F/Z 2: Doubt & Surety

In part 3 of his encounter with Zizek’s “A European Manifesto,” Jeremy Fernando returns to the question of the picture we have of another’s picture of us that is not the same picture we have of us. In other words, the question of art, tinged with doubt, the opposite of faith (62). We all have a particular picture of ourselves, more than one, perhaps, but, in any case, seldom the same picture others have of us. This is of primary concern to the artist who realizes his lack of vision inhibits the transparency that informs nature (i. e. the primordial picture). The painter of the still life bowl of peaches fails to see the molecules drifting off the rotting fruit, but captures the glossy black fly attending to the rusting red peaches with verisimilitude the critic who likes this sort of thing calls ultra-realism. Of course it’s hardly real at all. It’s a painting, oils that never completely dry.

To have put down yesterday a few of my thoughts on Fernando’s recent book (S/Z Jeremy Fernando: A European Manifesto Slavoj Zizek, 2022, Delere Press), this morning, upon reflection, causes me to pick up the book again and open to:

“…one cannot be sure not only if one has mis-read, over-read, or under-read, one cannot be certain if one has even read.”


An “illegitimate” (63) reading, then. Well, after all, this is a blog:

Thus we can only impress upon our readers (all dozen or so of them, if we are a best-teller) our impression of what we’ve read. My impression is that we’ve no need to fear the monster. And to keep in mind always that the monster is precisely not Frankenstein. All art is science fiction. In fact, all science is science fiction. What do we think we are seeing when we look at these new photographs of scenes taking place in far far away space?

“Where what << Europe >> is, might be, could be, might well already be, is both from yonder, perhaps even beyond the pale, but at the same time – since it is named such – within its possibilities. Where, in response to ‘Was heibt Europa?’ [What is Europe?] one might posit, un pas au-dela [a step beyond].”


The artist (the surety, the guarantor) assumes the responsibility for the debt of the reader who brings suit (calling upon his solicitor – i. e. the critic), as he surely must, for he can never get to the bottom of it on his own, yonder his own limits, beyond the pale, outside any jurisdiction. For the artist, who stands alone, is both surety and principal, the one who performs the obligation and the one who guarantees the performance, and the one who defaults, all three parties to the contract. What became of the reader? Lost in space.

To be clear: Frankenstein is the artist; the book is the monster.

Thus, while Fernando starts part three with questions about the artist, he quickly moves to a discussion of Adam and Eve and the question of the tree of knowledge, of good and evil, and wonders how either (Adam or Eve) could have possibly made an informed decision to eat of the forbidden fruit, since before that act they had no knowledge – they didn’t know what they were doing; as innocents, they could not make an informed decision – they had not reached the age of reason: thus their plea of nolo contendere. And they plea guilty to a lesser charge, that of being human.


The book is a little monster, the text its mask. It will fit into your pocket, the deeper the bigger, where economy is a hole in one’s pocket. The tiny book is in. The small venue. Intimate. Indeterminate intimacy. Fernando’s imperative.

“…one has to jump straight into the story; even if doing so seems like we are merely leaping from one tale into another, feels like we are doing less than nothing. After all, we should recall Slavoj’s lesson that the classic scene in horror movies is the moment when the monster takes off its mask, only to reveal that under the mask lies exactly the same face.”

54, S/Z Jeremy Fernando: A European Manifesto Slavoj Zizek, 2022, Delere Press.

To unmask the text is the work of Theory, influenced by algorithms developed in the Social Sciences, which replaced Freud. “What is to be done?”

One might begin, could certainly do worse, by reading Jeremy Fernando’s latest little monster, S/Z, a McLuhanesque mosaic that follows (explicates, explores, examines, includes) Slavoj Zizek’s A European Manifesto (first published in an abridged version in French as Mon manifeste europeen in Le Monde on 13 May 2021):

“My thesis is that precisely now, when Europe is in decline and the attacks on its legacy are at their strongest, one should decide FOR Europe. The predominant target of these attacks is not Europe’s racist etc. legacy but the emancipatory potential that is unique to Europe: secular modernity, Enlightenment, human rights and freedoms, social solidarity and justice, feminism … The reason we should stick to the name “Europe” is not only because good features prevail over bad; the main reason is that European legacy provides the best critical instruments to analyze what went wrong in Europe. Are those who oppose ‘Eurocentrism’ aware that the very terms they use in their critique are part of European legacy?”


