[Karl F Tullah, Nadim Bakhshov]
Karl: Welcome back to the show. Nadim returns this week to review some of the developments and ideas of this last week. Can we start with this simple question: what is the ontological axiom you have developed and what does it mean?
[Turns to Nadim]
Nadim: Good question. Perhaps not the easiest one to start with.
Karl: Where do you want to start?
Nadim: There was a very interesting talk in which a professor presented a life-narrative to frame the emergence and engagement with a theoretical perspective. There were several things I was struck by when listening to this.
Karl: Can I just stop you?
Nadim: Yes, of course.
Karl: Do you think the idea of objective knowledge has not recovered after the sustained assaults of the radical post-structuralist critiques of the 60s? Are you thinking about the tendency to undermine any sense of a grand narrative or overarching paradigm?
Nadim: You mean it as a bad thing?
Karl: Not necessarily. It’s more complicated. I would charitably want to say that postmodernism rose out of the desire to liberate thought and knowledge from certain forms of self-deception – or bad faith as Sartre might say.
Nadim: I’d probably agree. The postmodern moment feels necessary much like adopting a radical skepticism has a place in philosophical invention and development. I’m thinking of Descartes. My personal view runs something like this: narratives, as forms of temporal organization, structurally exclude aspects of the Real, but also symbolically encode the Real. There is this dual aspect: both encoding and excluding. Listening to personal narratives I am struck repeatedly by the odd gestures, half-utterances, accidental remarks which reveal what is left out. What is left out, what is marginalized in the narrative, is real. I suppose I would add that I like the characterization and distinction between reality and the Real.
Karl: You were about to discuss your experience?
Nadim: Yes, listening to the personal story I was struck how an interpretation, coming out of my work, helps me see the issue with the enlightenment project. This issue has come back with a vengeance in our postwar world.
Karl: In what way? The idea that ‘reason’ can finally bring about order, progress and peace? Any system of thought or organization must by its very structure exclude elements of the Real while at the same encode other dimensions of the Real? So, the counter-enlightenment, the growth of romanticism – these were serious responses?
Nadim: Yes. I’ve begun modeling this in a broader way. My idea is that any concept of a system must explicitly include a reference and function of what it excludes. It must also allow this inclusion the opportunity to interact with the main system –
Karl: You’re not the first thinker to attempt this. So much of post-60s thinking led to the same conclusions and the invention of positionality in social sciences, of reflexivity and the inclusion of the subject undertaking the research, etc. – all of these recognize the shortcomings of the standard ‘knowledge is objective and transparent’ attitude. What do you think you’re saying that is innovative?
Nadim: That all forms of organization encode a double-negation. This is close but different to the insights of Derrida – and his model of writing under erasure. The image I have is of MC Escher’s hand coming out of a page, drawing itself. You know the one?
Karl: I think so.
Nadim: In my version, the hand is both drawing itself and rubbing itself out.
Karl: Can you say more?
Nadim: Hegel talked about the structure of desire as being a movement of double-negation. In epistemological terms, there is a Real but it is directly unknowable. The movement of knowledge encodes a negation of this unknowable into a category of knowable and available to our cognitive and rational faculties. This then becomes the conceptual foundation of science: knowability. The move then formulates symbolic and notational writing to encode and work within this parameter.
Karl: Knowability? Do you mean intelligibility?
Nadim: Good point. I would say the unknowable thesis I have in mind is close to the one put forward by Fredric Jameson – but, yes, I think to be precise and draw Wittgenstein into the discussion: the Real is unknowable in itself.
Karl: That’s not entirely consistent with some of your earlier remarks. Surely the Real is both knowable and unknowable? There is a possibility of encoding sense through our conceptual and epistemological schemes. But, critically, it is not exhausted by this category?
Nadim: Yes, I think I over-emphasized just one aspect. The position does have to reflect some idea of ontology here. I think of a baby coming into the world. The world is not completely unintelligible.
Karl: You could argue that our social formations encode intelligibility into them?
Nadim: What would that mean?
Karl: Let me hazard a guess – that the phenomenal world is not a simple given but arises out of a natural order – the planet ecology, etc – and this order, in bringing forth itself draws knowability out of the Real?
Nadim: Yes, that captures it. I would add though that knowability is not removed. The world is not a purely rational formation. Within its structure and movements is the presence of the unknowable – look at contingency, for example, how it operates in the ordinary world.
Karl: Have we got sidetracked?
Nadim: Not necessarily. So my thinking accepts narrative as an organising principle which excludes aspects of experience. These excluded, marginalised, ignored, etc – aspects coalesce into a category of the ‘irrelevant’ or the ‘waste’. Then, I would argue, something interesting happens. This category then returns as a context-structure and operates on the life-flow, polluting it, confusing it, complicating it and, in some cases, unsettling it. The more aggressively it is denied and excluded the more parasitic it becomes and the more impact it has. The utopian fantasies of reason become underwritten by an unconscious – this is my tracing of the birth of psychoanalytical thought. This broader narrative, which includes the impact of the excluded on the initial narrative, create a fundamental problem – an antagonism that means the more we attempt progress in our technocratic formations the more they are fractured by what does not fit. Politically and culturally we see variations of this phenomenon everywhere – from the rise of fundamentalisms and literalisms in the field of religion – which create the condition for modern religious terror, to the explicit claims from the system itself that it speaks for those that are marginalised. The politically charged concept of inclusivity, multiculturalism are all attempts to bring the ‘waste’, the system ‘effluence’ back into the system – hence a kind of metaphysical recycling. This move, which is nothing more than a totalizing gesture, still leaves out the ‘surplus’ or ‘remainder’. It cannot be fitted into the system. It always acts in ways that do not fit into the categorial schemes of the system.
