Monday, May 31, 2010

Another View From Here: The Ninth Art

As we've already mentioned, Matt and I will be in Montreal for a few days giving a panel on Marxism, Heidegger, and Benjamin; and I will be giving an additional presentation on Badiou and Heidegger. Things won't be too quiet around here; I plan on blogging about our Tuesday morning panel by Wednesday Thursday here.

Today, I suggest taking a look at Un autre regard-Another View From Here, where my wife Caroline reviews (so far French, but also in the future English) graphic novels and comic books. She blogs at

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Uganda's Christian Theocracy/Democracy and Homosexuality

The other night I was at a local bar in Modesto, California and an extremely drunk man almost attacked me. Before this incident, the bartender and I were making jokes about homophobes. The drunk guy became emotional and told me, "I don't like this conversation." As I walked to use the restroom the guy stood up and shouted, "Don't try to touch me! Gays!..." The bouncer got between us and I left the bar. I'm not gay but I received a small experience that many gays go through on a daily basis. Unfortunately homophobia is a global problem.

Currently, in Uganda the treatment of gays is becoming unprecedented. There is an attempt in Uganda to strengthen anti-homosexuality. Anti-homosexual activists hope to make homosexuality result in punishment by death. They want to punish those who do not snitch on citizens that they know to be practicing homosexuality. This is what theocracy looks like. Although, the majority may support these laws. Hence, this is what democracy looks like. Significantly, there is no politically neutral belief system. And each belief system makes an individual inclined to particular politics. Yet, a belief system can also distract a person from actual workings of politics.

We should not view what is happening in Uganda with naivete. Homophobia, like antisemitism and anti-immigrant fervor, can be utilized as a distraction from the greater class antagonism in any given society. In other words,the ruling class can use democratic sentiments (such as cultural trends or prejudices) as a smokescreen to prevent societal frustrations from being centered on those that rule society and create its economic/politcal imbalances. A point that should always be kept in mind as social tensions of any kind build in any country.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Slavenka Drakulic, "Two Underdogs and a Cat: Three Reflections on Communism"

(Seagull Books, 2009)

The four title Seagull Books series "What was Communism?" risks giving something of a wrong impression of its editor. Tariq Ali remains an "inveterate socialist", and this would suggest that the backward-looking orientation of the series cannot be the last word. As Devin pointed out in his review of Ali's own contribution to the series, one is left wanting a "What is Communism", or even "What will Communism Be?" Despite the pitfalls of a backward-looking emphasis, I recommend all four books in the series for their clarity, breadth of scope, concise delivery and - the bibliophile in me can't resist! - the excellent graphics and packaging. I'll only speak here of the fourth installment, Drakulic's Two Underdogs and a Cat.

Whereas the first three titles in the series are straight-up assessments of the history of communism, Drakulic delivers her reflections on communism in eastern and central Europe by using a time-honoured ploy: speaking from the perspective of animal characters. She invokes Orwell of course, but one is also reminded in places of the magical realism of Mikhail Bulgakov. This makes Drakulic's book the most fun of the series, but despite employing this whimsical literary device she has much to teach the reader about real historical conditions (and with a surprising degree of subtlety). Animals, because of their unique subject positions within any given society, would be in a privileged position to explain much of what goes unnoticed in everyday life if they only had a voice. Drakulic indulges in imagining what they would say if they had this voice; in the case of the first two chapters at least, her gesture amounts to constructing a history from below - way below.

The book is divided into three first-person narratives: a mouse living in the Czech Museum of Communism tells a visitor about life under a Soviet proxy government, and the failed hope of a genuine Czechoslovak socialism; an old dog in Bucharest traces the hundreds of thousands of stray dogs roaming about the city to the urban policies of Ceaucescu; finally, the house cat of divisive polish general Wojciech Jaruzelski writes a letter to the courts explaining the extenuating circumstances and character traits which led her owner to declare martial law in 1981. Drakulic manages to deliver history lessons through the mouths of her protagonists without overlooking the many grey areas of life under actually existing communism. To say that her book is an indictment of the communist system in eastern and central Europe would be too simplistic; she rightly points out that the complicity of citizens under such regimes was not solely the result of state terror but also because of the very real securities that the regimes could afford. Post-communism is rightly portrayed by Drakulic as at best a mixed blessing, and at worst a major regression for the vast majority of citizens.

Readers could probably polish this book off in an hour or two. It gets my stamp of approval for making history - even the dreary history of communist satellite states - at once humorous, serious, thought-provoking and digestable.

