Sunday, November 29, 2009

Post-thesis Sunday

Unlike the last few Sundays, I will say that, here at The Notes Taken, not much has been happening. Our contributors are graduate students or professors, and the end of November is the beginning of the end of the semester. For myself, the last two weeks included a conference in Memphis, trying to write an abstract for a conference in June, and my thesis defense.

Regarding the defense, it's still too close for me to get some perspective on it. I plan to write about the process once the final draft has been submitted to the Faculty, which I project to be around December 9, if not earlier, because I passed with no revisions, only corrections of grammatical errors, etc. I would like to say, however, that a friend of mine, who also started the same semester as myself (Fall 2004), successfully defended his thesis on Friday. So I would like to send out a congratulations to Robbie Moser.

Though things on the blog were brief this week during upcoming week I will be working on several pieces, including one about how not to write a book review, taking as my focus one published in the NY Times.

If you have some spare time, I suggest checking out the geography of a recession, and also John Richardson's "Bacon Agonistes" in the New York Review of Books, especially if you would like to know why, as Richardson writes,
Setting twentieth-century kinkmeisters against Renaissance masters has evidently paid off, and attracted a vast new public into museums they might not have otherwise visited.
Now's also a good time to catch up on all our posts in November; thus far we've published 29 (including this one) in 29 days.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Benjamin's Writings on Hashish

I've been trying to work up an abstract on Walter Benjamin for the CPA meeting in June for a panel on German philosophy with two friends. With all that has been going on lately, I haven't really had a chance to do so, which is complicated by the nature of Benjamin's work, being quite diverse and yet singular. So I've posted this piece for some motivation (it's due on Monday), and for all of those who have been nice enough to visit the site on the recommendation of The Tao of Stieb. This review was originally published in De Philosophia, Volume 19, number 2, page 124.

The recent interest in this translation of Walter Benjamin’s texts on hashish seems to indicate that the general reading public maintains a greater interest in drug-literature than philosophy. Or, perhaps, this book forms the comical obverse of the proliferation of volumes such as On Belief, On Authenticity, et cetera. Typically, one’s journals never face the scrutiny of broad readership, but apparently hashish should not be left to specialists. As such, On Hashish takes the form of a light-hearted chapter in what is often considered as Benjamin’s pensive, and terminally tragic, biography.

The book is divided into two parts. The first is composed of Benjamin’s protocols of drug experimentation. Some are written by him, while others are composed by either the doctors administering the dose, or Benjamin’s friends. The second part of the book compiles several completed texts, along with excerpts from other texts and letters with passages on intoxication. Despite Benjamin’s repeated complaints concerning dosage, the protocols are nothing like the libertarian hedonism of say William S. Burroughs. Benjamin’s interest in hashish and opium had a basis in both literature– especially Baudelaire’s Paradis artificiels (144)– and his philosophical-political preoccupations, which fall somewhere between the Frankfurt School and Bataille’s Collège de Sociologie.

What is notable in Benjamin’s texts is the refusal to give intoxicated experience a mystical status. Instead, as in the excerpts from his essay “Surrealism,” intoxication provides the possibility of what he calls “profane illumination,” a materialist anthropology. However, in a properly dialectical twist, the immediate experience of intoxication is overtaken by the concepts which allow us to find the surprises of intoxication in the everyday world. Thus, “the most passionate investigation of hashish intoxication will not teach us half so much about thinking (which is eminently narcotic) as the profane illumination of thinking will teach us about hashish intoxication (133-134).” This dialectical approach is much more apparent in the finished texts, while the protocols record the brief hallucinations, non sequiturs, erratic behaviors (for instance, Benjamin– apparently sober– “offers a light when J picks up a wafer”) and fleeting lucidity.

The bulk of the finished texts are comprised of two stories: “Myslovice–Braunschweig–Marseilles” and “Hashish in Marseilles.” Both draw heavily on the fourth protocol, dated Saturday, September 29, 1928. A Freudian knows that the true story is in repetition: first, we encounter a rather literary set of notes (the protocol); second, a version published in 1930 which Benjamin ascribes to a fictional character; and finally, a ‘memoir’ version published in 1932. Between the slips and displacements, the reader is left to reflect upon questions of narrative, intoxication, and identity; if, of course, these reflections have not been interrupted with bursts of laughter…

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thesis Defense

Here it is (update: don't forget my posts--here and here-- on Schelling's work):

Ph.D. Philosophy; Thesis Defense

Devin Zane Shaw: Freedom and Nature in Schelling's Philosophy of Art

Thursday, November 26th, 2009 at 9:00 a.m. in Room DMS 3105, Desmarais Hall (55 Laurier East)

Thesis Supervisor: Dr. Jeffrey Reid

External Examiner: Dr. Frederick Beiser (Syracuse University)

Internal Examiners (in alphabetical order): Dr. Denis Dumas, Dr. Douglas Moggach, Dr. Sonia Sikka

President: Dr. Hilliard Aronovitch

Bienvenue à tous Welcome to all

Thoughts on the Sartre Conference

I can't say I saw too much of Memphis (mainly the neighborhood at Cooper/Young, Beale Street and the National Civil Rights Museum), but I can say that I saw a lot of good papers at the most recent North American Sartre Society meeting, and that I met a lot of good people.

Before going, I was struck by how the conference was organized: the papers were held on the University of Memphis campus, but there was also a performance of Sartre's No Exit at the Brooks Museum on Thursday night and the keynote addresses and dinner at the Civil Rights Museum. For most conference organizers, multiple destinations over a city as large as Memphis, pose a lot of logistical problems, but the NASS organizers pulled it off admirably.

The conference was an excellent time. The staged reading of No Exit was so strong that it was easy to forget that the actors were holding their scripts through parts. I would reference the director, but her name is not in the schedule, which is too bad: she deserves a lot of credit for her work.

The plenary session on the anniversary of the Critique de la raison dialectique, including talks by Robert Bernasconi, Ronald Aronson, and Thomas Flynn, was thought provoking, and during the question period, Flynn's quick wit carried the day. The panel on Aronson's Living without God was also a high point, with contributions from Adrian van den Hoven, Ron Santoni, and Matt Eshleman. To list all the people I met and all the good conversations I had would be a bit much, but I can note that Bill Martin convinced me that I should be reading the later Althusser, which I already knew, but was just trying to put off. Needless to say, when I returned home I ordered a copy.

Most importantly, the conference motivated me to keep working on Sartre and the questions and problems that I find in his work, that it is worth taking up a new project and seeing where it goes, and (almost) wherever it goes, the next Sartre society meeting will be willing to listen. The organizers, primarily (to my knowledge) Christine Daigle and Jonathan Judaken, deserve praise for their efforts to make the conference both welcoming and worthwhile.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sunday and David Foster Wallace

November has seen a lot of literary-philosophical in-review action here at The Notes Taken (with pieces, this week, on colonialism and more colonialism, California, Zizek's latest, travel reading, and Maoism in Nepal) which I have been enjoying from afar as a mere fly on the wall (one of the perverse ironies of teaching literature being the lack of time it allows for actually reading new books). For the last two weeks I've been going through David Foster Wallace's illimitable, inimitable magnum opus, Infinite Jest, with my American lit Honours seminar class at Nipissing U., and so but my review this week explores some of the highlights of D.F.W.'s web presence.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank to Marc Pritchard, Devin Shaw and Khalia Scott, whose recommendations finally motivated me to read Infinite Jest back in 2007, an unforgettable and life-altering experience that, while it nearly prevented me from completing my doctoral thesis on Brockden Brown and Poe, induced a number of nights of near-sleepless, blink-eyed over-poring, and left me with an over-powering urge to make unintelligibly pseudo-Hegelian declarations about the end and overcoming of postmodern fiction, was eminently worth the danger. I'd also like to thank diligent Nipissing students Leila Dunn, Jennifer Bennison, Kyla Morin and Shawn Fetterley for sharing some of these links, as well as their own thoughts on the novel (which I felt like Gerhardt Schtitt for assigning to undergrads, but which has made at least some converted Infinite Jesters.)

