Thursday, March 31, 2011

"Monsieur Lévy, are you satisfied with your war?"

Just when you thought that Bernard-Henri Lévy couldn't get more ridiculous, he claims responsibility for the French military intervention in Libya's uprising (hence the title of this post). That might be true, but it certainly doesn't ameliorate our sense that he's a raving narcissist. Nor will his recent interview with Der Spiegel, in which he largely responds to unwelcome questions with the answers to his preferred questions. I don't know how, but sometime between quoting Jean-Baptiste Botul in his work on Kant, freestyling on Eyjafjallajökull, or dissimulating about the siege of Gaza, he's become a psychiatrist. I'm taking over for Der Spiegel, and the rest is pure BHL.

BHL, with your new training could you please diagnose, from a distance, Gadhafi's mental state? Is he playing with a full deck of cards?  
Lévy: No. Everything was tried, but Gadhafi is a madman, autistic -- he refused to listen. In the night before the summit in Paris, I spent hours on the phone with friends in Benghazi. I tried to allay their fears. They were torn between the fear of Gadhafi's troops and the hope that coalition aircraft would arrive in time. It was a race against time.
I don't know, calling him autistic doesn't seem very sympathetic to others who might live with it. Perhaps you can get around this by suggesting that there is some kind of connection between National Socialism and the government of Angela Merkel:
Lévy: We lost a great deal of time because of the Germans, which is a disaster, mainly for the Libyans, but also for the Germans, who will pay bitterly for abstaining. What happened here will leave a lasting impression in Europe. [...] Angela Merkel jettisoned all principles of German foreign policy since the end of World War II: There was the principle that something like National Socialism should never happen again. Never again crimes against humanity. Merkel and (German Foreign Minister Guido) Westerwelle violated this pact. This is a serious incident, not a minor detail.
Interesting, I'm sure that there is some kind of fallacy concerning these kinds of connections, but please: a moment of wild and universalizing historical speculation:
Lévy: When the Arab League requested that we intervene in Libya, it was a decisive moment in the history of the modern age. The obligation to intervene in the affairs of other countries became universal as a result. Now no one can accuse the coalition of engaging in dark maneuvers or hidden colonialism. This is a radical shift.
BHL, are you up to the task of misusing the word 'radical' or one of its cognates twice in one interview? I mean, could you...
Lévy: The surprise, the incredulity and the gratefulness of the three Libyans when they understood what Sarkozy had just said to them. The great significance of what he proposed to them. The radicalism of his gesture. That moment of astonishment and of realization -- it was a beautiful moment.
This is exhausting. I'll turn this one over to Der Spiegel:
SPIEGEL: Can you imagine a world without Bernard-Henri Lévy?
Lévy: Yes, it would all work quite well without me.

Pierre Clastres, "Archeology of Violence"

(Semiotext(e), 2010)

In 1977, at the time of his death by road accident, Clastres was compiling materials for his third book. Only 43, he had by then inaugurated a groundbreaking political anthropology in the wake of his fieldwork in South America. Having studied under Claude Levi-Strauss and, later, Gilles Deleuze/Felix Guattari, Clastres went on to severely if respectfully critique the structuralism of his early master and influence the authors of Capitalism and Schizophrenia considerably. He is now an essential reference for ethnologists as well as more radical French theory kids. He is also somewhat erroneously considered an exemplary "anarchist" anthropologist. Not in any obvious way concerned to put forth specific political programs (though his sympathies may certainly be detected), Clastres devoted his career to rigorously describing and theorizing what he termed "societies against the State".

Semiotext(e) has reissued Clastres's posthumous volume, Archeology of Violence, originally published in France in 1980. The essays collected expand upon his central argument, which defines "primitive" societies by their refusal of the State. Taking such societies seriously, for Clastres, means recognizing that they are not embryonic or proto-societies, but rather full-blown political totalities which have constituted themselves in a very conscious and deliberate way so as to prevent the rise of inequality, (non-sexual) division of labour and, ultimately, since these are its very substance, the State. In brief, since the State is a permanent possibility in human society, primitive societies constitute themselves as elaborate machines for warding it off. Accordingly, Clastres roundly rejects Marxist anthropology and other historicizing / economizing discourses (cf. his polemical essay "Marxists and their Anthropology"). It is the political, rather than the economic or the biological, which constitutes the horizon of primitive social life. According to Clastres, so-called "primitives" are actually very shrewd politicians. Even where one detects exoticizing tendencies in his turns of speech, Clastres is genuinely trying to take the people he is studying seriously.

