Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The $12 Million Stuffed Shark

With much of the recent discussion on this blog being about politics and political economy, it might be easy for the reader to forget that I am also interested in the philosophy of art and the history of modern art. As I've mentioned before, these interests (perhaps...the seniority points part of the sessional teaching collective agreement probably also played a role here) contributed to the Department of Visual Arts offering me the 'Art Theories' course to teach in the Winter.

Given my interest in the history of modern art (the latter of which cannot but include, I think, contemporary art), I wasn't about to miss the summer exhibition at the National Gallery here in Ottawa, called Pop Life: Art in a Material World. We (that's my wife and I) went to the opening weekend of the show in June, and it runs through September 19th. It has been the talk of the town for the local artworld, despite the reservations many feel (and I share somewhat) about contemporary art.

The curatorial concept behind the show is that:
Pop Life then looks ahead to the work of a number of artists who, like Warhol, have openly engaged with the cult of celebrity and unashamedly championed the idea of turning public attention into aesthetic notoriety and financial reward.
Aside from the late work of Andy Warhol, the exhibit includes the work of 19 other artists, with prominence of place given to the the shock/kitsch/boys-club of Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Takashi Murakami.

How could they not be given the prominence of place, given that they are several of the best-known or notorious contemporary artists? But this leads to the next question: why are they considered major contemporary artists? The Pop Life exhibit gives us examples of branding and the contemporary aesthetic of shock and kitsch (and narcissism?), but cannot provide a narrative about celebrity, opportunism, and aesthetics in exhibit form.

In The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art (Doubleday Canada, 2008), Don Thompson argues that many of the reputations of contemporary artists rest on the particular modes of transacting business within the artworld, the relationships between artists, dealers, auction houses, collectors, and super-rich dabblers who want to be collectors or even sometimes investors in art. Rather than aesthetic merit, he argues, "art history'"-- especially contemporary art history-- is often "now rewritten with the checkbook"; lesser works of "second-tier" artists can be magically transformed into important contributions on price alone (Klimt's painting Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, sold in 2006 for $135 million, is Thompson's favorite example).

Now, this picture of the artworld certainly isn't going to go over well with contemporary art critics, but it does explain an intuitive kind of cynicism that many people-- and many artists not invited to the elite world of Saatchi, Sotheby's, and Art Basel Miami Beach-- feel about contemporary art. Thompson investigates many of the opaque practices that produce a market of works that seem only to increase in value. Much of this world rests on branding, whether it is the branding of a prominent collector, artist, dealer, or auction house, and branding reassures those dabblers mentioned above that it's not uncouth to send their riches on art, whether it is the relatively small Old Masters market, or contemporary art.

Thompson shows that once a lot of money is involved, the art market becomes highly speculative, highly staked, and very insular; many players do a lot of public relations and wheeling and dealing to protect the price and brand of the works of their clients. So, for example, while high prices generate lots of publicity, it's very difficult to discover the real prices that work is sold for because these real prices-- that actually changes hands-- is well hidden behind discounting practices, a number of fees and guarantees, anonymity and non-disclosure agreements.

Untangling this web of exchange sounds like it makes for turgid prose, but Thompson keeps it accessible by interlacing these practices with stories about artworks and the people that surround them, including chapters on Hirst's shark (no surprise there...), Francis Bacon, and the market for fakes. Nevertheless, it's hard not to feel cynical about the world of the art market after reading this book. Part of this feeling is due to this market itself, and part of it is due to a few points where Thompson's assumptions-- he has, after all, worked his way up to the (I shit you not) Nabisco Brands Chair  Emeritus at the Schulich School of Business at York University-- fail him. I'll limit myself to two.

First, he actually seems to believe that it's possible to rewrite art history with a checkbook. I don't want to deny that money and branding can and probably will play a role when, decades from now, historians sit down to chronicle late twentieth century art, but it's probably wrong to hold that high auction prices for earlier work will be as influential in rewriting the history of modern art as for detailing a history of the market for modern art. Thompson seems to have convinced himself that price is equal to value while writing a book about how price became the measure of value (this becomes very clear when he writes off art criticism because it doesn't seem to have much effect on-- you guessed it-- prices!).

The second limitation of Thompson's analysis occurs when he discusses subsidies. He may discover all sorts of questionable and, in his own words, possibly "unethical" practices in the art market, but he's not ready to pass judgment until he discusses alternatives to the market. Subsidies, he argues, reduce motivation, and might decrease output. So, for instance, Thompson notes that the Dutch government subsidized art in the 1980s, and then asks, "can you name a single contemporary Dutch artist from the 1980s?" (180). And if you're not convinced, he notes that the
French Culture Ministry gives the visual arts about twenty times as much relative to the number of artists as does the National Endowment for the Arts in the United States. The reader may recall that there were no French contemporary artists in the consensus top twenty-five list earlier in the book...(181).
That list (on p. 56) includes 13 Americans, 4 English/Irish artists, 7 from continental Europe (4 from Germany, one each from Switzerland, Spain, and Italy), and one from Japan. But might this distribution have something to do with political geography? There are over 180 other countries not represented on this list, and I'm sure not all of them provide subsidies to the arts. Political geography-- in this case, mapping contemporary art trends over the geography of political and economic power-- would provide a better picture for understanding how the consensus of major contemporary artists, and even movements, becomes hegemonic. It might also explain the recent appearance of 'hot' contemporary Chinese artists, such as Zhang Xiaogang, Cai Guo-Qiang, or Liu Xiadong (just to use Thompson's examples on pp. 249-250).

