Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Patrik Ourednik, The Opportune Moment, 1855

It was a late night hyperlink clicking session that led me to Patrik Ourednik. I don't know exactly where it started, but it ended with me acquiring two of his books: The Opportune Moment, 1855 and Case Closed, both translated by Alex Zucker and published by Dalkey Archive Press. Here's some brief background on Ourednik, which I've taken from Context (a journal published by Dalkey Archive as well):
Patrik Ouredník was born in Prague‚ but emigrated to France in 1984‚ where he still lives. He is the author of eight books‚ including fiction‚ essays‚ and poems. He is also the Czech translator of novels‚ short stories‚ and plays from such writers as François Rabelais‚ Alfred Jarry‚ Raymond Queneau‚ Samuel Beckett‚ and Boris Vian. He has received a number of literary awards for his writing‚ including the Czech Literary Fund Award.
I started with The Opportune Moment, 1855, which tells the story of the failure of an utopian commune founded by Italian anarchists in Brazil. It opens with a letter by one of the protagonists (who I will call the epistolary narrator), to his unrequited love, many years after the failure of the new society. At once it becomes clear that Ourednik is writing, in a way, a historical novel and satire. Here are the opening lines (also from the DA website), which convey that 19th century epistolary mood:
Madam, however strong my distaste at the thought of deferring to your whim after so many years, I have not found within myself the courage to resist it, and am left with no choice but to submit, albeit I do so at the expense of my repute. To oblige you means to confess to my love for you, that transient conflagration, that involuntary clouding of the senses, which renders less persuasive all that I have professed and proclaimed; and as much as you know it, in your selfishness you ask of me a sincerity which I could not show anyone else. For if in life I have resisted your God and his depraved demands, if I have resisted unfreedom and shallowness, if I have faced ridicule and human baseness always with calm and determination—I have lost my struggle with love; and what is more, my love has been embodied by you, a woman unworthy of true emotion. Still today, when I find in you nothing which would be worth attention, when I marvel at the fact that I ever could have loved you, still today a word from your mouth knocks me defenseless to my knees, returning me to the days of immaturity and youthful fumbling, to days past and past perfect, to the juvenile schoolboy who carried out directions and instructions he did not understand. But the schoolboy in the end revolted and made up his mind to submit only to that which appeared sensible and good to him, whereas the aging man takes pen in hand and hastens to satisfy your vanity. 
The narrator then recalls the desires and reasons to attempt to create a new society in rural Brazil, his conflicted feelings over his paramour, and the shortcomings of the commune and his youthful enthusiasms. This particular participant is the founder that searched out its location and returned to Europe to propagandize for its creation, who nevertheless fails, due to his delay at sea, to arrive before the settlement self-destructs. All that is left, aside from the deserted settlement, is a journal that is given him by the Brazilian policeman. 

The journal takes the reader back to 1855, and is told by an Italian anarchist named Bruno (who is not the same as the epistolary narrator, who, as far as I can tell, is referred to by Bruno as "Older Brother"). The journal is split into two parts, the first describes Bruno's trip across the Atlantic, the second of the decline of Fraternitas settlement. During the trip across the Atlantic, Bruno captures the hopes and anticipations of the voyagers, their squabbles, and, unwittingly, their exploitation at sea by the ship's captain (for example, when the captain chooses to land temporarily at Cape Verde rather than the Canary Islands, one of the voyagers "didn't see why we hadn't filled up on fresh water when we were in the Canary Islands, where it was free"). In the squabbles, many of the limitations of their enthusiasm are revealed: the group argues over whether non-Europeans should be admitted to the group, they seem oblivious to the problems of being settlers in relation to indigenous peoples, etc. 

After this section, there is a six month gap in the journal, and it resumes as the Fraternitas settlement collapses, and narrator becomes completely unreliable (that's all I can say without spoiling anything).

