Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Loïc Wacquant: "Prisons of Poverty"

(University of Minnesota Press, 2009)

Not so long ago, in a post about David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism, I noted that one of the faults of contemporary continental political thought is that many of its key figures "have not attempted  too many in-depth analyses of the functions of the neoliberal state form;" instead they have largely focused on revitalizing a theory of the subject. To think militant subjectivity, however, we need a clear view of what militancy is up against. At the time, I noted, following Harvey, that
when faced with a decision between 'fostering' a 'good business' or 'good investment' climate and labor or environmental concerns, neoliberal governance chooses in favor of business and investment. Not that on all levels these decisions are specifically made with class motives behind them. Rather neoliberal political economy is structured to coerce competition between cities, regions, countries; so while not all decisions need exhibit class motive (often at the local levels they are made to preserve a collapsing set of social relationships), the structure does. [...] One of the prime difficulties of confronting neoliberalism is that it uses competition between regions and improvements in communication and investment flow to break social solidarity.
The question that I left unanswered at the time is how governments deal with the fragmentation of social solidarity and the collapse of the social safety net created by the welfare state. In Prisons of Poverty, Loïc Wacquant argues that prison is the neoliberal answer to the poverty and unrest created by the increased precarity of work, the reduction or privatization of public services, and the collapse or hyper-gentrification of urban areas. First published in 1999 in France, the book was meant as intervention against the growing 'Washington Consensus' of neoliberalism and, in terms of crime, of 'zero tolerance.' He argues that the 'punitive turn' in dealing with crime is a consequence of the neoliberal turn.

The first part of the book analyzes how conservative think tanks such as the Manhattan Institute captured the "common sense" account of penalization. Far from being an obvious way to deal with poverty, Wacquant shows how a small set of well-connected figures pushed scrapping the welfare state and 'get tough' penalization (figures including Charles Murray, who also co-authored the notorious The Bell Curve, George Kelling, and James Q. Wilson). I can't retrace the whole network, but the purpose of a think tank's 'intellectual' output is to dress up the varying aspects of the neoliberal class project with pseudo-academic accoutrements. Whether it is 'zero tolerance' or the 'broken window theory' (which holds that fighting "small visible disorders...will vanquish the major pathologies of urban crime"), these attempts to criminalize poverty argue that criminality must be understood as a problem of moral behavior rather than as the result of the inherent structural inequalities of capitalism, much in the same way that neoliberal ideologues advocate scaling back state intervention so that individual choice can drive decision making in the marketplace. But here's the connection: for the poor that 'choice' is often restricted to precarious and underpaid work; any attempt to redistribute wealth through the informal economy comes with increasing punishment. As Harvey argues,  for the neoliberal ideologue social success or failure is "interpreted in terms of personal entrepreneurial virtues or failings rather than attributable to any systemic properties." [1] State intervention, this ideologue could also argue, "rewards sloth and causes the moral degeneracy of the lower classes," and foments so-called "urban violence" (12).

Wacquant follows these misguided 'theories' as they are implemented from New York City (with much fanfare), to the UK, and finally to Continental Europe. What he shows is that, whether they work or not (and there's little proof that they do), they are accepted by politicians and other opportunists who seek to project and image of being tough on crime, while increasing security and surveillance measures on suspect populations. You're probably wondering what kind of proof Wacquant has to challenge such entrenched and well-funded 'common sense.' Here's one example: a comparison of the results of NYC's zero tolerance policy with
San Diego, a metropolis that applied community policing during the same period: from 1993 to 1996, the Southern California city posted a drop in crime identical to that recorded by New York City, but at a cost of only a modest increase in police staffing of 6 percent. The number of arrests effected by the forces of order diminished steadily by 15 percent during those three years in San Diego, whereas it increased by 24 percent in New York City (18).
The results of this comparison are hardly an aberration. Wacquant spends the latter half of the book showing how the prison population quadrupled (10; 138-139) during a period in which rates of violent crime remained flat and even declined (see 145). How did this happen? Wacquant identifies three causal series: first, the decline of the rehabilitative model of incarceration; second, there is political and mediatic opportunism to reinscribe social unrest under the category of criminality (and, historically speaking, the replacement of social critiques of inequality with the 'war on crime'), and third, as he writes "the penal system has partly supplanted and partly supplemented the ghetto as a mechanism of racial control" and segregration (155-156). Each of these factors has contributed to the turn to hyper-incarceration; the apparatus holding it all together is, of course, the war on drugs.

