Archive for the Utopia Category

Speculative Activism

Posted in Activism, Cultural Theory, current events, The Internet, U.S. Politics, Utopia on September 5, 2009 by traxus4420

This post is in response to a funny thing that happened a couple days ago on Facebook. Gerry Canavan comments on it here:  throughout the day, “thousands” of Facebook users posted a pro-health care-reform message as their ‘status update’ in  a sudden outbreak of ‘viral activism.’ The whole thing peaked when Obama himself joined in. Watch the virus spread here.

As Gerry puts it:

We saw the same phenomenon early in the summer during Iran’s so-called Twitter Revolution, which had two overlapping and sometimes conflicting modes: the use of Twitter by people within Iran as a organizing and news-distributing tool and the use by people *outside* Iran for the purposes of vicarious participation in political struggle. Then, as now, the important thing is to signal you’re on the right side of a fight in which you are otherwise just a spectactor — then by tinting your Twitter avatar green and now by posting a shared slogan as your status update and then leaving it altered for the rest of the day. We could go back to 2008 and 2004 elections, or to any number of other charged moments, and find similar memes at play.

The question posed by this sort of thing is clear enough: should it count as ‘real’ activism or is it just a mass twitch  in the general direction of utopia, a show put on for the official media and for ourselves.

Any answer has  to start by considering it as quite literally a form of consumerism. It’s a full step further in that direction than the email activism of organizations like MoveOn, which rely on the recipient to take some sort of minimal action, like making a phone call, writing a protest email, signing a petition, which MoveOn transfers directly to its prearranged target, usually a professional decision maker. These older forms are carried onto Facebook as well, but they’re weaker on this platform, easier to ignore, and require different techniques to get them to work. A ‘status update’ or a ‘tweet’ can superficially seem more democratic — after all, no institution is telling the user what to do. But in practice this ‘act’ is identical to the ‘choice’ of the market.

That our very existences on social networking sites are commodities is an often overlooked fact. Given an existence wholly circumscribed by a virtual marketplace, everything we do, everything we post, is potentially a commodity by virtue of its link to ‘us.’ In ‘viral activism,’ by reproducing a more or less homogeneous message (a ‘meme,’ one of the few instances where the word actually refers to something), a population makes itself available as a single commodity for use by others in exchange for  individual use of the same message as a ‘status update’: an advertisement that promotes a certain identity to their ‘friends’ (and to themselves). The only difference between this and any other Facebook content is that this ‘mega-meme’ is produced ‘from the ground up.’

These are not simply semantic distinctions — they have consequences.  Virtual activists do not organize themselves in the way real activists do, i.e. form permanent or temporary political units such as parties, mobs, parades, whatever, directed toward a specific set of goals. Even when activists remain law-abiding their actions are intended to stage a confrontation, to disrespect boundaries that may not be acknowledged by the law. A social division is made, exchange relations dependent on certain forms of equivalence are foreclosed (i.e. politeness, personal space, a traffic intersection, etc.). As long as it’s part of a larger strategy from the beginning, this is true even of petition-signing. Virtual activists on the other hand are always responding to/initiating various types of interpolation from within an institutional setting (the site’s apparatus) that automatically neutralizes all it touches,  like ‘interactive’ television. A Facebook group is just a passive ‘tag,’ another identity accessory for the individual user and a commodity that passively awaits outside use (a social ad). As long as their virtual existence  is immanent with that institution (they remain members), all actions are wholly included within it, with zero remainder.

What are social ads good for? By aggregating the many status updates into a single product, they provide something for the bigger blogs and journalists to ‘report’ on (really just an outgrowth of tagging), and  from which a political meaning can be derived or invented. First and foremost they generate conversation, and since most of it will refer to Facebook if not occur on its platform they also indirectly generate more Facebook use and more prestige, a ‘status update’ for Facebook itself. Whether or not any of this can ‘make a difference’ is dependent upon how these commodities are employed by others.

The effects of this latest capture of the social reflect how our tiny plots of spectacular real estate turn us into micro-celebrities, where even to contemplate ‘action’ forces us into a narcissistic obsession with our public image, no matter how inconsequential it may be. Celebreality shows and the higher profile of porn stars in recent years show us that has-beens and nobodies fighting for table scraps will play the game of recognition even more ferociously than Hollywood royalty. The public face of this private complex is when celebrities, politicians-as-celebrities, or now you-as-celebrity endorse certain causes, ultimately all responsibility rests on YOU to act, even as the possibilities for action of the relatively elite YOU being addressed (the YOU who can be expected to take Them seriously) are increasingly observed, micromanaged, routed into narrower and more regulated pathways.


A final comparison to opinion polling is helpful in getting at the ideological function of social activertising. Unlike polls, the opinions of users don’t appear as already existing truths, dependent on the work of experts on ‘real’ demographics, but those truths actively expressed. Where a poll is employed in speculation — what x group ‘really thinks’ at a given moment is valuable as evidence for what actions they might take in the future — a wave of status updates or green-tinted Twitter profiles appear to assert themselves as political facts. No research or fact-checking need be done to evaluate truth claims when the phenomena is just the free and unsolicited manifestation of truth, like votes or sales figures. These ‘actions’ thus merge the legitimacy of a poll with the immediacy of activism. Virtual activism is more real than statistics (which are ‘always’ rigged), more legitimate than protests (which are ‘always’ dangerous).

