Archive for the Philosophy Category

My absence

Posted in Daoism, Philosophy, Political Theory with tags , on October 18, 2009 by traxus4420

Work and play have been keeping me from this blog. That will change, the sooner the better. Until then, here’s what I’ve been thinking about:

What is the role of humanistic knowledge and information if they are not to be unknowing (many ironies here) partners in commodity production and marketing, so much so that what humanists do may in the end turn out to be a quasi-religious concealment of this peculiarly unhumanistic process? A true secular politics of interpretation sidesteps this question at its peril.

— Edward Said, “Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies, and Community”

Though I am not interested in a politics of interpretation, I am interested in a secular politics. Perhaps I believe the two are incompatible.

Moving on:

Here, Sariputra, form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form; emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness; whatever is form, that is emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form, the same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness.

— Heart Sutra

True words are not ‘beautiful.’

‘Beautiful’ words are not true.

Those who know are not ‘widely learned.’

The ‘widely learned’ do not know.

The good do not have much.

Those who have much are not good.

The Sage accumulates nothing.

The more he does for others, the more he has.

The more he gives to others, the greater his abundance.

The Way of Heaven is pointed but does no harm.

The Way of the Sage is to serve without competing.

Dao De Jing Verse 81

Contrary to most amateur readings of Buddhist and Daoist tenets I’ve seen (I don’t read the professionals), my sense is that they don’t at all consider ‘harmony’ to be easy or automatic. Of course, I can only refer to my own tiny inroad into (the very different) Buddhism and Taoism, but it seems evident that much as ‘Being’ might be the central problem for  Greek philosophy and its offspring (whether through the logic of sympathetic resemblance or identity and difference), Harmony is rather what these texts are about; it is their organizing problem. The reactionary conservativism and historical fatalism that seem to be their general political tenor is a consequence. But another consequence is the rejection of ‘the Being of Being’ or ‘Being’s being-for-itself’ as a false problem however much it is also a inevitable one, whose solution is its negation. The real question for positive knowledge is the relentlessly practical one of appropriate relations. The effect of meditation on Being is the foreclosure of any logic of Being, and the ‘utility’ of philosophy is its own self-abnegation. I believe this point is what continues to sustain my interest in these practices, and how I might one day justify my frivolous, Orientalizing indulgences.


The Psychology of Intellectuals

Posted in Cultural Theory, Literary Criticism, Philosophy, The French, Utopia with tags , , on June 10, 2009 by traxus4420

“There is in the course of the Revolution a period of collective incubation during which the first transgressions the masses commit can make one think that the people have become open to all kinds of adventures. This period of psychic regression, which turns out to be quite temporary, plunges libertine minds into a sort of euphoria: there is some chance that the most daring elaborations of individual thought will be put into practice. It now appears to them that what has ripened in their minds because of the degree of decomposition they have individually reached they will be able to sow on fertile ground. They cannot recognize that they are instead as it were the already rotten fruit that is detaching itself from the tree of society; they will fall because they are an end, not a beginning, the end of a long evolution. They forget that the ground receives only the seed, that is, only that part of the universal lesson that their example can hold for posterity. Their dream of giving birth to a humanity like themselves is in contradiction with the very basis of their ripeness, or their lucidity. It is only in the course of crises such as those they have passed through that other individuals, like themselves waste products of the collective process, will be able to reach the same degree of lucidity and thenceforth establish a genuine filiation with them.

As now brutal and unforeseeable decisions of the masses intervene, as the hypostases of new factions are embodied and become laws while the moral and religious authorities of the old hierarchy are emptied of their content, these problematic men suddenly find themselves out of their element and disoriented. In fact they were closely bound up with the sacred values they spat upon. Their libertinage had meaning only at the level they occupied in the fallen society. Now that the throne has been overturned, the severed head of the king is trampled in the dust, the churches are sacked and sacrilege has become an everyday occupation of the masses, these immoralists come to look like eccentrics. They appear as they really were: symptoms of dissolution who have paradoxically survived the dissolution and who cannot integrate themselves into the process of recomposition which the hypostases of a sovereign people, a general will, etc., are bringing about in men’s minds. It would be enough that these men go before the people and before them construct a system out of the fundamental necessity of sacrilege, massacre, and rape, for the masses, who have just committed these offenses, to turn against these philosophers and tear them to pieces with as much satisfaction.

It seems at first sight that here is an insoluble problem: the man of privilege who has reached the supreme degree of consciousness because of a social upheaval is totally unable to make social forces benefit from his lucidity. He is incapable of making the individuals of the mass, which is amorphous but rich in possibilities, identical with himself even for a moment. He seems to occupy his morally advanced position to the detriment of the revolutionary mass. From the point of view of its own preservation, the mass is right, for each time the human mind takes on the incisive aspect of a physiognomy such as Sade’s, it runs the risk of precipitating the end of the whole human condition. Yet the mass is wrong, since it is composed only of individuals, and the individual represents the species intrinsically; and there is no reason why the species should escape the risks involved for it in the success of an individual.”

— Pierre Klossowski, “Sade and the Revolution”

I like to consider the too-typical metaphysics of the last two sentences (and most of the rest of the essay) the cost of admitting the other three paragraphs.

But on to exhibit B:

“Lastly, since leaving Paris, he had withdrawn further and further from reality adn above all from the society of his day, which he regarded with ever-growing horror; this hatred he felt had inevitably affected his literary and artistic tastes, so that he shunned as far as possible pictures and books whose subjects were confined to modern life.

The result was that, losing the faculty of admiring beauty in whatever guise it appeared, he now preferred, among Flaubert’s works, La Tentation de Saint Antoine to L’Éducation sentimentale; among Goncourt’s works, La Faustin to Germinie Lacerteux; among Zola’s works, La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret to L’Assommoir.

This seemed to him a logical point of view; these books, not as topical of course but just as stirring and human as the others, let him penetrate further and deeper into the personalities of their authors, who revealed with greater frankness their most mysterious impulses, while they lifted him, too, higher than the rest, out of the trivial existence of which he was so heartily sick.

The fact is that when the period in which a man of talent is condemned to live is dull and stupid, the artist is haunted, perhaps unknown to himself, by a nostalgic yearning for another age.