Here is the David Foster Wallace Wiki, which features links to many of the best web entries on Wallace, which (aside from the Lipsky article) I won't reproduce here - a great resource for anybody reading (which is to say by default both working on and playing with) the novel. It also features spoiler-free, page-by-page annotations to the novel.

Here is David Lipsky's moving and highly insightful account of Wallace's life and writing for Rolling Stone.

Here are a number of links to audio interviews with David Foster Wallace, including an interview with Michael Silverblatt recorded just after the publication of Infinite Jest, where Wallace discusses the importance of fractals and other elements that influenced the novel's evolving structure, and Silverblatt's commentary on learning of Wallace's death.

Here is the Harper's (shortened) version of Wallace's essay "Tense Present," which appears in its gloriously prolix full-length form in the collection Consider the Lobster.

Speaking of lobsters, here is an extract from that book's titular essay, used by a website on vegetarianism. It also includes a little biographical information on Wallace (who was not, as he confesses in "Consider the Lobster," himself a vegetarian, although he couldn't quell his ethical qualms about eating meat.)

Here is the online version of the full article, as published in Gourmet magazine (I find the juxtaposition of these two venues too delicious to pass up.)

Here is a brief meditation for The Atlantic by D.F.W. on terrorism

Here is a recently post-I.J. interview with Wallace by Valerie Stivers (her account of her nervousness prior to meeting him, esp. her musing about what H.I.D. may have been hidden by his photo-pervasive bandanna, is hilarious)

Here is a New Yorker article on Wallace's struggles writing his last (and soon to be posthumously published, although unfinished) novel, The Pale King

Here is a New York Times obituary of Wallace and review of his writing.

Here is a Wall Street Journal article that summarizes Wallace's Kenyon commencement speech (which was formerly available online, but has since been copyright-tightened due to the publication of the quasi-koan-like, over-spaced edition, which you can buy here, if you are so inclined, paying for one to two sentences per page and dooming countless trees).

Here is "Infinitely Sad," Troy Patterson's retrospective article on Wallace, which explores Wallace's ambivalence toward literary Narcissism.

Here is a useful collection of links to critical responses, most of them early, to Infinite Jest.

Here is a glossary of terms from the book, each linked to its definition and etymology on (not as thorough as DFW's beloved OED, but it's a start)

Here is a link with some excerpts from Robert Bell and William Dowling's A Reader's Companion to Infinite Jest (which I have not yet read - the book, I mean, not the excerpts).

Here is a link to the Infinite Summer forum, a product of the e-collective reading of the novel that went on during the summer of 2009, a project which is beautifully apropos of the novel's preoccupation with isolation and the quest for community,

Here is a link to Gerry Canavan's blog, with an in-process discussion of irony, consumerism, and Johnny's Gentle's Reaganesque presidency in the novel (on that note, I just realized during my re-read that Chretien (aka "J.J.J.C.") is still the Prime Minister - err, I mean the "Secretary of State" of Canada during the novel, Wallace's prescience perhaps lacking the pessimism necessary to foresee our current P.M., with whom Pres. Gentle would no doubt get along rather smashingly.)

Finally, here is a chatroom-convo from 1996 in which "dfw" (either the author, or a clever impostor) makes some tantalizing observations about I.J. (and some funny typos, too).

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Marx, Lenin, Mao, Nepal?

The recent political struggle in Nepal has taken a course that, ideologically, couldn't seem less possible in the 21st century: there the Maoist party (now called the United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist) took up armed struggle in 1996 against the repression of Nepal's government, and in the last few years has brought down the monarchy and restored parliamentary democracy. Despite this, social struggle in Nepal has not drawn the same kind of attention that the Bolivarian Revolution has. There are few books about the subject, and even articles that are not ideologically loaded against the struggle are difficult to find (for the non-expert). For books, after some research, I chose Li Onesto's Dispatches from the People's War in Nepal (Pluto, 2004), which is written with much sympathy for the struggle, but not without some criticism.

Obviously, that book's story ends five years ago. For more recent developments, I recommend reading Gary Leupp's article "The Andolan in Kathmandu and the Revolution to Follow" (in Counterpunch), about the more recent political struggle in Nepal. By 2005, the Maoist party controlled 80 percent of the country, and, as Leupp summarizes,
agreed to the 2006 Comprehensive Agreement with the political parties whereby they would all jointly work to bring down the king, restoring parliamentary democracy, while the Maoists would lay down their arms under UN supervision, ending the war. A key provision of the Agreement was that the soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army be integrated into the Nepali Army (formerly the Royal Nepali Army).The Maoists also demanded the convening of a Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution, and the proclamation of a republic. They won these demands, and in the April 2008 elections for the assembly, won 38% of the vote, twice the number of the next party.
To say that is was a surprise to many Western commentators that the Maoist party-- which, incidentally, is not on good terms with post-Maoist China-- won an election after setting down its arms would be an understatement.

However, when the Nepali army refused to integrate, the Maoists quit the government and returned to extra-parliamentary tactics with the goal of forcing the integration of the military. The basic idea behind this move is that without an integrated military, there is no possibility of true "civilian supremacy," because the military is not neutralized as a political force. According to Leupp, the UN Mission in Nepal, with very little ideological interest in doing so, has found that the government is at fault. Leupp concludes,
the Maoists who now boast they have all Kathmandu behind them can say much of the world as represented by the UN secretary general agrees with their goal of “civilian supremacy,” and that the 22-party coalition with the UML and Congress at its head, linked to the Army, India and ultimately U.S. imperialism is the isolated, marginalized force.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Imperial Projects in Peripheral Madness

Foucault has asserted that a great confinement took place in Europe, with the proliferation of the asylum, during the early modern period. Waltraud Ernst’s Mad Tales from the Raj: the European Insane in British India, 1800 – 1858, published by Routledge in 1991, investigates the role of the Asylum in India and attempts to ascertain whether this can be said of its propagation there. She seeks to understand the relationship of the institution to the colonial project in the British Empire. She was originally trained as a cultural psychologist and now teaches and researches the history of western medicine during the modern period. In this book she uses her knowledge of psychology to investigate some of the treatment strategies of the European soldiers put in the care of the mental health professionals in India. This book spreads itself awfully thin in terms of the treatment of several topics, especially given how petite it is, less than 200 pages, yet to her credit Ernst accomplishes this feat.

Ernst sums her goal in writing this work as a twofold endeavor to elucidate the relationship of the mental asylum to colonialism and to develop a theoretical framework in which to understand mental health in its socio-political context. While there is no doubt that Ernst successfully tells a good story as to the loci of the European insane within the European colonial context. Additionally she seeks to examine the role the clinic had on the treatment of the insane as well. A lot of references are made to Foucault, where Ernst is quick to accuse him of playing fast and loose with the historical record. She furthermore indicates that asylums were not anywhere near the Panopticons that one is made to believe in reading Foucault. She also gives passing glances to the notion that the clinics played a role in the establishing of colonial domination, instead argumentatively favoring the idea that the clinics were established as a last ditch effort to save European face in the colonial context.Europeans, she discovered, did not want their own seen by Indians as susceptible to insanity and were quick to either remove them back to Europe or else hide them in the clinics established in India. Which doesn't undermine arguments about colonial legitimacy. There is definitely more room to expand in this analysis.