With this in mind, I will constrain myself to three more comments on the wide range of material covered in Prisons of Poverty.

First, it is easy to see how the so-called war on drugs figures into the push for hyper-incarceration. Dealing drugs, for the neoliberal ideologues, falls afoul of their (incorrect) stress on moral behavior as the root of criminality, and reinforces the threat posed by illegal substances, although this ultimately confuses two problems: first, the problem of consumption; and second, the problem of exchange and production. I don't want to suggest that either problem is necessarily about morality, but it is very clear from the side of the sale of illegal substances that many people enter into the trade as part of the informal economy because it pays better than the precarious work available to marginalized members of society. Wacquant argues that the war on drugs patrols this informal economy.

Second, the steep rise in prison populations deflates the official unemployment rate: "It is estimated that penal confinement shaved two full percentage points off of the U.S. jobless rate during the 1990s":
when the differential between the incarceration level of [the U.S. and European Union] is taken into account, the United States posted an unemployment rate higher than the average for the European Union during eighteen of the twenty years between 1974 and 1994, contrary to the view propagated by the adultators of neoliberalism and critics of "Eurosclerosis" (80).
Which leads to my third remark: the purpose of Prisons of Poverty is, according to Wacquant, to intervene in debates about whether or not other countries should adapt either the 'zero tolerance' model or the more draconian measures of neoliberal structural readjustment. Wacquant argues that the tough on crime ideology does not correspond to any crisis in criminality, but rather responds to the attempt to control socially and economically marginalized populations. He also shows that far from being a monolithic project, that the punitive turn has proved, like neoliberalism in general, to be adaptable to local traditions and concerns; one is not surprised to see that French opportunists (including Régis Debray) have had little difficulty in phrasing increased surveillance and penalization in French Républicain terms.

Prisons of Poverty ends with an afterword describing both the (strong and approving) international reception of the original edition, Les Prisons de la misère after its publication in 1999, and the ways in which he has strengthened his original theses in his more recent Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (2009) by analyzing the transformations of both welfare and criminal justice "not just as a consequence of neoliberalism [as argued in Prisons of Poverty] but an integral component of the neoliberal state itself" (174). I would not think that Prisons of Poverty could be so easily superseded-- not only because Wacquant has made an effort to produce an English language version of the original book, but also because it presents a sharp rebuttal to the punitive turn in so-called criminal justice.

1. The Space of Global Capitalism (London: Verso, 2006), 27.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Yukio Mishima, "The Sound of Waves"

(Vintage, 1994)

With respect to Mishima, so far I've blogged mostly about the more spectacular aspects of his life, particularly as these are staked out in or reflected by his various novels. I've argued that a work of fiction by Mishima cannot be adequately understood unless one takes into account the larger work of fiction, the larger spectacle, that is Mishima himself. 

The Sound of Waves appears on first blush an exception to this rule. The action takes place postwar on a small Japanese island populated by fishing families. The story concerns a poor but virtuous young fisherman who falls in love with the daughter of one of the island's more well-to-do patriarchs. The burgeoning romance fuels much gossip and ill-will among rivals, as well as many of the island's other inhabitants; the would-be couple seems doomed to unhappiness until certain decisive events and interventions change the course of the story. As in no other novel of his that I've read to date, Mishima's prose is here masterfully spare and controlled. Despite its ostensibly modern setting, the story reads like a timeless folktale and can be digested in a sitting of a few hours.

For all this, I don't think the novel can be chalked up to its regionalism, or to a mere genre exercise. My hunch is that it has a role to play relative to Mishima's larger vision. As I've argued elsewhere, manliness and purity are two of his abiding concerns, and here as elsewhere, the important thing seems less the tale itself as the man and woman he constructs in the telling. Shinji and Hatsue, the fisherman and his beloved, embody the kind of masculine and feminine ideal hinted at (and mourned) in Mishima's other novels. What is more, they embody this ideal unconsciously; through their unthinking strength, modesty, and determination, they stand as anathema to what he considered to be urban postwar Japan's self-devouring, neurotic, superfluous men and women (it is of course a fair question where Mishima himself would fit on this reading).