Historical Opportunity: Marx, Heidegger, Benjamin

Two of our contributors will be participating in a round-table at the Canadian Philosophical Association's annual meeting next week. Matt McLennan, Devin Zane Shaw, and their colleague David Tkach (also completing his PhD at the University of Ottawa) will be discussing "Historical Opportunity" in the works of Marx and Marxism, Heidegger, and Benjamin. We've included a partially updated version of their panel description below (the original is here in PDF format):
The collapse of Communist regimes in the late 80s and early 90s seemed to have offered a stark choice between two competing philosophies of history. On the one hand, grand narratives of progress and emancipation were claimed to have definitively foundered, leaving in their wake a plurality of individual viewpoints and social micro-histories (Lyotard). The collapse of Communism was also read in precisely the opposite way, as heralding the triumph of a grand narrative of historical progress, specifically that of liberal democracy (Fukuyama).
McLennan, Tkach and Shaw begin from the intuition that each option, starkly posed, misses something vital: a proper assessment of the concept of historical opportunity. Events since the collapse of Communism (the rise of religious fundamentalisms, the current crisis of capitalism) fuel the suspicion that we have neither reached the end of the era of grand narratives, nor properly accounted for the power of competing micro-histories. For theoretical and practical reasons, the present historical conjuncture renders a critical re-visitation of the “happy 90s” of utmost importance.
Matthew McLennan
Presenting a grand narrative of historical progress alongside an emphatic insistence on the importance of human agency, the works of Marx contain fascinating material for the philosopher of history. The seeming tension between determinism and freedom at the heart of his work has led to widely divergent interpretations of Marx, from the more or less deterministic, evolutionary historical picture of German Social Democracy and the Second International, to the voluntarism of Lenin, Luxemburg and Guevara. McLennan begins the proposed roundtable by arguing that Marx‟s philosophy of history is not only consistent, to the extent that the tension between determinism and freedom is only apparent, but also that it better lends itself to interpretations tending towards voluntarism. More specifically, after showing to what extent Marx was able to square his notion of the end of history with his emphasis on human agency, McLennan offers an argument that the Leninist notion of historical intervention, of “hitting upon the right moment”, was a more faithful application of Marx in its day than was that of the evolutionist faction of German Social Democracy and the Second International; this will set the stage for Shaw and Tkach‟s contributions by suggesting that Germany missed its opportunity to grasp the concept of historical opportunity, at least in the way Marx intended. Finally, tentative reflections will be offered with regard to the question of how such an interpretation of Marx might figure in an approach the present historical conjuncture.
Update: Matt adds a more recent abstract:
Matt McLennan surveys the development of Marxist philosophies of history, providing a schematic interpretation. Weighing in on where he thinks the emphasis of a properly Marxian philosophy should lie with respect to the question of historical opportunity (i.e. the "right moment" for revolutionary or militant activity) as well as that of eschatology or "the end of history", he argues that the most important advances in recent Marxism come from David Harvey. The notion of historical opportunity is enriched via Harvey to include a necessary spatio-geograpihical dimension; essentially, historical opportunity is interpreted as meaning that there is a "right space-time" for revolution.
 David Tkach
David Tkach's paper is a close reading of several sections of Heidegger's Being and Time, conducted in order to outline the problem of 'historical opportunity' in relation to the understanding of political action derivable from that work. In light of the book's three interrelated concepts of historicity, freedom, and the eschatological understanding of death in relation to Heidegger's understanding of a people [ein Volk], the result for the purposes of the round table is ultimately to call into question any possibility of political action that is directed toward a better situation for everyone. Thus, in contradistinction to certain attempts to rehabilitate aspects of Heidegger's book for ostensibly 'progressive' political purposes, Tkach concludes that it is at least problematic, not to say impossible, to do so.
Devin Zane Shaw
Shaw argues that class struggle is central to Walter Benjamin's concept of history. It is Benjamin's solidarity with the oppressed class that drives his critique of progress, and that orients his discussion of the legibility of dialectical images. It is only when an image is recognized as an image of emancipation that the history of its transmission becomes legible. Thus history is not the site of realizing Progress (Soviet Marxism), nor is it the site of a recovery of a past or heritage that has been covered over by an inauthentic understanding of history (Heidegger). History can only be written by blasting the events of the past out of the continuum of linear (or as Benjamin states, "empty, homogenous") historical time. Only then is it possible to clearly evaluate the documents of culture as both redemptive and barbaric.
BE prepared to get up bright and early; the panel is on Tueday, June 1st, from 9:00 ­ 12:30 in MB ­ S2-455 -- which we hear is the John Molson School of Business building.

In addition, Devin will present a paper at this year's meeting of the Society for Existential and Phenomenological Theory and Culture, on Wednesday, June 2nd, from 3:40-4:50pm at EV 2-204. He will be presenting:

"Cartesian Reversals: Badiou and Heidegger on Mathematics and Modernity"
This paper examines the relationship between philosophy, ontology (or onto-theology) and mathematics an in the work of Martin Heidegger and Alain Badiou. Despite Badiou's praise for Heidegger's 'subtraction' of truth from the domain of epistemology, he attacks Heidegger's equation of mathematics with the essence of modern technology. Against Heidegger, Badiou shows that mathematics thinks ontology, because it must decide on what is. He does this by drawing the philosophical consequences of the continuum hypothesis. I argue that these consequences undermine Heidegger's connection between poeisis and ontology and his claims about the essence of technology. If mathematics is a thought, it cannot be essentially a projection of calculation into being or equated with the essence of technology.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A modicum of clear thought vs. Glenn Beck

It is widely known among thoughtful folk that Fox News [sic] Channel personality Glenn Beck is a right-wing clown who makes his living by exploiting the fear and ignorance of a certain bracket of the American population. He invokes Tom Paine as his ideological forefather, thereby casting himself in the role of American patriot, voice of common sense, and champion of the little guy. Besides the fact that there is much in Tom Paine that is nigh incompatible with Beck's delightfully eclectic political views, Beck's much-touted "common sense", when applied to topical issues, proves to be nothing but a a pitiful hash of hyperboles and conspiracy theories.

If we peel back the verbiage, we see that Beck has essentially one play in his book: government policy or social movement or cultural trend x has some vague, tenuous, often analogical, metaphorical, or etymological relation to Nazism. Which, it should be stated when dealing with Beck, is the same thing as socialism, democratic or otherwise (Nazism = National Socialism. Socialism!!! See?? See??). The merest whiff of government intervention in any sphere has Beck shrilly invoking the gas chambers (it should of course be mentioned that he pooh-poohs the suggestion that recent racist legislation in Arizona has anything remotely in common with Nazi legislation! We see where his interests lie - precisely NOT with the little guy.) A sample of Beck's "common sense" in action: ACORN are Brown Shirts, social justice as preached by churches is disguised Nazi/Commie ideology, Obama is a racist. Here is Lewis Black destroying Beck for his "Nazi Tourette's", saying it better than I ever could.

On May 3, Beck took another play from the Beck playbook, and drew anarchist publishing collective AK Press into the ring. Their recent book We are an Image of the Future: The Greek Revolts of 2008 IS A BOOK ABOUT ANARCHISTS BY ANARCHISTS. Beck dismissed this: "They are not anarchists, but they will use anarchy to their favour". Beck has cracked the conspiracy: the self-proclaimed anarchists are really communists, which means they're in league with Nazis and moderate social democrats (all of whom are Nazis!). The AK Press collective delivered their scathing response to Beck here.

Of particular interest is their claim that Beck, in his distaste for big government and his many vaguely Paine-derived libertarian premises, is actually not that far off from anarchism in his basic outlook. This is fascinating, since it suggests that if Beck was consistent, and a clear thinker, he would be a revolutionary militant in solidarity with the little guy - not a corporate media personality clumsily defending Arizona racial laws and passing it off as freedom.

