Thursday, July 14, 2016

On Rancière and Clastres (and Todd May)

In Society against the State, Pierre Clastres writes,
from its beginnings our culture has conceived of political power in terms of hierarchized and authoritarian relations of command and obedience. Every real or possible form of power is consequently reducible to this privileged relation which a priori expresses the essence of power. (16)
I've been working on a paper that compares Rancière and Clastres to understand their respective projects. I've completed a rough draft of the section on Rancière, which responds to what I consider to be an undertheorized point in the literature: Rancière's account of command and obedience. I argue that Rancière's politics, at least as he outlines it in Disagreement, has two features (two features also relevant to his concept of the police): politics involves both the symbolization of equality (the aesthetics of politics) and the enactment of equality, which more specifically means the disruption and subversion of relations of command.

By emphasizing the latter point, how equality disrupts relations of command, I think we not only gain a greater appreciation of Rancière's work, but we also gain an analytic distinction that contributes to understanding debates in Rancière scholarship. At the moment, we're only going to look at an example of the latter point.

As some of you know, I recently reviewed Martin Breaugh et al.'s Thinking Radical Democracy. In that review, I discuss Rachel Magnusson's chapter on Rancière. I think it's a great and incisive essay, and I follow her discussion through a critique of the work of Todd May, who, she claims, interprets Rancière's work in terms too close to liberalism. There certainly are passages in May's work where it seems that he does verge to close to liberal accounts of equality, despite, of course, his distinction between passive and active equality. Magnusson's judgment, however, has continued to bother me. After working out the analytical distinction between symbolization and command, I now know why. Todd May is cast as both too liberal (by Magnusson) and too anarcho-purist (by Samuel Chambers) because May and his critics emphasize different features of Rancière’s politics: May focuses on the enactment—in his words, the “activation”—of equality against command, while Magnusson and Chambers interpret May as giving an account of political symbolization. Indeed, one of the virtues of May's work, in distinction to much of the literature, is to think Rancière's politics against relations of command.

Next up is to deal with Clastres, who attempts to outline a genealogy of political power, and his hypothesis is that the social division, which is the State, between command and obedience precedes all other hierarchical distinctions. Then I will argue that Rancière's concept of the police, is a critique of this vertical model of political power.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Book Exchange: McLennan and Shaw

These days, the time I used to spend blogging has been expended on being managing book review editor for Symposium and the CSCP. That does not mean that Matt and I have ended our philosophical back-and-forth. Over at Symposium, we have reviewed each other's books:
Symposium inaugurates a new series, Book Exchanges, with Matthew R. McLennan’s review of Devin Zane Shaw’s Egalitarian Moments: From Descartes to Rancière (Bloomsbury, 2016) and Shaw’s review of McLennan’s Philosophy, Sophistry, Antiphilosophy: Badiou’s Dispute with Lyotard (Bloomsbury, 2015). Book exchanges put contemporary scholars into dialogue through mutual review and critique of their recent publications with the aim of establishing intersections and points of reinforcement between works that speak from different standpoints or different disciplines; in the case of McLennan and Shaw, both authors aim to outline a radical and militant philosophical approach informed by Badiou, Lyotard, and Rancière. Such an exchange is apposite, given that McLennan and Shaw are currently co-authoring a book on the political thought of Miguel Abensour.    –Eds.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Reviewing "Split Season 1981"

I not only review books in philosophy, but also about baseball, strikes, and labor. The Hardball Times has published my review of Jeff Katz's book Split Season 1981: Fernandomania, the Bronx Zoo, and the Strike that Saved Baseball. I can't shake the feeling that, as a longtime Giants fan, that the photograph of Fernando Valenzuela that heads the review is subtle trolling by the folks at THT...but then again, part of the book's subtitle is Fernandomania. But about Katz, I say:
Another way to convey Katz’s storytelling skill is to note, because I’m too young to remember it, that the split season had always been to my mind a statistical anomaly or a turning-point in labor relations, but not really a season like I remember 1987 or 1989. However, by the end of the book, I cursed myself for caring whether the Dodgers or Yankees would win the World Series, I could feel how Reds fans or Cardinals fans might dismiss the results of 1981 with an asterisk or two, I felt indignation at the possibility that Boone was sold to, and DeCinces traded to, the Angels at the end of season as retribution for their efforts on behalf of the union. Finally, I grinned with pleasure when Katz notes that an Angels team packed with union leaders—DeCinces and Boone, but also Reggie Jackson, Don Baylor and Steve Renko—made it to the playoffs in 1982.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Baseball and Intersectionality, or, A Belated Reply to Rian Watt and Craig Calcaterra


