Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"A Brief History of Neoliberalism," Chapter 3

Let's face it: the more prominent contemporary continental philosophers have not attempted  too many in-depth analyses of the functions of the neoliberal state form. Given that they are often focused on revitalizing a theory of the subject in our cynical and consensual times, and given that talk about seizing state power evokes whispers about Lenin or Stalin-- that is, authoritarianism-- this makes sense. Nevertheless, it also makes sense that a theory of collective subjectivity should say something about what we are up against, about the interaction of the state and capital in what David Harvey calls neoliberal governance.[1]

Hardt and Negri have already shown us the wrong direction; recall in the heady days when so many people were reading Empire, how misguided their celebration of the end of big government was even then, which they attempted to rectify in Multitude.

Since then, Zizek has taken some interest in delineating the relationship between the state and capital, but he has been unusually tentative. When talking about the use of patents to generate profit through rents, in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, he writes:
Perhaps therein resides the fundamental "contradiction" of today's "postmodern" capitalism: while its logic is de-regulatory, "anti-statal," nomadic, deterritorializing, and so on, its key tendency to the "becoming-rent-of-profit" signals a strengthening of the role of the state whose regulatory function is ever more omnipresent (p. 145).[2]
The general point about rent extraction is correct, but it's addled with enough Deleuzian jargon and inverted commas that its impact is completely muted. I've annotated this passage in my copy; it says that Zizek could straighten this out if he spent more time reading up on political economy rather than Chesterton, Paul, etc. [3] Which is why we're now reading through the third chapter of David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism.

Probably part of the provisional character of the philosophical analysis of the neoliberal state is derived from its pragmatic variability. While the neoliberal state is relatively simple to define in theory, neoliberal governance often departs from the theoretical template. If we accept what I will call Harvey's 'class power thesis': (neoliberalism is a political project to restore class power), then these pragmatic departures should be expected.

In its theoretical form the state would promote individual choice through the guarantees of property rights, free trade, free markets, and rule of law. Individual choice is contrasted with state decision making, and in all cases-- theoretically-- the interaction of and competition between individuals in the private sphere/market is held to be more efficient and productive than public decision making (of course, more efficient and productive for what end?). The 'free choice' of the individual-- even if this is the legal fiction of the business or corporation as individual-- is "regarded as a fundamental good" (p. 64). Hence neoliberals are "assiduous" when it comes to implementing the privatization of public goods and the deregulation of markets (what, following Harvey, we've called forcing open markets), and they exhibit strong preferences for juridical resolution of individual-social conflicts rather than democratic or parliamentarian means.

Even in theory several contradictions and tensions are present. Harvey notes that neoliberalism has some theoretical difficulty when confronted with monopoly power, market failures (especially regarding environmentalism) that are often conjured away with questionable assumptions, and a fetish regarding the 'technological fix' for all problems (do I have to mention BP here?), even if technology is in some cases socially disruptive.  Nevertheless, these tensions have often been turned to pecuniary advantages through temporary fixes. Rather than resolving crises, neoliberalism provokes them:
There is an inner connection, therefore, between technological dynamism, instability, dissolution of social solidarities, environmental degradation, deindustrialization, rapid shifts in time-space relations, speculative bubbles, and the general tendency towards crisis formation within capitalism (p. 69).
Rather than interpret this situation as an accident, the class power thesis grasps these connections as means for the redistribution of wealth. Even crises, as Harvey discusses in Chapter 4, serve as a mode of redistribution.

In practice, neoliberal governance exhibits two fundamental biases that show how decisions favoring class power trump the theoretical template. First, when faced with a decision between 'fostering' a 'good business' or 'good investment' climate and labor or environmental concerns, neoliberal governance chooses in favor of business and investment. Not that on all levels these decisions are specifically made with class motives behind them. Rather neoliberal political economy is structured to coerce competition between cities, regions, countries; so while not all decisions need exhibit class motive (often at the local levels they are made to preserve a collapsing set of social relationships), the structure does.

Second, neoliberal states "typically favour the integrity of the financial system and the solvency of financial institutions over the well-being of the population or environmental quality" (p. 71). 

The neoliberal reliance (or is this a fetish too?) upon monetarism and the integrity of money means that neoliberal governance "cannot tolerate any massive financial defaults even when it is the financial institutions that have made the bad decision" (p. 73). This is a particularly perverse bias. From a theoretical perspective, the neoliberal ought to hold individual investors responsible for their bad choices, just as neoliberals would want to force people to be responsible for their actions and well-being, their health care, education, pension, etc. As Harvey notes, some "fundamentalist-minded" neoliberals argue that organizations that protect investors, such as the IMF, should be abolished. But they don't prevail over pragmatics Their failure is not unexpected if one uses class analysis.

The protection of finance also benefits the upper class at the expense of the public. Domestically, the general populace is forced to bear the burden of financial failure, just as it happened, most recently, in the 2008 bailout. Since this burden is shifted through the state-- that is, as public debt-- it also constrains future deficit spending on public goods that benefit the majority. [4] Internationally, finance-protection-- brokered through the IMF-- is used to transfer wealth from the global south to the global north through austerity measures,  debt repayment, and the removal of barriers to the flow of goods and capital /foreign investment (although the reverse does not hold).

Of course, the neoliberal response to the movement of organized labor and forms of social solidarity is, as we've already seen, the exception to the rule. One of the prime difficulties of confronting neoliberalism is that it uses competition between regions and improvements in communication and investment flow to break social solidarity. Capital accumulation benefits from uneven geographical development. Even if labor is able to move to regions with better pay and greater benefits, the state can still manage this movement through restricting immigration, or increasing it.

In addition, the state, with its monopoly on violence, can curb certain forms of "redistribution through criminal violence" (what a great phrase) through incarceration (p. 48). It is difficult to ignore both the tendency toward surveillance and incarceration as social policy over the last few decades, especially in the United States. While Harvey does not discuss these social transformations in detail, I would like to let the reader know that I will be reviewing a book that does, Loïc Wacquant's Prisons of Poverty (University of Minnesota, 2010), later this summer. One of the purposes of reading Harvey is to establish the features of neoliberal pragmatics before turning to how it interacts with other social institutions.

Next Week: We will be working through at least Chapters 4-6.

1. On 'governance': Harvey writes that one of the pronounced features of neoliberalism is the shift from government ("state power on its own") to governance ("a broader configuration of state and key elements in civil society"). I think this distinction is useful as long as that we add the phrase "... which includes the redistribution of state resources, and transfer of state functions, to private corporations." See p. 77.

2. "Becoming-rent" is discussed in more depth in Christian Marazzi's accessible (although marred by some typographical errors) The Violence of Financial Capitalism. Trans. Kristina Lebeveda (Semiotext(e), 2010), 44-66.

3. Since I'm on the topic, has anybody else noticed how Zizek hardly references Lacan in First as Tragedy? Is this the case in Living in the End of Times as well? Matt, I'm asking you!

4. Thomas Frank's The Wrecking Crew (Metropolitan Books, 2008) argues that neoconservatives deliberately misgovern in order to later justify privatizing government functions.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

White man armed by state compares plight to that of African Americans under Jim Crow laws; courageous white middle class woman has his back.