Unable to attune himself, except at rare intervals, to his environment, and no longer finding in the examination of that environment and the creatures who endure it sufficient pleasures of observation and analysis to divert him, he is aware of the birth and development in himself of unusual phenomena. Vague migratory longings spring up which find fulfillment in reflection and study. Instincts, sensations, inclinations bequeathed to him by heredity awake, take shape, and assert themselves with imperious authority. He recalls memories of people and things he has never known personally, and there comes a time when he bursts out of the prison of his century and roams about at liberty in another period, with which, as a crowning illusion, he imagines he would have been more in accord.”

— J. K. Huysmans, À rebours

Dark Side of Enlightenment 2.0

Posted in Apocalypse Porn, Philosophy, Science with tags , , , , on December 28, 2008 by traxus4420


A recent look back at Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum put me in mind of current “eliminativist” theories of science prevalent among philosophers whose research focuses on neo-Darwinism, evolutionary psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and various applications of information theory and cybernetics to the above. Referring eliminativism to Bacon’s ‘scientific method’  is pretty obvious, referring it to his politics is somewhat thornier and less often attempted. It’s well-known that he was a cheerleader for imperialism, agent of the crown, etc., but how did his loyalties affect his epistemology?

Bacon denies a) the immediate truth-value of experience (naive realism) and b) the immediate truth-value of internally consistent theory (rationalism, dogmatism). The legitimacy of knowledge comes down to the given method, or “way” that produces it in the form of an accessible object: “sense only gives a judgment on the experiment, while the experiment gives a judgment on nature and the thing itself” (BkI/L). In a form of abductive reasoning, the best “sign” or “testimony” of a theory’s truth is “the discovery of products and results” (BkI/LXXIII); the praxis of scientific discovery is the devising, implementing, and interpreting of experiments, their “products and results” the objectified “judgment” of method on the thing itself (as we will see, however, the value of a method does not reduce to the immediate practical utility of its knowledge products).

Bacon repeatedly ties this definition of scientific knowledge to imperial expansion as its formal equivalent, twin modes of discovery (we have rejected Aristotle’s “common knowledge”) with infinite horizons, the success of the one the chief source of “hope” for the future of the other. As his utopian fantasy New Atlantis makes even clearer, both imperialism and science are pedagogical practices and models of social organization (Bensalem’s residents and visitors are heavily monitored and restricted in order to maximize knowledge extraction).

Indeed, in both Novum Organum and New Atlantis, the highest level of scientific practice makes imperial practice obsolete. Though explicitly deriving his method in Book II from the form of English jurisprudence and its telos from the “discovery” of the New World, by positing an infinite horizon for both he extends them beyond a notion of politics variously defined as petty, risky, venal, and partial\sectarian:

“For the benefits of discoveries may extend to the whole human race, political benefits only to specific areas; and political benefits last no more than a few years, the benefits of discoveries for virtually all time. The improvement of a political condition usually entails violence and disturbance; but discoveries make men happy, and bring benefit without hurt or sorrow to anyone” (BkI/CXXIX).

In the hierarchy of human ambition, scientific discovery comes out on top:

“And it would not be irrelevant to distinguish three kinds and degress of human ambition. The first is the ambition of those who are greedy to increase their personal power in their own country; which is common and base. The second is the ambition of those who strive to extend the power and empire of their country among the human race; this surely has more dignity, but no less greed. But if anyone attempts to renew and extend the power and empire of the human race itself over the universe of things, his ambition (if it should be so called) is without a doubt more sensible and more majestic than the others’. And the empire of man over things lies solely in the arts and sciences. For one does not have empire over nature except by obeying her” (BkI/CXXIX).

The moment when society turns the force of its apparatus onto nature instead of humans is the moment when knowledge exceeds and determines power. Also when both are thought in terms of submission instead of assertion. The ideal Baconian ruler obeys nature and uses the fruits of that obedience to “guide” culture. Bensalemite foreign policy is conducted entirely through accident, example, and espionage — waylaid travelers are convinced to stay, and later may be released to their homelands on information-gathering missions. “But thus you see we maintain a trade, not for gold, silver, or jewels, nor for silks, nor for spices, nor any other commodity of matter; but only for God’s first creature, which was light; to have light, I say, of the growth of all parts of the world.”

A not entirely anachronistic analogy can be drawn here with the difference between GDP and the production of use-values. For though utility is a sign of an adequate science, science is not simply utilitarian, just as knowledge is not simply power (and capital is not simply riches). Bacon emphasizes  “illuminating experiments as distinct from profitable experiments” (BkI/XCIX) as the method of true science. Ultimately a discovery is valued not for its compatibility with a pre-theoretical substrate (immediate experience, authority, etc.), nor for useful products, which are only “taking an interest payment for the time being until the capital can be had” (BkI/CXVII), but for its capacity to produce new “discoveries” according to the scientific method. Method is then a machine for the expansion of science as a work, an enterprise, not yet another form of philosophical wrangling over the correspondence of language with the real, and as such is a technology for the intensification of all social labor in the name of truth. Subjective ‘idols’ (the senses, superstition, generalities, etc.) must be forced out, declared anti-social:

“We declare that the inept models of the world (like imitations by apes), which men’s fancies have constructed in philosophies, have to be smashed. And so men should be aware (as we said above) how great is the distance between the illusions of men’s minds and the ideas of God’s mind. The former are simply fanciful abstractions; the latter are the true marks of the Creator on his creatures as they are impressed and printed on matter in true and meticulous lines. Therefore truth and usefulness are (in this kind) the very same things, and the works themselves are of greater value as pledges of truth than for the benefits they bring to human life” (BkI/CXXIV).

The content of truth thus reveals itself to be the proper form of utility. The most true and therefore the most useful knowledge is knowledge produced according to methodological criteria which can only insure the possibility of fully realized truth. This telos is something like Hegel’s absolute knowledge, the projected completion of the dialectic, in which one can always detect a ring of irony. Progress supersedes the best criteria for judging it: useful products. Sadly, “there is no way that [discoveries] can be brought down to the common understanding, except through their results and effects” (BkI/CXXVIII). And so history advances on credit.