Jonathan Singer (see link above):

While the vast majority of the political organizing I see on Facebook tends to come from the same names — friends working in politics on a full time basis — what is remarkable here is that these status updates containing a strong and clear message in favor of healthcare reform are coming not only from the political community but also from those whose lives are not immersed in these fights. These are regular young people, all around the country, speaking out in favor of reform. This movement is impressive and surprising, and, at least from this vantage, quite newsworthy.

This is what everyone said about Iran, the rhetoric directing us to understand these movements as made up of “everyday” people, free of the supposed dangers and ‘biases’ of ‘professional’ activists. Of course there is a selection process for which ideas can ‘filter up’ from the social network ‘netroots’ and what kinds of users can do what that tends not to be acknowledged. This selection process is, broadly speaking, class-based.

Here is a great article on one example of how class manifests online, the great divide between Myspace and Facebook with some very illuminating (and horrifying) quotes from teenagers. Facebook has clearly won the PR battle, easy to do when the New York Times’ reporting staff and most of its readership is made up of Facebook users. Facebook is the appropriate platform for politics, just as Myspace is the appropriate platform for your ex’s rock band and various sex offenders. This doesn’t even count the selection process for who gets to be on the Internet to begin with. And yet, through the magic of social networking, it is the Facebook community which is quickly establishing itself in the 24-hour image universe as the new legal-utopian definition of ‘the people.’ The obvious impossibility of this fantasy doesn’t mean it won’t have certain effects.

For a demonstration, let’s put on some ruling class spectacles and look at some pictures. Isn’t this:


infinitely preferable to this?


See? You didn’t even have to think about it.

Survival Horror

Posted in Cultural Theory, Film, Utopia with tags , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2009 by traxus4420


Just trying to stay alive, yo. Nothing personal.

A while ago I posted a few things on horror. On my old blogspot (since deleted), I had a few posts on zombies as well as ‘torture porn,’ a moralizing term ostensibly used to refer to one of the more recent discernible horror subgenres, which includes films like Hostel, Saw, and the Hills Have Eyes remake, but which I think really indexes the discomfort experienced by critics who don’t ‘get’ the fixation on extreme violence and gore that seems so prevalent in horror in general over the past 10 years or so. Through the reactions of ‘decent people’ to the horror genre we are told once again that we live in a period defined by unprecedented nihilism and a pornographic relationship to human suffering.

The cultural debts owed by most of this decade’s horror are painfully obvious: the Golden Age of the 1970s, when the genre was infused with as much ‘social commentary’ as fake blood and pigs’ guts. There still is that, but where before it was a barely conscious residue, as much product of critics and ‘the times’ as of the the auteurs themselves, now it’s a fading gesture, dispensed with by all but the most loyal. Joe Dante’s predictably clever zombie allegory Homecoming demonstrates the trade-offs involved in turning horror into a screed. Even Romero’s Land of the Dead, easily the most ‘radical’ zombie picture produced since Day of the Dead, creaks. One can appreciate the anti-capitalist message, but ranking it above the comparatively vapid 28 Days Later by any other criteria is pure nostalgia.

No, the legacy of ’70s horror (in the sense of its effect on later filmmakers) is not politics but reductionism. Zombies, ‘torture porn,’ even the sometimes more highbrow ‘new European extremity’ of Gaspar Noe, Alexandre Aja, Michael Haneke, Bruno Dumont, etc., strip their horror scenarios of everything but the bare premise: the dead walk, a killer attacks at random, now deal with it. Watch.

That there is nothing for the protagonists to do but live or die, nothing to mean but success or failure, is no longer a mere precondition for a broader recontextualization of ideology but the entire narrative and ideological point. Saw speaks its philosophy out loud, from behind the mask of Jigsaw, its Tales From the Crypt-esque villain. “Most people are so ungrateful to be alive,” he tells the sole survivor of his Rube Goldberg execution scenarios, “but not you, not any more.” She thanks him later — her therapist (she ‘fails’ in a sequel when she begins to regard him as her cult leader). One is invited to pass judgment on the frat boy protagonist of Hostel or the stuffily perfect bourgeois family of Funny Games, but when they’re being tortured there is no one else to care about. Even more than the cartoonish ‘slasher’ monsters (Michael Myers, Freddy, Jason), but for notable exceptions like Jigsaw, the new breed are absent non-entities, a-causal killers. In Funny Games the murdering duo are fictional tropes — in Hostel torture is just a business. The Dark Knight‘s Joker,There Will Be Blood‘s Plainview, and No Country For Old Men‘s Chigurh all borrow the trope: the ’00s were the age of monsters without reason. To an audience that has learned how to sympathize with Norman Bates,  cheer on Michael Myers, and fall in love with Hannibal Lecter, it now (apparently) takes structural evil to convince and thrill (in the same way that supernatural and ‘psychological’ evil did in ages past). More than any sin they commit their power comes from defying the techniques of identification, giving the anarchic sense of having defied Hollywood itself.

