Monday, February 28, 2011

Roundtable Roundup

I'm back from the Society for Social and Political Philosophy's roundtable on Marx's Capital, Volume 1 (here), down in College Station, Texas. There were lots of great presentations (and people), and I found the roundtable format congenial, since we were all, in the general sense, developing our work from the same starting point. In that regard, I also learned quite a bit. The only downside is that the keynote speaker, Harry Cleaver, canceled due to illness.

I also learned, thanks to the local participant Cody Moore, the local game for dominoes, called 42.

As might be expected, new friends mean links to new blogs: I suggest the SSPP's, Nicole Pepperell's Rough Theory, Jason Read's Unemployed Negativity, and Will Roberts' Accelerate the Contradictions. If I missed anybody, let me know.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

V for Vendetta: Torture/Fear/No Fear (The Arab World and Beyond)

The blockbuster film "V for Vendetta" portrays a world besieged by global poverty, warfare, and totalitarianism. One of the main characters, Evey, ends up abducted by the revolutionary "terrorist" named "V". They become friendly with each other and V lets her go free. Later as she tries to escape the infamous state security forces she is caught. Evey ends up in a dungeon and tortured. Eventually she sees a door open and walks into V's room. She realizes it was him and not the police the entire time. As she cries and screams at him he explains why he did it. He also explains why she was sent notes in her cell claiming to be from another prisoner next door. He tells Evey these were sent to him when he was in prison. V tells her that he needed to cure her of her fear and terror that she lived under everyday. V also made her see one woman's story that never made it out alive. She leaves and realizes it worked. She went into hiding but she was no longer afraid of the despotic regime she lived under.

This part of the film I think helps explain, at least partially, how so many brave Arabs have been able to take on their authoritarian governments. In Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and Yemen torture has been commonplace. A people have been terrorized into submission. Then, as if out of nowhere, Arabs-collectively-decided they were not afraid anymore. Countless blogs and interviews from these countries record people saying, "We no longer have any fear." Even as Bahrain security forces shoot men, women, and children the protesters continue to defy the authorities.

In Egypt today the Egyptian military has made a public apology for cracking down on protesters. Notice the activists response from an online article by Jailan Zayan:

Activists launched a Facebook call for fresh protests on Saturday to denounce the army's use of force.

"Peaceful protesters in Tahrir are being chased away by the military police with tasers, sticks and whips. Masked men with machine guns trying to shut down the strike by force. Many beaten, assaulted and arrested," the statement said.

"We cannot stand for this; we must stand strong against violence towards peaceful protesters."


In a recent article from "the Jerusalem Post" Larry Derfner discussed the inevitability of Palestinians reclaiming the West Bank. He writes what he predicts will happen:

Masses of Palestinians, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, marching to IDF checkpoints and outposts, marching to Israeli-only roads, to settlements, to the security fence – to the nearest Israeli presence and screaming, “Out! Out!”

And refusing to leave.

WHAT THE hell is the IDF going to do then? Shoot them? Arrest them? With the whole world not only watching but, for the first time, already won over by other unarmed Arab masses facing down their oppressors?


At this point in history, Libyans are having to fight the hardest to take down the megalomaniac Qaddafi that has imposed himself on the country for over four decades. Perhaps thousands will die before he is disposed of. He will be cut down from his illusory realm of power. The process has begun and the people will not stop until he is removed.

In regards to this film clip I picked to accompany my blog's theme, I wanted to post this because it depicts (even if in a limited way) the realities of being tortured and living in fear. And the way governments can attempt to dehumanize targeted enemies of the state (in this case it was lesbians and gays).I do not like it when topics such as torture, war, and revolution become too intellectualized. This scene is very sad. I cry every time I watch it. Those of us, especially living in countries that have yet to make these scenarios common practice, should be in awe of those (in any country) standing up to repression, no longer fearful to resist.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Going to Texas to Read Marx

