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Untimely Meditations Series

Found in Philosophy
The Agony of Eros by Byung-Chul Han; foreword by Alain Badiou; translated by Erik Butler
Against Nature by Lorraine Daston
Good Entertainment by Byung-Chul Han; translated by Adrian Nathan West

Untimely Meditations Series : Titles in Order

Book 18
A philosopher considers entertainment, in all its totalizing variety—infotainment, edutainment, servotainment—and traces the notion through Kant, Zen Buddhism, Heidegger, Kafka, and Rauschenberg.In Good Entertainment, Byung-Chul Han examines the notion of entertainment—its contemporary ubiquity, and its philosophical genealogy. Entertainment today, in all its totalizing variety, has an apparently infinite capacity for incorporation: infotainment, edutainment, servotainment, confrontainment. Entertainment is held up as a new paradigm, even a new credo for being—and yet, in the West, it has had inescapably negative connotations. Han traces Western ideas of entertainment, considering, among other things, the scandal that arose from the first performance of Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion (deemed too beautiful, not serious enough); Kant’s idea of morality as duty and the entertainment value of moralistic literature; Heidegger’s idea of the thinker as a man of pain; Kafka’s hunger artist and the art of negativity, which takes pleasure in annihilation; and Robert Rauschenberg’s refusal of the transcendent. The history of the West, Han tells us, is a passion narrative, and passion appears as a killjoy. Achievement is the new formula for passion, and play is subordinated to production, gamified. And yet, he argues, at their core, passion and entertainment are not entirely different. The pure meaninglessness of entertainment is adjacent to the pure meaning of passion. The fool’s smile resembles the pain-racked visage of Homo doloris. In Good Entertainment, Han explores this paradox.
Book 17
A pithy work of philosophical anthropology that explores why humans find moral orders in natural orders.Why have human beings, in many different cultures and epochs, looked to nature as a source of norms for human behavior? From ancient India and ancient Greece, medieval France and Enlightenment America, up to the latest controversies over gay marriage and cloning, natural orders have been enlisted to illustrate and buttress moral orders. Revolutionaries and reactionaries alike have appealed to nature to shore up their causes. No amount of philosophical argument or political critique deters the persistent and pervasive temptation to conflate the “is” of natural orders with the “ought” of moral orders.In this short, pithy work of philosophical anthropology, Lorraine Daston asks why we continually seek moral orders in natural orders, despite so much good counsel to the contrary. She outlines three specific forms of natural order in the Western philosophical tradition—specific natures, local natures, and universal natural laws—and describes how each of these three natural orders has been used to define and oppose a distinctive form of the unnatural. She argues that each of these forms of the unnatural triggers equally distinctive emotions: horror, terror, and wonder. Daston proposes that human reason practiced in human bodies should command the attention of philosophers, who have traditionally yearned for a transcendent reason, valid for all species, all epochs, even all planets.
Book 16
A new understanding of the Anthropocene that is based on mutual transformation with nature rather than control over nature.We have been told that we are living in the Anthropocene, a geological era shaped by humans rather than by nature. In Enlivenment, German philosopher Andreas Weber presents an alternative understanding of our relationship with nature, arguing not that humans control nature but that humans and nature exist in a commons of mutual transformation. There is no nature–human dualism, he contends, because the fundamental dimension of existence is shared in what he calls “aliveness.” All subjectivity is intersubjectivity. Self is self-through-other. Seeing all beings in a common household of matter, desire, and imagination, an economy of metabolic and economic transformation, is “enlivenment.” This perspective allows us to move beyond Enlightenment-style thinking that strips material reality of any subjectivity.To take this step, Weber argues, we need to supplant the concept of techné with the concept of poiesis as the element that brings forth reality. In a world not divided into things and ideas, culture and nature, reality arises from the creation of relationships and continuous fertile transformations; any thinking in terms of relationships comes about as a poetics. The self is always a function of the whole; the whole is equally a function of the individual. Only this integrated freedom allows humanity to reconcile with the natural world.This first English edition of Enlivenment has been expanded and updated from the German edition.