Alas, I think AK Press's exercise can only have a rhetorical effect. This is because I can't help but wonder if Beck is even serious. Much like Canadian "common sense" media personality Lowell Green, I think at the bottom of Beck's provocative political persona lurks nothing but a cynical entrepreneur. Beck is either truly as sloppy a political thinker as he portrays - or else he's pulling one over on his fanbase, which is despicable.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Slavoj Žižek, "Living in the End Times"

(Verso, 2010)

In light of the ongoing financial crisis and the oil hemmorhage in the gulf, I recently conversed with a close friend of mine about "living in the end times". Who other should pop up on my radar with a book by that very name than philosopher-superstar Slavoj Žižek! Needless to say, there is a fair bit more humour in the book than there was in the aforementioned conversation. Not to mention the ideas are bolder and the arguments more complex. Alas, If I had to rate Žižek's latest offering as an elementary school teacher would rate his pupil, I would say that Living in the End Times must apply itself; it should "straighten up and fly right", "spend more time on philosophy 1102 and less time on cultural gossip 1101", etc. In short: this is a mess of a book, but it could very well have been a major philosophical statement on our times. It contains some great ideas and instances of ideology critique in action, but these are scattered almost as if at random in the course of its ungainly 402 pages.

The book takes as its basic premise that the apocalypse is at the gates. The "four horsemen" of the present conjuncture are the environmental crisis, uncertainties surrounding new biotechnologies, the social-economic crisis, and burgeoning forms of apartheid. The argument (?) is loosely based around the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, despair, and acceptance. Each of these gets a chapter which loosely has to do with its title. These are accompanied by "interlude" chapters expanding on some of the ideas; in the case of the interlude on architecture, Žižek appears to be having fun while trying to tie things in to his bigger picture. The punchline of the invocation of Kübler-Ross is that "acceptance" here does not denote quietism in the face of the end. Rather, it speaks of a militant communist subjectivity stripped of its ideological baggage and prepared to run the doomed train of history off its rails. In the words of Mao: "There is great disorder under heaven, and the situation is excellent".

For my money, the best parts of the book are the section on China, Congo and Haiti, and the speculations towards the end as per the possible role of art and the artist in a communist society. Readers familiar with his works will find that Žižek does not offer too much of substance that is new here; this is especially frustrating given the vagueness of his political prescriptions as offered up in the recent In Defense of Lost Causes and First as Tragedy, Then as Farce.

I complain about Žižek, but the very things about which he frustrates me are the things that keep me coming back for more. I do enjoy a good cultural critique, especially one that's counterintuitive. I just can't shake the feeling every time I finish one of his books that I've been had.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Dominique Lecourt's "The Mediocracy"

(Trans. Gregory Elliott, Verso, 2001)

As Matt McLennan pointed out in his review essay on Ishmael Beah's "A Long Way Gone," the discourse of humanitarianism depoliticizes global conflict by portraying it as an opposition between evil and good people, between "resource-hungry, power-hungry people on one side, and those who just want to go about their lives on the other." Behind this dichotomy of good and evil lurks any number of Northern prejudices and stereotypes concerning the global South, if not a kind of resignation that such distant destruction is intractable, since the global South, according to this paternalistic view, lacks a strong 'tradition' of liberalism, tolerance and democratic 'values.'

North American philosophy has largely internalized these constraints and, with the rewards of funding and grant money, it has provided any number of ideological justifications for global inequalities or imperial violence under the rubric of liberalism, tolerance and democracy. Which might help explain the scorn with which some of these partisans of humanitarianism greet "French philosophy" in North American academe.

For years, Derrida, Foucault, or Lyotard represented, in their opposition to humanism or humanitarianism, the pinnacle of professional and political irresponsibility to many of their opponents. Now imagine the intensificaiton of scorn for those former students of Althusser, Jacques Rancière and the outspoken and unapologetic former Maoist Alain Badiou, the latter especially prepared to lead the militant youth off to the next Cultural Revolution. Those 'responsible' members of North American academe must wonder how France continues to place such irresponsible philosophers in the most respectable institutions. One wonders how many of these responsible philosophers felt relief at the prospect that 'The Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy' at Middlesex University will have to shutter its doors.

It must come as some surprise then that "French philosophy" is not the mainstream philosophy of France. Instead, since the 1970s, the nouveaux philosophes have capitalized on the convergence of corporate media, big business and humanitarianism in France.

Dominique Lecourt's The Mediocracy is a translation of two texts, separated by two decades, that indict the  the 'New Philosophers' for their role in reducing the revolutionary spirit of May '68 to a philosophy of consensus, consolation, and humanitarianism. The first, originally published in 1999 as Les piètres penseurs, reflects on the consequences of the nouveaux philosophes as media intellectuals, and the second, Dissidence ou révolution? (1978), presented here as an appendix, is a fiery polemic directed against André Glucksmann, Bernard-Henri Lévy et al., as they were emerging as a-- sorry for all the inverted commas here, but they are necessary-- 'dissident' 'school' of 'thought' in France.

They would find it fitting to be called dissidents, because this is just the kind of hyperbole that they would pass off their philosophy under the cover of modesty. This 'modesty' has a specific rhetorical context, for what binds the New Philosophers to each other is their common renunciation of their so-called revolutionary past. As Lecourt notes, there is a long history of criticizing Marxism as totalitarian because in theory it seeks to grasp human relations as a totality. This is, by the 1970s, a textbook manoeuvre in Anglo-Saxon philosophy, but it had often been conducted from the outside of Marxist discourse. Being former Maoists, the nouveaux philosophes approached this critique from the inside, so to speak. Their joint renunciation of what they called their 'complicity' in 'Marxist' oppression coincided with the French publication of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago.