"A Brief history of Neoliberalism", Chapter 2

Neoliberalization being in the most general terms a re-distribution of wealth from the poor to the very rich, Harvey asks in Chapter 2 how exactly such a blatantly unjust process could have been pulled off. The answer is fairly simple when looking at countries like Chile and Argentina: labour leaders, community organizers, socialist politicians, etc, were jailed, tortured and assassinated by police and military. Demonstrators and strikers were beaten, killed, and terrorized. Social wealth and infrastructure were sold off, in short, under truncheon blows and at gunpoint.

But what about the United States and Britain, where neoliberalism "had to be accomplished by democratic means"[39]? Harvey argues that the success of neoliberalism (i.e. from the point of view of the rich) was prepared in these countries by a construction of consent; this implied gaining hegemony over, mobilizing and manipulating what Gramsci calls "common sense", defined not as that which is sensible, but merely as "the sense held in common" [Ibid.]. Cultural and traditional beliefs, values and fears were employed, in short, to "mask other realities" - namely, the brute economic facts of post-Fordist capital accumulation and the dismantling of social institutions to further line the pockets of the wealthy [Ibid.]. Neoliberalism employed ideological tools especially where existing social mores, traditions and institutions posed barriers to neoliberalization by brute force alone.

This is not to say that Reagan and Thatcher failed to use bribery, threat and an increasingly militarized police to great effect. Rather, it is to point out that existing values were also manipulated in such a way as to render the great majority of the American and English populations blind and complicit to the looting of their own hard-earned social infrastructures. Take for instance the ideal of personal freedoms, which, many Americans flatter themselves has long been a hallmark of their country. As Harvey points out, "Any political movement that holds individual freedoms to be sacrosanct is vulnerable to incorporation into the neoliberal fold" [41]. This is because at the level of personal property rights and freedoms, neoliberalism delivers (that is, to the rich and to a certain strata of corrupt labour); moreover, through its media it aggressively drives home the point that there are no other personal freedoms worthy of the name.

The real coup pulled off by neoliberalism with respect to "common sense", however, was to separate the ideal of personal freedoms, i.e. property freedoms, from that of social justice (whereas, for instance in May 68 in France as well as other left-libertarian crests of history, these formed an ideological knot). The ideology of personal freedoms, divorced from social justice, naturally became a bulwark against state intervention in the economy. Note that corporations are considered persons; therefore the personal freedoms of, to take a contemporary example, BP, serve as a legal and ideological barrier to the idea that the company owes anything to anyone for what it has extracted, and the resultant environmental costs. The success of neoliberalism in organizing "common sense" in this way accounts for the ubiquitous and totally bizarre images of poor Americans marching in the streets for their right to not be able to afford cancer treatments. It also accounts for the dominant perception that property destruction by militants (and cops disguised as militants) at the Toronto G20 convergence was violence par excellence, whereas beatings, unlawful detentions and sexual assaults by police officers against peaceful protesters were largely ignored by mainstream media and roundly praised by all levels of Canada's (increasingly neoliberal) government.

As regards what might be called the North American scene, two points especially are noteworthy here: so-called "postmodernism" and Reagan's organization of a Christian conservative "moral majority" to back the GOP. The first, which comprises a kind of cynical-radical chic, Harvey devastatingly critiques in his The Condition of Postmodernity (required reading for anyone dabbling in the often polluted waters of continental theory). Postmodernism as Harvey reads it is an ideology of personal property rights and the "freedom" to pursue petty, amoral pleasures (Coke or Pepsi? Gay porn or straight? You see?? You're free!!!). This hedonistic ideology has hamstrung or at least significantly confused a substantial section of what would otherwise be the radical youth; therefore neoliberalism has proven "more than a little compatible" with it [50]. The flipside of postmodernism is, of course, the organization of the Christian Right. By grafting "family values" onto an economic programme destructive of the very roots of healthy family life among the poor, Reagan ensured the support of those who would have had the most to gain from his deposal. (It should of course also be underscored that the Democrats, who would otherwise represent a cultural and social counter-pressure to the GOP, have long since been compromised to the core. Chances of election under neoliberalism are slim to nil barring deals with the corporate devil, as it were.)

The story in Britain was much the same - strike breaking, bait-and switch maneuvering, selling off bits and pieces of the social safety net - but it's notable that Thatcher's approval was in the dumps prior to the Falklands/Malvinas war. Reagan and other neoliberal leaders were not slow in taking Thatcher's cue; when things look bad for the neoliberal state, organize a war against a country which can hardly defend itself, and be sure to mobilize as much fear and national pride as possible. This is a model we have inherited, with terrible consequences.

Harvey is sure to underscore the failure of the Left to beat the neoliberals at their game in terms of the "common sense" factor. They lacked an adequate response, but also a positive programme. This underscores that the educational and, dare I say it, propagandistic wing of the new social movements has its work cut out for it. But what about Obama, and his audacity of hope? Can't he be called on to save us? Here is what Harvey has to say: "[The genius of Reagan and Thatcher] was to create a legacy and a tradition that tangled subsequent politicians in a web of constraints from which they could not easily escape. Those who followed, like Clinton and Blair [and, evidently, Obama], could do little more than continue the good work of neoliberalization, whether they liked it or not" [63].

Monday, June 28, 2010

"A Brief History of Neoliberalism," Chapter 1

As I mentioned in the prefatory remarks for our reading of A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey sets out to analyze a central contradiction of neoliberalism, between the theoretical project to reorganize capitalism around and extension and intensification of property rights, free markets (especially in the financial sector) and free trade, and a political project to re-establish conducive conditions for capital accumulation and for re-entrenching elite economic power (p. 19).

Harvey argues that the theoretical side of neoliberalism primarily functions as a justification of the larger project. In fact, he calls it a "utopian" project because it is never perfectly realized (as its own proponents often say whenever a neoliberal state runs into economic trouble), but rather implemented through "a very complex process entailing multiple determinations and not a little chaos and confusion" (p. 9). Nevertheless, he argues that the redistribution of wealth to the upper classes of a given country is a consistent structural feature neoliberalism. 

The first chapter introduces both the history of the theoretical project and the political project.* As a theoretical project, neoliberalism emerged after nearly three decades on the ideological fringes as a solution to the crisis of embedded liberalism in the 1970s. Embedded liberalism-- usually called Keynsianism-- was the result of a class compromise between a strong working class and the bourgeois state, and was designed to stave off crises the crises that beset 1930s capitalism. To maintain this compromise the domestic policy of a liberal state aimed for full employment, social welfare (in health care, education, etc.) and economic growth (Harvey does not here discuss how the foreign policies of these same states sometimes involved hyper-exploitation of  the populations of colonial, post-colonial, clientele and/or lesser developed locales). Through the 1950s and 1960s embedded liberalism produced high levels of economic growth, but it was unable to resolve the crises of stagflation in the 1970s, compounded by the war in Vietnam and the OPEC oil embargo.