For this reason, I might be willing to rank The Sound of Waves among the great socialist-realist novels of the last century. But here I need to be more specific: I don't mean to suggest that Mishima's work is socialist in any meaningful sense of the term, and for this reason it should be considered quite apart from e.g. Gladkov's Cement. As I've stated ad nauseum, Mishima's politics were ultra-nationalist and rightist. What the novel has in common with socialist realism is, rather, its reactionary, nostalgic and mythical character (think here also of National Socialist art). Irrespective of the social form for which the fictional new man and new woman are constructed, they are offered with a view to criticising the urban/technocratic bourgeoisie of liberal democracy, and for standing as models to emulate. Mishima's future, in a word, is drawn from the past: the new imperial guard is the timeless stuff of Japanese soil and shore.

Whence the strange feeling the book produces: one gets the impression of being taken on a feel-good journey into a world that has largely disappeared, but where something sinister might be lurking in the corners. Mishima's trademark violence makes an odd but telling appearance early on in the book, when the narrator describes the death of Shinji's father in an American strafing raid. The effect is to suggest that there is no quaint village without its sea of blood and gasoline.

Greek Manuscripts Online

The British Library is making a quarter of its collection of Greek Manuscripts available online. Like Mikhail Emelianov at Perverse Egalitarianism, I think that this is one of the better uses of the digitization of books--  creating increased accessibility to rare texts; or, as he states, delivering "manuscripts to the people."

The collection has been long available to scholars who could afford a trip to the British Library's reading rooms, but not for those who are less likely to already live in the proximity (relatively speaking) or who could not find a prestigious source of funding for such a trip. At the NYT reports:
...curator Scot McKendrick said their posting to the web was opening antiquity to the entire world.
McKendrick said that London could be an expensive place to spend time poring over the Greek texts' tiny, faded script or picking through hundreds of pages of parchment.
"Not every scholar can afford to come here weeks and months on end," he said. The big attraction of browsing the texts online "is the ability to do it at your own desk whenever you wish to do it — and do it for free as well."
The manuscripts can be found at the British Library's site here.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Roma (Gypsies) in Canada

The controversy over France's expulsion of Roma people is still reverberating throughout the world. I thought I'd post a video on Roma closer to home: the Roma of Canada. This video is just a preview of an entire documentary. It's not a bad time for more knowledge about so-called Gypsies to take place. A Roma man says at the end, "I am Roma...Gypsies do not exist."

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Sorel on Pessimism, Part 2

This is the first post that discusses topics that I will be addressing in my talk at the Radical Philosophy Association's conference on Violence: Systemic, Symbolic, and Foundational, which takes place November 11-14, 2010 at the University of Oregon.

Last week I finished reading Georges Sorel's Reflections on Violence (1908). In my first post about his work, I could really only suggest that he's a figure who is difficult to place politically (and I don't necessarily mean that as a compliment) due to a particular set of concerns that he ties together within a philosophy of the general strike, in which he appropriates Bergsonian intuition, parts of Nietzsche's genealogy of morals and Marx's Capital. [1] From a biographical standpoint, after the turn of the 20th century Sorel wavers, depending on the moment, somewhere between anarcho-syndicalism and fascism, although his final works focus on William James.

The purpose of this post is to complete my sketch of Sorel's pessimism. As I wrote in the first post, he proposes that pessimism has three primary characteristics:
  • First, pessimism refuses to deny the wretchedness of mankind, and the constant threat of pain and suffering.
  • Second, "the pessimist regards social conditions as forming a system bound together by an iron law which cannot be evaded...and which can only disappear through a catastrophe which involves the whole." As much as he condemns all Marxism after Marx, Sorel takes up the fatalist current that fixated on the iron laws of development.
  • Which is why the third element, which he calls the "most fundamental," is the "path towards deliverance." Despite the necessity of catastrophe, the pessimist still proposes a way to end the tyrannies of "wretchedness or of fate." For Sorel, the contemporary form of deliverance with be the proletarian violence of the general strike.
Now our typical image of a pessimist precludes what Sorel calls 'deliverance.' Does not the idea of deliverance suggest the spectre of optimism lurking-- in a telling reversal-- in the shadows? As I've already mentioned, Sorel rejects the comparison of optimism and pessimism, arguing that they have distinct kinds of the metaphysics of morals (and different genealogies). While he doesn't say much about optimism, it's clear that he thinks the metaphysics of optimism rests on the presupposition of progress, that is, it assumes that history is an unbroken development of civilization in a progressive direction. Pessimism, by contrast, recognizes (as he would say) that history takes qualitative leaps through revolution or catastrophe (which in the general strike mean the same thing).