While the general line of his argument is already trotted out in his earlier works Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians and Society Against the State, the main contribution of Archeology of Violence is to have examined "primitive" war as a tactic for keeping the State at bay. The almost universal bellicosity of tribal populations in the ethnographic record is thought by Clastres to reflect a centrifugal / atomizing tendency which at once asserts the group as a unified totality, and ensures maximum political dispersion between groups. Of particular interest is the final essay, in which Clastres examines the role of the warrior class in such societies. Since they serve the greater social interest of warding off the State, but also risk inaugurating the State via the quasi-monopoly of violence they engender, warriors become trapped in a social logic whereby their glory can only be secured by ever grander and more individualistic military exploits - thus rendering the warrior a being doomed to die. "Primitive" society is evidently sufficiently complex and canny to recognize and regulate tendencies within tendencies, machines within machines. Very Deuleuzo-Guattarian.

This brings me to my last point. Since Clastres's writing is wonderfully clear, and since he reiterates his positions in the book a great many times, the long introduction by de Castro really puts the cart before the horse. True, Clastres was influenced by and influenced Deleuze and Guattari. This is a very crucial and fascinating aspect of his work. Starting things off with D&G speak risks clouding things, however. Interested readers would do well to read the introduction last, since it does offer some great insights but ultimately gets bogged down in segmentarity, lines of flight and other such concepts.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The PIC Roundup

Being buried under a stack of grading, I will be brief. I had a good time at the recent PIC conference. It was great to meet Scu, after reading his blog Critical Animal (his thank yous are here) and occasionally corresponding via email, and he and his co-organizer Cecile Lawrence did a great job getting everything together. 

Peter Gratton delivered a sharp (and polemic) keynote address, wedging his position on what he calls 'real time', and 'temporalism' (that "all political categories must stand the test of time"), between the new materialisms (many iterations of which sound like 'new' vitalisms) and the permutations of speculative realism. I discovered that, not only do we share agreement on the critique of the concept of equality, but also that I might be marching on some of these other problems from a very different direction. Peter's brief thoughts are here, and his summary of his Monday talk at Cornell are here.

I also had the pleasure of meeting Daniel Barber, who was also part of the panel I was one, and, who not only presented a strong paper, but managed to convince many of us (this was during the evening, not the panel) that "buying back in" had a much more humorous and subtle series of significances than much more often used "doubling down."

Finally, a big thanks to Ross Birdwise, who split the four to five hours of driving time between Ottawa and Binghamton, with good conversation.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Immanuel Wallerstein on the End of Capitalism

Recently I have been re-reading Immanuel Wallertein's "World-Systems Analysis (2004)." He writes:
Note the hyphen in world-system and its two subcategories, world-economies and world-empires. Putting in the hyphen was intended to underline that we are not talking about systems, economies, empires of the (whole) world, but about systems, economies, empires that are a world (but quite possibly, and indeed usually, not encompassing the entire globe). This is the initial concept to grasp. It says that in "world-systems" we are dealing with with a spatial/temporal zone which cuts across many political and cultural units, one that represents an integrated zone of activity and institutions which obey certain systemic rules (16,17).
Wallerstein does not commit to a Marxist analysis of capitalism. In fact he contradicts many fundamental ideas of orthodox Marxism. He does not believe in the teleology of history. For him capitalism is not destined to bring about a socialist (and eventual communistic) system. Yet, capitalism, like other systems, is not destined to remain. He sees it as a system that is decaying and will eventually collapse. He, along with other world-systems analysts, does not claim to know the outcome of history nor see the inevitability of an improved one. What I find interesting about the book is the way in which he attempts to break down so many aspects of the historical development of capitalism and the way the world has evolved its various institutions over time operating within the world-system.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Alain Badiou, "Pocket Pantheon"

(Verso, 2009)

Badiou's book collects eulogies to certain recent-contemporary giants of French intellectual life. All are beautifully written, most shed light on Badiou's own philosophy, and some are excellent introductions to their subject matters.
The eulogy to Derrida is probably the best in the collection, precisely for how it combines humour, clarity and sympathy in its reconstruction - I hope you'll pardon me here - of deconstruction. Also particularly notable are the entries on Sartre, Althusser and Lyotard. The impression is reinforced that for Badiou, there are no problems of a strictly or abstractly philosophical importance; for a philosophical "interventionist", in a constrained but important sense the philosophical is the concrete. This accounts for his rooting of interpersonal sympathies and dissonances at a level of abstraction that is often surprising and counter-intuitive. Through humour, sadness, love and ire, the force of Badiou's personality shines through in virtually every eulogy, giving body to the austere rigour of his own philosophical work.