These limitations (and a few others--such as when he repeats two class/race jokes without much comment) aside, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark is an accessible introduction to the practices and organization of the art market.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Hegel at 240

Since it's Hegel's birthday today (he was born 27 August 1770), we're going to spend today talking a bit about standing him on his feet. I've spent the last two days weeks writing a first draft account of Karl Korsch's and Lukács's criticisms of Social Democracy and the 2nd International,  working up an explanation as to why Hegelian dialectics re-emerge as a central methodological problem for Marxist theory in 1923. 

At the same time, I've been filling out the picture by reading up on other prominent figures in revolutionary struggle from 1900-1923, focusing on the various ways that Marx (I know that there's some anachronism here), Lenin, and Rosa Luxemburg defend revolutionary struggle against reformism. Eduard Bernstein, who I've already briefly discussed here, is the paradigmatic figure of reformism, until the 'Pope of Orthodox Marxism' Kautsky falls on the wrong side of the critique of imperialism. Of Bernstein's 'method', Luxemburg writes:
Today he who wants to pass as a socialist, and at the same time declare war on Marxian doctrine, the most stupendous product of the human mind in the century, must begin with involuntary esteem for Marx. He must begin by acknowledging himself to be his disciple, by seeking in Marx’s own teachings the points of support for an attack on the latter, while he represents this attack as a further development of Marxian doctrine. 
This passage from Reform and Revolution is still spot on. How many times, since I've started working on Marx-Lukács-Benjamin for my next book, have I heard somebody mention that whatever thinker they work on 'admires Marx' or 'takes Marx seriously' and then proposes said thinker's critique as an advance of critical political thought, when said thinker knocks down a straw man version of Marxist theory (which, incidentally, was probably held by some prominent figure in the 2nd International)? If you don't believe me, go back and reread Heidegger's essay on humanism, or anything Schmitt wrote on Marx.

Sure they quibble about particular parts of Marx's thought, but they won't follow Marx into the details of political economy. Heidegger dodges the bullet by pushing Marx (with Hegel no less) off to the 'history of metaphysics', and Schmitt goes all sovereign-fetishist crazy, but neither looks at so-called metaphysical or juridical problems as part of the totality of social organization. As Lukács argues, the capacity to present these problems as part of the totality of social organization is precisely the merit of Marx's historical materialism.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Gregor McLennan Reviews Two of Eagleton's Latest Books

Gregor McLennan reviews Terry Eagleton's Trouble with Strangers and Reason, Faith, and Revolution in the latest New Left Review (64, July-August 2010). It's required reading if all this St Paul and so-called revolutionary Christianity talk of the post-secular turn has made you think that, as McLennan writes,
The whole discussion, moreover, rests on what is becoming an uncritical dogma in contemporary post-secularism: that recurrent metaphysical puzzlement signals the timeless irrepressibility and primacy of religion rather than our continuous cognitive and imaginative activity, of which religion is but one (variable) expression. 

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The US, Iran, and Democracy

In 1776 Thomas Paine wrote a revolutionary tract titled "Common Sense." He hoped to arouse rebellion of American colonists against the British. The tract's thesis is essentially that a democratic-republic is far superior to a monarchy. He wrote, "The king is not to be trusted without being looked after , in other words, that a thirst for absolute power is that natural disease of monarchy." Ironically in 1953 the US, collaborating with the British that Americans once fought to be independent of,overthrew democracy in Iran. The US government replaced the Iranian government with a tyrannical monarchy.

The long term repercussions of US involvement in Iran arguably resulted in the anti-American Islamic Revolution of 1979. This short film produced during the George W. Bush presidency argues that a bombing campaign/war with Iran in the future may also produce undesirable results in the future. Presently US President Obama and Israel continue to articulate the possibility of such an aggressive scenario.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Cormac McCarthy, "Cities of the Plain"

(Vintage, 1999)

"Every man's death is a standing in for every other. And since death comes to all there is no way to abate the fear of it except to love that man who stands for us. We are not waiting for his history to be written. He passed here long ago. That man who is all men and who stands in the dock for us until our own time come and we must stand for him. Do you love him, that man? Will you honour the path he has taken? Will you listen to his tale?"