In the rejection of the idea of progress, Sorel is not unique, which makes it important to place him across the spectrum of the critics of necessary historical progress. On the left, I think a good but under-appreciated figure (in this regard) is Marx, because his confidence in proletarian revolution is often mistaken for a Victorian confidence in progress. [2] On the right, the critiques predominantly attack and lament European decadence and nihilism (a civilization which just they argue just can't be as heroic as it should be,  followed with the idea that one particular nation could pull it out of its morass), providing a moral critique. 1930s Heidegger dabbled in this kind of 'search for heroism.'

And Sorel? He argues that only way for the proletariat to avoid the decadence of the bourgeoisie is to reject all its intellectualizing ideology in favor of the "ethics of the producers." The latter holds, first, that all the morality required for proletarian rule can be found in the process of production (after the proletariat seizes the means from the bourgeoisie) [3], and, second, that the path to this deliverance is through the general strike. Rather than organization and education, Sorel argues that the general strike provides the much stronger intuitive forces of myth and heroism, which makes it "the most striking manifestation of individualistic force in the rebellious masses."

The general strike, he argues, is the myth or the "drama" that gives an intuition of the totality of socialist practice. The selfless heroism of proletarian strike contributes both to the ethics of the producers, and to preventing the moral decline of the workers. And this is where it becomes clearer that Sorel is utilizing some critical moves more often associated with the right, or even (later) with fascism. For Sorel, the central problem is to animate the proletariat with an epic sense of heroism and confidence to guarantee its success, so that it does not fall into decline and decadence as did the bourgeoisie, who no longer recognizes its honor and its duty. Hence the secondary purpose of the general strike: "It is here that the role of violence in history appears as of utmost importance; because in an indirect manner it can operate on the bourgeoisie so as to reawaken them to a sense of their own class interests." If so, proletarian violence serves the purpose of dividing society between the last two warring classes, dividing society for the struggle from which the proletariat will emerge victorious.

This argument, however, aestheticizes politics: class struggle takes on epic and mythical proportions as both an economic and moral struggle. The valorization of heroism is, indeed, a slippery slope, and arguing that proletarian violence has the important purpose of reawakening the bourgeoisie to its class interests mistakes the hegemonic weakness of the ruling class for economic weakness; for Sorel should have seen (I realize that this 'should have' has a touch of anachronism) that concessions won by the working class could contribute to cracking the hegemonic bloc of the bourgeoisie. The problem is that Sorel blurs the distinction between the parliamentary socialists and the bourgeoisie in general, even if each group requires different combat tactics (as is clearly shown, for differing reasons, by Luxemburg or Lenin).

Nevertheless, I don't want to suggest that one shouldn't read Sorel. Reflections on Violence, and its emphasis on the spontaneity of the masses, had some influence on Walter Benjamin, Georg Lukács, and, it must have been at least an implicit reference for Georges Bataille and several figures in French syndicalism and, later, the popular front. Nor can the book be reduced to the outline that I have given here, given his defense of violence (in distinction to state force), and his interest in Bergson. If one of our intellectual tasks is to rethink the revolutionary history, especially the vicissitudes of the debates over spontaneity in struggle, Sorel is an important and challenging figure.

1. I should also mention that he has the unfortunate and offensive habit of comparing his opponents' intelligences to those he assumes are possessed by non-European peoples.
2. A good example can be found in Capital, Volume 1, when he cites the rates of consumption (not consumer consumption either) in modern domestic industry in order to attack the ideologues of progress, noting that the "advance in the rate of consumption" between 1852 and 1861 in women who produced lace "ought to suffice for the most optimistic advocate of progress."
3. Interestingly, he suggests that art is an anticipation of "the highest form of production," in which future producers innovate because they will not be content with "the unending reproduction of models which are not [their] own."