Neoliberalism, historically speaking and not because its era is over, was, when not implemented by military means (as in Chile or Argentina), proposed as one solution to this crisis. It had "long been lurking in the wings of public policy" (p. 19), and can be traced back to the formation of the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947, a group that seemed to view any hint of solidarity beyond meeting in exclusive clubs to be a dire threat to civilization itself. The proponents of neoliberalism did, however, possess a sense of purpose, gradually integrating the financial resources of the elite with their intellectual resources, creating think tanks, promoting their work in academia, and networking. By 1976, two neoliberal theorists-- Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman-- had won Nobel prizes in economics, and by 1980 its proponents had found the sympathetic ears of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

Neoliberalism secured its place in public policy through an ideological process, but Harvey does not define it through its own credo. Instead, he analyzes the policy transformations that came were implemented by its proponents. I won't be rehearsing many of the details, but there are several features that define the turn to neoliberalism. First: a monetary policy "designed to quell inflation no matter what the consequences might be for employment" (p. 23). However, as Harvey argues, monetarism is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for neoliberalism (p. 24). The implementation of neoliberalism took place--takes place-- in other areas of government policy, such as  privatization and deregulation (forcing new markets open...), shifting the tax burden from the rich to the general populace, and the use of austerity measures to break down the power of social solidarity and union organization. And, most importantly, neoliberalization "has meant... the financialization of everything" (p. 33).

Where financialization has led, I've discussed before in a review of Paul Mason's Meltdown (although the review doesn't cover the 'efforts' of the IMF and WTO in enforcing austerity measures while protecting financial instruments).

Harvey;s account of financialization, unlike Mason, has a much stronger class character. I've used, like Harvey, references to the "upper class" or the "elite" instead of the classic term "bourgeoisie" because one of the features of neoliberalism is the reconfiguration of ruling class power. Along with the usual state-corporate clientelism, the rise of information technology and biotechnology, finance is at the forefront of neoliberalism. The 'financialization of everything' has transformed many Western companies from industrial producers to financial operations (like General Motors...). Harvey writes that
One substantial core of rising class power under neoliberalism lies...with the CEOs, the key operators on corporate boards, and the leaders in the financial, legal, and technical apparatuses that surround this inner sanctum of capitalist activity (p. 33).
In addition, Harvey views financialization as integral to the process and not, as many traditional and Marxists economists view it, as parasitical on real (i.e. industrial) production.

Regarding the working class, however, we largely see (described in Chapter 2) the decomposition of working class power, and disarray in the recomposition of organized resistance to neoliberalism on an international scale. This being said, not all is lost; we do know that there are consistent and local attempts to resist and refuse the exploitation of neoliberalism. The final chapter of A Brief History of Neoliberalism closes with a  general discussion of "Freedom's Prospect."

We've got several chapters to read before getting there. Over the next two chapters we will see how neoliberalism captured hegemony in intellectual, cultural, and political discourses, and how it captures and transforms the state. Through the transformation of state structures neoliberalism could establish its 'inevitability' both ideologically and structurally, "to create a legacy and a tradition that tangled subsequent politicians in a web of constraints from which they could not easily escape" (p. 63).

Later this week: Matt reading Chapter 2, and I will read Chapter 3.

*The usual caveats apply here about the distinction of theory and practice being an analytic tool, etc.

Alain Badiou, "Polemics"

(Verso, 2006)

Unsurprisingly, Canadian mainstream media is near unanimous in its reading of this weekend's G20 protests. The basic picture is that certain "anarchists" have created - you guessed it! - "anarchy" in Toronto, and are now in the process of being duly rounded up and punished. Democracy [sic] is saved! The Ottawa Sun, not fit to line an animal's cage, has even gone so far as to paint the clashes solely in terms of poor, defenceless riot cops harrassed by rocks, molotovs and bottles of urine. No mention of police wading into the supposedly safe "free speech zone", clubbing and pepper-spraying peaceful protesters.

To be clear: there has been violence on both sides. What I take issue with is that whereas property destruction by certain militant factions is almost universally denounced as "violence" or "terrorism" (including from the mouths of certain yellow labour representatives), actual violence against the bodies of those exercising their democratic rights has proven almost unthinkable as such. The headline of a local daily newspaper sums it up nicely: "Law and disorder". You can guess that the "law" has had no part in fomenting the disorder.

In the wake of the protests, the task ahead of the radical Left is legal defence, solidarity actions, community organization, and the dissemination of accurate information contra the mainstream media consensus. But additionally, some of us may also take solace in and gather strength from theory. I've had this argument too many times to repeat here, but I can personally attest to the bewildering and psychologically damaging effects of being at odds with and shut down by the armed wing of the dominant "democratic" situation. Theory is not exactly therapy, but it can be a means of getting one's bearings when this is desperately needed. It is of course not its own end. But in a situation of general police action, there is, I suggest, perhaps no better well at which to quench one's thirst than the writings of Alain Badiou.

Badiou's Polemics reminds us that representative "democratic" politics is not a cuddly affair. It is underpinned by violence and abject fear. His entire philosophical project is, in effect, an attempt to think the coming-to-be of that which is unthinkable within the representative-democratic situation - precisely, a properly communist politics from below - and to delineate an ethics of militancy which defines the human being in positive terms. Badiou promotes such virtues as courage, fidelity and endurance, leaving off with the dominant ethics of eternal guilt in face of the Other. I would suggest that a reading of Polemics will help those in North America to think their situation, despite the fact that there's much in the book that is slightly dated and mostly pertinent to French politics. One finds painstaking dissections of the Paris Commune and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a philosophical engagement with zionism and anti-semitism, and perhaps most importantly for the present, an attempt to think a radical subject-position relative to the dominant consensus.

Organize your communities; but read and think deeply, and as if your lives depended on it.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Short Thought on the G20

When looking at the cops, the protesters, and the politicians, I think we ought to keep in mind Bertolt Brecht's well-known quip:
What is robbing a bank compared with founding a bank?

Friday, June 25, 2010

A Preface to Reading "A Brief History of Neoliberalism"

One of the central difficulties late capitalism, Fredric Jameson writes in his Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), is cognitively mapping its systematic features. Late capitalism-- what we now typically call neoliberalism-- is, he argues, defined by the compression of time to the point of ahistoricism (although this feature of capitalism was already grasped by Marx in his critique of the Robinson Crusoe stories of classical economists), and the suppression of distance and the saturation of space. This metaphor of 'mapping' itself, however, is paradoxical, because it does not mean that we have recourse to maps to trace this geography, but the very activity of mapping politics in time and space requires grasping the specific reconfigurations of the relationships between history, geography, and political economy in late capitalism.

Jameson's argument, was directed against the anti-systematizing tendencies of the North American reception of postmodernism, the proponents of which often refused to render accounts of politics, culture, and the like, in a systematic totality. His claim-- relevant then as much as now-- is that the variety cultural expressions in late capitalism can only be understood historically as a totality, that accounting for a large set of particular variations is not incompatible with an analysis of the global configurations of political economy.

Nevertheless, these configurations of political economy remained difficult to map, although the totality of their relations are typically now referred to as neoliberalism, a concept that encompasses the aforementioned compression of time-space, the conservative counterrevolution that captured state power in various metropoles in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the postmodernization (if I can be permitted such a term) of culture. Even this brief description itself betrays the difficulty I'm trying to get at; it is as if each feature of neoliberalism suggests a number of exceptions, throwing us back on the problem of particularity and totality: how is it possible to conceptualize neoliberalism as both a set of particular, concrete variations through the history of the past 30 years and across geographical space, and as an increasingly global, and globalized, totality?

Starting next week, Matt and I will be re-reading one of most clear and concise responses to the preceding questions, David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005). There are two reasons why this book remains, for me, a constant reference point as I slowly work out the relationships between philosophy, political economy, and praxis.