Zombie stories, the great Robinsonades of the late 20th/early 21st centuries, differ from their 18th century ancestors in that they are unable to repress (or properly delay) the social, which inevitably appears as tragedy. In Night of the Living Dead Ben with his manly know-how is doing just fine surviving on his own. It’s only when people show up that things go wrong — the distrustful, strung-out, and frequently irrational group trapped inside the house with him, and the mass of rednecks who ‘accidentally’ shoot him down in the process of restoring civilization. The recent comic book series The Walking Dead (coming soon to a TV near you) takes its protagonist through a series of doomed attempts to restore the most banal forms of patriarchal ‘normality,’ all of which reduce to patriarchal authoritarianism before falling apart completely. Even Will Smith’s Last Man in I Am Legend, while alone for most of the film, is never portrayed as autonomous: he lives in and on the ruins of New York, driven half-crazy with loneliness (i.e. the scenes where he simulates the lost everyday with shop mannequins).

There are ‘left’ and ‘right’ versions of the zombie myth, but the message is always the same: the horrors wrought by humanity in extremis are always worse than the zombies.The absolute manichean split between human and zombie is insisted on only to be ‘shockingly’ deconstructed, with all other differences either elided or made to look ridiculous by comparison. Like them, we must kill to live, even if there is no reason to go on (civilization is destroyed, etc.). We are them, they are us.


In horror anyone who cares about something other than the survival of themselves and their immediate allies is (or should be) dead. In that sense all horror is ‘survival horror,’ the name for the genre of video games started by Alone in the Dark and established by Resident Evil. It’s a structural limit, perhaps the only formalism applicable to the genre as a whole, and which has permitted a wide variety of thematic material: Peeping Tom‘s reflection of cinematic voyeurism, the weirdly seductive transformations of Cronenbergian body horror, Lovecraft’s cosmic nihilism, the dark satire of Romero. But in more recent horror the structural limit is treated as a natural one, as the only true reality principle and therefore the only true ethical axiom. A horror story is more visceral, more ‘realistic,’ more ‘effective,’ the less it allows itself to go beyond the arbitrary necessities of its genre.

So two basic functional ‘types’ of monster can be distilled: 1) the monster who kills for no reason and 2) the ‘infected’ masses who, for no reason, must kill to live.

The victims, if they survive, usually leave stronger. For the spectator, the encouraged affects are awe at type 1 and pity for type 2. Perhaps counterintuitively, the idea that life is all that matters is usually denied. A good example from 28 Days Later:

Selena: I was thinking I was wrong.
Jim: About what?
Selena: All the death. All the shit. It doesn’t really mean anything to Frank and Hannah because… Well, she’s got a Dad and he’s got his daughter. So, I was wrong when I said that staying alive is as good as it gets.
Jim: See, that’s what I was thinking.
Selena: Was it?
Jim: Hmm. You stole my thought.
Selena: Sorry.
Jim: It’s okay. You keep it.

Not just life in terms of individual self-interest or of abstract ‘life’ in general (animal rights activists start the plague in 28 Days, an attempt to cure cancer brings on the zombie-vampire disease of I Am Legend), but the lives of one’s mates. Domestic hedonism is about the best that can be hoped for under conditions of zombie plague, and that’s alright.

This is the very strange, hospital-waiting-room-universe of a world where popular ideology has nothing left in its critical vocabulary except relativism. Capitalism’s collective fantasy space is finally bulldozed free of class, race, gender, etc. and yet even in the post-everything Utopia shit still doesn’t work! People are even worse! For without a social vocabulary, such a space is only imaginable after the flood, under conditions of absolute constraint. If science fiction can only imagine post-scarcity utopias, horror can only imagine happiness where scarcity is accepted as God. Horror’s current appointed task, beyond affirming the value of life through suffering, is pointing out that mirrors seem to be the only properly universal means ‘we’ have for representing things we happen not to understand.

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

May Day

Posted in Environmentalism, History, Marxism, Utopia with tags , on May 1, 2009 by traxus4420


According to Peter Linebaugh’s pamphlet history, May Day has both ‘red’ and ‘green’ origins, and has traditionally been a time when humorless commies and libertine tree-huggers can put aside their differences and be excellent to each other.
Here’s my favorite tale:

In 1625 Captain Wollaston, Thomas Morton, and thirty others sailed from England and months later, taking their bearings from a red cedar tree, they disembarked in Quincy Bay. A year later Wollaston, impatient for lucre and gain, left for good to Virginia. Thomas Morton settled in Passonaggessit which he named Merry Mount. The land seemed a “Paradise” to him. He wrote, there are “fowls in abundance, fish in multitudes, and I discovered besides, millions of turtle doves on the green boughs, which sat pecking of the full, ripe, pleasant grapes that were supported by the lusty trees, whose fruitful load did cause the arms to bend.”