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Rancière on Racism

Wrong Arithmetic has posted a rough translation of Jacques Rancière's recent talk "Racisme, une passion d'en haut" (delivered at a forum on the expulsion of the Roma from France. The title translates as "Racism, a passion from above"). Rancière, like Badiou, is a long time critic of both state racism in France and the so-called left wing intellectuals that support it. Rather than view the expulsion of the Roma as a ploy to exploit racist passions for electoral gain, Rancière notes (I'm using Wrong Arithmetic's translation below) that:
The last racist campaign wasn’t at all organised by the so-called ‘populist’ extreme-right. It was directed by an intelligentsia that claims to be a Leftist, republican and secular intelligentsia. Discrimination is no longer based on arguments about superior and inferior races. They argue in the name of the struggle against ‘communitarianism’, universality of the law and the equality of all citizens before the law and the equality of the sexes. There again, they are not embarrassed by so many contradictions; these arguments are made by people who otherwise make very little of equality and Feminism. In fact, the argument mostly creates an essential relation [l’amalgame requis] for identifying the undesirable: thus the relation between migrant, immigrant, backward, Islamist, chauvanist and terrorist. The recourse to universality in fact benefits its contrary: the establishment of a discretionary state power that decides who belongs and who doesn’t belong to the class of those who have the right to be here; the power, in short, to confer and remove identities.
He concludes that:
a lot of energy has been spent against a certain figure of racism—embodied in the Front National—and a certain idea that this racism is the expression of ‘white trash’ (‘petite blancs‘) and represents the backward layers of society. A substantial part of that energy has been recuperated to build the legitimacy a new form of racism: state racism and ‘Leftist’ intellectual racism. It is perhaps time to reorient our thinking and the struggle against a theory and a practice of stigmatisation, precariatisation and exclusion which today constitutes a racism from above: a logic of the state and a passion of the intelligentsia. 

Monday, September 20, 2010

Ontario Hegel Organization – Call for Abstracts

Theme: Negativity
Deadline:  October 31, 2010
Conference date:  April 1 - 3, 2011
Conference location: University of Ottawa
Organisers: Douglas Moggach and Jeffrey Reid

Much of the dynamic activity in recent Hegel studies, particularly in the Anglo-American world,  has focused on what might be called the “positivities” of his system, on Hegel’s writings on conscience, language, nature, law, religion, psychology, education, art, ethics, the state...  Much of this scholarly work involves new interpretations of Hegelian content, which are meant not only to help us better understand the philosopher’s work but also to advance more general contemporary reflections on these subjects.  In moral-political philosophy, Hegel’s thoughts on mutual recognition, forgiveness and community are seen as informative of our own ideas about living-together. Hegel’s writing on consciousness can be seen as responding to certain problems associated with contemporary empirical science;  his writing on property and the juridical person provides new perspectives in philosophy of law etc.  However, as rewarding as such approaches to Hegelian content are, they tend to ignore that unsettling and yet essential element of Hegelian thought which might be broadly qualified as negativity.

Douglas Moggach and Jeffrey Reid will organise a conference on Hegelian negativity, under the umbrella of that loose-knit group of Hegel scholars known as the Ontario Hegel Organization, at the University of Ottawa, April 1-3, 2011. Those interested in presenting papers (25 minutes) are invited to send abstracts dealing with any aspect of the question:   logical considerations on the restlessness thought, the movement of the concept, natural questions of finitude, spiritual topics of scepticism, desire, freedom, or expressions of struggle and strife...   the darker elements of Hegelian thought that are perhaps more often associated with European approaches to Hegel (existentialism, Frankfurt School, metaphysics, psychoanalysis...) but which should be seen as relevant to any discussion of the “positivities” mentioned above.  Can we conceive of mutual recognition without the struggle to attain it?  Is revealed religion possible without the pain and loss at the heart of spirit?  Is art and culture possible without the annihilation of nature?  Is conscience possible without a sense of evil? Does education not involve the cruel overcoming of the natural body?  Please limit abstracts to 250 words and send them to jreid[at] before October 31.

Douglas Moggach and Jeffrey Reid

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Henry Miller: Escape from America (French Interview)

Some people live interesting lives, but write uninteresting works. Some people live uninteresting lives, but write interesting works. Henry Miller was a man that lived and wrote in a way only a few can emulate: His life and literary creations were equally interesting. What is great about this interview of Henry Miller is the ease in which he describes his unorthodox life. His unconventional ways were clearly an inspiration to his creative endeavors.