The final installment of McCarthy's Border Trilogy unites John Grady Cole and Billy Parham, the protagonists of the first and second novels respectively. It takes place three years after the narrative of "All the Pretty Horses"; it is the early 1950s and John Grady is now twenty and Billy twenty-eight. The two work on a ranch near the US-Mexico border, situated on land which is soon to be bought up by the American military. Billy and John Grady share a friendship akin to brotherhood, for among other reasons John Grady in many respects reminds Billy of his long-dead younger brother Boyd.

On a short visit to a brothel across the border with Billy, John Grady is struck by the beauty of one of the brothel workers, who young and epileptic. He falls in love with her; the problem is that her pimp has fallen in love with her too. John Grady vows to marry her and live with her just off the ranch, but in order for this to happen she must somehow escape her situation. This precipitates a nailbiting climax that is arguably ultra-violent even by McCarthy's standards.

While "Cities of the Plain" does not exactly tie the preceding novels together, it does expound upon their themes and offers something by way of a repetition that is worth pondering. John Grady's tenacity and Billy's decisive, elder-brotherly comportment shine through, but in a rapidly shifting context. The wilds of the previous novels are giving way to the prerogatives of commerce and the military-industrial complex. The actions and ethical codes of the protagonists, quixotic at best in a land where gas stations and highway developments stand in for windmills, figure as positively alien or anachronistic in places; in fact the bulk of the narrative seems something of a dream in light of the novel's epilogue, which takes place fifty years later at the turn of the 21st century (to be sure, yet another improbably philosophical stranger shows up to enlighten the protagonist at this point, discoursing at length about dreams and dreamers). Perhaps the trilogy taken as a whole is best read as a kind of requiem for a certain time and place and way of life which have long since given way to the visions of other dreamers. Or perhaps the point, more accurately, is that capitalism and American empire are, properly speaking, a dream dreamt by no one in particular, though for all that making demands upon and shaping an environment and a people with brutal violence.

As is standard for McCarthy, there is however a tiny and simple glimmer of light in this novel. Billy Parham's travels reveal, perhaps, that even in a situation of violent environmental and cultural upheaval, there is a goodness waiting in the interstices of wandering lost.

Latin America and 21st Century Socialism

The July-August issue of Monthly Review contains a translation of Marta Harnecker's Latin America and Twenty-First Century Socialism: Inventing to Avoid Mistakes, which is available online here.

The reader interested in the transformations of Latin America will find much of interest here, including commentary on events on the continent through 2009. Harnecker's focus is the development of 21st century socialism. The electoral capture of governmental power by the left across large parts of Latin America has not followed the revolutionary path of state seizure of 20th century socialism, and thus, as Harnecker argues, requires different metrics. First, 21st century socialism, of course, must learn from the mistakes of the 20th century version. And second, it must also learn from the diversification of the movements instead relying on the model of working class struggle to the exclusion of peasants, indigenous people, women, and others. Finally, it must focus on creating new forms of local and protagonistic democracy to decentralize state power.

Harknecker argues that, while there can be no step-by-step blueprint for socialism, there are three fundamental goals by which we can measure the success of the new Latin American left. She calls this, following Hugo Chávez, the elementary triangle of socialism (p. 43ff):
  1. "Social ownership of the means of production." Harnecker argues that increased attention must be paid to the distribution of social ownership so that it does not become state-bureaucratic command over production.
  2. "Social production organized by the workers." Like social ownership of the means of production, the modes of production must be organized by workers and not become the prerogative of only management. This requires an educational component to work so that the division of labor cannot coalesce into technocrats and workers. She quotes Allende's critique of technocratic and bureaucratic organization: "since workers had the same rights as any citizen [Allende argued] 'it would be paradoxical if in the heart of the company where they work they did not have equal rights'" (p. 45).
  3. "The satisfaction of communal need." Rather than the acquisition of commodities, production needs to aim for the satisfaction of "full human development."
In addition, these new forms of distribution, production, and consumption should be organized with two other concerns in mind: first, a redefinition of productivity to include ecological concerns; and second, an eye toward integration and solidarity with other regional allies.

Much of Harnecker's essay focuses on these features of socialism. Nevertheless, its brevity leads to several omissions. First, I found that the discussions of implementing 21st century socialism sometimes left me wanting for current concrete examples. It helps, in this regard, to be familiar with at least some of the previous literature on Venezuela and Bolivia.

