Friday, February 11, 2011

What's next in Egypt? (also, What's the Use of Critical Thinking?)

[I know I haven't posted since early last summer, but I thought I’d share something I posted today on the private blog I maintain for one of my classes.  The class is freshman composition, and lately they’ve been reading about nonviolent resistance, Gandhi and MLK Jr.]

After 18 days of protests, the man who has sat as Egypt's head of state since 1981 (the year I was born) and whose administration has withstood even violent terrorist-style attacks, Hosni Mubarak, has resigned, following the recent example of Tunisia's former President, Ben Ali.  A transitional government is now left in the hands of the Supreme Military Council, an institution that perhaps would not have followed an order to shoot on the crowds even if Mubarak had given it.

flag A famous photograph was taken in the celebratory aftermath of another, perhaps similar, revolution when massive protests and violence led Romania's military to overthow Ceausescu's* communist administration in the last days of 1989.  The photograph (pictured to the right) is of the Romanian flag against the sky, with the red communist star in the center cut out.  Slavoj Zizek, the well-known Slovenian philosopher, says about the photograph that:

It is difficult to imagine a more salient index of the "open" character of a historical situation "in its becoming." 

Translation: the communist star represented the thing that imposed both meaning and order on human social existence in Romania (something Zizek calls the "Master Signifier"), and the hole left over represents both the exciting and terrifying possibility of meaning and order that now takes it's place.

Zizek further asserts that:

the duty of the critical precisely to occupy all the time...the place of this hole...  philosophy begins the moment we do not simply accept what exists as given ("It's like that!", "Law is law!" etc), but raise the question of how is what we encounter as actual also possible.  What characterizes philosophy is this "step back" from actuality into possibility... (Tarrying with the Negative 2)

These words return to my memory as I ponder what possibilities lie in wait for the people of Egypt.

But even more than that, I think of the various reasons why we're doing what we're doing in class...  Obviously the basic purpose of the course is to teach you how to write for college professors.  My job is to give you all the writing and structuring tools you need to make college writing as easy and painless as possible.  But the grander purpose of non-vocational, liberal arts and humanities courses is to prepare us to be critical thinkers (or "critical intellectuals," as Zizek says).  Do you agree with his assessment of the "duty of the critical intellectual?"  What do you think is the purpose of critical thinking?  What do you think is our duty as developing intellectuals?


*Interesting social media sidenote: During the last speech of Egypt's former president Hosni Mubarak yesterday, the hashtag #Ceausescu started trending on Twitter, entering top 10.

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