Revolutionary thinkers may take some issue with him. His politics seemed apolitical. He was disturbed by the direction he saw America going and then chose not to let it matter. Politically he was escapist. That's not good for helping create change in one's country or the world. Yet, when change is not happening it's not a bad way to live. This weekend I will escape back into his novel Sexus. I might not finish it until next week. After I'm done there are still a few books by Marx and Paine in my book collection needing to be read. They are not far from my tattered copy of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Notes Taken at One Year

Today marks the one year anniversary of The Notes Taken. We began with this short post setting out our ambitions (to review books), and since then we've written 231 posts, 60 of them being book reviews.

To me, these are decent numbers; but more importantly, I find that maintaining a blog has changed the way that I work with non-blog related reading and writing. There are other factors involved here, including the kind of clarification that is required when one starts thinking about the problems that were left unresolved with one's previous efforts, mine being the book Freedom and Nature in Schelling's Philosophy of Art, but blogging has transformed the way I engage with texts, and the way I write (not to mention that it has expanded the circle of those with whom I converse with about philosophy, through either blogs, email correspondence, or a few guest features). It has also increased the amount that I write. And that, I think, is a positive development because writing requires a lot of practice. Some of that work has appeared here, with varying degrees of success, and much more of it remains stuck in my notebooks.

For our more recent readers, I would just like to highlight a few of the successes, primarily those of the other contributors to The Notes Taken. If you would like to get a sense of where we stand, I'd recommend, first, the online reading group/self-clarification that Matthew McLennan and I undertook around David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism.

Then I would add Matt's review of Slavoj Zizek's Living in the End of Times, which captures the exasperation that I know he and I feel at every new book of Zizek's that begins with some promise and ends with the same jokes he used in The Ticklish Subject or Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? I'd also recommend Matt's long running series on Yukio Mishima.

And with these I would include Sean Moreland's thoughts on the legends of J.D. Salinger, occasioned by the author's death on January 27th (on the same day as Howard Zinn).

That rounds out our Ottawa-based contributors. But the blog would not be complete without Jason Smith, currently based in Korea, who has been engaging questions of imperialism, including this post on U.S.-South Korean relations, which drew the ire of a conservative blogger, and even a small bit of traffic therefrom. Nor would the list be complete without the weekend posts by Joshua, currently living in the Central Valley of California where several of us grew up. It took a while to convince him, but eventually I prodded Joshua into making his nearly all-consuming Youtube habit a blogging habit. For me it's like going to visit his place every weekend, when he's just got to show you that clip of William F. Buckley Jr. interviewing Huey P. Newton, or Georges Bataille discussing literature and evil.

I could keep adding links, but I think I've already added too many. I'll close by saying that I've had a good year writing for The Notes Taken, and I think next year will be even better.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Yukio Mishima, "Confessions of a Mask"

Last winter I forayed into the works of arguably the greatest Japanese author of the 20th century, Yukio Mishima. I was not unscathed; you might say I'm still "working through it". In any case, I can't put this fascist bastard's books down.

I've already blogged about how Mishima's fiction, singularly crafted and aesthetically interesting on its own, makes much more sense - or in any case, gains considerably in depth - when one is familiar with his biography, psyche, political ventures, etc. In fact, there's good reason to suspect that Mishima cannot be divorced from his literary work, or vice versa; rather, since he lived his life as a work of art, to read his novels is only to scratch the surface. Whereas other authors I've recently blogged about, such as Cormac McCarthy, for the most part cultivate themselves as impersonal and remote with respect to their works, Mishima seems at all times to be engaged in creating the work of art that is Mishima; hence, each novel must be read in the context of the larger creation (less charitably, the larger spectacle).

For this reason, "Confessions of a Mask" is a particularly interesting Mishima novel. It's the closest he gives us to a straight-up, confessional autobiography, and although his surviving family would apparently still be (somehow) reticent with respect to this interpretation, it chronicles in a very literal way his own changing and largely painful relationship to his queerness. It's widely known that Mishima had affairs with men and trans-women throughout his adult life; "Confessions of a Mask" provides his own take on this, executed with incomparably violent and flowery prose.

