The necessity of thought and the apparition of Alterity



This text served as the introduction to my Master thesis on Emmanuel Lévinas and Jacques Derrida, written in 2008.

All thinkers appear to have in common a feeling of inner necessity to articulate those thoughts which they actually articulate. That will which obligates them to give a free interpretation to the intellectual profession, is shown in style, a fervour to publish and the structure of thought. This inner necessity follows as a reaction on a judgment about reality. This judgment is either motivated by attraction or repulsion. In the case of attraction, the thinker will describe reality, or comes to an either systematic of theoretical articulation. The thinker creates an image of what she sees. The attraction of that which is observed, is transformed into the choice to create an image of precisely that and not of something else. In the case the judgment of the thinker is motivated by repulsion, she will revert to the description of a possible reality, which has to wipe out the repulsion felt from the reality as it was experienced. Then, the thinker creates an image of what she would like to see and of how it could be.


Both these styles of thought could be criticized. This critique would in both cases be directed to the created image. We provide critique to make clear in what respect the image is not accurate. An important trait of critique is that it acts by definition against a mental condition of the original thinker, who – as we have said – is governed by attraction or repulsion, lust or nausea, mania or depression. The critic provides a complementary judgment: she urges the idealist to accept reality more as it is, but also warns the aesthete that not all that glitters is gold. With their inner necessity as their motivation, all thinkers are first of all representatives of themselves. Against the background of the emphasis of contemporary continental thinkers on questions of alterity, we are left challenged. What moment did the Philosopher decide that the Other became necessary to articulate? Was it a feeling attraction or repulsion that prompted this? Or is also the philosophy of alterity ultimately in a sense motivated by a hidden narcissism, a concealed attempt to articulate herself?

Trump unites


Today, what has been a virtuality for so long will become actualised. After months and months of polling what might be, today American voters will, by the act of colouring dots on pieces of paper and throwing those in big bins, create what has been carefully planned over the past 18 months or so: a human body which represents and and acts as the the will of the collective of all human bodies that we commonly call “Americans”.

That being said, the collective imagination surrounding this – what is called – “election” was focused on one such body; a body commonly referred to as TRUMP. It is a sobering exercises to focus our attention on a moment on pronouncing this name, with mindfulness. Trump. Again once more. Trump. Without any doubt, I know you have been pronouncing this name before. Trump. It’s a phonetic miracle how this combination of tongue and mouth movement interaction, supported by exhaled air, represents such strong emotional connotations. Trump. What do you feel? Excitement? Repulsion? Fear? Whatever it is, it is very likely not indifference.

Tonight, Clinton will be elected president of the United States. But this election is not about her election. This election is about the possibility that something else happens. And that is: that whatever this thing may be, “Trump” gets elected. I can not recall very clearly when was the last time that one man triggered the imagination of so many people – so many human bodies – at the same time. How many of 7 billion people will never have heard about Trump? How many of those who have will be indifferent when they hear that name, pronounce that name? I argue: very few. And that’s why I believe that Trump unites us. Our collective interest is in Trump. Our collective focus is on Trump. News outlets can not publish on anything else but Trump, because the readers don’t want to read anything else but Trump. We want Trump. We want to be repulsed by him. We want to know how repulsed we are by him. We want to repeat that, over and over again.

Is there even a person named Trump? This body which is most likely carried in an airplane from territory to territory, at the same moment twittering the excrement of his soul into the blogosphere, where it feeds the craving news consumer. Trump. What did he say? How repulsive is it? Why is it so repulsive? Analysis. What do “the polls” say – which as a Delphian oracle has become the prime current event worth reporting ? Analysis. Analysis of the excrement of the soul of Trump, which might be the mirror image of our own desire. Trump touches our spirit. Trump unites us. Whatever Trump is, “it” has found the key to our collective imagination, a pivotal focus point for our increasingly disseminated attention. This is the novelty.


HyperNormalisation: critique of a critique


This week, VICE distributed promotional video by Adam Curtis his new film called HyperNormalisation. In this video, Curtis argues that it becomes increasingly clear that we are all living in a dream world, detached from reality. Social media, he argues, have developed algorithms that only present you with information that confirms the ideas you already had. This dystopic worldview does not appear so dissimilar from the vision in the 1999 movie The Matrix.

There is however a strong self-referentiality problem with his video. First, it makes use of similar persuasive techniques it uses to criticise. After all, Adam Curtis’ films are also a product, and VICE and the BBC are outlets to sell his product. Second, if the message of the video is correct, than only people who already agree we live in a dream world get to see this video. Therefore, the film might offer us a correct representation of the state of affairs in the world, but can not be able to really offer a solution.

