed about incorrectly–even be the critics of theory!

43

Walt 03.11.06 at 12:13 pm

I think as simplifications of Goedel’s theorems go, abb1’s is okay. jt’s “The Impossibility Theorem is Goedel’s Theorem as applied to public choice theory”, on the other hand, causes my head to spin completely around, Exorcist-style.

44

Kenneth Rufo 03.11.06 at 12:16 pm

I am no fan of Zizek, but I’m not a fan because I think he far too readily misreads or reduces complex thought down to pithy caricatures which he can then riposte and/or dismiss. The cries of Sokal, the bullshit detectors, and the other casual dismissals of Zizek are equally as disappointing.

45

hellblazer 03.11.06 at 12:23 pm

ben scacht: The various comments about metaphor miss the point entirely and draw a sharp distinction between metaphorical language and conceptual language. This distinction is flawed.

It may perhaps surprise you to know that I have some (uncertain) agreement with this point of view. However, that distinction was *not* the one I was trying to draw. I was trying to emphasise the differences between arguing by rhetorical manipulation of metaphor, and argument by Euclid-style proof. It is the latter I happen to have studied more, developed a basic competence in, and feel is worth defending.

BTW, I sympathise with any frustration you feel at the misuse of the term deconstructionism, and have always suspected that similar jermeiads against post-modernism are also ill-informed. Surely this is an argument for all sides to be more precise, rather than sinking down to the level of the most lazy commentaries?

The thorny question of mathematics and physics is why our metaphors allow us to predict quite accurately how the transistors in this computer combine to enable me to transmit all this verbiage. It seems empirically that some metaphors are better than others for these purposes. That’s all I’m saying.

46

jt 03.11.06 at 12:24 pm

Hellblazer — So far as I can tell, your basic idea is that mathematics is dangerous knowledge that misleads and confuses people whenever it wanders beyond the comfortable la-la land of formal proof with no significant applications.

Fair enough. I agree. People commit these sorts of errors all the time, although questionable statistics probably mislead far more people than mathematical metaphors. But the baggage of mathematics does not mean that it needs to be banished from all non-mathematical work; instead, work that is erroneous or misleading should be criticized as such. (Unfortunately, you normally need to read something before you can criticize it, even if you believe it is wrong before you read it.)

47

Peter 03.11.06 at 12:30 pm

Hellblazer — Apologies, I typed “Saunders Mac Lane”, but I meant “Bill Lawvere” (perhaps all great categorists are isomorphic in the appropriate category!). The reference is:

@INCOLLECTION{lawvere:diagonal69,
author = “F. William Lawvere”,
title = “Diagonal arguments and cartesian closed categories”,
PAGES = “134–145”,
Booktitle = “Category Theory, Homology Theory and their Applications {II}”,
publisher = “Springer”,
SERIES = “Lecture Notes in Mathematics 92”,
year = “1969”,
address = “Berlin, Germany”}

That paper is rather inaccessible. There’s a more recent treatment by Noson Yanofsky, available from arXiv:

@MISC{yanofsky:diagonal03,
author = “Noson S. Yanofsky”,
title = “A universal approach to self-referential paradoxes, incompleteness and fixed points”,
howpublished = “ar{X}iv:math.LO”,
year = “2003”,
month = “19 May”,
note = “Number 0305282”}

48

Peter 03.11.06 at 12:39 pm

Hellblazer wrote: “The problem is – I think, although here I’m very much out of my depth – that mathematical metaphors have extra baggage, because of their rhetorical status as an appeal to elite knowledge. The (apocryphal?) story of how Euler beat Diderot in a court debate is an extreme example of what I’m thinking of.”

Is this a problem? Having myself trained in pure mathematics, a critical theorist’s use of set theory is not going to make me respect him more than otherwise. And, for readers not trained in mathematics? Surely, caveat emptor is the appropriate advice to the reader, as with all writing.

49

hellblazer 03.11.06 at 12:46 pm

jt: er, no, your first paragraph doesn’t represent my views. Couldn’t you have laid off the irony a touch?

My feeling is more that precision is important in argument. I apologise if I’ve given the impression that I have some kind of formal-proof fetish (Bourbakism, since the thread seems to be entering a name-dropping phase). If you go back to your first posting, all I said was that implying Arrow’s theorem is synonymous with Goedel’s Incompleteness/Inconsistency Theorems, rather than saying that the two have a common mathematical underpinning, is sloppy and misleading. It opens up the way for attempts to attack one by attacking the other, for a start.

People commit these sorts of errors all the time, although questionable statistics probably mislead far more people than mathematical metaphors. But the baggage of mathematics does not mean that it needs to be banished from all non-mathematical work; instead, work that is erroneous or misleading should be criticized as such.

I agree largely. I’m not saying banish mathematical motifs from non-mathematical work: I would simply prefer it if they weren’t misused. In the same way I get annoyed at scientists flinging around inaccurate terminology to have a go at non-scientists (or, as I believe some of the CT crew have picked up on, believing that knowledge of some physics automatically trumps the existing knowledge and work in economics or sociology).

I’m not saying “they’re wrong to use metaphors from maths”. *I am claiming – rightly or wrongly – that sometimes the use of metaphor is a bad one.* And can someone please answer my question – which was asked in good faith – about what “parallax” means in a cultural-theory context?

50

hellblazer 03.11.06 at 12:51 pm

peter: thanks for the link. On reflection I should have guessed it wasn’t MacLane; sounds like something Schanuel might have done, if you see what I mean.

(Of course all category theorists are isomorphic :-) But viewed as functors, are they naturally isomorphic?)

51

Jonathan 03.11.06 at 12:56 pm

Lem applies Goedel and much else to sociological and historical problems. Is he too an imposture intellectuel?

52

Helmut 03.11.06 at 12:59 pm

I did set theory in philosophy in the late 80s with a Peircean professor who studied Peirce’s semeiotic and logic. It’s most definitely not new connected to philosophy, which is still one of the humanities as far as I can tell. See Quine’s book “Set Theory and Its Logic,” published in 1963. Interesting stuff, but, at least in my case, I’ve moved on.

Seems to me that particularly analytic trait of dismissing anything non-analytic is simply bad, bad science and philosophy, folks. It’s usually directed at French thought of which, like the Anglo-American tradition, there’s both the good and the bad. But it requires reading and analysis to figure that out.

53

hellblazer 03.11.06 at 12:59 pm

Apologies jt: have reread your original post and I see I misremembered it. I think we largely agree, but started off with slight misreadings of the other’s stance.

peter: indeed. It’s the attempt to argue from authority that I’m against – and within maths itself, as in any discourse, one can get the same problem

jonathan: I’d have to read the relevant stories or essays to find out, wouldn’t I? My prior belief is that Lem ought to know what he’s doing, and could actually write well. My posterior will have to depend on me actually reading his work (which, come to think of it, must be online in some form – pointers anyone?).

54

Jonathan 03.11.06 at 1:04 pm

Try Imaginary Magnitude and A Perfect Vacuum, which you can buy cheaply, parasite. Also, if you can read Polish or German, his Summa Technologiae.