Though highly interesting, the book is more for browsing than reading cover to cover, a supplement to one's studies at best. For example, the discussion on the Kantianism/Spinozism of Francoise Proust means nothing to me at this point; as a North-American student of French theory, there's a fair bit regarding more minor personalities that eludes my grasp. The main attraction for me was the prospect of reading Badiou on his philosophical contemporaries, both allies and rivals. I was rewarded with the usual aesthetic experience of his writings, but also a clearer picture of his self understanding vis a vis French intellectual life. I hesitate however to recommend this text for systematic study. If you're curious about, say, Sartre's influence on Badiou, by all means turn to the essay in this book. We must, however, pick our battles.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Off to the PIC conference

Almost everything is ready for the road trip to Binghamton for the PIC conference (see here). Most importantly, the paper is ready, although, like the other times I've prepared for talks, I have too much material. The title is "Spinoza versus Schmitt: The Politics of Theology and the Theology of Politics." A bit of cut and paste produces the following summary:

This talk opposes the politicization of theology to the theologization of politics, as two systematic interpretations of the relation between politics, philosophy, religion, and theology. For Schmitt, the theologization of politics (or 'political theology' properly speaking) functions to limit the possibilities of praxis, condemning in advance attempts to revolutionize or transform politics, by restricting all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state to those with theological correspondences (others being infringements based on natural right or economic-managerial tasks).

To politicize and historicize religious belief and theology is to expand the possibilities of organizing political space rather than the attempt to restrict and curtail them. Politicizing theology allows us to think theology as one way in which politics is conceptualized or spoken, rather than presenting it as an originary ground of political concepts.

Politicizing theology also requires thinking it as a locus of social struggle, in which the significance of religious teaching is itself contested. In Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, it is obedience to and reverence for God that has two opposed meanings that are divided along political lines. On the one hand, obedience is often conceived as submission to sovereign and religious authority as a way of controlling the activities of the multitude. On the other hand, ‘obedience’ can be democratic and universal; it aims to promote justice and charity (and love of one’s neighbor). Based on works rather than thoughts, it affirms freedom of conscience. This is the basis of what we might call Spinoza’s 'democratic hegemony' of those who are dedicated to works of justice and charity, love of one’s neighbor, and, more problematically, real equality.

Kotsko on the Epic Labors of Translating Schmitt

If I told you the punchline, you'd never click on the link.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

How to Strain Ethical Credibility

Occasional contributor and reader Joshua Kurdys has a post up on the value of developing natural gas drilling in rural Pennsylvania. In these so-called times of austerity, it might seem advantageous to consider "positive tax implications" in poorer rural areas over environmental and human health impacts. Joshua writes (the bold is my emphasis):
The problem is that these values do not have clear market prices and can't be easily or consistently quantified in cost calculations. The individuals and communities that accept drilling in exchange for quick cash infusions often need the money since drilling often takes place in poor, rural areas but this need does not necessarily reflect the fair market value of what is sold and that means granting the assumption that fair market value could conceivably be determined. Where fair market value is difficult to determine and this uncertainty is either overlooked or ignored by claims of economic development from drilling the situation strains ethical credibility. In those situations, trumpeting the value of economic development from drilling would be analogous to someone purchasing kidneys from the poor and then patting themselves on the back for their contributions to the homeless. Where the fair market value of the object in question is indeterminable, whether it involves determining the value of a kidney or the environment in prime drilling areas, it is impossible to draw conclusions from economic data alone.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Diagram from The Order of Things

For anyone who has ever read Foucault's The Order of Things cover to cover (like myself), and even for those who haven't, Stuart Elden has done us a favor and scanned the diagram of the "general table" on page 201 and posted it on Progressive Geographies. He also conveniently splits the diagram so that it fits on two slides. If it doesn't immediately spring to mind, here's a reminder:

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Kurosawa's Prophecy of Japan's Nuclear Catastrophe

In 1990 Japanese directer Akira Kurosawa released his thought provoking film "Dreams." Kurosawa claimed that the eight short skits in the film were based on actual dreams of his. One skit is called "Mount Fuji in Red." This dream depicts Japan having a nuclear meltdown from a nuclear power plant. The prophetic relevance is painfully chilling. A woman, seeing the end of life coming, says, "They told us the nuclear power plants were accidents, no danger. That's what they told us. What liars!"

Today, March 19, 2011, CNN World online journalist Emily Smith wrote:
The disclosure Saturday by Japanese authorities that milk and spinach have shown higher-than-normal levels of radiation contamination has raised concerns about food safety and supplies in one of Japan's most heavily populated regions.

Tainted milk was found 30 kilometers (18 1/2 miles) from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and spinach was collected as far as 100 kilometers (65 miles) to the south, almost halfway to Tokyo. The plant was badly damaged after a 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit the coast on March 11.

Japan is facing a major crisis as a result of natural disasters.Thousands have died and the amount of property damage is astronomical. Earthquakes and tsunamis are beyond the control of humans, but the choices we make regarding politics, economics, and ecology are not. The Japanese people and the world populations have been told by nuclear energy proponents for years that power plants are safe. Warnings of the potential dangers that could occur from using nuclear energy, even if coming from nuclear scientists themselves, was silenced or marginalized. The full impact of what may result to Japan and other parts of the globe remain uncertain. Continual existence for the human species is not guaranteed any more than it was for the dinosaurs. Revolutionary politics may be the only thing that can save us. Business as usual really must change.

I wrote this poem after feeling emotionally overwhelmed from reading current events.

