Saturday, February 27, 2010

Malaysia and Allah: Whose God?

In Malaysia there is growing tensions over the use of the word "Allah." Some Malaysian Muslims think non-Islamic religions have no right to use the word "Allah" in reference to God. Other Muslims have pointed out that Allah is an Arabic word simply meaning "God." In Arabic translations of the Bible the word Allah is used freely throughout the Old and New Testament. Even the most conservative Arab Muslims never question that Allah is the God of Jews and Christians. The only debate is the "proper" understanding of Allah. Why then is this an issue in Malaysia with Malaysian Muslims? In this Aljazeera YouTube, social activist Marina Mahathir and opposition MP Khalid Samad point out that the real problem is political and racial. Muslim is synonymous with Malaysian in the rhetoric of Malaysian nationalists. Allah has become not just a Muslim God but the exclusive deity of the Malay people. What initially appears to be Islamic intolerance of other faiths is something altogether different. Chinese, Indian, and indigenous peoples must be kept in their place by the majority Malay population.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Reading Film: Catherine Breillat's "Fat Girl"

Hot on the heels of completely creeping myself out by watching Lars Von Trier's latest offering The Antichrist, I've recently started on the films of French provocateur Catherine Breillat. Why? Because my girlfriend is out of town, I'm bored, and apparently I'm a masochist.

So far, I'm undecided on Breillat. Since the late 80's she's been widely known for her filmic explorations of sexuality, but I often can't tell to what extent these are intelligent. Watching interviews, one gets the impression that she's read a smattering of everything philosophical and literary, and tries to bring it all to her craft. The result is often kind of intellectually sloppy and weak, or at least leaves me wanting more - Cf. her 2004 film Anatomy of Hell, which is basically a creation myth via an unholy wedding of the ideas of Georges Bataille and Doris Lessing. Perhaps these jaded eyes have just seen too much by way of explicit genital closeups and menses play over pretentious, deconstructive-mythical dialogue. But that's another story; perhaps that's even another blog altogether. But I digress.

Poking fun aside, I do recommend Breillat's 2001 film Fat Girl. Not for the weak of heart, but quite an honest and well-executed depiction of adolescent sexuality and coming of age. Sisters Elena (Roxane Mesquida) and Anais (Anais Reboux) vacation with their parents in a summer villa. Elena is fifteen and gets the boys' attention, whereas Anais is thirteen and must look on jealously / judgingly. Anais is the family's "symptom bearer" - clearly there is dysfunction in the family at some level, and Anais takes it upon herself by overeating. Elena is seduced by another vacationer, a slick law student, and Anais is there to witness it all (in some particularly intense scenes, we see her pretending to sleep as her sister, in bed with the law student on the other side of the room, negotiates losing her virginity). One seduction scene in particular, masterfully acted, single-shot and several minutes long, will have virtually any male viewer scanning himself uncomfortably. Breillat is playing here, tongue in cheek, with the guilt of any man who has ever pulled such atrocious and transparently lame lines and tactics as Elena's suitor. Her brilliance is to do it in such a way that virtually any man might feel implicated.

The sisters make an unusual pair. Whereas Elena has idealistic illusions about where her first affair is going, Anais is quite depressive and coldly logical - one might say, French-existentialist - about the prospects of losing her virginity. As Breillat herself suggests, Anais eats to ward off such attentions as Elena receives, trying to preserve a protective bubble of authenticity. This builds up to the film's ending, which is uncompromisingly brutal and still, somehow, unexpected. I had to watch it twice just to make sure it had really happened.

The film leaves several questions hanging. But if you check out the director interviews on the Criterion Collection DVD, be forewarned. Breillat's explanations are only partly illuminating; the rest of the time they're actually obfuscating. Here we have something like the French, female answer to Von Trier - an enfant terrible whose pose as an artiste vacillates between irony and cringe-worthy earnestness.

Rethinking the Enlightenment: Colonial Voices

Today, human rights are as important a discursive tool as they were during the revolutions of the late 18th century. They serve as points of departure for virtually all major political arguments from gay marriage to toppling authoritarian regimes and notions of big brothers the world around. But when thinking about the enlightenment philosophers and their legacy the first thoughts most people will have is of some western European country or another. This historical imagining is not accurate. The limits of enlightenment have undergone significant changes in places outside of Europe which stretched and enhanced the idea of human rights. Laurent Dubois in A Colony of Citizens: Revolution & Slave Emancipation on the French Caribbean, 1787 – 1804, published by The University of Carolina Press in 2004, argues that the meaning of equality underwent major changes due to the words and actions of abolitionists and self emancipating slaves in Saint-Domingue, Guadeloupe and other French possessions during the French Revolution.

Dubois explains that as the language of equality and brotherhood reached the colonial possessions of France during the early years of the Revolution it was adopted and understood differently than in Paris. In his words on page 4:
Central aspects of the universalism presented by imperial powers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as products of Europe’s intellectual heritage in fact originated in the colonial Caribbean. . . The challenges posed by the colonial insurgents in the Americas—the most revolutionary of them the enslaved rebels of the French Caribbean—created a democratic culture that was later presented as a gift from Europe and a justification for expanding imperialism.
A Colony of Citizens argues and demonstrates how the struggle for emancipation in the Caribbean in fact expanded and profoundly impacted the meaning of the political enlightenment of the period. The rebels in the Guadeloupe spoke in the language of Republicanism to forward their cause and deepened its meanings beyond the intentions of its authors.