First, Harvey's arguments and expressions are clear. His terminological choices reflect his conceptual commitments, and cast a critical eye on 'common sense' phrases. Where so many have been inclined to fight over the extent of deregulation or privatization, or whether they are desirable, which locks the debate into a specific neoliberal conceptual field, Harvey re-politicizes the terms. So, for instance, talking about the role of the state in neoliberal theory, he argues that its partisans aren't against the state in toto, they are against a particular kind of state. They don't mind if the state engages in deficit spending for military action, of if it preserves the integrity of money or private property, nor if the state forces open new markets:
if markets do not exist (in areas such as land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution) then they must be created, by state action if necessary (2).
What is this state action? What is so commonly referred to as privatization or deregulation becomes, in Harvey's terms, a use of state power to accomplish political-economical goals.

This kind of analysis is possible because Harvey does not just analyze neoliberalism as a form of reorganizing  and compressing time-space through capitalism (which is a worth contribution alone), he also, second, argues that this form of capitalism is a way to redistribute wealth upwards; that is, Harvey argues that neoliberalism is a political project to reinforce elite class power, through both structural and ideological means. The force of his argument, I think, is the result of his reference to class analysis...

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. We're only at the 'Preface,' which introduces the reader to neoliberlism and its history. Therefore, I would like to invite our readers to take their copy down from the shelf and read along, and comment, over the next few weeks as we analyze A Brief History of Neoliberalism chapter by chapter, as we discover the continued relevance of Marxist analysis in the so-called era after neoliberalism.

Next week: Chapters 1-3.

Update: I'm usually on top of these things, but I forgot to mention that Matt reviewed Harvey's Spaces of Global Capitalism" back in April.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Reading Feuerbach

Ludwig Feuerbach is one of those figures of philosophy who for various reasons has become reading material for primarily specialists, despite the extraordinary impact of his book The Essence of Christianity (1841) in his time. Most everybody knows of him through Marx's famous "Theses on Feuerbach," but very few have read him.

Until recently, I had only a passing familiarity with his work, which is why I decided to read The Essence of Christianity, in George Eliot's-- Mary Anne Evan's, that is,-- translation from 1881, which was reprinted by Dover Books in 2008. My interest derives from his contemporaneity with Schelling and Marx, and his place between Schelling's positive philosophy and a nascent historical materialism. 

By April 1841 Marx had only received his doctorate, and the debates that would rage around his work were still many years off. That year they would circle around Schelling and Feuerbach. The former had been invited to the University of Berlin to assume the seat formerly held by Fichte and, more recently, Hegel, with the hope (expressed within royal circles) that he would stamp out the "dragonseed" of Hegelianism. His pan-European audience included Engels, Kierkegaard, and Bakunin. Nevertheless, Schelling's positive philosophy or philosophy of revelation appeared-- despite its critical elements-- to be the retrenchment of religious content in philosophy just at the time that religion as a source of value was in question. Many of the Young Hegelians (including Feuerbach) were turning to history or materialism for the basis of philosophical and political critique, and Schelling had returned to Berlin  with the question of revelation. In a letter to Feuerbach, dated October 3, 1843, Marx writes:
Schelling has not only been able to unite philosophy and theology, but philosophy and diplomacy too. He has turned philosophy into a general diplomatic science, into a diplomacy for all occasions. Thus an attack on Schelling is indirectly an attack on our entire policy, and especially on Prussian policy. Schelling's philosophy is Prussian policy sub specie philosophiae.
Marx proceeds to call Feuerbach "Schelling in reverse," the person who could carry through Schelling's critique of religion found in the Philosophical Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism (1795-1796) that Schelling himself could not accomplish (the Letters is, incidentally, one of my favorite texts of Schelling's).

What, then, is Feuerbach's reversal of Schelling? His general thesis is that "the secret of theology is anthropology," that all  of religious life can be traced back to human ideas and activities. Feuerbach argued for what Marx would later refer to as "sensuous materialism." Each religious doctrine, he claims, is an alienated expression of human values. Each doctrine reflects either a human value or human desire. In general, Feuerbach affirmed the positive aspects of religion as the expression of a disguised humanism, but he also criticized religion for its pernicious effects on society and human values. I will confine this discussion to three points that I think might be of interest (especially if you might be reading Nietzsche at the moment).
  1. Although religion initially is an objectification of human values and desires, Feuerbach argues that religious faith-- especially in its Christian version--has become anti-naturalist. Because Christian virtues are characterized by sacrifice, they require that one renounce the sensuous life. For the Christian, the "more anything contradicts man and Nature, the greater the abnegation, the greater the virtue" (216).
  2. Faith is indifferent to moral duty and contrary to reason. The emphasis on faith in religion teaches dogmatism rather than the cultivation of virtue for its own sake, or the cultivation of the love of wisdom. Regarding reason: Feuerbach shares with many of his contemporaries a belief in progress, with which religious superstition interferes. There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about historical progress, some which were raised here. What is more interesting for our discussion is that Feuerbach accuses religious practice of a variant of nihilism: "the belief that God is the necessary condition of virtue is the belief in the nothingness of virtue in itself" (167).
  3. Faith is divisive. It separates people on the basis of doctrine. To faith, Feuerbach opposes love, which he argues is the basis not only of religion, but also the social bond. Hence the "the practical, palpable ground of necessity that we should raise ourselves above Christianity, above the peculiar standpoint of religion." Once philosophy reveals theology as anthropology, we ought to reject religion's rejection of sensuous life. Only through the sensuous life can we truly live as humanists.
The obvious reason why Feuerbach has become a figure for specialists is his humanism, for as long as 'man' was maintained as a historical invariant and measure of value we have not yet completed 'religious criticism.' Despite a number of criticisms that anticipated Nietzsche and Freud, Feuerbach replaced God with humanity.

And, Marx would add, a historically peculiar kind of humanity. In the "Theses on Feuerbach," he writes: 
Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the essence of man is no abstraction inhering in each single individual. In actuality it is the ensemble of social relationships.
The result is that Feuerbach abstracts from historical processes, more specifically the relationship between history and political economy. The result is that Feuerbach mistakes the life of the bourgeois individual, within civil society for the essence of humanity. This theoretical mistake is to be rejected by  revolutionaries because it assumes one historical form of social relationships for the measure of these relationships themselves, rather than locating them within political economy. 

My suspicion is that this spectre of 'Feuerbachianism' lurks behind both the humanism and belief in progress of the New Atheists and, sometimes, the religious-exegetical impulse of the post-secular turn in continental philosophy.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Georges Bataille : Literature And Evil (An Interview)

In Devin Zane Shaw's last blog he highlighted the literary legacy of José Saramago: "writer,communist,iconoclast." Another author that can fit that description is Georges Bataille (1897-1962). This French writer was famous for everything controversial. He is known for outlandish eroticism such as his 1928 novel "Story of The Eye." He used various styles and genres to get across his views on sexuality, politics, and philosophy. Bataille was comfortable using the ideas Karl Marx juxtaposed to Marquis de Sade (as currently seen in the works of Slavoj Zizek). He was certainly an exciting thinker.