In a pair of recent essays, both Rian Watt (in “Life at the Margins”) and Craig Calcaterra (in “The Intersectionalist Manifesto”) challenge the idea that baseball writing ought to, as it’s often said, stick to sports. Watt’s specific interest, which initiated the discussion, was to ask what kind of baseball writing comes after Sabermetrics. He notes that among readers and writers there is a sense that sabermetrically-inclined analysis has reached a point of saturation, in which much of the recent writing has been dedicated to tinkering with a well-established paradigm. Watt proceeds to argue that discontent within the baseball writing community signals that a paradigm shift is underway. “The best baseball writing,” Watt notes,
this year has been about more than baseball. It’s been about politics, and race, and gender, and sexuality, and money, and power, and how they all come together in this game we love. It’s placed the game in its social context, and used it as a lens to talk about ideas that are bigger than the nuts and bolts of a box score.
He then refers to this approach as intersectional writing, which, as Calcaterra notes, captures the sense in which baseball intersects with broader social dynamics such as race, gender, and economics. Much of the pushback against intersectional writing is premised on the claim that sports journalism ought to stick to sports (a claim which is itself questionable, as will become clearer below). An additional dimension of the pushback to which Calcaterra responds is the mistaken idea that intersectional writing is merely a fancy name for licensing a writer to introduce his or her particular “social justice” concerns into analyses of the game, or that it is cultural writing with baseball as a focus. The response offered by Watt and Calcaterra is, in Watt’s words, that “all baseball writing is culture writing, namely, that all baseball writing is immersed in broader cultural dynamics and norms that may or may not be explicitly analyzed by the writer.

I’d like to offer a few belated comments on these essays. It’s true that, while I watch baseball and read about baseball, that I don’t usually write about it. What I find interesting, in this case, is the use of the term intersectionality, and how it found its way outside of the academic contexts in which we usually talk about it, to become the name for a new paradigm of baseball writing. In what follows, I will argue that intersectionality means something more than cultural or socio-political baseball writing. I think that if intersectionality names a new paradigm of baseball writing, that it should explicitly confront both the norms that orient how the game is played and the norms that guide the conceptual choices that writers make. That sounds abstract, but I think the recent debate over the so-called unwritten rules of baseball will illustrate what I mean.

However, I’d like to take a brief detour through the article that introduced intersectionality as a concept: Kimberle Crenshaw’s “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.”* I think this detour is warranted because Crenshaw makes a crucial point about how an uncritical approach to social norms produces biases in the way we think about discrimination, social activism, and social change (among other things). Crenshaw argues that the dominant approaches to problems of discrimination “treat race and gender as mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis.” To treat discrimination as the result of either gender or race distorts and marginalizes the experiences of those who are adversely affected by both gender and racial discrimination. 

For our purposes, we should note that the uncritical adoption of these “single-axis” frameworks introduces theoretical and practical norms that undermine the social agency of marginalized groups. Crenshaw’s interest is in how these single-axis theories marginalize black women. She argues that black women are marginalized because feminist theory is largely shaped by the experiences and struggles of white women.** In a similar fashion, antiracist struggles are largely shaped by African-American men. This places African-American women in a double-bind: there are ways in which their consciousness as women conflicts with their consciousness as members of the African-American community, and there are ways in which their consciousness and experiences as African-Americans conflict with their experiences as women. This is, undoubtedly, a very schematic summary. But it is enough to introduce Crenshaw’s critique of the normative failures of single-axis frameworks:
These problems of exclusion cannot be resolved simply by including Black women within an already established analytical structure…the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism…. (140)
Thus for Crenshaw, intersectionality is a direct attack on the presumed norms that guide single-axis frameworks.

The Unwritten Rules

The response to the recent comments by Bryce Harper and Goose Gossage about the unwritten rules of baseball will illuminate what I mean by reconsidering the social norms that guide our thinking about baseball. Though I will not recount those comments here, I will point to a recent post concerning the racist undertones of policing the so-called “unwritten rules” of the game. Sam Adler-Bell writes:
These flare ups of concern about the erosion of baseball values—translation: that baseball players occasionally act like they’re having fun—almost always center on non-white players’ perceived violations of baseball etiquette. Gossage’s comments are plainly racist.
If what I am saying about intersectionality is correct, then criticizing the so-called unwritten rules requires doing more than merely condemning the comments themselves. It involves, as Adler-Bell notes, reconceptualizing how those comments are understood. Here are the ways that we could consider the context of players enforcing the unwritten rules.

1) Stick to sports: The unwritten rules are part of the game. 
On this view, the fact that (white) American players evoke the unwritten rules to police the behavior of Latin American players is accidental. The proponent of this view looks for an exception and finds that in 2012 Cole Hamels deliberately hit Bryce Harper with a pitch so that Harper would get a better idea of his place—so it’s not all Latin Americans who are on the wrong side of the unwritten rules.

Obviously, this approach is incompatible with an intersectional approach. There is a fine line distinguishing the next two possible ways to interpret the norms of the unwritten rules.