Second, after the initial discussion of international trade relations, Harnecker only revisits the topic in passing. Chávez, for instance, has made a significant effort to create a network of Latin American solidarity in trade and aid, to reduce the influence of US economic imperialism over the continent. Nevertheless, in attempting to establish stronger Venezuelan and/or Latin American economic autonomy he has forged ties with much less socialist sympathies (to put it nicely!). In Changing Venezuela by Taking Power (Verso, 2007), Gregory Wilpert argues that Chávez's ties with, and occasional praise of, leaders in repressive countries can undercut local struggles for social justice. These countries include Belorussia, Iran, Syria, China, Zimbabwe, and Russia. No matter how much skepticism the discourse of human rights warrants, Wilpert writes
Chávez does the peoples of these countries no favor by publicly praising their leaders and strengthening their positions while these same leaders trample on the rights of their people. By supporting these leaders, Chávez makes it more difficult for activists in these countries to fight for social justice (p. 181).
As many Marxists have pointed out, the uneven development of capitalism is central to its continued development and dominance as a system. Let us hope that the 'uneven' development of 21st socialism is only a transitional form.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

An Update on My Precarious Employment

I don't know about you, but when I wasn't (re-)reading Capital, I was spending a significant part of my summer trying to figure out where I was going to work during the 2010-2011 academic year. After the initial round of sessional job postings (listed course by course here at the University of Ottawa) I was only offered one course, in the Visual Arts Department, which is 'Art Theories' in Winter Semester (for my California friends unfamiliar with the term, the Winter Semester runs from January to late April). While I like the prospect of diversifying my teaching repertoire with the 'Art Theories' course, having written a book on the philosophy of art and all, for a few months I had no Fall teaching.

I can now add, having signed the contract yesterday, that I will be teaching 'Reasoning and Critical Thinking' in the Fall. That gets me to the 1/1 course load that I've been living off for the past four years, so I've survived, somewhat, the across-the-board cuts (enabled, I've heard, by an increase in teaching duties for full-time professors) here at the University of Ottawa. I'm hoping, with a few more posts up, to add another course or two. 

A lot of philosophy professors find 'Reasoning and Critical Thinking' to be a pain to teach, but I must say that I prefer it to unemployment.

To conclude, I'll link to two blog posts about adjunct work and the humanities, although I will add that I'm more on the side of Peter Gratton (here) rather than Ian Bogost (here); I don't think that contemporary 'humanist' disciplines suffer from isolationism as much as they suffer from some combination of explicit and implicit (residual) elitism. 

Monday, August 16, 2010

On Intellectual Bankruptcy

Mark C. Taylor is at it again, proposing more non-solutions to haphazard diagnoses about the state of academia in the 21st century. Most recently, he bemoans the financial straits that many schools are encountering without much more than the idiotic suggestion that universities continue to gut teaching to save money.

Taylor seems fundamentally unable to grasp the political failure at the heart of the problem, unless, of course, the whole point of his argument is that the crisis of the university is a brute fact that cannot be changed but must be accepted. In this case, his apocalyptic vision of the collapse of the world of higher education today is mere pretense to whatever solution he affects to have, condensed in the misguided slogan of the 'intellectual and financial liquidity.'

But Taylor probably grasps the true political problem of academia, and nevertheless remains opportunistic enough to ignore it. The true problem is the capture of the university by capital, that is, the relentless drive to privatize the university and make it another domain of profit, rather than public education. The problem, then, is not a failure of management (even if many administrations have been doing a poor job at fighting the symptoms of the problem), but a political failure, specifically, the lack of political will to maintain accessible education for a changing student demographic. Part of this is symptomatic of the last three decades of neoliberalism, and part, I think, is due to the professorial labor aristocracy (yes, I just said that!) circling the wagons and protecting what it has, consequences for the junior and precarious faculty be damned.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Cormac McCarthy, "The Crossing"

(Vintage, 1995)

The second volume of McCarthy's Border Trilogy concerns a different set of characters and takes place around ten years before the action of the more highly regarded "All the Pretty Horses". If I'm not mistaken, what I characterized as the negative romance of the latter is all but gone from "The Crossing". Overall the second novel is far bleaker and more meditative/philosophical (at its worst, plodding and overly long). Though to be sure there are some pulse-pounding sequences in the best tradition of the Western genre.

The "crossing" in question is ostensibly that of the main character, teenager and vaquero Billy Parham, across the New Mexico / Mexico border. He sets out, without telling his family, to return a she-wolf he has caught near his father's farm to what is most likely her original habitat in a Mexican mountain range. He must also make subsequent crossings and re-crossings in the wake of the events this decision sets in motion. True to McCarthy's style and substance, Billy and later his younger brother Boyd wander a desolate, violent and improbable Mexico torn between cultures as well as between past and future. Along the way various people they meet give philosophical substance and stylistic embellishment to what is otherwise a taut, Spartan tale of young men out for justice and troubleshooting the various pitfalls of living on the road in an inhospitable land.

I would suggest however that the true notion of "crossing" at play in this novel pertains to the nigh-infinite distance between the particular beings who inhabit McCarthy's chaotic, violent world. Much is made in the sequence with the she-wolf of the imponderable difference separating her from her captor Billy - just as in "All the Pretty Horses", John Grady and other vaqueros frequently muse on the distance separating man from horse. The sequence with the wolf comprises only the novel's first section, however. What is most interesting is how McCarthy spins the allegory of the wolf into a world where human beings are separated from each other by a veritable chasm, between which words and gestures make paltry communion. That is perhaps the point: for all the distance between beings, there is a type of communion, fleeting and unsure, that may be struck. The crossing is tenuous and terrifying and without guarantee, but it may be risked nonetheless; witness Billy standing in the dog-fighting pit with the wolf, or Boyd in his silent understanding with the young Mexican girl who joins them on their journey.