Beauty Contest After the Apocalypse

The next Miss Universe Pageant
Will be held in Japan on the fault line
Near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility.
The world will see the tantalizing allure of
The hottest three legged women with sixteen eyes
And one that looks like melted candle wax.

The popular rebellions taking place
In North Africa and the Middle East
Will have been properly crushed.
Arabic poetry is better written by exiles
In London pubs and Paris cafes.
The snuck out manuscripts
Coming from hidden dungeons
Have a certain zing absent in poetry
Wrote while enjoying freedom.
Miss Universe can recite one of these poems
Or a Zen haiku to show she is sentimental
And then thank American business men
For patronizing the arts and donating food
To limbless Afghanis and Haitians.

Al Jazeera will not be allowed to cover the event
Nor any journalist favorable to labor unions.
Thai teenage girls will service the ceremony’s guests
Wearing pink dresses cut above the knees.
Jewish West Bank settlers will cater
Making an abundance of kosher rice
Covered in teriyaki sauce.
Special fish dishes will be served
Bought from Scandinavian fishermen
That cleaned out the waters
Belonging to Somali pirates.
Roma will clean up the garbage.
Mexicans will do the landscape work.

The entire event will outdo
The last Olympic Games
Held in Red China.
Cups of water will be sold
For twenty bucks each.
From the auditorium walls
Everyone attending
Will get seven watchful cameras
Keeping an eye on their safety.

I want the melted wax looking girl to win.
She will sell many books about her life
After she does a televised interview with Oprah.
Her next accomplishment will be
Adopting Chechen and Iraqi orphans
Before she kills herself
Once her novelty is overlooked
By the next spectacular sensation.
It's the possibility of situations like this
That make living in these times
So incredibly fucking great.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Aristide Returns to Haiti

Jean-Bertrand Aristide has returned to Haiti, two days before the presidential election (which excluded members of the Lavalas party). From the LA Times:
Aristide left Johannesburg late Thursday, accompanied by his wife, two daughters, actor Danny Glover and the former leader's Miami-based lawyer. Soon after landing, Aristide delivered philosophical remarks in five languages in which he spoke of his love for Haiti and repeatedly denounced what he called the problem of "exclusion."
"Today may the Haitian people mark the end of exile and coup d'etat, while peacefully we must move from social exclusion to social inclusion," Aristide told reporters.
No matter what you might think about Aristide, his return is definitely a step forward compared to the return of 'Baby Doc' Jean-Claude Duvalier last January.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Hirokazu Kore-eda, "Still Walking"

Kore-eda's 2008 film evokes Yasujiro Ozu like no other film I have seen. Roger Ebert also sees this connection. I don't have time to post a proper review, but if you're a fan of subtle family drama, drop everything and see this film. The basic plot surrounds a family commemorating the death of one of its sons. The vibe is positively totalitarian in spots - the banality of the cooking rituals, pleasantries exchanged, etc, come together as a cage in which the characters are forever trapped and spinning. Beautiful filmmaking, excellent dialogue and terrifying realism.

Philosophy, Interpretation, and Culture Conference

I didn't mean for this week to be dominated by conference information, but so it goes. March 25-26 is the 21st annual Philosophy, Interpretation, and Culture conference. The schedule is here.

The keynote speaker is Peter Gratton, who you might know from his blogging at Philosophy in a Time of Error. I will be presenting on “Spinoza versus Schmitt: The Politics of Theology and the Theology of Politics.” Other presenters include my long time friend and sometimes band mate Ross Birdwise, who has some internet presence here. Finally, I will have a chance to meet in person Scu, who blogs at Critical Animal, and is one of the organizers of the conference.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

In the Aftermath of German Idealism Conference

An upcoming conference on German idealism, broadly (re)considered. You might recognize one of the keynote speakers. (21 March: Updated with a change in location and dates)

In the Aftermath of German Idealism
May 13-14, Bergische Universität Wuppertal.

Keynote speakers:
Markus Gabriel, Universität Bonn, author of Der Mensch im Mythos and Transcendental Ontology (forthcoming by Continuum)
Jean-Christophe Goddard, Université de Toulouse le Mirail, author of  La philosophie fichtéenne de la vie
Arnaud François, Université de Toulouse le Mirail, author of Bergson, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche. Volonté et réalité
Sean McGrath, Memorial University of Newfoundland, author of The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious (forthcoming by Routledge)
Devin Zane Shaw, University of Ottawa, author of Freedom and Nature in Schelling's Philosophy of Art

It is with pleasure we invite you to participate at the following conference, sponsored by EuroPhilosophie ( and the Bergische Universität Wuppertal and organized by l'Amicale des étudiants EuroPhilosophie.