55

jt 03.11.06 at 1:07 pm

It was I who said that it was sloppy to say “The Impossibility Theorem is Goedel’s Theorem as applied to public choice theory” — and by the way, that is not the same as saying the two theorems are synonymous. (Synonymous, as I understand it, implies that two things mean the same thing.) I don’t think it is misleading, though, just sloppy; I don’t think your proposed explanation (shared underpinnings)is substantially more precise.

If you are just arguing that “sometimes the use of a metaphor is a bad one”, then I don’t think that anyone would disagree. It seems, though, that you think there is a whole class of metaphor that is not appropriate; namely, mathematical metaphors.

As for parallax… I assume you had something in mind out of astronomy, but the actual definition of parallax is “An apparent change in the direction of an object, caused by a change in observational position that provides a new line of sight.” (Thank you, dictionary.com.) Doesn’t that seem to be a reasonable subject for cultural studies?

56

Peter 03.11.06 at 1:09 pm

Since one of the main inventors of set theory, Gottlob Frege, is usually considered by philosophers of language to be a philosopher, not a mathematician, perhaps it is the philosophers who should be annoyed that THEIR metaphors have been adopted by mathematicians.

57

hellblazer 03.11.06 at 1:10 pm

thanks Jonathan, will go hunt them down.

“parasite”… hmm, I like the sound of that as an online ID ;-)

58

Peter 03.11.06 at 1:17 pm

And David Hilbert, one of the great mathematicians of the last 150 years, also had a low opinion of Frege’s mathematical abilities, eventually ignoring his letters. Certainly, Frege did not understand the formalist revolution which Mario Pieri and Hilbert introduced to mathematics (studying axiom systems for their sake, and not because of their connections to any supposed reality).

59

hellblazer 03.11.06 at 1:17 pm

jt: fair enough. I don’t think certain metaphors should be forbidden, I just think they make certain arguments opaque. But as you say that’s a low-content observation by anyone’s standards, so your point stands.

Interestingly, the definition you give of parallax makes the utility of the metaphor clear – you’re right, I had a more restrictive definition in mind (inaccuracy in measurement owing to line of sight)

60

Doormat 03.11.06 at 1:18 pm

And can someone please answer my question – which was asked in good faith – about what “parallax” means in a cultural-theory context?

Doesn’t it just mean what it usually means:

“An apparent change in the direction of an object, caused by a change in observational position that provides a new line of sight.”

(Eurgh: jt beat me to it!)

If one means by “object” something more general than a physical, 3D object, then I can very easily see how “parallax” becomes an interesting idea to study in culture theory. What I think annoys me is the need for endless metaphor making, especially to draw in fairly esoteric branches of maths, physics etc. It strikes me that the idea of “parallax” is interesting enough without trying to sex-it-up by name-dropping quantum theory. Kieran summed it up nicely:

… from the wave-particle duality in quantum physics [I assume he put this in just to irritate people—KH] …

However, we find here:

political parallax, the social antagonism that allows for no common ground

something which sounds fascinating: why is it that there does seem to be some sort of gap in understand in many debates, and how the facts get used by different sides to radically different ends (even if they somehow agree on the fact in question).

A good example of my problem with metaphors here is Mary Midgley’s famous example of completely misunderstanding Dawkins where he used the term “selfish gene”. Okay, so this is vaguely the reverse of the situation we’ve been arguing, but it is most certainly a philosopher not understanding the science. (Warning: Dawkins is typically combative (abusive?) in that article, but it’s widely viewed that Midgley didn’t have a clue what she was talking about in her original piece, and later retracted some of her claims).

As for Lem:

A perfect vacuum
Imaginery Magnitude

I have to say I’m pretty interested! Wish list here we come… However, knowing nothing of Lem, he seems like a philosophical fiction writer, somewhat like Eco, or maybe Egan
(no-one is ever original on the web). Not, I think, really what I’m talking about… Why do such arguments always degenerate into people arguing about slightly different things (another application of parallax: haha!)

61

Jeremy 03.11.06 at 1:40 pm

I actually like Zizek but I am not going to write anything about him soon because it would just join the back of a long queue of unfulfilled promises to write various things.

Still busy interviewing Vietnamese railway conductors? Take your time, take your time…

62

Peter 03.11.06 at 1:49 pm

Does anyone know of any instances of Richard Dawkins disagreeing with someone without also being personally abusive?

63

hellblazer 03.11.06 at 2:00 pm

I don’t know, but he can’t be like that all the time. Otherwise discussions about whose turn it is to get the shopping done must be pretty horrific chez Dawkins…

64

Peter 03.11.06 at 2:20 pm

Re Dawkins: I’m reminded of the arguments between statisticians Ronald Fisher and Egon Pearson & Jerzy Neyman in the 1930s.

From an official report by the Royal Statistical Society of a paper presented by Neyman in 1935:

“Professor RA Fisher, in opening the discussion, said he hoped that Dr Neyman’s paper would be on
a subject which the author was fully acquainted and on which he could speak with authority.”

Apparently, Fisher was disappointed. He received this reply:

“Dr Pearson said while he knew there was a widespread belief in Professor Fisher’s infallibility, he must, in the first place, beg leave to question the wisdom of accusing a fellow-worker of incompetence without, at the same time, showing that he had succeeded in mastering his argument.”

65

Anarch 03.11.06 at 4:04 pm

Ta for the link, Peter. I think I’ve actually “read” the original Lawvere paper — in the loose sense, not the mathematician’s one :) — but I’m definitely going to check out the Yanosfky one in a moment.

Incidentally, I’d argue, and have in a few talks, that Godel’s First, Tarski’s Undefinability of Truth, |P(X)| > |X| (via Cantor diagonalization), the existence of noncomputable sets (in particular that c.e. sets != computable sets) and the Russell Paradox are all manifestations of the same basic motif. I haven’t, however, included Arrow’s Theorem on that list since while it’s a proof by contradiction, I don’t really see it as being a diagonal proof by contradiction in the same way as the preceding list. That said, it’s been yonks since I’ve look at Arrow’s theorem, so could those who do view this as the same offer their reasons for it?

66

Kenny Easwaran 03.11.06 at 4:49 pm

So that explains why Alain Badiou was mentioned on the wikipedia page on “philosophy of mathematics” (I’ve been trying to rewrite that a bit – for instance, structuralism isn’t mentioned at all).

For a mathematized approach to ontology, see just about anything Ed Zalta has written.

Most of the other ontological stuff set theory talks about is only relevant to mathematics (and I suppose to a general project of epistemology and metaphysics that can deal with mathematics as well as the rest of the world).

Did Hilbert really dislike Frege as much as #58 suggests? That seems unlike him. Of course, they had fundamental disagreements about mathematical ontology that would have prevented them from much fruitful interaction, and I don’t know of too much that Frege did productively after Russell pointed out his paradox. So maybe it’s not so surprising.

67

Adam Kotsko 03.11.06 at 5:02 pm

This comment thread is a good example of how comment threads like this tend to go.

68

Adam Kotsko 03.11.06 at 5:06 pm

Since no one has seriously answered your question, I will say that, having read a lot of Zizek, The Parallax View is a good way to get a comprehensive view of what he’s doing. If you decide Zizek is not worth your time or is bad in some way after having read only this book, then that is perfectly respectable. I can understand how making a respectable dismissal of a thinker who is unlikely to be useful to your own academic work is probably not a really high priority.