With novels such as The Opportune Moment, 1855, I find it impossible to ignore considering the political subtext. A story of a failed utopian project suggests, of course, that  Ourednik views all political change with cynical eyes, meaning that all attempts at change end in defeat (but, then, why translate the book? We've got plenty of cynics and conservatives in the English language). 

Or, it could accent the importance of the hopes opened by such a project despite their flaws. If the epistolary narrator is any indicator, Ourednik opts for the latter possibility. In his letter, the narrator rejects the smug liberalism of his former lover, choosing to resign himself to the absurdity of life rather than to the absurdity of bourgeois world.

Monday, June 27, 2011

De Beauvoir: Participating in Political Life

Last summer, I spent some time reading through Capital, volume 1. This summer, my reading list is in large part organized around preparing for the Rancière book, which includes a cover-to-cover read of the Borde/Malovany-Chevallier translation of The Second Sex (I've already linked to some criticisms of this text, raised by Toril Moi, here).

I've only read through Parts One and Two thus far. But it's a relief to read and not have to worry about omissions à la Parshely. I've also had some fun rediscovering passages such as these (see 146): in the final chapter in the "History" section, de Beauvoir notes that after Germany's defeat in World War I, that women "obtained the right to vote and participated in political life." As for the former, she notes that the "majority of women chose the party of order." But regarding participation in political life, she gives Rosa Luxemburg as an example: "Luxemburg fought next to Liebknecht in the Spartacus group and was assassinated in 1919."

De Beauvoir is often treated as a liberal, politically speaking-- and perhaps sometimes for good reason: I am thinking here of her discomfort with the essay by Sartre, "Élections, piège à cons" (1973; translated as "Elections, A Trap for Fools," which doesn't quite capture the French). Nevertheless, passages such as the one above, wherein the participation in political life is revolutionary struggle, should remind us that she can still be read outside of--or at least not be reduced to--these liberal confines.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Why a Man Robbed a Bank for One Dollar

This week a story about a man robbing a bank for one dollar became widely circulated. KTLA News reports:
A reportedly unemployed, uninsured man robbed a bank for $1 in order to get thrown in jail and receive medical attention.

Richard James Verone, a 59-year-old man who reportedly suffers from a growth on his chest, two ruptured disks, and a foot injury, walked into RBC bank unarmed earlier in June and handed the teller a note that read "This is a bank robbery. Please only give me one dollar." After handing over his note, the man said quietly on a couch while the teller called 911.

Verone, a man with no criminal history according to reports, figured that once he was thrown in jail he would receive the medical attention that he was unable to afford on his own.
The way right-wingers have been responding to this story is predictable.

Many commentators scoff at the man and claim that this story is liberal media ultra hyped-up sensationalism: After all, no one is denied healthcare in the US and the real problem is that medical costs are too high due to Medicare and other interfering government programs. This is a frequent argument by fiscal conservatives: The US should not provide universal healthcare and those that think we need it should stop complaining because we already have it. There is some truth in this argument. If a person calls 911 and gets sent to emergency that person will be cared for even if they are not covered by insurance. Although, can one say that that person will get the same quality healthcare as one with insurance? A few years ago my friend's young daughter broke her arm. She came home with it tied to a board. The the insurance my friend had would not cover giving her a cast until the doctor under his plan would be available. She had to wait to get it properly fixed. This was "healthcare" with insurance! Furthermore, this argument that the government needs to stop interfering with medical care is not honest. Does anyone really think the medical industry will go out of its way to provide cheap affordable healthcare inspired by ethics or the benevolent equalizing forces of the "free market"? I pose a question: Does anyone think an eighty year old grandma with no savings or insurance, who is soon to die anyway, be denied medical attention because she has no money? If you think she must be cared for you believe in universal healthcare. If you don't think she should be cared for you are,to put it in a vulgar term, a dick.

