Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Review of Thinking Radical Democracy

Symposium has published my review of Martin Breaugh, Christopher Holman, Rachel Magnusson, Paul Mazzocchi, and Devin Penner (eds.), Thinking Radical Democracy: The Return to Politics in Post-war France. A well-edited volume has to avoid numerous pitfalls: issues of consistency, varying quality of contributions, and overall coherence. Breaugh et al. have done an excellent job in avoiding those potential problems. My overview:
The essays collected in Thinking Radical Democracy aim to situate the political thought of Rancière, Abensour, and Balibar within a tradition of radical democratic thought in postwar France that conceptualizes democracy as divisive and emancipatory. The book includes chapters on the “forbearers” of the return to radical democracy (the “French” Arendt, Merleau-Ponty, and Pierre Clastres), the critics of totalitarianism (Lefort, Castoriadis, and Debord), and concludes with essays concerning Rancière, Balibar, and Abensour. Despite the many differences between these figures, the authors and editors of the present volume argue that the radical democratic tradition is defined by its threefold exploration of  “politics, division, and democracy.”
It's longer than most reviews for Symposium but there's a reason. One of my goals in reviewing the book was to bring to the forefront how there is an important distinction between politics (la politique) and the political (le politique). I think that, in general, the attempt to foreground the possibilities of politics through first defining the political also opens the possibility that definitions of the political could come to police politics. I outline this problem in the review, so read all the way to the end.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Review of Todd May's Friendship in an Age of Economics

My review of Todd May's Friendship in an Age of Economics has been published by Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies. You might already know, given that I briefly recounted the story in the acknowledgements of Egalitarian Moments, that it was preparing for a talk given by May that sparked my interest in the work of Rancière. Here's the gist of the review:
May’s discussion of the politics of friendship provides an account of micropolitical resistance unforeseen by Rancière. Although Rancière considers aesthetics as a form of micropolitics, he does not claim that it is the only possible form of micropolitics. And while May does not explicitly situate Friendship in an Age of Economics through Rancière’s work until Chapter 7, his account emphasizes how friendship, especially what he calls deep friendship, is a relationship between equals. (It should also be noted, given May’s anarchism, that his argument could be formulated as a claim that friendship is a rudimentary form of free association.)
In retrospect I'd probably add that Montaigne is underrepresented in and La Boétie is absent from the book, but that comment has more to do with my current interests than May's.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

On Veganism and Animal Rights

I am probably not the only person who has noticed that there are a greater than normal amount of critical articles about vegans and animal rights floating around on social media sites lately. Even among vegans and animal rights people, these articles seem to get more clicks and more comments (again, on the highly particular set of people in my social networks) than essays that try to set out a positive program of social/animal justice.

In any case, as it turns out, there are vegans and animal rights activists who harbour attitudes that are consciously or unconsciously racist, sexist, ableist, and/or classist. This does not surprise me, given that we live in a white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist society.

Before get to what I want to say, there's part of this debate or critique that seems counter-productive, because there are some people who are fighting about who has x,y or z biases or prejudices, when the best critical work focuses, in ways that are necessarily self-reflexive, on systems and institutions and how they produce individuals--in some way here, with more necessary caveats that I assume I need not list, I mean "produce us as us, whoever that may be"--with prejudices and privileges. 

All this to say, here's what I think: the case for animal rights entails a commitment to human rights. If that sounds too liberal or Kantian, I don't mind saying that the case for animal emancipation entails human emancipation. That's much closer to what I believe. But, if you've come to animal rights and you don't see how the two are connected, and that articulating the two together requires formulating demands for animal rights through dialogue with those who struggle as historically marginalized peoples, and that this will make the process of formulating demands and principles both messy but concrete, then you're an asshole.

But if you're not vegan and you care about animal rights, it turns out that I think that the case for human rights and commitment to the struggles of historically marginalized peoples also, somewhere down the line, entails a commitment to animal rights, and more specifically, direct duties to animals. 