I'll be heading to the Society for Social and Political Philosophy's roundtable on Marx's Capital, Volume 1, tomorrow. The schedule is up here, and it looks like a strong selection of presentations. I'll be giving a paper entitled "Equality and Differentiating Totality: Reading Marx after Rancière," in which I argue two things:
  1. That Rancière's principle (as he sometimes calls it) of equality must be thought as a contribution to a praxis that seeks to produce forms of social relations that both break the governmentality of elitist expertise and overturn the logic of capital.
  2. That his critique of the intersection of state functions of expropriation and the logics of capital under neoliberalism should be complimented by David Harvey's work on the uneven geography of capitalism, including his analyses of capital accumulation and accumulation by dispossession.
Before going, with the news of people fighting the attack against unions in Wisconsin and Indiana (among other states), I would like to mention that my travel is funded by our part-time professors union's (the APTPUO) travel grant fund. Yet another benefit of union membership.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Correspondence Between Princess Elisabeth and Descartes

For my introductory philosophy courses, such as 'Great Philosophers' this semester, I always teach Descartes' Meditations. However, for my 'Fundamental Questions' course I've been using The Good Life, edited by Charles Guignon, and he includes selections from The Passions of the Soul rather than the Meditations or the Discourse on Method. Which means that rather than concluding with the problem of Cartesian dualism I was beginning my lectures with his attempted resolution.

Discussing this material reminded me that I had wanted last year to read The Correspondence Between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and René Descartes, edited by Lisa Shapiro (University of Chicago Press, 2007; it is part of their series "The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe"), as a companion to Descartes' published work. This month, I finally did, and it was well worth the effort-- not the effort of reading their correspondence, but of fitting it into the reading stack. They prove to be a lively and engaging pair. Elisabeth refuses to accept Descartes' attempts to dodge her objections to his dualism, and he proves willing enough to eventually draft an early version The Passions of the Soul to answer her questions, only to, of course, provoke more objections and questions. Elisabeth, for her part, seems to approve of the Cartesian perspective in general, although she seeks to overcome the dualism between mind an body, and to work out (with Descartes) an ethics that can help her with both personal and political situations. Along the way, they discuss Seneca, Epicurus, and Machiavelli. If not for anything else, there are unlikely moments for those accustomed to Descartes' published work, such as his admission that "the Schools are right to say that the virtues are habits," or his verdict on Machiavelli: after noting the faults of The Prince, he notes that "I have since read his discourses on Titus Livy where I noticed nothing evil."

I can't always say that I like reading the winding paths of philosophers' correspondence. That being said, I recommend The Correspondence Between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and René Descartes to the reader who is looking for a different and not often noticed side of early modern philosophy and letters.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The US Government Just Loves Dictators Too Much To Let Them Go

The Tunisians kicked out their US-backed dictator and the US was completely caught off guard. The Egyptians resisted their US-backed dictator and the US eventually (Dare I say reluctantly?) sided with the protesters. Now the US-backed dictators of Yemen and Bahrain are slaughtering their people while the US makes cynical comments such as, "The US government is opposed to violence on both sides." As if there were two sides. The unarmed pro-democracy protesters are being fired on with live ammunition by the heavily armed US-backed pro government forces.

This first news clip I post reveals the mind set of ruling class Arabs and aspects to US foreign policy strategy. I have a hunch that all elites really are shaking in their boots right now. The US, unlike its monarchical friends, is at least supposed to pretend it supports democracy. Alas, phony rhetoric has a nasty habit of always being seen for what it is.

Lest we forget Libya. The so-called (or once upon a time) revolutionary Mu'ammar Qaddafi does not officially rule Libya. He merely represents it like a mascot cheering on the actual rulers, which are the people themselves. That's in theory anyways. He wrote about all these wonderful ideas in what is called al-Kitab al-Akhdhar, the Green Book. An excerpt from it reads:

The question arises: who has the right to supervise society, and to point out deviations that may occur from the laws of society? Democratically, no one group can claim this right on behalf of society. Therefore, society alone supervises itself. It is dictatorial for any individual or group to claim the right of the supervision of the laws of the society, which is, democratically, the responsibility of the society as a whole.

