Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Korea in Fiction and Reality

Given the recent developments between the Koreas, my email inbox has been flooded by concerned friends internationally. As I sit in a café amidst largely nonchalant Koreans enjoying their coffees and sharing the latest Miss A tunes with their ipods and iphones, I wonder how people in the USA can possibly entertain the notion that they have any part of the US global empire? Or put in other words, given the warped media façade presented in the American states, how can it be possible for voters there to actually have any hand in the affairs here or anywhere else? Do Americans think their hand fed opinions are there own? The Korean coverage and the talk on the street over the events here don’t remotely resemble the media frenzy as seen on T.V.: in the USA. Given this thought, I see a good opportunity to review The Land of the Banished by Cho Chong-Rae, as translated by Chun Kyung-Ja and published by the Jimoondang Publishing Company in 2001. This book revolves around the life of a political and social outcast. Cheon Mahn-seok, our protagonist and perhaps antagonist too, lives a life of horrors; these are both afflicted from external circumstance and from his reactions to these as well.

The character development alone make this book an extremely worthy read. Cho works by moving backward and forward through Cheon’s life, juxtaposing his predicament in the present with his childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. At the time we meet our hero he has already climbed his way into his last days as a well aged man. The man came into his lot as an outcast from the town of his youth by participating in the killing of the former classes of power after the rise of the People‘s Army. But the author, Cho, does not simply leave his protagonist's life simply as that of a demented murderer of the former ruling and exploitative class. He instead fleshes our Cheon out by showing how he could have behaved so callously in the aftermath of his rise to rank. Cheon Mahn-seok describes himself as a serf and slave, and a failed one at that.

Cheon lived a terrible life, feeling that even deigning to produce progeny would only bring another generation of slaves into the world to be exploited by the rich; this theme echoes itself by various names throughout the entire text. As a child, dependent as he was on his parents serfdom under a wealthy family’s heel, he scoured the forest in search of food, not for fun but out of necessity. After Mahn-seok saved a younger son of the Choe’s, his own family's lords, the older Choe brothers mistakenly took him as attacking their younger brother and attacked him only to lose due to their weak pampered lifestyles. After their defeat, Mahn-seok and his whole family were deprived of their status as even the serf’s of the Choe’s. He and his family were expelled from their duties as slaves and sent off with nothing. Thus, Cho builds a believable human narrative, even for our murderous anti-hero and protagonist.

Later, Mahn-seok had participated in the murder of the former ruling class as a young man. He had gone far further than his superior Su-gil, a Chairman of the local People’s Committee in killing off the former landlords. As such, after the reprisal and rise of the South in the town of Mahn-seok’s youth, he became unable to return. Even before the town was retaken by the South’s forces he had too become an outcast among the People’s Army. He managed this feat by slaying his wife along with her lover, Mahn-seok’s superior commander in the army. Thus, our character was more than deeply flawed; he was totally abandoned by all sides politically, socially, and had lost much of his humanity as well. Cho Chong-Rae’s piece stretches the boundaries of personal narrative by illuminating the causality of this protagonist’s life and what a reader can expect too. The calculus of human action and reaction throughout this tragedy remains unbelievable and believable as well. It also illustrates the causality of inhumanity in humanity.

The nuance of reason and counter reason on these pages demonstrates a Korea in self-reflection over its history and not the static Korea of Euro-American media representations. The authors in fiction demonstrate the same lucid contemplation over the political division as their political counterparts. The only simplistic analysis continue as ink on the pages of outsiders, largely in the US media. The recent events between the two Koreas should serve as a warning that the conducting of military exercises on contested seas between these severed families ought not to be taken lightly. Obviously, in point and fact, the North’s assault on civilian target was unacceptable. But the US media and her lover in arms, the US military, shouldn’t feed their audience in North America the message that the empire is needed here. Those who welcome US imperialism here are matched by those seeking its removal through protests which shame the anti-war movements in the US. Moreover, among those who desire the alliance’s continuance, many don’t want a provocative presence and less want permanent bases in the South.

Rather than pushing the North into a corner, space should be allotted for continued ties that develop under better circumstances. The South has investments in the North and mature or educated people here I talk with seek eventual cultural and social reconciliation. The US empire only aggravates and perpetuates a painful division. The US should most certainly maintain its interest in protecting its ally here, but aggravation is another issue altogether. Cho Chong-Rae’s character development show the subtleties of action and reaction. They show the light and shadow of real life. What Americans do not see in the real daily life of Korea is everything gray, everything nuanced, everything indispensable to a clear analysis.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Pinkard's Translation of Hegel's Phänomenologie

Last Thursday, we had our first meeting of our Hegel Reading Group for the first time in three weeks. There were two general results: first, we realized that you shouldn't tarry with the Phenomenology of Spirit after not reading it for that amount of time; and second, I decided that it was time to get serious about finding a copy of the German text to check some of A.V. Miller's translation. That's right, I'm one of those people who prefer their Begriff as a concept and not a notion. For the purposes of the reading group, and for anybody else who might interested, here's the link to  the webpage for Terry Pinkard's draft translation of the Phänomenologie des Geistes (which has been up for some time, so I'm not exactly reporting the news here), with parallel English/German text. One has to be prepared; this week we move on to 'self-consciousness.'