Who are you as a doctoral research and/or who do you hope to be as a doctoral researcher?
[Karl F Tullah, Nadim Bakhshov]
Karl: Hi, and welcome back to the show. In this next section, we interview Nadim Bakhshov and chat to him about how his work is going, what the theme of his next book is and – more interestingly for me – why he is doing a doctorate.
[Turns to Nadim]
Karl: Welcome back. I can see from your posts, blog and other activities you’ve been very busy. Up at 5 every morning?
Nadim: Hi Karl. Yes, working really hard. Over the summer I took advantage of being able to study and decided to push myself harder in the second phase of my work.
Karl: Second phase?
Nadim: Yes, well over the past 4 years, as you might know, the philosophical language, concepts and grammar I have been working on have begun to settle down – a bit like Charles Peirce’s idea of the fixing of concepts – and I’ve begun the process of generating new conceptual formulations out of this. This is phase one. And this work is, as I like to call it, my Gesamtkunstwerk – my total art work.
Karl: Didn’t you once say, about twenty or so years ago, when you were in the early days of this work, that you might fail? You might never actually develop the thing you set out to develop? Have you passed that danger?
Nadim: Yes I remember. It sounds like a such a negative things to say but my ambition was a version of Descartes’s dream to reformulate the conceptual fabric of ontology, epistemology, ethics, politics, aesthetics and so on. (Yes, a little like Hegel but heavily situated after the postmodern moment.) When you embark on such a life-project, when you set out to develop something like a completely new way of thinking and then spend every waking minute, aside from the day job and family, when you spend so much time writing and thinking you come to understand both the process and product are, not just the product. Having said that, I think I have been lucky. I could still be where I was ten years ago, creating an umpteenth new notation and symbolism, devising another grammar and trying to get the whole thing to work – only to find the whole edifice crumbles under pressure. But I think I have been lucky. Without expecting it, a symbolism, grammar and conceptual fabric emerged that did not collapse under harsh critical scrutiny it was subjected to. I now realise I have something that I might be able to do something with.
Karl: Do you think it helped that you worked outside of any institution?
Nadim: Well, I can’t say, but probably yes. In this current academic climate, where you have to publish frequently, where you can so easily get caught up with a career and its worries, and somehow lose sight of the point of it all – perhaps in this climate it would have been more difficult for someone like me. I wanted to be free of any obligation from anyone or any institution telling me what the parameters of ‘thinking’ should, which paths I could follow. I wanted utter freedom to invent and explore the direction that had opened up to me in my undergraduate days. This also meant freedom to fail. And that was a risk that lay at the heart of my own commitment – a leap into the unknown, not knowing beforehand whether it would work out. I thank my encounter with the proto-existentialist Kierkegaard to guide me in these early days.
Karl: So, why a doctorate? Why now? What do you hope it can do for you? And, do you see yourself comfortable in this identity? Are you, like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, finally coming down from the mountain?
Nadim: Why now? Well, as I said the core symbolism, grammar and logic of this new philosophical language is stable. I am now in a position to test it, articulate, apply it and explore its implications. I am now in – what I term phase two: the presentation and communication of this work, the phase of engagement.
Karl: So, have you stopped working on it? Are you only working on its presentation to others?
Nadim: Well, no I am working at it harder than before. And actually it is misleading to say phase one is over, or that it had no engagement with other thinkers. The whole philosophical project was built in dialogue with the philosophers.
Karl: Why are you working harder at it rather than its presentation? I don’t follow.
Nadim: My idea is simple – the work, if it is what I think it is, needs a fuller articulation. By writing it out I am hoping I will arrive at an expression of the real originality and profundity at its core. I mean, why else pursue it? I doubt I need to reformulate the core conceptions, dismantle the whole complex edifice and burn my notes so I can start. I doubt this symbolism will fail me now.
Karl: Anything good so far?
Nadim: I hope so. I have an example that I am working on for possible publication – I have loosely formulated it using the concept of ‘onto-ethical schemes’. This, I am hoping, is a useful bridge from my work into the wider debates surrounding value and meaning in religious discourse.
Karl: Do we have a moment for you to say something more about this onto-ethical formulae? I know it’s not necessarily the path of your research.
Nadim: The idea is simple: a religion, a politics, all social formations encode complex and sometimes contradictory onto-ethical formulas. That is, they formulate a relationship between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’. Some of these formulations are explicit – listen to things said – the discourse-formations of Foucault, for example – but a large part of these formulations form the context-operators of these social, political and organisational practices. For me, if I can get personal for a moment – this stuff I am talking about is critical when grasping how the human world works and where change may come. The originality comes in the form of a mathematical and symbolic form.