All of this puts me in mind of the later Lyotard, about whom I'm writing a doctoral thesis. In his later writings, Lyotard pondered the possibility of passage between what appear to be incommensurable faculties, genres of discourse, etc. His writings on Malraux in particular stress the notion of communion, love and solidarity between wholly alien beings (i.e. between human beings, who are essentially wholly alien to each other). "The Crossing" is, among other things, a singular study of these seemingly impossible yet altogether possible passages.

William F Buckley interviews Huey P Newton

Huey P Newton(1942-1989) was co-founder of the Black Panther Party. This interview shows a different side to the controversial African-American revolutionary. William F Buckley was always condescending, but it is doubtful in these current times that any mainstream interviewer in the USA would even have such an interview.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Reading Capital

I finished reading the first volume of Capital yesterday. However, as most of you know, finishing a book like Capital is really only the beginning. The next step is working up a short (but what counts as short when the book is 800+ pages?) draft of its essential-- relative to my research-- points, before reading through a few of the classic secondary sources.

On a more personal note, finishing Capital brings back a few personal memories from the first time I read excerpts during my the period of my Master's work with a Marx reading group of a few of Peter Linebaugh's students and one of their union friends. We started with 'Part Eight: So-called Primitive Accumulation' because we were interested in the 'prehistory' of capital. And this approach has probably colored my interpretation of the structure of the book to this day: Marx begins with commodity exchange and works through the consequences of the self-valorization of capital to show that, even constrained to the sphere of economics, capitalism is social organization designed to expropriate social wealth from the masses who create it. 'Part Eight' is added to show that so-called primitive accumulation was not an idyllic process of accumulation through labor that eventually became capital, but rather that accumulation was a method of dispossession on a global scale. In England (the link is here):
The spoliation of the church’s property, the fraudulent alienation of the State domains, the robbery of the common lands, the usurpation of feudal and clan property, and its transformation into modern private property under circumstances of reckless terrorism, were just so many idyllic methods of primitive accumulation. They conquered the field for capitalistic agriculture, made the soil part and parcel of capital, and created for the town industries the necessary supply of a “free” and outlawed proletariat.
And elsewhere (the link is here):
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.
Far from being a purely 'economic' system, capitalism requires violence to perpetuate its development: "Force [Gewalt, violence] is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power." 

You might be able to tell that I'm getting prepared for the Radical Philosophy Association's conference in November, which has the theme: "Violence: Systemic, Symbolic, and Foundational."

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Eduard Bernstein, Revisionist

Over the weekend, I read Eduard Bernstein's Evolutionary Socialism (the original title is Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie-- The Premises of Socialism and the Tasks of Social Democracy). The purpose was to get a better grasp on the debates of the Second International. If you don't already know, Bernstein, who published the book in 1899, is the central figure of revisionism, and is, along with the renegade Kautsky, constantly the target of the scorn and polemics of Lenin and Lukács. 

The reason I picked up Evolutionary Socialism was to find out if all the accusations are true.

And they are.*

Bernstein lists most of the typical objections to Marx's political thought: dismissing its method as Hegelian obfuscation, mistaking 'vulgar' materialism for historical materialism,  claiming its so-called predictions didn't come true, arguing against revolutionary violence without grasping the systemic violence of capitalism, and accusing his more radical opponents of utopianism.

It almost makes me think that Lukács revised "What is Orthodox Marxism?" for History and Class Consciousness with Bernstein's book in front of him.

But most importantly, Bernstein argues that the basis of social struggle was the capture of democracy for socialism. That is, even if democracy's history is that of bourgeois class advantage, it is the premise of socialism: "democracy is a condition of socialism to a much greater degree than is usually assumed, i.e., it is not only the means but also the substance” (page 166).** In large part, the Social Democrats accepted the idea that the means of production, and the democratic regime of rights, would gradually lead to more democratic organizations. But this required presupposing that history was a story of progress (which is why Bernstein-- who took a rather chauvinistic view on these matters-- couldn't grasp the problems of internationalism and colonialism). The problem with progress is that its proponents tended to wait; accelerating the process of social change through revolutionary struggle becomes, for somebody like Bernstein, more pernicious on principle than the systemic violence of capitalism.

The point of Marx, Lenin, Lukács, and Benjamin (just to name those I am reading lately) is that history is not a story of progress, it is a story of social struggle, with both advances and reversals. In addition, the emphasis on the progressive realization of rights ignores that capitalism is not defined by its juridical relations, but by the combined and uneven development of, and conflict between, social forms and capital accumulation.