Renunciation, as Lecourt points out, is not the same as self-critique. Self-critique, in its better moments, is brought on when one recognizes changing conditions in social relationships, and as Lecourt points out, by the 1970s, Marxism had fallen into a critical crisis. But the New Philosophers did not seek to renovate their theoretical commitments, they outright rejected them. However, since much of what has transpired since their turn to democratic values and free-marketeering has been, in the West and across the globe, an intensification of capitalism through neo-liberal policies. Insofar as they've resigned themselves to the imperfectibility of human 'nature,' they are now arguably more complicit with the situation than before. Not only do they preach resignation, but they actively work against new emancipatory change. Lecourt states, already in 1978:
Renunciation, resignation: under the cover of its 'radical anti-Marxism', the Western ideology of 'dissidence' is an ideology of the political abdication of the intellectuals. [...] It inflects [this conjecture] in the direction of flight when it is confronted with the 'discovery' of the crisis of Marxism. Rather than analysing the real history of this crisis in order to identify what is at issue with it, the New Philosophers prefer to proclaim that 'the class struggle has disappeared', explaining that ultimately it existed solely in the theoretical imagination of Marx and his successors (174).
Lecourt lists the formulas of complicity in a footnote: Lévy's 'The idea of a dominant class is meaningless,' Glucksmann's 'Capital does not exist,' 'Labour does not exist...' I supposes it's quite comfortable in the green rooms of the French media...

This poses the question of how Glucksmann or BHL or Luc Ferry became known as a group of philosophers rather that, as we would say today, pundits. Lecourt recalls, when he initially sought to publish Dissidence ou révolution?, Althusser's reproach for taking the group too seriously and lending, via critique, an air of legitimacy to them. However, in retrospect, Lecourt recognizes that they-- the Althusserians and others-- had underestimated the savvyness of the New Philosophers. He identifies  two crucial factors at work in the ascendancy of the New Philosophers, both of which involve the appropriation of the work and legacy of established figures in French thought, Michel Foucault and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Lecourt argues that Foucault bears some responsibility for the rise of the New Philosophers, which was nearly concurrent with Foucault's critique of Marxist historiography and Freudian (Lacanian) analysis. The New Philosophers simplified and generalized Foucault's analyses of power and knowledge to add philosophical weight to their critique of the entire praxis surrounding revolution and the seizure of state power, and, as they saw it, its inevitable catastrophe. Lecourt cites numerous passages where Foucault's subtle research is broadly generalized and appropriated by their critique of power. What is more surprising-- insofar as Foucault's critique of Marxism is generally decontextualized in his reception in the English speaking world-- is that Foucault returned the favor. He not only did interviews with them, he also wrote a glowing review of Glucksmann's Les maîtres penseurs, lending intellectual legitimacy to the nouveaux philosophes. It's difficult not to think that Foucault's tactical alliance with these mediatic anti-Marxists does not betray some opportunism on his part. This alliance, Lecourt notes,  ultimately drove a wedge between Foucault and Gilles Deleuze.

More important to the rise of the New Philosophers is how they exploited a reunion of two long-quarreling philosophers. Lecourt argues that one image in particular cemented the nouveau program of humanitarianism. On June 26, 1979,* Sartre joined joined a delegation to Valéry Giscard d'Estaing to request assistance for a humanitarian mission to help people fleeing Cambodia and Vietnam. After the meeting, a photograph was captured of the ailing Sartre being accompanied, arm in arm, by Raymond Aron and André Glucksmann. Lecourt writes that it was a potent image :
More potent, perhaps, than was realized at the time. For it did not just involve a kind of public reconciliation between the two veteran rivals of the French intelligentsia, through the intermediary of a philosopher who had been a pupil of the one and a fellow traveller of the other. The trio had in fact just solicited the aid of the President of the Republic for the operation 'A boat of Vietnam,' mounted by Bernard Kouchner. Humanitarian action was making its official entry into French politics at the very top....The Elysée trio was conveying this message: now is no longer the time for political analysis and action; let us aid the victims without pondering the responsibility of the various parties in the human disaster that is unfolding (116).
Humanitarianism, Lecourt argues, requires the substitution of ethics for politics. It requires a discourse which seeks to 'combat Evil.' The problem with combatting 'evil' is that it depoliticizes whatever catastrophe it comfronts. By 'naturalizing' catastrophe-- in the sense that it presupposes a particular picture of human nature that we have already discussed-- all moments of suffering are emptied of their political significance. It is, to use a Lacanian pun, a kind of 'television':
without rooting these images in concrete reflection on any singular history, and without offering viewers the perspective of a rational understanding, it is not human 'fraternity' or 'solidarity' that is solicited and reinforced, but utter sentimentalism that is exploited (119).
But there is another side of the image of Sartre-Aron-Glucksmann (not, I think, stressed adequately by Lecourt): it portrays politics as an elite and administrative affair. The various strands of consensus, democratic values and humanitarianism are picked up here: politics is not a popular or emancipatory praxis, it is something conducted by elites, intellectuals, and our elected representatives. Didn't Sartre ask, only a few years earlier, if elections were not a trap for fools (piège à cons)?

The worst thing about death, Sartre argues, is that people can then say whatever they want about you (Being and Nothingess, 694). And in this regard, it becomes clear that Lecourt's Mediocracy aims to defend a radical intellectual legacy that is always in danger of being canonized and depoliticized. It is not only the legacies of Sartre or Foucault, but May '68 and even philosophy itself, which are all in danger of being appropriated by the New Philosophers. These "multimedia moralists," he argues, reduce philosophy to a glorification of the individual and a preservation of 'values.' Political analysis becomes what Lecourt calls the intensification of public opinion, "translating the spontaneous expression of...affects into noble discourse" (136). These days, the New Philosophers don't even bother with the "noble discourse." Here's BHL-- who we've already lampooned for his shoddy research-- parodying himself on the recent eruption of Eyjafjallajökull:
Silence, says the volcano, silence, I'm the one who is speaking now. Nobody move. Until further notice, your flying machines are no longer allowed in the sky. Each of you stay exactly where you were at the instant my eruption of sulfur, nitrous gas and bitumen (Marquis de Sade again) began. And no one, it's true, is stirring. And the planet, in fact, is holding its breath, waiting for the volcano to become silent. And a shiver goes through us all, at the idea of a force which extends beyond our will and suddenly dictates its own law.
That is the lesson of the volcano. Under the volcano, certainly not the beach, but the necessary patience of things. From the burning throat of the volcano, a message of humility and a call for moderation. Blessed be the volcano. Fortunate the chaos it foments. And this time, may Empedocles remain standing straight in his sandals.
The labored reference to a well-known slogan of May '68 ("Beneath the paving stones, the beach") says it all: no more revolutions, nor more critiques of political economy, the true lesson is "the necessary patience of things." An easy moral for consensual times. Between the latest free associations of BHL and the earlier works of the New Philosophers, the emphasis is the same: politics concerns the private sphere of existence, only there is it possible to cultivate one's individuality and advance one's interests, rather than  concerning a transformative and revolutionary practice. A familiar refrain in the English speaking world, but one that required a significant amount of effort to establish itself in France. Lecourt's The Mediocracy is a powerful intervention, at turns personal and polemical, against the mediatic punditry of the nouveaux philosophes, against the daily-televised blather that insists that we accept the world as it is.