While the work mobilizes a lot of primary material, very little thick analysis is proffered. Instead the book fills a void in a dearth of knowledge about the introduction of the treatment of mental health in India. She excellently gives a sweeping overview of the half century this book covers but much remains to be done on several levels. While she couldn’t have been expected to expound on every detail of the multiple topics this book stretches across, it nonetheless argues its topics lucidly and with quite a bit of humor.

First as Tragedy, then as Farce

Slavoj Zizek's new book (Verso, 2009) examines the current world financial crisis and attempts to delineate a coherent Leftist response. The book is relatively accessible, and readers frustrated by his unruly and largely redundant previous effort In Defense of Lost Causes will find Zizek back in top critical form.

The current crisis is read in light of a comment of Marx's, to the effect that historical events must occur twice: first as tragedy, then as farce. September 11, 2001 (treated previously by Zizek in the engaging Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Verso 2002) was the tragic moment showing the naive utopianism of the Fukuyamean/Clintonite "happy 90's"; the bailout of banks and manufacturers by Congress is its farcical repitition (farcical because, among other things, it answers this naive utopianism with the spectacle of failed millionaires being put on a kind of welfare). As always, Zizek zeroes in on the counter-intuitive features of his historical conjuncture - the populist Right is after the wrong targets, the liberal Left is shoring up the big companies - with a view to unmasking their ideological core.

The second half of the book concerns the "communist hypothesis" (Badiou's term) in the present conjuncture. The communist hypothesis, discussed by Badiou in recent texts, is the hypothesis that communism is the right political solution (accepting, of course, that attempts to work it out have hitherto failed). Zizek bets on this hypothesis; he emphasizes however that whereas both Actually Existing Socialism and contemporary liberal capitalism belie an utopian core, his communism is not guilty of a happy Hegelianism that would count history on its side. Rather, Zizek maintains that the Left should assume a coming social / environmental / biogenetic catastrophe, and work backwards to how it might have been stopped. In short, Zizek sees the task of the Left as stopping history in its tracks by communist means and for communist aims. One sees again his affinity for Lenin, who it will be recalled was a voluntarist, strategic reader of Hegel.

Some of the prescriptive vagueness of In Defense of Lost Causes is repeated here, but I believe that Zizek gives the outline of what could prove a compelling philosophical argument for a communist response. He lives up to his reputation for weaving philosophy, pop culture, politics and psychoanalysis into an engaging whole; ultimately, however, the philosophical meat of his arguments is to be sought in earlier texts (now on Verso as "The Essential Zizek").

Travel Reading

Traveling imposes its own kind of reading schedule, being that there are numerous external limitations to what one can plan on reading: the size of one's luggage or carry on bag, the size of the books, the time of the flight, layovers, etc. Each has their own specific challenge. I find that if I fly early in the morning, or red-eye, novels are probably the best, but no James Joyce or David Foster Wallace. Nabokov works sometimes (I read Laughter in the Dark on a red-eye), so does Michel Houellebecq (just read one though; my friend Mark reports that he's crossed parts of The Possibility of an Island and Whatever, because he read them on the round-trip from Ottawa to Glasgow for a conference) but I've probably read more Vonnegut novels on airplanes than I have any other author. That includes parts of Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat's Cradle, Timequake, and maybe also parts of A Man without a Country. For my morning flight to Memphis, I've decided to try Jailbird. It's not that my decision is based on ease. It's based on organization: Vonnegut's short chapters and sections make for a good read when there are constant interruptions to one's attention span.

I'm also taking Zizek's First as Tragedy, Then as Farce for my flight back (in the afternoon), and Michael Lowy's Fire Alarm (on Walter Benjamin), so that I can try, unrealistically, to work a bit on an abstract about Benjamin's concept of history.

And then, of course, there's the whole Sartre conference...which is why I'm going in the first place.

Tomorrow, I will have a post up about Nepal, thanks to Blogspot's ability to schedule the publication ahead of time.

Monday, November 16, 2009

California Inaction

For my friends in the Central Valley, or who are from there, Mother Jones has published an article by Josh Harkinson called "The New Dust Bowl." It focuses on the plight of migrant workers and undocumented immigrants, who are some of the least protected when an economy collapses:
The sudden collapse of the Central Valley's economy illustrates how climate change can push a fragile region over the edge. Already vulnerable from rampant housing speculation and a dependence on industrial agriculture, the valley never prepared for a prolonged spate of bad weather. In 2008, local bankruptcy filings jumped 74 percent—from about 15,300 to 27,000—a rate of increase twice the national average. Three of the valley's counties were among the nation's six worst for foreclosures, with nearly 85,000 houses lost. The drought is expected to dry up a billion dollars in income and 35,000 jobs, adding to a statewide unemployment rate that recently hit 11.9 percent—the highest since the eve of World War II.
I'm not sure this is the most appropriate place to bring it up, but there's not much the state can do about this, due to its greatly restricted budgetary process (For its effects on the CSU system see here, although it has been noted elsewhere that there have been cuts even during 'good years'). Part of the blame rests on Prop. 13 (see Paul Krugman's take) and various other measures that have screwed up the discretionary power of Sacramento, which while that can be a good thing sometimes, has largely contributed to a political 'culture' of passing the blame around to other people.

Of course, the Governator can't really deal with these problems, being that neither Democrats nor his own party take him seriously. So, aside from a statewide garage sale, and appeals to the federal government, what have his people been up to? From the Wall Street Journal:
As of July 2009, California's budget shortfall was 49.3% of its general funds. States have considered drastic options to fill such gaps.

"I looked as hard as I could at how states could declare bankruptcy," said Michael Genest, director of the California Department of Finance who is stepping down at the end of the year. "I literally looked at the federal constitution to see if there was a way for states to return to territory status."

Territory status for one of the world's largest economies? Now that's true California politics inaction.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Imperial Brutality Revisited

The magnitude of the atrocities committed by British colonists in Kenya against the Kikuyu and other groups, in the form of dozens of internee camps and many more villages that had undergone ‘villagization,’ is shocking. Caroline Elkins’ Imperial Reckoning: the Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, published in 2005 by Henry Holt and Company, delineates the tragic and underrepresented narrative of hundreds of thousands of tortured Kenyans. The task undertaken in this work was massive. Elkins tells the story of how British colonialists systematically tortured an entire population of people. Both in the camps and the villages in Kenya, the British Colonial Office waged a campaign of terror for nearly a decade.

Telling the story of such atrocities isn’t a small task. The British colonists cordoned off of an entire people, methodically used of their labor for state and other projects, aimed at psychologically reprogramming those within the camps, and routinely tortured and raped or murdered at will. Imperial Reckoning starts from what Elkins believes to be the roots of the conflict. She tells of the coming of Europeans to Kenya, their settlement, and various missionary activities. She then discusses the problem of scarcity of land and the reserves created by the settlers and the colonial government. European white racism prevailed and laws were enacted with increasing regularity, which marginalized and unfairly treated non-whites. Among these laws were the often discussed ‘pass laws’ used throughout much of the British colonies. In response to these injustices the Kikuyu and other groups banded together and sought justice, often through peaceful channels, and less often militant groups formed which carried out acts of violence on colonial and loyalist agents. In response to the resistance to the unfair rule established by the European settlers, the colonial government began increasingly to hunt down and capture or kill Kikuyu, eventually establishing a monstrous machine of forced labor and torture.

