Thursday, April 29, 2010

Middlesex Philosophy Faces Closure

This isn't a joke. I received this email today from Radical Philosophy, which operates out of Middlesex:
Late on Monday 26 April, staff in Philosophy at Middlesex University in London were informed that the University executive are to close all Philosophy programmes: undergraduate, postgraduate and MPhil/PhD.

Philosophy is the highest research-rated subject at Middlesex University, with 65% of its research activity judged 'world-leading' or 'internationally excellent' in the UK government's recent Research Assessment Exercise. It is now widely recognised as one of the most important centres for the study of modern European philosophy anywhere in the English-speaking world. Its MA programmes in Philosophy have grown in recent years to become the largest in the UK, with 42 new students admitted in September 2009. Middlesex offers one of only a handful of programmes left in the UK that provides both research-driven and inclusive post-graduate teaching aimed at a wide range of students, specialist and non-specialist. It is also one of relatively few such programmes that remains financially viable, currently contributing close to half of its total income to the University's central administration.

Needless to say, Radical Philosophy very much regret this decision to terminate Philosophy at Middlesex, and its likely consequences for the teaching of philosophy in the UK. This is a shameful decision which essentially means the end of the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, a hub for internationally renowned scholarship (; staff include Eric Alliez, Peter Hallward, Mark Kelly,Christian Kerslake, Peter Osborne and Stella Sandford). This act ofwilful self-harm by the University must be resisted.
In her article for the 'Comment is Free,' section in the Guardian, Nina Power writes:
Middlesex philosophy has been responsible for bringing contemporary thinkers to a wide audience through numerous international events and collaborations with European and American institutions, as well as cultural venues in London, such as the French Institute and Tate Britain. The postgraduate centre for research in modern European philosophy receives research grants from national funding bodies and there are 63 postgraduate students working on MAs and PhDs. It is an important and unique place – without doubt one of the few philosophy departments in the country where you can study contemporary European thought in any sustained way. It is also one of the only philosophy departments in existence that takes seriously philosophy's relation to other disciplines and to the world at large. The research centre at Middlesex is an institution as important to people not in philosophy as to those within it, and plays a critical role in the intellectual and cultural life of London.
There has been a slew of articles on Comment is Free in recent days lamenting the poor showing of women and ethnic minorities in philosophy and at philosophy-related events (Bidisha, Julian Baggini, Hilary Lawson). Middlesex is one of the few departments whose curriculum addresses this imbalance as a problem for and within philosophy, rather than pretending that the discipline itself plays no role in perpetuating class, gender and racial divisions.
The closure of philosophy at Middlesex will send a terrible message: that philosophy doesn't belong in ex-polytechnics, even when they achieve better results than elite institutions. [...] Closure at Middlesex would be a step back to the bad old days when philosophy meant a few young, white and almost entirely male students at privileged institutions discussing the finer points of formal logic over sherry. Middlesex University must be prevented from dismantling one of the finest philosophy departments in the country: fight to keep philosophy alive.
Do your part:
Sign the petition (our own Mr. Shaw is signatory 4094, update: Mr. Smith 4138), join the Facebook group, and spread the message.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Gord Hill, "500 years of Indigenous Resistance"

(PM Press, 2009)

PM Press has reprinted, with minimal black and white graphics, Gord Hill's 1992 piece in the indigenous newspaper OH-TOH-KIN commemorating 500 years of indigenous struggle. 1992 marked 500 years since the "discovery" of Turtle Island by Europeans; Hill's response to culturally insensitive if not downright hateful imperialist celebrations surrounding the date was to provide a concise account of the amerindian genocide while emphasizing the active and noble role of native american peoples in resisting colonization.

As a critically minded Canadian of settler stock, I was glad to see a sharp analysis of Canada's indigenous policy up to 1992 (Hill himself is based in Vancouver). The notion that Canada pursued a kinder, gentler approach to what was considered "the native problem" is refuted by an analysis of British geo-military policy and the systematic dispossession and discrimination which has long ridden on Canadian law and institutions. It's also gratifying to suss out of Hill's short narrative an anticapitalist and generally anticolonialist line. Of interest on this count is his treatment of how slavery in the United States intersected with indigenous struggle.

Hill's account is brisk; it would have been nice, if possible, to read a fleshed out and updated version. The graphics add a nice touch, though some of them are low-resolution. Readers more graphically inclined should know that a comic book version of the text is available from Arsenal Pulp Press.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Imagining Caste: Nicholas Dirks' "Castes of Mind"

When people think of India, one of the first thing people pride themselves on is that they know about the existence of caste. Although caste has come to define a culture both outside of South Asia and within it, Nicholas Dirks argues that it wasn't always the defining feature of the region's cultural nexus. Dirks, a professor of history and anthropology at Colombia University and Dean of the Department of Arts and Sciences, argues that orientalist notions of Indian society were produced during the colonial encounter with British. His Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India – published in 2001 by Princeton University Press – argues that British scholars narrowly focused in on caste, pushing other sociological and cultural considerations aside.

This book is a dense description of the evolution of an idea, largely through the zone of contact between the Indian subcontinent and Western colonialism, both before and during the British colonial occupation of the region. Dirks carefully and distinctively gives the lowdown on the creation of caste in the imagination of Westerners as they came into contact with India. He begins with the Portuguese through the orientalists to Muller and ends with implications of the hardening of caste and its perception as the sine qua non in the minds of Westerners. His implication in such an outline is that Hindu culture has been reduced both in perception and to some degree in reality to this set of social structural relationships.

Dirks presents a complex dualism of problematic which cannot, to my dismay and elation, be essentialized. The notion of caste spread like wildfire in the discourses and imaginations of these Orientalists. Finally the last half of the nineteenth century, especially after the first war of independence in 1857 and the taking of direct control of the occupation by the crown in 1858 there was a rise of great concern over how to rule India. With the orientalist literature now thick in Western archives a great curiosity about India spread. Dirks argues from this that caste became a specifically colonial form of knowledge built on an orientalist vision of the Indian society. This disembodied idea, removed from the social, cultural, and political context of India came to stand in for the realities of the subcontinent's actual composition and eventually grew into a larger part of the composition through the imaginations of people within and without the region. Even the calls to ameliorate jati (caste) in Britain, Dirks argues, grew the phenomenon to its current proportions.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Yukio Mishima, "The Temple of Dawn"

(Vintage, 1990)

Back for round three of Mishima's "Sea of Fertility" tetralogy. The story takes place in the lead-up to the war with the US, and in the reconstruction years following. Action takes place in Japan, Thailand and India. Main character / observer Honda is now middle aged. Kiyoaki / Isao is reborn as a Thai princess who, as a child of six, seems to know all about her two past lives. As she gets older, however, these memories seem to fade altogether. Honda goes through a mid-life crisis, but in a very out of the ordinary form: if he can determine that Princess Ying Chan is indeed the reincarnation of Kiyoaki / Isao, then he will not fall in love with her; if he can determine that she is not his friend reincarnated, then he will love her madly. Honda spends most of the novel poised on this uncanny borderline, trying to devise ways to see the princess naked (so as to see if she has the tell-tale pattern of moles shared by Kiyoaki / Isao).