Perhaps the US government has one thing in common with good ol' Qaddafi, namely, they both use the ideas of democracy to do the exact opposite. Notice the protesters in Libya sharing their thoughts on the Green Book. The Arabs just might teach their corrupt leaders and the US what democracy really means.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

BHL Indicted

I'm a few weeks late on this one, but it's worth posting nonetheless. On Counterpunch (here), Tariq Ali writes:
“Order for the  indictment of Bernard-Henri Lévy before the Assize Court, and for  his arrest:
We have determined that whereas investigation has established the following facts concerning the accused:
- His unrelenting promotion of imperialism and Zionism,
- His intellectual fakery, symptom of philosophical nullity amid the accumulation of capital and power,
- His leveling of false accusations and calumnies against Iran,
- His warmongering and advocacy of “humanitarian imperialism,”
- His aiding in the creation and promotion of SOS Racisme to smother autonomous immigration movements,
- His dissemination of false news likely to sow social and eligious discord between Christians and Muslims.

For these reasons, we rule that  there is sufficient evidence against Bernard-Henri Lévy that he  committed such acts, punishable under the Criminal Code, in regard to Articles 175, 176, 181, 183 and 184. We order the indictment of Bernard-Henri Lévy, to be lodged at the Court of Assizes of the department of Seine- Saint-Denis to be tried according to law.”
Executed in Chambers, December 18, 2010.”
We've been following BHL's antics for some time: whether he is working some bad scholarship, blabbering about Icelandic volcanoes, or prevaricating about Israel/Palestine.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Reading List 2011

Years ago, during my summers, I used to keep a reading list of the dates for books that I managed to both start and finish. Since summers were the only times that weren't organized around a semester schedule, these lists would give me an approximate idea of what I did to pass the time. Though I eventually fell out of the habit, I still write the dates that I start and finish most books on one of their cover pages. While this keeps a record of when I read a book (I also write down when and where I acquire it), I can't often remember what else I was reading at the time unless I had kept notes about it.

At the start of January, I decided to keep a reading list for the year 2011, because I want to know how much I can read at different times during the year, and so that I can plan my readings more accurately. As so many of us in the academic world know, when you are teaching three courses as I am this semester, it is much easier to stack up books that you want to read than it is to read them.

Just looking at the month of January (through the 30th) here's the verdict: if I'm working on a conference paper that has to be polished enough to be read by other attendees before the conference, and teaching three courses,  and keeping up with a reading group on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, I won't get much other reading finished. Over the month I read, for my own interest, Robin D.G. Kelley's book on Thelonious Monk (which I reviewed here), José Saramago's The Elephant's Journey, Thomas Muntzer's Sermon to the Princes (Matt reviewed this here), Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (what can I say, I was writing on Marx's critique of the bourgeois Crusoades), and W.E.B. Du Bois's The Negro

The rest of 'free' time to read involved material related to either my courses or the Rancière/Marx paper-- which included completing Foucault's lectures on The Birth of Biopolitics, which is mostly about neoliberalism. I should have something to say about my ambivalence about these lectures sometime soon, as I've been waiting to see if my initial responses would wear off or if I could cast them in a different, more positive light.

For now, back to marking.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


February 11, 2011 Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak steps down from three decades of ruthless power. The people of Egypt faced him in a battle of wills and won. There are already many talking heads addressing "What next?" I decided that today I would avoid that. At this moment the Egyptian people deserve unadulterated praise from around the globe.

For years these people had to suffer under a crippling economy and threats of unthinkable torture in police dungeons. How often Arabs have been criticized for being fatalistic by Western thinkers. European and American politicians have continually condemned Arabs as inherently "medieval" while simultaneously supporting Arab dictators with weaponry and diplomatic immunity; reducing Arab populations to forced subservience. Two myths are now absolutely destroyed: 1) that Arabs are not freedom loving and 2) that the West is. In the year 2011 Tunisia and Egypt are now on the path to becoming democratic societies--not because of the West--but despite the West.

In the past few weeks Egyptian citizens figured out how to mobilize, resist, propagandize, and maintain their ground. The world was watching and they knew it. The true face of the dictatorship was made public. Mubarak's regime anticipated any violent or fanatical move by the protesters. Several images of so-called misbehaving was all that was needed to justify a military crackdown with US government approval. Instead, the people had signs calling for human rights and freedom. They gathered peacefully and refused to disperse. The majority asked not for his head but his departure. "Irhal!" They constantly shouted, "Go!" He said he would not leave. Finally he was forced to quit. Millions stood up to him victoriously! Today they can celebrate! The world now waits for the next tyrant to fall. The question I pose is not, "What's next?" but "Who's next?"