Carolyn Merchant has understood Bacon’s narrative to underlie the notion of history Eurocentric culture has been living under since the 17th century, the perpetual work of recovering the garden of Eden. Science becomes the utopian practice of empire, but one that is not restricted to private imagination. Baconian knowledge presupposes an environment that must be controlled before it can be understood, and initiates the steady transformation of the planet into a lab, an artificial world fully accessible to human inquiry (the botanical garden of Eden). Indeed, it is the subtraction of private imagination and all the vanity of immediacy that defines scientific progress:

“The first task of true induction is the rejection or exclusion of singular natures which are not found in an instance in which the given nature is present; or which are found in an instance where the given nature decreases; or to decrease when the given nature increases. Only when the rejection and exclusion has been performed in proper fashion will there remain (at the bottom of the flask, so to speak) an affirmative form, solid, true, and well-defined (the volatile opinions having now vanished into smoke)” (BkII/XVI).

This is how I think we should understand contemporary eliminativism, not on the model of Descartes (who is always looking to establish self-evidence) but Bacon, for whom science gives meaning to the state, precisely by attempting to go beyond it. I don’t have my Foucault with me at the moment, but if I recall his “power-knowledge” critique tends to gloss the mechanics of the productive value Bacon attributes to time, “the author of authors and thus of all authority” (BkI/LXXXIV). While ancient and, up to now, modern science have been the product of contingency and chance, marked by the occasional great intellect and the inevitable perverters of his legacy, the whole force of the Great Renewal depends on the idea that future science (and by extension history) can be the steady unfolding of method.

What if progress, or the reproduction of history as authorless “written experience,” the initiation of the Foucaultian “process without a subject,” depends on the exclusion of agency in the form of the philosophical subject as its precondition? We’re now in the territory of Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus. The later “top-down” Cartesian subject, and its attributes of free will, radical doubt, self-certainty, etc., would then have to be read as the interpellation of ‘external’ agency into a larger system of philosophical, epistemic, political, and economic relations, the ‘internal’ development of which is predicated on posing the free subject’s existence while staging repeated attacks on its authority. The infinite sins of the subject: greed, partiality, ignorance, superstition, weakness, pride, sentimentality, etc., more than justify its ‘radical’ elimination, even as the rational, universalist ethic they presuppose depends on its continuity.

I leave with you with more quotes:

“We have also parks, and enclosures of all sorts, of beasts and birds; which we use not only for view or rareness, but like- wise for dissections and trials, that thereby may take light what may be wrought upon the body of man. Wherein we find many strange effects: as continuing life in them, though divers parts, which you account vital, be perished and taken forth; resusci- tating of some that seem dead in appearance, and the like. We try also all poisons, and other medicines upon them, as well of chirurgery as physic. By art likewise we make them greater or smaller than their kind is, and contrariwise dwarf them and stay their growth; we make them more fruitful and bearing than their kind is, and contrariwise barren and not generative. Also we make them differ in color, shape, activity, many ways. We find means to make commixtures and copulations of divers kinds, which have produced many new kinds, and them not barren, as the general opinion is. We make a number of kinds of serpents, worms, flies, fishes of putrefaction, whereof some are advanced (in effect) to be perfect creatures, like beasts or birds, and have sexes, and do propagate. Neither do we this by chance, but we know beforehand of what matter and com- mixture, what kind of those creatures will arise.”

New Atlantis, 1623


“These creatures you have seen are animals carven and wrought into new shapes. To that, to the study of the plasticity of living forms, my life has been devoted. I have studied for years, gaining in knowledge as I go. I see you look horrified, and yet I am telling you nothing new. It all lay in the surface of practical anatomy years ago, but no one had the temerity to touch it. It is not simply the outward form of an animal which I can change. The physiology, the chemical rhythm of the creature, may also be made to undergo an enduring modification,—of which vaccination and other methods of inoculation with living or dead matter are examples that will, no doubt, be familiar to you. A similar operation is the transfusion of blood,—with which subject, indeed, I began. These are all familiar cases. Less so, and probably far more extensive, were the operations of those mediaeval practitioners who made dwarfs and beggar-cripples, show-monsters,—some vestiges of whose art still remain in the preliminary manipulation of the young mountebank or contortionist. Victor Hugo gives an account of them in ‘L’Homme qui Rit.’—But perhaps my meaning grows plain now. You begin to see that it is a possible thing to transplant tissue from one part of an animal to another, or from one animal to another; to alter its chemical reactions and methods of growth; to modify the articulations of its limbs; and, indeed, to change it in its most intimate structure.

“And yet this extraordinary branch of knowledge has never been sought as an end, and systematically, by modern investigators until I took it up! Some of such things have been hit upon in the last resort of surgery; most of the kindred evidence that will recur to your mind has been demonstrated as it were by accident,—by tyrants, by criminals, by the breeders of horses and dogs, by all kinds of untrained clumsy-handed men working for their own immediate ends. I was the first man to take up this question armed with antiseptic surgery, and with a really scientific knowledge of the laws of growth. Yet one would imagine it must have been practised in secret before. Such creatures as the Siamese Twins—And in the vaults of the Inquisition. No doubt their chief aim was artistic torture, but some at least of the inquisitors must have had a touch of scientific curiosity.”

“But,” said I, “these things—these animals talk!”

He said that was so, and proceeded to point out that the possibility of vivisection does not stop at a mere physical metamorphosis. A pig may be educated. The mental structure is even less determinate than the bodily. In our growing science of hypnotism we find the promise of a possibility of superseding old inherent instincts by new suggestions, grafting upon or replacing the inherited fixed ideas. Very much indeed of what we call moral education, he said, is such an artificial modification and perversion of instinct; pugnacity is trained into courageous self-sacrifice, and suppressed sexuality into religious emotion. And the great difference between man and monkey is in the larynx, he continued,—in the incapacity to frame delicately different sound-symbols by which thought could be sustained. In this I failed to agree with him, but with a certain incivility he declined to notice my objection. He repeated that the thing was so, and continued his account of his work.
I asked him why he had taken the human form as a model. There seemed to me then, and there still seems to me now, a strange wickedness for that choice.