Since the philosophical upheaval caused by Kant's transcendental philosophy, the status of what would later be called “German Idealism” has been anything but clear. On the one hand, the efforts of the major representatives of post-Kantianism only intensified the intrinsic ambiguity of the founding gesture of the tradition. Instead of simply interpreting or expanding Kant, yet all the while attempting to radicalize his original breakthrough, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel developed surprisingly different and opposing systems. On the other hand, the 19th- and 20th-century reception of Hegelianism would have another decisive effect, which would in its own way obfuscate the signification of German Idealism by drastically altering our perception of the tradition as a whole. Not only was Hegel thought to be the culmination of the operative logic of German idealism, which would for a long time prevent us from understanding the works of Fichte and Schelling in and of themselves, but there was also a primordial urge to immanently rethink Hegelian dialectics from the standpoint of historical finitude while being faithful to its fundamental insights, arguing for the implicit and irreducible potential still lurking in this movement.

However, the history of German idealism did not in any way end there. In the 20th century we have seen seen a countless number of virulent attacks against “traditional” metaphysics arise as different philosophical schools demanded us to give up “dead” and “outdated” notions like system and totality, German Idealism often being seen the as the epitome of excessive, unbridled reason. Yet, in the face of these so-called “devastating” critiques, classical German philosophy has not been sentenced to death and banished to the abyssal forgetfulness of a forever lost past. Not only has there been an intense increase of secondary literature in the past decades, but a multitude of contemporary philosophers are returning to this moment in order to develop their own thought. The status of German Idealism remains more ambiguous and uncertain than ever: even two centuries after its emergence, we are still in the wake of German Idealism and feel its effects deep within the internal pulsations of philosophy itself.

Therefore, the goal of this conference is to open up an space within which one approach the reception of German Idealism and address its philosophical heritage. The unifying theme will be the following constellation of questions: Why do we constantly go back to German Idealism and cannot simply rid ourselves one and for all of its fundamental concepts? What could German Idealism teach us today? Are there still non-cultivated resources lurking within the thought of Kant, Fichte, Hegel and Schelling? Are we only able to unearth these resources today by passing through their internal and external critiques? Should we take the risk and plunge headfirst into the tradition in attempting to radicalize it?

Please send a short abstract (200-400 words) for a 20-30 minute presentation to be given in English, French or German to Joseph Carew (jstephencarew[at] and Daniel Pucciarelli (arelli[at] by the 6th of April.

Proposed topics are (but in no way limited to)
  • The immediate reception of German Idealism (Jacobi, Reinhold, Schulze, Maïmon, Marx, the Schellingian, Feuerbachian, Kierkegaardian, Schopenhauerian or Marxist critique of Hegel)
  • The tole of concepts such as “finitude,” “system,” “totality,” “liberty” or “subjectivity” in German Idealism and its reception
  • The category of contingence in Schellingian and Hegelian dialectics
  • Contemporary rereadings of Hegel (Frankfurt School, Butler, Jameson, Malabou, Nancy, Pippin, Žižek)
  • The current resurgence of Schelling (Grant, Gabriel)
  • The appropriation of Hegel by representatives of analytical philosophy searching for a new grounding for epistemology (McDowell and Brandom)
  • Critique of the notion of history and post-Hegelian philosophies of history
  • Contemporary usage of German Idealism in practical philosophy
  • Critiques of German Idealism from within different philosophical movements (phenomenology, Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze – and so on unto infinity)
  • New interpretations of Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel

Monday, March 14, 2011

Hegel and Negativity Schedule

The schedule is up for the upcoming conference "Hegel and Negativity - Negativity and Hegel" on the events page at the Department of Philosophy at University of Ottawa. This promises to be a great conference, and I say that as an attendee and not a presenter. Here's the information:

Hegel and Negativity - University of Ottawa - April 1 -3
Friday April 1
7:30 - 9:00 Keynote speaker: Paul Redding (Sydney) and discussion

Saturday April 2 (each 25 min. presentation is followed by 20 min. discussion)
9:15 - 9:40 Jennifer Bates, Duquesne, "Hegel and the Concept of Extinction"
10:00 - 10:25 John McCumber, UCLA, "Dialectics and Speculation in Hegel's Logic"
10:45 - 11:10 Christopher Lauer, Indiana U. of Pennsylvania, "Beyond Restlessness: Hegel on Becoming the Negative"
11:30 - 11:55 Jon Burmeister, Boston College, "Language as Divine Reversal"
12:15 - 12:40 Tim Brownlee, Xavier, "Intersubjective Recognition, Freedom and Negativity in Hegel's Practical Thought"
1:00 - 2:30 Lunch
2:30 - 3:40 Graduate Student Research Panel (4X10 plus 30 min. discussion)
3:45 - 4:10 Emilia Angelova, Trent, "Negativity in Hegel's Phenomenology: On Making Thinking More Thoughtful"
4:30 - 4:55 Ulrich Schloesser, Toronto, "Hegel's Methodology of Immanent Critique"
5:15 - 5:40 Douglas Moggach, Ottawa, "Modernity's Shadow"