Much of the book takes the form of a moving and passionate narrative about the events which unfolded in the islands as they watch Paris from across the Atlantic. The book refers back as far as the Code Noir issued by Royal fiat in 1685, which outlined the treatment and equality of freed slaves. Originally this document gave the former slaves of France equality with other Frenchmen, but this slowly changed with additional aristocratic limitations over time. As the revolution unfolded some slaves were emancipated, most common among them were the marital partners and children of slave holders. Due to large and furious slave revolts during the French Revolution, including a massive slave uprising in La Cap in Saint-Domingue took place in 1791 amidst fierce debates over the status of both slavery and the 'gens de couleur,' increased freedoms were given former slaves in 1792 and then full emancipation was given in 1794. Had there not remained continuous pressure in the form of armed insurrection royalist sympathizers and plantation owners might well have succeeded in retaining race based slavery. As the consequence of the reinvented language of the enlightenment coupled with the sustained violence of rebellion in the Antilles the meaning of equality was fundamentally altered and developed to a further extent. The book also outlines the decline of the first French Republic and the establishment of the Napoleonic Empire and his 1802 reinstatement of slavery. Dubois notes that it wasn’t until 1848 that the final emancipation was declared again but the book doesn’t include this later period within its scope.

The point of the book is to demonstrate through literature, correspondences, and the Philosophical treatises written in both Paris and the Antilles the reality that the understanding of enlightenment values was rebuilt in the colonies of France. Human equality as we receive it today was forged in the fires of rebellion in the former French colonies, as Dubois put it throughout this nuanced and detailed argumentative narrative.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Forthcoming: Freedom and Nature in Schelling's Philosophy of Art

Continuum has added my book, Freedom and Nature in Schelling's Philosophy of Art, to their website. If you've noticed that my review output has lagged in the new year (I've got a stack of books I'd like to discuss...), it is because I have been revising my dissertation to turn it into a book. The initial revision process is now almost finished; I'm not writing any more content, just cleaning up whatever mistakes remain. I can't say that I'm not excited about seeing this through to press.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The New Left, What Now?

This week at The Notes Taken, I showed that once you scratch the surface of the goings-on at the Texas State Board of Education, that you discover a much larger political process controlled by right-wing political hacks, Jason reviewed James L. Hevia’s English Lessons: the Pedagogy of Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century China, and we announced our first call for papers on 'The Futures of Sartre's Critique.'

The idea behind the CFP is searching out what futures Sartre's later work might have, premised on the anniversary of the publication of the first volume of the Critique of Dialectical Reason. It turns out that it is also the quinquagenarian anniversary of The New Left Review, and that they have also been taking stock of their accomplishments and setting up goals in the face of the seemingly unstoppable locomotive of capitalism. Susan Watkins' editorial, "Shifting Sands," is a sober look at the situation (I strongly suggest reading the whole piece). She assesses the recent history of the economic crisis that surfaced in 2008, and compares it to the crises of 1873, 1907 and 1929. One of the primary actors missing in the post-2008 world is organized resistance to capitalism (this again raises the question of what the Tea Party protests are doing, but it's clear that they are often manipulated by the money of big interests, and it is even clearer that they offer no alternative political vision barring their general failure of political imagination in rehashing just about every conservative cliché possible). And unlike the previous crises it is unclear whether we are undergoing a hegemonic shift in global politics, from the US to China.
A principal reason for the continuing strength of American hegemony lies in the victories of the neo-liberal project, which always involved both an ideology and a programme. The first took a series of forms—monetarism, Thatcherism, free-market Third Way, triumphal globalization—now behind us. But the revolutionary effects of the programme remain. Social relations have been reconfigured across the globe: finance capital severed from national industry and integrated into global wealth circuits, decorated with new celebrity-media elites; the white-collar workforce, public or private, subjected to new market norms and compensated with small-scale financial assets; a two-tier working class, with most of its youth in the casualized sector, deprived of organizational reach and political project. Perhaps the most striking feature of the 2008 crisis so far has been its combination of economic turmoil and political stasis. After the bank and currency crashes of 1931, governments toppled across Europe—Britain, France, Spain, Germany; even in 1873, the Grant Administration was paralysed by corruption scandals after the railroad bust, and the Gladstone Ministry fell. The only political casualties of 2008 have been the Haarde regime in Iceland and the Cayman Islands authorities. As unemployment mounts and public-spending cuts are enforced, more determined protests will hopefully emerge; but to date, factory occupations or bossnappings have mostly been limited to demands for due redundancy pay. That neo-liberalism’s crisis should be so eerily non-agonistic, in contrast to the bitter battles over its installation, is a sobering measure of its triumph.
While the formative years of the NLR were shaped by immediate political movements, they've now retrenched for the longue durée. In the absence of a broad alternative to capitalism, to "attend to the development of actually existing capitalism remains a first duty for a journal like NLR." This, she notes, takes various forms, from the world systems analysis of Robert Brenner to Giovanni Arrighi, through theory (Zizek gets a nod), to work on local struggle against imperial hegemony.