* It doesn't help Bernstein's intellectual legacy that Sidney Hook, CIA cultural frontman and FBI informant, wrote the Introduction to the 1961 edition published by Schocken.

** 'Democracy as substance'...does this make Hardt and Negri Bernsteins with a 21st century twist?

Monday, August 9, 2010

"Freedom, Equality, Property, and..."

There's a great, and well-known, passage in Capital that marks the transition from the critique of the process of exchange to the critique of the process of production that reads:
This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all. 
As our reading of A Brief History of Neoliberalism underlined (see especially Chapter 2), many of these same elements are still part of the justification of deregulated markets, etc. We see, in contemporary ideology, the ascription of sanctity to freedom and property, with the presupposition that each individual enters the market as an equal. But I've been wondering for the past few weeks about who would be-- in the hypothetical case that one of my papers would be paraphrasing this passage, more specifically a paper on Lukacs-- a good contemporary replacement for Bentham. 

At first I thought of busting Zizek's move of replacing 'Freedom, Equality, Property, ...' with academic buzzwords like 'desiring-machines, multitudes, etc.' but this doesn't work for what I want to do. My point isn't a critique of competing philosophical approaches, but a critique of capitalism, so the important point isn't how our French comrades talk about it, but how liberals and neoliberals talk about it. It needs to be a figure that the 'responsible' political theorist (if he or she accidentally walked into the conference room) would feel obligated to defend because obviously I'm making a mockery of the serious thought that this particular figure represents.

So I've got two names: Rawls and Nozick. They obviously have different connotations. Rawls might be good, because in the general liberal way of thinking, he supplies the 'veil of ignorance' quality to the legal structures surrounding the market, replacing the history behind it with a very thought experiment-y abstraction. Then again, Nozick's best-known justification for the market and its apparatus, the labor and transfer Lockean jive (although I hear he backtracked a bit at some point), basically boils down to what I called, in a similar context, the philosophical equivalent of money laundering. I've also considered Habermas, and even Sloterdijk (although the latter's recent work might just be a bit too outlandish for these purposes).

I find that Rawls is more likely to be the figure that the 'responsible' political theorist feels obligated to defend. But now that I think of it, I might work this very discussion about substitution into the paper itself, proceeding from Bentham, to Rawls, to Nozick, to Habermas.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

South Asian Space and Islamic Faith

As the monsoon season rages on and off here in South Korea, I spend more and more of my time at home or in cafes around Gwangju reading. As of late I’ve spent time with Richard M. Eaton’s Essays on Islam and Indian History, published by Oxford University Press in 2002. Eaton teaches in the History Department at the University of Arizona and his reputation as a scholar of both Islam and South Asia is well known. Like many compilations of essays the preface attempts to justify a reasoning about the order of the essays included. While I don’t find any one theme or course through the book just cause for their mutual inclusion, the essays are well researched and written. The book is divided into four sections, with each covering a particular set of issues and spaces.

Section one looks at the role of theory in Eaton’s approach to history and analyzes the edge of Historical methodology. In “Islamic History and World History” Eaton argues the powerful and largely ignored reality that Islam from its inception into the contemporary comprises a huge component of World History. This is an epic which has reached out into every quarter of the world in its affect. He successfully makes the case that from the European time of the medieval from just a brief interlude after the collapse of Rome, Islam as a way of ordering human life and civilization has weighed heavily upon history, directly or indirectly. Students of the now growing field of World History must take the reality of Islam as a dominant periodization into account to meaningfully represent the past at all. The de-centering of the Euro-American historical enterprise gains much from this vantage. Chapter two delves into the process Christian missionaries used in converting people on the border region of North Eastern India and Burma/Myanmar. Eaton includes this essay on European Imperialism and religious conversion in an attempt at a comparative analysis.

In the essay he shows how the apparatus of the school and the ritual of baptism washed away cultural practices of what missionaries described as “the miserable worship patterns handed down to them by their ancestors” as Eaton quotes J. E. Tanquist, missionary and Baptist on page 56 from the Papers of J. E. Tanquist, Bethel Theological Seminary Library, St. Paul, Minnesota, published in 1935. Angling his study of Islam in South Asian in this way, Eaton can thereby better show the interaction of Islam in the region. Chapter three examines the different visions of Calcutta and India generally as seen from Europe, China, and from the Muslim traveler Abdul Razzaq showing the historical interest in India’s wealth and agricultural prestige into early modern history. Chapter Four sketches the much needed larger project of a comprehensive study of temple desecration in South Asia. In the essay Eaton describes the oft used tactic of Hindu and Islamic princes' and kings’ theft of rival kingdom’s gods. Eaton shows how temples used to justify the kingdoms of South Asia were targets for rival leaders and as such their spaces were often sacked or else their featured god/s were razed and taken back to the conqueror’s capital to be displayed as war trophies. This essay, perhaps more than any other in this collection, reaches deeply into the present politics of South Asia. The site of the Babri Masjid has taken on especial importance in contemporary Indian politics and a thorough going investigation of the history of temple desecration requires the attention of South Asian scholars of all fields at present. This chapter begins such a project. The last chapter of this section examines the theory of subaltern studies, especially in its encounter with culture studies and post-modernity.