Book 15
A study of communities in the Horn of Africa where reciprocity is a dominant social principle, offering a concrete countermodel to the hierarchical state.Over the course of history, people have developed many varieties of communal life; the state, with its hierarchical structure, is only one of the possibilities for society. In this book, leading anthropologist Hermann Amborn identifies a countermodel to the state, describing communities where reciprocity is a dominant social principle and where egalitarianism is a matter of course. He pays particular attention to such communities in the Horn of Africa, where nonhierarchical, nonstate societies exist within the borders of a hierarchical structured state. This form of community, Amborn shows, is not a historical forerunner to monarchy or the primitive state, nor is it obsolete as a social model. These communities offer a concrete counterexample to societies with strict hierarchical structures.Amborn investigates social forms of expression, ideas, practices, and institutions that oppose the hegemony of one group over another, exploring how conceptions of values and laws counteract tendencies toward the accumulation of power. He examines not only how the nonhegemonic ethos is reflected in law but also how anarchic social formations can exist. In the Horn of Africa, the autonomous jurisdiction of these societies protects against destructive outside influences, offers a counterweight to hegemonic violence, and contributes to the stabilization of communal life. In an era of widespread dissatisfaction with Western political systems, Amborn’s study offers an opportunity to shift from traditional theories of anarchism and nonhegemony that project a stateless society to consider instead stateless societies already in operation.
Book 14
Provocative takes on cyberbullshit, smartphone zombies, instant gratification, the traffic school of the information highway, and other philosophical concerns of the Internet age.In The Death Algorithm and Other Digital Dilemmas, Roberto Simanowski wonders if we are on the brink of a society that views social, political, and ethical challenges as technological problems that can be fixed with the right algorithm, the best data, or the fastest computer. For example, the “death algorithm ” is programmed into a driverless car to decide, in an emergency, whether to plow into a group of pedestrians, a mother and child, or a brick wall. Can such life-and-death decisions no longer be left to the individual human? In these incisive essays, Simanowski asks us to consider what it means to be living in a time when the president of the United States declares the mainstream media to be an enemy of the people—while Facebook transforms the people into the enemy of mainstream media. Simanowski describes smartphone zombies (or “smombies”) who remove themselves from the physical world to the parallel universe of social media networks; calls on Adorno to help parse Trump’s tweeting; considers transmedia cannibalism, as written text is transformed into a postliterate object; compares the economic and social effects of the sharing economy to a sixteen-wheeler running over a plastic bottle on the road; and explains why philosophy mat become the most important element in the automotive and technology industries.
Book 13
On Facebook and fake news, selfies and self-consciousness, selling our souls to the Internet, and other aspects of the digital revolution.With these engaging and provocative essays, Roberto Simanowski considers what new media has done to us. Why is digital privacy being eroded and why does society seem not to care? Why do we escape from living and loving the present into capturing, sharing and liking it? And how did we arrive at a selfie society without self-consciousness?Simanowski, who has been studying the Internet and social media since the 1990s, goes deeper than the conventional wisdom. For example, on the question of Facebook’s responsibility for the election of Donald Trump, he argues that the problem is not the “fake news” but the creation of conditions that make people susceptible to fake news. The hallmark of the Internet is its instantaneousness, but, Simanowski cautions, speed is the enemy of depth. On social media, he says, “complex arguments are jettisoned in favor of simple slogans, text in favor of images, laborious explorations at understanding the world and the self in favor of amusing banalities, deep engagement in favor of the click.” Simanowski wonders if we have sold our soul to Silicon Valley, as Faust sold his to the Devil; credits Edward Snowden for making privacy a news story; looks back at 1984, 1984, and Apple’s famous sledgehammer commercial; and considers the shitstorm, mapping waves of Internet indignation—including one shitstorm that somehow held Adidas responsible for the killing of dogs in Ukraine. “Whatever gets you through the night,” sang John Lennon in 1974. Now, Simanowski says, it’s Facebook that gets us through the night; and we have yet to grasp the implications of this.