The questions and problems that are outlined by Watkins, and that one would think align with those of the other contributors to the NLR, have also been on my mind lately. More specifically, how do world systems analysis, philosophy/theory and local struggles combine? I ask this question like this because the answer then becomes particularly tricky. I will keep it to an academic or intellectual level, because I just don't think I can answer from a 'local struggle' perspective. If "neo-liberalism’s crisis should be so eerily non-agonistic," what can we do? It seems to me that we need to reject the narrow confines of academic expertise to build a coherent 'cognitive map' (as Jameson might say) of contemporary capitalism. How to orient this map: that is the question.

Thus we contribute to (as professors and writers), and act within, a hegemonic ideological struggle, to establish a critique of contemporary capitalism while suggesting an alternative. But to work effectively this requires keeping capitalism as the center of critique, rather than nebulous concepts such as modernity, or culture, or secularization, or technology, or whatever academics propose that falls under the category of political critique that I call the ABC: 'anything but capitalism.' And, rather than propose resistance as the alternative, we need the concepts of solidarity, discipline and organization, where local struggle can confront oppression with its own structural fortitude.

Friday, February 19, 2010

CFP: The Futures of Sartre's Critique

In April 2010, The Notes Taken will be publishing a series of short reflections dedicated to the futures of Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason, to begin with the date of publication (for the first volume) given by Contat and Rybalka's Les écrits de Sartre, 6 April 1960. Being that we have a small set of dedicated writers, we have decided both to invite contributions and to extend a call for papers to our readership.

We are looking for contributions that focus on the later work of Sartre, including his work on colonialism, politics, Flaubert and, of course, the two volumes of the Critique of Dialectical Reason. The papers need not be formal, they need only to show clearly how Sartre's philosophy can contribute to rethinking radical and emancipatory politics.

The deadline is March 18th, 2010. March 24th, 2010.

Authors are invited to send short papers (of no more than 1500 words) or proposals to Devin Zane Shaw (here) or The Notes Taken Review (here) The links are to the bio pages, which contain the email addresses). Please include a short contributor's bio.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Stolen Art and the Epistemes of Imperialism

Recently, on December 16th 2009, in the New York Times an article by Andrew Jacobs entitled China Hunts for Art Treasures in U.S. Museums repeatedly bashed the Chinese government for their assertion that certain cultural relics held in western museums were in fact stolen from the Summer Palace in 1860. In the article a professor of Chinese Studies at Duke University referred to China as “An adolescent who took too many steroids” and made other culturally insensitive and provocative statements. Kang’s statements are misguided at best. James L. Hevia’s English Lessons: the Pedagogy of Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century China, published by Duke University Press in 2003, tells the story of the reterritorialization of China and the brutal rampaging and burning of the Chinese Summer Palace in 1860, largely for the purpose of insuring that China would be forced to accept the importation of Opium against the Emperor’s wishes in 1860, at the hands of western imperial powers. Intricately related to this process, both military exhibitions and the production of knowledge aided western powers in their remapping of China in an image suitable to western interests.

With the second Opium War’s conclusion in 1860 China was forced to change. After seeing first hand the power of western military technology the Qing government sought to acquire similar weapons and hire Westerners to train their armies to use them. China clearly wanted these technologies to protect themselves from the changes which the English sought to introduce. A stipulation of a tariff conference in the Tianjin Treaty led directly to the Shanghai Tariff Conference, which Hevia explained for westerns meant they could reorder the thinking of Qing officials in terms of how westerners preferred to be dealt with in future delegations. The very manner in which the negotiations took place reordered the manner of Chinese official dealings with outside sovereigns and international traders. Westerners keenly sought to train the Chinese in how to approach western powers: on the terms that western powers wanted.

Among other arguments that Hevia makes, he claims that western domination in Asia was maintained through the development of comprehensive knowledge about peoples under imperial rule. The production of knowledge about China had a significant impact beyond the humiliation by military conquest and its accompanying looting, which obviously played a significant role as well. The process of epistemological development participated in the remapping of China into the image of a western nation. China was forced to learn the interstate game by western rules of protocol and etiquette; for China this meant interacting with other sovereigns at all.

Through the standardization of information and the creation of new and novel ways of knowing China and indeed its inhabitants that western writers, cartographers, and other participants were able to contribute to the cause of remapping China into the international community. These producers of knowledge narrated the western agent as a victim of Chinese aggression, while it was the European who was an unwelcome force in China. The settlements allotted by the treaties signed in 1860 gave westerners the right to appropriate space for themselves. This space provided for further educational opportunities for the Europeans to teach the Qing court of their interests, namely that they ought to be those of Britain. Hevia’s is a thick book, which is immensely quotable. Along with military might the production of novel epistemes also remapped, literally also, the geography of China.