Update (30 November): Stuart Elden posted a link to Freud2Lacan, which has bilingual texts from Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Bruce Cumings on North Korea Provocations 5-29-09

The BBC wrote in regards the North and South Korean conflict:
Tensions between North Korea and the rest of the world increased steadily again from late 2008 onwards, especially after the new South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, ended his predecessor's "sunshine policy" of rapprochement with the North.

In April 2009 North Korea walked out of international talks aimed at ending its nuclear activities. The following month the country carried out its second ever underground nuclear test and announced that it no longer considered itself bound by the terms of the 1953 truce that ended the war between the two Koreas.

Tensions reached a new high in spring 2010, when the South accused North Korea of being responsible for sinking one of its warships, the Cheonan, and cut off all cross-border trade. Pyongyang denied the claims, and in turn severed all ties with Seoul.

After the US imposed tough sanctions in August, the North began to make overtures again. Kim Jong-il signalled a readiness to resume six-party nuclear talks during a visit to China, and indicated a willingness to accept Southern aid to cope with major flood damage.

However, a serious cross-border clash in November 2010, in which two South Korean marines were killed, threatened to set relations back once more.
This interview of Bruce Cumings from 2009 gives a little more insight and a lot more nuance. Nuance is altogether lacking in the current discussions taking place as the potential for war on the Korean peninsula increases.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Ivan E. Coyote, "Missed Her"

(Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010)

Ivan E. Coyote is a queer Canadian author and spoken word performer of butch gender who retains the pronoun "she". Coyote was first brought to my attention thanks to my feminist theory prof in fall of 2008, but I've only begun to read her recently. I thought I would start with the collection reviewed here, since it comprises short and manageable autobiographical snippets. Despite its brevity, folksiness and humour, however, the book is not what I would call "light". I don't usually get weepy-eyed over prose, and those who follow me on this site will know that I have plenty of shit to cry over, knee-deep as I usually am in Cormac McCarthy and Yukio Mishima novels. Coyote's book is an exception to my usual reading experience. Though less "literary" in certain respects, I found much of it deeply moving and had to dab the corners of the ol' eyes now and then. She hits her targets, bang-on.

Living as a gender-queer person forms the thematic core of the collection. I have a certain amount of empathy for Coyote due to my ongoing navigation of my own masculinity, but there's much here that I cannot claim to relate to because it is rooted in her own differently gendered experiences. But this is not to say that the things she talks about in her stories are utterly alien to me, or that they would be such to anyone in my gender/sexuality ballpark. Rather, the book also carries a universally human appeal in its treatment of subjects like love, sickness, aging, heartbreak, pets, the loss of loved ones, and so on. These then are the two virtues of the book, from my own vantage point: 1) As a hetero, masculine-identified biological male with my own hangups, limitations and so forth, engaging with the text is an awesome exercise in what Judith Butler calls "cultural translation", i.e. seeing how someone unique and differently gendered lives, with a view to learning, better understanding, and standing in solidarity; 2) the book is just flat-out wonderful in its humane, sparsely-delivered musings on things we all share, no matter our particulars. If Coyote's queerness is in some way constitutive of her identity as an author, then by the same token it doesn't appear thereby to shut others like me out (see in particular the story "Some of My Best Friends are Rednecks", wherein she challenges the exclusionary if not separatist attitudes of certain of her queer female readers). I feel in reading this book that I'm called by another human being to build links of understanding without thereby papering over the important differences between us. Therefore I think this is the kind of book that should be taught in middle schools and high schools across the country, unquestionably. Canada is not entirely undeserving of its claims to be relatively tolerant of difference, but it certainly has a long way to go. As Coyote reminds us, there are some out there who respond to her difference with murderous anger, and a vastly higher number still who make her feel unsafe, unwanted and uneasy in numerous subtler ways.

The sense of familiarity I've gleaned from Coyote's work can of course be partly explained in another way. She originally hails from Whitehorse, and this gives her prose a certain hard-to-pin-down Western quality. I say this because I'm a Westerner myself, and there's something about her writing that makes me profoundly homesick; to get the full extent of what I'm talking about I suggest you check her out on youtube, where she can be seen reading some of the stories in the collection with her delightful Northwestern accent. Like her queerness, I don't think Coyote's regional qualities get in the way of what she has to tell us; they form part and parcel of what she wants to tell us, while also pointing beyond themselves.

Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Opens Tomorrow

The Vonnegut Library's hours will begin tomorrow 12-5pm Fridays and Saturdays, until switching to regular hours on January 29th, 2011. The hitch? The Library is in Indianapolis. I suppose its administrators wanted to make you work on that pilgrimage you were planning. From the NYT:
The library items on display range from the ordinary to the intergalactic, many of them donated by his children. They include the author’s typewriter and an unopened box of his Pall Mall cigarettes, alongside a painting devoted to the Tralfamadorians, the green aliens Mr. Vonnegut wrote about in books including Slaughterhouse-Five.” Several of Mr. Vonnegut’s drawings are also displayed, including one of a gravestone that reads “Life is no way to treat an animal.”
That drawing, entitled "Trout's Tomb," has been the wallpaper on my computer screen for over four years, and I've been waiting for an excuse to post it here:

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Why hasn't Baudrillard already disappeared?

Recently Semiotext(e) has reissued several of the late Jean Baudrillard's pamphlets from the 70s and 80s as part of a series called "A History of the Present". I've read three of them over the past few months: Forget Foucault, In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, and Fatal Strategies. Two things by way of beginning: first, generally speaking the introductions by commentators added much to my experience of reading the texts. Baudrillard's writing is notoriously allusive and mind-numbingly repetitive in places; a friend of mine recently commented that reading him was not unlike reading a mediocre first-year undergrad essay, since much of it is uncited vaguaries and unsupported claims in a froth of redundancy. Since I'm sympathetic to this view, I have to say that having a theoretical overview at the beginning of each text is much appreciated - though it appears, in my opinion, that the commentators are at times overly sympathetic. Second, I implore Semiotext(e) to get better copy editors. The reissued pamphlets are littered with typos, as well as asterisks on foreign language words which do not point to any explanations of the words. And I shit you not, the reissue of In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities contains a paragraph which just breaks off mid sentence.

If publishing trends are any indication, Baudrillard still appears to command a fair bit of attention in North America. This despite his disappointing, confusing and to many people offensive weigh-in on the events of 9/11 (The Spirit of Terrorism, Verso), and, more importantly, the fact that nobody in France ever really bought much into him in the first place (Deleuze even once quipped that Baudrillard was "the shame of the profession"). So what gives?

I think on some level Baudrillard speaks to a need that is deeply felt in North America. Theoretically speaking he's actually not that hard to crack; the problem is that he writes in a manner contemptuous of his audience. He assumes we all know a thing or two about Bataille, Mauss, Levi-Strauss, Freud, Jarry, Marx, symbolic exchange, pataphysics, and so on. To be fair, we should indeed have a good grasp of these if we want to engage seriously in so-called French Theory; casual readers, however, will be highly frustrated by what will appear to be pompous nonsense.

So what, then, is the kernal of Baudrillard's later theory? What the pamphlets in question wager is that capitalism has reached a metastatic cancer stage of post- or trans-political administration. There being no alternative to capitalism (and in any case no revolutionary subject to usher in such a change), there is properly speaking no more critical theory. There is only the "fatal" theory that banks on things imploding under their own weight. Baudrillard takes the position of a theorist who ups the ante of late or "postmodern" capitalism and advances hypotheses about its own terminal logic. Speaking in terms of symbolic exchange - e.g. the agonistic ritual of potlach - he gives the gift of extreme theory by way of contributing to provoking the counter-gift of the system's own collapse (i.e. he is a kind of "terrorist" - cue his bizarre response to 9/11). There is a perverse kind of hope in Baudrillard: one which is attuned to the day after the apocalypse. Abandon Marxism all ye who enter.

I think that this touches off something profound in a society that is sick with surplus value, but which sees no real alternative to capitalism. In a society that churns out apocalypse culture, it is easy to interpret Baudrillard's ideas as flirtations with the hope that the whole thing will just crumble, come what may. In the last two decades of his life, especially, he can be read as a kind of ironist of the apocalypse. Virtually any one of his books will provide a good enough entering wedge into what he is doing, since all he does at bottom is repeat that there is nothing to be done but ride out the end.

So my advice: if interested, pick up any one of his books, see how he does it, and move on. Solidarity with emancipatory currents in the global South, for example, presupposes more than and in all likelihod rules out the fatal theory of disillusioned Marxists.

Frank Kofsky's Jazz

I thought it would be appropriate to use the time traveling to Oregon for the RPA to read Frank Kofsky's Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music (New York: Pathfinder, 1970), and it was time well spent. In retrospect, I am quite surprised that it took so long for me to read it (it's been sitting on my shelves for several years, unread beyond a few pages here and there). Which is too bad because Kofsky treats the world of jazz as a microcosm of the socio-political upheaval that showed so much promise in the 1960s and early 1970s. That Kofsky is not your typical jazz critic can be seen in the preface, when he acknowledges the importance of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, and even Plehkanov to his approach.