On May Day, 1627, he and his Indian friends, stirred by the sound of drums, erected a Maypole eighty feet high, decorated it with garlands, wrapped it in ribbons, and nailed to its top the antlers of a buck. Later he wrote that he “sett up a Maypole upon the festival day of Philip and James, and therefore brewed a barrell of excellent beare.” A ganymede sang a Bacchanalian song. Morton attached to the pole the first lyric verses penned in America which concluded.

With the proclamation that the first of May

At Merry Mount shall be kept holly day

The Puritans at Plymouth were opposed to the May Day. they called the Maypole “an Idoll” and named Merry Mount “Mount Dagon” after the god of the first ocean-going imperialist, the Phoenicians. More likely, though the Puritans were the imperialist, not Morton, who worked with slaves, servants, and native Americans, person to person. Everyone was equal in his “social contract.” Governor Bradford wrote, “they allso set up a Maypole, drinking and dancing aboute it many days together, inviting the Indean women for thier consorts, dancing and frisking together (like so many faires, or furies rather) and worse practise.”

Merry Mount became a refuge for Indians, the discontented, gay people, runaway servants, and what the governor called “all the scume of the countrie.” When the authorities reminded him that his actions violated the King’s Proclamation, Morton replied that it was “no law.” Miles Standish, whom Morton called “Mr. Shrimp,” attacked. The Maypole was cut down. The settlement was burned. Morton’s goods were confiscated, he was chained in the bilboes, and ostracized to England aboard the ship “The Gift,” at a cost the Puritans complained of twelve pounds seven shillings. The rainbow coalition of Merry Mount was thus destroyed for the time being. That Merry Mount later (1636) became associated with Anne Hutchinson, the famous mid-wife, spiritualist, and feminist, surely was more than
coincidental. Her brother-in-law ran the Chapel of Ease. She thought that god loved everybody, regardless of their sins. She doubted the Puritans’ authority to make law. A statue of Robert Burns in Quincy near to Merry Mount, quotes the poet’s lines,

A fig for those by law protected!

Liberty’s a glorious feast!

Courts for cowards were erected,

Churches built to please the priest.

Thomas Morton was a thorn in the side of the Boston and Plymouth Puritans, because he had an alternate vision of Massachusetts. He was impressed by its fertility; they by its scarcity. He befriended the Indians; they shuddered at the thought. He was egalitarian; they proclaimed themselves the “Elect”. He freed servants; they lived off them. He armed the Indians; they used arms against Indians. To Nathaniel Hawthorne, the destiny of American settlement was decided at Merry Mount. Casting the struggle as mirth vs. gloom, grizzly saints vs. gay sinners, green vs. iron, it was the Puritans who won, and the fate of America was determined in favor of psalm-singing, Indian-scalpers whose notion of the Maypole was a whipping post.

Parts of the past live, parts die. The red cedar that drew Morton first to Merry Mount blew down in the gale of 1898. A section of it, about eight feet of its trunk became a power fetish in 1919, placed as it was next to the President’s chair of the Quincy City Council. Interested parties may now view it in the Quincy Historical Museum. Living trees, however, have since grown, despite the closure of the ship-yards.

Perhaps this makes me a reactionary, but I don’t trust utopian stories that don’t end in tragedy — not because of a metaphysical conviction in the impossibility of human happiness, but because I like my tales to be, if only in an oblique sense, historically accurate.

Which means I both like and am uncomfortable with the way Linebaugh ends it:

Where is the Red and Green today? Is it in Mao’s Red Book? or in Col. Khadafy’s Green Book? Some perhaps. Leigh Hunt, the English essayist of the 19th century, wrote that May Day is “the union of the two best things in the world, the love of nature, and the love of each other.” Certainly, such green union is possible, because we all can imagine it, and we know that what is real now was once only imagined. Just as certainly, that union can be realized only by red struggle, because there is no gain without pain, as the aerobiticians say, or no dreams without responsibility, no birth without labor, no green without red.

As a commentor points out, where are the anarchists? It’s an amusing hypocritical foible of mine (and I’m sure is not only mine) that I have a working student-level knowledge of Marxism, am developing one in ecological leftism, and know next to nothing about anarchism; this despite the fact that my few actual experiences of political involvement on the left have been basically anarchist in orientation. This is not very materialist. As usual, I don’t feel guilty. Just incoherent.

Happy May Day.

Tragedy of the Commons

Posted in Apocalypse, Capitalism, Environmentalism, Marxism, U.S. Politics, Utopia with tags , , on April 23, 2009 by traxus4420

Attending the left forum this year was a fine if exhausting time (The Pace University building’s design strategy of putting windows in the hallways but not the classrooms reminded me once again that I don’t understand modern architecture). The panels were numerous and varied, a high proportion sounded interesting, and the tiny proportion I attended were excellent. Read reports by more famous bloggers Louis Proyect and Richard Seymour of Lenin’s Tomb (who was also a speaker) here, here, and here. Doug Henwood’s talk is here, and a response here. Rather than give a report on every panel, I only want to concentrate on one basic theme, though one that has many twists and turns.