Liu Yang, a Beijing lawyer was quoted in Jacob’s article as saying the “The wound is still open and hurts every time you probe it,” with reference to the stolen art held in German, American, British, and French museums, all of these powers having actively participated in the looting of the palace and following lessons in western diplomatic etiquette. Michael Conforti, president of the Association of the Art Museum Director, recently made the claim that we now live in what he calls a “post-repatriation environment.” In spite of his claim to the contrary repatriation of stolen art and artifacts is still actively ongoing. Whereas he and other possessors of stolen art would like to hold onto these pieces, perhaps their rightful place is in the hands of those to whom they belong. In a way the possession of these pillaged art pieces represents the whole brutal mentality of colonialism. Maybe with their return some of the wounds of the imperial project could begin to mend.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Texas Textbook Massacre

Not so long ago, we had some fun at the expense of the Texas State Board of Education, when we found out that they had confused our friend and comrade Bill Martin, professor of philosophy at DePaul University, with Bill Martin, Jr., the author of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? But we almost knew that this couldn't be the end of the story, just because now the T.S.B.E. would be on our radar.

So it happens that the Bill-Martin-mix-up is only one part of a much larger process. At the moment the Texas State Board of Education is rewriting the standards for their textbooks. The title of Mariah Blake's article summarizes the process: the 'Texas Education Board Is Trying to Infuse Schoolbooks with Ultraconservative Ideology.' This would be a laughing matter, except for the fact that Texas is one of the largest markets for textbooks, and as you can imagine, publishers are willing to rewrite history to make the cold, hard cash. California, of course, usually acts as a liberal balance to the Texas textbook massacre, but with the current budget woes of the Golden State, it won't be buying textbooks until at least 2014.

So what might kids in other states be learning, if their smaller market state buys the same books? Of course evolution is going to be omitted or eviscerated. What about history? Blake writes:
[David] Barton [former vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party]'s goal is to pack textbooks with early American documents that blend government and religion, and paint them as building blocks of our Constitution. In so doing, he aims to blur the fact that the Constitution itself cements a wall of separation between church and state. But his agenda does not stop there. He and the other conservative experts also want to scrub U.S. history of its inconvenient blemishes -- if they get their way, textbooks will paint slavery as a relic of British colonialism that America struggled to cast off from day one and refer to our economic system as "ethical capitalism." They also aim to redeem Communist hunter Joseph McCarthy, a project [Don] McLeroy endorses. As he put it in a memo to one of the writing teams, "Read the latest on McCarthy -- He was basically vindicated."

Ethical Capitalism? No wonder they got in such a huff with Ethical Marxism. Call me cynical, but I'm sure they can come up with something crazier than that. Oh, wait. Here it is:

On the global front, Barton and company want textbooks to play up clashes with Islamic cultures, particularly where Muslims were the aggressors, and to paint them as part of an ongoing battle between the West and Muslim extremists. Barton argues, for instance, that the Barbary wars, a string of skirmishes over piracy that pitted America against Ottoman vassal states in the 1800s, were the "original war against Islamic Terrorism." What's more, the group aims to give history a pro-Republican slant -- the most obvious example being their push to swap the term "democratic" for "republican" when describing our system of government. Barton, who was hired by the GOP to do outreach to black churches in the run-up to the 2004 election, has argued elsewhere that African Americans owe their civil rights almost entirely to Republicans and that, given the "atrocious" treatment blacks have gotten at the hands of Democrats, "it might be much more appropriate that demands for reparations were made to the Democrat Party rather than to the federal government." He is trying to shoehorn this view into textbooks, partly by shifting the focus of black history away from the civil rights era to the post-Reconstruction period, when blacks were friendlier with Republicans. [...] while they concede that people like Martin Luther King Jr. deserve a place in history, they argue that they shouldn't be given credit for advancing the rights of minorities. As Barton put it, "Only majorities can expand political rights in America's constitutional society." Ergo, any rights people of color have were handed to them by whites -- in his view, mostly white Republican men.

Somebody should let the guy know that it's the Democratic Party, not the Democrat Party. But that's a minor point in the larger revisionism. It makes you wish that these people would just home school their kids and keep their hands off of our 'socialist' system of public education.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

What is an Intellectual?

Not a bad week here at the Notes Taken, as Devin had a chance to satirize the Texas State Board of Education for its decision making process and the shoddy research skills of Bernard-Henri Lévy, and Matt had a chance to post our first 'reading' of a movie, which concerned Lars von Trier's The Antichrist.

We also had a chance to catch up with what is going on elsewhere on the net:

1. A friend of mine brought, through a very indirect way, a recent statement by the president of the MLA about dissertation monographs, in which she questions whether or not its current 'book-form' is outdated in a rapidly changing world. I don't want to sound cynical but inspirational passages such as "Future faculty ... will require flexible and improvisational habits and collaborative skills to bring their scholarship to fruition" doesn't make me think of new technologies and research skills; it makes me think of non-tenure track employment.

2. It seemed inevitable after J.D. Salinger's death that his letters would start turning up. This week his correspondence with E. Michael Mitchell, who designed the cover of Catcher in the Rye, has been made public. It also seemed inevitable that some wannabe would claim a correspondence that could not be produced (see here or here). That would be Taki Theodoracopulos, who said he exchanged hundreds of letter with Salinger, in which the recently deceased declared his hatred for Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis and VS Naipaul. Reading the "excerpts" that Theodoracopulos produced on his site, should make it pretty obvious that it's a hoax.