The book (note that I'm using the first edition rather than the more recent revised version) is broken into four parts: a critique of the critics, an analysis of black nationalism in post-bop jazz, the interviews or articles about selected members of Coltrane's so-called "classic" quartet (but, wait, where's the chapter on Jimmy Garrison?), and something like a coda on Malcolm X. The theme unifying these sections is that black nationalism is at the heart of the advances of jazz. Rather than a story of technical advances by a series of proficient players who seek to innovate for innovation's sake (which is the attitude Kofsky attributes to white musicians seeking to inscribe jazz in classical European musics), each qualitative leap in jazz is related to, and expresses, upheaval in the black community and advance in black nationalism, that is, the successive moments of black self-consciousness as a group oppressed in the United States. Instead of a straightforward review, I only want to register a few thoughts.

First, Kofsky's critique of the critics is a first-rate analysis of the ways in which so-called criticism serves to domesticate and dismantle the political message of avant-garde jazz. He argues that the white establishment in criticism dismisses black nationalism because it is a challenge to the establishment's position of privilege (which, Kofsky adds, is an assertion of white privilege) within the jazz milieu. Rather than dismiss (reject, edit out, or accuse of reverse racism) the strains of black nationalism in avant-garde jazz so that the white critic can listen to his jazz records without a feeling of bad conscience, criticism ought to 1) "muckrake [and] lay bare the sordid conditions that prevail within the jazz milieu" (80) including the exploitation of black musicians in clubs and by record labels. 2) Critics could relate "the present revolution in jazz to the changes in society that have helped shape it" (81). Instead, Kofsky finds, the critics want jazz within what they have established as a set of aesthetically pleasing parameters, without the challenge to white supremacy (not that they don't see oppression-- as Kofsky points out Mike Zwerin never tired of pointing out oppression in the Soviet Union while ignoring it at home, and, I might add later ruined his book Swing under the Nazis with his egotistical and narrow-minded rants about how life has treated him unfairly). While I can't repeat it all here, the evidence, especially against Down Beat, is staggering.

In the second and third parts Kofsky faces a more difficult challenge than he did in his critique of the critics. He seeks to establish the central role of John Coltrane in the advance of black nationalism in jazz. As we know, Coltrane, and many others, were quite reticent to discuss their political views, knowing that their more outspoken comrades, such as Archie Shepp, Bill Dixon, or Cecil Taylor could never find sustained gigs. Much of Part 2 is dedicated to showing how the white ownership of the means of production in jazz music penalizes those who speak out about the political status of black Americans; that is, Kofsky seeks to show how the reticence is tied to determinate socio-political conditions. 

Admittedly, getting Coltrane or McCoy Tyner to speak on record about black nationalism was difficult. Nevertheless, one can see how they would approach the topics while refusing to use the terminology. One sees how they signal assent to many of Kofsky's radical claims without repeating  the rhetoric, noting that the black musician cannot escape a socially and economically segregated United States. Here's Tyner, after expressing some reticence to talk politics:
Kofsky: Do you think in jazz white musicians get better treatment than blacks, on the whole?
Tyner: In jazz? Well, to tell you the truth, I really couldn't be conclusive on that; but one thing I do feel: that being that society is the way it is, and white supremacy seems to be a dominant thing, it's only natural that a white musician, under certain circumstances, would get better treatment (212).
And here is one of my favorite passages from the Coltrane interview:
Kofsky: In particular, some of the people have said that jazz is opposed to poverty, to suffering, and to oppression; and, therefore, that jazz is opposed to what the United States is doing in Vietnam. [...]
Coltrane: In my opinion I would say yes, because jazz-- if you want to call it that; we'll talk about that later-- to me, it is an expression; and that this music is an expression of higher ideals, to me. So therefore, brotherhood is there; and I believe with brotherhood, there would be no poverty. And also, with brotherhood, there would be no war (227-228). 
Even though more scholarly treatments of avant-garde jazz have appeared in recent years, and despite the fact that Kofsky might have overcorrected at points against the criticism of his time, Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music remains a crucial reference for those interested in the politics of avant-garde jazz during its peak. Not to mention that Kofsky's book motivated me to give a new listen to records I hadn't listened to lately-- especially Albert Ayler.