Book 12
What happens to the relationship between business and literature when storytelling becomes a privileged form of communication for organizations.Corporations love a good story. Microsoft employs a chief storyteller, who heads a team of twenty-five corporate storytellers. IBM, Coca-Cola, and the World Bank are among other organizations that have worked with storytelling methods. And, of course, Steve Jobs was famous for his storytelling. Today, narrative is a privileged form of communication for organizations. In Portrait of the Manager as a Young Author, Philipp Schönthaler explains this unlikely alliance between business and storytelling. The contradictions are immediately apparent. If, as the philosopher Hans Blumenberg writes, stories are told to pass the time, managers would seem to have little time to spare. And yet, Schönthaler reports, stories are useful in handling complexity. When digital information flows too quickly and exceeds the capacity of the human brain, narrative can provide communicative efficiency and effectiveness. Words and numbers both vouch for truth, are both instrumentalized by management, and are inextricably interdependent. What happens, if narrative becomes ubiquitous? Does the commercialization of narratives have an effect on literature? Through the lens of storytelling, Schönthaler explores the relationship between economics and literature and describes a form of writing that takes place in their shared spheres. Most books on storytelling in the corporate world are written by business writers; this book offers the perspective of an award-winning literary author, who considers both the impact of storytelling on business and the impact of business on literature.
Book 11
Two eminent French philosophers discuss German philosophy—including the legacy of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Adorno, Fichte, Marx, and Heidegger—from a French perspective.In this book, Alain Badiou and Jean-Luc Nancy, the two most important living philosophers in France, discuss German philosophy from a French perspective. Written in the form of a dialogue, and revised and expanded from a 2016 conversation between the two philosophers at the Universität der Künste Berlin, the book offers not only Badiou’s and Nancy’s reinterpretations of German philosophers and philosophical concepts, but also an accessible introduction to the greatest thinkers of German philosophy. Badiou and Nancy discuss and debate such topics as the legacies of Kant, Hegel, and Marx, as well as Nietzsche, Adorno, Fichte, Schelling, and the unavoidable problem of Heidegger and Nazism. The dialogue is contentious, friendly, and often quotable, with strong—at times passionate—positions taken by both Badiou and Nancy, who find themselves disagreeing over Kant, for example, and in unexpected agreement on Marx, for another.What does it mean, then, to conduct a dialogue on German philosophy from a French perspective? As volume editor Jan Völker observes, “German philosophy” and “French philosophy” describe complex constellations that, despite the reference to nation-states and languages, above all encompass shared concepts and problems—although these take a range of forms. Perhaps they can reveal their essential import only in translation.
Book 10
A fresh interpretation of Jeremy Bentham, finding that his “radical foolery” embodied a social ethics that was revolutionary for its time.Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) is best remembered today as the founder of utilitarianism (a philosophy infamously abused by the Victorians) and the conceiver of the Panopticon, the circular prison house in which all prisoners could be seen by an unseen observer—later seized upon by Michel Foucault as the apotheosis of the neoliberal control society. In this volume in the Untimely Meditation series, Christian Welzbacher offers a new interpretation of Bentham, arguing that his “radical foolery” (paraphrasing Goethe’s characterization of Bentham) actually embodied a social ethics that was new for its time and demands proper historical contextualization rather than retroactive analysis from the vantage point of late capitalism. Welzbacher provides just such an analysis, offering an account of the two great utilitarian projects that occupied Bentham all his life: the Panopticon and the Auto-Icon.Welzbacher rescues the Panopticon from the misapprehensions of Foucault, Orwell, and Lacan, arguing that Bentham saw the Panopticon as a pedagogical instrument incorporating the tenets of reason; construction and function, plan and influence, architecture and politics are brought into alignment. Bentham extolled the discovery in words that could easily be ascribed to Le Corbusier, Bruno Taut, or any other modernist architect. The Auto-Icon expressed Bentham’s theories that the dead should benefit later generations; these theories were effectively sealed when Bentham decided to have his body preserved and put on display. (It can be seen today in a cabinet at University College London.) He also donated his inner organs to science—a practice outlawed at the time—and posthumously stage-managed his own ceremonial autopsy.Welzbacher reveals a Bentham who raised questions that feel familiar and current, invoking topoi that would come to define the modern era and that reverberate to this day.