These events are not often spoken of publicly in Kenya itself, nor are these crimes known to most of the world. Elkins wrote that neither official apologies nor reconciliation of any kind existed in Kenya at the time her book was published. A former Mau Mau adherent and object of Britain’s Gulag wrote “I despise them . . . this will only change when everyone knows what happened to us. Maybe then there will be some peace once our people are able to mourn in public.” Though it’s not official the job of an academic to right wrongs or prevent tragedies, perhaps this work can aid in the prevention of such carnage in the future. What else is knowledge for if not to change the trajectory of humanity?

Since the publication of this book Kenya has taken steps to establish Truth and Reconciliation Committees but Amnesty International and other international human rights groups have criticized the bills proffered by the Kenyan government. These groups claim that these committees would simply absolve the criminals of their crimes, among other things. The debate on how to move forward is still underway. But beyond simply prosecuting the wrong doers remains the material reality. The vast majority of Kenyan resources are in the hands of European colonists and their progeny. This book could not be expected to have as it’s scope both the historical recording of this awful chapter and be expected to outline the appropriate means of redressing colonial violence. But Elkins does an incredible job of evoking the spirit of empathy in her reader by carefully describing the gruesome details of this epoch. At the bare minimum this book opens up a channel for dialogue.

Sunday with Red Emma

It's been two months (minus one day) since we began The Notes Taken. The first post is dated September 16 (our 'about us' description), although the first content post is dated September 18. Two months in, and we have statistics: they are incomplete, because we've only have a sitemeter since late October, but they are revealing. Since October 25th, we've had 428 visits and 735 page views. In the last week of October, we had 98 visits/174 page views, while in the first two weeks of November, the numbers are 330/561, indicating a healthy growth in readership for the new site, courtesy of you. So, thank you.

For published posts, Devin has written a majority, at 42, Matt 7, Jason 3, Sean 1 and Josh 1. This post is the first signed by the 'Notes Taken Review.' We've been mulling it over, and we have decided to search for additional writers. Some of you, obviously, might want to contribute book reviews or brief review essays, and if you do, you can email (go to the Notes Taken Review profile and the link is there) us, and we will look it over and try and publish it if it accords with what we take our purpose to be.

Over the last week, we again had plenty to say: we discovered that Matt's been teaching the moral dilemmas of the Twilight series to his students (some people thought that Devin had posted it! Imagine!). There's some information up on the upcoming Sartre Society meeting in Memphis, filed under some shameless self-promotion. And I (meaning Devin; I can't keep writing in the third person at the moment) displayed some cynicism about the process of applying for tenure track positions, and then, more importantly, wrote a trio of blogs about politics and the economy: about the Federal Reserve as an ideological apparatus, the repeal of Glass-Steagall and the future of reform, and finally, about Tom Reifer's tribute to Giovanni Arrighi.

And then, as per tradition, if you only have time to read one post, read Joshua Kurdys's discussion about the status of women in philosophy. I've made the subject of the philosophical canon important to my Great Philosopher's course as a set up for reading The Second Sex. I've learned that if you make the status of women a critical issue in reading the canon, students are responsive (as much as they can be for a class of 130). They don't ignore questions like, what gender/sex is the Cartesian cogito? Who are the citizens in Plato or Rousseau's political philosophy? Could Hume doubt personal identity if he thought about bodies as gendered or sexual? We'll soon see how they take to Simone de Beauvoir...

When I taught this course in Toledo, my class loved Emma Goldman, despite the concerns of several 'philosophers' that Emma was not doing 'philosophy'. I didn't listen, and nor was I even the sole professor teaching Goldman's work (I ended up substitute lecturing that semester for a course in Women's Studies and one of my students was in both courses. Imagine her surprise when I walked into the other class!). I'm pretty sure we read "Anarchism: What it Really Stands for", "Traffic in Women" and "Marriage and Love" (for the rest of the book, see this page). Judge for yourself!

As for next week, since I will be out of town at the Sartre Conference, Sean Moreland is going to step in for the Sunday Review, wherein he will provide the best in links to material by or about David Foster Wallace.

Until then, a few odds and ends:
  • Look into the most cited authors in 2007 (they are measured according to books cited, not articles), and see how many you are familiar with. Standing tall at the top, after all these years, is Michel Foucault.
  • From the NYT Book Review, a review of Paul Auster's Invisible, and Nabokov's The Original of Laura.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Tom Reifer's Tribute to Giovanni Arrighi

After writing my previous post, I found Tom Reifer's tribute to Giovanni Arrighi, entitled "Capital's Cartographer," in The New Left Review, November-December 2009. Arrighi, an economist and sociologist, is one of the originators of world-systems analysis, and his book Adam Smith in Beijing (Verso, 2007) is one of the more original contributions to understanding the turbulence of our times. I read the book in June of this year (that month, Arrighi succumbed to cancer), and still, I've been trying to get my head around the ambitious scope of the book.

Arrighi, with his co-author Beverly Silver, over a decade ago, had foreseen that the expansion of global finance
of the last twenty years or so is neither a new stage of world capitalism nor the harbinger of a ‘coming hegemony of global markets’. Rather, it is the clearest sign that we are in the midst of a hegemonic crisis. As such, the expansion can be expected to be a temporary phenomenon that will end more or less catastrophically.
The hegemonic crisis in question is precisely that of the United States, and they warned that the US had unprecedented capacity to turn its power to "exploitative dominion." Iraq, maybe? Afghanistan? But, as Reifer notes,
In Adam Smith in Beijing, Arrighi returned to many of these issues in light of the re-emergence of a Chinese-centred East Asia and America’s reckless gamble to continue its hegemonic reign with the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Rather than heralding a new age of US hegemony, as its advocates hoped, Arrighi emphasized how the ambitions of the Project for the New American Century, whose members staffed key positions in the Bush White House, ironically increased the long-term likelihood that the 21st century will be the age of Asia.
That is as good of a summary of the book as I can think of, especially because it underlines that Arrighi sees hegemony as reinforced by military means, something that is often neglected or minimized by economists and sociologists (this, he argued, included Marx). I would recommend reading Reifer's tribute, if not Arrighi's work, to understand these developments. As Reifer states,
Adam Smith in Beijing, like its predecessors, is a difficult and ambitious book; not because it is poorly written—Giovanni’s prose was exemplary in its lucidity—but because of the density of its analysis and the scope of its ambitions.
Nevertheless, I don't think that should turn non-specialists away from the book. It is probably one of the more influential texts on how I think about global politics today (along with David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism), because economics is not separate from politics. We should reject the idea that economics is something self-contained that must be handled by experts, specifically because these experts work to reinforce their own power. Instead, do two things: in criticism, treat economics like anything else, that is, a system of social relationships; and in practice, not be afraid to call for heavy reform and regulation to make the system more stable and equitable.

However, while acknowledging that economics is not our expertise, we should still aim to inform ourselves and think critically about its relationship to global politics or world-systems. This is the importance of works by thinkers such as Giovanni Arrighi. The next step, that I have been thinking about off-and-on lately, is incorporating this kind of sociology/anthropology/economics approach into recent takes on hegemony (Laclau) and ideology (Zizek). My thesis is that the "Lacanian" turn, while it contributes to understanding how desire works in subjective identification, does not address the structural force played by violence and economics.

Sartre Society 2009 Meeting

The North American Sartre Society has put its conference program online (PDF). If you look, I am there, bright and early on Friday morning, giving a paper called "Reading Sartre against the New Atheists," which will have been the result of reading Being and Nothingness almost cover-to-cover over the last two months.

It looks like there are lots of interesting papers, and for plenary and keynote speakers, they've brought Robert Bernasconi, Thomas Flynn, Ronald Aronson, Annie Cohen-Solal and Robert JC Young.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Glass-Steagall and the Future of Reform

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, which created a legal separation of commercial banks and investment banks. Today on Counterpunch you can find a succinct and well-written article by Robert Weissman, entitled "Maniacal Deregulation," on the repeal of Glass-Steagall. Far from being an arcane matter, Glass-Steagall was a central piece of legislation preventing commercial banks from participating in the kind of high-risk investment that is to blame for the current recession-depression.