*Being part-memoir, Lecourt dates this incident 1978.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Rabbi Kahane Lives

Several decades ago when the late Rabbi Meir Kahane was a member of the Knesset, Kahane debated Likud Party member Ehud Olmert on ABCs Nightline news hosted by Ted Koppel. Olmert claimed that Kahane’s call for the expulsion of Israeli Arabs was against the Zionist dream, that Israel like all states has a minority living within its borders, and that Kahane’s views discredited Israel. Kahane talked of Arabs threatening to become the Israeli majority in the future. The fundamental issue was, that since is a democracy, and Israeli Arabs have a right vote, if Arabs become the majority they will vote out laws that make the Jewish state Jewish. The very nature of this debate (by everyone in it including Ted Koppel) should be viewed as racist.

Kahane is dead but his message is not. In fact popularity for his ideas from within Israel has grown. The result of Kahane’s tolerated message of hate and terrorism is a trend in contemporary Israeli politics. This has led to blatant racism and discrimination against Israeli Arabs. Israeli journalist Gideon Levy wrote a Haaretz article in August of 2009 titled “Kahane Won." Levy states:
Rabbi Meir Kahane can rest in peace: His doctrine has won. Twenty years after his Knesset list was disqualified and 18 years after he was murdered, Kahanism has become legitimate in public discourse. If there is something that typifies Israel's current murky, hollow election campaign, which ends the day after tomorrow, it is the transformation of racism and nationalism into accepted values…. If Kahane were alive and running for the 18th Knesset, not only would his list not be banned, it would win many votes, as Yisrael Beiteinu is expected to do.

"Yisrael Beiteinu" is an Israeli political party and in English means, “Israel is our house,” referring only to Jews. Levy continues:
There's no need to refer to Haaretz's startling revelation that Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman was a member of Kahane's Kach party in his youth:This campaign's dark horse was and is a Kahanist. The differences between Kach and Yisrael Beiteinu are minuscule, not fundamental and certainly not a matter of morality. The differences are in tactical nuances: Lieberman calls for a fascist "test of loyalty" as a condition for granting citizenship to Israel's Arabs, while Kahane called for the unconditional annulment of their citizenship. One racist (Lieberman) calls for their transfer to the Palestinian state, the other (Kahane) called for their deportation.
Levy saw the ominous direction Israeli politics was headed in. He wrote, “Benjamin Netanyahu has already pledged that Lieberman will be an "important minister" in his government.” As of December 2009, Avigdor Lieberman is the Foreign Minister in the Israeli Knesset.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Students and Staff Suspended at Middlesex

Students and staff continue to fight the Middlesex University administration's decision to shut down the department. Most recently they staged an occupation of the library on the Trent Park campus. This has led to the suspension of several students and Philosophy professors Peter Osborne and Peter Hallward. The Save Middlesex Philosophy blog reports that:
Some Middlesex University Philosophy students, along with Philosophy professors Peter Osborne and Peter Hallward, were suspended from the University this afternoon. Hallward and Osborne were issued with letters announcing their suspension from the University with immediate effect, pending investigation into their involvement in the recent campus occupations. The suspension notice blocks them from entering University premises or contacting in any way University students and employees without the permission of Dean Ed Esche ( or a member of the University’s Executive.
Since the university's administration seems unable and unwilling to resolve the matter, let me propose that they would do much better suspending Vice-Chancellor Driscoll, Vice-Chancellor Ahmad, Vice-Chancellor House and Dean Esche pending an investigation into their involvement which has led to the recent campus occupations.

And if you haven't already, sign the petition join the Facebook group, and spread the message.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ishmael Beah, "A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier"

(D&M, 2007)

In the early 90s, Ishmael Beah was a bright and promising youngster displaced by the Sierra Leone Civil War. He wandered the countryside alone or with other displaced boys until recruited by government forces to combat the insurgent Revolutionary United Front. By the age of 15, Beah was a remorseless killer whose life consisted solely of military maneuvers, drugs and Hollywood war movies. He describes how he was taken out of the fighting by UNICEF and rehabilited at a centre for former child soldiers. Turning 30 this year, Beah is now an inspiring spokesperson on child soldier issues. His memoir touched a popular nerve in the affluent North - for instance, it has the Oprah stamp of approval - and quickly became a bestseller. I'll bracket here the controversies that have plagued Beah over his credibility. What interests me most is why so many people in the North have gravitated to his story, and what precisely, thereby, they risk failing to take away from it.

Beah's narrative portrays the war as fought by two cynical and thuggish factions who pay lip service to social justice and civil order, but at bottom crave nothing but access to resources and power. He makes the occasional reference in his narrative to the fighting between the RUF and government forces over mining areas. This detail is crucial but not systematically addressed: each major player in the conflict was after control of the country's diamond industry, and at bottom, the war was fought for economic reasons. The ideologically confused RUF claimed that it sought to give control of mining resources to "the people"; the government forces essentially claimed the same thing (note how anyone on the opposing side is automatically disqualified from belonging to "the people" - as Mao aptly if unintentionally demonstrated in his theoretical writings, recourse to "the people" is often a mystifying blank cheque). The real issue, however, was over who could sell the resources off to the European and North American companies which generally turned a blind eye to how they were obtained.