Within the next few weeks I plan on posting a review of Kofsky's more recent Black Music, White Business.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Samaritans: The Other Palestinians

In the West Bank there are more indigenous groups other than Arab Palestinians and the tiny amount of pre-Zionist settler Jews. There is another Palestinian group, less than eight hundred in the world, known as Samaritans. Others live in Israel. This small ethnic-religious community descend from ancient Israelites. They broke away from the Judea Temple cult over two thousand years ago. The Samaritan Pentateuch (The Torah/first five books of the Bible: Genesis through Deuteronomy) is written in their script and contains around 6000 differences in the text compared to the traditional Hebrew Masoretic Text. The Christian New Testament tells many stories of the tensions between Jews and Samaritans in the past. In the Gospel of John Chapter 4, Jesus is recorded as having a discussion with a Samaritan women. Jesus clearly saw himself possessing the greater religion:
“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem...[Jesus then states]You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.
Despite this apparent prejudice, Jesus famous parable about the "Good Samaritan" seen in The Gospel of Luke 10:25-37 portrays a Samaritan as the best example of an exceedingly moral, caring, selfless, human being. This community is now nearly extinct and sandwiched in between the Israel/Palestine conflict (See here). Many may not know they still exist despite their iconic legacy on the theological philosophies and ethics of the Western World.

One (More) Reason Unions Matter to Professors

Inside Higher Ed reports that an arbitrator has ruled that Florida State University fired twelve tenured professors in violation of its contract with the faculty union, and ordered these jobs reinstated. In response the university also reinstated nine non-union tenured professors. This, of course, speaks to the importance of unions, and also tenure. The arbitrator's decision-making process should be of some interest, especially by those of us who have made such arguments:
Further, the arbitrator touches on an issue that has angered many faculty members in traditional liberal arts departments in this era of budget cuts: the idea that their departments are somehow evaluated as less financially viable than others that attract outside grants. The arbitrator uses anthropology -- the target of cuts at Florida State -- to challenge this thinking by noting, as many faculty members have, that its tuition revenue makes it financially strong (running a surplus in fact).

The finding compares anthropology (subject to deep cuts) with meteorology (which was protected), applying the administration's stated goal of focusing on departments with high costs. Anthropology's cost per degree awarded is $33,343, compared to more than $50,000 per meteorology degree. And anthropology's net tuition earned exceeds that of 14 of the 17 departments in arts and sciences at the university. "It made no sense to eliminate anthropology from a budget standpoint," the arbitrator writes.
While I don't think that financial calculations should be at the forefront of reasons as to why humanities departments should not be cut, we shouldn't take that reason off the table. If the numbers lean in favor of such departments we should use them in order to shift the debate to ideological terrain: universities are going after the humanities because they (in better situations) engage students and challenge them to think critically about their place in society or within the university (so many of which are rapidly transforming into glorified business and tech schools).

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Thoughts on the RPA Conference

I am finally caught up with most of the things I needed to do when I returned to Ottawa, so now I've got a chance to record a few impressions about the Radical Philosophy Association conference that took place last week at the University of Oregon, Eugene. 

What I liked: The vibe is always welcoming. It's possible to converse and befriend other participants without, in most cases, observance of the distinctions that hold in most academic settings. It's possible to see some very sharp panels, such as the one Sean participated in, or 'The World as Concept,' which included presentations by Stuart Elden, Marie-Eve Morin, and Peter Gratton. If you look to the right, you will see that I've added Stuart's blog Progressive Geographies to our 'Friends, Comrades, Allies' links, and you might have noticed that Peter's blog Philosophy in a Time of Error has been there for a while. I'd add Marie-Eve as well if she blogged, but to my knowledge she does not. If you're not familiar with Stuart Elden's work, I'd highly recommend checking out  (aside from his books, obviously) his walkthrough of his recent project The Birth of Territory (see here). And for the moment, Peter has an account up about their panel. I finally had a chance to meet Peter in person, and there's a very strong likelihood that we will be co-authoring a paper in the future so that phrases like 'I agree completely with Peter...' and 'as Devin said about Rancière...' become redundant. Hell, after enough talk about Jean-Luc Nancy between Marie-Eve and Peter I even considered  working up a paper about Nancy, Coleridge, and Schelling on tautegory, myth, and being-in-common.

What I didn't like: A majority of the panels I attended were above average, but I was taken aback by the plenary by Bat-Ami Bar On. Let's turn this one over to Peter for a moment because (see, here we go:) I agree completely with him:
Her claim was that, while she felt at home with these “radicals,” she could do so while (1) arguing that leftists need to just understand how tough Obama has it in that darn war on terror, (2) leftists don’t engage in policy discussions (despite the fact that they, uh, do all the time and no link is even necessary), and (3) that she supposedly does, despite her only references being the widely read National Security Estimate and Bob Woodward’s recent book on Obama.
What's worse is that several audience members expressed, during the Q & A, a general agreement with her. At the RADICAL PHILOSOPHY ASSOCIATION! It's one thing to be browbeaten everywhere else because we radicals "don't take anything seriously," but at the RPA? It's the last place I would expect the plenary to condescend to us about our so-called irresponsibility. Sorry, but anti-imperialism is not only a serious position, but it's also the only correct position. But, you might say, what about the "six to twelve" places that might explode at any moment across the world (the number grew as the talk went on)? Why not put down the Bob Woodward book and ask why these situations might explode? Isn't that why we were there?