He confessed that he had chosen that form by chance. “I might just as well have worked to form sheep into llamas and llamas into sheep. I suppose there is something in the human form that appeals to the artistic turn more powerfully than any animal shape can. But I’ve not confined myself to man-making. Once or twice—” He was silent, for a minute perhaps. “These years! How they have slipped by! And here I have wasted a day saving your life, and am now wasting an hour explaining myself!”
“But,” said I, “I still do not understand. Where is your justification for inflicting all this pain? The only thing that could excuse vivisection to me would be some application—”

“Precisely,” said he. “But, you see, I am differently constituted. We are on different platforms. You are a materialist.”

“I am not a materialist,” I began hotly.

“In my view—in my view. For it is just this question of pain that parts us. So long as visible or audible pain turns you sick; so long as your own pains drive you; so long as pain underlies your propositions about sin,—so long, I tell you, you are an animal, thinking a little less obscurely what an animal feels. This pain—”

I gave an impatient shrug at such sophistry.

“Oh, but it is such a little thing! A mind truly opened to what science has to teach must see that it is a little thing. It may be that save in this little planet, this speck of cosmic dust, invisible long before the nearest star could be attained—it may be, I say, that nowhere else does this thing called pain occur. But the laws we feel our way towards—Why, even on this earth, even among living things, what pain is there?”

As he spoke he drew a little penknife from his pocket, opened the smaller blade, and moved his chair so that I could see his thigh. Then, choosing the place deliberately, he drove the blade into his leg and withdrew it.
“No doubt,” he said, “you have seen that before. It does not hurt a pin-prick. But what does it show? The capacity for pain is not needed in the muscle, and it is not placed there,—is but little needed in the skin, and only here and there over the thigh is a spot capable of feeling pain. Pain is simply our intrinsic medical adviser to warn us and stimulate us. Not all living flesh is painful; nor is all nerve, not even all sensory nerve. There’s no tint of pain, real pain, in the sensations of the optic nerve. If you wound the optic nerve, you merely see flashes of light,—just as disease of the auditory nerve merely means a humming in our ears. Plants do not feel pain, nor the lower animals; it’s possible that such animals as the starfish and crayfish do not feel pain at all. Then with men, the more intelligent they become, the more intelligently they will see after their own welfare, and the less they will need the goad to keep them out of danger. I never yet heard of a useless thing that was not ground out of existence by evolution sooner or later. Did you? And pain gets needless.

“Then I am a religious man, Prendick, as every sane man must be. It may be, I fancy, that I have seen more of the ways of this world’s Maker than you,—for I have sought his laws, in my way, all my life, while you, I understand, have been collecting butterflies. And I tell you, pleasure and pain have nothing to do with heaven or hell. Pleasure and pain—bah! What is your theologian’s ecstasy but Mahomet’s houri in the dark? This store which men and women set on pleasure and pain, Prendick, is the mark of the beast upon them,—the mark of the beast from which they came! Pain, pain and pleasure, they are for us only so long as we wriggle in the dust.”

— H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896)

And now I shall make the masses….disappear!!!

Posted in Activism, Apocalypse Porn, Philosophy, Political Theory, structuralism, The Internet, U.S. Politics on October 31, 2008 by traxus4420

Well, here’s a fun little blip:

I have been struck by the absence of collective protest over the actions of those in the financial industry. Free market advocates have been rendered impotent; why aren’t they up in arms that their belief system has been forever invalidated? Leftists watch as our elected leaders hand over the oversight function to the very companies that caused this mess; why aren’t they taking to the streets?

Talk shows and blog postings reveal plenty of individual anger, but there hasn’t been much collective expression. Why is this? And what forms of protest and outcry would be legitimate?

At the risk of being accused of inciting mass violence, I’d like to know whether people would be justified in using the riot at this particular moment in history. More broadly, under what conditions is the riot a rational (and/or justifiable) response to injustice?

Sociologists love the riot, of course, because it offers an opportunity to test theories regarding mass behavior and individual tolerance for oppressive conditions.

Having observed a few riots, I know that they can also be caused by trivial factors: For example, I watched looters take over streets on the South Side of Chicago after the Bulls won their second consecutive basketball championship — hardly an “oppressive” situation.

But in general, riots are responses to fairly serious issues, like the rising price of commodities, police brutality, assassination of political leaders.

So the federal government is now sending $700 billion of taxpayer money to free market scions who, I remind you, spend millions on collective protest (“lobbying”) against any form of government aid — especially to the middle class, to the poor, and to foreigners.

Scandalous! Taxpayers of the world unite, I say!

Here is my theory as to why the riot has gone the way of the Sony Walkman — an appendage of an earlier era:

1) The iPod:

In public spaces, serendipitous interaction is needed to create the “mob mentality,” which by its nature is not rational or formed through petitions. Most iPod-like devices separate citizens from one another; you can’t join someone in a movement if you can’t hear the voices of its participants. Congrats Mr. Jobs for impeding social change.

2) Prescription drugs:

What is the social function of anxiety reduction if not to increase the capacity of individuals to tolerate their social predicaments? Q.E.D.

3) Debt:

This is a tricky one. In the short term, debt straps individuals into society and makes them fearful of acting out: failing to pay could land them in jail, in bankruptcy, etc. But in the long term, they may feel life has become intolerable and there is little to lose — so, why not tear down the walls? (This kind of thinking, by the way, is partly at the root of our current mess. Those who bought second homes walked away from their investments, accepting bankruptcy, when they realized they were never going to make payments in the long term.)

4) “Hey, things could be worse.”:

Riots require collective recognition that a threshold (of oppressive rule, inequity, etc.) has been surpassed and there’s little hope for improvement. In matters of social oppression, apart from a political assassination, it is rare that mass audiences will agree that such conditions hold. Things have to be downright awful, and we haven’t reached that stage yet. Yet.

5) No enemy in sight:

Rioters usually attack symbols of oppression. For example, in a riot in Chicago in 1992, protesters tore down streetlights, broke lamps, burned school buildings, and otherwise attacked government property. In Los Angeles, in the aftermath of the so-called “Rodney King affair,” non-black stores were attacked.

What might be the target of mobs violently responding to the financial mess? Maybe Midtown Manhattan? How about the Milton Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago?