Which is, observations/predictions of the future of American (and more generally ‘Western’) ideology. Depending on who you ask, the end of neoliberalism will inevitably occur when the zombie march of bank bailouts and credit-fueled military adventures encounters its absolute limit with the collapse of the U.S. domestic economy (I am more skeptical). But whether or not neoliberalism as a more or less coherent strategy and set of policies is finished, the ideology of free market evangelism with the U.S. military as security hegemon is certainly ‘bankrupt,’ even in the most conservative press. What will replace it? This is implicitly also a question of what will be the new dynamic sector of the ‘global’ economy.

Let’s go with green technology and green jobs, just because it appears to be the only sane choice. Iain Boal reminded us that not even objective necessity necessarily guarantees anything: Obama’s energy secretary Steven Chu is pitching the environmental crisis as an engineering problem to be solved in large part by heavy investment in synthetic biology and biofuels — which unfortunately seem to be an unconvincing proposition for Wall Street, driving a number of the biofuel distilleries into bankruptcy. Nuclear would seem to be the most economically feasible option at this point at the rate politicians keep cautiously talking it up. But while solar power doesn’t seem to be doing much better than biofuel, neither does nuclear (let’s just not bring up coal). One is inevitably reminded of Carter’s failed attempt at an eco-revolution in the ’70s…and then one must think about something else.

So let’s say the socialists are right, and freedom doesn’t work. Say someone at the top finally figures that out, or is forced to from below, and we get our Green New Deal. Where’s the other shoe? Seymour was part of a panel on market ideology’s better half: human rights (here‘s one of his many posts on the subject). Historian Samuel Moyn argued that key components missing from human rights (and present in Enlightenment formulations of natural/universal rights) are those that involve social and economic rights, and strong support for the political right of self-determination — by the 1970s, any pretense of these older concerns had fallen away, a development coinciding with the rise of ‘free market,’ dollar-regime-driven neoliberalism. He described human rights as a form of Victorian philanthropic ideology, a sort of ‘realism’ which functions to deny the possibility of any solution to mass suffering beyond charity while justifying violent military intervention as needed.  During the Q&A,  someone asked if a much-speculated-upon shift to realpolitik would negate future Clinton-style humanitarian intervention. The answer that this is the script that typically follows the period of adventurist ‘idealism’ — “we tried to give them freedom, but clearly all they’re capable of is stability” — seems convincing enough. Human rights should not be understood as the basis for policy. Though it sometimes returns as blowback (i.e. Guantanamo and the Gaza strip) the framework seems vague enough to remain nonbinding, regardless of how aggressive the state is in using it as a pretext for war.

The construction of this emerging narrative, centering around a global reduction of aspiration, seems basically to involve the throwing up of ghosts of the past in the hopes that something will stick. From where I’m sitting, they focus around three major genres: the 1930s (depression, FDR as iconic patriarch and healer of class conflict), the 1970s (energy crisis, green whatnot) and finally the 1890s. The flipside to Victorian philanthropy is Victorian imperial administration, as (self-consciously) personified by Robert Kagan in this recent piece. Here he is reading the ruling class its horoscope:

“Realist” is now a mark of respect, “neocon” a term of derision. The Vietnam analogy has vanquished that of Munich. Thomas Hobbes, who extolled the moral benefits of fear and saw anarchy as the chief threat to society, has elbowed out Isaiah Berlin as the philosopher of the present cycle. The focus now is less on universal ideals than particular distinctions, from ethnicity to culture to religion. Those who pointed this out a decade ago were sneered at for being “fatalists” or “determinists.” Now they are applauded as “pragmatists.” And this is the key insight of the past two decades—that there are worse things in the world than extreme tyranny, and in Iraq we brought them about ourselves. I say this having supported the war.

So now, chastened, we have all become realists. Or so we believe. But realism is about more than merely opposing a war in Iraq that we know from hindsight turned out badly. Realism means recognizing that international relations are ruled by a sadder, more limited reality than the one governing domestic affairs. It means valuing order above freedom, for the latter becomes important only after the former has been established. It means focusing on what divides humanity rather than on what unites it, as the high priests of globalization would have it. In short, realism is about recognizing and embracing those forces beyond our control that constrain human action—culture, tradition, history, the bleaker tides of passion that lie just beneath the veneer of civilization. This poses what, for realists, is the central question in foreign affairs: Who can do what to whom?

And then comes the form of this harsh, purifying knowledge, the new science of society:

And of all the unsavory truths in which realism is rooted, the bluntest, most uncomfortable, and most deterministic of all is geography.