My interest in the tetralogy, flagging significantly during Runaway Horses, was in large part revived here. I'll explain why by isolating some important themes:

  • Orientalism: The Temple of Dawn illustrates perfectly why orientalism is above all an othering rather than a strictly spatializing discourse. In a sense, the novel "de-naturalizes" orientalism by showing it at work in a Japanese character. Main character Honda, from "the far East", goes south to Thailand and India and there filters his experiences through familiar orientalist tropes. Thailand is listless, hot, sensual, poisonous, languid, etc; India is filthy, pestilential, gory, excremental, beatific, anarchical, and so on. While travelling in the oppressive, "irrational" south, Honda yearns for the cold, pure air of Japanese Buddhism and Japanese reason. If nothing else, this gives the reader a sense of Japanese self-understanding in the lead-up to the Second World War. Also notable on this count is Mishima's / Honda's rendering of princess Ying Chan, whose very body stands in for the unreason of the south (i.e. the Orient).
  • Middle age: Mishima wrote the novel in his forties, well after determining to kill himself upon the tetralogy's completion; one gets a sense that his rendering of middle age in Honda and Honda's wife Rie is part howl of despair, part indictment of weakness and decline. Honda's rationality, profoundly disturbed by his experiences in India, gives way to a late-blooming sensualism rooted in idle perception, while his wife's obedience gives way to a seething hatred. Both of these changes are rooted in the body in profound ways. There's something here like a phenomenology of the middle-aged body that's well worth pondering.
  • Eroticism: The usual Mishima tropes are present: armpits, urine, peeping through holes in the wall, public masturbation, sexual odours, and so on. And as usual, eroticism is tied firmly to death. However, if I'm not mistaken there's also a more explicit connection between eroticism, death and the senses (mostly the gaze) than usual. It's worth asking why, as soon as Kiyoaki / Isao is reborn as a woman, her perspective is virtually left out of the account, and Honda's is emphasized. Perhaps this is reflective of Honda's perceptually based eroticism; his lust is driven by what he can't perceive, and therefore Ying Chan is rendered as opaque to the reader as she is to Honda. (I will also allow that to some degree, Mishima was simply a sexist.)
  • Art and politics: Largely through secondary characters, Mishima explores the relation of art to historical/political upheavals. Left-leaning artists are largely rendered as weak, declining dilettantes uninvolved with and unprepared for the revolution. To be fair, Mishima renders the communist-led, anti-American protests of the time without passing judgment. This is especially interesting given that at the time of writing, he was a laughing-stock among the Japanese ultra-Left.
Obviously there's much to explore in this novel. For prospective readers, I should add the usual proviso that Mishima's prose is plodding, baroque, and self-reflective almost, in places, to the point of meaninglessness. The reader should expect lengthy, narrative-killing discursions on the finer points of transmigration in the different traditions of Buddhism. Despite a seething eroticism throughout, Mishima also manages to render such episodes as a lesbian 69 between two beautiful characters boring and artificial. Finally, the reader will probably wonder why, with so many painstaking descriptions of vines, flowers, skies, temples, mountains and so on, the actual narrative seems to go off a cliff at the end. With these points in mind, patient readers should still find something of value in The Temple of Dawn.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Reordering the Space of Pakistan, Again?

Many people are well aware that the CIA, an ostensibly civilian organization, has deployed and used unmanned drones to fire missiles at human targets in Pakistan. Even as Predator Drones are being deployed, the unfortunate term ‘afpak’ has saturated the political discourse as well; this term invites its users to further imagine larger scale US anti-terrorist activities in yet another foreign country. Pakistan has increasingly been described as a failed or failing state and political rhetoricians regularly endorse more intervention in its internal affairs. If Pakistan is indeed failing, and perhaps the weekly bombings in Lahore and elsewhere lend themselves to this analysis, then how did it become so?

David Gilmartin, a professor of history at North Carolina State University and Director of the North Carolina Center for South Asian Studies, argues that British intervention in Punjab during the colonial occupation of the region set the stage for the current internal divisions. Gilmartin’s Empire and Islam: Punjab and the Making of Pakistan, published by the University of California Press in 1988, makes the case that the British ultimately caused the contemporary crisis of government in Pakistan.

After the invasion of Punjab in 1849 the British sought allies in the region and chose to make alliances with leaders of families in the countryside. While religion was a central feature of the pre-British Punjabis ruling order, this angle was dismissed in place of ‘tribal’ networks and affiliations. He argues that where urban spaces and religious affiliations were the source of stability and community, new relationships were built based on British whims their ideas of governmental order implemented. Eventually, the British distributed “landed gentry” grants to those they saw as ready to deal with the British. Those who had power in the old system and those coming to power in the new system came into tension.

Gilmartin’s argument centers on the tension created between the social organizational structures of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus before the British occupation and the new order of power the British created. From this point, through Partition, and up into the present Pakistan has had a difficult time finding a balance in governmental affairs, with various sects vying for power. Some would like to see a state more closely in line with Islamic or Sikh principles while others—often in league with Western partners—would like to see a more secular state. Gilmartin makes a case that a range of disorder has its roots in the British style of reordering the space of Punjab.

Now again Western powers seek to reorder the region. The US continues to offer and give money to the government of Pakistan with strings attached, attempting to produce a space mapped on Western ideals. The CIA operates unmanned aircraft in Pakistani airspace, regularly killing via satellite from Virginia. Given the track record of the West’s intervention in the region and the consequent state of affairs therein, shouldn’t such intrusive measures be reconsidered, especially given the overtly violent nature of this late enterprise?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

India and Maoism: To Be Expected

There is an increase in the activities and influence of India's Maoists known as Naxalites. The name Naxalite derives from the name of the Naxalbari village the movement originated in; located in West Bengal. According to the information in this youtube, they currently have influence over one-third of the Indian subcontinent. Indian activists Arundhati Roy and Ajai Sahni explain how the increasing class divide, and the falsity of Indian democracy, make up the driving force behind the conflict. It is interesting that Maoism (not just in the Indian subcontinent), parroted by many politcal analysts as discredited, is once again surging in popularity. Nepal, for example, is on the verge of total Maoist take over. The Nepalese Maoists also appear to be linked with the Naxalites (see here). The truth of this story is much larger than the topic of India or Maoism. The majority of the world is poor. The majority of the world is alienated from so-called democracies. Guerrilla wars and other forms of resistance to this poverty and alienation are inevitable.

Friday, April 23, 2010

David Harvey, "Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development"

(Verso, 2006)

David Harvey is one the premiere academic Marxists writing today. He's a geographer by training, but his analysis of post-Fordist capitalism and his materialist critique of cultural postmodernism have earned him a notable place in debates ranging across a number of other disciplines. Unfortunately for the Harvey neophyte, much of his work is packaged in daunting paving stone sized volumes. Spaces of Global Capitalism, clocking in at a mere 148 pages, comprises a lecture series given by Harvey in 2004. It makes for a concise introduction to Harvey and has the added benefit of drawing a neat, if somewhat artificial, division between three levels of ascending explanatory abstraction with which Harvey is concerned.
I should comment further on this last point. Much as Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit figures as the ladder to the greater Encyclopaedic system, but at the same time a concluding gloss on the very same, Harvey's Spaces of Global Capitalism is structured to reward repeated readings. The first lecture is the most easily digestable. Having made it to the end of the third lecture, however, one will have better grasped the theoretical abstractions Harvey employs and be in a better position to start again.

Lecture 1: "Neo-liberalism and the restoration of class power"
Lecture 1 is a concise restatement of the narrative contained in Harvey's essential A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford, 2005). The global fortunes and local determinations of neo-liberalism are briefly recounted, with particular emphasis on its political causes and mechanisms. Harvey argues that the history of neo-liberalism shows it to be a failed and mystifying economic program masking a retrenchment of upper-class power. He explains with precision neo-liberalism's inherent contradictions and goes on to examine both the neo-conservative and progressive responses to these. Of particular interest to me was his critique of human rights discourses as engendered by and responding to neoliberalism. Harvey ends on a hopeful note.