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Hegel and Negativity Conference

The list of participants and dates for the conference Hegel and Negativity, Negativity and Hegel, which will take place here at the University of Ottawa.

Paul Redding (Keynote Speaker - University of Sydney), Emilia Angelova (Trent University), Joseph Arel (University of Guelph), Jennifer Bates (Duquesne University), Timothy Brownlee (Xavier University), Jon Burmeister (Boston College), Theo Geraets (University of Ottawa), Christopher Lauer (Indiana University of Pennsylvania), John McCumber (UCLA), Douglas Moggach (University of Ottawa), Jacob Quinlan (Trent University), Jeffrey Reid (University of Ottawa), Ulrich Schloesser (University of Toronto)

University of Ottawa, Arts Building, 70 Laurier Ave. East, room 509

Friday, April 1, 7:30pm; April 2 and 3, 9:00 a.m.

Sponsored by The University of Ottawa Faculty of Social Sciences and the Research Chair in Political Thought,with support from the Faculty of Arts and the Department of Philosophy

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Tariq Ramadan and Slavoj Zizek on the Future of Egyptian Politics

Today in Modesto California a small group of us demonstrated in solidarity with Egyptians (and by further extension the Arab world). The response from the public was overwhelmingly positive. Our signs read "No more US aid to dictators. Down with Mubarak. Let Egypt and the Arab world be free." Others said, "Support freedom." This is what the revolution is about: freedom. People that do not support this freedom keep bringing up the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood. I argue that the ideology and potential for the Muslim Brotherhood to take power is irrelevant at this point. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, once wrote "We do not have a choice between purity and violence but between different kinds of violence." In other words, a revolution has violence, but a dictatorial regime is itself secured through violence. Yet, in the case of Egypt, the revolution has mainly been peaceful. It has been the pro-Mubarak forces that lashed violence and terror on the public for thirty years and they are the ones continuing it still. The Muslim Brotherhood is not Egypt, they are a part of it. On the Riz Khan (al Jazeera English) program Tariq Ramadan, whose grandfather founded the Muslim Brotherhood, and Zizek share interesting points on this topic.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Gratton on Nancy's "The Truth of Democracy"

Peter Gratton's review of Jean-Luc Nancy's The Truth of Democracy is up on the CSCP website, in advance of its publication in Symposium (here).

Much in the way that I work with Rancière, Gratton takes Nancy as a starting point for thought, as a kind of provocation: in this case, about democracy, which has been used and abused by anti-democrats, and yet still is "unrivalled as a name for political aspirations the world over." He highlights the way that Nancy critiques the notion that democracy could name the activity of sovereign and autotelic, showing how politics-- democratic politics-- is a politics in common, that is organized as a distribution (partage) that is not organized through calculation or administration (Peter notes a similarity between Nancy and Rancière on the term partager and 'equality').

I am drawn to this review, in addition, because Gratton identifies several of those features that had frustrated me about Nancy's work when I was writing about it years ago (for my MA, to be precise). One of the most frustrating is his recourse to Heidegger's highly tenuous 'history of metaphysics'. Here's Peter again:
In this way, Nancy, like Giorgio Agamben and Heidegger before them both, accede to a view of history that mirrors the rise and fall of Western metaphysics: Heidegger’s analysis of das Man is mistaken for a sociology, and the societal ennui of Western Europe, no doubt powerful, is said to be mirrored across the world. [...]