To be sure, Beah's narrative is a personal account rather than a political-economic critique. The risk attendant, however, is that the reader will come away from it thinking that there are good people and evil people, full stop - that there are resource-hungry, power-hungry people on one side, and those who just want to go about their lives on the other. Unless we want to posit arbitrarily the profound evil of certain "culturally under-developed" persons or groups (for instance, succumbing to the implicitly racist reduction of the conflict to "ethnic"or "tribal"reasons), the Sierra Leone Civil War must be plugged into the broader context of global capitalism. In fact, conflicts in economically "outlying areas" generally afford privileged sites from which to glean the overall workings of capital. We should resist the temptation to become economic reductionists about African conflicts, but nonetheless emphasize that incorporation into global capitalism creates powerful incentives towards violence and instability. To neglect this is to court absurdity: think about how affluent Northerners bemoan the inhumanity of the war in the Congo, but generally do not make the connection that the fighting is over such scarce resources as coltan, which is used to make their cellular telephones. An analysis which takes into account such factors as ethnic tensions without pausing to look at the role played by capitalism risks the worst kind of racism and paternalism.

The fact that Beah's novel was so well received by the very beneficiaries of global capitalism reveals something of a paradox: the inhumanity of capitalism is hidden in plain sight precisely at the point where it is uncovered. This is perhaps not surprising, since affluent Northerners have a vested interest in imagining that African conflicts cannot be traced to their own lifestyle choices. At any rate I wonder whether Beah's novel, and the wider cause celebre of child soldiers, could survive being grafted onto a properly Marxist critique.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Chomsky Denied Entry to West Bank

Amira Hass, writing for Haaretz, reports that Noam Chomsky was recently (the article is dated 16 May 2010) denied entry to Israel. Note that this does not correspond to the way that I referred to the situation in the title of my post. To clarify: Chomsky was scheduled to speak at the Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, but since Palestine is an occupied territory, Israel (technically their defense forces) controls who comes and goes. This is not the first time that intellectuals who are critical of Israel's occupation of Palestine have been denied entry to Israel or Occupied Palestine. Nearly two years ago, Norman Finkelstein was denied entry to the '67-borders-Israel en route to the West Bank for “security reasons.” Unlike Chomsky, he's currently subject to a decade long ban on entering Israel. His thoughts, in 2008:
Finkelstein did not intend to visit Israel, but had to pass through Israeli customs “by force of circumstance,” to visit a friend in Hebron. “Israel has the right to restrict who enters its country, but the West Bank is not its country,” said Finkelstein. “One day the Palestinian Authority may restrict my rights, but that’s an issue for the Palestinian Authority,” he continued.

Chomsky's thoughts, in 2010:
In a telephone interview with Channel 10, Chomsky said the interrogators had told him he had written things that the Israeli government did not like. “I suggested [the interrogator try to] find any government in the world that likes anything I say,” he said.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Norman Finkelstein: Debate On The Holocaust

Earlier this year Russia Today (in English) showed a debate on the politcal use of the Holocaust. In the debate, Norman Finkelstein's opponent constantly accuses him of being "impolite" and overly aggressive. Israel W. Charny from the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide continuously deflects Finkelstein's comments by way of this accusation. I think it is interesting that demeanor and decorum are supposed to validate an argument. After watching many debates over the years, I really do think being overly polite is an attempt to use manners as a ruse. In any case, no one debates as clearly and powerfully as Norman Finkelstein.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Yukio Mishima, "The Decay of the Angel"

(Vintage, 1990) 

The Decay of the Angel is the final book of Mishima's "Sea of Fertility" tetralogy. You'll recall that the series follows the life of Honda, a dry legal type born in Japan in the last decade of the 19th century. Throughout the cycle Honda encounters successive reincarnations of a school friend who dies at the end of the first novel. Here we find him pushing eighty, adopting a teenager named Toru whom he suspects is the latest reincarnation. His goal is to teach Toru, who embodies for him a rare nature incapable of lasting in this world, how to join the stream of the everyday, and thereby survive longer than his predecessors. It becomes clear as the novel progresses that Toru is either a fraud, or a corrupt shadow version of Honda's school friend. Where Kiyoaki, Isao and Ying Chan embodied ardour, purity and physical beauty, Toru is a vulgar, detached and narrow-minded spectator who becomes a vulgar, psychopathic self-maximizer under Honda's well-meaning tutelage.

The title of the novel refers to Buddhist and Hindu traditions enumerating the signs of an angel's decay (angels are superhuman, but still caught in the karmic cycle and thereby mortal). The closing episode concerning Toru offers a chilling tableau of these signs. More generally, the themes of old age and the latency of decay in even the most youthful, thriving beauty are driven home throughout the novel. If I had to zero in on one theme of prime interpretive importance (this being typical Mishima fare, and therefore bursting with half-finished ideas and blind alleys), I would draw attention to the role played by the perceiving mind/subject. You'll recall that I flagged this as an important theme in the novel's predecessor, The Temple of Dawn. Here Honda, having long since become a voyeur, will come to terms with the vanity of even his voyeuristic detachment. Toru, moreover, will embody this transition in a violent, disturbing manner.

Mishima sent the novel to his publisher in 1970, the day he committed ritual suicide following an abortive, bizarrely staged ultranationalist coup. For this reason it's tempting to read the book as his testament. I'm not convinced, however, that it provides a coherent key to its author's actions (the novel is strangely divorced from politics, for instance), though it does distill nicely some of his most important concerns. One imagines Mishima ending his life at the onset of much-feared decay, yet at the same time waxing strangely ironical about his gesture. To read The Decay of the Angel is to immerse oneself in supreme bitterness, on the strength of the remotest possibility of letting it go.