This 1958 interview is short and focuses on his work "Literature and Evil." The concepts discussed are thought provoking even if they seem somewhat simplistic. Who can resist Frenchmen dressed up talking about literary theory? Especially when the topic involves Kafka and Baudelaire.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Saramago Dies

José Saramago: writer, communist, iconoclast.  Also a Nobel Prize laureate and, more recently, a blogger. The Guardian UK reports that Saramago died today at age 87.

Saramago is, for somebody like myself who is merely a reader of his work, difficult to eulogize or to mourn. 

For so many of his characters, and even the narrator, who ever so often directly addresses the reader to offer criticisms and reassurances, live out their stories either in anonymity or trapped by antonomasia, becoming only the doctor's wife, the interior minister, the boy, etc. Saramago, at least as a literary persona, tried to disappear behind these other voices. In his Nobel Lecture, he states:
I can clearly see those who were my life-masters, those who most intensively taught me the hard work of living, those dozens of characters from my novels and plays that right now I see marching past before my eyes, those men and women of paper and ink, those people I believed I was guiding as I the narrator chose according to my whim, obedient to my will as an author, like articulated puppets whose actions could have no more effect on me than the burden and the tension of the strings I moved them with.
In reflecting on his own writing, Saramago drew the conclusion he learned something from each story. Certainly a consoling statement in abstraction, but what he learned is hardly the kind of self-congratulatory humanism that is today's ideological currency. Saramago always found the reverse; every traditional sacred object was, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, much more a document of barbarism than a document of culture. And like Benjamin, the task was to see this egalitarian-- here, communistic and iconoclastic-- insight through to its conclusions, which were most aptly realized in his novels Blindness and, in my opinion, the much stronger 'sequel' Seeing.

Hence it's hard to mourn and to eulogize a writer, who, in Death with Interruptions, had twisted the idea of personal immortality around into a burden. The book opens when, in an unnamed country, people stop dying on midnight of New Year's Day, a change that is initially celebrated by its citizens, but quickly deteriorates into calamity. Far from Paradise, immortality proves to be undignified as daily life becomes haunted by the near-dead, for, certainly, the absence of death does not stop aging or accidental casualty.Very quickly people begin to look for ways to let people die, until, one day, months later, death returns.

Perhaps it's inappropriate to draw a conclusion about Saramago from one of his novels, but it seems to me that he would have recognized that death, as he notes in his Nobel Lecture, is "a pity," but the alternative is worse. At best, the writer has the chance to document the barbarism endured by so many, to capture the "human dignity [that] is insulted every day by the powerful of our world." At best one can be an echo of some of these voices of protest and affirmation, voices that bear witness to the fact that one of the fallen ought to be mourned, and yet there's still a world to be won. Perhaps here it is possible to conclude. Saramago, comrade, writer, iconoclast:
I conclude. The voice that read these pages wished to be the echo of the conjoined voices of my characters. I don't have, as it were, more voice than the voices they had. Forgive me if what has seemed little to you, to me is all.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Gideon Levy: The Punishment of Gaza

"Words," Gideon Levy writes, in The Punishment of Gaza (Verso, 2010), "do not kill; but words can ease the work of killing." Any number of misnomers and euphemisms can make the casualties of war less shocking, can turn the collective punishment of an entire population into a 'just war' against Hamas, can make the temporary cessation of state belligerence into a 'humanitarian' cease-fire.

Nevertheless, this is not entirely the fault of language. It requires a  concerted campaign of misinformation to make so many euphemisms legible, so even the most recent example of the belligerence of Israeli Defense Forces will appear, in the North American media, not as deliberate tactics but as defensive tactics. Not that this is confined to North America. Bernard-Henri Levy, who we've already criticized before (here and here), manages to twist the IDF's aggression around into a tactical error, all while bemoaning the "inversion of values" and the "hijacking of meaning" by the international condemnation of Israel's attack on the Gaza flotilla. BHL knows that you've got to ease the conscience of the world's liberals to remain an intellectual media personality.

Hence the importance of voices such as Gideon Levy, a journalist and editor for Haaretz, and an outspoken critic of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories (and, incidentally, a critic of BHL). His recent book, made up of articles published in Haaretz from 2006 to 2009, is an incisive condemnation of Israel's four year long blockade of Gaza. Incisive, and, as one encounters the details of life under the blockade, infuriating. The Punishment of Gaza gives a narrative voice to the sustained collective punishment endured by the population of Gaza ever since Hamas won the majority in Palestinian legislative elections in 2006. [1]

Levy's main concern is Operation Cast Lead, which lasted from December 27, 2008 to January 17, 2009. In that short time, Israeli bombardments killed over 1,300 Palestinians, injured over 5,000, and left over 100,000 homeless. However, as many critics of United States foreign policy know, numbers alone do not make an argument; they require context. Otherwise, they can also be used to justify war under the guise of humanitarian intervention. In The Punishment of Gaza, Levy provides the context of these statistics. First, he argues that Israel's disengagement from Gaza is a method of oppression from without, that is, a blockade intended as collective punishment. Second, he argues that the casualties of the IDF's onslaught are not accidents, but tactical targets in their occupation. For example, numerous articles show how civilians, including children, are deliberate targets in military operations, not because they are singled out, but because the Israeli army does not enforce repercussions for soldiers who kill or injure civilians. 

But, he argues, none of this would be possible without a political culture that dehumanizes Palestinians when it does not ignore them. He writes that the injustices continue because 
we have trained our soldiers to think that the lives and property of Palestinians have no value whatsoever. It is part of a process of dehumanization that has endured for dozens of years--the fruits of the occupation (142).
Just as there are generations of Palestinians who have been raised in refugee camps, there are Israelis who know of no other political culture than one in which the occupation is the order of things, where even the so-called moderates push over each other on the race to start another war (recall that, while it is not directly discussed by Levy, the Second Lebanon War also takes place during the time period covered by the book).[2]

Levy dismisses equivocations between the two sources of violence. The defense of Israeli aggression rests on the spectre of terrorism and the destruction of Israel, which are woven together in Western representations of the fear of Hamas. But, Levy argues, to perpetuate the occupation due to threats to Israeli security  is to mistake the effect for the cause. Only Israel can end the blockade and the occupation, even if it shows no inclination to do so. International opinion and policy does not show much inclination to intervene, with the exception of the growing strength of the campaign for divestment in Israel. As dire (for the Palestinians) as the situation appears, Levy shows, clearly and directly, that Israel is responsible for the continued injustices of the occupation. "Israelis," Levy writes in the final chapter, in a moment of polemic, "aren't paying any price for the injustice of occupation" (144). Only when Israelis feel some degree of international pressure through divestment and boycott, and domestic pressure through self-criticism, will it end. Formulations such as these sound abstract, but in The Punishment of Gaza they are given in concrete detail.


[1] This is not to ignore the fact that 'narrative voices' ought to also include analyses of the blockade by Palestinians. Levy's book is hindered by the fact that the information is largely 'second hand,' because Israeli journalists have been prohibited from visiting Gaza since November 2006.