Bureaucratic and economic networks alike find their real ontological ground in the ground itself. The most natural of social sciences provides a new language of globalization, a new way to bypass the claims of rogue and ‘failed’ states. Kagan renders computer and even trade networks phobic. Always open to contamination by nuclear arms, terrorist hate, and uncontrolled populations against which the epidermal layer of national boundaries becomes less and less effective, the world is in need of a new kind of policing for which he will supply the transcendental logic. He counterposes his geographic/strategic realism to liberal humanism and universalism, slyly relying on its homnymy with economic liberalism, the very thing it was supposed to moderate, to bury economic reason even more deeply within the unconscious.

At the same time as it is political realism, we can also call Kagan’s positon the extreme right wing of the new environmental movement: the uninhibited revival of Malthus and MacKinder, the elimination of history in favor of directly using terrain and resource control as a way of controlling political ‘realities.’ As long as we don’t forget the role a certain kind of liberal environmentalism plays in legitimizing its right wing counterpart, keeping both in play for actual decision makers to employ whenever it suits them. The last generation included figures like Paul “Population Bomb” Ehrlich and Garrett “Tragedy of the Commons” Hardin. The key feature of this group is not so much the metaphysical Malthusian assumptions about fixed population growth rates and absolute ‘carrying capacity’ (though those are, amazingly, a recurring problem), but the idea that nature contains social laws we are obligated first to discover and then abide by. My suspicion is that Jared Diamond is the new chief spokesperson, but I haven’t read enough to say much more than that.

Again though, what someone like Kagan offers to the world’s bosses is not a set of rules to follow or ideal solutions to implement, but something more like freedom of movement — ideological flexibility.

Regardless of how the economic crisis is solved, or even if it’s not, it seems to me hopelessly naive at this point to think that a good solution will be arrived at through right argument. A proposal along these lines is just a potential tool with a certain set of use-values. The more easily it can travel, the more comprehensive it is, the more easily it lends itself to use by the most powerful as ideology. Doug Henwood and David Harvey’s hand waves toward “creeping socialism” at the conference, where alternatives to capitalist institutions are designed and employed at the local level, more or less gradually displacing existing structures — coupled with occasional campaigns to shift policy in more favorable directions — still seems like the most effective way to build the base that everyone on the left knows we don’t have. Without the capacity to realize them ourselves, all our great ideas are just fodder for the open source think tank.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Nothing

Posted in Lit, Philosophy, structuralism, Utopia with tags , , , , , , on June 4, 2008 by traxus4420

In his Theory of the Novel, the pre-Marxist Lukács defines the epic (in terms of genre, enabling synthetic analysis and comparison with ‘the novel’ and ‘the drama’), following on Hegel and Schiller’s understanding of Homeric Greece as essentially “naive,” “childish,” etc., as the terrain of absolute empiricism, an ontologically and politically heterogeneous totality complete in itself, without need for a transcendent Other. “In the epic, totality can only truly manifest itself in the contents of the object: it is metasubjective, transcendent, it is a revelation and grace. Living, empirical man is always the subject of the epic, but his creative, life-mastering arrogance is transformed in the great epics into humility, contemplation, speechless wonder at the luminous meaning which, so unexpectedly, so naturally, has become visible to him, an ordinary human being in the midst of ordinary life.” As he will say over and over, the sphere of the epic is the sphere of life, the consistency of subject-object relations, the balance between man and nature, guaranteed by the positing of humanlike gods, arbiters of destiny from whom the heroes derive meaning through endless struggle against their decrees.

The novel by contrast, the “bourgeois epic,” operates in a different historical situation, one in which man has estranged himself from nature through the accumulated residue of his own subjective will. The world has been overtaken by the “second nature” of reification, the “charnel-house of long-dead interiorities.” Against this alienation, the novelist opposes form: “The epic gives form to a totality of life that is rounded from within; the novel seeks, by giving form, to uncover and construct the concealed totality of life.” Or, more forcefully: “The abstract basis of the novel assumes form as a result of the abstraction seeing through itself; the immanence of meaning required by the form is attained precisely when the author goes all the way, ruthlessly, toward exposing its absence.”

This is of course the original quixotic quest, doomed to a whole typology of failures. The novelistic hero, “problematic individual,” invariably reveals him or herself to be nothing but the function of a formal principle that exceeds any given subject, the novelist’s development or pushing to limits of a “certain problematic of life.” Like the epic orator, the novelist abandons his characters to their fates, but where the suffering of epic heroes fulfills their role within the vital totality, the suffering of novel heroes is an impossible dilemma: the destitution of the world of false meanings by negative, formal Truth not only leaves them no place to stand, but no given terms in which to understand their fall. “The novel is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God,” writes Lukacs the secular utopian, and in so doing he reconstructs the dialectic perhaps most favored by intellectuals for defining modern European culture, Greeks vs. Judeo-Christians.

Fully in the manner of the Lukácsian novelistic hero, a role no philosopher or critic can shake (as it is basically the job description), Auerbach carries this opposition to its formal conclusions in Mimesis:

“The Bible’s claim to truth is not only far more urgent than Homer’s, it is tyrannical — it excludes all other claims. The world of Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be a historically true reality — it insists that it is the only real world, is destined for autocracy. All other scenes, issues, and ordinances have no right to appear independently of it, and it is promised that all of them, the history of all mankind, will be given their due place within its frame, will be subordinated to it. The Scripture stories do not, like Homer’s, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they might please us and enchant us — they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels.”