We are at the intersection of Zizek and Fernando, which is to say, there are no streets and no intersection. There is a path that runs (meanders, zigzags, convolutes) like a clear stream over profound stones through a part of the woods we may have never been before. We pass the huts of Badiou, Barthes, Derrida, Dufourmantelle, Kierkegaard, Cixous, Baudrillard, and others

“And by doing so, calls for a reading (lit) that is aware of itself as reading, that – by foregrounding its form, its making – quite possibly undoes itself as one is reading, is potentially under erasure (sous rature) while being read” (strikeouts added).


This is what we do: Reading (23 to 42); Writing (43 to 55); Fainting in Coils (57 to 73).

“Which is not the standard call for multiculturalism – for that still maintains the notion of a single Europe, of a Europe in which many different kinds and types of peoples have to fit themselves into – but a more radical one that attends to Europe itself, that reads what it might be to be European. Bringing with it echoes of wideness, broadness (eurys), certainly encompassing many, but also a matter of seeing, of the eye (ops): of one that sees in the light of the setting sun.”


Thus we arrive back to McLuhan, who explains the effects of technology on the sensorium, who might prefer going back to a time when, before the printing press, men were men and boats were boats (appropriated from another Mc in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”).

We take what we need, when and where we find it. We are building a map not out of the woods, but further in,

“Where, a true disruption comes through reading the notion that we are dealing with – responding to it, conversing with it, turning-with (versare) it, quite possibly occasionally turning it against (versus) itself, but never severing it, tearing it completely from its boundaries, its form. Thus, transforming it in a manner in which it is both recognisable, not-beyond, but also pushing it a step-beyond at exactly the same time.”


Any number of syllabi might be created from this short Delere Press text (81 pages). Such is the depth of the footnotes. As an example, possibly my favorite:

“This line was uttered in a conversation about literature and reading – probably at a bar – with my old friend, Neil Murphy, in June 2006. During the course of the evening, Neil also reminded me that, << reading literature with your head is always a mistake >>.


To find out (discover, uncover, read, listen, study, research, join the conversation), what Neil Murphy “uttered,” Dear Reader, please, you won’t regret it, get the Delere Press book: ISBN 978-981-18-1987-2

The Myth of Syllabus, Cartoon by Joe Linker

“Examined Life”: Socrates on Ice; or, Engaged Life: Riding the Clutch with Today’s Philosophers

In Astra Taylor’s film “Examined Life” (2008, DVD 2011), the camera captures contemporary thinkers walking through everyday environments that reflect and frame their dialogue. But there’s not much dialogue, more monologue, which is what I assume is Martha Nussbaum’s complaint in her upset and defecting review in The Point Magazine, “Inheriting Socrates” (Winter, 2010).

I can only assume, since part of the point of The Point Magazine seems to be open conflict with open access. In any case, Nussbaum’s point in what we do have is clear: “…I found Examined Life upsetting…a betrayal of the tradition of philosophizing that began, in Europe, with the life of Socrates….” The film is upsetting to Nussbaum because the cast features “figures in cultural studies or religious studies or some other related discipline (I’d call Cornel West a political theorist), but what they do is not exactly philosophy as I understand it.”

Philosophy as Nussbaum understands it is no doubt Socratic dialogue that admits “no special claim, no authority.” Socrates “doesn’t like authority,” and certainly “doesn’t like long speeches.” But the segments in “Examined Life” run only ten minutes; the real problem for Nussbaum, and, perhaps, for the film, is the lack of dialogue and what Nussbaum considers the lack of “rigorous argument, or with the respectful treatment of opposing positions.”