2) The unwritten rules as applied by Player X are socially unacceptable.
It is possible to begin by looking at the unwritten rules through the lens of broader social dynamics. Then, given that many of the off-field complaints involve (white) American players policing the behaviors of Latin American players (most recently, it’s Gossage criticizing José Bautista’s admittedly awesome and jubilant, I sayplayoff bat-flip), we can conclude that policing the unwritten rules displays racist undertones, or at least, some degree of white privilege. The problem, however, is that proof that race is a factor often turns on whether or not a particular player (our Player X) who has decided to police the game has racist motivations or not. Once it becomes about the player's intent or attitudes, we've lost sight of the system of social norms.
3) The unwritten rules allow (white) American players*** to set the norms of the game.
The standpoint of the second view starts with a particular practice (the unwritten rules) and then introduces broader social dynamics into the equation. However, the unwritten rules are not rituals that have existed since time immemorial. As Adler-Bell writes,
Enforcing traditional codes of conduct is the primary way that whiteness continues to exert its authority over the game. When baseball old-timers talk about the “right way” to play the game, they mean the “white way.” And in this, I see less a genuine loyalty to the game’s existing norms, than an attachment to the privilege of defining what those norms are. (My emphasis)
Thus when white (American) players claim that they are policing who plays the game the right way, they are claiming the privilege of defining the norms of baseball. Moreover, we could suggest that the reason (white) American players continue to enforce the unwritten rules (that is, define the norms for how the game is played) is that they derive a competitive advantage—as a group—from the unwritten rules. This point, of course, has been noted by historians of baseball’s integration, but it is still relevant today. If even Bautista, in his essay in The Players' Tribune, appears obligated to note that his famous bat flip doesn’t represent disrespect for the unwritten rules of the game—“It wasn’t out of contempt for the pitcher. It wasn’t because I don’t respect the unwritten rules of the game. I was caught up in the emotion of the moment”—what of the lesser-known Latin American player who is on the bubble of a major league (or even minor league) roster? Could we conceive of these players, for example, modifying their behaviors to avoid incurring the physical violence of Law and Order Ball (what Dave Zirin suggested on Twitter we call “Ball and Order”) by standing off the plate to avoid potential injuries—thus putting themselves at a disadvantage as batters.

The Politics of Unwritten Rules

By focusing on how norms arise in baseball, and by focusing on who claims the privilege of setting those norms, we undermine the idea that it is possible to just merely stick to the game. What the intersectional approach demonstrates is that social norms are themselves social forces. To phrase this in different terms, we could call the second approach reformist: it aims to reform the game by halting a bad practice or correcting what player attitudes we consider acceptable. That is an admirable goal in itself, and I’m not condemning that. However, the intersectional approach aims to show how different practices within the game reveal the privilege that (white) American players have on and off the field, and perhaps—I raise this as a possibility because this is a question we should seek to answerthe competitive advantage they gain by having this privilege. Perhaps this is precisely what Calcaterra’s critics believe is “social justice” advocacy. So be it. The entire point is to make the normative structure visible so that we can interpret it, rather than treating social and political dynamics as if they are magically rebuffed by the chalk on the field. When we say that the Goose Gossages, the Jonathan Papelbons, and the Bud Norrises of baseball play “Ball and Order,” it’s a reminder that the unwritten rules of the game are themselves never neutral.

* This article appears in The University of Chicago Legal Forum (1989), 139–167.
**Crenshaw, p. 154: “When feminist theory attempts to describe women’s experiences through analyzing patriarchy, sexuality, or separate spheres ideology, it often overlooks the role of race. Feminists thus ignore how their own race functions to mitigate some aspects of sexism and, moreover, how it often privileges them over and contributes to the domination of other women.”
*** Or, to paraphrase Ta-Nehisi Coates, players who believe they are white.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Latest Arrivals

My reading lists are probably at their most diverse when I'm not in the midst of a book project. While some of the major features of the next project are coming into focus, I've been reading a variety of books that won't have any direct bearing on it. (Then again, who knows for sure?)

The Abensour stuff is for a long-term project that Matt McLennan and I are working on. I've written a book review of Split Season 1981, though it's ultimate venue is unconfirmed. And, yes, it's taken me this long to get a copy of Coates's book. What can I say? I'm backlogged:

Next, a stack from a Verso book sale. Geras probably looks like the odd title out, but it's a follow up for our reading group for Feuerbach's The Fiery Brook. Behind that stack is another stack of recent acquisitions; some are part of a self-education in indigenous studies to find essays/chapters to include in introductory courses in philosophy:


Then, catching up on Derrida and Honneth for future (shorter) projects, plus two more baseball books to read before the season starts:

Not pictured: five or six other books that are somewhere waiting to be delivered.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The "Oriental Idea": Feuerbach and Schelling

I'm part of a Feuerbach reading group, and I'm attempting to give his work more time than I did when I read The Essence of Christianity. I've only gotten as far as the first paragraph of Feuerbach's "Towards a Critique of Hegel" and I'm struck by an undercurrent of ambivalent orientalism that reminds me of a passage from Schelling's Philosophy of Art (University of Minnesota Press, 1989). Presented, without further ado, as a kind of call-and-response:

By German speculative philosophy, I mean that philosophy which dominates the present—the philosophy of Hegel. As far as Schelling’s philosophy is concerned, it was really an exotic growth—the ancient oriental idea of identity on Germanic soil. (The Fiery Brook, Verso, 2012, p. 53).
From Pythagoras onward, and even further back, down to Plato, philosophy perceived itself as an exotic plant in Greek soil, and this feeling expressed itself among other places in the universal impulse leading those initiated into higher teachings—either through the wisdom of earlier philosophers or through the mysteries—back to the birthplace of the ideas, namely, the Orient. (4-5)

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.