And in summation:

“We have compared these two texts [Odyssey and the Old Testament], and, with them, the two kinds of style they embody, in order to reach a starting point for an investigation into the literary representation of reality in European culture. The two styles, in their opposition, represent basic types: on the one hand fully externalized description, uniform illumination, uninterrupted connection, free expression, all events in the foreground, displaying unmistakable meanings, few elements of historical development and of psychological perspective; on the other hand, certain parts brought into high relief, others left obscure, abruptness, suggestive influence of the unexpressed, ‘background’ quality, multiplicity of meanings and the need for interpretation, universal-historical claims, development of the concept of the historically becoming, and preoccupation with the problematic.”

We first have to set aside any qualms we may have about historical accuracy in these schematic characterizations and understand them as the creations of philosopher-critics. Two figures are raised up as ideal types, twin extremes the modern subject is understood to define itself by rejecting, the child and the tyrant. Against these theoretical demiurges, undisciplined naiveté and arbitrary power, we come into the “maturity” and “virility” of alienation, the passage from Dante to Quixote and on to all that follows. Child and tyrant are thus linked in their immaturity, their being not-yet-modern. The idealism of pure, immediate sensuousness, and the tyranny (and mystery) of Truth become the stuff of Utopia.

Lukács writes of the modern novel: “The inner importance of the individual has reached its historical apogee: the individual is no longer significant as the carrier of transcendent worlds, as he was in abstract idealism, he now carries his value exclusively within himself.” The jab at ‘abstract idealism’ is one of the few references made to philosophy as a positive influence on the historical process of modernity’s self-definition, not ‘just’ a source for the invisible theoretical edifice. Odd when the whole enterprise, certainly modern and certainly formalist, just like the novelistic hero, is so plainly, irrecusably Hegelian. Hegel and his lineage — ‘philosophy itself’ — are permitted into the form but not the content of this narrative of the modern subject disguised as narrative of the modern novel; in this little glimpse we see only hubris (“carrier of transcendent worlds”), just another shorn vanity. Philosophy gets us from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, or communalism based on shared myth to organized society based on legal binding, and Lukács has his critiques elsewhere of Kant and Hegel. But what about the ‘style’ of philosophy? Like the Old Testament its concern is Truth, but with an invitation to dialogue, its announced dependence on the testability (if not verifiability) of logical argument? Plato’s dialogues are already tricks of interpellation, a staged conversation wherein Socrates makes pronouncements in the form of questions, fools spout banalities in the form of argument, and Plato silently transcribes. The trail from dialogues to dialectics would be worth following.

Of course, the poststructuralists already tore down the barriers separating myth, theology, philosophy, and literature. Rancière gives a well-practiced version of this argument in “The Body of the Letter,” where he reads the avant la lettre ‘postmodern’ skepticism of Cervantes (via Borges) back down to the Bible, permitting a solution to the antinomy of Christianity — “a Christianity of incarnation that finds its realization in the pagan ‘Bible’ of the epic poem, and a Christianity of absence that founds the ‘modern’ epic of the novel” — by reducing the Bible’s cryptic eschatological promise to so many ‘textual economies’ generated by the in-existent secret:

“Against any facile theory of a god as master of stories, playing with the madness of his characters and the belief of his readers, the modern novel manifests this solidarity of the power of writing with the dispersion of the letter that travels the world without a body of legitimacy. And its story is also that of the inversion of the initial relationship of mastery, which becomes the subjection of literary absoluteness to any characer whatsoever, to any ‘madman,’ caught in the trajectory of the silent and loquacious letter.”

Even the most tyrannical, irrational, inscrutable proprietor subject is expropriated by the a-signifying logic of information processing, hoist by his own petard so to speak. The anti-‘anthropomorphism’ and expansive definition of subjective idealism presented by Brassier and (some of) his speculative realist pals, it should be noted, apply to all of the above, especially the latter (the old and now outdated source of anti-humanist jollies). Where precisely do they differ? Not on the level of form — there are only so many of those to go around — but on the level of Truth, a truth for which form is not the expression, is rather the vehicle for the return of subject to object. Brassier elevates what for Lukács are two unfortunate indulgences of consciousness:

“The desire to know a world cleansed of all wanting and all willing transforms the subject into an a-subjective, constructive and constructing embodiment of cognitive functions.”

“In the Romanticism of disillusionment, time is the corrupting principle; poetry, the essential, must die, and time is ultimately responsible for its passing”

to the realm of necessity — true no matter what ‘you’ ‘think.’ The “childish” naiveté of Lukács’ Homer is non-dialectically combined (a la Laruelle) with the expulsion from Paradise. Reality is Authority, and the subject has the inestimable privilege of being nowhere.