3. Then, to return to topics related to the recently deceased, it appears that National Public Radio's obituary on Howard Zinn included rousing tributes from Noam Chomsky, Julian Bond and....wait for it...David Horowitz? I can understand the first two, friends and fellow travelers of Zinn's but so far as I can tell, the only reason that Horowitz was on the show was to 'balance' the reporting by contrasting the first two with a dissenting opinion. Here's some of Horowitz's comments that didn't make the cut (so, in case you are wondering, it is reproduced on his website; don't worry, that link right there is to Alternet, not Horowitz's site):
According to the account he published on his Web site, he told Keyes that Zinn was responsible for "helping Stalin" to "slaughter" and "enslave" Eastern Europe; that he "never flagged in his political commitment to freedom's enemies"; and that he "supported every enemy of the United States in every war...including the Islamic Nazis whose first agenda is to finish the job that Hitler started."
Those remarks didn't make the cut because, of course, they are beyond ridiculous. Here's what made the show:
"There is absolutely nothing in Howard Zinn's intellectual output that is worthy of any kind of respect," he explained. "Zinn represents a fringe mentality which has unfortunately seduced millions of people at this point in time. So he did certainly alter the consciousness of millions of younger people for the worse."
N.P.R was rightly scolded for including this garbage. Not only is Horowitz a charlatan, but as far as I can tell his only expertise is self-aggrandizement at the cost of others. Here, it's no different, but it's a well paying shtick. Unfortunately.

4. We can't end on that note. If you've made it this far, you might as well watch this debate, from 1969, between Noam Chomsky and William F. Buckley (this is part one, I'm sure you can find part two).

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Reading film: Lars von Trier's "The Antichrist"

To be clear, I am not recommending this film to anybody. Its climax takes sexualized violence to an excruciating level. Were I able to wash my eyes of some of it, I would. A few people walked out during the screening I attended.

Nonetheless, there is something incredible about this film. First, the acting is excellent; second, the images are arresting; third, and most importantly, the film opens onto thoughts and subject matters that one guesses transcend anything von Trier, who reportedly made the film to battle a long bout of depression, could have intended. Von Trier, who has admitted to compulsively making the same movie over and over, offers up yet another tale where a vulnerable woman is abused, slowly goes mad, and/or ends up dead. The difference here is crucial, however; whereas his previous heroines are undeniably martyrs of some kind, here the lines are uncomfortably blurrier, the lessons more closely integrated with the form and style of delivery.

"He" (Willem Dafoe) and "She" (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a married couple, make love in a highly stylized and visually stunning prologue. They don't notice their toddler son getting out of his crib and making his way towards an open window. They climax as he plummets to his death. The rest of the film involves He, a cognitive-behavioural therapist, trying to cure his wife of her grief. He throws out her meds and decides on immersion therapy, taking her to the place she fears most: "Eden", their cabin in the woods, where a year previously she had taken their son while she worked on a thesis on gynocide (studying in the woods with a one-year-old in tow is really conducive to grad school work, am I right?). In Eden he puts her through a series of arguably silly and hopeless exercises to confront her fear (which for most of the film is a formless dread). The woods around the cabin, however, seem to justify her fear: lichen grows on her husband's hand, a chick plummets from a nest and is devoured by a hawk, acorns pelt the cabin roof like hail, a doe with a dead fawn hanging out of it stands eerily still in a clearing, a fox devouring its own entrails seems to speak. After some progress with her fear, all goes terribly wrong when He starts to suspect her of misogyny, and of having abused their son; perhaps it is him all along, or men, that she really fears (and perhaps hates). Cue the orgy of sexual violence (if you can sit through it, you will be rewarded by a highly important and beautiful epilogue).

People have been sharply divided on this film. Some consider it misogynist, others point up its seeming gratuity and lack of overall meaning. Arguably there is some truth to these assessments, as the film comes precariously close to embodying the formless fear of its characters. I think however that it lends itself to fruitful analysis in some respects. Obviously the man, wife and child are an inversion of the Holy Family. Additionally, some reviewers have pointed out the arrogant humanist rationalism of He and how it conflicts with the deeper, arguably irrationalist wisdom of She. To the extent that death is a constant theme in the film, one might also read it as a meditation on death. I would suggest, however, that whatever else it might be, the film is a deep meditation on the deployment of reason against the horrors of life as such.

Georges Bataille, in the second volume of The Accursed Share, points out that life, in its silent, relentless, teeming chaos, is the truth of our fear of death. After all, when we die, our bodies crawl with insects and worms, fungus and bacteria. It is precisely by life that we die, and by life that our dead bodies are immolated. At one point in the film, She declares nature "Satan's church". Recall that Satan is Lucifer, the angel of light. If one had to characterize angels, one would have to admit that properly speaking, they do not live; their existence is a kind of cold light, an eternal death free of the sticky horrors of life (one is reminded here of Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire). But Satan shows the earth with this very light; nature, life, are sanctified by it. The horror of life is a revelation; nature, the house of life, is the church of the evil that thus reveals.