Chapter five looks at the Subaltern school of thought in South Asian History and its implications for World History also. He describes the move to recover the struggles of the unrepresented consciousnesses of everyday persons. This he shows through a detailed explication of academic engagements with the skeptical school of postmodernity. As encounters between Subalternists and Postmodernists increased, he argues, the Subaltern school broke between those who saw the project as impossible and those who saw the necessity of continuing the project in spite of the difficulties involved. I came out of this chapter with, perhaps an unintended, invigoration to continue listening to the voices from below as outlined by the early Subalternist arguments and ironically Jean-Francois Lyotard (who is not mentioned in the chapter).

Sections two, three, and four mark out some spaces of South Asia. Chapters six, seven, and eight focus on the Deccan and the influence of Islam therein. Eaton shows how the geographical line of the Krishna river was imagined as a divide between an Islamic space to the north and a Hindu space to the south. Eaton shows that division is somewhat false and that similarities and cultural exchanges at the time prove that the late invention of this division by Orientalist scholars produced this division in the British archives. Chapter seven attempts to revitalize interest and scholarship in the largely historically forgotten city of Firuzabad. He shows that despite the cities prominent role in South Asian history it has received little if no serious consideration by academics. Chapter eight outlines the how women played a more important role in the spread of Islam and Sufi literature and thought into South Asia than generally recognized. I would have liked more evidence but the chapter is unfortunately a short one which largely consists of argumentation.

Eaton divided section three into two essays and chapters on the shrine of Baba Farid. The first chapter examines the shrine of as a source of political and religious legitimacy, not uncommon of shrines throughout both Islam and Hinduism in the subcontinent. The second reveals the views of local Punjabis living in the immediate vicinity of the shrine. The former chapter shows how the shrine served as a point of contestation but more importantly a point of agreement and thus social and religious cohesion for rivaling religious and political factions throughout Punjab. The latter chapter shows how the shrine looks at the shrine as a mechanism for social transformations among the non-literate ‘masses.’ He examines the spiritual power of the shrine among the local devotees of the shrine. The physical presence of the shrine, Eaton argues, mediated ‘the book’ between the literate and the ‘common villagers’ living within travel of the space of the shrine.

The last section and last essay of the book shifts the geographical enquiry of the publication to Bengal and asks “who are the Bengal Muslims?” First he outlines the spread of “the cult of Allah” into the region as one of many competing religious ideologies. Then he shows the region was a long standing agrarian culture. Eaton then argues that rather than the mere assimilation of the space and inhabitants of Bengal into a monolithic and all encompassing Islam of piety, the spread of a somewhat distinct religion intimately linked to the use of the plow and cultivation of the ground seeped into Bengal over centuries and developed unique features not found elsewhere in Islam.

This collection of essays, while loosely connected by the theme of Islam, save for two divergent chapters, reads smoothly. I would recommend this book to students of Islam as well as students of South Asia. Moreover, much can be learned for those interested in missionary activity as well as those interested in syncretism, a term Eaton twice attacks in these pages. Moreover the chapter on post-modernity, as a historiography may be the best I’ve read for historians, especially those intrigued by Subaltern Studies. As a consequence of reading this book I will certainly read Eaton’s forthcoming “Power, Memory, and Architecture.”

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Spanish Anarchism and the Post-Soviet Malaise

The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia (1917-1920) and the initial success of the Spanish anarchists in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) are often fetishized by Leftists. At anti-war demonstrations one can see anarchists and Marxists chanting old slogans, pining about the good ol' days and revolutionary missed opportunities. The ambiance is that of a Renaissance Fair for the Cold War era. What the Bolshevik Revolution and Spanish anarchists did was demonstrate that society can be structured in various ways. Capitalism and liberal democracy are not sent as a cure-all from a Judeo-Christian God. They are also not a "natural" outgrowth of progressive evolution initiated by the human species. Slavoj Zizek summed it up best when he noted that twenty-first century thinkers can conceive of a massive environmental catastrophe before they can think outside the notion of capitalist democracy.

In this youtube is a clip from a documentary on Spanish Anarchism. It makes clear that there is a world of possibles. Instead of trying to relive the past, this history should motivate a confidence in the future. Each time and place has its own unique set of circumstances. In Zizek's 2002 Revolution at the Gates: Selected Writings of Lenin From 1917 he states:

The return to Lenin aims...[not] at nostalgically re-enacting the "good old revolutionary times"..."Lenin" stands for the compelling freedom to suspend the stale existing (post-)ideological co-ordinates, the debilitating Denkverbot (prohibition on thinking) in which we live--it simply means that we are allowed to think again (11).