We may find, however, the opposing positions in the filmed environments, for philosophers live in the world, the same world the rest of us live in, and why we should saddle the film with any kind of philosophical expectation is unclear. Why would we criticize a film for not being what it was not intended to be? Wouldn’t we all agree that “Jaws” is a terrible romantic comedy? “One might quarrel, first, with the choice of participants,” Nussbaum argues. “Peter Singer, Anthony Appiah and I are all solidly within philosophy, as that discipline is usually understood.” Understood by whom?

One day, my Dad came home with a used 1949 Ford pickup truck, a six cylinder, three speed on the column, no air, no heat, no seatbelts, no radio, no-nonsense truck. He handed me the keys, and I backed the truck out of the driveway, my first stick shift experience. Hardly anyone drives sticks anymore – most of our transmissions are automatics; so too are our philosophies, automatic shift transmissions that allow for smooth acceleration through the busy vicissitudes of our popular culture. Automatic too, it seems, is Nussbaum’s insistence on the so-called rigor of an automatic philosophical tradition transmission. In other words, I think Socrates would have enjoyed Astra Taylor’s film “Examined Life.”

Nussbaum also gets ten minutes in the film, so it’s a bit surprising she winds up finding the film “upsetting.” Indeed, her segment is one of the most speech-like presentations, as she appears raw-nosed and cold walking along Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive. Still, her point in her ten minute segment is clear: she wants all of us to be able to live rich and capable lives. But that seems consistent with what the other philosophers in the film want for us also.

According to Cornel West, the lover of wisdom must have courage: “Courage is the enabling virtue to think, love, hope.” West, if not a philosopher in Nussbaum’s understanding of the tradition, is certainly a character, and characters make better film subjects than philosophers. West is the star of the film. His ten minutes are spread across three segments, and his reappearances create a happy motif, for his love of life is apparent and contagious – and his syntax moves in curious, unexpected directions.

Meanwhile, Slavoj Žižek strolls through a London dump, where he advises don’t idealize, accept, learn to love the world in all its imperfections. “We should become more artificial,” Zizek says, and give up the romantic notion of becoming one with nature. He’s a realist, as is Cornel West, who seems to agree with Zizek when he says give up on the idea of having the whole, a romantic notion, he says, that inevitably ends in disappointment. As it turns out, Nussbaum comes across as the romanticist philosopher. She can’t love Zizek’s garbage. And it’s ironic, in the end, that the most romantic philosopher seems least comfortable out in the cold and trash of everyday existence. Still, she has a point: we shouldn’t go to philosophers for how to live our lives, and most of the philosophers in the film seem bent on just that, telling us what we should do, what we need to do, how we should live – well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it allows for a closer examination of Nussbaum’s point, which is that the true philosopher (as I understand how she understands it, and I could certainly be wrong here) doesn’t tell others how to live, but tries to help them become capable of making and living their own “human dignity.” But exactly to that end, “Examined Life,” if not a great film, if an imperfect film, is a necessary film.

And what about riding the clutch? Saves on the brakes, my Dad told me. Your brakes will always last longer with a stick shift, he said.

Note: Scott McLemee reviewed the film for Inside Higher Ed before Nussbaum’s defection was published, and he used the word “transformative” to describe the segment with Astra’s sister, Sunuara. I agree; Sunara’s segment transcends all the other arguments.

Update, Nov. 12, 2011: The Point Magazine, since I wrote the above post, has improved its website. The full text of an article from Issue 2 (the same issue as the Nussbaum article) discussing the film “Examined Life,” by Jonny Thakkar, “Examined Life: What is Popular Philosophy” views the film with Nussbaum’s concerns but leaves the theatre with different conclusions. Thakkar’s discussion of philosophy in the streets versus in the academy is definitely on point: for what is philosophy, who does philosophy best, where should philosophy be done, and what happens when philosophy gets into the wrong hands? Thakkar’s quote of Bernard Williams is more than mere touching: “…his [Williams’s] last essays reveal a man disillusioned with his academic career, which had ‘consisted largely of reminding moral philosophers of truths about human life which are very well known to virtually all adult human beings except moral philosophers.’ It was, he owned, ‘less than clear that this was the most useful way in which to spend one’s life, as a kind of flying mission to a small group isolated from humanity in the intellectual Himalaya.’”