Spinning things out in this way, The Antichrist becomes a generalized provocation. It takes aim at the falseness of our human goodness, a thin membrane which barely covers the real. Willem Dafoe's character is at first insensitive to the horrors of nature and of life, approaching his wife's grief with an arrogant, operational, and arguably contrived warmth and steadiness (at one point in the film she declares herself cured, and he merely stares back at her incredulously; arguably he wants to remain in control). As evil gradually reveals itself to him through the natural surroundings of the cabin, his own "goodness" becomes radically compromised; only once he gives himself over to evil entirely does nature begin to hold forth and nourish him (the eating of wild blackberries at the end of the film being, I think, highly meaningful). In a gross distortion of the Holy Family, the mother gives birth to her husband - who is, arguably, the antichrist.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Further Suggestions for BHL's Research

Not that I thought that many of the nouveaux philosophes had much intellectual integrity, but the latest news on Bernard-Henri Lévy, television personality and bloviator at large, is that BHL's current book, entitled De la guerre en philosophie, cites a hoax source to support his arguments against Immanuel Kant. The Telegraph UK reports that
In his book, which has received lavish praise from some quarters, the open-shirted Mr Lévy lays into the philosopher Immanuel Kant as being unhinged and a "fake". To support his claims, he cites a certain Jean-Baptiste Botul, whom he describes as a post-War authority on Kant. But the chorus of approval turned to laughter after a journalist from Le Nouvel Observateur pointed out that Mr Botul does not exist: he is a fictional character created in by a contemporary satirical journalist, Frédéric Pagès. [...]

But Mr Lévy missed the joke, citing Mr Botul from a "series of lectures to the neo-Kantians of Paraguay" he supposedly gave after the war, in which he said that "their hero was an abstract fake, a pure spirit of pure appearance".
With or without his intellectual integrity intact, I'm sure Mr. BHL will continue to write, so let me suggest a few more avenues of research. There are, in fact, several dangerous writers moving in little-known fascist circles in the Americas that BHL might want to discredit. They are first profiled in Roberto Bolaño's path-breaking Nazi Literature in the Americas, which was published in translation by New Directions in 2008.

BHL might want to refute, first, Luiz Fontaine Da Souza (1900-1977), a Brazilian writer who dedicated much of his work to attacking the legacy of French Enlightenment philosophy in a series of Refutations aimed at Voltaire (1921), Diderot (1925), Montesquieu (1930) and Rousseau (1932). However, no threat, for Fontaine, loomed as large as the ascendency of existentialism and the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, to whom he dedicated six volumes of criticism. Five volumes of his Critique of Being and Nothingness appeared in his lifetime from 1955-1962, and a sixth was neither completed nor published. Taking on the work of Fontaine ought to be personal for BHL.

Then there are a few other fascist writers still living. The include the American novelist Harry Silebius, sci-fi writers Gustavo Borda and Zach Sodenstern, and poet and land artist Willy Schürholz. What they share in common is anti-semitism. Silebius, of Richmond, Virginia, has dedicated several novels to the scenario that Hitler's forces conquer North America. Borda's science fiction has gained him some recognition in his native Guatamala, while Sodenstern's series on the Fourth Reich in America have been made into cult films.

However, the most scorn and most serious philosophical journalism should be reserved for Schürholz, whose career rests on his land art. He's produced nothing like the well-known Spiral Jetty, instead this fascist poet has dug the maps of what he has called an "ideal concentration camp" in deserts in Atacama, Arizona, and a wheat field in Colorado.

BHL should act now before these pernicious characters gain more influence and notoriety, as Silebius, according to Bolaño's research, does not die until 2014, Borda until 2016, Sodenstern until 2021, and Schürholz, who holds a Chilean cultural attaché position in Angola, until 2029.

Monday, February 8, 2010

If Bill Martin is Banned...

Last month, Bill Martin, professor of philosophy at DePaul University, and Bill Martin, Jr., author of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? were recently confused by the credulous and intellectual-curiosity-averse (or curiously intellectually averse?) Texas State Board of Education. The cause for the mix up is the search engine at Border's, or more than likely, the fact that the Board's members were satisfied with the results of the list resulting from the search (see the articles at the Chronicle of Higher Ed and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram).

As a result, Bill Martin, author of Ethical Marxism (the offending title), Humanism and Its Aftermath: The Shared Fate of Deconstruction and Politics, amongst other titles (including two books on prog rock) has endured a bit of minor celebrity (note to B.M: I don't mean this as an insult), which included being rightly identified by the Board itself as the author of books containing "very strong critiques of capitalism and the American system." Which of course they'd rather ban than refute. (Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? has apparently suffered a bit of banishment.)

All of this misses the larger question, however. With Bill Martin and Bill Martin banned, we have yet to consider what the children read will read in their stead. My suggestions:

Marx for Beginners
This is Bill Martin's own suggestion. No qualms here. I read this one some time ago, back when I used to work near a corporate bookstore/personal-lunch-break-library. Lots of pictures, a bit of the essentials and a sense of humor.

Howard Zinn, A People's History of American Empire
My friend Santi has been trying to convince teachers in California's education system to teach this book, and he says two have taken him up. Let's hope they don't mess with Texas. As I wrote with Zinn's passing:
Zinn took history and stood it on its feet. Chronicles of war and great deeds become a constant series of attempts to oppress or calm the fires of social struggle, but the guiding thread is the resilience of people acting from the basic conviction that their rights and their justice won't be realized because these things have been written down on a few dusty documents. They have to be fought for. Zinn was right their in midst of it: like Vonnegut, he learned the right lessons from war's injustices, at Spellman he was radicalized by the growing civil rights struggle at the cost of his job, and then wrote on of the earliest books critical of the Vietnam War, VietNam: The Logic of Withdrawal, published in 1967; A People's History of the United States followed in 1980. He stayed involved, kept writing, kept pissing off other people in his profession and academia for a refusal to be a specialist and to keep to a small academic niche.
Bill Martin, The Radical Project: Sartrean Investigations
Damn! How did this end up back on the reading list?! Well, you can't stay under the Board's supervision for your whole life, and if Martin is going to receive a bit of attention, we should not allow this moment to go by without talking about his work. After meeting Bill at the most recent North American Sartre Society meeting in Memphis, I discovered that my own interests in Sartre bear some resemblance to subjects covered in his work. So when I found a copy of The Radical Project I picked it up for the personal library.