The film also supposes an intentionality by the elites and representatives of global capital that might not be  correct. The assumption of the video states that there would be a possibility of liberation from this situation, as if we would be able to discard our chains and walk into the “real world”. As a metaphor, this duality between the “dream world” which is a bad state which only benefits some sort of semi-transcendent global elite and the “real world” which is liberated from slavery is tempting. After all it feeds our subconscious desire for freedom. But the value of freedom is precisely constitutive for the world order Adam Curtis attempts to criticise. After all, it is the promise for freedom that motivates us to act and to consume. The question is whether Adam Curtis succeeds in transcending the trap of the wheel of enslaved desire he criticises. What would his liberation look like?

Curtis describes politicians as “pantomime villains” whose job is to make us angry, so we engage more in social media. Social media is then seen as absorbing all opposition, to which Curtis adds the depressive conclusion that that is the reason why “nothing ever changes”. Two striking problems are noteworthy about this analysis. First, the idea that “nothing ever changes” is quoted here as a truism, although it seems highly questionable. Many advancements in terms of human rights, ecological protection and equality have been made. Maybe this progress has not been as much as we want, but if Curtis would discard those advancements as “fake” or “dreamlike” as well, the question is what would count as change anyway? Second, if social media would really be absorbing all opposition, this video could not be opposition to it, because it is being distributed by social media as well. If this would be the case, we wouldn’t be engaging in critical thinking by watching this video, because our engagement with this criticism would only be a productive resource for the social media as well.

Finally, Curtis compares our condition as “HyperNormal”, comparing our situation with people living in the totalitarian Soviet Union for rhetorical effect. Again, the question arises how a liberation from this should really look like? It could certainly not lie in a self-expressive “live life authentic” ethic – quit your job and travel the world – because this is precisely which is being sold to us by travel companies and thus part of the “consumption factory” he describes. What remains as a possible liberation would be the complete and full acknowledgement of the “real world”: life is miserable, violent and unequal and no solutions exist for this, except accepting this state (and of course deleting your Facebook account). Not only am I unsure whether this is really what Curtis would like us to communicate, also such a conclusion would be as ridiculous as assuming the opposite.

Adam Curtis’ film stands in a long tradition of leftist critique of the system, global capital and corporate power. What is valuable in his analysis is the recognition that our desire for freedom is working against ourselves. A solution for this problem does, however, not appear imaginable from this perspective. If we would discard the suspicion that there is some inherent intentional evil in the way global capital functions, his video might offer us a striking image of the human condition. The drama and sense that there is an injustice being deliberately inflicted upon us by social media is, however, misplaced. For now, I rest at questioning Curtis’ intention: does he want to show us a way of liberation from our shackles, or is he himself a “pantomime villain” in our clickbait imprisonment?

There must be a cosmic leak


salon ruigoord

Yesterday, I spent some time at Ruigoord. Ruigoord is a small artist enclave in the Western harbour area of Amsterdam. The village is an oasis of imagination, which has been trying to keep the spirit of the 60s alive. Counterculture, a gay anarchism, psychedelic drug culture, artistic expression and some new spirituality values continue to define life in Ruigoord. When you enter the village, white graffiti on one of the houses – which are used by artists as their workspace – reads: “So much inspiration in such a small place; there must be a cosmic leak.”

Of course, you don’t have to be an adherent of a more bourgeois lifestyle to raise criticism about Ruigoord: isn’t the message of Ruigoord a little outdated? Isn’t it more about drugs than about artistic expression? Is everybody really living along that well, or is there also strife and competition? And of course: aren’t commercial interests to exploit the hippie paradise taking gradually taking over the more communitarian values of Ruigoord?

Despite whatever reserves anybody may have, I am a believer of Ruigoord, and as many Christians have recently explained me, to believe you ultimately have to jump. Obviously, it is not very likely that Christ has in fact risen from the dead, but you just have to believe it, right? Centrally located in Ruigoord is “the church”, a former catholic church (already an interesting feature in the protestant north of Holland), which is now used for creative rituals and parties. Next to the church, you find the “municipal” building, which doubles as the consulate of Doel (almost abandoned village in Belgium) and the embassy of Christiania (free state in Copenhagen).

For me, the place which for me is the most authentic contemporary expression of the spirit of Ruigoord is the Salon, opposite the church. Salon Ruigoord is the workspace of Michael, which is used for various experimental public activities, such as poetry performances, music and lectures. These happenings are an eclectic mix of classical hippie philosophy and culture and more contemporary urban worldviews and cultural expressions.