Repeal of Glass-Steagall had many important direct effects but the most important was to change the culture of commercial banking to emulate Wall Street's high-risk speculative betting approach.
"Commercial banks are not supposed to be high-risk ventures; they are supposed to manage other people's money very conservatively," writes Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. "It is with this understanding that the government agrees to pick up the tab should they fail. Investment banks, on the other hand, have traditionally managed rich people's money -- people who can take bigger risks in order to get bigger returns. When repeal of Glass-Steagall brought investment and commercial banks together, the investment-bank culture came out on top. There was a demand for the kind of high returns that could be obtained only through high leverage and big risk-taking."

Weissman then sets out a set of demands for true reform, which means probably not the kind of reform that we will be told 'is necessary':
  • Instead of creating a new regulatory body, banking reform should focus on industry structure, This included reinstating the legal barrier between commercial banks and investment banks, along with stricter regulation.
  • Keep commercial banks, backed by the FDIC, from getting involved in speculation.
  • Breaking up the giants of the financial industry because they wield too much political power.
  • And finally, Weissman says it best: "we need broad reform in the area of money and politics. We need public financing of Congressional regulations, even stronger lobbyist reforms, and tight restrictions to close the revolving door through which individuals spin as they travel between positions in government and industry." This, I think is worth pointing out, probably has to be the basis of other reforms and not the other way around.

The Personal is Still Political: The Status of Women in Philosophy

The autumn of 2009 has witnessed an interesting upsurge in questions of women’s place in the study of philosophy. The season began with several blog posts commenting on news reports about the absence of women studying philosophy. Subsequent posts and news stories began to question why so few women were studying philosophy, how this problem could be addressed and even whether the only problem was that the disparity appeared to be a problem rather than a natural tendency. One particularly contentious set of exchanges on the topic took place on Brian Leiter’s blog, Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog, and concerned the question of whether philosophy classes constituted a hostile environment for women. One of the original news stories on the topic explained the absence of women in the philosophy classroom by suggesting that “one reason may be that women are turned off by a culture of aggressive argument particular to philosophy, which grows increasingly more pronounced at the postgraduate level.” This suggestion, regardless of its merits as a description of what turns many people against philosophy and not only women, drew the ire of Brian Leiter’s corner of the blogosphere. After launching ad hominem [sic?] attacks on two prominent women philosophers who he regards as “hacks,” Leiter offers the enlightened suggestion that it is “demeaning to women” to say that the excessively aggressive argumentation that he prefers drives women out of the classroom and contributes to the absence of women in the profession generally. Never mind that this kind of dismissal, which Leiter employs quite regularly—as when a subsequent post jokes that Judith Butler writes her books using a random academic sentence generator—, may be precisely the kind of aggressiveness that women and others find intolerable about the study and profession of philosophy, the question deserves more than the dismissive or inevitably confounding treatment it receives from Leiter.

Without referencing that debate in her article for
The Chronicle of Higher Education’s October 16th “Diversity in Academe” issue, Regan Penaluna offers the hypothesis that misogyny in the philosophical canon may account for the absence of women in philosophy classes and their subsequent absence in the profession.
Perhaps aware that her article would appear in a special “diversity” issue of the Chronicle or perhaps as an ironic underscoring of women’s exclusion from mainstream philosophy, Penaluna claims that since “the canon as it stands is almost entirely composed of men—including many who have little good to say about women” this situation “cannot but contribute to an unwelcoming environment.” (B27) Citing the fact that “other disciplines, such as history, English, and the sciences, also have male-dominated canons, but they attract comparatively more women than philosophy does,” Penaluna suggests that “for this reason, one might conclude that the cause of gender disparity in philosophy is not the canon” (B27) thereby suggesting that professors’ handling of misogynous material might have something to do with women’s attraction to the field. This would make the problem of philosophy less an academic problem concerning what to study and more a political problem about how to study it. In short, the disparity between women in philosophy and women in other fields with male-dominated canons might be a political problem rather than an epistemological one. Mercifully, Penaluna quickly provides the corrective to the unsettling question of whether philosophy professors’ handling of the subject might be partially to blame for the exclusion of women when she asserts that it “would be wrong” to exculpate the canon for the political actions of its interpreters.

Of course it is possible that both the canon and its handlers are to blame for creating an atmosphere of hostility toward women in the faculties and classrooms of philosophy departments.
After all, it is not the philosophical canon alone that “demands that its students identify more closely with its canonical figures” (B28), it is rather philosophy faculty themselves that either do or do not “bring a critical approach to the interpretation of patriarchal texts, while also raising awareness of [. . .] works by women” (B27). Nevertheless, Penaluna explicitly rejects the idea that the political decisions of philosophy faculty to utilize a sexist canon without bringing a duly critical perspective to texts and thereby encourage their students to passively accept not only canonical figures but their misogynist attitudes are to blame before reiterating “that there are few women in philosophy because the canon is sexist and there is little being done about it.” (B28, emphasis added) Although that little conjunction, and, is unstressed in Penaluna’s article, I prefer to stress it because it highlights that the textual problem is actually a political problem about the relations that philosophers have not only with their material, but with one another as well. If philosophers are trained to emulate rather than critique their forbears, this is a failure of philosophical reflection to consider the political consequences of a certain kind of activity; it is not an effect that texts produce on their own. If it were not the activity of philosophers that made the difference then the “obvious” solution that “philosophers consider the misogynist passages of great philosophers in a critical manner” and “mainstream feminist philosophy” (B28) would have no chance of success before the occult power of the text.

The proposal to mainstream feminist philosophy, however, will only have marginal success at bringing more women into the classroom and the profession without a corresponding change of attitude toward the philosophical canon.
One of the prevailing themes in feminist philosophy involves critiquing the canon’s exclusion of women through their inclusion as an object of study. That is, in the Aristotelian conception of woman as receptacle, for example, part of the problem is the presumption that woman are known and not misrepresented by that description. Consequently, the traditional role of women in philosophy has been a form of passive inclusion as an object of knowledge whose ability to speak has been far more rigorously proscribed because of that inclusion than because of women’s exclusion. To be sure, Brian Leiter includes women like Judith Butler in his philosophical universe, but he does so by suggesting that she works unthinkingly, mechanically, instinctively and therefore “incompetently” in the medium of thought that is philosophy’s proper sphere. It is therefore unsurprising that feminist philosophers have raised significant questions about the phallogocentrism of the Western philosophical tradition and thus found themselves at odds with the preferred narrative of inclusive progress that philosophy spins about itself. At the same time, it is unsurprising that those feminists who questioned the political effects of philosophy’s preoccupation with the cerebral at the expense of the bodily became the objects of scorn for the philosophical mainstream committed to toeing the same line that resulted in women’s exclusion in the first place. The problem with the token inclusion of women philosophers who do not challenge the philosophical mainstream is that the presence of a Martha Nussbaum or Maudmarie Clark, valid in its own regard, is purchased at the expense of disparaging those who challenge the profession, like Butler or Rand, as either hacks, or “sophomoric,” as Leiter characterized Penaluna’s mention of Nietzsche’s possible misogyny.