Sunday  April 3

9:15 - 9:40 Jeffrey Reid, Ottawa, "For-another, For-me: Negativity and Irony"
10:00 - 10:25 Jacob Quinlan, Trent, "Dwelling within the Dark Night"
10:45 - 11:10 Joseph Arel, Guelph, "Confession and the Persistence of Unhappy Consciousness"
11:30 - 11:55 Theo Geraets, "Negativity in Hegel's System: At the Beginning and at the End"
12:15 - Close

Contact: Jeffrey Reid
Phone: 613-562-5800 ext. 3678
Location: Room 509, Arts Hall, 70 Laurier Avenue East

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Arab Women

March 8 was International Women's Day 2011. With so many revolts and revolutions occurring throughout the Arab World it is important not marginalize the role of Arab women's participation. I am posting a Riz Khan show covering this particular topic. He interviews Dr. Rabab El-Mahdi (American University in Cairo), Dr. Frances Hasso (Duke University) and Najde Al-Ali (University of London) for their thoughts and insights.

I'm posting an interview with another Arab woman from Saudi Arabia named Hissa Hilal. She has become quite famous within the Arab world for her controversial poems. Hilal originally recited her works on a popular televised Arabic poetry contest. She wears the Niqab which is a black veil completely covering a woman's face and body. Many Westerners consider the Niqab a perfect symbol of gender inequality rife in the Middle East. Hilal may not be a feminist and is proudly veiled, but she defies the stereotypical view of a passive Arab Muslim woman.

Here is a loose translation of one of her poems:
I have seen evil from the eyes of the subversive fatwas in a time when what is lawful is confused with what is not lawful;

When I unveil the truth, a monster appears from his hiding place; barbaric in thinking and action, angry and blind; wearing death as a dress and covering it with a belt [referring to suicide bombing];

He speaks from an official, powerful platform, terrorizing people and preying on everyone seeking peace; the voice of courage ran away and the truth is cornered and silent, when self-interest prevented one from speaking the truth. (translated from Hassan Hassan at the National)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Mehdi Belhaj Kacem on Tunisia and French Intellectuals

Via Progressive Geographies: Mehdi Belhaj Kacem, a French-Tunisian critic, weighs in (an excerpt in French here) on events in Tunisia and the response of French (and other) intellectuals. Interestingly enough, the declarative mode in which he operates reminds me of the two intellectuals that he is criticizing:
This is a fact that the Badious and the Zizeks of the world mustn’t make us forget, and especially not a Tunisian in 2011: the Stalinist and Maoist regimes were thoroughly abominable. A Chinese woman whose family actively participated in the Cultural Revolution told me that for her it was worse than Auschwitz. As far as that’s concerned, one really has to beware of the shortcuts one takes, playing at a trendy leftist in the comfort of a bourgeois academic apartment. The “Badiou affair” may very well blow up in our faces just as much as the “Heidegger affair.” What I’ve read from Badiou and Zizek on the Tunisian revolution is absolutely useless. Tunisian philosophers have told me they regret that a Deleuze, a Foucault, a Derrida isn’t still around. They would have found the right, resonant words to take the measure of the event. I find the silence of people like Nancy and Rancière regrettable. Their sensitivity is totally right for what has happened.
I can't say that I was too impressed by what Badiou or Zizek had to say thus far. What MBK proposes, a kind of cross between Situationism, Badiou, and Kojève, is not, however, unproblematic. It's a leap from Tunisia (my emphases in bold)...
That’s the reason why the Tunisian event is already a historic event: the Tunisians are collectively experiencing freedom and, in the truth of the event, we see that a people that experiences freedom also experiences equality. That’s the hard lesson that the Tunisian event gives to our academic Stalinist dinosaurs. Kojève:
Kojève said, rather humorously: “They take me for a leftist Hegelian. But I’m a right-wing Marxist.” He said that Fordism was part of Marxist politics and that he’s the one who thought up the Marshall plan. I’d rather be that kind of right-wing Marxist than a postmodern leftist fascist.
I might be wrong, but isn't "right-wing Marxist" code for "Stalinism?"

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Existentialism is a Humanism

This semester I am teaching Sartre's Existentialism is a Humanism to two of my courses. We've already discussed it in one, and will be reading it soon in the other. As I'm sure you know, EH has received a bad rap over the years. Even Sartre grew to think it a cursed little book. 

Heidegger, as the story goes (and I know this is current, as somebody was rehearsing it  back in November at the RPA during one of our lunches), leveled a number of devastating criticisms of existentialism in his "Letter on Humanism." The history of the critique of metaphysics thus marches on. I'm not convinced by this story. Sure Sartre hadn't really thought through the problem of historicity at that point. But the "Letter on Humanism" story has one major problem: if existentialism was 'over,' why did it increasingly turn toward one of the most pressing post-world-war-two problems: anti-colonialism and decolonization? At the same time, no less, that Heidegger began to transform 'history' into an introverted history of Western metaphysics. Which leads me to the question: when I raise this objection to the "Letter on Humanism" story, why is it that people who rehearse it are completely caught off guard by it?