So if you are committed to human rights or human emancipation (and what I'm about to say counts even more if you're one of those people who has been revelling in the that-will-show-those-santimonious-vegans schadenfreude), and you've read your Aristotle, and you know that in defining what makes us human rather than animal
the dominant trends in our culture have never been toward respect for the species as a whole but rather for what is considered to be quintessentially human--and this privilege and subject position have always been available only to a small subset of the human species (Matthew Calarco, Thinking Through Animals, p. 26),
and that this has made you conscious of how the so-called anthropological criteria for so-called species inclusion is at best politically fraught, tendentious, and contingent, and you don't see how this applies to animal rights, then you're an asshole, too.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Book Review: The Rim of Morning: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror by William Sloane

(New York: NYRB Classics, 2015)

A quick scan of William Sloane's biography reveals that he contributed more to the literary world as an editor and publisher than as a novelist. Sloane's only two novels, recently collected by NYRB Classics as The Rim of Morning, were To Walk the Night (1937) and The Edge of Running Water (1939). The latter was adapted into a Boris Karloff movie, The Devil Commands (1941). Both are genre-blending narratives which borrow elements of horror, hardboiled mystery, and science-fiction (then a burgeoning genre in its own right). The novels stand out not so much by their narratives - which today seem rather formulaic and too obvious, even if at the time they were inventively reworking the existing formulae. They stand out rather on account of their not inconsiderable literary qualities. Sloane's novels are a perfect storm of pulp sensibility and overall good writing. To this end, NYRB Classics did well to secure Stephen King's short introduction to the text. King nicely puts the novels in literary context, for instance playing them off against the acknowledged giant of 1930s American horror, H.P. Lovecraft. As King drives home, Sloane captures much of the same horror as Lovecraft - horror of a "cosmic" type - without the oft-tortured prose.

To Walk the Night is a mystery centred on a grisly unexplained death, blending themes of alien minds, advanced physics and psychic projection. Unquestionably the greatest aspect of the book is the self-construction of its narrator, the protagonist's best friend, as a drunken Oedipal mess. The novel is many things, but most of all a character study. Sloane is something of a psychologist, which is precisely what makes him a literary writer (see Iris Murdoch on this point, for example in The Sovereignty of Good). For its part, The Edge of Running Water is a "mad scientist" story set in rural Maine. An electrophysicist, with the help of a shady medium, constructs a dangerous and terrifying machine to communicate with his dead wife (the film adaptation inexplicably - though predictably - adds a mentally disabled manservant to the mix). Here again, the narrator is an outsider looking in - a former colleague from the university who was once also in love with the dead woman. He now sets his eyes on her recently grown-up younger sister (to whom he was once an "uncle" - here Electra resonates more than Oedipus). With its blend of mystery, love interest and rural American gothic, The Edge of Running Water reads precisely like an old movie. This explains its swift adaptation but it also, to my mind, makes it the more pleasurable of the two novels by a long shot.

The payoffs of the two narratives are unfortunately slight. To a jaded 21st Century reader like me, there is no great mystery in Sloane's horror/sci-fi mysteries. The pleasures of reading them lie elsewhere - certainly in the aforementioned quality of the writing and the neat genre-blending, but also in the theme of cosmic horror itself. As Devin has mentioned here on the blog, a new cosmic pessimism is in vogue in philosophy, and its purveyors (such as Thacker) have made the connection to horror explicit. What Sloane offers up is above all the chilling possibility (and historically recurrent philosophical theme) that everyday reality is an ephemeral gloss on a limitless, meaningless chaos. His books channel the strange, the unthinkable. But they do it through the eyes, and the limited understanding, of the middle-class professional who would like very much to get on with the business of his love interests etc. To this extent, Sloane does not plumb very deep when he suggests great depths - doing more with less. Put this book on your reading list if you'd like a few good cosmic chills. Keep looking if you want to go deeper.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Sartre Society Wrap

Today's my first full day back from the North American Sartre Society. Lately, since Storm Heter specifically asked me about this, the blog writing process proceeds as follows:
  1. Brainstorm. In this case: good conference, good people.
  2. Read material for teaching. Why did I put this off until today?
  3. Three weeks later.
So I'll write this now. I don't promise any literary quality. Notice how most of these sentences are structured as subject/verb/predicate. Only the second using any recursion?

As it turns out, the Sartre Society meetings are my favorite conferences. The papers that I attended were great, and ranged over a diverse set of topics. For a field that probably seems to outsiders to be fairly narrow, the papers ranged from politics and critical race theory to the meaning of groove, and in many ways Sartre himself formed the background point of reference but not always the immediate focus. I moderated the panel on jazz, and only one panelist made an explicit reference to Sartre.

If you're interested in tweets and pictures, we even tried the hashtag thing, #SartreSociety2015, which was temporarly derailed my comments about our attempt to absorb the nightlife in Bethlehem.