Many of the essays, especially the one dedicated to overcoming "Sartrophobia," show how Sartre's legacy remains important to contemporary political and philosophical problems. Martin identifies several points of reproach between the post-structuralists and Sartre to show where the latter's work is still relevant. This often rests on the ethical aspect of Sartre's work, because Martin's problem with the reception of post-structuralism in North America is that it has often been accompanied with the de-politicization of the work of the post-structuralists, which is the case, especially, he argues, with Derrida. In addition, Martin's arguments regarding the relationship between Sartre and Marxism, and what they offer to each other, are both clear and conversant in the debates between Leninism and Maoism. I've found the book to be very engaging and thought provoking. The only discouraging part of these Sartrean Investigations is that many of the problems discussed in the book (published in 2000) are still problems today.

Nevertheless, I look forward, as I develop my own work on the relationship between Maoism, Sartre and Badiou, to engaging Bill at future conferences on the merits of Ethical Marxism, Derrida and this other Sartrean legacy with which I am engaged.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sartre on Intellectuals

In the last week at The Notes Taken:

1) Jason posted a review of Mary A. Renda's Taking Haiti. The importance of Renda's book, as Mr. Smith rightly points out, is that it documents the role of U.S. imperialism in Haiti from 1915-1940. One might also want to view this short history of U.S. interventions in Latin America.

2) I posted a 'review' of Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship that juxtaposes the views of Schelling and Lukács.

3) and I posted a short piece on maps as ideological instruments, with reference to surrealism.

In the upcoming week we'll talking a bit about Sartre (whose first volume of the Critique of Dialectical Reason 'turns 50' this year), so to get you prepared, I've included an interview with him. Without further ado, the youtube (If you click through to the site, there's even a list of clueless comments, not that I am encouraging you. It's just a warning.):

Saturday, February 6, 2010

On Maps

What you're looking at, as reported in the Guardian, is the world's largest book, the Klencke Atlas. It will be displayed for the first time by the British Library as part of an exhibition on maps. The idea behind the exhibition is to challenge the assumption that maps are primarily the products of a scientific function, the products of accuracy or measurement.

Instead, the organizers want to display the maps as both pieces of art and as instruments of propaganda. The article quotes Peter Barber, the library's head of map collections:

Barber said the maps were all made for adornment but "at a deeper level they were made for propaganda. It's all spin. Every map is an exaggeration because you can never 100% capture reality on a reduced surface.

"Up until 1800 people expected maps in these contexts and enjoyed them, but in the course of the 18th century you got the growth of the cult of science, the belief that maps were to do with geography and the only thing that was important was its accuracy."

Now if the qualification for curating is artistic merit and ideological efficacy, the perfect map is the "Surrealist Map of the World" (1929) (full image). While it is often lauded for its childlike qualities (its playfulness), the map must be scanned politically. The surrealists were attacking the convention that a map is a scientific document that is politically neutral. Europe and the United States are largely removed to show the rest of the world, to invert the perceived relationships (political, moral, aesthetic, economic) between the West (from the Western perpective) and the rest of the world.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Haiti's Right to Self-Determination: the Imperial Context

Reading about the unfolding catastrophe that has struck Haiti I am taken aback with the complete lack of context with which American media has approached the problems therein. While I have read repeatedly about the relationship which Haiti had to the late French Republic, I have read virtually nothing about former American involvement there other than that of the recent flood of aid. Devin Z. Shaw's review of Peter Hallward's Damming the Flood illustrates this aid has great potential to assume a less than neutral role. So, with this critique in mind I turned to Mary A. Renda's Taking Haiti: Military Occupation & the Culture of Imperialism, published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2001. Because I simply couldn't write a better synopsis I will simply rip the opening of her first chapter:

"The United States invaded Haiti in July 1915 and subsequently held the second oldest independent nation in the Western Hemisphere under military occupation for nineteen years. While in Haiti, marines installed a puppet president, dissolved legislature at gunpoint, denied freedom of speech, and forced a new constitution on the Caribbean nation – one more favorable to foreign investment."

These words represent a damming indictment of the behavior of the United State in Haiti during the last century.

Renda argues that an important feature of U.S. history is missing, namely the myriad of gunboat diplomatic engagements that the U.S. has entered into abroad. Renda contends that the military occupation of Haiti that began in 1915 was no sideshow. It was one of several important arenas in which the United States was remade culturally through imperial ventures with bureaucrats, military personnel and others participating in empire building in Haiti and elsewhere. Put differently, the various actors coming from the United States were changed by their interface and involvement in the occupation of Haiti. Renda's book seeks to contextualize the cultural interface of 'U.S. Americans' in the construction of an overseas empire.