I know, I know, there is a financial crisis. Thomas Donnelly wrote in the Weekly Standard that perhaps even the US military getting socialized healthcare is too much of a social burden. He writes:
Well, if there is a lesson for society writ large, it’s that a universal, single-payer system is a bankrupting system, to the point where the killing-people part[of the military] is in danger of falling by the wayside. Over the past decade, the Defense Department’s spending on health care has tripled, approaching an estimated $51 billion per year. It continues to rise even faster than health care costs in the civilian world, and will push to about $65 billion by 2015 – probably more than 10 percent of the baseline (that is, excluding war costs) Pentagon budget.
He then points out some more "insight" by US officials:
Departing Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been trying to include defense health reforms in his money saving “efficiencies.” This week, he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the defense health system is “not sustainable” without higher fees from troops, their families, and the retirees who benefit from very lost-cost programs like “TRICARE for Life.” Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed that military health care costs are “eating us alive.”...Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine general and member of the Defense Business Board, a group that advises the Pentagon on its finances, recently summed the problem:

We in the Defense Department are on the same path that General Motors found itself on. General Motors did not start out to be a health care company that occasionally built an automobile. Today, we’re on the path in the Department of Defense to turn it into a benefits company that may occasionally kill a terrorist.
So, the practical thing to do is cut back or cut off medical care to US military. As Donnelly points out, healthcare for soldiers is not important, "The end, the larger purpose, is killing our enemies." Another question I ask is directed to our US military: Is Thomas Donnelly your friend or enemy? With the global class-war being waged from the top against the majority of humanity, there is one important question I direct to the majority of humanity: Who is our real enemies?

Notice these "wise" pundits:

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

On The University in Ruins

Doc Nagel discussing the relevance of Bill Readings' The University in Ruins (Harvard, 1996):
It's the book I've been waiting for, examining the contemporary situation of universities, basically through a Situationist lens, with a good dose of Lyotard. I’m amazed that this book is 15 years old, and yet none of the current discussion of university crisis in the US refers to it. Perhaps I shouldn’t be amazed, since this book makes almost all of the current debate absolutely pointless.
Readings discusses how the term "excellence" is used as an empty qualifier for administrative decision-making. Now, as the Doc notes, substitute "student success" for "excellence" and Readings' analysis becomes contemporary:
What the use of excellence to name the activities of universities achieves is provide a bureaucratic rationale for managerial decisions. Since it is precisely not a criterion for judgment, but an empty qualifier, it can be used rhetorically in any situation to provide what looks like a justification for any decision. Since universities have no purpose, every managerial decision is essentially an arbitrary exercise of power – the power of the administrator (as Readings says, in the contemporary university the major figures are the presidents and provosts), or of market capitalism.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Recent Thoughts and Efforts

I'll admit, we haven't been posting as much lately: though Joshua has been quite consistent, Matt's in the finishing stages of his PhD, but what have I been doing?

1. Book reviews. These are ostensibly what our blog is about, and yet the last one that we posted, back in late April, was my review of Danto's Andy Warhol. As per my new year's resolution, I have written two reviews since then, but both are destined for journals, one of them on Jacques Rancière's The Politics of Literature, the other on Bernard Stiegler's For a New Critique of Political Economy. The Rancière review should be up soon. This leaves, for the next few months, one more review to which I have committed, on Miguel Abensour's Democracy Against the State. For those of you who are curious, it was not a programmatic decision to take on three books recently published by Polity Press.

2. The Rancière book. For the moment we'll call it The Aesthetics of Equality. The book will range from discussions of Plato and Aristotle to Descartes and Sartre/de Beauvoir, Marx and recent Marxism, to Schiller and maybe even F.T. Marinetti (adding Marinetti to the list surprises me as well). As I've mentioned before, I've already presented talks on Rancière in relation to Marx and in relation to Sartre (with a dash of Fanon, for that matter), and I hope to see these essays through to print relatively soon (in academic terms). Perhaps my blogging has slowed down, though, because I'm spending a lot of time reading through Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes.