A general rule is that contemporary rioters do not travel, so they would need to find symbols within their own communities: currency exchanges, banks, the offices of Congressional officials who voted “yes” on the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, etc.

It goes without saying that I miss a good old-fashioned riot. But my malaise hardly compares to others who are suffering in these times.

For example, I often pity the poor souls who took out property insurance with A.I.G. and other insurers. In the event of a riot, they might be next in line for a government bailout. Will there be anything left in the $700 billion for them?

Some highlights from the peanut gallery:

Forget a riot, how about a simple mass protest?

— Posted by Andrew M


You raise an interesting question. I refused to be completely forthright in the previous discussion of corruption just for that very reason- as not wishing to cause harm. I think the truth does help so long as it does not knowingly cause others great pain and suffering. There is the matter of knowledge and the use to which it is put. Perhaps sometimes it is better to let sleeping dogs lie. Honesty is not always the best of policies.

— Posted by science minded


Not saying I totally support this idea, but it is a thought I had; is it possible that the lack of riots could be credited to the internet and blogging? Rioting is a way of letting the community know that you are, well, really pissed off and want change. It is a way of venting. With the advent of blogs, myspace, facebook, etc. people are able to (as we are doing know) share their feelings with the “world” and believe, rightly or not, that it will somehow bring about change.

Added bonus: No police. No riot gear.

— Posted by dave


Our societies have been very successful at socializing us that “violence is always wrong” (unless, of course, it’s used by the monopolist of violence, our government) and that if we want to change the system we need to do so from within.

Convincing the overwhelming majority of the population of the evils of violence has been a phenomenal achievement that is all-too-often overlooked. Those in power control the levers of power, and they’ve convinced the rest of us that if we want change, we need to use those same levers. In the words of Leonard Cohen, “There’s a war between those who know there’s a war and those who don’t.”

Society’s ability to “rule out” violence as a legitimate forum of social change has had an impact throughout society. The possibility of violence, preferably never acted upon, helped labor throughout the first half of the 20th century.

Negotiating in the shadow of violence has now been replace by negotiating in the shadow of the law, and the law is a predictable tool of power.

— Posted by Boldizar


There was a protest of the bailout. The media didn’t care to cover it:

— Posted by Matt


My guess would be that the urge to riot is being sublimated into the election.

— Posted by Victor Kava


IF or when Obama’s election is sabotaged, a’la 2000 and 2004, you can perhaps expect to see shocking replays of the fires of Newark, Detroit and Watts.
“Burn, Bay, Burn!” is simply a bottled-up reaction waiting to be ignited — it is not something antiquated. It could get very ugly, and the worst of Euro-Americans will emerge. Excess has its price, and that price is the implosion of the flimsy empire.

— Posted by Frank Little

Ah, democracy. This sort of thing strengthens even further my admiration of J.G. Ballard’s rewriting of the bourgeois psychological novel as its apparent opposite, apocalyptic science fiction. Pundit and basement-dweller alike mind meld over vistas of rubble, the utopian vision of suburb and shantytown coming together in an orgy of violence, the rule of melancholy survivalists, and the binary moral choices so amply generated by these exciting scenarios.

The pundit is of course much more polite about it. The fantasy of the revolt of the masses is posed as a good-natured interactive thought experiment. This is possible because its subject is invisible. And so (where else could it go) the impulse to riot, justified of course, though repressed by the efficiency of 21st century commodity culture, is in the last account explicitly connected with the author’s middle-class “malaise.” Our responsibility, you see, is to avoid violence when it might cause the innocent to suffer, especially members of that unseen, amorphous mass capable of serving all our rhetorical needs. No matter how much we might want to break shit. Oh, we’re so naughty!

The number of commenters capable of recognizing the difference between riots and protests without a prompt is reassuring, at least.

The sad thing is that this convenient anthropology isn’t limited to being a pastime of MSM columnists. I’ve heard and read active and inactive leftists read their own actions in these terms. It’s a comforting fantasy, perhaps even a dominant one, to assume the reasons for collective failure or marginalization can be found in individual neuroses, consumer products, or the favorite modernist lament, lack of the new. The one ‘social’ condition given in the article, debt, is accompanied by a friendly reminder that despair at one’s circumstances is both narcissistic (based in excessive consumption — second homes) and “partly at the root of our current mess.”

It’s undeniable that there is a problem with left politics in America, or even independent politics. The obvious side of the problem is a failure to organize. Here it’s put in rigidly psychological terms, as the psychology of a population, or in at least one jargon, the ‘collective unconscious.’ The problem is therefore conceived in terms of a set of speculative, in this case mostly arbitrary conditions on this unconscious. Just for a moment, however, let’s permit ourselves to take seriously this rather limited context. The fundamental problem is prior to all this fanciful mapping out of opportune and inopportune conditions, and is rather what enables that conundrum to appear in its usual form as amusing intellectual puzzle: subjectification, or the failure to become a political subject.

This topic is an official area of philosophical inquiry which is unfortunately too important for me to get away with summarizing here. My point for now is that a certain type of speculation — social theory as the projection of various myths onto a people or even another person — seems to me delegitimated if one understands subjectification in politics as an unavoidable necessity of social life. Even if a collective product, the myth is applied by someone, irreducibly an attempt by the one to determine the many. Whether luxury or crime, existence beyond the walls of the subject (the obvious fantasized escape) would then be restricted to a temporary, anomalous, or precarious state, brought on by, among many other things, a certain theatrical posture toward writing. ‘Abstract’ discourse about society and Man is then damned to oscillate between fiction and autobiography, with history caked under the fingernails.

Random advice from a samurai

Posted in koans, Nihilism, Philosophy with tags , , , , on August 23, 2008 by traxus4420

“To hate injustice and stand on righteousness is a difficult thing. Furthermore, to think that being righteous is the best one can do and to do one’s utmost to be righteous will, on the contrary, bring many mistakes. The Way is in a higher place than righteousness. This is very difficult to discover, but it is the highest wisdom. When seen from this standpoint, things like righteousness are rather shallow. If one does not understand this on his own, it cannot be known. There is a method of getting to this Way, however, even if one cannot discover it by himself. This is found in consultation with others. Even a person who has not attained this way sees others from the side. It is like the saying from the game of go: ‘He who sees from the side has eight eyes.’ The saying, ‘Thought by thought we see our own mistakes,’ also means that the highest Way is in discussion with others. Listening to the old stories and reading is for the purpose of sloughing off one’s own discrimination and attaching oneself to that of the ancients.”