As for Badiou, the book Theoretical Writings is probably enough to figure out if you want to go further — or Manifesto for Philosophy if you want something really short.

69

John Quiggin 03.11.06 at 5:09 pm

I agree with anarch. Arrow’s proof is just a generalization of the [[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Condorcet_paradox]]; it doesn’t have anything much in common with the other examples.

On the general point, life really is too short. I’ve been dealing with bogus arguments from Godel’s theorem, quantum physics and so on for 30+ years now, (not to mention “kinder, gentler, compassionate” conservatives!). They’ve exhausted the benefit of the doubt as far as I’m concerned. When some Zizek-style hotshot wins the Fields medal, I’ll start paying attention. Otherwise, like Danny and doormat, I’ll leave my bullshit detector set to maximum on this stuff.

70

Jonathan 03.11.06 at 5:39 pm

From economists?

71

Commenter 03.11.06 at 7:04 pm

John,
I take it economists and mathematicians are the only people we ought to be paying attention to? Wait, sorry, we should only be paying attention to those — what? — thirty or so mathematicians who have won the Fields medal, right? Come on, that’s ridiculous. How many of them are even living?

I’m actually not even sure who we’re talking about in this thread anymore, because as far as I’m able to tell neither Zizek nor Badiou have appropriated Godel or quantum physics. Who are these people who have “exhausted the benefit of the doubt” as far as you’re concerned? Please, name names.

Actually, Badiou — as Adam Kotsko will no doubt tell you — was a mathematician before he came to philosophy, and although I’m not qualified to judge his work in this respect, I’m willing at least to read it in good faith if I were ever so inclined — something that your bullshit-detector approved lifestyle apparently precludes.

As Adam also (rightly) notes, this thread is almost depressingly predictable, which is to say, there’s a lot of people pumping out their chests and denigrating or defending Person X or Y based on little to no evidence or textual support. Let me put it this way: here’s another discussion on Badiou: http://www.dissensus.com/showthread.php?t=456

Now, what’s the difference between that thread and this one? As you’ll see, there are those on the dissensus forum who have their doubts about Badiou, those who don’t understand the math stuff, those who do, and those who disagree about the math stuff — in other words, very much like this thread in terms of sympathy towards Badiou. The difference then seems to lie in the fact that those in the dissensus forum are at least willing to read Badiou’s work, whereas here all we have are various groups of people digging into their narrowly prescribed disciplinary bunkers and yelling “fashionable nonsense” at the top of their lungs.

72

Commenter 03.11.06 at 8:34 pm

Oh crap, well I’m behind the times because I guess Zizek has appropriated quantum stuffs, as another read over Kieran’s post shows. My apologies, John. Although I think my meta- point still stands.

73

John Quiggin 03.11.06 at 9:48 pm

Commenter, most of the misapplications of Godel’s theorem and similar I’ve seen have been to economics. The most common (not the only) is that the idea of equilibrium in economics is invalid because of Godel’s theorem.

Here’s a fairly typical example.

Not that I’m a believer in Pareto-optimal equilibrium, but I think the problems with the neoclassical model are empirical, not logical.

If someone can explain, or even give me a hint about, why applications of Godel’s theorem in other fields are likely to be less silly, I’m happy to listen, but in my experience this is never done. All I get is suggestions that I shouldn’t condemn what I haven’t read, which, given the brevity of life, does not seem very helprul.

74

agm 03.11.06 at 9:49 pm

Oh, now that’s just wrong:

If this was really a problem, large numbers of string theorists would have to locked away, given the extent to which they now make use of category-theoretic metaphors to generate ideas and concepts, and to create mathematical structures which may only later be assessed for compliance with reality.

You should never tease the entire rest of a field with a promise you can’t deliver on ;).

75

Anthony Paul Smith 03.11.06 at 9:55 pm

Not that Adam’s point is invalidated by this but Badiou was a philosopher only. He never did math as a mathematician. However, his theory is supposed to go beyond what Quine did, so, in that regard it is ‘new’.

Would Sokal be known for anything if he hadn’t written a book giving non-scientists (and mediocre scientists) reasons to not read European thinkers and American cultural studies folks? Did he do anything in the field of science I should care about?

76

Anarch 03.11.06 at 9:56 pm

Roger Penrose butchers Godel pretty thoroughly in The Emperor’s New Mind, IIRC. Although it’s been many years since I read it, so maybe it’s just the juxtaposition of quantum computation and Godel that he butchers.

77

Walt 03.11.06 at 10:25 pm

Adam: The reason these threads all go the same way is pure tribalism. Why do Kieran and John Quiggin dismiss Zizek? Because of Zizek’s hatred for them and everything they stand for. As far as I can tell, how people who are moderately center-left are the embodiment of evil is practically Zizek’s main subject matter. In a different era, moderates used to put up with being attacked from the postmodern left, but Sokal set off a backlash. As closed-minded as Kieran and John may be on other subjects, they are particularly closed-minded about someone who jokes that they should be liquidated.

John: I disagree with you about general equilibrium and Goedel’s theorem. If GE exists in principle, but is unknowable, then that says something significant about GE. (Though maybe we disagree because I think GE is important, and you don’t.) I agree with you about misuses of Goedel’s theorem in general, though.

78

Kieran Healy 03.11.06 at 10:40 pm

Why do Kieran and John Quiggin dismiss Zizek? Because of Zizek’s hatred for them and everything they stand for.

I just asked whether it’d be worth buying his book.

As far as I can tell, how people who are moderately center-left are the embodiment of evil is practically Zizek’s main subject matter.

Really?

79

Adam Kotsko 03.11.06 at 10:50 pm

Walt,

“As far as you can tell” is apparently not very far at all. He’s written a whole lot of books — it’d be hard to come up with that many ways to say, “Death to the DLC!!!”

Life’s too short to do a manual trackback through Haloscan, but I encourage everyone to join in the rousing discussion at my blog — this would be particularly helpful if you suspected that I was a bad person, but you didn’t have any hard evidence as of yet.

80

John Quiggin 03.11.06 at 10:52 pm

What do you mean by “unknowable”, Walt? I can set up a general equilibrium model of the economy and compute its equilibria – there’s a huge industry of people doing this and flogging the results to industry and government. Or I can work out the rate of surplus value in a Marxian model. Or I can, say, evaluate the sum 2+2.

All are applications of elementary arithmetic, even if varying in difficulty. Thanks to Godel’s theorem, I know that the self-consistency of elementary arithmetic can’t be proved within arithmetic, but this is no more relevant to GE than the other cases.

The problems I see as relevant for GE are that the models do not accurately describe the economy and that the economy may not be in equilibrium – Godel has nothing to say about either point.

81

Jonathan 03.11.06 at 11:02 pm

Yes, Sokal was actually promoted to full professor in the NYU physics department based on his teaching work with the Sandinstas and the Lingua Franca piece. The articles on statistical mechanics, etc. are just a hobby.