3. Revisiting Schelling. On the heels of my keynote address to the "Aftermath of German Idealism" conference in Wuppertal, I will be giving a talk in October entitled "Pure Contingencies: A Critique of Markus Gabriel's Formal Ontology," and a talk, co-authored with our own Sean Moreland, in January, entitled "'Urged by Schelling': Schelling's Philosophy of Art and Poe's Critical and Fictional Practice." More on these soon.

4. And, of course, reading. The highlights include books by Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Chinua Achebe, Gonçalo M. Tavares, and Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Raphaël Confiant's In Praise of Creoleness.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Rise of Turkey

A few years ago I could not find one Arab friend that had anything good to say about Turks. One Jordanian man told me, "The Turks used to be the top of the Muslim world. Now they prefer to be the lowest of the Western world." Forgive my slip into the anecdotal, but I think my analysis will stand. However, Arab opinion about Turkey has thoroughly changed. It is a safe bet that Turkey is currently the most popular nation in the region.

The Turks did rule most of the Middle East, the Balkans, and part of North Africa for centuries. The Ottoman Empire lasted from the thirteenth up until the early twentieth century. Arabs became discontented with their Turkish rulers. The British and French Empires (mainly the British) in the early twentieth century utilized this discontent and rising Arab nationalism as a way to to help weaken Ottoman hegemony in the region. This was done to actually bring in the West as the new hegemonic force at Turkey's expense. Enigmatic characters such as Thomas Edward Lawrence aka "Lawrence of Arabia" was one British soldier that was sent to do such instigation. NPR's Jacki Lyden stated:
"Lawrence did not change the map of the Middle East — the spheres of influence had been drawn up secretly between Britain and France in 1916,"...

"By 1922, he was advisor to Winston Churchill, and it was then Britain installed the adroit Faisal as King in Iraq," Lyden says, "And later, when it was already a fact on the ground, Abdullah as Emir in Jordan." Of all the other British officers in the Middle East, Lawrence was one of the few urging independence and self-rule for the Arabs.
Even if Lawrence truly fought for Arab independence the British Empire would not give it freely. As the Ottoman Empire fell apart Turkey set it's own course favoring a Western orientation as opposed to an Eastern one.

In 1919 Mustafa Kemal "Atatürk" led a nationalist revolution in Turkey. He transformed Turkey into a modernized secular country. He even abolished the the Sultanate and use of the Arabic script for the Turkish language, in exchange for the Latin. The military became the vanguard of his reforms keeping Islamists in check. Turkey was the first Muslim majority country to recognize Israel in 1949. Israel and Turkey also developed a militarily strategic relationship. A few years later Turkey joined NATO. In light of this history, the question is: What has changed to make Turkey become popular with Arabs now?

In the early twenty-first century Turkish leaders started drastically changing the direction of Turkish foreign policy. They created a "zero-problem with neighbors" policy. Turkey has worked cooperatively with Arab dictators, without appearing to support them (unlike the US). The Turkish government has shown solidarity with the Arab revolts against those Arab dictators, without being perceived as a fomenter of those revolts. Turkey has been one of the only states in the Middle East (on good relations with the West) to really stand up to Israel and condemn it for its atrocities against Palestinians. Turkey's economy is growing and it is currently ran by an Islam friendly government that still maintains a secular approach to governance(showing that Islam in politics does not necessitate a Saudi or Iranian style theocracy). Turkey is on the rise with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the helm and the backing of his Justice and Development Party. It will be interesting to see what other developments will ensue.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Douzinas on Greek "Outrage"