Tariq Ali Profiled in the Guardian

On The Notes Taken, our references to Tariq Ali have discussed his critique of American foreign policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and, more recently, his book The Idea of Communism. I've read several of his more recent books on politics (and Joshua has a hard to find title in which Ali praises Boris Yeltsin...), but none of his fiction. The reason is simple: I have been interested in his Islamic Quintet, but as a completist kind of reader, reading one volume requires reading all five, which is a serious time commitment when I've got so many other projects going. I had been mulling all this over while I wrote the review of The Idea of Communism, which is why I found the Guardian's recent profile of Ali's 'life in writing' interesting. James Campbell gives an overview of Ali's Islamic Quintet on the occasion of the publication of the final volume, the Night of the Golden Butterfly. A few highlights:
[Ali claims] "the first criticism of Obama in a work of fiction. It just came to me at the time the drone attacks were taking place against Pakistan. I thought: I want to be the first." His gleeful laugh belies a long opposition to American foreign policy, which has not been mitigated by the election of a [...] hope-and-change president.
It is also mentioned that the Rolling Stone's wrote "Street Fighting Man" for Ali, who in turn titled his autobiography Street Fighting Years. I thought a few of my friends would like this:
In Street Fighting Years, Ali describes how he asked Jagger to write out the words of "Street Fighting Man", to be printed in facsimile in the Black Dwarf. "He agreed immediately. We photographed the sheet of paper and I threw the original into the wastepaper basket. No one in the office thought this was sacrilegious. The cult of the individual is always a substitute for collective action."
However, there's no mention of Ali's The Idea of Communism, or the series "What was Communism?" We're currently planning on reviewing the other three volumes in the series: Piero Gleijeses's The Cuban Drumbeat, Boris Kagarlitsky's Back in the USSR, and Slavenka Drakulic's Two Underdogs and a Cat: Three Reflections on Communism.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Cindy Milstein, "Anarchism and its Aspirations"

(AK Press / Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2010)

I first met Cindy in Washington DC, at the since-defunct National Conference on Organized Resistance in 2008. I've since run into her a few times at the anarchist book fair in Montreal. Each time she was tabling for Black Sheep Books, the infoshop in her hometown of Burlington, Vermont. Cindy is an intellectual by temperment and by training, but she's also affable, down to earth and not afraid to roll up her sleeves to do thankless, unglamourous work. She was a participant in the late Murray Bookchin's Institute for Social Ecology, and now sits on the board of the US-based Institute for Anarchist Studies. Cindy is something of a rising star of North American anarchism, and her 2010 overview of anarchist praxis is already being hailed as a classic in some circles. 

Anarchism and its Aspirations is a concise, easily readable look at anarchism which portrays the latter as an ideology of action, in action. Cindy's take on anarchism emphasizes the interlocking themes of utopia, revolutionary ethics and pre-figurative practice. She argues that anarchism is utopian to the extent that it tries to create a better world; ethically centred, to the extent that its practice must harmonize with its egalitarian, utopian aims; and finally, prefigurative, in the sense that anarchism does not wait for "the revolution" to come, but rather attempts to build alternative, ethically sound institutions in the here and now (paraphrasing the preamble to the constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World, anarchism attempts to build a new society in the shell of the old). The interlocking nature of its main themes helps to disarm criticisms that because it is utopian, anarchism is an unrealistic, irresponsible political position - to quote Lenin, an "infantile disorder". Rather, anarchism as Cindy portrays it is an eminently realistic position: it does not entertain illusions about revolutionary vanguards, capitalism, or the state. Anarchism is, rather, a tough slog towards a better world which entails constant self-critique and the perpetual development of its utopian assumptions against a background of real developments and concrete engagement.

I should warn prospective readers that Cindy is not saying anything essentially new in her book; Gustav Landauer aready said as much 90 years ago. What makes her contribution valuable is that she has situated contemporary anarchism in a proud historical continuum that puts it at the forefront of anti-capitalist struggle; she has also condensed a number of complex ideas into an easily understandable argument that dodges the anachronistic, frankly antiquated pitfalls of the bulk of anarchist literature. I am willing to entertain the idea that her book is a contender for the best contemporary anarchist primer out there.

No doubt certain insurrectionary/green factions will find Cindy's statement a bit toothless; arguably, however, her anarchism is tougher-minded, more serious and more appealing than that of the more "spectacular" anarchist factions that would find her position objectionable. The global anticapitalist movement, as well as the wider, heterogeneous "movement of movements" needs people like Cindy on its side - for her integrity, her realistic but hopeful appraisal of the contemporary conjuncture, and her willingness to turn intellectual tools to good use in the critique of social institutions and the advancement of viable alternatives.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Pablo Neruda, "The Separate Rose"

(Copper Canyon Press, 1985)

One of eight unpublished manuscripts discovered on Neruda's desk at the time of his death in 1973, "The Separate Rose" is a poem cycle sketching both a vacation and a central modern dissonance. Having visited Easter Island in the late 60s, already sick with cancer, Neruda produced the manuscript as a meditative commentary on the experience. He divides the poem headings between "Man" and "The Island" - essentially, he contrasts the pure, venerable island and its deep, timeless mythology with "man" as harried, preoccupied, fleeting, sick and, ultimately, an unhappy tourist. The result is a poem cycle without resolution; Neruda deftly lays out the paradoxes of tourism, not the least of which is that of becoming superficially acquainted with deep time. Nonetheless, the two voices of the cycle often resonate. For instance, the island he paints is, like the man of the metropolis, bereft of the old gods. Such resonances account for his deep affinity for the island, even while he notes its indifference to him.

There's an exhaustion and something approaching cynicism here, but one still finds Neruda's lust for life if one digs. Even when, as one finds in the "Man" poems, his subject matter is his own disappointment and loneliness, Neruda is still Neruda. If a self-consciously "late" work can pull this off, then the creator is peerless.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Did US Intervention in Latin America Bring the War Home?

This youtube piece is a documentary on the gang MS 13 (also known as Mara Salvatrucha). This video is of poor quality and simply takes the approach of assisting community awareness. I found no quality analysis of their historical development. What caught my attention is that the documentary claims this gang originated in El Salvador. Supposedly M 13 originates from men that fought in El Salvador's Civil wars from the 1980s. They are reportedly trained in guerrilla tactics. If this truly is the case, it puts the legacy of US intervention in South and Central America on a whole different level: It brings the aftermath of the US Cold War to the home-front. I'm asking anyone reading and watching this to post information regarding this topic. It seems the need for an added critique of US foreign policy is waiting in the wings.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Nepal's General Strike

We've discussed Nepal several times (here and here), but it was during the build up to the May 1st general strike called by the Maoists. Now we've got, via Jed Brandt's website, commentary and images. Here are what the people are up to:

And here's how the government responds:
Prime Minister M.K. Nepal is meeting daily with his Indian and American military advisors – so that when the Maoists charge that he serves the Indian establishment there is more than a little truth to it.
Plus ça change...