This particular evening I was listening to three fringe thinkers: Thomas Meijer, Leonie Klooster and Joost Emanuel. Devoid of any academic mannerism, they each developed in their own way scholarly theses on truth, meaning, fiction and the insanity. An important topic through all talks was the distinction between the “true” person or soul – the spiritual origin of human beings – and their purported “masks” which we put on or “personae” we play in society. The  message of these philosophers of Ruigoord was not only the worldview of perennialism – the idea that there is a true core in all world philosophies which is ancient and eternal, but also the message of the pure soul corrupted by society.

I am not sure if this particular message is still important in our day and age. Joost Emanuel, a gifted speaker, gave a speech which resembled a sermon. I called him a preacher of the new age and he replied he’d more thought of himself as a preacher of the now age. But do we still live in times in which pretending to have a global message is still possible? Isn’t the appeal to a universal rational truth precisely that element of protestant Christianity we would like to move beyond? It appears to me that Western hippiedom very much resembles precisely the strife for truth and purity of Northern European protestant culture. It had never occurred to me before that hippies are actually the calvinists of the late 20th Century.

Truth business

the force
Fiction is increasingly offering us the moral certainty science and religion are failing to

In an interesting recent blog post, theologian and philosopher of religion Dr. Taede Smedes tries to explain the anti-religious sentiments of an increasing number of commentators on the website, which aims at connecting people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds together. Smedes considers 2004 a tipping point concerning this development. He argues that the debates in the Dutch media about intelligent design in this period, changed the opinion of many people who from that moment on considered religion as irrational and backward.

The topic of the demarcation of science and religion is fascinating. Both domains are in the “truth business”: they are legitimated by the fact that they produce certain knowledge about reality, which can help people to ease psychological stress. Science was born as a result of the development of methods that attained more trustworthy knowledge than the religious institutions had done, which were from that moment on put in the defence. The reformation created the possibility of competing truth systems, and therefore in the early stages science can be considered as a deviant form of Christianity.

But recently, science is failing in its most important objective: to produce knowledge which enables people to ease their psychological stress. Since science does not produces certain knowledge which also contains moral certainty, people are becoming suspicious of science as well. Furthermore, the core of quantum mechanics – which is the most successful theory about reality ever developed by human beings – describes the foundation of reality as indeterminate. The threat of a statistical universe, which does not contain any certainty even metaphysically, but only possibilities, does not suit very well with the desire for psychological stability.

This week the box offices were crushed by the release of the new Star Wars movie (spoiler alert). If anything, Star Wars offers a universe with a clear moral distinction. The bad guys are depicted as fascists with a desire for order. If there has been any consensus about morality globally, it must be that the nazi’s were very bad. The desire for order contradicts the late capitalist demand for pleasure, consumption and exces. Very importantly: the public loves it in a way it rarely loved anything so unanimously.

I believe we are mistaken if we consider religion, science and fiction as distinct domains. They all do the same thing: generating knowledge to fulfil psychological needs. They do this by connecting us to a reality which transcends our everyday experience. Besides moral clarity, Star Wars alludes to the highly popular worldviews which assume “qi” or life force, there are practices of mindfulness and in a fascinating scene, time warps in a kind of shamanic travel of the main protagonist.

In conclusion: religion, science and fiction offer us stories – the kind of knowledge that has been structuring reality for human beings as long as we can remember. The demarcation between “religion” (and religions), “science” and “fiction” is ultimately just a conflict of stories. I see no objection to considering all stories true, even if they appear mutually exclusive. Every story is valuable, because all stories are the unique products of human creativity.

The Face of ISIS


On 29 June 2014, after a series of important conquests in the Syrian civil war, the organisation known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant declared itself to be the worldwide caliphate and named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi its caliph. On the same day, the Netherlands defeated Mexico two to one at the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. It was this second event that made headlines in Dutch media. It was only one month later, in the midst of the komkommertijd, that ISIS gradually came to be reported about, when no important soccer matches fought it for attention.

In a brilliant analysis, Scott Atran argued this week that we are underestimating the revolutionary force of ISIS and that we do not acknowledge its idealism enough. Atran even dares to quote a reference to Hitler by George Orwell – thereby affirming Godwin’s law – who said that the writer of Mein Kampf had understood the people don’t only want comfort and safety; they also want struggle and self-sacrifice. ISIS, Atran argues, is giving its followers precisely that: a dream, purpose, the opportunity to create a new world order. In the words of Atran:

The violence of the Islamic State, like the revolutionary violence of many who came before, might be best characterised by what Edmund Burke called ‘the sublime’: a willingness, indeed need and passion, for the ‘delightful terror’ of a sense of power, destiny, giving over to the infinite, ineffable and unknown.