Costas Douzinas (one of the editors of the recently published The Idea of Communism) writes in the Guardian UK about recent popular Greek resistance to measures proposed by the IMF, EU and the European Central Bank:
A motley multitude of indignant men and women of all ideologies, ages, occupations, including the many unemployed, began occupying Syntagma – the central square of Athens opposite parliament; the area around White Tower in Thessaloniki; and public spaces in other major cities. The daily occupations and rallies, sometimes involving more than 100,000 people, have been peaceful, with the police observing from a distance. 
Thousands of people come together daily in Syntagma to discuss the next steps. The parallels with the classical Athenian agora, which met a few hundred metres away, are striking. Aspiring speakers are given a number and called to the platform if that number is drawn, a reminder that many office-holders in classical Athens were selected by lots. The speakers stick to strict two-minute slots to allow as many as possible to contribute. The assembly is efficiently run without the usual heckling of public speaking. The topics range from organisational matters to new types of resistance and international solidarity, to alternatives to the catastrophically unjust measures. No issue is beyond proposal and disputation. In well-organised weekly debates, invited economists, lawyers and political philosophers present alternatives for tackling the crisis.
(I must be reading to much Rancière lately, because I can't help but think that Plato would be outraged: people drawing by lots to speak, speaking without qualifications...)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Congratulations to Peter Gratton

Via Philosophy in a Time of Error, Peter Gratton announces some big moves:
I’ll be moving this summer over to Memorial University’s Philosophy Department. I’m quite excited by the changes. Memorial is about to begin offering a Ph.D. in philosophy (it already has a strong MA program), specializing in Continental, and I join an exciting department headed by Jim Bradley and includes Peter Trnka, Sean McGrath, and others known on the continental circuit. They are a busy department, with weekly reading groups (even going during the summer), with faculty and students all joining in. [...]
While I’m at it, I’ll honored to be in Australia for part of next Spring/Summer on a research fellowship at Australia National University’s Humanities Research Centre. The theme of the fellowship is on ecology and my focus will be on connecting my work on time to other fellows’ work on ecology—so look for more here next year on that point.
Congratulations, Peter!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Bonus Army/Marchers : America's Tiananmen Square

In 1932 US war veterans were struggling to feed their families and needed their government promised bonuses in order to eek out a living. They marched to Washington D.C. with their families and set up camp until their demands were met. Elected officials denied their request. President Hoover sent in troops to squash them. Men who served and fought in WWI would find themselves suppressed. Their suppression was coordinated by some of America's most famous military heroes: MacArthur, Eisenhower, and Patton. When times get tough economically all Americans can rest assured that the US government is capable of doing whatever it takes to keep stability. Even that entails taking down disgruntled veterans with tanks and bayonets.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

On Plato's "Historical" Rejection of Art

I just finished reading Plato's Republic for my current research project on Rancière and philosophy (parts of which, I hope, will appear in print sometime soon...). In Book X, after banishing the poets from the city, Socrates admits that it is still possible that the poets could return from exile if its defenders, speaking "in prose on its behalf" show "that it not only gives pleasure but is beneficial both to constitutions and to human life" (607d).

Rereading this passage reminded me of the way that Schelling, who often had neo-Platonic moments, deals with Plato's rejection of art (in the lectures on The Philosophy of Art from 1802-1804). Schelling argues that Plato's stance is merely historical and not philosophical, and that, historically speaking, contemporary philosophy is in a much better position to give a "more comprehensive understanding and construction of poesy." 
Yet aside from this merely historical, not philosophical, opposition, an opposition philosophers readily admit, what is Plato's rejection of the poetic arts -- compared particularly with what he says in other works in praise of enthusiastic poesy -- other than a polemic against poetic realism, a foreboding of that later inclination of the spirit in general and of poesy in particular? That judgment could be applied least of all to Christian poesy [especially Schelling's favorite, Dante], which on the whole just as decisively displays the character of the infinite as the poesy of antiquity as a whole displays that of the finite. [...] The Christian religion, and with it a sensibility directed toward the intellectual and ideal...created its own poesy and art in which such sensibility could find satisfaction (V, 346-347).
But, as I argue in my book, Schelling's philosophy of art and idea of the new mythology does not end with Christian mythology (which he speaks of as a living form in the past tense), rather he announces the possibility of an art and mythology that overcomes the limitations of both ancient and Christian mythology, a new mythology which, incidentally, has its roots in naturphilosophie.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Jason Read on Jameson's Representing Capital