Finally, I left feeling motivated to reread Sartre and write more. I also with a strong idea of what my next Sartre Society paper would be about. My paper started like this:
This talk is the first part of a larger project that is currently entitled Negative Philosophy: Extinction, Humanism, and Animal Rights. While I cannot outline the entire project, I can indicate how today’s talk fits within the whole project.
[The talk was dedicated to a response to the thesis of extinction as defined by Eugene Thacker, who himself picks it up from Ray Brassier, who in a sense picks it up from Lyotard, Nietzsche, et cetera. Sartre also maintains that there is no ultimate--transcendent, teleological, ontotheological--meaning, but does not embrace (and for good reason) the pessimist aesthetic or the mysticism that Thacker endorses.]
In the second chapter, I will argue that Existentialism is a Humanism is a performative text, in which Sartre nihilates the anthropocentrism and human triumphalism present in traditional accounts—such as those of Pico della Mirandolla and Feuerbach—of humanism. The final chapter asks whether or not it is possible for a nihilist or pessimist to defend animal rights, and I will contend that it is possible to hold a position that sounds like a nihilistic Tom Regan.
Most of the questions I got during later, informal discussions had to do with the part about a nihilistic Tom Regan. People wanted to know what the hell that meant. Given that I also want to know, I'll be writing that up for 2016.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Schedule for NASS 2015

The final schedule is now available for the North American Sartre Society meeting happening this weekend. It is available here. I'll be giving a talk during the first session on Friday (2:00–3:45), and then I'll be moderating this panel:


Perhaps I'll gain a better picture of whatever it is that my friend Storm Heter has been working on. I know it has something to do with authenticity and aesthetics, and, at least at one point, it discusses Jean-Michel Basquiat. That is probably where our last face-to-face discussion had left off. Since then he's tweeted tantalizing clues:

From what I can tell, he takes his coffee black, but I want to know about the rest of it.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Poster for NASS 2015

Here's the poster for the upcoming Sartre Society meeting. The organizers are still finalizing the schedule, but last I looked I'm giving a talk on an existentialist response to Eugene Thacker's cosmic pessimism and Ray Brassier's nihilism on Friday afternoon. It looks like I'll be name-dropping Bataille, Beauvoir, and Nietzsche along the way.


Monday, October 26, 2015

Books Received: Egalitarian Moments

Last time we were on the phone, I discovered that even my own mother didn't know the book would be available soon, so I must have been remiss in mentioning it: Egalitarian Moments is available on November 5th, 2015. I've received, in three separate shipments, my author's copies. One of those I'll be exchanging for Philosophy, Sophistry, Antiphilosophy. The others, with the exception of my copy, I'm open to exchanging for other recently published, prohibitively expensive titles.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Available Now: Philosophy, Sophistry, Antiphilosophy

Matt McLennan's first book, on Badiou and Lyotard, is now available in hardcover.


I said "first book" because Matt and I are planning on co-authoring and completing a book entitled "A Hermeneutics of Emancipation: A Critical Introduction to Miguel Abensour" within the next few years. I also hear that he's got some other project on the go as well.

We'll be swapping our recent books during reading week, so I hope to be able to say something about Philosophy, Sophistry, Antiphilosophy either on the blog or in actual review form sometime soon. From what I know about Matt's work, his argumentation style is both merciless and sympathetic. I'm not quite sure how he does it, but it makes for good reading.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

It's Out of My Hands

I got word today that Egalitarian Moments has gone to press. It's completely out of my hands now. But this post isn't so much about EM as it is about another book. One of the other long-time contributors to the blog also has a book coming out, and I don't think he's used this space for shameless self-promotion (yet). So, I'll tell you that Matt McLennan's first book, Philosophy, Sophistry, Antiphilosophy: Badiou's Dispute with Lyotard will also be published by Bloomsbury this fall. Here is the blurb:
Alain Badiou's work in philosophy, though daunting, has gained a receptive and steadily growing Anglophone readership. What is not well known is the extent to which Badiou's positions, vis-à-vis ontology, ethics, politics and the very meaning of philosophy, were hammered out in dispute with the late Jean-François Lyotard. Matthew R. McLennan's Philosophy, Sophistry, Antiphilosophy is the first work to pose the question of the relation between Lyotard and Badiou, and in so doing constitutes a significant intervention in the field of contemporary European philosophy by revisiting one of its most influential and controversial forefathers.
Badiou himself has underscored the importance of Lyotard for his own project; might the recent resurgence of interest in Lyotard be tied in some way to Badiou's comments? Or deeper still: might not Badiou's philosophical Platonism beg an encounter with philosophy's other, the figure of the sophist that Lyotard played so often and so ably? Posing pertinent questions and opening new discursive channels in the literature on these two major figures this book is of interest to those studying philosophy, rhetoric, literary theory, cultural and media studies.