In denying the political responsibility of philosophers, I wonder if Penaluna offers a critical narrative that is in fact very comfortable to academic philosophers because it does not significantly disrupt their standard practices within the profession.
These practices may start with reading the same books ad nauseum, but they further involve utilizing the same conceptual techniques no matter what their limitations and no matter what the consequences of those limitations. For example, in attacking the canon, one is conspicuously silent on the complicity of academics, who may have hesitations about the possibly misogynous bits in Nietzsche or the pro-slavery aspects of Aristotle, but skip over that material rather than assessing it openly. This preserves the respected tradition of decorum in which philosophers decline criticism until they can be sure about the grounds for criticism at the expense of those for whom such views are not only intolerable, but detrimental. It is emblematic of this attitude that Peter Carruthers suggests that the proportion of women in philosophy needs further study by experimental philosophers. By skipping over misogyny in philosophy through delay or oversight or simply substituting it with material that makes the same substantive point without including the offensive details, academics convey a powerful message about the place of women in the discipline: misogyny and those it hurts are not part of philosophy proper, a field that knows no gender, class or cultural identity. Rather these are simply errors to be at least ignored, or at best replaced with a more inclusive figure that preserves the timeless truths of the masters. As Penaluna notes, such an attitude is neither philosophically, nor socially responsible. Misogynous aspects of the canon should impugn the philosophical integrity of those associated with them because they display a stark lack of attention when “philosophers who devote[] their lives to investigating human experience” can ignore a significant portion of humanity by remaining “simply unconcerned with the condition of women.” (B29) Moreover, it begs the question of the social function of philosophers if they believe that the experience of women or the difficulty in responding to misogyny belong to subjects outside the purview of philosophical reflection.

Because I am not sure that Penaluna isn’t simply a more subtle and nuanced writer than I am, I will refrain from claiming that she misleads readers by downplaying the political implications of choices that philosophers make about their subject-matter. This may be wise if for no other reason than that she cites the numerous political decisions philosophers make to promote the continued relevance misogynist ideology. Nevertheless it seems relevant to emphasize that these claims are not simply hypothetical postulates, but reflect the actual conditions of women studying and making their way into the profession of philosophy. The absence of women from philosophy classrooms and the professoriate is already a political issue that many current members of the profession have ignored, promoted, misrepresented or resisted. Philosophical reflection should play a role in deciding which of these options we would like to continue, but that will not come about unless one is clear that reflection takes place within the medium of political relationships rather than being outside of them.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Nobody Could Have Predicted...

Today I've read over a few articles talking about how economists got the economy wrong. Each, in some way, try to cast light on the obscurantist claim that nobody could have predicted the downturn by showing how a particular set of circumstances brought about the intellectual blinders worn by contemporary economists. Together, they make an interesting read First, Paul Krugman explains how the economics profession gradually shifted from Keynsian theory to neo-liberalism. Keynes can be simplified to two points: 1) that markets require regulations (especially finance), and 2) "he called for active government intervention — printing more money and, if necessary, spending heavily on public works — to fight unemployment during slumps."

The story of neo-liberalism is the story of the struggle against Keynes. Neo-liberalism reduces regulation to monetary policy. As Krugman writes:
Monetarists asserted, however, that a very limited, circumscribed form of government intervention — namely, instructing central banks to keep the nation’s money supply, the sum of cash in circulation and bank deposits, growing on a steady path — is all that’s required to prevent depressions.
This view is often associated with Alan Greenspan, but the policy was first introduced by Paul Volker during Jimmy Carter's presidency. Couple this with a blind faith in markets and an attack on regulations, and we're pretty close to neoliberal policy. If there is a general difference between the two approaches, it is that neoliberalism advocates Federal Reserve policy while Keynsians advocate government spending during market downturns (and note that neoliberal hegemony only occurred in the USA with heavy Keynsian-style military spending in the background).

And then, ideologically, neo-liberalism has one more particular quirk: any time that its policies fail, it is always, according to its partisans, because deregulation didn't go far enough. There is always some other government function that is interfering with the free market.

Krugman doesn't explain how neo-liberalism became hegemonic beyond the university and regulatory system. On its forced introduction across the globe, see Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine. In the USA, the neoliberals have been running the show for the last three decades, and while Alan Greenspan has 'admitted' to some mistakes, their ideology is still dominant. How were economists "seduced by the vision of a perfect, frictionless market system," as Krugman puts it?

Ryan Grim, at the Huffington Post, says we should follow the money. While through the mid-1970s the academics of economics were largely divorced from the Federal Reserve, today the Fed largely reinforces its own ideology through academic publications and funding:
The Federal Reserve's Board of Governors employs 220 PhD economists and a host of researchers and support staff, according to a Fed spokeswoman. The 12 regional banks employ scores more. (HuffPost placed calls to them but was unable to get exact numbers.) The Fed also doles out millions of dollars in contracts to economists for consulting assignments, papers, presentations, workshops, and that plum gig known as a "visiting scholarship." A Fed spokeswoman says that exact figures for the number of economists contracted with weren't available. But, she says, the Federal Reserve spent $389.2 million in 2008 on "monetary and economic policy," money spent on analysis, research, data gathering, and studies on market structure; $433 million is budgeted for 2009.
So while much of neoliberal ideology is discredited, it still has a strong academic industry behind it. Which is why, when the current administration turns to the question of new regulations for the financial sector, there will be strong resistance both ideologically (from PhDs whose careers are at stake) and financially (there is lots of money at stake in Wall Street, as we know). The difficult task is to legislate significant reform before Congress can be bought off, and before the President takes in too much bad advice from his economic advisers, who largely were responsible for getting us into this mess. And then, as Thomas Frank points out, we might not even get out of the clear with new regulation:
What if some future administration were to install as the chairman of the Federal Reserve—or as chief of whatever agency is made into the One Big Regulator—a man who really doesn't believe in the regulatory mission? What if control of the systemic regulator is handed over to a person who considers 19th-century economic arrangements to be a sort of aspirational ideal? A man who turns out to be a dedicated fan of Ayn Rand, that Nietzsche of the boardroom? A man who blows off warning signs because, in his perfect theoretical universe of rational markets, the only really systemic problem is government itself?
This is no hypothetical problem, because Frank is referring to Alan Greenspan, who presided over the Fed from 1987 to 2006, and was, for all the wrong reasons, ascribed to have deity-like powers.

Given these problems, it's difficult not to be skeptical and cynical about reform.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Words of the Wise

Like a few of my friends at the moment, I am currently working on job applications for tenure track positions in philosophy. There are a lot of things I could say about this process, but let's just say that I've heard, more times than I can count, that "soon there will be lots of jobs because a lot of professors are due to retire." That rumor has been going around, I've also heard, since the mid-1980s. Which is why I found this piece of advice, sent to me from a friend who has been through this routine before, to be apt.
You're probably at least hip-deep in advice on this thing people call the job market. I have my own, which is to keep in mind that anyone who advises you on the way to be successful in the job market should immediately be suspected of naivete at best, gross bad faith in most instances, and for the rest, total hypocrisy. I wish you the absolute best (pardon the pun).

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The "Twilight" saga and moral education

Several factors contributed to my recently getting into the dreaded "Twilight" saga, something I'm pretty sure I swore a blood oath I would never do. It was Halloween recently; my friend dared me to; with the recent passing of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, I've been thinking more about structural analysis of myth; finally, I've had a bad cold and have had plenty of time on my hands while recuperating. So I'm well into the second book of Stephenie Meyer's series, and I have to report that despite the fact that I am not a teenage girl, it's been worth it.

Why the hell, you might ask? Has McLennan dulled his hard, unforgiving critical-Marxist edge? Is he punishing himself in some way? is Stephenie Meyer paying him? None of it. I've discovered in Twilight not only an entertaining mythology, but a great entering wedge into moral education. Every twist and turn of the story involves some kind of horrible dilemma or moral quandary, and leaving aside how the characters actually deal with these, it's gratifying to see a popular series that might actually get kids thinking in moral terms.