Renda explains that marines coming from different regions of the U.S. had different sets of ideas of what it meant to be U.S. Americans but that paternalism served as a foundation for the justification of U.S. military intervention in Haiti for most if not all of them. Renda examines various actors and how they used the justification that it was their duty to help the Haitians that brought on and maintained the unwanted occupation there. Paternalism, or a perceived notion of necessary stewardship, drove American actors to decide the structure of political affairs for people abroad. This same culture of hubris moved U.S. citizens to occupy and reorder Haitian affairs.

While it is easy to get whipped into patriotic zeal over the immense aid flowing from the U.S. into Haiti at the moment, it would seem there is good reason to be somewhat careful as to the uses and affect this aid will have. While, it is easy to see an opportunity to rebuild Haiti on our ideals, isn't this another paternalism? No one, including myself wants a dearth of help to plague a people in need but we should be careful of the nature of the U.S. involvement in Haiti's affairs and not attempt to treat the Haitian people as in need of American political interventions. Too often I have recently read and heard a call from the elites in America for a revamping of Haitian economic and political systems such that the island nation would be open to U.S. interests. To risk oversimplification: let the Haitian people decide what economic and political systems they want.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

On Wilhelm Meister, Schelling, and Lukács

Lukács's Theory of the Novel might be one of the more unrewarding books that I have recently read, for two reasons. First, it is written before his turn to Marxism from the sociological school around Weber, which might not be so bad if not for 2) his penchant for renunciation. Lukács, as is well-known, had a persistent tendency to renounce previous works for not being (party-line) Marxist enough, which is often easy enough to ignore. But with the Theory of the Novel, which he is quite correct in describing as relying on a sometimes uncritical typology of novels, one is confronted with a tradition that is not as interesting as that of Marxism. The flaws of The Theory of the Novel, and its often romantic tone, outweigh his general insight that "the problems of the novel form are here the mirror-image of a world gone out of joint."

Why? Because Schelling anticipated this conclusion, and several others,* by a century in his lectures later published as the Philosophy of Art (1802-1804); and Schelling's absolute idealism from this period of his thought is much more theoretically interesting than Lukács's post-Kantian sociology (sometime I might discuss Lukács's polemic against Schelling in the Destruction of Reason, but it's beyond our concerns here).

Nevertheless, I discovered that my own opinion of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, which I've also recently read, falls somewhere between the estimations of the young Lukács and Schelling's Philosophy of Art.

For Schelling, a novel's protagonist is only a fragment, and thus imperfection and irony become especially powerful devices. So, the limited perspective of the characters presents in an ironic and unconscious manner the objective situation of the novel. Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister is Schelling’s exemplar:
The protagonist promises much and many things; he appears destined to be an artist, but he loses this false conception, since through the four volumes he appears or is treated continually not as a master, as his name implies, but as a pupil. He remains a likeable, gregarious character who makes contacts easily and is always attractive. To that extent he is a fortunate center for the whole and constitutes an enticing foreground. The background reveals itself toward the end and displays an infinite perspective on all the wisdom of life behind a kind of illusory game, for the secret society is actually nothing other than this, and it dissolves itself at just the moment it becomes visible. Only the mystery of the apprenticeship itself articulates this wisdom: namely, only he who has recognized his own destiny is a master (Philosophy of Art, 235-236/5: 681).
However, despite the play of irony Goethe cannot but elevate the nobility to the level of substantiality. Wilhelm's failure to become and artist, and his eventual break from the social marginalization of the theatre troupe, prevents him from renouncing his class; instead he is elevated from his initial bourgeois position to the nobility:
Within this class, although confined to a small circle of its members, a universal and all-embracing cultural flowering is supposed to occur, capable of absorbing the most varied individual destinies. In other words, the world ths confined within a single class–the nobility–and based upon it, partakes of the problem-free radiance of the epic (Theory of the Novel, 141).
The elevation of the nobility may have been less jarring had it not occurred through the element of the secret society. The first five books have a remarkable clarity and unity, which might only be able to move forward by the introduction of fantastic elements (including the foregrounding work done by the Confessions of a Beautiful Soul...). In introducing the Tower, Goethe utilized Romantic "methods in order to give sensuous significance and gravity to the ending of the novel, although he tried to rob them of their epic quality by using them lightly and ironically." And yet "he could not prevent it from introducing a disrupting dissonance into the total unity of the whole" (Theory of the Novel, 141-142).

Notwithstanding these criticisms, Goethe's Wilhelm Meister is probably the Bildungsroman because it mirrors the open questions that haunted the German world of letters at the end of the 18th century (when the Ghost could still be Hamlet's, and not the spectre of communism?). Most of the thinkers we now identify with a kind of romantic idealism were influenced by Goethe, and their own philosophical 'apprenticesphips,' working through the thought of Kant, Fichte and Spinoza, are reflected in a much more playful manner in Wilhelm Meister's.

*So, for instance, Lukács's argument that Dante's Divine Comedy is the "historico-philosophical transition from the pure epic to the novel" is anticipated by Schelling's argument that the Divine Comedy "is prophetic and prototypical for the entirety of modern poesy" (1989: 247/V, 163).