82

Anthony Paul Smith 03.11.06 at 11:12 pm

Jonathan,

So the Lingua Franca piece and the fact that his name is proclaimed from mountaintops has nothing to do with his promotion? Should I care about all the work of every full professor in the NYU physics department? Did they all make it on their merit with no politics at all?

83

Jonathan 03.11.06 at 11:18 pm

No. Not “all,” surely. Probably not.

84

Anthony Paul Smith 03.11.06 at 11:26 pm

Are you a big follower of Sokal’s work in statistical mechanics?

85

Jonathan 03.11.06 at 11:58 pm

Medium-sized, rather. Your original question, “did he do anything I should care about,” doesn’t seem to recognize that no one without training is capable of evaluating the work of a scientist in this era of hyperspecialization.

86

Kenny Easwaran 03.12.06 at 12:08 am

Oh, I had somehow gotten the impression that Zizek disliked the left part of center/left rather than the center part. But this is what comes from having only seen excerpts in the New Yorker, blogs, and various other sources. Like the thing attacking “human rights” above.

87

radek 03.12.06 at 12:10 am

“but this is no more relevant to GE than the other cases.”

Would you really worry about GIT when building a bridge because of what GIT says about arithmetic?

88

Jeff Rubard 03.12.06 at 12:24 am

Interesting post, despite the affected disdain for a “tired” subject. Really, isn’t the publication of Badiou’s book an unusual kind of intellectual “event” which might be, at the very least, fun? Finally, there is something “challenging” on the market which everyone intelligent, serious or not, can pick up and form a few opinions about. Really, I can’t think of another such occurrence since I’ve been paying attention, which means that there are a whole bunch of American teens/twentysomethings who have been missing out on a sort of public-sphere profundity that seems a highly desirable quality from the standpoint of a garden-variety inhabitant of same.

As for Badiou’s merits, in my fuck-the-world-I’m-a-theorist phase (brought on by a period of semi-voluntary unemployment and the early death of a much-admired, less-admiring woman) I wrote some essays which read a little bit like him in their attempt to make formal theories Matter. Like him, I tried to make hay of forcing, and I believe I hold (among other dubious distinctions) the world record for most mentions of Lindstrom’s (first) theorem in a Hegel essay. The relative lack of interest in such experiments in Usenet readers’ patience suggests to me that Badiou may not, in fact, be on to something.

But, squalid though such invocations may be, it’s only hard-core jerk-offs who complain about such philosophy’s intellectual merit. Formal epistemology and the like may be the shizznit for careerist academics and the blogospheric drifters who love them, but rather than comparing “Continental” philosophy to Obviously Excellent Uses Of Grant Money perhaps it would be infinitely more charitable to consider the low tone of popular (e.g. political) discourse as a more suitable counterpoint for attempts to get people to Think the Other.

Would it be so terrible if Badiou gave a heavily symbolized finger to Democracy making Prosperity making Democracy? Even if it made baby Frege cry? What wouldn’t make me cry is a “popular” philosopher who did something to raise the intellectual standards of everyday life, and it seems that Badiou’s book may do something of the sort in some of course infinitesimal fashion. Good for him.

89

Bruce Simon 03.12.06 at 1:05 am

Let’s see: law and economics types never tire of applying rational choice theory or game theory to every aspect of life; economics professors never tire of suggesting that their “laws” enjoy the same status as natural scientists’ laws of nature; mathematicians and physicists never tire of trying to figure out if they’re actually figuring out how the universe runs and draw freely on work from outside their fields; biologists draw on very gendered narratives to describe eggs and sperm and their interactions; but the one immutable law of academia is that no humanist can legitimately draw on theories from outside the humanities?! This is how I read the conventional wisdom commentary on Kieran’s little joke post. Glad to see some people questioning it here. You’d think the success of people like Patricia Williams and Malcolm Gladwell to reach non-academic audiences or the wide interest in quality science writing (Jared Diamond, Steven Levitt, William McNeill, etc.) would have garbled this little “two-cultures” shibboleth by now.

90

John Holbo 03.12.06 at 2:05 am

What makes you think Kieran thinks no humanist can legitimately draw on theories from outside the humanities, Bruce?

91

Danny Yee 03.12.06 at 2:25 am

Technical ideas do find their way into popular culture, there’s nothing wrong with that. Often they’re used merely for a methaphor.

I agree with you that there’s nothing wrong with this per se. However, the worse the popular understanding of the underlying concepts, the less useful they are as metaphors.

Of course that’s assuming the goal is to convey insight or understanding into some other area — if the use of mathematical and scientific terms is purely decorative then that’s obviously not an issue. But many people really do seem to think they can create *substance* by waving mathematical words around.

(Impressed by Indian historian K.N. Chauduri’s Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean, I checked out his Asia Before Europe, only to find he’d been to a philosophy conference and was now waxing on about the Axiom of Choice and suchlike… There was still some useful material in the book, but when his broader ideas rested in part on how nicely they could be linked to totally irrelevant bits of set theory, it became hard to trust his weighing of the evidence.)

Shouldn’t we at least read his work before dismissing it?

Have you read L. Ron Hubbard’s work and if not on what basis would you dismiss it? There really isn’t time to read everything, or even to sample everything.

92

Danny Yee 03.12.06 at 2:37 am

There are many ideas from science and mathematics whose application to the humanities wouldn’t set off my bullshit detectors. The use of statistics, most obviously, is clearly not (necessarily) a problem. Nor is the use of differential equations from ecology, game theory, etc. etc. But the Axiom of Choice? Or General Relativity?

Chaos theory may be borderline here, but I’ve yet to see a single application to history that wasn’t badly confused and unhelpful.

93

Anthony Paul Smith 03.12.06 at 4:38 am

“Have you read L. Ron Hubbard’s work and if not on what basis would you dismiss it? There really isn’t time to read everything, or even to sample everything.”

I’m confused, did someone waste their time asking if it would be a waste of time to read L. Ron Hubbard? Was he at all included in this conversation? How does it follow that, given that L. Ron Hubbard isn’t worth the time to read, since, it is given that there is too little time to read everything, then Zizek and Badiou aren’t worth the time to read? That’s insanse. Simply and clearly insane.

94

Danny Yee 03.12.06 at 6:49 am

How does it follow that, given that L. Ron Hubbard isn’t worth the time to read, since, it is given that there is too little time to read everything, then Zizek and Badiou aren’t worth the time to read? That’s insanse. Simply and clearly insane.

I invoked the L. Ron Hubbard analogy in response to

Shouldn’t we at least read his work before dismissing it?

and its point is not to prove that Zizek and Badiou aren’t worth reading, but that there can be no a priori assumption than they *are* worth reading.

Every one of us rejects huge numbers of ideas without reading detailed presentations of them; the question is not whether we should do this or not, but what criteria we should use for doing it. Talking nonsense about subjects I understand relatively ranks pretty highly is one diagnostic criterion I use.

95

Brendan 03.12.06 at 6:59 am

Could all further discussions on these matters be headed by the rubric ‘fuck-the-world-I’m-a-theorist’?

Alternatively, if anyone wants to set up a political party with that title, can I join? I know a bit of French.

96

trey 03.12.06 at 6:59 am

FYI, Zizek has an editorial in today’s NYT.