I'm going to leave that question open, because this post is supposed to be about teaching Existentialism is a Humanism. We'll talk about the problem in its general form when I end the semester with lectures on Senghor and Fanon (note that I am not trying to turn everyone into existentialists, but to think about why the anti-colonialists took up Sartre's concepts for their own ends).

I don't even want to talk about the whole essay, just one passage, to explain what I like about teaching texts that I don't usually use in my research. I've read EH over a dozen times, and can converse about its general themes with relative ease. However, this can mean that I always end up looking for the same passages. 

Yet this time I found something new. Due to all the passages about freedom, people often overlook Sartre's critique of the idea of progress in EH, which is important because the humanism that he doesn't like relies on the idea of progress, which in the moral sphere replaces God by man and secular morality. One the one hand, this conceptual move leaves intact a priori qualities of human nature, when we know that, for Sartre, "existence precedes essence."

On the other hand, the idea of progress privileges 1) the history of great men, and 2) fetishizes technological achievements.  Yes, this is the part that I thought would surprise you. Near the end of the essay, Sartre has some fun at the expense of Cocteau's Around the World in 80 Hours.
Cocteau gives expression to this idea when one of his characters, flying over some mountains in a plane, proclaims "Man is Amazing!" This means: even though I myself may never have built a plane, I nevertheless still benefit from the plane's invention and, as a man, I should consider myself responsible for, and honored by, what certain other men have achieved. 
The absurdity of this position is that it would be possible for somebody to make a complete judgment on an open situation--humans cannot make a judgment on the human condition as a whole, they can only change it through praxis. But here's the 'new' part, which is the way in which Sartre points out the absurdity. He continues:
This presupposes that we can assign a value to man based on the most admirable deeds of certain men. But that kind of humanism is absurd, for only a dog or a horse would be in a position to form an overall judgment about man and declare he is amazing, which animals scarcely seem likely to do--at least, as far as I know.
Those are my italics, because that is the part that impressed me: only animals can make an overall judgment on human beings. And why does it seem unlikely that the would proclaim that 'man is amazing?' Probably because these same advances of progress come at the cost of much of the rest of the world, especially the non-human world: technological leaps, environmental destruction.  Or that humans would be biased toward some advances that to a dog might seem inconsequential (why does this make me think of Kafka?) Even his choice of domesticated animals seems allusive, although I'm still trying to tease that out. 

Sartre wasn't, to my knowledge, too interested in the non-human world or ecology. Nevertheless, this passage works on two levels: on its surface, it's a good joke (it made my class laugh), but it also shows that he had considered, at some point, what the limits of judging the human situation  (and freedom, and universality) were.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Aston: "Greed beyond Avarice"

February's Monthly Review has a poem by H. Rae Aston, a sculptor, poet, and former journalist based near Montréal. It begins with the following premise:
What if a parade were called
and every person in North America
showed up
to be in this one-hour walk?
Let’s say marchers were assembled
according to accumulated wealth,
the poorest leading off.
Wealth would correlate with height.
If you can imagine (but why use your imagination when you can just open the link in a new tab?), things get bizarre from there. The poem is didactic, but also humorous-- and it distills a whole series of graphs on wealth and inequality into a few choice images.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Libya and the Ongoing Revolution and Libyans

Libya is in a life and death struggle between the pro and anti-Qaddafi forces within the country. According to the Hindustan Times of March 5, 2011:
Libya on Saturday plunged into a civil war with see-saw battles going on between Muammar Gaddafi loyalists and rebels for territorial gains, leaving 74 dead in one of the bloodiest day of fighting as the country’s opposition held its first conclave apparently to form a parallel government. The efforts to form a self-declared national-council comes as US and western countries as well as world bodies have virtually derecognised the Gaddafi regime and interpol has issued warrants against him and his family for genocide.

These battles have been ongoing and brutal. Many hope that the conflict will end soon and that the anti-Qaddafi forces will become victorious. I am posting in this blog an Al Jazeera "Inside Story" clip that focused on these developments and the possibility of the revolution's results. I also am posting excerpts from a crazed Qaddafi speech showing,in a small way, what kind of man has ruled Libya for over four decades.

This news is important to follow as the revolution wages within Libya, but I think it is also important to see Libyans beyond the face of Qaddafi. Libyans are giving their lives up for freedom. Some have resisted in the past with less popular support, but there has always been resistance. Libya, throughout the entirety of Qaddafi's rule has produced artists willing to take on Qaddafi's tyranny. On March 1, 2011 Jeffery Brown from "Art Beat" interviewed Libyan born poet Khaled Mattawa. Part of the interview addressed the role of poetry under the Qaddafi regime:
JEFFREY BROWN: I was going to ask you about the role of literature and poetry in a regime like that.