We've all, I know, been waiting for the publication of Fredric Jameson's Representing Capital. Though I have not yet acquired a copy, I should be getting it soon, while reading his Hegel Variations is still on my mind. In the meantime, Jason Read has posted (on my birthday no less, not that he knew that...but I digress) some thoughts on a few of the central themes: separation, unemployment, alienation, and extinguishing (auslöchen). This passage caught my eye, though the whole post is worth reading:
The interest in this extinguishing of history can perhaps be read as an explanation of Jameson’s most often cited remark, the one about how it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. History is effaced not just in the commodity but also in the eternal present of the precarious employment situation, where all those years worked do not add up, or they do, but in the form of an increasingly alien capital, in machinery and the wealth of the company. Separation and extinguished are ultimately terms that make it possible to make sense of both Capital and capitalism.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Syria, Freedom, and Lessons In Hypocrisy

It is being reported that over 100,000 people in the Syrian town of Hama are mourning the loss of activists recently killed by government security forces. The town of Hama is no stranger to state brutality. The notoriously pro-Western Middle East historian Bernard Lewis wrote in his book The Crisis of Islam (2003)about the Syrian government's 1982 slaughter of it's citizens and the morally problematic role of the US government. He writes that the Syrian government cracked down on the town of Hama after an uprising initiated by the Muslim Brothers. The Syrian government:
Attacked the city with tanks, artillery, and bomber aircraft, and followed these with bulldozers to complete the work of destruction...The number killed was estimated, by Amnesty International, at somewhere between ten thousand and twenty five thousand...The massacre did not prevent the United States from subsequently courting Assad...Hafiz Al-Assad never became an American ally or, as others would put it, puppet, but it was certainly not for lack of trying on the part of American diplomacy (pp 108, 109)
Lewis also points out that this event got very little press compared to the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps a few months later by Israel's Lebanese Christian militia allies.

Syrians, not just from Hama, have faced the heavy hand of the authoritarian Bashar Assad,son and successor of the late dictator Hafiz Assad. Reported in HuffPost World :
A 13-year-old Syrian boy detained by government forces has been brutally killed, his wounds displayed in a shocking video. The boy, identified as Hamza al-Khateeb, was shot, burned, and had his penis cut off when his body was returned to his family.

Syrians, like Tunisians, Egyptians,Yemenis, Bahrainis, Libyans, and Palestinians (more to add), are fighting for their freedom from such barbarism. All these people deserve international solidarity (that does not necessarily mean military intervention).Humans cannot and should not endure such horrors. Freedom loving people are in awe of these incredible revolutions spreading, but I think it is important to examine the geopolitical forces at play. A brief look at how ordinary citizens are being used by these forces is needed.

Lebanon's Hezbollah helped Lebanon become free of Israeli military occupation, yet now they support Bashar Assad's oppression of his people because they get aid from Syria. Iran expresses rage at Bahrain's repression of the Shiites by the Sunni monarchy while it represses it's own people and supports dictatorship in Syria. The US has a large Navy fleet in Bahrain and watches, if not supports, the unarmed citizen protesters being slaughtered (along with medical professionals tending to the injured) by the Bahraini monarchy because it is an enemy of Iran. Yet, the US and NATO bomb Qaddafi's forces in Libya to "protect" armed civilians from Libyan government attacks. The US supports the unpopular dictator Saleh in Yemen because he claims to help repress al-Qaida. Turkey stands in solidarity with Palestinians while they treat Kurds in Turkey in a similar way Israelis treat Palestinians. Israel talks about suffering from Palestinian terrorism and brazenly oppresses Palestinians with ample military aid from the US government. I can go on and on. My point is that solidarity in support of freedom needs to mean freedom for everyone: not tied to the hypocrisy of cold narrow political ends masked in the name of humanitarianism.

Here is a video posted in honor of the Syrian Revolution.