97

trey 03.12.06 at 7:02 am

Of course, that should say an op-ed.

98

Brendan 03.12.06 at 8:31 am

The Zizek editorial confirms my point that he is entirely capable of writing clear coherent prose with a understandable logical argument behind it, although he sometimes chooses not to to impress the spotty boys.

99

jake 03.12.06 at 9:32 am

Set theory as ontology: let them eat membership , Mssr. Badiou?

Viva Nominalisme

100

Peter 03.12.06 at 10:11 am

Kenny (post 66):

Apparently, Frege could not get his head around the concept of a mathematical model, and believed that EITHER Euclidean geometry was a true description of the world OR ELSE (some branch of) non-Euclidean geometry was, and so mathematicians should not waste their time studying whichever of these axiom systems was false. Accordingly (Frege argued), Hilbert could not legitimately study both Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry.

Hilbert got tired of trying to explain to him that an axiom system was true of whatever class of entities satisfied its axioms; indeed, the class of such entities in some sense defined an axiom system. Accordingly, one could legitimately study any axiom system, provided the collection of axioms was consistent. (They need to be consistent in order that there is some class of entities which satisfy them.) Hence the focus on axiom consistency in Hilbert’s work from 1900 or so.

It seems that Frege never quite understood this model-theoretic concept of truth. If memory serves, his correspondence with Hilbert began after reading Hilbert’s Foundations of Geometry (1898), and before hearing from Russell.

101

George Williams 03.12.06 at 10:35 am

The Zizek editorial confirms my point that he is entirely capable of writing clear coherent prose with a understandable logical argument behind it, although he sometimes chooses not to to impress the spotty boys.

1) The idea that to be persuasive an author needs to change her or his way of communicating to suit the audience being addressed is as ancient as the field of rhetoric. We should stop behaving as if successfully doing so is evidence of duplicity.

2) Let’s also recognize that calls to explain complex ideas in “two or three sentences” and complaints about difficulty are canny rhetorical moves and are not merely disinterested assertions regarding clarity and prose style. From the introduction to Just Being Difficult? Academic Writing in the Public Arena (edited by Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb):

The claim not to understand might seem an innocent posture that people would seldom adopt willingly, but in fact it is one of considerable power, in which authorities often entrench themeselves. Eve Sedgwick has described the “epistemologoical privilege of unknowing,” whereby “obtuseness arms the powerful against their enemies,” as when a bilingual diplomat must negotiate in the language of his monolingual counterpart from another country. Something of that structure underlies charges of excess difficulty. The claim not to understand carries a presumption that the writer ought to communicate in terms familiar to the reader, who thus comes to have an interest in not understanding, since that is what strenghthens his or her position. The person who does not understand or declines to understand, the interlocutor who has or pretends to have the less broadly knowledgeable understanding, gets to determine the terms of the encounter (3).

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Jonathan 03.12.06 at 10:52 am

When, say, a Romanian and Hungarian diplomatic meeting takes place, what language is spoken? English? Russian?

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Commenter 03.12.06 at 10:54 am

On this “not enough time in the world” point, I would simply add that, yes, of course there’s not enough time in the world to read everything. Nevertheless, if one is going to comment on the general worth of certain thinkers, whether it be in a formal paper or off the cuff in a blog post, then, sorry, I think you need to make the time to read at least a little of these thinkers’ work — in the very least, you could read an article on these thinkers’ ideas and then comment on why these ideas seem untenable to you. Devote, say, 10 minutes to looking these thinkers/ideas up on wikipedia, getting a general sense of the terrain, etc. Otherwise, it’s perfectly justifiable for someone like me to call bullshit on your own calls of bullshit.

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Craig 03.12.06 at 11:47 am

Your original question, “did he [Sokal] do anything I should care about,” doesn’t seem to recognize that no one without training is capable of evaluating the work of a scientist in this era of hyperspecialization.

Could someone explain the entirety of his work in ‘two or three sentences,’ please? A follow-up: why should Zizek’s philosophy be transparent to the layperson, but not Sokal’s physics?

105

Walt 03.12.06 at 12:29 pm

Apologies all around.

Kieran: I’m sorry, I should have said “People like Kieran”, not “Kieran”. I ordered some Kieran-mind-reading equipment off eBay, but I’m still waiting for delivery. Your objection to Zizek is just that he writes obscurely, not his encomiums to Stalin?

John (Quiggin): I’m sorry, I just glanced at your link. If that’s what it says, then it really is as stupid as you say. But aren’t there results of the form that if you include expectations, the general equilibria of economies become uncomputable?

Adam: Sorry, I shouldn’t have said what Zizek’s main subject was, since I don’t know. I should have said something about his product differentiation in the marketplace of ideas, since this is what seems to get him noticed.

Anyway, what I am an expert on is Zizek threads, which is the point I was trying to address. The center-left doesn’t like Zizek because Zizek doesn’t like them.

Kenny: “Human rights” is kind of the mealy-mouthed centrist thinking that stands in the way of the revolution.

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jake 03.12.06 at 12:52 pm

zizek occasionally reveals a bit of a rationalist side, as the atheism op-ed demonstrates. It’s not real deep but effectively presented: given a choice between two postmod obscurantists, even the marxist orthodoxy of Zizek preferable over the Hegel-meets-cantor sludge of Badiou.

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Walt 03.12.06 at 1:01 pm

commenter: I have spent at least 10 minutes reading Zizek. Does that really entitle me to call him worthless? Or does the standard for me become 11 minutes?

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Bruce Simon 03.12.06 at 1:03 pm

What makes you think I was referring to Kieran in my comment, John (#90)?

Don’t get me started on Kieran’s post itself, which merely provided the occasion for the anti-theory ditto-heading I _was_ responding to. I have better things to do with my time.

109

Commenter 03.12.06 at 1:37 pm

OK, yes, Walt I was being a tad facetious — it’s probably more like 15 minutes if you don’t know your Hegel and Lacan. But it does raise an interesting question, right? I mean, how much time do we need to devote to a thinker before dismissing him or her? A couple people on this thread have claimed to somehow intuit that Zizek is full of shit, a stance that sends my bullshit-detector straight to red. But then again, should we expect everyone who wants to weigh in on Zizek to read all of the major works? Are his popular essays even enough? Where do we draw the line?

110

steve 03.12.06 at 1:38 pm

104 –

We should understand Zizek more than Sokal:

1. Because he addresses himself to us. Whereas in Sokal’s work on Physics he does not.

2. Following (1) but augmenting it, because he makes demands on our behaviour, we should like to be able to evaluate those demands. (Whereas Sokal’s work in Physics does not make such demands)

Having said that let me also say:

1. The knee jerk reaction results not from the above but from the fact that he uses words, supposedly a language which all of us understand, whereas Sokal uses a language which most readers would not understand. But in fact he could be using ‘natural’ language in a way which is just as technical as Sokal’s use of mathematical language.

2. Being no expert on Zizek, but having reads the above article on Human rights, I must say it is pretty straightforward reading. Maybe a ‘better’ title would be “Towards a Problematization of the Liberal Concept of Human Rights”. The current title is designed to annoy and does so admirably. And btw it certainly does seem as if his problem with the centre-left is the centre, and not the left.