It would be tempting, perhaps, to read the novel as in some way exemplary of postwar Japanese queerness. I suspect however that Mishima is too rare a bird for this to be true. His homosexual desire is to some extent polymorphous (armpits!), and is deeply tangled with a desire for images of violence, destruction and death; case in point, his description of erotic fantasies wherein his schoolmates are tortured to death, and his vivid description of masturbating to an image of St Sebastian bristling with arrows. Perhaps something about this sheds light on coming of age at the height of Japanese militarism and imperialism; Mishima did seem to regret faking his way out of military service, having missed his chance to die a "beautiful death" like so many other young Japanese men. I hesitate to make such sweeping generalizations, however. At best, I might agree that Mishima, as always seems the case, is something like the canary in the mineshaft: if something bizarre is going on in Japan, however buried, his prose and his gestures seem sure to reflect it in spectacular fashion.

Larger questions surrounding a "Queer Canon" can be posed in light of this novel. It strikes me that Mishima, like William S. Burroughs, presents something of an enigma, if not an outright problem, for constructions of queerness as somehow inherently liberal (if not radical). Let's not forget his cartoonish ultra-nationalism, his problematic celebrations of "manliness", and what is - arguably? - his gross misogyny. If Mishima belongs in a canon of any kind, I would suggest that it's as a liminal figure. The questions that can be spun from his confession are legion, and in my mind they suggest that the simplistic notion of a "queer author" is deeply troubled.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Politics of University Budgets

Amy DePaul interviews Christopher Newfield, author of Unmaking the Public University, over at Alternet. Although I haven't read Newfield's book, I think his general thesis is correct: he argues that the ideological battles over university curriculum and the cutting and privatizing of university budgets are part of a concerted effort to undermine a more diverse and critical approach to education. While it is true that some universities have become mired in financial difficulties, the logic of their solutions follows that of a loosely neoliberal or 'business' perspective. We've already argued that student debt is political, because increased debt can reduce a graduate's inclination toward low-paying work in activism or social justice work (at the same time that it implies a consumer's model of education); following Newfield we should add that budget cuts are political insofar as they target fields that study the negative aspects of contemporary life, and that advocate a critical and diversified public life. One excerpt:
You say in the book that elites on the right began to focus on universities increasingly. What actions did they take?

They attacked every reform in the humanities that racially integrated the curriculum, including attempts to broaden ‘great books’ courses at Stanford in the late 80s. The humanities as a source of knowledge in society was gradually discredited. In the early 90s, attacks began on affirmative action in California and elsewhere.

The other flank of the culture wars is the budget wars and my argument is they are basically the same thing. The goal was to discredit fields that had studied negative aspects of American life. The second goal was to use budget pressures to de-fund disciplines that seemed too critical of the established order. History, literature studies, anthropology, sociology -- anything that isn’t econometric and efficiency oriented, anything too skeptical, all of that stuff should only be tolerated if it can pay its own way.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Freedom and Personhood: Two Reviews

Though you were expecting another tirade, I offer links to two recent book reviews. 

Peter Gratton reviews Jonathan Franzen's Freedom over at Philosophy in a Time of Error. Here's a catchy excerpt:
Let me take an inelegant analogy, but since I’m teaching Husserl, I find it apt: this is certainly a phenomenology of characters, the best I’ve read (or rather, I suppose, I’ve read in a recent work) for some time. He detaches us from the natural attitude of realism (this is the word he has championed in interviews) for an eidetic reduction into literature. There, on the page, we can twist and turn each person from various angles, from various personae or masks, just as we turn each page, seeing them from behind and front, and thus developing a “sympathy” he notes one of the characters has innately for even the worst among us; literary realisms tend to leave character behind in the passing of scenes and details. Definitively not so with this work.
And Scu reviews Roberto Esposito's Terza persona: Politica della vita e filosofia dell'impersonale (Third Person: Politics of Life and Philosophy of the Impersonal) at Critical Animal:
The book is, in many ways, very Agamben-esque. In both the good and bad senses of that term. Everything is empty metaphysical machines separating and rearranging bodies into killable and protected in zones of indetermination. And of course the teleology of all of this is the Nazis. The solution is, of course, to render the machine inoperative by exiting from the metaphysics associated with the machine. A lot of sillyness is pushed against supporters of human rights and bio-ethicists (I'm sorry, I find it hard to believe that what this world needs is less attention paid to practical ethics, or that was really drove the logics of the Third Reich was bio-ethics and human rights). It is very learned and nuanced, with fascinating arguments and insights.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Tony Benn: Let's Talk About Socialism

