Michelle Boulous Walker on the difficulty of practicing philosophy in modern institutions, and an alternative approach that might encourage a more careful and attentive relation with the world
Michelle Boulous Walker - Slow Philosophy
Michelle Boulous Walker, Slow Philosophy: Reading Against the Institution (Bloomsbury, 2016)

Could you tell me a little bit about yourself, and what inspired you to write Slow Philosophy?

I’m a philosopher who works in the European tradition. I have a background in political theory and an ongoing commitment to feminist politics. I’ve been teaching for some years now, and this has provided me with the opportunity to re-read key texts with my students.

For example, I’ve read Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus countless times with both undergraduate and graduate students. The joy of re-reading is what first alerted me to the power of slow reading because for me slow philosophy is partly about the quality of attention that comes through repeated engagements with a work or text. Each time I’d return to Plato’s dialogues I’d uncover new possibilities – new meanings that were possible partly because of the new frames I was bringing to his work. (more…)

Christopher John Müller on his new book and his English translation of Günther Anders, a contemporary of Adorno, Benjamin, and Arendt
Günther Anders
Günther Anders

How did you come to discover the work of Günther Anders?

I was alerted to a translated essay from the 1930s called the ‘Pathology of Freedom’, whilst writing my PhD thesis in 2012. I had never heard of its author, Günther Stern, and was captivated by the work, a brilliant existential analysis of the experience of freedom.

When looking up the author, I was surprised to learn that he was connected to canonical authors and thinkers I liked to study – Stern (who assumed the pseudonym Anders) was the first husband of Hannah Arendt, a cousin of Walter Benjamin, a student of Husserl and Heidegger, friends with Ernst Bloch and Herbert Marcuse, and connected to Berthold Brecht, Georg Lukács, Literary Modernists, the Frankfurt School thinkers – the list goes on and on and on. (more…)

I talk to Jan Wilm about the Nobel winner. He shares his approach to Coetzee’s writing, and the first two novels that sparked his enthusiasm
J. M. Coetzee
J. M. Coetzee

When did you first encounter the works of J. M. Coetzee?

There seem to me to exist two very common encounters with the literary texts that change one’s life in one’s salad days. Encounter one is raw, perhaps pure, immediate and emotional, when one feels the literary text entering very deeply into what used to be called one’s soul. There, it seizes one, lifts one up and sets one on a course that will retrospectively seem like the right path. Encounter two is marked by bewilderment, lack of understanding, a sense of loss even, being shaken at the feeling that one has failed to taste from the greatness one was sure to find. (more…)

From Ted Gioia’s article on Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist novel, Nausea
jean-paul-sartre-nausea-penguin-modern-classics
Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea

In general, Sartre is more committed to philosophy than to fiction, even here in the pages of his greatest novel. But when the story lags, the intensity of the intellectual debate flares up to compensate—so much so, that Nausea is essential reading not just for students of literature, but also for anyone interested in the evolution of Sartre’s views on a range of philosophical issues.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this book is Sartre’s decision to supply a happy ending. His horror story ends with a way out of the nausea. I am less than convinced by this turnabout in our suffering Mr. Roquentin, but as a longtime jazz lover, I am secretly pleased at the cure for the existential nausea. A jazz record featuring a singer and saxophonist does the trick—to be specific an old recording of “Some of These Days.” I only wish Sartre had been more specific about the names of the musicians on the date (he doesn’t identify any of them). I would love to hear the jazz record that trumps Freud, cures the ill, and solves existential angst. (more…)

“We disappear, and yet we resurface”

An excerpt from David Winters’ Infinite Fictions

Around the time I began writing book reviews, I read that reviewing was “what lice will do, when they have no more blood to suck.” If so, the only blood I’ve ever tasted is mine. Early on, I already knew that my writing wasn’t entirely about the books “under review” so much as my internal “reading experience” – though that term might be misleading. In suggesting that my reviews reflect something of my “self,” I’m not about to recount my life story, let alone resort to that fashionable form, the “confessional” essay. On the contrary, literary subjectivity isn’t always aligned with autobiography. Right now, I’m writing this in the first person, but I perceive that person as a perfect stranger.

David Winters
David Winters

Put simply, I’ve never known who I am. Nor do I feel securely in sync with the world. I intersect with it at an abnormal angle – my link with life is dislocated. Of course, this condition isn’t uncommon. I mention it only to emphasize that an initial alienation led me to literature. Part of me is predisposed to treat reading as, to quote Houellebecq, a practice that pushes “against the world, against life.” At the same time, I don’t see reading as simply a passive escape from reality. As Kafka famously says, books can be “like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of oneself.” Reading is really a dual movement: books allow us to withdraw from the world, while bringing us back toward it. In reading we disappear, and yet we resurface. (more…)

Friedrich Schiller's workspace. Photograph: Patrick Lakey.
Friedrich Schiller’s workspace. Photograph: Patrick Lakey.

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Walter Benjamin
Walter Benjamin
Ian Penman (City Journal) writes on the tragic life and enduring influence of the German literary critic

Nearly 75 years ago, at the outset of World War Two, stranded between official borderlines, right on the edge of things, the German Jewish philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin slipped out of life. His passing barely registered beyond a small circle of friends and fellow travelers—habitués, like himself, of severe literary journals, fringe politics, esoteric philosophies. Like that of Benjamin’s own literary heroes, Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust, his posthumous career was to prove far more lively. These days, anyone tilling the stony fields of literary or political theory would soon find himself persona non grata if he didn’t pay due obeisance to Benjamin—at least, the version of him now favored: the presiding angel over all that is left-leaning, interdisciplinary, and media-studious. (more…)

From an article by Alex Ross (New Yorker)

ad2be-bremer-adorno-benjaminIn Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 novel, “The Corrections,” a disgraced academic named Chip Lambert, who has abandoned Marxist theory in favor of screenwriting, goes to the Strand Bookstore, in downtown Manhattan, to sell off his library of dialectical tomes. The works of Theodor W. Adorno, Jürgen Habermas, Fredric Jameson, and various others cost Chip nearly four thousand dollars to acquire; their resale value is sixty-five. “He turned away from their reproachful spines, remembering how each of them had called out in a bookstore with a promise of a radical critique of late-capitalist society,” Franzen writes. After several more book-selling expeditions, Chip enters a high-end grocery store and walks out with an overpriced filet of wild Norwegian salmon.

Anyone who underwent a liberal-arts education in recent decades probably encountered the thorny theorists associated with the Institute for Social Research, better known as the Frankfurt School. Their minatory titles, filled with dark talk of “Negative Dialectics” and “One-Dimensional Man,” were once proudly displayed on college-dorm shelves, as markers of seriousness; now they are probably consigned to taped-up boxes in garages, if they have not been discarded altogether. Once in a while, the present-day Web designer or business editor may open the books and see in the margins the excited queries of a younger self, next to pronouncements on the order of “There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (Walter Benjamin) or “The whole is the false” (Adorno). (more…)