3. My own knee jerk, though – grow up, Zizek. The mere fact of being problematic or amenable to problematization carries little information and is not, in and of itself, tantamount to a refutation.

4. BUT, and in opposition to (3), the way he problematizes Human Rights is not devoid of interest, which is ‘what counts’.

or is it?

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jake 03.12.06 at 1:46 pm

One doesn’t have to know much about Hegel ( anyways, should one have to know much about errors?) to appreciate the more reasonable of Zizek’s writings, just as one might appreciate the opening of Marx’s German Ideology without subscribing to his economics in toto. And Zizek often seems more akin to historical materialism then postmodernism. There is a certain logic to historical materialism which postmodernists often seem to overlook or downplay (and there is dogmatic hist. materialism, and that is to be avoided).

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Brendan 03.12.06 at 1:55 pm

Incidentally I should state, pace George Williams that my argument was not that Zizek was duplicitous (what a bizarre argument that would be), but that sometimes he writes well and sometimes he writes badly. The passage quoted makes the point perfectly clear (i.e. from the Culler/Lamb book). Now the reason we can discuss that passage is because it is, in fact, clear. I think the argument is bullshit, but at least its clear. The fact is I wouldn’t even be able to discuss their reasons for being incoherent if they couldn’t be coherent occasionally and explain why they were being incoherent.

Incidentally; ‘The person who does not understand or declines to understand, the interlocutor who has or pretends to have the less broadly knowledgeable understanding, gets to determine the terms of the encounter.’

Yup that’s about the size of it. And that’s a good thing, surely? We agree that if a teacher fails to teach children (or students) and all the students/children find the teacher incomprehensible then it’s the teacher’s problem, yes?

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Anthony Paul Smith 03.12.06 at 2:08 pm

I think the main issue is not what the standard is for deciding if a thinker isn’t worth your time, it’s knowing to keep your mouth shut when you decide you aren’t going to engage them. Like The Troll of Sorrow pretending he knows Badiou’s work.

114

Matt 03.12.06 at 2:21 pm

John Holbo:
Clearly Matt should be appointed deeply-groovier-than-thou habitual irony czar. Until then, the world will not be safe.

Sorry John, just trying to work with what was given. Tired irony mixed with thinly-veiled contempt: meet (self-conscsiously) ponderous sarcasm, if anything, I guess.

No trench-digging here, though. In fact Long Sunday seems to have taken up rather seriously the, er…impassioned plea for Bourdieu, in any case. If anyone is curious for evidence.

115

jake 03.12.06 at 2:25 pm

Far worse, tho, than the “troll of sorrow’s” trashing of Comrade Badiou is a putative Xtian who thinks that Badiou’s Maoist-Hegelian-Set theory as ontology is like some PC ideology. The deluded, sentimental xtian-leftist gets on board Der GulagZug willingly.

116

Walt 03.12.06 at 2:47 pm

I find these Zizek (or more generally, capital-T Theory) threads vaguely amazing. I mean, it should be easy for the Zizekians to win, since they’ve actually read Zizek, while the critics by-and-large have not. Yet, rather than engage in the argument, they seem offended that anyone challenges their authority. For example, they are completely unwilling to take the L. Ron Hubbard test — what makes Zizek valuable, but Hubbard a nut. In contrast, biologists who argue with creationists take the L. Ron Hubbard test every day.

Commenter: I’ve probably spent at least 15 minutes on it. :-) When people talk about Zizek’s supposed worthlessness, though, they are not talking about his views on Hegel and Lacan (which are technical questions that it would be hard for the uninformed to have an opinion on), but his views on more ordinary subjects such as human rights.

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Matt 03.12.06 at 3:00 pm

What about Zizek’s views on human rights strikes you as worthless, Walt?

118

Seth Edenbaum 03.12.06 at 3:08 pm

Writers like Zizek are first and foremost writers, that is craftsmen of ideas. According to some logics, Shakespeare is interesting bullshit. Still, Z’s irony is easy enough to understand: freedom in the modern sense is freedom to act within the constraints of technocracy and to be judged by the lowest common denominator of acceptable human behavior. True, though plenty of people refuse to see the obvious.
Someone on this thread commented that more harm’s been done by the misuse of statistics by the mathematically inclined than by its misuse by the merely literate. I got a laugh out of that one.
What’s truly grotesque about most attacks on literary indulgence- and I’ve got my problems with the indulgence itself- is the attackers’ reliance without acknowledgment on an absurd moral teleology. More facts! We need more facts!
I’m sorry, but you can have your warp drives and your protein pills, I’ll keep my Shakespeare and foie gras. As much as I’m annoyed by adults who play at being teenagers I’m much more bothered by those who aspire to the precocity of brilliant 10 year olds.
I envy mathematicians their moral clarity but it’s something I will never share.

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Seth Edenbaum 03.12.06 at 3:10 pm

And by the way Zizek has an oped in the Times today; it’s harmless decent liberalism.

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jake 03.12.06 at 3:23 pm

Given his comments on, and approval of Lenin and Marxism (in the St. Paul thing) it does not seem right to call Zizek a Hegelian in the traditional sense; rather he’s a somewhat orthodox marxist with Lacanian trimmings (and it may be the Lacan and the psychologizing that is more nauseating than the philosophy.).

A critique of theology might be read as an instance of showing the contradictions of ideology: people are Xtians, muslims, hindus, jews, because they want to believe in Justice, and God is Justice. There is a basic theological fallacy here, which religions depend on: a God exists and humans must do what he commands (as per his texts); we should do his will since that’s what He commands. Of course Were such a Being to exist, he is also ordering/bringing into being horrible tragedies and destruction. Some humans might simply be unaware of this contradiction, tho others may be aware and simply don’t care, or perhaps use religion for personal ends. Religion is thus a false consciousness.

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Commenter 03.12.06 at 3:25 pm

Walt, no one’s going to win when there’s no common ground to fight for. What exactly is the argument the Zizekians ought to engage with? That Zizek is a crank who isn’t worth reading? OK, if that’s it, then I submit Tarrying With the Negative as exhibit A. There you’ll find a work that argues for the importance of the German Idealist tradition in thinking through contemporary events. I disagree with Zizek something like 90% of the time, so I’m no Zizekian, but at least he’s interesting to read.

Hubbard was a nut because he invented a religion out of thin air probably after being egged on by Robert Anton Wilson. There’s undoubtedly a playful/trickster element in Zizek that, as Kieran noted, is there mostly to piss off his critics and woo the ABDs. But in the very least Zizek is engaging with the world at large in a critical and often self-critical capacity and not chalking everything up to, say, alien ghosts. Maybe Lacan and Hegel are equivalent to alien ghosts for you, but I’d be willing to debate that point further.

What I find vaguely amazing in these threads is that I always get suckered into defending a thinker who I’m not particularly keen on defending in the first place. Seriously, I think Lacan has some major problems, and Zizek as a more or less orthodox Lacanian would seem to inherit these problems in toto. But when the discussion never gets out of first gear–that is, out of arguing about whether or not it’s a waste of time to even debate about Zizek–then it’s hard to get anything else done.