Before, I used to argue that ISIS had not so much to do with religion or Islam, but was basically caused by economic factors, and recruited their troops from the social and economic outcasts of the West. Theologian and politician Ruard Ganzevoort taught me that it is just as much a fallacy to consider religion the root of all evil as it is to consider religion as positive force of love. In his words: “Religion is ambivalent, just as life itself”. The argument of Atran adds to my change in perception on the phenomenon ISIS, that we should indeed look at the ideology and the religious motives at least as much as to the economic factors.

Some commentators already noticed that the rise of ISIS shows much similarities with the French revolution and the Dutch revolt. The whole foundation of the Dutch nation could be credited to the violent rise of religious extremists in a corner of the Habsburg Empire. This observation reminds us of Walter Benjamin’s Critique of Violence. In this famous essay from 1921, Benjamin explores the justification for violence. States are defined by the fact that they have a monopoly of violence. When revolution occurs, the violence of the revolutionaries is justified by the fact that they strive for a more just society. When the revolutionaries succeed, they overthrow the current regime and install their own monopoly on violence.

According to Benjamin, all regimes have been founded on an act of original violence, which could also be considered as a divine legitimation of power. To maintain this power, when they are confronted with revolutionary movements, regimes have a notorious short memory with respect to their own foundational violence, which is very often not even that far in the past.

Atran very convincingly argues that the ideology behind ISIS does in fact legitimise its violence from the deeply rooted conviction that they are fighting for a better world order. The discursive strategies which are used by the adversaries of ISIS attempt to mask ISIS’ discourse for their legitimacy. Altran has very sharply noted that delegitimatising the Islamic State by calling them Daesh, won’t have much effect.

The question which nobody has been really able to answer yet about ISIS is: who are they? In almost every analysis, ISIS is treated as the ultimate Other, and any attempt to understand the movement usually describes them as violent lunatics. What are the possibilities from meeting the revolutionaries face-to-face? Would they kill me? Is there any possibility, as Levinas would phrase it, to meet the people in Raqqa while “inviting” them in my presence, without judgement, but simply as long lost cousins? Revolutions will always be repeated and successful revolutionaries will always rewrite history. But division of people is precisely what revolutionaries have always wanted – between religions, between social classes – and I think we should not accept the position we have been assigned, namely as adversaries. What if we would go over and ask: can we join you in your dream for a better world? The only way to defeat ISIS is through the exploration of the conditions to meet each other.


Our lost brother

sunThis morning I was called by one of my best friends from Belgium. He wanted to share his thought with me: the East, he had concluded, is not geographical place, but it is rather the symbolic representation of our desire for the mystical. When I was in China this summer, I was wondering wether it would be possible to come to a fundamental difference between the people who are living on the Western side of the Eurasian continent and the people at the Eastern side.

To answer this question I believe we have to find recurse in transcendental history. Transcendental history is not the description of history as we know it has actually happened, but it is the history of everything which must necessarily have happened, although we have no archeological or scriptural sources to prove it. For example, 50.000 years ago, women must have given birth to children now and then. We have neither the material nor the scriptural sources to warrant such a claim, but nevertheless, we know if must have happened.

Another one of this transcendental historical moments is the moment when the human population wondered off into two distinct directions. If we follow on the assumption that the human species “came out of Africa”, their migrations must have come to a decisive point somewhere around Mesopotamia. You could imagine a tribe with two visionary brothers – or sisters, or a brother and a sister – who argued about the best way to proceed. This must have truly been the hyperintelligent, learned and powerful members of the human tribe. Their debate necessarily concerned the following: what should we do: should we continue our movement in the direction of the sun, or will we move away from the sun?

It is very inspiring to consider people from the West as “abendlandische” people, while the people of the East are the people of the countries where the sun is born. It must have been phenomenologically intimidating and existentially disturbing to watch this ball of fire take its course through the blue sky every day. Is this sun something we desire for, or something we are afraid of? The answer to that question most essentially defines the difference between the people of West and East.

Today, I have the opportunity to meet my lost brother or sister. Though our bodies are new bodies and did not take part in this crucial decision for mankind, our genes are still the same. Therefore, I can now ask my lost brother or sister: why did we fight? Why did you decide to go the other way? What was it that attracted you towards the sun? And do you maybe also remember why I was so scared of the sun? The answer to those questions need to be found in the distant past, so a regression through my body is necessary. But there must be a trace left and it must be possible to find this trace. Through this inquiry, we will be able to find the necessary conditions for a reconciliatory embrace.