Lecture 2: "Notes towards a theory of uneven geographical development"
Here Harvey takes a step back and sketches the components of a "'unified' field theory of uneven geographical development" ("unified" in scare-quotes because harvey seeks a dialectical rather than a reductionist or organicist theory). In brief, Harvey uses Marxist conceptual tools (updated and broadened in certain respects; for instance, his interpretation of "primitive accumulation" as "accumulation by dispossession") to make sense theoretically of the kinds of events tracked by the first lecture. The subsection "Capital accumulation in space and time" on pages 95-96 is as concise a statement as one can find of Harvey's general theory (though it should also be understood that for Harvey, theory is not a static but rather a dynamic discourse). One will find that Harvey is open to explanatory tools from a variety of traditions, but, given his penchant for dialectics, is sensitive to where these have potential to become sclerotic and obfuscating. This lecture could be titled: "Harvey's Marxism in Brief".

Lecture 3: "Space as a keyword" 
Harvey's main contribution to Marxism, following Lefebvre, is in pushing space to the forefront of Marxian analysis. More accurately, he has insisted on a variegated category of "space-time" in studying capital accumulation and, by extension, uneven geographical development. In this lecture he analyzes the notion of "space" and how it may be cashed out into three different conceptions (Cartesian/Newtonian "Absolute space", Einsteinean "Relative space(-time)", and Leibnizean "Relational space(-time)"). All of these stand in dialectical tension with each other and form a grid with "experienced", "concepualized" and "lived" variants. One must "roam the grid" to construct or reconstruct the role of space(-time) in a given materialist explanation. There's much fuel for philosophical reflection here, and ultimately one gets a sense of how even at a highly abstract level, Harvey's spatial/geographical thinking can be brought to bear on his history of neo-liberalism and his search for a "unified" theory of uneven geographical development. He signals that such a thinking is "rich in possibilities"; his history of neo-liberalism is a skeleton to be filled in by richer spatializations which must, however, keep in mind the dialectical unity of the spatial grid and not founder on specificities. For Harvey, there are real consequences to such an error: by focusing on place, rather than space, one courts political irrelevance and defeat. Hence his call for an enriched Marxism beyond the impasse of culturalism/postmodernism.

Revolutionary Horizons: Nepal

For some time, the revolutionary movement in Nepal has been of some interest to several of the contributors to The Notes Taken. As I wrote in a previous post, the Maoist movement (now called the United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist) took up armed struggle in 1996 against the repression of Nepal's government, which, in 2008, brought down the the monarchy and instituted a parliamentary democracy and a Constituent Assembly to reorganize the country's political system. Then, in an unlikely move, for our political times, the UCPN-M quit parliament on the wager that popular support would be a more important force than parliamentary power. The intransigence of the unreformed Nepal Army, who refused to recognize civilian rule, prevented parliamentary reform.

According to Jed Brandt, writing for Counterpunch
The Maoists have used their days in this assembly to flesh out their plans for a New Nepal. They drafted and popularized constitutional provisions for a future people’s republic – including land reform, complete state restructuring, equality for women, autonomy for oppressed minorities and an end to Nepal’s stifling subordination to India.
All the kinds of things that the elite would not find so palatable. The result:
Nepal has two mutually-exclusive power structures: one is the revolutionary movement led by the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which has a powerful mass base among the people, a disciplined political militia in the YCL and its People’s Liberation Army. The other is the apparatus of Nepal’s state — held-over from the monarchy, unreconstructed, backed by the rifles of the Nepal Army and the heavy weight of feudal tradition.
Land seizures co-exist with plantations. Old judges still sit in their patronage chairs dispensing verdicts to the highest bidder while revolutionary courts turn off and on in the villages. The deposed king Gyanendra lost his crown, but retains vast tracts of land, a near monopoly on tobacco and a “personal” business empire. Large-scale infrastructure like hydropower remains largely under foreign ownership, but only operate when, and how, the Maoist-allied unions let them. In short, the semi-feudal, semi-colonial system of Nepal is in place but the organized workers and Maoist-led villagers hold a veto.
The two power structures, he argues, are on the fast track to collision, because the Nepalese constituent assembly has until May 28 to draft a new constitution, and its been deadlocked since the Maoists quit. As Brandt reports, seventy members of the ruling party have called on their own leader to step down so that the Maoists can form a national-unity government.

The UCPN-M, in the meantime, has been organizing the people to press their case, holding rallies across the country to demonstrate their popular power, mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people. These rallies are preparation for a massive demonstration on May Day, which
call for workers and villagers to converge on Kathmandu for a “final conflict.” The Maoists are calling for a sustained mobilization, with the hope that an overwhelming showing can push the government out with a minimum of bloodshed and stay the hand of the Nepal Army.
This is good reason to keep an eye on Nepal for the next few months, even if good information is hard to come by. Counterpunch has been very reliable (although I must mention that Brandt's article really pushes the 'final conflict' line; the Maoist struggle  has been going for almost 15 years, one would think that it wouldn't disappear if their demands aren't met by the end of May). I recall, two years ago, a sitting at fellow contributor Joshua's apartment searching the net (and various online bookstores) for reliable-- that is, somewhat sympathetic-- books on Nepal, and finding very few options. The Nepal Maoists, as I've pointed out before, have not captured the imagination of internationalist leftists in the way that the Bolivarian Revolution has. While I can't say why specifically, I often wonder if it has to do with the Maoists' lack of concern with legal-parliamentary routes to power. Their use of violence and disregard for legalism puts them at odds with much of the established discourse on radical resistance. The use of violence is a difficult subject, as it should be; but ignoring it will not make it go away.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Commemorating Paul Celan

Pierre Joris commemorates the fortieth anniversary of Paul Celan's death (on April 20):
[Celan] left the (very noisy, as he had complained to friends) apartment on avenue Emile Zola, walked to the Pont Mirabeau (the name of a bridge across the Seine near by his flat, but of course also the title of a famous Apollinaire poem) and went into the water. Below, my [Joris's] translation of the last poem Paul Celan wrote, starting it around April first and finishing it on the 13th.
Vinegrowers dig up
the darkhoured watch,
depth for depth,
you read,
the invisible
one commands the wind
to stay in bounds,
you read,
the Open Ones carry
the stone behind the eye,
it recognizes you,
on the Sabbath.
Here's a recording of Celan reading his poem "Corona" (with subtitles):

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Short Critique of Benjamin's Fragment "Capitalism as Religion"

Walter Benjamin argues, in an early fragment entitled “Capitalism as Religion” (dated 1921), that capitalism serves a religious function insofar as it “allay[s] the same anxieties, torments, and disturbances to which the so-called religions offered answers.” This short critique will ask if Benjamin’s thesis is adequate to a critique of capitalism, a question that is pertinent insofar as much of contemporary ‘continental’ political philosophy is undergoing a ‘post-secular’ turn.

Benjamin identifies three features of the religious structure of capitalism:
  1. Capitalism is purely cultic, it lacks a theology or specific dogmas. All things take on meaning in relation to this cult.
  2. This cult is permanent; every day demands that one participate in it. As Benjamin states, there are no “weekdays.”
  3. The cult of capitalism is a system of guilt (Schuld, also ‘debt’) and despair rather than atonement.

It is notable that each of these features is structured as an exception to the rule, that each could be read as ‘Capitalism is a religion, except that…’. Beyond the emphasis on paradox in these formulations, Benjamin’s central thesis seems structured to fail. So why insist that capitalism should be understood in relation to religious structures?