[2] See the chapter "No Moderates Left" (available online here), or more recently "Kahane Won," previously discussed by Joshua.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Yayoi Kusama, or blogging about weird art in the library

My silence in the past couple of weeks follows a familiar pattern. I do some public philosophizing (see Devin's CPA sum-up), feel tired afterwards, and retreat into weird art for a bit. During this predictable decompression phase, a friend brought Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama to my attention. Kusama, now in her early 80s, was something of a sensation in the New York scene in the 1960s - nude happenings, vaguely anarchistic communiques, etc. Her claim to fame is her obsessive reproduction of "infinity net" patterns, polka dots, and phallic protuberances, as well as her pioneering work in the concept of interactive installation. Kusama is also known for her mental illness (she has lived voluntarily in an asylum for decades, and claims that hallucination and obsession are her primary inspirations), as well as her single-minded attempts, pace Warhol, to use art as a platform for fame (or more accurately, to render the two indistinguishable). As distinct from practitioners of pop art, however, Kusama most of the time gives the impression of being totally, unabashedly serious. She claims that she is attempting to obliterate herself as well as the universe by covering it with the content of her hallucinations - namely, the aforementioned patterns, dots and phalli. Depending on how one looks at it, it's more complicated than this. The ecstatic merging is either a self-immolation or an imposition of the self (its desires, its obsessions) onto the universe. Over the course of the career, Kusama gives the impression of both.

Those interested can check out Phaidon's (2000) coffee table book on Kusama. It blends interviews, essays, primary texts by the artist, and a variety of pieces from throughout her career.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Wolf Blitzer Vs. Norman Finkelstein: 1989

Wolf Blitzer currently is an anchor on CNN. In 1989, before working for CNN, he debated the scholar Norman Finkelstein regarding the Israel/Palestine conflict. Blitzer openly advocated Zionism. His career history has involved extensive coverage of Israel. Objectively? CNN's website states, "Blitzer began his career in 1972 with the Reuters News Agency in Tel Aviv. Shortly thereafter, he became a Washington, D.C., correspondent for The Jerusalem Post. After more than 15 years of reporting from the nation's capital, Blitzer joined CNN in 1990 as the network's military-affairs correspondent at the Pentagon."

I certainly do not bring this up to imply a Jewish conspiracy within the US media. There is a pro-Israel bias. Norman Finkelstein, also Jewish, gets little media attention and often criticism. Are there any famous anchors on popular networks that have connections to pro-Palestinian media outlets?

(Notice the the way Blitzer debates compared to Finkelstein in this clip.)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Disappointment of a Disciple

By T Storm Heter

(For Ralph)

Editor's Note: This is the third installment in our series commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason. Previous installments, by Devin Zane Shaw and Caleb Heldt, can be found, respectively, here and here.

I have been a Sartrean for more than a decade.  I’ve written about Sartre’s works, taught him in courses, gabbed endlessly to colleagues and friends about his contributions; I’ve done all those things we are used to doing with the figures we love.   My orientation to the world has been Sartrean since long before I read Sartre.  In graduate school even when I turned against Sartre—becoming a critic of the ‘philosophy of the subject’ for instance—I would find myself six months later with a new interpretation of Sartre, with a “new” Sartre (as Nik Farrell Fox puts it). 

But I can recall with vivid clarity the first time anyone referred to me as “an existentialist.”  I was taken aback.  I was sure that I had never told this person—a close friend and fellow academic—that I was an existentialist; I had never introduced myself by saying, “I’m Storm and I’m an existentialist.”  On the other hand, I could not find it in me to deny that I was an existentialist. 

The friend who had called me an existentialist wasn’t a philosopher by trade, he was a professor of French who studied and taught at Yale in the 1980s.  He had been in the mix of intellectuals who did some of the most exciting work in America on Sartre, who had carved out a unique place for their work in Yale French Studies.  Our conversations would stretch for hours, and I would leave feeling like the world was my oyster; like there were a million books to read and perhaps just as many waiting to be written.  Ralph, who was my senior by ten or fifteen years, would inevitably end the conversation with, “Now Storm, you must prioritize your writing.”  The logistics of it were impossible: teaching four-four, developing a new course every term, having two young children, serving on every committee known to man and God.  But of course, Ralph was right. 

My conversations with Ralph revealed a contrast between my own dialectical thinking, and Ralph’s fluid, allegorical, piratical style.  I would seize upon opposites and try to break them down.  Ralph would paint images and explore their recesses and folds.  Ralph thought from the cracks and the seams and the frayed edges.  He turned texts into flesh and blood which he would squeeze until long repressed meanings would issue forth from hidden sores.     

We frequently talked about the nuances of Sartre’s style and his choice of language.  Why does Sartre use the term pédophile when talking about bad faith in Being and Nothingness?  Hazel Barnes translates this as ‘the homosexual,’ which carries a different weight than alternatives like ‘fag,’ ‘pedophile,’ or ‘queer.’  The question in those pages is whether we must identify with our past.  Ralph helped me see that the past is always mediated through language, through memory, through labels.  Labels are not fungible. Sartre thought labeling, gazing behavior was alienating, but also inevitable.  He insisted that the we acknowledge the gaze, even if we remain unable to identify its object as “me.”  Existential responsibility is truly terrifying: I must own what I cannot control, what I cannot love. 

I wonder to myself what would have happened had Sartre taken a surrealist turn with the idea of labels and existential responsibility.  Perhaps the desire for control is a pathology rather than an exercise of freedom. The existential notion of ambiguity found not only in Sartre but also in Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty is halfway to surrealism.  Ambiguity is a dialectical notion: we must not try to find one term of the dyad definitive, but to accept the mutuality of the terms.  Existence is a tension between freedom and facticity.  

Sartre famously hated labels, hated political parties, hated, in short, being pinned down by the freedom of others.  An anarchist to the end.  Was this not why he rejected the Nobel prize for literature?  A writer ought not become an institution.  A damning critique of institutionalization occupies most of the eight or nine hundred pages of the Critique of Dialectical Reason.

Ralph called me an existentialist as a way of introducing me to someone else, as a shorthand way of saying what I studied and who I was.  The label existentialist carried a very different weight than if Ralph had said, “Storm wrote his thesis on Jean-Paul Sartre.”  That judgment refers to a past action, with no particular obligation extending into the future.  There is no roll to play in these words.  Even had Ralph said, “Storm teaches existentialism,” there would have been much less gravity implied.  The teaching of a class, the writing of a book—these are events, situations, happenings, actions.  But ‘to be’ an existentialist is to bear a torch, to wear a uniform, to stake out a set of boundaries, to pledge allegiance.  Thus, what could be more existentialist than denying that one is an existentialist?  If I am what I am not, then I am not an existentialist. 

I have found that I am not alone.  Many philosophers who study the existentialists do not call themselves existentialists.  For some, it is simply because the noun deprives the adjective.  They are Sartrean existentialists, and prefer to be called Sartreans.  But for a good many others, I believe they are motivated by the rejection of essentialist language. 

But I wonder what is the communal effect of rejecting the essentialist language of identity?  In the first place, it makes community much more difficult.  The anarchistic rejection of labels means that you and I are not the same; we are not identical; we do not reciprocate.  We recognize each other through a negative reciprocity; through a rejection of each other, rather than through an appeal.  Ralph’s calling me an existentialist was meant to place me within the community; my denial of the label was a rejection of this community.

I raise this point about community because I believe that one of the important questions for scholars of Sartre these days is to articulate what if anything brings us together beyond our commitment to read and discuss the works of Sartre.

As a point of reference, compare existentialism to critical theory.  The commitments of the Frankfurt School intertwine soundly with Sartrean Marxism.  Search for a Method in particular, with its aim of creating a structural anthropology, a human science, a synthesis of psychology and sociology, is kindred in spirit to the aim of German critical theory. 