“Narutomi Hyogo said, ‘What is called winning is defeating one’s allies. Defeating one’s allies is defeating oneself, and defeating oneself is vigorously overcoming one’s own body.

It is as though a man were in the midst of ten thousand allies but not a one were following him. If one hasn’t previously mastered his mind and body, he will not defeat the enemy.”


“Being superior to others is nothing other than having people talk about your affairs and listening to their opinions. The general run of people settle for their own opinions and thus never excel. Having a discussion with a person is one step in excelling him.”


“The saying, ‘The arts aid the body,’ is for samurai of other regions. For the samurai of the Nabeshima clan the arts bring ruin to the body. In all cases, the person who practices an art is an artist, not a samurai, and one should have the intention of being called a samurai.

When one has the conviction that even the slightest artful ability is harmful to the samurai, all the arts become useful to him. One should understand this sort of thing.”


“Hoshino Ryotetsu was the progenitor of homosexuality in our province, and although it can be said that his disciples were many, he instructed each one individually. Edayoshi Saburozaemon was a man who understood the foundation of homosexuality. Once, when accompanying his master to Edo, Ryotetsu asked Saburozaemon, ‘What have you understood of homosexuality?’

Saburozaemon replied, ‘It is something both pleasant and unpleasant.’

Ryotetsu was pleased and said, ‘You have taken great pains for some time to be able to say such a thing.’

Some years later there was a person who asked Saburozaemon the meaning of the above. He replied, ‘To lay down one’s life for another is the basic principle of homosexuality. If it is not so, it becomes a matter of shame. However, then you have nothing left to lay down for your master. It is therefore understood to be something both pleasant and unpleasant.'”


“Among the maxims on Lord Naoshige’s wall there was this one: ‘Matters of great concern should be treated lightly.’ Master Ittei commented: ‘Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.'”


“For a samurai, a single word is important no matter where he may be. By just one single word martial valor can be made apparent. In peaceful times words show one’s bravery. In troubled times, too, one knows that by a single word his strength or cowardice can be seen. This single word is the flower of one’s heart. It is not something said simply by one’s mouth.”


“The occurrence of mysteries is always by word of mouth.”


“Calculating people are contemptible. The reason for this is that calculation deals with loss and gain, and the loss and gain mind never stops. Death is considered loss and life is considered gain. Thus, death is something that such a person does not care for, and he is contemptible.

Furthermore, scholars and their like are men who with wit and speech hide their own true cowardice and greed. People often misjudge this.”


“If you cut a face lengthwise, urinate on it, and trample it with straw sandals, it is said that the skin will come off. This was heard by priest Gyojaku when he was in Kyoto. It is information to be treasured.”


“The Way of the Samurai is found in death. Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day, when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears, and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day, without fail, one should consider himself as dead. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai.”


“One can understand that Lord Naoshige’s phrase, ‘A faultfinder will come to be punished by others,’ came from his compassion. His saying, ‘Principle is beyond reason,’ should also be considered compassion. He enthusiastically stated that we should taste the inexhaustible.”

My favorite Quixote

And a belated entry to the science of umbrellology:

“There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.”

— Yamamoto Tsunetomo (山本常朝), Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai


Posted in Apocalypse Porn, Art, Environmentalism, Film, History, Noo Yawk, Philosophy with tags , , , , , on August 10, 2008 by traxus4420

I want to know what this word means. The past couple days I’ve encountered it as a problem over and over again, taking a different form each time.

The first was at a screening of John Gianvito’s The profit motive and the whispering wind, taking Zach‘s advice. Short reviews here and here. It demonstrated to me how unaccustomed I am to the visual language of cinema that doesn’t compensate for its low budget with other kinds of excess (gore and sex), i.e. the better part of ‘experimental’ films. Even as I was trying to adjust to the way the images looked and felt, their content, the graves of American socialist and progressive heroes and sites of violent struggle, many of which wear their absence from the cultural memory in the form of overgrowth or intentional concealment, would not allow me to look away. How could I, after having done so for so long?  Good interviews here and here, where Gianvito discusses his decision not to include any information about the sites or the people referenced within the film, that doing so would have given the illusion of mastery over the material (in the manner of something like the History Channel or PBS), and stalled reflection on why general knowledge about these events and people is so spotty. This is didacticism as a confrontation with ignorance as opposed to the false sense of its defeat.

Its effect is different from the ‘hauntological,’ especially in the most recent adventures in electronic music, in that the interruptions of the past and future into the present are not mystified. When the film displays a site in apparent non-relation to its very different contemporary surroundings — fast food restaurants and highways, in the case of the Boston Massacre an unmarked street corner — the specificity of names and dates displayed by intertitles or by the physical markers prompts us to reconstruct that connection, not to dwell on its absence. Zach’s comparison with Terence Malick is appropriate: both summon a certain kind of romanticism with regard to nature and history, unafraid of beauty (Gianvito’s work won me over eventually), and though too intelligent for nostalgia, both resist categorical distinctions between nature, history, and aesthetics. Gianvito is able to achieve similar effects to Malick (and Tarkovsky, whom he has scholarly interest in) while eschewing the ‘excesses’ of fiction or expensive cinematography. Unlike Malick he is not a mythmaker, and so is both more and less direct in addressing his audience.