I've tested this against my intro Moral Reasoning students. Many of them read Twilight books on break in class, so when I gave a pop quiz joining elements of the series to John Stuart Mill's harm principle and the critique of Mill by James Q. Wilson, many of them snapped to attention and went to work like mad. Sometimes you have to play to the crowd. But beyond that very interesting experiment, I continue to find grist for the mill.

This post is of course somewhat redundant, as I see that Blackwell has put out a "Twilight and Philosophy" collection as part of their "Philosophy and Pop Culture" series. But I never take those books very seriously without thinking through the links between philosophy and pop culture artifacts myself.

Sunday From Lévi-Strauss to Makavejev

Another busy week at The Notes Taken, so you might of missed any of the following: we republished an interview with Todd May on Jacques Rancière and anarchism, Matt McLennan reviewed Alberto Gualandi's Lyotard, and Jason Smith reviewed Civilising Subjects by Catharine Hall. I weighed in on Bittergate and the politics of resentment, and also on Question 1 in Maine, which prevents marriage in that state. In an update to that post, I added that the fight over Referendum 71 (which was about equality, but without calling it marriage) in Washington seemed likely to meet a better fate. So it's worth another update to let you know that Referendum 71 has passed with 52% of the vote (a yes vote= toward equality). For something a little less political, I also remarked on a recent study about the differences between lefties and righties (and one of the few times that this distinction doesn't refer directly to politics!).

However, if you only have time to read one post, I would like to direct you to Matt McLennan's tribute to Claude Lévi-Strauss, who died last week. I have to admit that I have read very little of Lévi-Strauss' work, and when I started getting more interested in it, I was thick in the dissertation work. So a quick trip to my bookshelf reveals that I had purchased Tristes Tropiques on May 26, 2009, but I still have yet to read it. Nevertheless, I found that Matt's tribute moved me, and in my mind provides all the right reasons for one to want to read the late anthropologist's work.

As you wake up this morning, however, there are lots of other news items afloat in the oceanic internet. First up, health care:
  • Start getting to know the lone Republican in the House who voted for the health care bill. He represents a heavily Democratic district, and was elected in part because his opponent, William Jefferson, was caught with $90,000 in bribe money in his refrigerator.
  • No health care debate is complete without some conservative disrespect toward women.
And in book reviews:

First, a review at Red Pepper, of Liz Fekete's A Suitable Enemy: Racism, Migration and Islamophobia in Europe:
Fekete’s central argument is that the colour-coded anti-immigrant racism of the 1960s and 1970s has been superseded by a new continental ‘xeno-racism’, which has shifted its hostility to Europe’s migrant populations towards the terrain of culture or religion rather than race.
Second, The Nation has a review of Lorriane Mortimer's book on Dusan Makavejev, who is the director of WR: The Mysteries of the Organism (1971). WR is a difficult movie to summarize, but it's a collage of Stalinist hagiographies, a documentary on Wilhelm Reich, street theatre in New York and a fictional romance featuring a kind of 'philosophy in the bedroom' in which an ice skater from the Soviet Union and a woman named Milena from Yugoslavia discourse on sex and ideology. This should be enough to convince you to read the review and watch the movie. But if that isn't enough, as Richard Byrne aptly summarizes,
Makavejev approaches Reich's theories--and in particular, Reich's notion that humanity is corroded physically and enslaved politically and morally by its frustrated sexual urges--as an avenue to investigate how power works to keep humanity in chains.
In Foucault's terms, it is one of the greatest films that presupposes the repressive hypothesis. I had a chance to watch WR in Chicago on the big screen, but this required walking through a downpour in which an umbrella was basically useless. Still worth it. It's too bad that they don't have it at the University of Ottawa.

Finally, the New York Times shows how not to review a book by Barbara Ehrenreich, by emptying the book of its political message, so that Ehrenreich just sounds like a crank who is irritated by all that talk of positive thinking.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Lessons of Bittergate

I'm no fan of the -gate suffix being attached to political snafus, but now that the "2008 Campaign in retrospect" books are coming out, it's difficult to avoid using it. Bittergate, if you recall, was the shorthand name for the 'controversy' around Obama's comments in April 2008, at a fundraiser in San Francisco, stating that when blue-collar voters "get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations


Mayhill Fowler has recently published an excerpt from her forthcoming book about this so-called controversy on the Huffington Post. Her central claim is that
Obama's remark was and still is one of the biggest stories of that historic Presidential run. It is also still one of the least understood. Though I was the first to report on his comments in my Levittown post, here on HuffPost as a citizen journalist following the candidates and covering the campaign trail, it was not until later that I fully understood the driving forces behind that statement. I don't think it was really an accident at all, but rather, that in his quick rise to power, Barack Obama did not have the chance to get to know his fellow Americans -- at least not the ones in Levittown, Pennsylvania.

To conclude that Obama did not have a chance to get to know his fellow Americans means that Fowler doesn't really see the significance of the remark either. I think the largest problem with his remark is not that it's condescending (Clinton's take) or that of a "liberal elitist" (McCain), but that it states the most obvious open secret in American politics: that Republicans (and some Democrats) run on a politics of resentment. It's okay, if you an political commentator to talk about this (think of Thomas Frank here), but it's off limits for a politician to mention, even though every politician has to already know this. Which means that Obama knew his fellow Americans pretty well.

The politics of resentment is one of the driving forces of the teabagger phenomenon (remember when that term just referred to kink?), that is running the GOP train off the rails. The people involved probably really believe that their freedom is being taken away, and ally with the Republicans, not realizing that it is the Republican brand of neo-liberalism perpetuates the economic and social insecurity of the lower and middle class whites who cling to guns, religion and xenophobia. Ironically, something like health care is in their economic interest.

Not to mention that these demonstrations occur aided by a number of government services at their disposal. Over the summer, I recall conservatives at one or other tea party even complaining about the Metro that they nonetheless used for transportation. Or that these same people depend on police and fire departments, and even medical help. At the recent "Superbowl of Freedom" (note that conservatives don't get the irony of hyperbole), described by Dana Milbank (I know, not the best opinionator), on the steps of the Capitol, with people waving signs comparing government health care to Nazi death camps,
a man standing just beyond the TV cameras apparently suffered a heart attack 20 minutes after event began. Medical personnel from the Capitol physician's office -- an entity that could, quite accurately, be labeled government-run health care -- rushed over, attaching electrodes to his chest and giving him oxygen and an IV drip [...] By the time it was over, medics had administered government-run health care to at least five people in the crowd who were stricken as they denounced government-run health care.
Stories like this are supposed to demonstrate the absurdity of these kind of positions, but it is also important to understand the logic behind them. These conservatives might not even believe that government services are bad in and of themselves, but that their tax dollars might be redistributed to others in need of services who the lower class conservatives also view as getting some form of privilege. What they resent is that their relative status has declined while it seems others are unfairly getting ahead. The missing part of the story, however, is that the political party that they have aligned with is largely responsible for perpetuating their economic decline.

