Archive for September, 2009

“Nothing can be reduced to anything else…”

From Bruno Latour:

I taught at Gray in the French provinces for a year.  At the end of the winter of 1972, on the road from Dijon to gray, I was forced to stop, brought to my senses after an overdose of reductionism.  A Christian loves a God who is capable of reducing the world to himself because he created it.  A Catholic confines the world to the history of the Roman salvation.  An astronomer looks for the origins of the universe by deducing its evolution from the Big Bang.  A mathematician seeks axioms that imply all the others as corollaries and consequences.  A philosopher hopes to find the radical foundation which makes all the rest epiphenomenal.  A Hegelian wishes to squeeze from events something already inherent in them.  A Kantian reduces things to grains of dust and then reassembles them with synthetic a-priori judgments that are as fecund as a mule.  A French engineer attributes potency to calculations, though these come from the practice of an old-boy network.  An administrator never tires of looking for officers, followers, and subjects.  An intellectual strives to make the “simple” practices and opinions of the vulgar explicit and conscious.  A son of the bourgeoisie sees the simple stages of an abstract cycle of wealth in the vine growers, cellarmen, and bookkeepers.  A Westerner never tires of shrinking the evolution of species and empires to Cleopatra’s nose, Achilles’ heel, and Nelson’s blind eye.  A writer tries to recreate daily life and imitate nature.  A painter is obsessed by the desire to render feelings into colors.  A follower of Roland Barthes tries to turn everything not only into texts but into signifiers alone.  A man likes to use the term “he” in place of humanity.  A militant hopes that revolution will wrench the future from the past.  A philosopher sharpens the “epistemological break” to guillotine those who have not yet “found the sure path of a science.”  An alchemist would like to hold the philosopher’s stone in his hand.

To put everything into nothing, to deduce everything from almost nothing, to put into hierarchies, to command and to obey, to be profound or superior, to collect objects and force them into a tiny space, whether they be subjects, signifiers, classes, Gods, axioms—to have for companions, like those of my caste, only the Dragon of Nothingness and the Dragon of Totality.  Tired and weary, suddenly I felt that everything was still left out.  Christian, philosopher, intellectual, bourgeois, male, provincial, and French, I decided to make space and allow the things which I spoke about the room that they needed to “stand at arm’s length.”  I knew nothing, then, of what I am writing now but simply repeated to myself:  “Nothing can be reduced to anything else, nothing can be deduced from anything else, everything may be allied to everything else.”  This was like an exorcism that defeated demons one by one.  It was a wintry sky, and a very  blue.  I no longer needed to prop it up with a cosmology, put it in a picture, render it in writing, measure it in a meteorological article, or place it on a Titan to prevent it falling on my head.  I added it to other skies in other places and reduced none of them to it, and it to none of them.  It “stood at arm’s length,” fled, and established itself where it alone defined its place and its aims, neither knowable nor unknowable.  It and me, them and us, we mutually define ourselves.  And for the first time in my life I saw things unreduced and set free.

From “Irreductions” in The Pasteurization of France, pp, 162-163. [1988]

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Is Resistance Surrender?

Back in 2007, Slavoj Žižek reviewed a book by Simon Critchley entitled, Infinitely Demanding.  In that review, Žižek lists what he sees as the alternatives for leftist politics in dealing with capitalists hegemony:

[A]ccept the hegemony, but continue to fight for reform within its rules (this is Third Way social democracy).

Or, it accepts that the hegemony is here to stay, but should nonetheless be resisted from its ‘interstices’.

Or, it accepts the futility of all struggle, since the hegemony is so all-encompassing that nothing can really be done except wait for an outburst of ‘divine violence’ – a revolutionary version of Heidegger’s ‘only God can save us.’

Or, it recognises the temporary futility of the struggle. In today’s triumph of global capitalism, the argument goes, true resistance is not possible, so all we can do till the revolutionary spirit of the global working class is renewed is defend what remains of the welfare state, confronting those in power with demands we know they cannot fulfil, and otherwise withdraw into cultural studies, where one can quietly pursue the work of criticism.

Or, it emphasises the fact that the problem is a more fundamental one, that global capitalism is ultimately an effect of the underlying principles of technology or ‘instrumental reason’.

Or, it posits that one can undermine global capitalism and state power, not by directly attacking them, but by refocusing the field of struggle on everyday practices, where one can ‘build a new world’; in this way, the foundations of the power of capital and the state will be gradually undermined, and, at some point, the state will collapse (the exemplar of this approach is the Zapatista movement).