Book 9
One of today’s most widely read philosophers considers the shift in violence from visible to invisible, from negativity to excess of positivity.Some things never disappear—violence, for example. Violence is ubiquitous and incessant but protean, varying its outward form according to the social constellation at hand. In Topology of Violence, the philosopher Byung-Chul Han considers the shift in violence from the visible to the invisible, from the frontal to the viral to the self-inflicted, from brute force to mediated force, from the real to the virtual. Violence, Han tells us, has gone from the negative—explosive, massive, and martial—to the positive, wielded without enmity or domination. This, he says, creates the false impression that violence has disappeared. Anonymized, desubjectified, systemic, violence conceals itself because it has become one with society. Han first investigates the macro-physical manifestations of violence, which take the form of negativity—developing from the tension between self and other, interior and exterior, friend and enemy. These manifestations include the archaic violence of sacrifice and blood, the mythical violence of jealous and vengeful gods, the deadly violence of the sovereign, the merciless violence of torture, the bloodless violence of the gas chamber, the viral violence of terrorism, and the verbal violence of hurtful language. He then examines the violence of positivity—the expression of an excess of positivity—which manifests itself as over-achievement, over-production, over-communication, hyper-attention, and hyperactivity. The violence of positivity, Han warns, could be even more disastrous than that of negativity. Infection, invasion, and infiltration have given way to infarction.
Book 8
Tracing the thread of “decreation” in Chinese thought, from constantly changing classical masterpieces to fake cell phones that are better than the original.Shanzhai is a Chinese neologism that means “fake,” originally coined to describe knock-off cell phones marketed under such names as Nokir and Samsing. These cell phones were not crude forgeries but multifunctional, stylish, and as good as or better than the originals. Shanzhai has since spread into other parts of Chinese life, with shanzhai books, shanzhai politicians, shanzhai stars. There is a shanzhai Harry Potter: Harry Potter and the Porcelain Doll, in which Harry takes on his nemesis Yandomort. In the West, this would be seen as piracy, or even desecration, but in Chinese culture, originals are continually transformed—deconstructed. In this volume in the Untimely Meditations series, Byung-Chul Han traces the thread of deconstruction, or “decreation,” in Chinese thought, from ancient masterpieces that invite inscription and transcription to Maoism—“a kind a shanzhai Marxism,” Han writes.Han discusses the Chinese concepts of quan, or law, which literally means the weight that slides back and forth on a scale, radically different from Western notions of absoluteness; zhen ji, or original, determined not by an act of creation but by unending process; xian zhan, or seals of leisure, affixed by collectors and part of the picture’s composition; fuzhi, or copy, a replica of equal value to the original; and shanzhai. The Far East, Han writes, is not familiar with such “pre-deconstructive” factors as original or identity. Far Eastern thought begins with deconstruction.
Book 7
Meditations, aphorisms, maxims, notes, and comments construct a philosophy of thought congruent with the inconsistency of our reality.Those who continue to think never return to their point of departure.
—InconsistenciesThese 130 short texts—aphoristic, interlacing, and sometimes perplexing—target a perennial philosophical problem: Our consciousness and our experience of reality are inconsistent, fragmentary, and unstable; God is dead, and our identity as subjects discordant. How can we establish a new mode of thought that does not cling to new gods or the false security of rationality? Marcus Steinweg, as he did in his earlier book The Terror of Evidence, constructs a philosophical position from fragments, maxims, meditations, and notes, formulating a philosophy of thought that expresses and enacts the inconsistency of our reality.

Steinweg considers, among other topics, life as a game (“To think is to play because no thought is firmly grounded”); sexuality (“wasteful, contradictory, and contingent”); desire (”Desire has a thousand names; It’s earned none of them”); reality (“overdetermined and excessively complex”); and world (“a nonconcept”). He disposes of philosophy in one sentence (“Philosophy is a continual process of its own redefinition.”) but spends multiple pages on “A Tear in Immanence,” invoking Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, and others. He describes “Wandering with Foucault” (“Thought entails wandering as well as straying into madness”) and brings together Derrida and Debord. He poses a question: “Why should a cat be more mysterious than a dog?” and later answers one: “Beauty is truth because truth is beauty.” By the end, we have accompanied Steinweg on converging trains of thought. “Thinking means continuing to think,” he writes, adding “But thinking can only pose questions by answering others.” The question of inconsistency? Asked and answered, and asked.
Book 6
A German writer’s aphoristic, poetic, and difficult reflections on Heidegger’s Being and Time.There is a beyond of reason and unreason. It is the human psyche.
