The Next Big Thing (Uncharted Waters)

Graham has a great post up on “the next big thing” in philosophy, in reference to the recent flurry of activity in regards to Badiou.

What I especially liked about this post was the following:

In continental philosophy, the cutting edge is usually wherever 25-30 year-olds are working right now. The senior figures in continental philosophy are more likely to still be working on whatever was hot when they were 25-30. (My older Department colleagues, bless them, still think Merleau-Ponty and Derrrida are the latest news. Nothing against Merleau-Ponty and Derrida, but they are obviously not the latest news. I assume this would be far less likely to happen in analytic philosophy circles.)

This reminded me of my undergraduate thesis experience. My grad advisor, Sean, taught at my undergrad institute and was going to supervise my thesis on Eckhart and Heidegger (and at the time, Derrida). My basic premise was that while contemporary philosophy of religion (Caputo, Kearney, and Marion) were enthralled in the “innovations” of Heidegger and Derrida (on ontotheology and negative theology) that the same innovations could be found in Eckhart’s German sermons, that almost identical moves had been made. The hope was to use this as ammunition for an eventual revival of Eckhart, who, while Caputo even has a book on Heidegger and Eckhart, has been mostly overlooked in contemporary philosophy of religion. I was excited about this, and Sean was excited as well.

Unfortunately, Sean left and came to my current school, which is where he’s from originally. He and his wife moved back here to raise their son. At the time I was really upset because I’d already begun work on my thesis and thought I would have to find a new topic, which I really didn’t want. I met with my new advisor, who specializes in Aristotle and Virtue Ethics. He assured me that I could keep my same topic, and that he had an interest in both mysticism and Medieval philosophy. I was relieved to say the least.

After working on the first half of my thesis in the Fall, the half on Heidegger, ontotheology, and Eckhart, I had a meeting with him. I was told he didn’t want me to do the Derrida half, that this should be a thesis on Heidegger and Eckhart. I didn’t understand why, considering Derrida was (and still is) highly relevant to the philosophy of religion. My advisor told me that Derrida hadn’t proved himself to be a lasting figure yet. I was stunned. I considered myself something of a deconstructionist at the time, and had plans to study it further in grad school and was being told that what I was working on, what I was planning to continue working on, wasn’t a proven system yet even though Derrida had just died and had been producing work for decades, not to mention all of the work of other deconstructionists. All of the contemporary people I was working with for my thesis were highly influenced by Derrida. Again, I was stunned.

The rest of the year was spent miserably trying to turn what I had thought was simply a chapter, less than half of my total thesis, into the thesis itself. I was depressed, angry, and confused. My advisor became more and more critical of the contemporary thinkers I was using for my thesis, telling me that I needed to be doing a historical thesis. I tried to explain that I was doing a work of hermeneutics (which had been the point all along) which he also seemed to scoff at. To top it off, I found out early on that my advisor wasn’t reading any of the books I was reading. I had read the complete works of Eckhart, Heidegger’s Identity and Difference, a couple of books by Caputo (The Mystical Element of Heidegger’s Thought, and Weak Theology), a couple by Marion (God Without Being, and Being Given), and one by Kearney (The God Who May Be), plus assorted essays and secondary sources. My advisor didn’t read any of them.

I had a couple of good courses that year though, a seminar on Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, and a seminar on Foucault which I sat in one (it was a sociology course and I lacked the pre-reqs). What I loved about these courses is that in the case of Merleau-Ponty, I was understanding the context of Jean-Luc Marion much better, while reading Foucault furthered the interest I already had in Deleuze.

I realized that year that while I am interested in the history of philosophy as it is broadly understood, I wanted to be doing contemporary work, looking for that next big thing. I think that’s why when I came here for my MA, while I had planned originally to write a thesis on Derrida (essentially writing what would have been the second half of my undergrad thesis) I quickly abandoned it to study the contemporary relevance of Schelling, reading Grant’s book, along with a lot of Zizek.

Basically, I was very unhappy working with someone who thought the history of philosophy (at least continental philosophy) ended sometime in the beginning of the 20th Century. Now I’m working with someone who is much more understanding of my interests, and has even started reading speculative realism texts in order to also understand the next big thing.