For exhibit B, an art show named “After Nature” after the poem “Nach der Natur” by W.G. Sebald, an increasingly admired writer whose work I am unfamiliar with, except for the poem, which is (like Gianvito’s film) full of historical references I’m also unfamiliar with. Here’s a short section, translated from German (and virtually annotated):

On the Basel Crucifixion of 1505
behind the group of mourners
a landscape reaches so far into the depth
that our eyes cannot see its limits.
A patch of brown scorched earth
whose contour like the head of a whale
or an open-mouthed leviathan
devours the pale green meadow plains,
and the marshily shining stretches
of water. Above it, pushed off to behind the horizon, which step by step grows darker, more glowering,
rise the hills of the prehistory of the Passion. We see the gate
of the Garden of Gesthemane, the approach
of the henchmen and the kneeling figure of Christ
so reduced in size that in the
receding space the rushing
away of time can be sensed.
Most probably Gruenewald painted
and recalled the catastrophic incursion
of darkness, the last trace of light
flickering from beyond, after nature,
for in the year 1502, when he was working
at Bindlach, below the Fichtelgebirge,
on the creation of the Lindenhardt altar,
on the first of October the moon’s shadow
slid over Eastern Europe from Mecklenburg
over Bohemia and the Lausitz to southern Poland,
and Gruenewald, who repeatedly was in touch
with the Aschaffen Court Astrologer Johann Indagine,
will have travelled to see this event of the century,
awaited with great terror, the eclipse of the sun,
so will have become a witness to
the secret sickening away of the world,
in which a phantasmal encroachment of dusk
in the midst of daytime like a fainting fit
poured through the vault of the sky,
while over the banks of mist and the cold
heavy blues of the clouds
a fiery red arose, and colours
such as his eyes had not known
radiantly wandered about, never again to be
driven out of the painter’s memory.

A good portion of the art in the show seemed to unfold the darker and more morbid currents of the poem out into flat, confrontational snark. Confusion, I think, has a tendency to fall back on sensation. The environmental clusterfuck and the revolution in infrastructure and basic ways of thinking that will be necessary to adequately confront it are rich in interpretive possibilities, as productive of fantasy as the constant holocaust of industrial society’s development and expansion. So it would make sense that most such fantasies would be uninterested in moving beyond their very interesting moment — instead meditating on its possible components, or compiling its imaginary genealogies. Apocalypse, therefore, was all over everything.

Has life without fire become unbearable for them?

After Sebald, Werner Herzog was the show’s elder statesman. The still is from the oil-drilling documentary (with an opera soundtrack) Lessons of Darkness. The New Yorker review notices this:

Something is happening in artists’ studios: a shift of emphasis, from surface to depth, and a shift of mood, from mania to melancholy, shrugging off the allures of the money-hypnotized market and the spectacle-bedizened biennials circuit. (In fact, the underappreciated recent Whitney Biennial hinted at the mutation.) It’s a fashion auditioning as a sea change.

and this:

You suspect that a big change is coming when sensitive young people project (and, because they’re young, enjoy) feelings of being old. This has often signalled a backward crouch preceding a forward leap.

Trying on the clothes of rebels, manic prophets, or admen gives way to trying on those of elders in mourning. Competing for the privilege of manifesting “durable truths” that the institutional art market, having been ‘running on empty’ for quite a while now, so desperately needs to sustain its credibility and self-respect. But the private fantasies it puts on display have even less capacity to make anyone care about anything than they did eight years ago, when it was still cool to glory in superficiality. The best of the art on display was still only ‘interesting,’ like this piece by Roberto Cuoghi, part of a sequence of fanciful maps of the axis of evil:

It seems to me that what’s missing is a sense of shared collective energy, something more than just a vague ‘zeitgeist’ culled from reading the same articles on middle eastern wars, fuel resource depletion, and global warming. I have a hard time seeing how that could ever happen in the mortuary space cultivated by museums and high-end galleries in their efforts to capture the image of a masterpiece.

More than anything else, cultural institutions crave legitimacy in a crisis. To be reassured that we still believe in their ability to tell us what’s important.

Exhibit C, a conversation on architecture:

The hype machine will not let up even for one tiny little second. An unscripted dialogical performance between two aging head honchos of a field is an ‘event’ worthy of this exaggerated self-importance that no one takes seriously, but everyone still seems to feel obligated to participate in.

The theme was performance, which in architectural parlance refers to the field’s digital revolution, with  design programs such as AutoCAD replacing traditional drafting, initiating the explosion of new forms with no relation to anything outside algorithmic variation — some of which could never be actually constructed even if they were somehow granted permission. Eisenman complained of the lack of accepted criteria for ordering a proliferation of forms whose only law seems to be “infinite variability.” Wigley agreed with a few reservations about the language (which is apparently a first for them). As for why this is the case, they eventually concluded that architectural education and production is still very “conservative,” with a rhetoric still based on cultivating individual genius and a practice still rooted in the medieval guild model of each school training students according to a narrow range of institutionally accepted formal principles. According to Eisenman, without an adequate theory to structure the potential of the new technology, the products of the latest generation of architects are little more than “toys”: “Where we are with architecture is really still at the level of the sandbox.” There was some back and forth about the potential for inter-firm collaboration and open-sourcing of formal strategies, and then everything devolved into arguments with the audience for and against the need for theory.

Hearing architects talk is like re-reading Theory articles from the ’80s, with Derrideans and Deleuzians and post-Marxist Foucaultians throwing their overly sophisticated discourses at each other, except the same arguments are happening amongst literary theorists now in the language of ‘political theology.’ The political theologists have mostly ignored technology for Hobbes, Schmitt, and Augustine, and like ’80s Theorists, architects are still wound up about technology, whether it represents order or chaos. Still, the guiding questions seem to be the same: do we need theory, what is theory good for — the word ‘theory’ serving as a vehicle for equating metaphysics, authority, law, order, religion, with ‘genius’ as its honored, structurally mandated exception. Wigley saying, self-critically of course, something like “architecture provides the illusion of certainty in the face of uncertainty.” Is the overthrow of the Power of the Institution an Apocalypse? Is Apocalypse Necessary? Is it Good?

I see intellectuals from the baby boom still dominating the direction of argument, and my generation still following dutifully along with their regression into some kind of bizarre guilt complex for having rejected the illusions of the 1950s, its ideological marriage of authority, comfort and the assumption of plenty. If with the latest set of challenges to industrial capitalist hegemony we are forced to encounter old limits anew, they are not going to fit into the categories once used to contain them, as if they were the only ways anyone has ever knew how to think (as if they were thought itself), the power discourse of yesteryear serving today as a kind of pathetic security blanket.