KHALED MATTAWA: Well, they basically put a generation of writers and poets who were in their 20s in the late '70s, they put them in jail. Whole generation of them who were in their 20s, they got out of jail in their late 30s. They tried to promote their own poets; they never got any measure of poets to work for them. The compromise they made with some writers was to guarantee them some degree of independence, to write about subjects that are far away from the current situation. Whether it is about the desert, or about relationships-- just stay away from realism in the real sense. Basically writers were imprisoned for most of the '80s. When they started getting out, they began to publish. The '90s in poetry is the generation of symbolic poetry. Clearly the poetry was unhappy, but it never got very specific. By the 2000s, people could write about the time when they were in prison, just dating the poem and the place of it, written in 1981 in such and such prison. Putting that as a tag in the bottom of poem was a revolutionary thing, because it had never happened to Libya before.

Here is a poem Mattawa wrote:

The trick is that you're willing to help them.
The rule is to sound like you’re doing them a favor.

The rule is to create a commission system.
The trick is to get their number.

The trick is to make it personal:
No one in the world suffers like you.

The trick is that you’re providing a service.
The rule is to keep the conversation going.

The rule is their parents were foolish,
their children are greedy or insane.

The rule is to make them feel they've come too late.
The trick is that you're willing to make exceptions.

The rule is to assume their parents abused them.
The trick is to sound like the one teacher they loved.

And when they say "too much,"
give them a plan.

And when they say "anger" or "rage" or "love,"
say "give me an example."

The rule is everyone is a gypsy now.
Everyone is searching for his tribe.

The rule is you don't care if they ever find it.
The trick is that they feel they can.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Trouble with Agamben (Part 2)

Here's another way to look at the critique of Agamben found in the previous post. The turn to theology, especially the St-Paul cottage industry, runs the the risk of making the ‘recovery’ of the theological tradition itself  a rampart defending what appears to its partisans to be a besieged European intellectual tradition. Consider, for instance, the way in which Agamben’s ‘Occident’ becomes both the greatest threat to, and saving power for, humanity.

Agamben does not help himself out of his occidental standpoint when he argues in The Signature of All Things (a variant appears in, perhaps unsurprisingly, The Time That Remains)—while providing very little evidence—that his “philosophical archaeology” avoids the problems of “writing the history of the excluded and defeated, which would be completely homogeneous with the history of the victors, as the common and tedious paradigm of the history of the subaltern classes would have it.” That he enlists for his political theology Walter Benjamin, whose “On the Concept of History” is an attempt to think through a concept of the history of the oppressed, is even more incongruous.

One other way to approach this: Samir Amin argues in his book Eurocentrism that there are four elements, which need not always be present, to the system of Eurocentricism: 1) the annexation of ancient Greece to modern Europe, 2) the presentation of Christianity, “employing an immutable vision of religion,” as the basis of European unity, 3) the construction of biological racism, and 4) an orientalism that distinguishes social groups by their supposedly invariable cultural traits. At least (1) and (2) are present in Agamben's work, and the monolithic history of the West verges on, or at least does not address (4).

Trouble with Agamben (Part 1)

A recent post by Adam Kotsko takes on Agamben's version of the Heideggerian monolithic Western metaphysics. He writes:
Nowhere is Agamben’s insistence on the monolithic nature of the West more evident than in his continual reference to Judaism, where he portrays the rabbinic tradition as in essential continuity with Western debates. I cannot recall a single time when he cites the Hebrew Bible, for instance, or indeed any Jewish text before the first century. On a certain level, this approach might seem “good,” insofar as it works against the stereotypes of the essential foreignness of the Jew, etc. — yet it completely forecloses the notion that the Jewish community, as a segregated and often persecuted group, might have come up with a substantially different intellectual tradition than the surrounding groups. More than that, the overall pattern of assimilation seems to privilege the non-Jewish Western source: rabbinic messianism gets read through Aristotle, Benjamin gets read through Schmitt, etc.

Thus, even though Agamben is obviously a leader among the Gentiles in drawing on Jewish sources, he does so in such a way as to erase any possibility of genuine Jewish difference — and this is itself only the most serious symptom of his general tendency to make the West a self-enclosed entity that cannot be influenced from the outside.
Here's Peter Gratton's response:
this is not merely some “ethnocentrism is bad” account, but is simply bad history: if I described the history of the weather in this room without reference to the outside climate, all while suggesting that what is important in weather only takes place in this room, you’d be right to say I don’t understand how climate works. Without overstating the problem, I don’t see how this applies to a view of history that is viewed as a simple baton pass-off race from Greece to Rome to the medieval church to Heidegger, all while describing all that is possible in reality and the politics of the world.
All I can add is that the problems of Heidegger's critique of Western metaphysics are amplified by the way in which Agamben attaches his project to that of political theology, which means: theologizing politics, rather than politicizing theology.