I will add, the Spanish Anarchists of 1936 have some creative ideas in which to share.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Damn These Atheists...

From xkcd; hat tip to Scu via his comment on Philosophy in a Time of Error...see how confusing sharing the credit gets? (You might also want to read the comments on Derrida while you're there).

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Fight This Generation!

Peter Gratton's review of Bernard Stiegler's Taking Care of Youth and Generations is up on Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. We've (okay, at least I've) been reading Peter's blog pretty obsessively for the last month. He concludes that Stiegler's book is a manual for how not to politicize mental health...

My take? Stiegler strikes me as another left Heideggerian worrying about 'education' and cultivating critical values without learning the lesson of Rancière's Ignorant Schoolmaster; he leaves aside whether this 'care' for educating the youth reinforces the social divisions that govern those-who-know and those who don't (in other words, French 'republicanism' does not equal 'democratic' thought).

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism

Capitalist Realism (Zero Books, 2009) opens with the observation attributed to both Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. The very term 'capitalist realism' designates a pervasive  and oppressive atmosphere in which all alternatives seem to be, as Mark Fisher has it, precorporated: preemptively formatted and shaped according to "the desires, aspirations, and hopes set by capitalist culture" (9).

This atmosphere might be omnipresent (might, because the book's intended audience is the more affluent parts of the globe), but it is not omnipotent. Fisher identifies three points of politicization to challenge capitalist realism: ecology, bureaucracy, and mental health. It is the latter that, for me, stood out. Fisher's forceful argument that mental health needs to be on the anti-capitalist agenda makes the lack of such a demand among the many authors he cites much more obvious than it was. How has mental health not already come to the forefront with so many prominent Lacanians in the field of critique? Is it a distaste for the anti-psychiatry movement in the 1970s? Is it to avoid Jacques-Alain Miller's pathetic turn to, as Zizek calls it, "psychoanalysis in the city"? How had we, while re-discovering Deleuze the metaphysician, forgotten Guattari, the 'mental ecologist'?

Perhaps I'm exaggerating. But very few of today's prominent figures have refined how to address the relationship between mental health and capitalism as Fisher has; on the most basic level, he argues, we have accepted "the vast privatization of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years" (19). Moreover,
Considering mental illness an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism. First, it reinforces Capital's drive towards atomistic individualization (you are sick because of your brain chemistry). Second, it provides an enormously lucrative market in which multinational pharmaceutical companies can peddle their pharmaceuticals (we can cure you with our SSRIs). It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation (37).
The causation, Fisher argues, is social organization in capitalism; the broad transformation of social life into either some form of work or consumption. Thus mental health, broadly speaking, needs to be politicized; the Left needs to show that, far from being an individual, private problem, mental health is a public cost of neoliberal capitalism that we're not willing to pay. We need, he argues, to take back the affective dimension(s) of social life.

Fisher (who also blogs) knows how to turn a phrase, coining incisive names for many of the tendencies that he identifies, such as business ontology, bureaucratic metastases, and the aforementioned precorporation. The only unfortunate turn is his use of the phrase "market Stalinism" which suggests  diffuse self-surveillance with an emphasis on the polished representation of bureaucratic services rather than a measure of the utility of actual services. While I certainly do not disagree that this tendency exists in capitalism, I think we ought to find a sharper phrase that captures it as endemic to neoliberalism rather than one that suggests an external ideological perversion. This is one of the crucial questions: how to capture the tendency of the diffuse irresponsibility common to bureaucracy, global capital, and parliamentarianism, without falling into traditional moralizing critique?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Zinn's FBI Files Released

No surprise that the FBI was meddling in the life of Howard Zinn, historian, activist, and outspoken critic of US domestic and foreign policy. Raw Story has published some excerpts (including links to the PDF copies) as it combs through the 243 page document. The FBI maintained an interest in Zinn from the late 1940s to the 1970s, and put some effort into getting him fired from Boston University:
In a document from the Boston FBI office (see PDF file here), an FBI "source," whose name was redacted from the publicly released documents, was quoted as being outraged over Zinn's comment at a protest that the US had become a "police state" and that prosecutions of Black Panther Party members were creating "political prisoners."
According to the source, Zinn stated that (I'm now quoting from the original documents (pages 69-70 of the PDF):
"Police in every nation are a blight and the United States is no exception."
The file continues:
Boston proposes under captioned program with Bureau permission to furnish [name redacted] with public source data regarding Zinn's numerous anti-war activities, including his trip to Hanoi, 1/31/68, in an effort to back [redacted] efforts for his removal.
The document quoted was dated 4/17/70, after Zinn received tenure at BU (on this process, see You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, pp. 183-185). As we know in retrospect, Mr. Redacted failed. Yet another good reason to keep tenure...no matter what Mark C. Taylor says (that's actually a link to one of Taylor's critics, and a sharp one at that).