So why has critical theory had such a different trajectory than Sartreanism?  In particular, why has Marxist-existentialism not had the following that German critical theory enjoys? 

One difference is that the Frankfurt School conceived of itself as a movement.  It accepted institutionalization as part of its essence.  It had a director, a physical home, a newsletter, and a cohort. 

There are parallels in the existentialist world: Les Temps Modernes and “the family.” But Sartre’s anarchism and ego were two factors that made the existentialism less a movement than a moment.  Sartre explicitly rejected institutionalization.  It is clear that Sartre had a strong desire to be read, but his attempts at collaboration were always troubled.  Sartre was not associated with any university and was not an academic. 

A second difference is that there is no parallel to Habermas in the world of Sartrean existentialism. The question “Who are the most famous students of Sartre?” has no clear answer.  If we use student in the wide sense to refer to thinkers who absorbed Sartrean concepts and then developed their own voices, of course many 20th century intellectuals would have to be included, most prominently Franz Fanon. 

The anti-institutionalism of Sartre and the fact that he had no clear successor means that we have difficulty tracing any current movements of thought to Sartre in the way that we can trace contemporary critical theory to Habermas and back to the Frankfurt School. 

That said, there are many contemporary philosophers doing exciting, fresh work who are Sartreans in one sense or another.  Just to pick one example, the volume Race After Sartre: Antiracism, Africana Existentialism, Postcolonialism, edited by Jonathan Judaken (SUNY Press, 2008) is packed with essays that exhibit living, breathing Sartrean thinking.   

At the most recent meeting of the North American Sartre Society (held in 2009 in Memphis, TN) there was a strong sense that Sartrean thinking should not remain aloof from recent theoretical developments, especially postcolonial thinking.  This feeling was brought home by the keynote speaker Robert JC Young, who challenged us to bring Sartre into discussions of postcolonialism. 

While I’m not in a position to answer Robert Young’s question directly, it has me thinking about two tasks.  The first task involves making Sartre’s late work, especially his Critique of Dialectical Reason, more visible in answering contemporary questions of race, nationalism, gender, technology, poverty, liberalism, and colonialism.  The second task requires doing the opposite: allowing the man (Sartre) and the text (The Critique) to utterly fade into the background of thinking.  The idea that Sartre needs to be “defended” or even “updated” strikes me as unhelpful, indeed counterproductive.  Although I am not entirely sure how to weave these two threads together into a coherent garment, I think there is some sense in which intellectuals like Francis Jameson, and Black Existentialists like Lewis Gordon, have already shown how.  As Gordon notes in his essay “Sartre and Black Existentialism” (found in the Judaken volume cited above), many Black Existentialists—including Gordon himself—began their intellectual careers by working directly with Sartre’s texts.  These philosophers subsequently found a style and voice solely their own. 

Forty years later, what can we say we’ve learned from Sartre’s Critique and where should we set our sights for future study?  Iris M. Young’s masterful essay “Gender as Seriality: Thinking about Women as a Social Collective,” (Signs, 19:3, 1994) remains in my mind one of the best direct meditations on the Critique as a work of critical social theory.  Also, there is some sense in which we can say that Fanon’s work is a testament to the importance of Sartre’s Critique, but such a view diminishes the originality of Fanon.  Can’t we simply say now that Sartre is unreadable without Fanon?  Sartre was aware of the limitations of his particularity; he was a white man who wanted to flambé whiteness through a phenomenological psychoanalysis; but he knew very well that exposing whiteness from within is different from exposing whiteness from without.  The major Sartrean tools—bad faith, seriality, recognition, intelligibility, praxis, ambiguity—are not white or male or straight; but their queerness and their blackness have relatively little to do with Sartre and almost everything to do with us. 

The Critique is like a centrifuge; the deeper one reads the faster one spins and the further one is forced away from the apparent centers of Sartrean thinking.   Liquids begin separating: Sartre thought this, I think that; Sartre thought that, I think this.  The deepest Sartreanism throws one outward towards the world; it causes a direct engagement with the contemporary situation.  Little wonder, then, that Sartreanism does not conceive of itself as a social movement. 

The series is a basic concept of the Critique.  Developed as an account of sociality in mass society, the concept helps us today to think through phenomena like multiculturalism.  Multiculturalism is sometimes the name for an authentic project of democratically negotiating difference, but there is also what I call “Pier 1 multiculturalism.”  Pier 1 Imports is perhaps the oldest and most prominent chain import store in the United States.  Its customers are white middle class suburbanites who come to feed on a smorgasbord of world tchotchkies.  The store has all the sterility and charm of a strip mall gone on safari.  Perhaps most distinctive is the smell of the store: a sort of nag champa light, lightened and sweetened for the American palate.  The goods proclaim a sense of Otherness, but true otherness is reduced to that which is safe, consumable, and most importantly cheap.  There is seriality at multiple levels, beginning with the selection of goods that are marketable to the dulled taste buds of American interior design.  We want something cool and different, but not truly threatening.  We want to feel connected to the rest of the world, but without confronting the reality of market exploitation.  We want to “help” the poor of the “third-world” through “fair trade.”  We want to “save” the rainforests by stuffing a dollar into a can at the checkout lane. Pier 1 multiculturalism is an inscription of ourselves into a narcissistic narrative of tolerance, openness, good taste, of love for our brethren.  We are not consuming chairs and pillows and rugs; we are consuming ourselves.  We are paying buckets for an image of ourselves that we desperately desire to become.  The economic relationship to those who produce the goods is serial because, just as one would expect, Pier 1 has a nasty record on labor issues.  (See the “Sweatshop Hall of Shame 2010,” put out by the International Labor Rights Forum.)  Pier 1 multiculturalism serializes along many axes: consumers who shallowly recognize themselves in each other’s exotic purchases become a series; the exploited laborers behind the products become a series; and the relationship between the series of consumers and producers (“we” purchase “you”) is a serial relationship mediated by the praxis of the Pier 1 corporation. 

The Sartrean approach to multiculturalism would be based on the notion of the series, which is also to say that it would be a politics of recognition.  It is no coincidence that one of the more interesting and influential theoretical defenses of multiculturalism has come from Charles Taylor.  As the title indicates, Taylor’s seminal essay Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition (1994) views multiculturalism as a politics of serial recognition. 

Sartreanism can also approach multiculturalism through the lens of the “fraternity-terror thesis” of the Critique.  The fraternity-terror thesis claims that group solidarity is possible only through the threat of exclusion, of othering.  The group defines itself by policing its boundaries with other groups, by differentiated its members from outsiders.  The clearest example from the American experience is the story of the whiteness of American citizenship; we are a “nation of immigrants” only to the extent that “we” define ourselves though one a particular story: the story of the European immigrant who fled religious oppression and material poverty to start afresh with nothing but chutzpah, a can-do spirit, and a plot of “unspoiled” land.  As John Locke says, “in the beginning all the world was America.”  Our dominant national narrative treats citizenship as an enlightened category of pure love, pure solidarity, pure universality. Taylor’s work is motivated by the Hegelian hope that universality can be attained through progressive social inclusion of marginalized groups.  Taylor frames his discussion within the history of social groups that have articulated their desire to receive equal social esteem.  Taylor’s historical approach is important because it challenges the notion that we can develop critical social norms by meditating on timeless categories such as “democracy-in-itself;” the real political work is in the murky here and now.  In my view, the murkiness of American political thought is not to be avoided but engaged directly through acts of national psychotherapy.  We are a nation that needs therapy.  Nationalism is our coping strategy, but it has long been breaking down under its own weight. 