122

Walt 03.12.06 at 3:39 pm

Commenter: Getting sucked into defending people you don’t even like is an important part of the internet experience. (It happens to me all the time.)

123

abb1 03.12.06 at 4:07 pm

I dunno, I read some Zizek’s current-events pieces, they were interesting to read and easy to understand. Typical Leninism, consistent, simple and logical. In contrast, I could never understand any of the stuff written by William Buckley Jr. Weird.

124

Seth Edenbaum 03.12.06 at 4:36 pm

Zizek in the Times
“More than a century ago, in “The Brothers Karamazov” and other works, Dostoyevsky warned against the dangers of godless moral nihilism, arguing in essence that if God doesn’t exist, then everything is permitted. The French philosopher André Glucksmann even applied Dostoyevsky’s critique of godless nihilism to 9/11, as the title of his book, “Dostoyevsky in Manhattan,” suggests.

This argument couldn’t have been more wrong: the lesson of today’s terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted — at least to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, since, clearly, a direct link to God justifies the violation of any merely human constraints and considerations. In short, fundamentalists have become no different than the “godless” Stalinist Communists, to whom everything was permitted since they perceived themselves as direct instruments of their divinity, the Historical Necessity of Progress Toward Communism.

…While a true atheist has no need to boost his own stance by provoking believers with blasphemy, he also refuses to reduce the problem of the Muhammad caricatures to one of respect for other’s beliefs. Respect for other’s beliefs as the highest value can mean only one of two things: either we treat the other in a patronizing way and avoid hurting him in order not to ruin his illusions, or we adopt the relativist stance of multiple “regimes of truth,” disqualifying as violent imposition any clear insistence on truth.

What, however, about submitting Islam — together with all other religions — to a respectful, but for that reason no less ruthless, critical analysis? This, and only this, is the way to show a true respect for Muslims: to treat them as serious adults responsible for their beliefs.”

The usual context free liberalism. Ignoring the racist logic behind the original publication of the caricatures.
Lacanians are nothing but liberals who cause trouble at cocktail parties, but I certainly prefer them to their easily offended hosts.

125

jake 03.12.06 at 4:58 pm

That’s not so much Lacan or liberal–closer to Marx in The German Ideology, and classic historical materialism. It’s the PC types defending muslims at any cost, and theology as a whole, who are the cocktail liberals.

126

Anthony Paul Smith 03.12.06 at 5:12 pm

Troll of Sorrow,

PC ideology? I don’t live in California so, please, don’t try to put my comments in the same worthless context you find you find your libertarian self in. My point stands – you don’t read the major texts of thinkers you bitch about everyday on these blogs and as such I will never take your half baked critcisms and insults seriously. I know, I know – truth table for biconditional right now!

127

John Quiggin 03.12.06 at 5:16 pm

Coming back to the question of dismissing writers before you’ve read them, isn’t there some sort of lifetime bonus available? I read most of Sartre 30+ years ago (at least, Being and Nothingness, Nausea and quite a lot more) and came to the conclusion that he had very little of value to say, along with an obscure and portentous way of saying it. I had a reasonable go at Althusser (much worse), and steadily more limited attempts these guat later writers. It doesn’t seem to me that I was wrong – not many people today seem to think that reading Sartre or Althusser would be a good use of their time.

And, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve waded through innumerable misapplications of Godel’s theorem, quantum physics and so on, and have good reason to think that they are unlikely to have relevant applications in most of the fields in which I’m interested.

Now, as I say, life is too short for much more of this. What is wrong with the request, made repeatedly in this thread, for some indication of the main arguments Zizek and Badiou are making? It doesn’t have to be “two sentences”. Ten pages would be fine by me. And equations are no problem – the more the better.

128

John Quiggin 03.12.06 at 5:24 pm

Walt “But aren’t there results of the form that if you include expectations, the general equilibria of economies become uncomputable?”

I don’t know of anything exactly like this, but there are plenty of models where no stable equilibrium exists. But in both cases, the result is derived within standard mathematics. So, to the extent that Godel’s theorem undermines your belief in the existence results for equilibrium, it should equally undermine your belief in the non-existence results.

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jake 03.12.06 at 5:46 pm

Tony Gump smitts–

There are no contexts more Worthless than that of ad hominem spewing, wannabe-maoist Xtians from Skokie who couldn’t tell the difference between Cantor and canadian bacon–well, your culinary experience probably would help out there.

130

Anthony Paul Smith 03.12.06 at 6:05 pm

Again, I live in Chicago, not Skokie. You know this! Further, I’m a vegetarian and never had much taste for canadian bacon. Maoist? Don’t know where you got that from. I do, it’s true, have very little to do with Cantor outside what I’ve felt I had to check up on in order to understand Badiou. My guess is that you have little to do with him outside of what you’ve learned from Quine and Russell.

Perhaps you could revisit the definition of an ad hominem. Stating that you haven’t actually read the books you dismiss is hardly and ad hominem. Saying your views on said book are stupid because you are a libertarian, well, that would be an ad hominem. Please though, prove my point in your next response.

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Walt 03.12.06 at 6:17 pm

John: I am a mathematician, so I understand the meaning of Goedel’s theorem. It doesn’t undermine my faith in standard mathematics. I meant that if someone proved a theorem of the sort “Every diophantine equation can be represented as a general equilibrium economy, in such a way as the solutions to the diophantine equation are the equilibria of the economy and vice versa”, then that would be an example of Goedel’s theorem applying in economics.

132

jake 03.12.06 at 6:23 pm

Why not respond to Zizek’s easy-to-read essay on atheism, champ (or my points on religion as false consciousness). I doubt you could field a decent argument against libertarianism of the left or right anyways. (I am not libertarian, except in sort of an Ed Abbey style of libertarianism. Tho’ I do own…..a…..phirearm. heh heh).

And another great thing about postmodernism: having decided that reason itself is now suspect the postmods feel no need to bother with argument. Zizek’s linked essay itself probably a bit too logocentric for many.

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John Quiggin 03.12.06 at 6:27 pm

I think we’re in agreement here Walt. Presumably, such a result would lead to the conclusion that no formal procedure could generate all economies for which the equilibria could be solved. This would be mildly interesting, but much weaker than the claims that are commonly made.

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jake 03.12.06 at 6:32 pm

A question for CT mathematicians: how does one measure the real effect of Goedel’s paradox? If self-referentiality is sort of verboten doesn’t that attenuate much of the damage of the so-called paradoxes (Goedel as well as Russell, if not Cantor).

Moreover it appears prima facie a bit odd to discuss infinite sets containing other infinite sets. I am not sure of the exact term for defining domains, axioms, and functions before beginning to calculate (or predicate), but that doesn’t seem entirely mistaken. I guess, in some sense it is a verification issue (as per Peirce rather than Ayer): what real. measurable differences (say in terms of programming or computing) result from Goedel’s 1st and 2nd theorems?

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Walt 03.12.06 at 6:41 pm

Jake: Goedel’s theorem (or rather, it’s proof) shows that if you try to ban self-referentiality, that as long as you can axiomitize arithmetic you can sneak it back in. In terms of computing, you can regard Goedel’s result as a straightforward consequence of the unsolvability of the Halting Problem.