The ‘exceptional’ status of capitalism serves a dual purpose in this short fragment. First, it defines what is unprecedented in capitalism vis-à-vis other religious forms: capitalism is a permanent cult that “offers not the reform of existence but its complete destruction” rather than its salvation. Despite these differences with other religious forms, Benjamin’s thesis also establishes a sense of continuity, specifically the possibility of atonement, or as he later calls it, redemption. As is well-known, redemption is central to Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History,” but in the two texts, the concept named by atonement or redemption possesses different features.

In “Capitalism as Religion,” atonement is thought as a threshold (note how this will direct us, elsewhere, to a critique of Giorgio Agamben). The concept of atonement cannot arise from the cult, religious reformation, or even renunciation, rather “the religious movement which is capitalism entails endurance right to the end…the point where the universe has been taken over by that despair which is actually its secret hope.” Only by completely following through with this movement, and traversing this threshold where the relations of capitalism become– as Marx would say– the fetters of the productive forms of society, is salvation possible.

In “On the Concept of History,” redemption is not thought as threshold; Benjamin now thinks it as intervention or event. Rather than pursue the destructive movement through which ‘all that is solid melts into air,’ the later Benjamin (in the “Paralipomena to ‘On the Concept of History’”) writes that “Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train– namely, the human race– to activate the emergency break.” Or, as he also mentions, the task is to blast open the “continuum of history.” In both cases, redemption is not set off to the future as threshold; it is a subjective intervention in the present. Between the two texts, moreover, Benjamin relocates his analyses; no longer satisfied with a critique of sociological forms (note the references to Weber and Sorel in “Capitalism as Religion”), he now pursues an anti-Stalinist historical materialism (against, specifically, the idea that there are forces of objective necessity in history).

We will leave aside, for the time being, the question of whether the theory of intervention in Benjamin’s historical materialism ought to enlist “the services of theology.” For now, we will confine the critique to whether the thesis that “capitalism as religion” imparts any advantage to understanding either the ideology of, or the relations of production in, capitalism. I think it is self-evident that this kind of critique cannot advance an analysis of the productive forces of society as they are organized by society, so we are left with the question of ideology.

Hence the question: do any of the religious features of capitalism advance our critique? We will address them in the order that they are proposed by Benjamin.
  1. Contrary to “Capitalism as Religion,” we know that capitalism possesses at least one dogma (although the religious metaphor does not advance our critique): the right of private property, i.e. the right of capital.
  2. Here, Benjamin is right: one not need believe in capitalism to participate (even if by force). Because it is a system that structures social relationships, it has to be fought at the level of these same relationships. Thus:
  3. Capitalism, at least in its contemporary form does not disseminate guilt. Instead, it is productive of desire, even to the degree that it can ‘accommodate’ many of the micro-resistances that so many critics of capitalism espouse. Hence the difficulty of struggle.

Finally, does capitalist ideology answer the same concerns that religion does? As Marx wrote, “Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering,” but the same– the simultaneous ‘expression of’ and ‘protest against’ real suffering– is not expected of capitalism, although religion and other ideological appartatuses do attempt to account for this suffering. Instead of proposing that capitalism should be understood as religion, we ought to separate the specific roles of, and contradictions between, various apparatuses.

In sum, the ‘capitalism as religion’ thesis cannot assist us in social struggle. Benjamin later recognizes that theology can be more pertinent to the oppressed than as a form of the critique of oppression. Nevertheless, we ought to be hesitant, today, with enlisting the services of theology. As Marx recognized, ideological struggles or contradictions are also lived as real struggles or contradictions. But when their concepts are no longer ‘descriptive’ or ‘instructive,’ they become impediments to social struggle. We will draw from “Capitalism as Religion” its implicit conclusion: capitalism is not like a religion; the critique of political economy requires altogether different concepts.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Yukio Mishima: "Spring Snow"

(Vintage, 1990)

A few weeks ago I got ahead of myself and started reviewing Mishima's Sea of Fertility tetralogy at the second book. You'll recall that I didn't care too much for the latter, which I characterized as a tale of whiney fascist manchildren obsessing about each others' purity (Jonas Brothers zing opportunity?). I should say at this point that part of my frustration with Runaway Horses was that it failed to live up to its precursor, Spring Snow.

If the second installment of the tetralogy is a tale of whiney manchildren doing squat thrusts together and fanasizing about how their abs and chests will look when they commit suicide, then the first distinguishes itself as a tale of whiney manchildren being rich, listless, ruining the lives of others through indecision, and generally pulling an affected Young Werther routine. I should specify: there is only one such ridiculous manchild in Spring Snow, the other young men being fairly reasonable and even likeable. The manchild in question is the one who, hypothesizes the character Honda, who lives through all four books, will be reborn as a fascist kendo enthusiast next time around (amd subsequently reborn in novels 3 and 4). The ill-fated character in question, Kiyoaki, symbolizes the last bloom or the sunset of the Meiji era (the novel starts in 1911, in the early years of the Taisho period). Certainly, he is not made for the 20th century; he invokes Eugene Onegin, but in a degenerate kind of way. He is the kind of character who is made to die; along the way, he compromises others and generally acts like a natural force.

So far this doesn't amount to much of an endorsement, but I'd like to flag Spring Snow as possibly rewarding to patient readers, especially those with a feel or affinity for elegance and decadence. Like most of Mishima's work, Spring Snow is baroque and plodding. It generally succeeds, however, where Runaway Horses fails. There were a few points in the novel which were absolutely beautiful, others quite singular (the protagonist drinking a glass of snapping turtle blood, dining alone in a big empty mansion). Generally, this is a more palatable introduction to Mishima than his other fare.

Hassan Nasrallah and Hugo Chavez: What Does it Mean?

In this brief clip the leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, calls Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez "brother." North America's right-wing uses speeches like this to create fear of a South American (Leftist) collaboration with Islamic terrorism. This is a distortion of the matter. Yet, it is true that some US leftists view Lebanon's Hezbollah, and even the current Iranian regime, as heroically anti-imperialist. At a wedding last summer I spoke with a few Iranian-American Communists that were outraged with the human rights abuses by the Islamic Republic of Iran. They also expressed annoyance with American leftists that sympathized with Islamist movements simply due to their solidarity with Latin American populist/leftist movements. One man told me, "It is an economic relationship not an ideological one." However this is viewed, several points of interest emerge. Nasrallah is a Shiite Muslim and yet very popular with Sunni Muslims and secular Arabs. Nasrallah even finds support among some Lebanese Christians. Hugo Chavez, a man who wears red, quotes Marx, and calls for a Cuban styled revolution in Venezuela, enjoys many anti-Marxist Muslim supporters. What this demonstrates is that political alliances are tentative and based on immediate circumstances. It also puts into question the relevance of official ideologies. To make a sophisticated politcal analysis always requires examinations beyond mere formalities.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Transcendental Consciousness and the Dialectic of Need

By Caleb Heldt, University of Warwick

In the Logic of Sense, Gilles Deleuze credits Sartre with providing the definitive conditions which characterise a radically impersonal transcendental field in his 1937 essay The Transcendence of the Ego [1]. However, Deleuze immediately qualifies this encomium a few pages later, declaring that,
This field can not be determined as that of a consciousness. Despite Sartre's attempt, we cannot retain consciousness as a milieu while at the same time we object to the form of the person and the point of view of individuation. A consciousness is nothing without a synthesis of unification, but there is no synthesis of consciousness without the form of an I, or the point of view of the Self. What is neither individual nor personal are, on the contrary, emissions of singularities insofar as they occur on an unconscious surface and possess a mobile, immanent principle of auto-unification through a nomadic distribution, radically distinct from fixed and sedentary distributions as conditions of the syntheses of consciousness (LS, 102).
It is this rejection of consciousness in favour of a conception of pre-individuated singularities which marks Deleuze's decisive rejection of phenomenology – in particular the structure of intentionality – while retaining the conditions of the transcendental field marked out by Sartre [2]. From a Deleuzian perspective, Sartre's philosophical project went astray once his analyses abandoned the plane of immanence which he uncovered as the transcendental field in favour of a phenomenological conception of consciousness, allowing the perspective of the subject to be re-installed, a subject whose intentional awareness of transcendent objects (Ego and world) is the very condition of possibility and of transcendence (rather than the actualisation of virtual, or immanent potentialities) [3].