What I learned: I still have to work on my paper about Agamben and Benjamin. I now have a good idea of what I want to say (here), but I had the realization after presenting that I no longer have a paper about Agamben, rather it's a reinterpretation of Benjamin. Which means it has now moved from the Agamben section of my next project, to the section on Benjamin. Due to being over-prepared for a short panel, I had to skip much of the material, and I'm afraid I might have, from the audience's perspective, lost the thread. I received two or three very supportive comments, but also heard two serious misunderstandings, for which I am mostly willing to take the blame. By the time I get back to the RPA in 2012, I should be able to present something that actually fits in a twenty minute time slot.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sunil Khilnani, "Arguing Revolution: The Intellectual Left in Postwar France"

(Yale, 1993)

Those of you in North America who study or dabble in so-called "French Theory" - roughly, French philosophy, sociology, feminism, anthropology, etc dating from approximately the structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss to the ongoing interventions of Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière and others - may have noticed that the secondary literature on the subject is usually somewhat slanted and/or polemical. From opposite ends of the political spectrum, authors usually have an axe to grind (Cf. Cusset, French Theory from the Left, and Ferry/Renaut, La pensée 68 from the liberal centre/Right). When examining the subject, they also tend by turns to reduce the arguments and concepts in question to the particular French context that produced them, or by contrast, to focus mainly on the internal dynamics of the arguments themselves. The effect is either to lose French Theory in factual description, or to speak as though its arguments and concepts can be airlifted into North American intellectual space without losing anything important in the process.

The virtue of Khilnani's relatively even-handed book is to provide context for understanding the major arguments, concepts and enjeux of the French intellectual Left while also taking apart and examining some of the major arguments themselves. He provides a concise breakdown of the postwar political climate within which the arguments emerged, highlighting the particularly French and historically-rooted meanings of "Left" and "intellectual", before examining in detail the attempts of Sartre and Althusser to give a satisfactory account of the role of the intellectual in the revolutionary movement. He goes on to describe the "exorcism" of revolutionary discourse and practice in the years 1968-1981 during which, paradoxically, the intellectual Left was all but evacuated by the time the Socialist Party rose to power. Finally, he examines the revisionist history of Francois Furet as regards the French Revolution - specifically, the argument that the legacy of the Revolution for France and the world is not one of iron Bolshevik-style discipline and terror, but rather of liberal pluralism and democracy.

One of the main themes of the book is the definition of political community, and with respect to which, the tension between the universal and the particular - specifically, the Revolutionary idea of France's own national heritage, serving as a bastion and beacon of freedom and civilization to the rest of the world. Khilnani doesn't shy away from producing an image of a France awash in paradox, by turns high-mindedly cosmopolitan and narrowly provincial. The overall picture he draws is in some ways bleak for the Left, but he holds out hope that French intellectuals will have a continuing role to play in defining their political community - certainly an urgent task felt across the globe, as witnessed by the popularity of e.g. Hardt and Negri's otherwise disappointing Empire and Multitude.

For those who are interested in post-structuralism and "postmodernism" in particular, Arguing Revolution should be required reading. For those still on the Left, moreover, I suspect it's a doubly good idea to engage in this text. It is highly artificial, if not downright idealistic to treat the arguments and concepts of e.g. a Derrida or a Lyotard as if they have no history; perhaps it is even highly damaging in some ways, since the emptying of ideas and arguments of their historical content and context is to succumb to an ecclecticism that cuts one off from the truly important events and historical currents of the day. Add Khilnani's Arguing Revolution to your reading list.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Schelling Book Preview

I happened over to the Continuum page for my book, Freedom and Nature in Schelling's Philosophy of Art, and discovered that the free preview is up, which includes the "Introduction" and the beginning of the first chapter, "Dogmatism, Criticism, and Art." Check it out, and once you're convinced of its merit (see what I did there?), please order the book for your university library.

I'll be writing about my experience at the Radical Philosophy Association meeting later this week.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Helen Keller : Great American Woman Activist

This post better get many hits and I mean it!!! I'm tired of how marginalized Helen Keller is by the Left (and everyone else for that matter). Let us be honest, Keller fits into a condescending role of cutesy survivore victim. Even this youtube has a somewhat childish aesthetic. No matter how great her legacy, she is never presented in the heroic way Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Che Guevara would be. Helen Keller struggled for the rights of the disabled, she was an ardent Socialist, fluent in several languages, spoke live to the Japanese after the bombing of Hiroshima, and lashed out at Nazis for burning books. There are too many things to write and say about her. At least this documentary clip does give brief highlights of her incredible history. She deserves a special place for the American activist in particular. She belongs in posters on radical college students walls. If only she would have donned a beret instead of a bonnet.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bush's Book on the Move

Sounds like a good idea to me, although I don't know how many copies I'll find sitting around Powell's Books this weekend (and not because they're selling...):
On Tuesday, November 9, George Bush’s memoir Decision Points comes out in bookstores around the country. Taking a cue from a movement in Britain that called for people to subversively move Tony Blair’s recently published memoir, A Journey, to the Crime section of bookstores, Waging Nonviolence is asking that in honor of the release of the Bush memoir, people reshelve Decision Points to the part of the bookstore where it really belongs: Crime.
While I'm at it, remember this classic screen shot? It's too bad he didn't call Hurricane Katrina 'one of the worst disasters in the history of the world.'