—Positive NihilismLike many German intellectuals, Hartmut Lange has long grappled with Heidegger. Positive Nihilism is the result of a lifetime of reading Being and Time and offers a series of reflections that are aphoristic, poetic, and (appropriately, considering his object of study) difficult. Lange begins with an abyss (“There is an abyss of the finite. It is temporality”) and proceeds almost immediately to extremity: “The twentieth century was governed by psychopaths. They collapsed the boundaries of moral reason and refuted Kant’s analysis of consciousness.” He reflects further: “But who shall punish whom? One man’s virtue is another man’s crime. Thus Hitler could feel unwaveringly, as he wiped out entire populations, the starry sky above him and the moral law within him, as stipulated by Kant.” He considers the concept of civilization (“misleading”; “how should one oppose the remedies of civilization to the egomania, the murderous appetites of such outright psychopaths as Stalin or Pol Pot?”), the act of thinking (a fata morgana), the psyche, and Heidegger’s Dasein.Positive Nihilism can be considered a pocket companion to Being and Time. “Heidegger’s understanding of Being is nihilistic,” Lange writes, and then explains his assertion. He draws on Kant, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Shakespeare’s Othello for supporting arguments and illustrations. “Everyone is possessed of the courage to have angst about death. The question is whether this courage necessarily secures those vital advantages Heidegger alleges”–that “self-understanding [is] the mental anticipation of death.” Lange wrestles with Heidegger’s position, calling on Tolstoy, Georg Trakl, Herman Bang, and Heinrich von Kleist to argue against it.
Book 5
Why 1 = presence and 0 = absence and the digital world formula is x = xn: an exploration of meaning in a universe of infinite replication.In the beginning was the Zero, and the Zero was with God, and God was the One.
—All and NothingIn 1854, the British mathematician George Boole presented the idea of a universe the elements of which could be understood in terms of the logic of absence and presence: 0 and 1, all and nothing—the foundation of binary code. The Boolean digits 0 and 1 do not designate a quantity. In the Boolean world, x times x always equals x; all and nothing meet in the formula x = xn. As everything becomes digitized, God the clockmaker is replaced by God the programmer. This book–described by its authors as “a theology for the digital world”—explores meaning in a digital age of infinite replication, in a world that has dissolved into information and achieved immortality by turning into a pure sign. All and Nothing compares information that spreads without restraint to a hydra—the mythological monster that grew two heads for every one that was cut off. Information is thousand-headed and thousand-eyed because Hydra’s tracks cannot be deleted. It shows that when we sit in front of a screen, we are actually on the other side, looking at the world as an uncanny reminder of the nondigitized. It compares our personal data to our shadows and our souls, envisioning the subconscious laid out on a digital bier like a corpse. The digital world, the authors explain, summons forth fantasies of a chiliastic or apocalyptic nature. The goal of removing the representative from mathematics has now been achieved on a greater scale than Boole could have imagined.
Book 4
Meditations, maxims, aphorisms, notes, and comments address topics that range from pathos and genius to careerism and club sandwiches.Marcus Steinweg’s capacity to implicate the other is beautiful, bright, precise, and logical, grounded in everyday questions, which to him are always big questions.
—from the foreword by Thomas HirschhornThe houses of philosophy need not be palaces.
—Marcus Steinweg, “House,” The Terror of EvidenceThis is the first book by the prolific German philosopher Marcus Steinweg to be available in English translation. The Terror of Evidence offers meditations, maxims, aphorisms, notes, and comments—191 texts ranging in length from three words to three pages—the deceptive simplicity of which challenges the reader to think. “Thinking means getting lost again and again,” Steinweg observes. Reality is the ever-broken promise of consistency; “the terror of evidence” arises from the inconsistency before our eyes. Thinking is a means of coping with that inconsistency. Steinweg is known for his collaborations with Thomas Hirschhorn and the lectures and texts he has provided for many of Hirschhorn’s projects. This translation of The Terror of Evidence includes a foreword by Hirschhorn written especially for the MIT Press edition. The subjects of these short texts vary widely. (“The table of contents is in itself excessive and ambitious,” writes Hirschhorn.) They include pathos, passivity, genius, resentment, love, horror, catastrophe, and racism. And club sandwiches (specifically, Foucault’s love for this American specialty), blow jobs, and dance. Also: “Two Kinds of Obscurantism,” “Putting Words in Spinoza’s Mouth,” “Note on Rorty,” and “Doubting Doubt.” The Terror of Evidence can be considered a guidebook to thinking: the daily journey of exploration, the incessant questioning of reality that Steinweg sees as the task of philosophy.

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