Or, it takes the ‘postmodern’ route, shifting the accent from anti-capitalist struggle to the multiple forms of politico-ideological struggle for hegemony, emphasising the importance of discursive re-articulation.

Or, it wagers that one can repeat at the postmodern level the classical Marxist gesture of enacting the ‘determinate negation’ of capitalism: with today’s rise of ‘cognitive work’, the contradiction between social production and capitalist relations has become starker than ever, rendering possible for the first time ‘absolute democracy’ (this would be Hardt and Negri’s position).

This set of alternatives is worth pondering, especially at just this moment when the G20 is occupying Pittsburgh and protesters are in the streets.  Are those protesters doing any good?

Žižek seems to be arguing, in his review, that a certain anarchic approach to resistance is actually in complicity with the powers-that-be.  There is a demand for universal change (the protestors feel good about themselves for having made the demand) and the claim that such a noble and desirable demand is nevertheless impossible or unworkable, given that this is the “real world” (the powers-that-be feel good about themselves for acknowledging the nobility and decency of the protestors without having to relinquish any power).  This is what Žižek means by complicity:  everyone goes home feeling good, but nothing changes.

Is this what is going on?

It is always a little difficult to know exactly what Žižek is arguing for in his works.  This review was no exception, as the letters to the editor make clear (See Graeber’s letter in particular and Žižek’s response).  He ends his review:

The lesson here is that the truly subversive thing is not to insist on ‘infinite’ demands we know those in power cannot fulfil. Since they know that we know it, such an ‘infinitely demanding’ attitude presents no problem for those in power: ‘So wonderful that, with your critical demands, you remind us what kind of world we would all like to live in. Unfortunately, we live in the real world, where we have to make do with what is possible.’ The thing to do is, on the contrary, to bombard those in power with strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands, which can’t be met with the same excuse.

And Žižek concludes his rejoinder to his critics:

So what are we to do? Everything possible (and impossible), just with a proper dose of modesty, avoiding moralising self-satisfaction. I am aware that when the left builds a protest movement, one should not measure its success by the degree to which its specific demands are met: more important than achieving the immediate target is the raising of critical awareness and finding new ways to organise.

This is prudent advice, no doubt.  But it does—as critics point out—seem like (at least) its own form of complicity, its own form of “mere” resistance. Amelioration. Tinkering.  Is that the best we can do?

I will let Žižek and Graeber and Critchley to their quarrel.  But I want to ask:  What is the role of the state in efforts to create a more just and peaceful world?  Žižek is ambiguous about the state (despite his often feigning hurt at being misunderstood).  In this review, you will find Žižek “appearing” (Žižek is talented at using “appearance” as a hedge…) to support Chavez and his grab of state power, culminating in Chavez’s consolidation of a myriad of political parties into a single party in support of himself.  Žižek writes:

Even some of his allies are sceptical about this move: will it come at the expense of the popular movements that have given the Venezuelan revolution its élan? However, this choice, though risky, should be fully endorsed: the task is to make the new party function not as a typical state socialist (or Peronist) party, but as a vehicle for the mobilisation of new forms of politics (like the grass roots slum committees).

Critchley, on the other hand, counsels:

Anarchic political resistance should not seek to mimic and mirror the archic violent sovereignty it opposes.

So who is wiser?  Is Žižek’s “apparent” trust of the state warranted?  Is Critchley’s advice a recipe for political impotence?

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Caputo on Žižek and Milbank

If you are one of those people for whom these kinds of things matter, you will want to check out Jack Caputo’s review of The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? by Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank.  If you are not familiar with the work of either Žižek or Milbank, perhaps this is not a bad (if critical) introductions to some basic ideas in their work.  To simplify, both thinkers in this book are taking the thought of G.W.F. Hegel as their starting point and “materialism” as their main concern [and not Jesus, btw…].  Žižek is pro-Hegel and Milbank is anti-Hegel, but, as Caputo shows, their “Hegel” is probably not the one you can find in, say, Hegel…or at least not in the standard readings of Hegel.  Žižek uses Hegel to argue for a radical materialism; Milbank argues against Hegel in favor of a materialism supported, instead, by the apparatus of the metaphysics of analogy [and here] of St. Thomas Aquinas.  So this is the question posed in the title of the book:  Does Hegel’s dialectic lead to a nihilistic dead end that is upended by the paradox of a God-made-man (Milbank)? Or, does Hegel’s dialectic demand the conclusion that God (divinity) died on the Cross, leaving us with no choice but a fully-demythologized materialistic view?  Caputo’s review lays this all out nicely.