The thing is, these people aren't all lost to persuasion. They don't all parade around with idiotic signs. Some are disaffected and don't see how these changes could benefit them. They can be reasoned with, and it is one of the tasks of activists on the left to show how their plight is part of a larger social struggle for economic justice. I don't mean convincing them to vote Democratic. I mean using argumentation to help them see the larger connections between Wall Street, both parties, and globalization so that they can make more informed decisions about how to participate in politics. Maybe that means voting, but it can also mean unions, social movements, etc. The most important part is reintroducing a sense of social solidarity so often lacking in political discourse.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Adventures in Body Mapping

I found this article, through my friend Celia, called "Vast Right Arm Conspiracy? Study Suggests Handedness May Affect Body Perception," and it's worth reading if you're left-handed, or have any background in reading phenomenology. It suggests that there are significant differences in how left-handers and right-handers "map" their bodies. Here's the basic idea:
in left-handed people, there is an equal amount of brain area devoted to the left and right arms in both hemispheres. However, for right-handed people, there is more cortical area associated with right arm than the left.
What does this mean? The article goes on to discuss how that, while lefties tend to perceive their arms as an equal length, right-handers think that their right arm is longer, and even that their right hand is bigger, than their corresponding left-sided appendages.

Now, as a left-hander, I understand the results of the study. But I can't say I 'get it.' You mean to tell me that 7/8ths of the human population wandering around this planet think that they have a longer right arm? Haven't they ever stretched and seen that the two arms match, and mirror each other?

What would Maurice Merleau-Ponty say about this?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Colonial Logic: Moving Beyond the Binary

Catherine Hall’s Civilizing Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2002, seeks both to develop a specific historical investigation into a particular time and place but also to expand the state of theory and the discourse on colonialism in general. The project grew out of her own relationships, between herself and England, as well as her relationship with her parents. Her parents were both Baptists and were both engaged in the political debates of their own time. Hall threw off the yoke of her religious past but writes that she took on the political aspects of her parents thinking. While in Jamaica in 1988 she happened upon a town named Kettering, the same name as the town she had grown up in. The town had a large Baptist chapel, the same denomination as her parents had been. Civilizing Subjects thrives to understand the missionary movement in Jamaica and this particular group of colonizers. Hall aims to find out what provincial men and women knew of the empire and how they knew it and thereby seeks to more thoroughly develop our epistemology understanding of colonial logic. Her work uniquely does so by utilizing her own family history. She furthermore challenges the structures too commonly and easily used about the colonial period. She seeks to meld her families experience in the development of a cross Atlantic relationships with an aim to understanding a deeper human logic at play.

Hall mobilizes plenty of source material to develop her undertaking. She uses correspondences, newspapers, books, public records, speeches et cetera. Architecture is interestingly examined as she intellectually razes the very church of her familial lineage. She examines each of these sources throughout her text, helping the reader understand how many different sources are bound together with her argument, inviting the reader to re-examine how she interpreted her sources.

Hall doesn’t start from a single theory about the nature of colonialism, she starts with an arsenal of theories, each of which she deploys to its own purpose. Firstly, she insists on the imperative of placing colony and Metropole in one analytic frame from which she is then obligated to see both England and Jamaica as part of one story, tied together through the actions of agents in both places. Within this framework she asserts that binaries of savagery verses civilization were set up as cultural productions to keep the two, the pole and the periphery, apart from one another. She concludes of this stratagem that theorist of colonialism need to disrupt this binary and to produce more elaborate, cross-cutting ways of thinking about the processes of colonial exploitation. She further approaches the subject matter from a feminist perspective throughout the book in multiple ways.

The book asks as many questions as it gives answers. Hall aimed at such a large target in this work, it manages to intricately tie these questions together in a way which works for the reader. Furthermore this intellectual contribution enhances the ongoing debates on colonialism.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

On Marriage Equality

Although we haven't said anything about the elections that were going on this year, I'm sure my friends in the States heard something from some pundit or other about the Governor's races in New Jersey and Virginia, or the by-election for New York district 23, where Republican infighting created, until a few days before the election, a three way race between Doug Hoffman (Conservative Party, and endorsed by Sarah Palin and Fred Thompson), Dede Scozzafava (the Republican who supported marriage equality and abortion rights, and that is not a long series of typos), and Bill Owens (who is a pretty conservative Democrat). And, if you didn't know yesterday, by today we know that Republicans won in NJ and Virginia, and Bill Owens won in NY-23.

And we also know that plenty of pundits are going to pontificate about what this "means" for Democrats and for Obama. But we know, in the long run, not much. Democrats either field better candidates with strong progressive values, or their supporters stay home. "Bipartisanship" gets you nowhere when people want the majority party to act like they are in power and accomplish their agenda. If you dither all summer while your key players, or wanna-be key players get paid off by the insurance industry, your base, your activists, and 'get out the vote' people, are going to stay home, because they know. They read the blogs, or even the papers. They're better informed than the general electorate because they are active in politics.

The only election that matters to Obama's administration is the one with the most consequences in human terms: Question 1 in Maine, which challenged a bill passed by the legislature granting marriage equality to same sex couples. Unfortunately, the bad guys won, and we have yet another example of conservatives using the referendum process to prevent the implementation (or explicit denial) of civil rights. It's a victory for conservatives only insofar as they continue their politics of resentment, which hopefully will lead to the Republicans being reduced to a regional Southern party as they drive whatever moderates remain from the party.

But it's also, in that case, a pyrhhic victory. Because eventually marriage equality will win. Young voters overwhelmingly vote for marriage equality, while older voters vote against it. It's the most important demographic for understanding the future of equality, and it also means that, after a loss, as happened in California, progressives won't get distracted by blaming black or Latino voters for their loss. Not only is it bad politics (let the Republicans be the divisive racists, please), but it's false. When it comes to statistics, especially in the 2008 election, I depended on Nate Silver at He writes:
Certainly, the No on 8 folks might have done a better job of outreach to California's black and Latino communities. But the notion that Prop 8 passed because of the Obama turnout surge is silly. Exit polls suggest that first-time voters -- the vast majority of whom were driven to turn out by Obama (he won 83 percent [!] of their votes) -- voted against Prop 8 by a 62-38 margin. More experienced voters voted for the measure 56-44, however, providing for its passage. [...]

Furthermore, it would be premature to say that new Latino and black voters were responsible for Prop 8's passage. Latinos aged 18-29 (not strictly the same as 'new' voters, but the closest available proxy) voted against Prop 8 by a 59-41 margin. These figures are not available for young black voters, but it would surprise me if their votes weren't fairly close to the 50-50 mark.

At the end of the day, Prop 8's passage was more a generational matter than a racial one. If nobody over the age of 65 had voted, Prop 8 would have failed by a point or two.
So, do similar numbers hold up in Maine? Yes. Here's Adam Bink at Open Left, as the results were coming in (the No side equals for Marriage Equality):
Update 19: Final numbers are in from [University of Maine]-Orono campus- 81% No, 19% yes. In town of Orono itself, we won 73-27%.
And, overall, 47% of voters in Maine are fine with gay marriage. But, it's a lousy thing to say to my friends whose lives are more affected by this bill to say, "well, just wait, some day their will be marriage equality." Which is why I said that, at the moment, this is the biggest domestic electoral challenge to the Obama administration (I said 'domestic' because the election in Afghanistan is currently the biggest foreign election that the administration must respond to). It's time that Obama uses his abilities and office to change the national debate, which means no more excuses about 'too much' being on the agenda. Too many bigots can point out in bad faith that "it's okay to be against gay marriage because even Obama is." It's time to get serious (for a good start) about repealing the Defense of Marriage Act and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and he can drive these debates. Yet, it is not just Obama, it is the responsibility of equality supporters within the Democratic caucus to address the issue.

Of course, the "moderate" Democrat would say, this would cost the party some votes. However, I would like to point out, so will doing nothing. Democrats don't deserve votes just because they aren't Republicans. They "deserve" votes if they present some kind of progressive agenda, however limited, that aims at protecting people's rights and making people's lives better.

Update: A similar measure (although for domestic partnerships) was on the ballot in Washington State, and the good guys currently lead 51% to 49, with lots of votes still to be counted.