So why, we might ask, does Sartre – on the threshold of a theory of singularities – return to the subject in Being and Nothingness the way he does, as an investigation of transcendence upon which he never turns his back [4]? In all honesty, I think this is a badly posed question, one that loses sight of Sartre's most genuine philosophical commitments. In one way or another, Sartre repeatedly returns to the fundamental insights of The Transcendence of the Ego. Indeed, we must bear in mind that Sartre's early theoretical tome, Being and Nothingness, is a critical ontological inquiry [5]. It is a text which endeavours to describe the phenomena which render transcendence, free action, intelligible and to examine the various ways in which transcendence insufficiently limits itself, giving rise to transcendental illusions (NE, 532) which Sartre refers to as bad faith (mauvaise foi). Rather than pursuing this early revelation of the transcendental field as a plane upon which radically impersonal, pre-individuated spontaneities interact without egological interference, without the self-imposed illusions of bad faith – in the manner pursued metaphysically by Deleuze [6] – Sartre devoted himself to investigating the structures of human thought which give rise to these very illusions and, later, to the material conditions involved in such illusion-constitution.

In short, after opening the transcendental field (of consciousness) as a plane upon which pure (reflective) spontaneities (TE, 96) interact free of egological interpenetration – rendering actions radically impersonal or pre-personal – Sartre chose not to pursue this intuition metaphysically but rather chose to devote himself to an investigative project which would examine the conditions which veil this field in self-deceptive illusions. The project undertaken in Being and Nothingness, then, attempts to describe, phenomenologically, the formal conditions which render possible such illusion-constitution through the degradation of this spontaneity by the introduction into the plenum of Being (which is pure presence, a consequence of its self-identity, its being only what it is) a non-being, a being which 'is not'. Thus, consciousness constitutes present-being by an irremediable absence of (a particular) being, which is to say, by a lack of being. What ties this ontological critique of desire as lack in Being and Nothingness to the project undertaken in the Critique of Dialectical Reason [7] is precisely this conception of lack, although the concerns will shift from the formal considerations of ontology to material ones. As such, Sartre opens 'Book I' of the Critique with an examination of elementary individual praxis in which this ontological desire of Being and Nothingness is analysed in its most primordial ontic manifestation which Sartre calls need, i.e. material (biological) desire. As Sartre says, “Everything is to be explained through need (le besoin); need is the first totalising relation between the material being, man, and the material ensemble of which he is part” (CDRI, 80).

It is precisely because each individual consciousness “exists its body” (BN, 353) [8] as its unalterable facticity that it remains bound to its material environment and is consequently compelled to take a point of view on its material condition, and it is this taking a point of view which yields the possibility of departing from the radical immanence of the transcendental field. From a Sartrean perspective, this explains the way in which lack (or scarcity) becomes an ontological (and materialistic) category governing consciousness's interaction with its situation (or environment) transforming the nature of desire from abundance to a type of desire which is predicated upon lack (most fully elaborated by Sartre in BN and CDRI) [9]. We will spend the remainder of this short essay investigating this moment of departure from the immanence of the transcendental field (as the field of materiality) as Sartre describes it in the early pages of the Critique in the dialectic of need, the moment which we may perhaps call the birth of transcendence and the free project, or praxis.

So, what the dialectic of need unveils initially, in the first instance, is not an absence of a particular transcendent object which is apprehended as lacking in the environment, but prior to the constitution of a lack in the environment consciousness, or rather the (conscious) organism, finds itself in the presence of an environment which it constitutes co-extensively with its presence as need: “Need is a negation of the negation in so far as it expresses itself as a lack within the organism” (CDRI, 80; bold emphasis added). This consciousness of need is not a consciousness of a past need, but a consciousness of a present need through and through. The organism constitutes the lack it feels within its own being – hunger, for example – as a negation of its being which “threatens the organism as a whole with disintegration – the danger of death” (CDRI, 81). Need, in becoming elementary praxis, is posited as the negation of this negation. So, in the first instance, need-consciousness does not constitute its present environment by a particular lack but rather exists this lack in its own being as a necessity imposed by biological functions, which is to say, in the language of Being and Nothingness, its facticity. But “the negation of this negation is [only] achieved through the transcendence of the organic [of the organism's own being] towards the inorganic: need (le besoin) is a link of univocal immanence with surrounding materiality” (CDRI, 80). Initially, then, the organism “reveal[s] the material environment, to infinity, as the total field of possibilities of [the] satisfaction” of its need as the negation of the felt internal lack” (CDRI, 80) Or again:
As soon as need appears, surrounding matter is endowed with a passive unity, in that a developing totalisation is reflected in it as a totality: matter revealed as passive totality by an organic being seeking its being in it – this is Nature in its initial form. Already, it is in terms of the total field that need seeks possibilities of satisfaction in nature, and it is this totalisation which will reveal in the passive totality its own material being as abundance or scarcity (CDRI, 81).
This is significant because in the first instance of need the organism, as we have said, does not constitute the external environment by a lack, by scarcity, because – ontologically speaking – being-in-itself lacks nothing; it is what it is and it is pure presence to itself. However, this present-being becomes constituted by a lack, by scarcity, in the initial moment of elementary praxis insofar as for the organism “the material environment..., by not containing what the organism seeks, transforms the totality as future reality into possibility,” i.e. into an as yet non-existent state of (its) being (CDRI, 83; bold emphasis added). This is to say that the origin of possibility as praxis lies in the fact that the organism apprehends the present environment as incapable of satisfying its present need, so it posits a future reality, an end, which would satisfy its present need:
Need, as a negation of the negation, is the organism itself, living in the future, through present disorders, as its own possibility and consequently, as the possibility of its own impossibility [i.e. its own non-existence, or death]; and praxis, in the first instance, is nothing but the relation of the organism, as exterior and future end, to the present organism as a totality under threat; it is function exteriorised (CDRI, 83).
As such, the consequence of the failure of the organism's present environment to provide the requisite conditions for the satisfactions of its (biological) need is that transcendence, as elementary praxis, proves to be an adaptive function (the exteriorisation of its interiority, i.e. of its interior lack or negation) capable of being utilised by the (human) organism. By constituting its present environment by the scarcity of the “inorganic or less organised elements or, quite simply,...dead flesh, etc.” (CDRI, 80) which the organism lacks and as such threatens it with death, it is compelled to seek out a new environment which would satisfy its needs: “It is at this ambiguous level that the dialectical transition from function to actions can be seen. The project, as transcendence, is merely the exteriorisation of immanence” (CDR, 83).