Extinction Level Event

Posted in Apocalypse, culturemonkey, Environmentalism, Nihilism, Philosophy, The Singularity with tags , , , , , on June 16, 2008 by traxus4420

X-posted to culturemonkey

Love then screams in my own throat; I am the Jesuve, the filthy parody of the torrid and blinding sun.

Let’s consider Danny Boyle’s Sunshine as both a characteristically exaggerated response to environmental crisis and an extended visual pun on the term ‘Enlightenment.’ The genre is easily the one most in tune with my lizard brain, sci-fi horror, combining an alien menace, cosmic scale, and the latent erotics of the military-industrial complex. The premise is suitably elegant: an elite crew of astronauts have to rejuvenate the dying sun by penetrating it with a huge bomb, thus saving the human race from extinction. There’s a jingoism to this film that is no less present for its lack of national identification or corresponding ideological threat. It delivers the jingoism of crisis, its stance resolutely ‘post-ideological,’ a fantasy wherein the reactionary instincts of the nation-state are subordinated to the non-negotiable reality of impending destruction (though memorialized, aesthetically, by the pretty faces of the globalized cast). Humanity can then be reduced to its more cinema-friendly, individual-universal ‘weaknesses,’ such as lust for power, envy, moral feeling, and susceptibility to the sublime. All of which prove themselves to be liabilities in the crisis situation, if forgivable as sources of dramatic suspense, bathos, etc. A more ‘objective,’ classier…right, the UK, post-9/11 version of Armageddon.

So do we then say Sunshine belongs with the recent spate of non-U.S. westerns, the parent genre to a certain dominant mode of science fiction? Naught Thought thinks so, in this piece understanding the already post-national history of the European Enlightenment as one with the history of colonial expansion and imperial violence. The obvious touchstone in contemporary philosophy is with Jean-François Lyotard’s essay “Can Thought go on without a Body?” where the extinction of the human body is equated with the death of the sun, the absolute limit of thought. Bodiless thought is not without material conditions, but is also not reducible to preserved remains or combinatoric repetitions, the recorded memories which might manifest in, say, a satellite that outlasts the collapse of the solar system. Artificial intelligence, Lyotard claims, cannot be reducible to a program. It must be able to transgress its own limits, must carry some immanent differend, a complex, a libidinal motor for drives, desires, will. It must suffer. Thought, like the marauding cowboy, must have spurs.

Lyotard’s philosophical myth can be read as a gnomic restatement of the question of ‘late capitalism’ — how does expansion continue in a post-ontological (post-national) universe? More or less rhetorical, its function is to reinforce the truth of its presuppositions. Post-American westerns and western-infused sci-fi serve as good popular counterparts: anti-heroes slay evildoers in spectacular fashion despite existential ennui. But the intrusion of horror complicates things somewhat. The inversion of the western, horror consists of variations on home invasion rather than the quest. Its villains tend toward the abstract. Like obvious influences 2001, Solaris, and Alien, Sunshine‘s setting is a ‘haunted house in space,’ a seemingly familiar structure infected by its vast, unfamiliar outside.

Though the sun’s five billion years premature decrepitude is never explained within the film, on the DVD commentary we’re informed that an invisible force of matter gets trapped by the mass of the sun and begins to eat its way out. We’re also told that because of our sun’s relatively middling mass, this could never actually happen. Despite the realism of the hardware and the performances, then, the film is really closer to a thought experiment with set parameters, one of those ‘push the fatty or pull the lever’ things, than to traditional ‘speculative fiction.’ And unlike conventional horror there is little mystery even for the characters — the premise is, not exactly established, but asserted beforehand: “If the sun dies, so do we.” Lyotard’s question is answered with a simple “no.”

Aesthetically Sunshine is wonderful when the sun is front and center — CGI actually works in space — and enjoyable in that modern, overbearing way when its not. Though like many mainstream movies these days it demands you think it intelligent for quoting the 1970s, and in the end a third-act slide into Event Horizon territory ruins all hope for respectability: after a series of moral dilemmas where the crew makes increasingly irrational blunders deviating from ‘the mission’ (trying to save the crew of the previous vessel is the first fateful misstep), they find themselves stalked by a crazy speechifying Romantic villain, in the Kurtz/Pinhead vein:

I am Pinbacker, Commander of the Icarus One. We have abandoned our mission. Our star is dying. All our science. All our hopes, our… our dreams, are foolish! In the face of this, we are dust, nothing more. Unto this dust, we return. When he chooses for us to die, it is not our place to challenge God.

Pinbacker’s God-given task is to ‘enjoy,’ once and for all, the limit that the crew is determined to transgress. This limit, the border between the human world tamed by Enlightenment reason and its conditional beyond, is transcendentalized, the products of the former — organized life, technoscience, the ‘modern world’ — understood as a gnostic veneer over the Truth. After all, death, the horizon of experience, makes life itself intrinsically unknowable regardless of what form it takes. “Resembles Life what once was held of Light, / Too ample in itself for human sight?” But the significance of the ‘beyond’s’ effect on the ‘here’ is reversible: either plenitude or negation of meaning. In Lyotard’s understanding, if thought dies with the sun, then “everything is dead already.” Pinbacker, on the other hand, aims to preserve the dialectic of human and inhuman knowledge by halting its progress, thus sacrificing the human species in exchange for an eternal moment of personal transcendence.

Pinbacker’s wish for ‘totalitarian’ transcendence is countered by the moments of selfless, hopeful transcendence experienced by (some members of) the heroic crew. A moral lesson: being obliterated by the sun while saving people is just as awesome as being obliterated by the sun while exterminating them. Quite apart from the romance of Enlightenment, the film’s obscure object of desire, is the persistence of certain ethical codes. If the crew had stuck to the mission parameters (if they hadn’t been swayed by moral sentiment to try and save the previous crew) they would have all survived. We are reminded over and over again that ‘transcendence,’ a category which seems to include more and more each day, is theft, from man and reason. A delusion, a drug trip, a private spectacle. A luxury. The last shot is the homestead on Earth, saved by what they will never know. In a time of certain crisis, an elect is permitted to live like heroes so that we don’t have to. For us the sensible thing is to follow orders. ‘They’ will never know, but we will, all for the price of a ticket. Certain crisis. Would extinction matter if there were no one there to enjoy it?