Karl: So, why a doctorate? You’ve never struck me as a researcher – an investigator and inventor, yes, but a researcher, I’m not so sure.
Nadim: I am guessing you think of the idea of a researcher as a category of academic practice, rather than the thing I have been up to?
Karl: Yes, I think I do. So, why are you doing one?
Nadim: If we talk about the concept of an academic community and a research community then we might be able to unpack this.
Karl: Where to start?
Nadim: I would start by discussing the professionalization and institutionalization of thought.
Karl: What does that mean?
Nadim: I have to start in this rather strange place – thinking, exploring, investigating are all structured and constrained within the parameters of academic and research practice. That doesn’t mean there’s a simple single framework – in fact there’s a staggering plurality of frameworks and – perhaps – a lack of an overall epistemological paradigm. Anyway – when you think in these formal contexts the tacit moves available to you in a discussion and exploration are structured by certain agreements in judgements (to borrow a phrase from Wittgenstein) – some moves you can make, others not and certain languages.
Karl: Are you saying that academic practices and research practices are complex language-games – I don’t mean this in any cynical way, but purely as a phenomenological description of how they operate?
Nadim: Yes, I’d go with that. Research communities have parameters – Kuhn’s model of how a paradigm works is quite useful here. It is not, to paraphrase Isabelle Stenger in her study of Whitehead: a free and wild creation of concepts.
Karl: So why are you doing one?
Nadim: What is my role in these practices and institutions?
Karl: Yes, that is the question. By undertaking a doctorate what do you hope to achieve?
Nadim: In thinking about this I thought my identity as a professional researcher did not interest me. I thought that all of that stuff was too subjective and a little irrelevant. But the more I thought about it the more I found myself thinking how important it was –
Nadim: I’m not sure I can say but I will try. I’d like to find my place in these practices through my work, through a contribution, through the idea that in being here I have something to say and add. I suppose I have no interest simply being here for its own sake. It’s about dissemination and context. I would hope that the process of distilling relevant threads of my work and thought and then articulating them within the parameters of the academic community has some independent value.
Karl: Do you have some idea of professionalism that is appropriate, if not personal?
Nadim: Well, I would say the essence of being an educational professional and, in this case, an educational researcher, is purely ethical.
Karl: And what does that mean?
Nadim: Well, everything I commit myself to – and I hope to dig deeply into this to unearth and establish some linkage to my philosophical thought – requires a commitment, not just to uncover what is true but the value these truths have to leading a just life. It’s like teaching. When I teach I see it as something which guides another human being towards a fuller grasp of not just a body of knowledge but of themselves. This question – this question of what a life means, who a person is, how the human world works and so on – this is what I find of profound value. Like everyone else I have had to do qualifications to allow me to practice as a professional in my field – I became a software engineer to finance myself and my family. But this deeper motivation is important now.
Karl: Do you think an educational doctoral researcher is an ethical activity? I find this discussion interesting. It sounds to me that in the process of understanding the point of undertaking doctoral research, of bridging your Gesamtkunstwerk – your life-project – to research, you have questioned the value of doctoral research for you. Your idea of professionalism is linked to the integrity of your thought and also the integrity of the ambition to disseminate this philosophical edifice you have created. Would that be fair?
Nadim: Yes, I think so. As you know the meaning of things uncovers itself as a function of the unfolding and reflecting upon the narrative of situations. At this early stage my thought is inevitably naive and idealistic. In a month, after engaging the topic, my grasp will shift. My modus operandi is to digest and think through – to participate in a dialogue with other thinkers, other work, to try and grasp the significance of all this within the given parameters. I know, for example, I am not undertaking this with absolute freedom. I know what that means – when you have criteria which form the framework of judgement this can no longer have the quality of freedom you are used to. But that is not why I am doing it. I certainly don’t expect it. Becoming a doctoral researcher is also, as some suggest, a movement from the periphery to the centre of a social practice. This social practice involves a practice of formulating and encoding insights and concepts within various methodological strictures. There’s no doubt that this is more fluid and flexible than I originally imagined. The advantage to me is that I can find a form of articulation which maximises the quality of presentation, be it empirical or philosophical.
Karl: In short, you stand a chance of making a contribution that might work?
Nadim: Yes, but at this early stage I cannot see which thread is the best to pursue. That is how my engagement will unfold. That is my personal duty here – my personal effort to try and make a success out of this. If it fails it certainly won’t be from lack of appropriate intellectual effort.
Karl: That’s interesting. I look forward to having you back to discuss the progress you make and – more importantly – whether you find that thread to draw into this. In the meantime are you still going to write?
Nadim: Oh, yes. Of course. If I give up my work and limit myself only to this I think it will distort and warp everything. My own work has an intrinsic and necessary participatory value. There’s a whole list of publications contained within it, not only those which work for one set of audiences but to a plurality of audiences. So, yes, I am still writing.
Karl: Thanks for the chat.
Nadim: Thank you.