And this analysis is completely consistent with the ontological explication of lack in Being and Nothingness where Sartre describes hunger, qua desire, as a state of the body, as a form of lived facticity in which,
the For-itself immediately flees...toward its possibles; that is, toward a certain state of satisfied-hunger the In-itself-for-itself of hunger. Thus hunger is a pure surpassing of corporal facticity; and to the extent that the For-itself becomes conscious of this facticity in a non-thetic form, the For-itself becomes conscious of it as a surpassed facticity. The body here is indeed the past, the passed-beyond (BN, 409).
It is necessary to bear in mind, in this perhaps risky dialogue between the ontological and the material conditions of consciousness qua need and desire, that what is at issue in both of Sartre's analyses – and that of which Deleuze and Guattari are critical – is precisely the conception of lack and the understanding of desire and need in terms of lack. Whereas for Deleuze and Guattari, “Desire is not bolstered by needs, but rather the contrary; needs are derived from desire: they are counter products within the real that desire produces. [And as such] Lack is a countereffect of desire” (AO, 27), for Sartre this cannot be the case, at least not in the first instance. As he says, “We will not get out of the difficulty by making desire a conatus [10] conceived in the manner of a physical force. For the conatus...can not possess in itself the character of reaching out toward another state. The conatus as the producer of states can not be identified with desire as the appeal from a state” (BN, 111). Desire, for Sartre, is constituted (impurely) reflectively as lack as a result of, or rather co-extensively with need [11]. It is the appeal outward from a conscious state of need (hunger, for example) toward another as yet non-existent state of consciousness which would be a satisfied need (e.g. the In-itself-for-itself of hunger, or the ideal totalised totality of consciousness as satisfied hunger), which is to say, in the language of the Critique, need is the transcendence of lack by way of the exteriorisation of immanence, and it is this capacity, extended beyond its appropriate realms, which gives rise to (an array of) transcendental illusions.

While this no doubt would be the place to examine the constituent structures involved in a Sartrean conception of pure or non-accessory desire, we have already gone beyond the bounds of the present forum [12]. Let me conclude by saying that Deleuze's intuition regarding the fundamental nature of desire is Sartrean in spirit, only Sartre accords a greater significance to the role of negation and thereby transcendence than Deleuze is willing to allow. In any case, I would like to suggest that, in a sense, their respective projects can be viewed with a certain degree of complementarity given their mutual starting point, namely the transcendental field; their projects diverge, however, as Sartre sought to understand the ways in which human reality has veiled from itself its radical capacity to act spontaneously and impersonally, whereas Deleuze's project discarded these illusions at the outset in order to develop what he came to refer to as a 'transcendental empiricism'. So despite any disagreements as to what constitutes the proper field of study for an ontology or a metaphysics, the world-view of each ultimately returns to the transcendental field as a (possible) reality of lived (human) experience.

Caleb Heldt is a graduate student at the University of Warwick. His research (see here) focuses on the role of the imagination (what Sartre refers to as 'image consciousness'), affectivity and memory in providing the conditions of possibility for the phenomenon of self-deception or 'bad faith' (mauvaise foi) in Sartre's thought.

  1. Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester and Charles Stivale, ed. Constantin V. Boundas, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 98-99; hereafter LS. Sartre, The Transcendence of the Ego, trans. Forrest Williams and Robert Kirkpatrick, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1991), hereafter TE.
  2. LS, 105; Deleuze, 'Immanence: A Life' in Pure Immanence: Essays on Life, trans. Anne Boyman, (New York: Zone Books, 2005), 33 n2; Deleuze, and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 47.
  3. Cf. 'Immanence: A Life', 25-33. As Sartre says in TE, “Potentiality is not mere possibility: it presents itself as something which really exists, but its mode of existence is potency” (TE, 71). But for Sartre, these potentialities really exist only because they belong to a transcendent object, namely the ego. In BN, potentiality is predominantly associated with present worldly objects. For a concise explication of Deleuze's position, drawn from the work of Henri Bergson, see 'The Actual and the Virtual', in Deleuze, and Claire Parnet, Dialogues II, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007),148-152. For Sartre, Bergson's consciousness is fundamentally egological (cf. TE, 80). 
  4. Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, trans. Hazel E. Barnes, (London: Routledge, 2003), hereafter BN.
  5. In his eulogy to Merleau-Ponty, published in Situations IV in 1964, Sartre referred to Being and Nothingness as his “eidetics of bad faith” [Sartre, 'Merleau-Ponty', Portraits, trans. Chris Turner, (London: Seagull Books, 2009), 442 n75]. Of equal import, in the Notebooks for an Ethics, Sartre declares that, “The very fact that Being and Nothingness is an ontology before conversion takes for granted that a conversion is necessary and that, as a consequence, there is a natural attitude” [Sartre, Notebooks for an Ethics, trans. David Pellauer, (Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), 6; hereafter NE]. Also, in the penultimate chapter of Being and Nothingness itself, Sartre states that the preceding investigation was aimed only at an accessory or impure reflective analysis, asserting that an analysis of purifying, ethical reflection was as yet to be undertaken (BN, 602).
  6.  No doubt, many Deleuzians would resist this designation, asserting that the plane of immanence upon which virtual potentialities are actualised refers to a Deleuzian ontology. And this may well be so from a Deleuzian perspective; however, from a Sartrean point of view, even a conception of an absolutely pure reflective consciousness which never lapse into bad faith is a postulation that belongs more appropriately to a metaphysics. And it should not be overlooked that Deleuze said of himself in the Dialogues, “Je me sens pur métaphysicien” [cited in Beistegui, Miguel, Truth and Genesis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 221].
  7. Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, vol. 1, ed. Jonathan Rée, trans. Alan Sheridan-Smith, (London: Verso, 2004), hereafter CDRI.
  8. This a position Sartre maintained throughout his career, from his early writings on the imagination – in which Sartre emphasises the role which fatigue plays in the tendency toward image-consciousness [Sartre,  The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination, trans. Johnathan Webber, (London: Routledge, 2004), 71.] – until the final years of his life, as can be seen in his 1975 interview with Michel Contat in which he declares, “For me, there is no difference in nature between body and consciousness” ['Autoportrait à soixante-dix ans', Situations X, (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), 146 cited in Barnes, Hazel E., 'Sartre as Materialist' in The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, ed. Paul Arthur Schlipp, (La Salle, IL.: Open Court Publishing Company, 1981), 684 n11.]. 
  9. For Deleuze's critique of desire as lack see Deleuze's seminar from 26 May, 1973 entitled 'Dualism, Monism and Multiplicities (Desire-Pleasure-Jouissance)', trans. Daniel W. Smith, Contretemps 2, May 2001, pp. 92-108, esp. 95 & 101: “it is true that Western philosophy has always consisted in saying: if desire exists, it is the very sign, or the very fact, that you are lacking something. Everything starts from that. A first wielding of desire-lack is brought about; from there, it goes without saying that desire is defined as a function of a field of transcendence' desire is desire for what one does not have” (101). In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari criticise desire conceived as lack in a similar capacity, albeit within the context of a critique of psychoanalysis and capitalistic mechanisms with their notion of 'desiring-machines' as productive of desire. See Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), esp. 28n for a brief critique of Sartre's conception of scarcity; hereafter AO.
  10. In the manner of Spinoza, to whose conception of desire Deleuze's is closely akin. See Deleuze, Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza, trans. Martin Joughin, (New York: Zone Books, 1990).
  11. A fact which many of Sartre's commentators fail to recognise, Deleuze (it often seems) included, is that the phenomenological and ontological descriptions in Being and Nothingness are intended to focus upon impure, or accessory reflective consciousness (BN, 602), which is to say the egological consciousness of The Transcendence of the Ego. This should be clear from the above characterisation of the conscious passage from one state to another, since states are transcendent unities of consciousness, which is to say they are fundamentally egological (cf. TE, 60-68). Sartre's examination of pure or non-accessory (reflective) consciousness appears in an introductory form in his discussion of temporality in Being and Nothingness, but this serves predominately to delineate the characteristics proper to psychic (or egological) temporality (BN, 177-193). Since Sartre associates pure or non-accessory consciousness with an ethical mode of consciousness – as it is free of egological interpenetration and aligns itself with the conditions he set out in The Transcendence of the Ego of a radically impersonal or pre-personal spontaneity – this modality of consciousness is not the subject of his 'eidetics of bad faith' in Being and Nothingness. Rather, it is that which he famously promised to study in a subsequent work on the final page of his phenomenological ontology, which did not appear in published form during his lifetime. Consequently, the best clues to what Sartre intended by this ethical, non-accessory modality of consciousness are to be found in the Notebooks for an Ethics. It is in this text where he makes the most explicit link between desire and non-accessory consciousness (cf. NE, 417).
  12. I have written of desire in relation to the various modalities of (un)reflective consciousness elsewhere. See my 'The Magical and Bad Faith: Reflection, Desire and the Image of Value', in Sartre Studies International, Volume 15, Issue 1, 2009: 54–73,