It is puzzling that Nancy takes for granted that the impasses of democracy in Europe and the U.S. are a mark of the political the world over, which itself would be a direct result of impasses in Western metaphysics. But if the age of such world pictures is over, as Nancy himself argues here, what of this picture Nancy himself projects? The truth of democracy, if there is such a thing, should first take on this archaic European supposition, which is itself a haunting superstition, indeed a sovereign imposition, denegating the truth of democracy as such.
I agree wholeheartedly with Peter's conclusion. A few comments of my own: reading this review it struck me that in opposition to Nancy, Rancière would reject this identification of the destiny of metaphysics and democracy, especially because Rancière poses egalitarian logic as a direct challenge to 'political philosophy' of, for instance, Plato and Aristotle. Nor does politics have to take place in a European framework. Which is why, perhaps, people have been drawing connections between the recent uprisings in North Africa and elsewhere and the work of Rancière (myself, Peter, and Scu at Critical Animal) or Fanon (here) and not Jean-Luc Nancy.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Hallward and Zizek on North Africa

Both Peter Hallward and Slavoj Zizek have published pieces (here and here) on the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in the "Comment is Free" Section of The Guardian.

Hallward argues that:
Routine reference to "the will of the people" has long been one of the most formulaic turns of phrase in the modern political lexicon. The actual mobilisation of such a will, however, is less easily dismissed. Ongoing protests in Egypt – and in Algeria, and Yemen, and Jordan, indeed throughout the Middle East – may well oblige their governments to decide fairly soon whether they mean what they say.
Of course, if you read the comments section for this article (at your own risk!), Hallward's claim that in the streets of Tunisia and Egypt we see the will of the people is driving plenty of conservatives and parliamentarian liberals crazy (viz. 'how do you know!?'). I suppose they think that you've either got to be standing there interviewing however many hundred-thousand people there, or maybe taking a poll with a ballot box or two. His fundamental point is correct: we know it's the will of the people when every reformist gesture and every so-called concession brings more people out into the street, reinforcing the revolutionary and collective practice of the uprisings. Hallward again, with reference to Fanon:
Rejecting all distraction through "negotiation" or "development", Fanon insisted on decisive action here and now – the goal was not to reform an intolerable colonial situation over an interminable series of steps, but to abolish it. The "fundamental characteristic of the struggle of the Algerian people", Fanon maintained, is suggested by their "refusal of progressive solutions, their contempt for the 'stages' that might break the revolutionary torrent, and induce them to abandon the unshakable will to take everything into their hands at once". The fate of their revolution depends on the people's "co-ordinated and conscious" participation in their ongoing self-emancipation.

In today's Tunisia and Egypt, as in 1950s Algeria, to affirm the will of the people is not to invoke an empty phrase. Will and people: rejecting the merely "formal" conceptions of democracy that disguise our status quo, an actively democratic politics will think one term through the other. A will of the people, on the one hand, must involve association and collective action, and will depend on a capacity to invent and preserve forms of inclusive assembly (through demonstrations, meetings, unions, parties, websites, networks). If an action is prescribed by popular will, on the other hand, then what's at stake is a free or voluntary course of action, decided on the basis of informed and reasoned deliberation.
Zizek, without any references to movies or chocolate laxatives, attacks the hypocrisy of Western commentators:
What cannot but strike the eye in the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt is the conspicuous absence of Muslim fundamentalism. In the best secular democratic tradition, people simply revolted against an oppressive regime, its corruption and poverty, and demanded freedom and economic hope. The cynical wisdom of western liberals, according to which, in Arab countries, genuine democratic sense is limited to narrow liberal elites while the vast majority can only be mobilised through religious fundamentalism or nationalism, has been proven wrong. The big question is what will happen next? Who will emerge as the political winner? [...]

Here, then, is the moment of truth: one cannot claim, as in the case of Algeria a decade ago, that allowing truly free elections equals delivering power to Muslim fundamentalists. Another liberal worry is that there is no organised political power to take over if Mubarak goes. Of course there is not; Mubarak took care of that by reducing all opposition to marginal ornaments, so that the result is like the title of the famous Agatha Christie novel, And Then There Were None. The argument for Mubarak – it's either him or chaos – is an argument against him.

The hypocrisy of western liberals is breathtaking: they publicly supported democracy, and now, when the people revolt against the tyrants on behalf of secular freedom and justice, not on behalf of religion, they are all deeply concerned. Why concern, why not joy that freedom is given a chance? Today, more than ever, Mao Zedong's old motto is pertinent: "There is great chaos under heaven – the situation is excellent."