Tuesday, 9 November 2010

How to read philosophy

Yesterday morning I was reading stories by Borges, and then in the afternoon I read Giorgio Agamben's delightful new book, Nudities (Stanford UP 2010). This gave me a new intuition about Agamben's work: if you read it like a Borges story, it all makes perfect sense.

It's often helpful to read a book that way, against the grain of its own purported genre. Borges' own stories – perhaps the most purely fantastic fictional inventions ever written – are best read as history or philosophy. In an extraordinary book on fashion, Caroline Evans reads Marx "as gothic fiction rather than political economy". David Kelsey has noted that Karl Barth tends to read the Bible like "a vast, loosely structured non-fictional novel" – and I've often pondered whether Barth's own dogmatics is best read as an enormous digressive epic novel, more akin to Melville's Moby-Dick than to Aquinas' Summa.

So anyway, this got me thinking about the best genre in which to read various modern philosophers. Here are some suggestions:

  • Kant: an anatomy manual
  • Hegel: a darkly thrilling opera
  • Heidegger: a gothic novel of romantic horror
  • Early Wittgenstein: simple yet impossible IKEA assembly instructions
  • Later Wittgenstein: an immersive TV series on HBO
  • Simone Weil: a play by Samuel Beckett
  • Walter Benjamin: an aphoristic Twitter feed
  • Jean-Paul Sartre: a 1960s surfing film
  • Simone de Beauvoir: a Marquis de Sade novel
  • Carl Schmitt: a World of Warcraft quest
  • Emmanuel Levinas: a blind date
  • J. L. Austin: a rap album
  • Jean Baudrillard: a sci-fi novel by Philip K. Dick
  • Michel Foucault: a historical murder mystery
  • Jacques Derrida: a crossword puzzle
  • Judith Butler: a season of The Wire
  • Alasdair MacIntyre: a Jane Austen novel
  • Giorgio Agamben: a Borges story
  • Alain Badiou: a terrorist handbook
  • Slavoj Žižek: a sitcom
This would also make a fun party game for nerdy intellectuals, let's call it Musical Genres: the names of various writers (philosophers, novelists, theologians, writers of cookbooks) are placed in one hat, and the names of various genres (poetry, history, science fiction, pornography) are placed in another hat. Each person gets a random writer and a random genre, and has to describe the person's work in terms of that genre. For example: "In one of Plato's celebrated cookbooks, we read of a delicious but unexpectedly potent cocktail, fatefully sampled by Socrates, whose last words were, 'I think it needs more lime', and 'Ooo I feel all tingly'."

Note: On a more serious note, at the moment I can't seem to upload any pictures on to Blogger. Does anyone know how to fix this? Or better still, does anyone out there want to help me move the blog to its own domain?


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