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Back to Sartre's Futures

Unlike the other contributors to our series, The Futures of Sartre's Critique, I've only recently returned to his work. I had studied, in my very early twenties, parts of Being and Nothingness, paged through, with varying degrees of interest, the pieces collected in the anthology Essays in Existentialism, and maybe even looked over a few  post-68 interviews. I'd written a few papers on Sartre, but overall, I felt that his work was incomplete. Indeed, it should have felt that way; only the essays on art found in Essays in Existentialism were published after the 1940s. I read and wrote, but only tangentially with Sartre (there's a few more twists in this winding story, but I will leave them aside for the time being).

This changed in June 2007. I had read Sam Harris's The End of Faith, hoping to find an ethical atheist...but I found a moralizer. For somebody so concerned with what he now calls "well-being," Harris's book is overwrought with indignation and self-righteousness, not to mention lacking a sense of justice. Anything goes, including torture and benevolent dictatorship, for Harris, if it can 'save' us from the benighted hordes of the non-Western world. Of course, political interpretations of so-called religious fanaticism are excluded from his inquiry, in order to focus on the religious ideas themselves. That's nice, but it does not tell us why some concepts become prevalent at some points and not others, how these concepts come to represent not just religious but political struggles. But Harris won't take the long history of imperialism seriously. Those who do, such as Noam Chomsky, are treated with a general condensation.

So, I had to turn to an ethical atheist...and Sartre provides a clear language to engage these kinds of arguments...but then, as it always happens, I write for a few days and then quickly get diverted, because defining the actuality of atheism (it's political and metaphysical commitments) is only part of a much larger political struggle. The fight between new atheism and religion is a particularly western kind of political fight; they can go on talk shows, sell their books and t-shirts, and feel as self-righteous and as persecuted as they want. They can inspire people, convince them to change. Either way, it's all narrated in a self-interested, self-help kind of way. There's a "secret solidarity", as Ronald Aronson states it, between the two.  It's a spectacular substitute for a much more difficult struggle for social justice.

If it's about social justice, however, what does Sartre have to say for future struggle? That's what I want to discuss here. Even though we're commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Critique of Dialectical Reason (Volume 1, of course), I'm going to introduce that book through Search for a Method. Sartre writes that
Far from being exhausted, Marxism is still very young, almost in its infancy; it has scarcely begun to develop. It remains, therefore, the philosophy of our time. We cannot go beyond it because we have not gone beyond the circumstances which engendered it (30).

And yet he states:
Marxism stopped. Precisely because this philosophy wants to change the world, because its aim is "philosophy-becoming-the-world,"  because it is and wants to be practical, there arose within it a veritable schism which rejected theory on one side and praxis on the other....Marxism found itself unable to bear the shock of these new struggles, the practical necessities and the mistakes which are always inseparable from them (21-22).
How to reconcile these two seemingly contradictory statements about Marxism, that philosophy of our time  which has nevertheless stopped? Jean-Luc Nancy's The Inoperative Community rejects the claim that a philosophy could be the horizon of our contemporary times. The very idea of a horizon, Nancy claims, is no longer valid. And, obviously, all of us educated in more or less pluralist philosophy departments might find this claim to be obvious, but it's not.

Sartre introduces three periods of modern philosophy-- the first dominated by Descartes and Locke, the second by Kant and Hegel, and the third by Marxism-- but this third period is qualitatively different. While each of these three philosophies acts, during its respective period, as a horizon to cultural and philosophical forms of its time, Marxism also describes the relationships of the means of production. Descartes, Locke, Kant, or Hegel may have put forward systems that governed other cultural and philosophical forms, but Marxism does something entirely different; it broke down the wall between philosophy and political economy. Class struggle against the bourgeois or capitalist modes of production are "the circumstances which engendered it." This has shaped previous philosophy, but not in a decisive and reflexive way. If we follow Marx himself, we could say that the crises of philosophies that do not overstep their boundaries into political economy can be refuted by their very own ideological means; their abstraction becomes a weapon against them.

And yet, "Marxism stopped." How? Sartre introduces a crucial distinction between 'philosophy' and ideology.' A philosophy constructs new set of relationships between thought and praxis, and ideology comes in and does the practical work, it takes inventory, it extends new methods (8). Existentialism, according to the Sartre of Search for a Method, is an ideology and not a philosophy. Marxism stopped, according to Sartre, because it can no longer measure the life of the masses as it is lived by them; instead, Marxism interprets a priori this lived world, individuality is reduced to a series of formulas and types. Marxism needs existentialism to seek out man (sic) "everywhere where he is, at his work, in his home, in the street" (28), but, Sartre argues, "historical materialism furnished the only valid interpretation of history and that existentialism remained the only concrete approach to reality" (21).

Sartre calls this the "double demand" of praxis, for both thinking concrete reality and criticizing political economy. He also identifies the the central and persistent problem: how to make the political imagination that drives praxis (its desires, passions, and fidelities) overlap with a totalizing critique of political economy (the production and reproduction of the relationships that organize and dominate the masses under capitalism) and vice versa? This question is just as relevant today as it was in 1957, just as "the circumstances which engendered" Marxism are, broadly speaking, just as relevant today as they were when Marx wrote.

Sartre's challenge to Marxism revolves around its treatment of the concrete and lived world of the masses.He is one of the first to see that the 'factory' is no longer the locus of the political imagination, that the locus is elsewhere (anticipating post-Fordism?). He has been criticized for his lack of interest in rank and file party organization due to his petty bourgeois background, but I think we should turn this critique around. His relative lack of interest in party organization is also connected to the emphases he placed on local spontaneity and systematic anti-colonialism. 'Imagining' this intersection of spontaneity and anti-colonialism has proved to be difficult for praxis (historically speaking, it was rejected or ignored by the French Communist Party), but it does explain Sartre's proximity to post-68 Maoism.