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Ideas of Communism: Tariq Ali

Tariq Ali's The Idea of Communism (2009) serves as the introduction to the Seagull Books series "What was Communism?," which includes three other volumes evaluating the history of communism in Cuba and the former Soviet Union. Ali outlines a short history of communism, including its successes and its failures, as an antidote to the  de-politicized amnesia that surrounded the occasion for the book, the fall of the Berlin Wall, not least the irony that such celebration took place during one of the deepest crises of capitalism since the Great Depression.

Much of Ali's argument is summarized in the following passage:
A twenty-first-century socialism based on a socially just economic structure coupled with a radical political democracy would offer the most profound and meaningful challenge to the priorities of the capitalist order in the West, which triumphed largely because of the bureaucratic despotisms that led to the besmirching of socialism in the former Soviet Union. The price paid for the survival of capitalism has not been a small one: two World Wars, genocide against colonial peoples...the use of nuclear weapons against Japanese civilians (while protecting the Emperor who unleashed the war); the use of chemicals in Vietnam; institutionalized misery in the 'Third World'; and the threat of a nuclear conflagration that could obliterate all life on this planet (89-90).
"Nor has the twenty-first century started well..." he continues, citing the continuing human cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, not to mention the latest financial crisis. With such a mounting cost, it is clear that an alternative vision and understanding of the world is necessary. The idea that society ought to be organized around the principle 'from each according to ability, to each according to need' is no less valid than it was when worker's struggles began to shake the industrialized world. Nor should we dismiss Marxist critique, which is one of the few that can explain why capitalism continues from crisis to crisis, with increased ruin behind it: capitalism is a system of distribution structured by inequality (be it by class, geography, etc.).

The brevity of Ali's account is both its virtue and its vice. For his intended audience, those who are not familiar with the history of communism, the arguments and the narrative are clear and concise,  never falling into  tired debates or jargon; there are no long digressions on how Leninists or Stalinists or Trotskyites or Maoists scored theoretical points against each other. Sometimes, however, the brevity requires Ali to simplify or schematize his account (so one is left with the impression that a self-interested bureaucracy is the primary fault of state communism, which is true to a degree but there are other sides of the failure of communism that could be explored, including continued class struggle and constant capitalist/imperialist aggression...). 

Nevertheless, Ali makes sure to underline the advances that these societies experienced under communism (standard of living, health care, housing, etc.), because these are precisely the features that point toward the future. Hopefully the series "What was Communism?" will be followed by "What is Communism?" and "What will Communism be?"

Monday, May 3, 2010

Cahiers pour l'Analyse: Online Edition

An online edition of Cahiers pour l'Analyse is now online. Many of our readers may already be familiar with the Cahiers without knowing it; between 1966-1969 the journal published important essays by prominent French thinkers such as Althusser, Canguilhem, Foucault, and Lacan. Many of those texts have already appeared in English. Go get your copy of Foucault's Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, and turn to page 297, or your copy of the complete Ecrits, and read "Science and Truth." Those texts first appeared in the Cahiers. Althusser, Canguilhem, Foucault, and Lacan: I mention them because it explains the orientation of the Cahiers, and its emphasis on a formalized and rigourous approach to philosophy, which some of the younger contributors (such as Alain Badiou) never abandoned. As the overview states:
Edited by a small group of Louis Althusser's students at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, the Cahiers pour l’Analyse appeared in ten volumes between 1966 to 1969 – arguably the most fertile and productive years in French philosophy during the whole of the twentieth century. Guided by the examples of Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser and Georges Canguilhem, the Cahiers were conceived as a contribution to a philosophy based on the primacy of concepts and the rigour of logic and formalisation, in opposition to philosophies based on lived experience or the interpretation of meaning.
The Cahiers were soon recognised as one of the most significant and innovative philosophical projects of its time. The journal published landmark texts by many of the most influential thinkers of the day, including Althusser, Derrida, Foucault, Irigaray, Lacan, and Leclaire. Many of the young students and writers closely involved in the production of the Cahiers (e.g. Jacques-Alain Miller, Jean-Claude Milner, François Regnault and Alain Badiou) were soon to become major figures in French intellectual life. 
The part that I like best about the site at the moment is how the English language editors (led by Peter Hallward) have included the original French articles online to make them more accessible to researchers. It also includes a list of concepts and synopses developed by the editors of the English edition. The definitive version, including interviews with the contributors of the Cahiers and some translations will be launched in September 2010. This project is an example of the kind of scholarship that goes on at the philosophy department at Middlesex University, and why it is in the interest of those who study contemporary French philosophy that such a department is not shut down by the university's administration

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Not Every Human is Legal

Some immigrant rights activists in the US hold up signs that read "No Human is Illegal." The problem is that a human can be illegal. Slavery was once legal. Laws are simply laws. Many of us think that various laws are wrong. Recently in Arizona there is social outcry and support for the controversial enactment of SB 1070. The idea is to proactively crack down on illegal immigration. What is lost in this debate is the fact that the majority living in this hemisphere, as the rest of the world, are poor and illegal.

It is important to evaluate the supposed significance of law in this debate. I posted a clip from a documentary highlighting the ideas of Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto. He believes the poor of the world can be integrated into global capitalism. That argument brings up a whole different set of topics (Can and should Capitalism be saved?). Significant is his research that most poor people live extra-legally. Likely, many Mexican workers--as workers living in Mexico--were no more legally integrated as citizens there than they are as workers in the US. De Soto came up with his analysis to not just find a solution to poverty, but to also combat the appeal of Maoist revolutionaries in his country of Peru. This clip makes some interesting food for thought concerning the broader spectrum the discussion about illegal immigration lies within.