Documentary film maker Michael Moore does a great interview with the former British parliamentarian Tony Benn. This clip comes from an extended portion from Moore's documentary "Sicko." The United States needs such politicians, the United States needs socialism. Our capitalist health care system is killing us. US Socialists should learn to articulate their arguments with the clarity of this ol' firebrand.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Sorel on Pessimism

I have started reading Georges Sorel's Reflections on Violence, without really knowing what to expect other than the vague and/or allusive remarks made about his work by Walter Benjamin and Georg Lukács. Having only read through the different introductions to two of the early editions of the work, the latter being his 'Letter to Daniel Halévy,' I've already discovered why I'm not a pessimist.* 

Sorel rejects the common distinction between optimism and pessimism as a pair of opposites, in the way that we stare at a water glass and ask if it's half full or half empty. "Pessimism," he writes, "is quite a different thing from the caricatures that are usually presented of it; it is a metaphysics of morals rather than a theory of the world; it is a conception of a march towards deliverance that is narrowly conditioned." He lists three aspects of this 'metaphysics of morals,'  which nevertheless hints at a genealogy of morals (especially when he writes that the optimism of Greek philosophy reflects the urban and commercial life of their society, while "Greek pessimism sprang from the poor warlike tribes living in the mountains who possessed an enormous aristocratic pride but whose material conditions were very modest").
  • First, pessimism refuses to deny the wretchedness of mankind, and the constant threat of pain and suffering.
  • Second, "the pessimist regards social conditions as forming a system bound together by an iron law which cannot be evaded...and which can only disappear through a catastrophe which involves the whole." As much as he condemns all Marxism after Marx, Sorel takes up the fatalist current that fixated on the iron laws of development.
  • Which is why the third element, which he calls the "most fundamental," is the "path towards deliverance." Despite the necessity of catastrophe, the pessimist still proposes a way to end the tyrannies of "wretchedness or of fate." For Sorel, the contemporary form of deliverance with be the proletarian violence of the general strike.
Sorel is best known for proposing a concept of the myth of the general strike, and his reasons can already be seen in the phrasing of these aspects of pessimism, the hints about morals, fate, and deliverance. This strikes me as an aestheticization of violence. I should have more to say about this later.

*Other than the fact that the distinction between optimism and pessimism strikes me as too abstract, and  distracting when we are describing the complex world of politics.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Fall Semester is Around the Corner

Or, more accurately, the start of the fall semester here at the University of Ottawa is less than 24 hours away. To follow up on my previous post on my employment situation: between then and now I took on another section of "Reasoning and Critical Thinking," bringing my course load for the semester to two. The optimistic way to look at this situation is to say that I've never taught more than a 1/1 course load, and so a 2/1 (and there's still a chance that I will pick up a course in the winter...such is the life of the sessional professor) still leaves plenty of time to work on my new project. Before getting to that project, however, I've got to write up two abstracts for upcoming conferences (still at the CFP stage, not post-acceptance), and finish What Is To Be Done?, the final text in my summer reading selection of essential texts in the history of Marxism (from 1860-1923).

Aside from teaching, I've set a fairly ambitious working schedule for fall semester: I'll be working on my conference presentation on Agamben for the RPA, the chapter on Lukács for the aforementioned 'new project,' and participating in a reading group dedicated to The Phenomenology of Spirit and its influence-- that is, readings of Hegel by Hyppolite, Kojève, Lukács, and Althusser-- not to mention keeping up with the blog.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Olbermann: There Is No 'Ground Zero Mosque'

There has been constant rantings on right-wing AM radio programs about the the so-called 'Ground Zero Mosque'. The proposed Islamic community center is to be located several blocks from the site of the former Twin Towers in New York. There are even right-wing and liberal politicians arguing that a mosque being built close to the site of the terrorist 9/11 attacks is an insult to the victims. Keith Olbermann addressed this current situation in the most thorough manner. His analysis is dead on and dead right.