Schematic conclusions are risky to draw, but it is probably safe to say that many of the figures of post-68 post-structuralism, with their emphases on micro-politics and resistances, lost sight of the totalizing movement of political economy. The upshot is that political practices were extended into previously marginalized social spaces (the prisons, psychiatry, sexuality, etc). Nevertheless, today, we need a totalizing critique, which should pass again through Marx, the later Sartre, and the anti-colonialism and post-colonialism of Fanon, Césaire, and others. We need a  renewed critique of capitalism and a critique of the privilege that Westerners live by virtue of living in North America or Europe, and the exploitation and violence that engender it,  we need a sense of vigilance in order to critique and refuse every so-called humanitarian justification for imperial war and exploitation. We too need to be decolonialized, de-imperialized.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

North Korea: a Documentary

One of the most interesting documentary films I have watched is "Welcome to North Korea." The only problem I have with it is that it does not lucidly put North Korea (or South Korea for that matter) into an historical context. As a tremendous complement to this documentary I highly recommend the scholarly work Korea's Place in the Sun: a Modern History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.,1997 ) by Bruce Cumings. The biggest problem with any information about Korea is that there is so little information on Korea in the English language. Most East Asian studies programs at universities focus on China or Japan. North Korea is a kind of exotic topic viewed as a case study for totalitarianism. Bruce Cumings work puts all of Korean history into perspective. I ask that those who watch this documentary do not do so without taking the time to look into Korean history. Korea's struggle against Japanese occupation and the way Korea was divided up by the US and Soviet Union after WWII helps explain a lot about current circumstances in the region.

(I cut and pasted this info embedded into the Youtube posting: WELCOME TO NORTH KOREA
Country of production: Netherlands
Year: 2001

WELCOME TO NORTH KOREA is an unusual tour document from the perspective of a Dutch film crew. In this country like no other, gigantic monuments to heroic leaders are seen by almost no one, deluxe hotels hold next to no guests, and traffic police direct traffic that does not exist. Those few foreigners who do visit the country are told straightforwardly about the superhuman feats of the supreme leader Kim Il-Sung, and his son, the dear leader Kim Jong-Il. Those feats seem to be the subject of every public event. Meanwhile, somewhere on the countryside, scores of people die of hunger and are buried three bodies to a body bag. WELCOME TO NORTH KOREA's filmmakers certainly revel in the exoticism of their subject, especially in the pervasive voiceover. But they also show something of the reasons for that self-cultivated exoticism.

Director: Peter Tetteroo
Script: Peter Tetteroo with Dr. Raymond Feddema
Cinematography: Pieter Groeneveld
Production Company: KRO Dutch Television

Thursday, April 8, 2010

From the guilty pleasure file: Adam Warren's "Empowered"

At the age of seven or eight I became a big comic book fan. I'd buy the 25 cent used comics from Bookshelf, the neighborhood comic and used book store in St. James, Winnipeg (since replaced by a pet grooming operation, or something of the sort). Occasionally I'd take $1.25 out of my $2 allowance to buy a new one. Mostly I was a fan of Marvel titles. Then at some point in junior high school a long winter set in. Your favourite (?) blogger's attention turned to rock music, and nary a comic was read.

Fast forward to undergrad: I don't remember why, but I began to read the odd trade paperback by Adam Warren. Warren, an American, writes and draws what are known as "original English language manga" - that is, comics drawn in the popular Japanese style, but by non-Japanese, English-speaking artists. His first works were actually adaptations of already popular Japanese titles, such as The Dirty Pair and Bubblegum Crisis. He also did a stint on the popular American title, Gen 13. Warren's drawing style was always eye-catching, but essentially faithful to the tradition; in recent years he has shifted to a more idiosyncratic style, rendering characters with fuller facial features. The essential thing about Warren is that whether he is adapting an existing Manga, or creating his own, his work is always by turns playfully sexy, hilarious, ultra-violent, and oddly literary. If time you have to waste on comics, look no further than his.

I recently stumbled upon Warren's ongoing project Empowered, the sixth volume of which is in production. First: the artwork is incredible. Warren opted for a raw looking pencil / grey scale style, which is an interesting change from the usual bombastic colour treatment his work receives. But what really makes this title is its engaging - frankly entrapping - storyline, which runs roughly as follows: Elyssa Megan Powers, or "Emp" for short, gets her BA in meta-human studies and an alien super-suit so that she can become a superheroine. The suit, however, is "cruelly revealing" and oddly fragile, so Emp's attempts to fight crime more often than not end up with her in bondage, left to be picked up by her disdainful crimefighting teammates. She has body-image issues, and is generally in a fragile emotional state. She spends her off-hours with her boyfriend Thugboy, a former criminal goon, and Ninjette, a hard-drinking white female ninja from one of the ancient clans of New Jersey (!). Thugboy and Ninjette give Emp the emotional support she needs, and also provide an interesting element of unspoken sexual tension. The heroes and villains populating Emp's world are hilariously conceived - Wet Blanket, Shithouse Rat, Phallik, Chloroformaster, Maid Man, etc. Did I mention the Caged Demonwolf? Possibly the best character of all, the Demonwolf is a being of pure energy that Emp entrapped in a power-draining alien bondage belt (!). He spends his time on Emp's coffee table listening to NPR and watching DVDs of the Wire and Sanford and Son. He has the best lines of the whole series, commenting from a position of pure impotence, and in thunderous, grotesquely ornate and archaic turns of phrase, on the most petty goings-on in the household.

As the story progresses, the reader sees that the superheroes so disdainful of Emp are actually, for the most part, grandstanding assholes who are in it for the wrong reasons. She, on the other hand, is a humane and extremely intelligent, if often unlucky crimefighter who bravely battles workplace sexism and her own limitations. Somehow Warren carves out a place for personal growth in a comic which, on first blush, seems like an unabashed pretext for sexy situations.

This is not to make excuses. Empowered could be considered problematic - if not positively ridiculous - from a feminist perspective. At bottom it's fairly prurient; in fact, according to Warren himself it grew out of commissions to draw "damsels in distress" for certain special-interest patrons-of-the-arts. Warren tries to give knowing winks of all sorts throughout the series, but it isn't clear to me how a comic that knows it's outrageously sexist in certain respects is therefore off the hook for being so. Of course - and here's the rub - there is also the fact that I've read it, and thoroughly enjoyed it. For this reason, "Empowered" goes firmly into my guilty pleasure file, where it keeps company with my Type-O-Negative records and 50s girl gang movies. Half-ashamed, I eagerly await volume 6.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Coming Soon: The Futures of Sartre's Critique

This month The Notes Taken will be commemorating the 50th anniversary of the publication of Jean-Paul Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason, which includes contributions from Mark Raymond Brown (University of Ottawa), Caleb Heldt (a graduate student at the University of Warwick), and T Storm Heter (author of Sartre's Ethics of Engagement [see here], and professor at East Stroudsburg University). I am also laboring to get a short piece together.

These essays will begin running early next week, and during this time our regular contributors will continue to post. Until then, though, a few pieces that I highly recommend:
  • In the London Review of Books, Perry Anderson reviews several recent books on the ascendancy of China and the transformations that follow therefrom. Whether negative or positive, Anderson finds that a recent kind of 'Sinomania' is growing.
  • In The Nation, an article by Nathaniel Popper details the non-relationship between Raul Hilberg, author of The Destruction of the European Jews, and Hannah Arendt. Arendt seems to have borrowed quite heavily from Hilburg's book, sometimes without attribution. I don't know if that is the worst thing an academic can do, but if it's compounded by the fact that she had previously recommended against its publication when she reviewed it for Princeton's press...well, that's something else.
  • Finally, an interview with Gideon Levy, author of the forthcoming The Punishment of Gaza. (Norman Finkelstein also has a book on the recent assault on Gaza, entitled 'This Time We Went Too Far.') Levy's estimation of the Israeli media: "There is an enormous historic role that the Israeli media is playing. The Israeli media, which is a free media, free of censorship, free of governmental pressure, has been dehumanizing the Palestinians, demonizing them. Without the cooperation of the Israeli media, the occupation would not have lasted so long. It is destructive in ways I cannot even describe. It's not Romania, it's not Soviet Russia. It's a free democracy, the media could play any role but it has chosen to play this role. The main thing is about the flow of information. It is so one-sided, so much propaganda and lies and ignorance."