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Getting Ready for the RPA: On Agamben and Benjamin

I'll admit that I didn't write much for The Notes Taken over the month of October. Instead, most of my time, outside of teaching, that I would spend writing was consumed by preparing job applications and preparing my paper for the upcoming Radical Philosophy Association meeting at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Take a good look at the schedule (PDF), and you will see that our own Sean Moreland is giving a talk on "Visceral Re:Visions: Genre and the Syntax of Violence in Haneke's Funny Games and Laugier's Martyrs" (Friday's 2:00-3:30pm session) our friend Mark Raymond Brown will be presenting on "A Remedy for Violence: The Necessity of Healthcare Reform in the US" which I swear has something to do with Sartre (during Saturday's 10:30am-12:00pm session), and I will be giving a paper on Giorgio Agamben, Walter Benjamin, and the critique of violence (during Saturday's 2:00-3:30pm session). At the moment the paper doesn't have a title (I've changed it several times), but I'm leaning toward "Anomic Violence: Toward a Benjaminian Critique of Agamben."

I read a less organized draft of my paper at the end of October at CSU Stanislaus. While it must have been confusing for the audience, as I jumped from Fredric Jameson to Agamben to Georges Sorel to Benjamin's "Critique of Violence," many of their questions helped me clarify why exactly (1) I was interested in this early essay of Benjamin's, and (2) why I need to cut the long sections on sovereignty and the state of exception out of the paper. 

Let's start with (2): Agamben is best known for returning sovereignty to the forefront of political thought. I know, because the first article I managed to publish applied Agamben's critique of the state of exception to the war on terror and its localization in Guantanamo Bay. I started writing the paper in early 2003 and it finally saw the light of day as "The Absence of Evidence is Not the Evidence of Absence: Biopolitics and the State of Exception" in Philosophy Against Empire, Today, Vol. 4, edited by Tony Smith and Harry van der Linden (Philosophy Documentation Center, 2006). Since then I've found that Agamben's critique brings with it a large amount of philosophical "history of metaphysics" baggage that he inherited from Heidegger, not to mention his extensive use of Schmitt. Back in 2006, the last few pages of the article dealt with the absence of the concept of event or the act as a moment of subjectification in Homo Sacer. But I found I needed to say more about what I found so off-putting.

To get the current paper down to a manageable size, I've cut all the exegetical talk about sovereignty and assumed that my audience will be familiar with it. The exegetical discussions were adding too much weight to the presentation. All you get now is my central problem with Homo Sacer: Agamben accepts from Schmitt that the sovereign has a monopoly on the capacity to decide and the capacity for violence. This is important because Agamben's State of Exception rejects the sovereign monopoly on violence (there are passages in HS that hint at this, but Agamben doesn't pursue the consequences); the whole of the 'gigantomachy concerning a void' that he stages between Schmitt and Benjamin turns on the possibility of anomic violence, or, since violence is a cipher for human action, praxis (and subjectification) with no relation to law.

Which leads to (1): the task is now to show how Benjamin's concept of divine violence is one of the many figures he proposes for anomic praxis. Unlike Agamben, I think this kind of praxis and subjectification leads through Benjamin's work on aesthetics, as well as some of his theological debates with Gershom Scholem (which are really just debates about aesthetics and politics anyway).

Thus I've found my way back to something like the framework of my Schelling book, when I didn't really expect to: investigating how artistic production is presented as an alternative to law (which for Schelling was Kant's and Fichte's categorical imperatives) as a model for free human praxis. With Benjamin, the problem will be very different, given that his work on aesthetics is so closely connected to anarcho-syndicalist  (Sorel again!) and Marxian politics, although for the moment, it sets the course for how I will be approaching his work in the future (although Marx's critique of 'creativity' as found in the "Critique of the Gotha Program" hangs over part of this investigation).

And here we all thought I was joking when on my profile I wrote that I am "working on a book about the convergences and divergences of history, politics, and art in the work of Walter Benjamin, which is a loose sequel to Freedom and Nature in Schelling's Philosophy of Art."