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6 responses to “The Next Big Thing (Uncharted Waters)

  1. Pingback: “uncharted waters” « Object-Oriented Philosophy

  2. kvond

    I like your narrative quite a bit. (I must say though that when reading Graham’s posts, like the one you directed us to, I am almost invariably struck by the sense that Graham thinks HE is the “next big thing” and that calls for the “next big thing” are summations of a wave on which he imagines he might be able to ride.)

    I would like to say that in a blogo-space of thinking and exchange, “the next big thing” happens every week, and the characteristic kinds of cross-pollination and creative synthesis happen with incredible speed (and dare we assume, complexity). Such a space really Isn’t conditioned to “the next big thing” thinking (for instance, the tiring of Badiou surely soon is to be followed by the tiring of Speculative Realism – or whatever brandname these folks are going under now).

    More interesting than the “next big thing” is “the next compelling influence” which is not the same thing. It is far more modulated, and far less strictly “philosophical” in source. A photograph, a piece of news, a story told (like the one you did today) can spur new direction in the thinking of another. I experienced this recently myself as Naught Thought’s recent conflative posting on fantasy Zuggtmoy and Dark Vitalism, spun out a new theoretical perspective I did not entirely know what in me. The “next compelling influence” is just the kind of thing that generates a confessional, but not too serious admission that Badiou is not all that interesting as he is supposed to be. This is not “huge”. This is not a “turning point” (such thinking is confined to the dusty volume old days — or the desire to rise up yourself on the other side of such a turning point.) Graham Harman has been like some kind of apocalyptic prophet predicting great philosophical swings, divisions which somehow always find him or his philosophy center stage at the battle line of continental warfare (maybe its all that Roman History he was reading).

    The “turning points” in blogged communication and thinking are microscopic (not Continental tectonic shifts…come on now, it is really about 10 to 15 guys and a few girls we are talking about here), ripples in diversified cross-influence AND comments section discussion.

    Mostly its professors who have been raised at the mother’s teat of authority figure, canonical Philosophy who become most confused in an inter-net of discussion and philosophical, and just how it shifts. When things become too unpredictable they return again to the notion of “real work”.

  3. “The “turning points” in blogged communication and thinking are microscopic (not Continental tectonic shifts…come on now, it is really about 10 to 15 guys and a few girls we are talking about here), ripples in diversified cross-influence AND comments section discussion.”

    I know it doesn’t seem like a “tectonic shift,” but a lot of the people blogging today will be the profs of tomorrow, and we really will be deciding who is relevant and who isn’t, who is important and who isn’t. While it may seem like petty feuding now, it could be something bigger in the future.

  4. kvond

    The point is that a few guys getting tired of all the Badiou talk is much more like regulars at a French Cafe who like to talk about stuff. Now this cafe might very well be the kind that Sartre and Simon visited, where conversations might have reverberating effect, but it is also one that stretches out into a much greater diversity (Graham Harman’s attempt – Levi’s to a lesser degree – has been to limit this diversity), far more heterogeneous combinations of persons than any cafe would allow.

    When I say that it is not a “turning point” shift, I do not mean to say that it has no effect, but rather that the quality of its shifting has to be understood in the context of so many other shifts that are happening each week. This is not a sudden “break” with Badiou, despite the immuniological response from Badiouists, as someone said. It is if anything a gentle toggling.

    It actually doesn’t seem like feuding to me, but rather a little disagreement. Sure it could be something BIG in the future, but when one sees omens of the end of days in every crow cry, I don’t know, It says more about what you want, rather than what is happening.

    As far as professor in the future “really deciding who is relevant and who isn’t” I am hoping that like your professor who thought he was deciding how important Derrida was this really will even be LESS the case, as people come to get their ideas from a greater diversity of sources and conversations.

  5. Peter

    This reminds me of my philosophy advisor. I wanted to study Kant and Kierkegaard with reference to contemporary continental philosophers like Caputo, Levinas, Derrida, and Marion. However, my philosophy advisor never read any of the four continental philosophers. He advised me to read Flew, Plantinga, Adams, and Alston, with Kant and Kierkegaard.

    I’m a little bitter, but not as much as you, it seems.

  6. Peter, I wouldn’t say I’m bitter. It’s more that I was disappointed that I was working with a lot of material that my advisor was completely unfamiliar with, and that he told me he would read along with me but simply didn’t. Had I known I would be in that situation before I had already written a large portion of it, I would have changed topics.

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