Sartreanism shows us one way out; the way out begins by attending to a particular desire, the desire to have a multiculturalism of pure love, love without terror.  The attempted bombing of Times Square just a few days ago, on May Day, 2010, is only the latest of many manifestations of fraternity-terror.  Faisal Shahzad points to a failure of American multiculturalism; news commentators seemed endlessly fascinated with why a naturalized American, with a family, and American education, and an American home (recently lost) would take such a turn.  One of the failures of American multiculturalism is its inability to make intelligible the domestic and international violence of US politics; we prefer to repress the of American-ness of violence.  Our major theatres of military combat are 7,000 miles away.  Our televisions do not show dead American soldiers.  Our psychic geography plots a gulf between the open arms of American pluralism and the hegemony of American military might.  We stand mystified, in fact in disbelieve about the statistics of the murder rate within the US, which is an order of magnitude higher than almost any other comparable country.  Sartre’s extended discussion of the boxing match in Volume 2 of the Critique gives us the vocabulary to discuss the incarnation and internalization of violence we find in America today. 

My friend Ralph couldn’t stop talking about Sartre’s work on Flaubert, which he believed was a watershed for French Studies, marking a new orientation that was still in the process of being absorbed long after the publication of The Family Idiot.  My own anti-theoretical tendencies prevent me from viewing the Critique as a sacred text, and I could never turn to Sartre as a messiah.  If there is a Holy of Holies, I doubt that it is deep within the bowels of the Critique.

I won’t deny the human-ness of the desire to be a disciple.  And I won’t disown personal responsibility for the desire.  But I find delirious pleasure in the thought that wanting to be a disciple of Sartre creates the conditions for disappointment. 

The disappointment of a disciple does not always lead to futility; it can be the germ of a productive melancholy, a mood expressed beautifully by the painter Arshile Gorky who wrote to his family in 1938 that,
“…Nowadays an extremely melancholy mood has seized me and I can concentrate on nothing except my work.  Dearest one, lately I have been well and am working excessively and am changing my painting style.  Therefore, this constantly gives me extreme mental anguish.  I am not satisfied and from now on I will never be satisfied a single day about my works.  I desire to create deeper and purer work.” 

T Storm Heter is author of Sartre's Ethics of Engagement (Continuum, 2006) and professor at East Stroudsburg University.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The So-Called Report on the Conference...

For somebody who defended his dissertation last November and who successfully landed a contract to turn it into a book, I probably over-scheduled the last academic year. In November, I presented a paper on Sartre at the North American Sartre Society, and just recently participated in a panel on Marx, Heidegger, and Benjamin at the CPA and gave a paper on Badiou and Heidegger at the EPTC. For the next academic year, I've already got an abstract under review for the Radical Philosophy Association's meeting, which, if accepted, would make it the fourth time I will have gone to one of their meetings.

Now, I don't have a very extensive report to give on the conference(s). I was in Montreal for two full days, Tuesday and Wednesday, and spent three hours each day participating; Tuesday at our panel, and at  the  EPTC for three papers the next day, each related to my participation or a friend's: Wes Furlotte commented on a paper, I went to see what Chris Nagel, professor at CSU Stanislaus, was up to lately, and then I gave my paper. So, in total, six hours at the Humanities conference. Which isn't very much. At the last NASS meeting, I think I spent a majority of my time watching papers, commenting, arguing, schoozing, etc. 

From whence the question: why?

I've been thinking about this for a few days. There are a few answers I could possibly give, but I think it's related to the professional politics of large conferences. Nevertheless, I have two very different impressions of the CPA and the EPTC. Let's start with the CPA. I get the general impression that it's an analytic philosopher's  game. It's difficult not to get that impression when reading the schedule; and it's even harder not to get that impression when you start your panel on Tuesday morning at 9am and nobody's there. Yes, you read that correctly: Matt, David and I had no audience until perhaps 9:30am (and only 3 people passed in or out). Now, it was raining on a Tuesday morning, which is a strong motivator for somebody not to jump up and rush to a conference, and other panels didn't seem to runneth over in attendance. 
But let's put it this way: at some point you've got to make decisions about where to present your work, because these events cost money, and require a significant time commitment. So it's probably best to present work where you will get helpful commentary, suggestions, polemics, and contacts from people who have some familiarity with the subject matter (and you might learn a thing or two at other talks). Now, if the CPA is an analytic philosopher's game (and this might not be true in all cases), then it might not be the place for continental papers. However, even if it's not an analytic philosopher's game, the non-thematic orientation means that any response that you may get will be fairly broad. I didn't used to think like this because I was writing on Schelling, and almost anywhere you go, few people have any familiarity with his work.

However, I've started working on more contemporary figures, so my expectations have changed. Next year, at least, I will only be sending a paper to the EPTC. Not just on the response my paper received, but because I've had two good experiences with them. And rather than my rushed schedule this year, I can spend a few days at a few panels, participate a bit more. I know that this might not be the strongest reasoning, but it's the impression I've been trying to work out for the past few days.

So on to the Badiou paper: it was about the differences between Badiou and Heidegger on mathematics and technology. It's been a cursed paper. I wrote it about 3 and a half years ago, and the EPTC is the only group to take it; it was full of set theory formulas, and then it was intentionally polemical, talking about how Badiou's work disproves Heidegger's 'oracular proferring' on technology (the phrase is from J-L. Nancy). The commentator, Jonathan Blair, caught the rhetorical gambit behind the paper (the insistence on the opposition of Badiou and Heidegger), and pointed out how in some ways Badiou does not get beyond some possible Heideggerian objections, and that at some point, a decision is behind their differences. Which is the set up I expected. But this kind of objection leads us to a different set of problems (which we didn't actually get to because chaos broke out during the Q & A that had very little to do with my paper). 
The most important problem, I think, is that if a decision is the basis of ontological procedure, then ontology itself is a strategic discourse, and is not 'first philosophy.' I think the very problem is the idea of first philosophy itself; that rather than fetishizing the 'proper' beginning as securing philosophical discourse, we need to return a method of thinking totality in media res (which is why I'm not doing something like Derrida; in addition, this is going to have something to say about political economy...), without collapsing the distinction between philosophy and politics. One of the strong points of Badiou's philosophy is how he organizes a way of thinking that seeks to avoid the "passion of the real," which distinguishes his work from the 'oracular proferring' of Heidegger.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Israeli Terrorism and the State of Israel

"Israeli forces have attacked the international aid convoy Freedom Flotilla en route to the besieged Gaza Strip, killing at least 10 people and leaving more than 50 injured." (see§ionid=351020202.)

The Israeli government has been working very hard to pitch their piracy against the Gaza aid flotilla as an act of self defense. Watch these Youtube videos of Jewish settlers and notice how they treat Palestinians in the West Bank. Watch the Israeli soldiers do nothing as Jewish settlers terrorize Palestinians. See how even less credible current Israeli government arguments are. The Israeli military assists the settler "vigilante" violence.