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Michael Moore on US Midterm Elections

Documentary maker Michael Moore expressed his interpretation of US midterm elections on Democracy Now. For the most part he is spot on. I'm posting the first part.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

North American Sartre Society CFP 2011

I've already talked about how much fun I had at the North American Sartre Society's 2009 meeting in Memphis, and now with a new call for papers, you might have a chance as well, and in Montreal no less. For updates, their website is here.

18th Biennial Conference of the North American Sartre Society
Hosted by TÉLUQ, Montréal – April 27-29, 2011


This year’s keynote speaker will be Régine Robin. Robin is Professor Emerita in the Department of Sociology of Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM). She is an historian and sociologist who also writes novels and essays. In her work, she explores questions related to collective and individual memory, Jewishness, city dwelling, as well as relations between literature, culture and society. In 1987, she was awarded the prestigious Governor General of Canada’s prize for her book Le réalisme socialiste: une esthétique impossible. In 2001, she was awarded the City of Montreal’s Grand Prix du livre for Berlin chantiers. She has published more than twenty theoretical and critical essays including Le roman mémoriel : de l’histoire à l’écriture du hors-lieu (1989), Le Golem de l’écriture : de l’autofiction au cybersoi (1997), La mémoire saturée (2003), Mégapolis : les derniers pas du flâneur (2009), as well as La Québécoite (1983), considered to be one of the representative novels of what has been coined the migrant literature of Quebec.

Papers in any area of Sartrean scholarship are welcome (philosophy, literature, psychology, politics, intellectual history). Reading time for a paper should be 25-30 minutes (to be followed by the respondent’s commentary (optional) and 10 minutes of discussion). In addition to individual papers, we would be most interested in receiving suggestions for panel topics. Panel topics that deal with any aspect of Sartre’s work; its relationship to other authors as well as those that deal with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir will be seriously considered. Graduate students are encouraged to submit papers. A limited number of stipends will be available to help defray the cost of travel and lodging. Graduate students whose paper has been accepted must apply for these stipends.


Please E-MAIL a 2 page abstract of your paper as an attachment to cdaigle[at]brocku.ca For panel submissions, please submit an abstract for the whole panel as well as abstracts for each individual paper. These will be forwarded to the Program Committee for blind refereeing.

Le 18ième Colloque de la Société Sartrienne de l’Amérique du Nord sera accueilli par la TÉLUQ, Montréal du 27 au 29 Avril 2011

Nous vous invitons à nous soumettre des propositions de communication d’une durée de 25 à 30 minutes ayant trait à tout aspect de la vie et de l’oeuvre de Jean-Paul Sartre (la littérature, la philosophie, l’engagement politique, la psychologie, la critique artistique etc.). Des suggestions de tables rondes sur tout aspect de l’oeuvre de Sartre ainsi que sur des thèmes tels que: ses rapports avec l’oeuvre d’autres auteurs et surtout sur ces rapports avec Simone de Beauvoir sont aussi les bienvenues. Nous apprécierons aussi des soumissions d’étudiants des cycles supérieurs. Un nombre limité de bourses leur seront réservées pour défrayer les frais de déplacement et de logement. Les étudiants dont les communications auront été acceptées par le comité organisateur du colloque devront soumettre une demande pour obtenir l’une de ces bourses.

Les communications peuvent être présentées en français ou en anglais.

Veuillez envoyer une proposition de communication de 2 pages au maximum. Les propositions doivent être envoyées sous la forme d’un fichier attaché par courrier électronique à Madame Christine Daigle, à l’adresse suivante: cdaigle[at]brocku.ca. Pour les propositions de table-rondes, veuillez fournir un résumé de la thématique de la table-ronde ainsi qu’un résumé de chaque communication devant être incluse. Votre proposition sera ensuite transmise au comité organisateur du colloque pour un processus d’évaluation anonyme.

Chaque année, la Société Sartrienne de l’Amérique du Nord invite un conférencier de renom. Cette année, notre conférencière invitée sera Régine Robin, qui est professeure émérite au Département de sociologie de l’Université du Québec à Montréal. Historienne, sociologue, romancière, essayiste et nouvelliste, Régine Robin explore dans ses ouvrages de théorie et de fiction des questions reliées à la mémoire collective et individuelle, à la judéité, à la ville et aux échanges entre littérature, culture et société. Elle reçut en 1987 le prestigieux Prix du Gouverneur général du Canada pour Le réalisme socialiste : une esthétique impossible chantiers et le Grand Prix du livre de la Ville de Montréal en 2001 pour Berlin. On lui doit en outre une vingtaine d’ouvrages de théorie et de critique parmi lesquels figurent Le roman mémoriel : de l’histoire à l’écriture du hors-lieu (1989), Le Golem de l’écriture : de l’autofiction au cybersoi (1997), La mémoire saturée (2003), Mégapolis : les derniers pas du flâneur (2009), ainsi que La Québécoite (1983), considéré comme l’un des romans phares de ce que l’on appelé l’écriture migrante du Québec.