As If This Were A Very Long-Winded Link Blog

Posted in culturemonkey, current events, Education, Manifestos, self promotion, U.S. Politics, Utopia on January 11, 2008 by traxus4420

First things first: I’m going to be posting here regularly, and probably much less regularly here (but then anyone who reads this is used to that). It will be a series on cultural representations (read: books and movies) of the future in the 20th century, dealing with things like utopia, dystopia, projection, extrapolation, prediction, etc. and also some half-assed attempts to contextualize them historically and even (gasp) economically and politically. The first few posts are on Thomas More’s Utopia, as a warm-up.


This article and this post give a sort of remedial reminder that all the talk we’re hearing about ‘change’ in the U.S. elections is so far just that: talk. The Republicans are a joke at this point, as even Rick “Santorum” Santorum is willing to admit. We’ll come back to them when they’ve picked a candidate. The Democrats are the real focus. They have three choices that The Media tells me is really two choices. Each one seems specially designed to catch people like me with our pants down. The one who says the things I want to hear is losing, and in a bizarre twist of fate, is the wrong race and sex by virtue of being a white man from the South. Such things do matter in presidential elections after all, perhaps as much as policy promises, most of which will not pan out (and which, if one does one’s homework, are not terribly different from each other). The one who says the things I wish I wanted to hear is my default favorite in order to prevent another Clinton from becoming president. Domestically the big issues are the recession and health care — no one’s going to end America’s credit addiction, while the health care is something even Republicans claim to want, and in any case we will have to slog through years of debate before anything concrete emerges. Despite the persistence of Al Gore, the environment seems to be a minor issue so far. Not hopeful enough, I guess.

But in terms of foreign policy, one thing the president really does affect strongly, the two frontrunners draw their advisers from the same pool, leading me to believe that the only major difference between them is that one hates Pakistan and the other hates Iran. The balkanization of Pakistan will undoubtedly move forward under both, something similar will probably be attempted in Afghanistan, and we will all be sentenced to many more years of saber-rattling against Iran. There will be differences in the distribution of severity, but either way we are looking at Clinton Redux. Anyway, one picks a personality and a set of thematics when one picks a president, not a list of proposals, and mediatized Americans everywhere are choosing ‘hope’ and ‘change’ over ‘revolution’ or ‘experience.’ Barring some unforeseen gaffe, whoever can properly channel those desires — or scare them away — has the best shot at being the big toothy grin on America’s face.


A lot of people have been linking to this old rerun by Stanley Fish. The same old anxieties about the humanities, what is their ‘value.’ But the more pressing questions involve economic value, such as this here, and especially this discussion about the corporatization of the university. Related to the crisis this is causing for the humanities is the equally ‘precarious’ future of media-related jobs in the U.S. As some may know, both the Ivory Tower and media Big and small rely more and more on labor that is free or nearly so, i.e. interns, grad students, adjunct lecturers, and freelancers. Those with ‘outside funding’ experience this as the extended nomad childhood you read about in the papers, those without experience it as extended humiliation, and those who are actually poor don’t even bother trying. And people discuss ‘Everything Studies‘ as if the dispersal of the disciplines (which are the sole justification for the doctoral degree) was good for the future of humanistic science and not simply the next logical step in the corporate restructuring of Higher Ed. Why bother with tenured faculty and grad students at all after that? Wouldn’t those designations quickly become redundant? Classes could be taught by limited-contract ‘public intellectuals’ competent in one or two minor subjects, just as easily (and more cheaply) as by a single retained expert. Wouldn’t be much of a change from how things are done already.

I support grad student and adjunct unions, but the fact that they are becoming necessary is a sign that the humanities can’t expect to continue the way they have. They operate off the university’s dwindling largesse, not by serving any specific consumer demand. While it won’t solve any structural problems, what might at least put the humanities on life support is this: first, everyone who can get out should get out — history, for example, can with a little tweaking pass itself off as a social science. For everyone who’s left, link up with the professional writing, film, or fine art programs. A lot of people complain about creative writing MFA programs churning out cookie-cutter writers only capable of writing about what happened to them yesterday. A lot of English programs complain about low enrollment and consequently low resources. Put them together, problem solved. The humanities now teach writing and criticism as a single (‘interdisciplinary’) skill set. A lot of people will get fired, probably, but as long as creative fields remain glamorous enough that people are still willing to shell out large sums of cash for training they are not likely to make much money from, the future of the humanities will be assured.

It’s all about buying time.


Finally, there’s the series of posts starting with this one, detailing a situation that everyone should be asking questions about. This from the Times Online piece:

A WHISTLEBLOWER has made a series of extraordinary claims about how corrupt government officials allowed Pakistan and other states to steal nuclear weapons secrets.

Sibel Edmonds, a 37-year-old former Turkish language translator for the FBI, listened into hundreds of sensitive intercepted conversations while based at the agency’s Washington field office.

She approached The Sunday Times last month after reading about an Al-Qaeda terrorist who had revealed his role in training some of the 9/11 hijackers while he was in Turkey.

Edmonds described how foreign intelligence agents had enlisted the support of US officials to acquire a network of moles in sensitive military and nuclear institutions.