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Z 03.12.06 at 6:50 pm

I can set up a general equilibrium model of the economy and compute its equilibria – there’s a huge industry of people doing this and flogging the results to industry and government. Or I can work out the rate of surplus value in a Marxian model. Or I can, say, evaluate the sum 2+2.

All are applications of elementary arithmetic, even if varying in difficulty. Thanks to Godel’s theorem, I know that the self-consistency of elementary arithmetic can’t be proved within arithmetic, but this is no more relevant to GE than the other cases.

Not so fast John. All your examples involve presumably only bounded numbers. In that case, consistency can be proven.

I read most of Sartre 30+ years ago […]. I had a reasonable go at Althusser

Now you impress me.

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fifi 03.12.06 at 7:13 pm

I enjoy reading Zizek because he’s discursive. Writers that reason in straight lines between unambiguous meanings tend to produce explanations that to me seem concocted or geeky. The way Zizek ranges all over the map to relate the production of subjects and meanings (e.g. human rights) seems to produce results that have more sweep and mystery and real life about them. That’s supposed to make him a crank? Compared to whom– Nozick? Come on.

138

Matt 03.12.06 at 7:15 pm

It doesn’t have to be “two sentences”. Ten pages would be fine by me. And equations are no problem – the more the better.

Well in that case, one need only look, and the world of blogs outside of Crooked Timber may provide.

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jake 03.12.06 at 7:29 pm

The blogger chitchat concering paradox often seems to suggest that within any axiomatic system there are unprovable truths; but then occasionally it’s only arithmetic. Does Goedel’s 1st incompleteness theorem (or the Halting problem) suggest that within any axiomatic system there are unprovable truths, or rather only in arithmetic? Chess for instance is a system with axioms (rules for piece movement); where are the unprovable truths? They might not be easily calculated, but that does not = not able to be calculated; or rather how do we know that truths (the best move) within that well-defined system are not computable in advance?

The halting problem is a bit different. There may be uncomputable arguments /conclusions within certain systems, but that doesn’t mean that systems cannot be complete, does it.

axiom system:

* @ &

if @, then *

if *, then &

if &, then *

thus,

if @ then &,

and if @ then *

where is the uncomputability ?

140

Walt 03.12.06 at 7:46 pm

There are axiom systems that do not have unprovable truths. An example is Euclidean geometry, which even has a (very slow) algorithm to determine if every statement is true or false. What’s required is that the system allows you to encode all of the axioms of arithmetic. The system doesn’t have to resemble arithmetic, it just has to be sufficiently expressive to allow the encoding.

If a system is complete, then there is an algorithm to determine the truth or falsity of every statement in the system. Let A be a statement. Systematically generate every possible proof in the system. If you generate a proof of A first, then A is true. If not-A is true, then A is false. This algorithm is very, very slow, but in theory it will always terminate.

141

Rich Puchalsky 03.12.06 at 8:15 pm

“the one immutable law of academia is that no humanist can legitimately draw on theories from outside the humanities”

The problem is that their use of science concepts as metaphors is usually subtly wrong. Zizek’s use of parallax as a metaphor, for example (from the small bits and pieces I’ve read) breaks down if you know much about parallax. Parallax is the shift in the apparent position of an object against a background caused by a change in point of view (dictionary.com’s use of “direction” is not really inspired, I’d say) and it’s a very familiar process — whenever you look at something with two eyes, your brain uses parallax as one of the ways of judging its distance. Zizek’s emphasis on parallax as metaphor of separation just doesn’t work; the object seen looks the same in either case, and all you have to do to see if against its background differently is change your location a bit.

In Zizek’s case, though, I think that he’s doing this on purpose. He has previously made arguments that were intended to be seen through in order to mock his enthusiasts. I’d guess that he finds the idea of people earnestly looking up parallax and their inner worries about whether they’ve gotten him right pretty funny.

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jake 03.12.06 at 8:35 pm

There are axiom systems that do not have unprovable truths

Yes, sir, and since this is a political thread, the issue is why leftists don’t make use of well-defined, “constrained,” systems or models instead of, say, getting carried away with cantor or lacan or hegelian Reason or whatever. A progressive “entitlement model” based on primary needs and resources, housing, existing technology, employment, etc, could be constructed fairly easily it seems, but the leftist-marxist detestation of modeling, quantification, etc. prevents that from happening as much as finance capitalism or a sort of faux-liberal monarchism does. Which is to say, the progressive it seems should value mathematical/economic applications and technique more than he does platonic contemplations (ie set theory as ontology), which may be gratifying for oxfordians or ivy league types but not for citizens taken as, they say, an aggregate.

143

John Quiggin 03.12.06 at 8:59 pm

“Well in that case, one need only look, and the world of blogs outside of Crooked Timber may provide.”

Now you’re just teasing! OK, despite things I’ve said above, I’ve read enough of Zizek to satisfy myself I don’t really want to read any more. But neither Google nor Technorati produces anything obviously useful on Badiou – how about a link?

144

jake 03.12.06 at 9:19 pm

…are set theorists or ontologists party members? The jacobins did not see fit to include the mathematical girondists in the revolution; Cauchy himself was forced to escape the reign of terror… THe pure mathematician may be said to be aligned with the metaphysician and thus with the false consciousness of idealism and/or theology: platonism for centuries been as useful to clerics as it is to advancing knowledge. that said, applied mathematics, mechanics, programming obviously sort of indispensable….not Comrade Plato, but Commandante Archimedes

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Adam Kotsko 03.12.06 at 9:52 pm

Kotsko’s Second Law:

“As the length of a thread involving the Troll of Sorrow extends, the probability that the Halting Problem will be mentioned approaches one.”

The fact that it wasn’t The Troll of Sorrow himself who brought up the Halting Problem in this case seems to strengthen this claim.

(Kotsko’s First Law is that bloggers don’t keep their promises.)

146

Z 03.12.06 at 10:01 pm

To John Quiggin in #143
If you read french , Alain Badiou maintains an important philosophical website here. Many articles and interviews en ligne. I had never heard of him before this CT thread, his site did not entice me to investigate any further. Nice writing style though, if you enjoy continental philosophy.

147

Matt 03.12.06 at 10:11 pm

John, I suppose you might try here, or here…or here, or à Gauche, or The Weblog’s ongoing reading group if you need help to finish quenching that.

148

John Quiggin 03.12.06 at 10:55 pm

Thanks, z. I started on “Huit thèses sur l’universel” and was going along OK until I got to this.

Fondamentalement, un événement est ce qui décide sur une zone d’indécidabilité encyclopédique. Plus précisément, il y a une forme implicative de type : E -> d(epsilon), qui se lit : toute subjectivation réelle de l’événement tel qu’il disparaît dans son apparaître, implique que epsilon, qui est indécidable dans la situation, a été décidé.

So, can someone tell me, is this the epsilon I met in company with delta in Intro Calculus, or some other epsilon entirely?

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Kieran Healy 03.12.06 at 11:26 pm

OK, we’re hitting 150 comments and things seem to have rather spun out of control — certainly the original post wasn’t meant to be any kind of contribution to the science wars, and I’d rather not continue fighting them here. So it’s time to move on to brighter and fresher threads elsewhere, folks.

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