Caputo’s estimation of all this?  He finds neither Žižek nor Milbank to be really interested in matter…i.e, matter doesn’t really matter for them.  Milbank denigrates matter by seeing it as a moment or a stage to be passed through on the way to the resurrected body (which, if matter, is no matter we’re familiar with)—his not-so-radical orthodoxy.  For Žižek, it is not so much matter that matters but our ability to embrace our fantasies and to give ourselves over to a Cause even though we know there is nothing more to what is than matter, despite the utter despair this produces.  The “matter” that matters to Žižek is “spectral” or virtual matter that is the result of our pursuit of desires, fantasies, causes.

In the end, Caputo thinks this debate on matter doesn’t really matter at all.  Why be forced to choose if presented by a false dilemma?

Why do we need the notion that at the metaphysical base of things there lies either a primordial peace or a primordial violence — or a primordial anything, at least one that we could ever get our hands on? Why do the multiple repetitions of which our lives are woven need to be cast either as a downbeat and futile search that will be always frustrated or as underwritten by an uplifting metaphysics of participation? Why inscribe either absolute contradiction or absolute peace at the heart of things instead of ambience and ambiguity? Why chaos instead of the unsteady chaosmotic process of unprogrammed becoming? Why not see life as a joyful but risky business that may turn out well or badly, a repetition forwards in which I produce what I am repeating, in which I invent what I am discovering, but in which I am divested of any assurances about what lies up ahead — let alone deep down at the metaphysical base of things? Žižek’s notion of the contingency of necessity is close to this insight, but he insists on treating the Deep Trauma like some Metaphysical Meteor that cratered downtown Ljubljana. Is this not just the search for a transcendental signifier all over again? Why do we have to believe that something deep is out there but alas it is lost and we are hopelessly searching for it?…

Why not adopt the post-metaphysical idea that gives up searching for all such primordial underlying somethings or other? Why must we posit either a primordial loss or a primordial gain? Is there some reason we get only two choices, either God as an illusion spun by the objet petit a or God as the Alpha and Omega, the really real and really Big A? Is this not simply metaphysics spinning its wheels all over again, a point Milbank supports when he says neither of these views can be proven (153)? All that is truly given is a promise/risk, what Derrida calls a “perhaps” not reducible to one or the other. Why must we believe that underneath it all is something profoundly productive or destructive? Why not simply confess that the “matter” that really matters is the risky matter of life, life marked by an unknowable and fundamental undecidability, an ineradicable secret or mystery which reminds us that we do not know who we are, that we do not know what is (deeply) what or what we truly want, yet to make this confession without nostalgia and without despair and without theological triumphalism but with a joyful sense of discovery?

To put this set of questions my own way:  Why not try to feel our way through [phronesis] that space between idolatry (a set-in-stone guarantee that it will all work out in the end and I know what “work out” means precisely; i.e., that I know God as the god-that-I-know, and the god-that-I-know is the One True God) and foolishness (that nothing matters, not even matter, and that what is is just what I say and nothing more, i.e., nothing more than nothing at all)?

My only reservations with Caputo’s review is the tendency that bubbles up here and there of the pot calling the kettle black.  Caputo doesn’t like Žižek’s nasty criticism of Derrida (whom Caputo loves), but then lays into G.K. Chesterton in a manner equally unfair—he “mocks mercilessly,” just as Žižek does Derrida.  Sometimes Caputo himself has, in his own words directed at Milbank, “a disturbing and dogmatic theological dismissiveness of anyone who disagrees with him.”  I risk this comment under the dictum, “he without sin cast the first stone….”  We all do this, I suppose.  But I do want to point out that Caputo’s is not the only (or best) way to read Chesterton….

I prefaced this review-of-a-review with a qualifier:  If you are one of those people for whom these kinds of things matter….  You don’t have to be.  As Caputo asks:

Does anyone really think the Sermon on the Mount has anything to do with any of this bombastic metaphysical tilting and jousting?

Jack’s message is this:  The matter that really matters is the flesh of your neighbor.  Just go take care of it….

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The Decline of English Depts. and the Humanities in General

A recent essay by William M Chace is rather sobering.  Here’s a taste:

First the facts: while the study of English has become less popular among undergraduates, the study of business has risen to become the most popular major in the nation’s colleges and universities. With more than twice the majors of any other course of study, business has become the concentration of more than one in five American undergraduates. Here is how the numbers have changed from 1970/71 to 2003/04 (the last academic year with available figures):

English: from 7.6 percent of the majors to 3.9 percent
Foreign languages and literatures: from 2.5 percent to 1.3 percent
Philosophy and religious studies: from 0.9 percent to 0.7 percent
History: from 18.5 percent to 10.7 percent
Business: from 13.7 percent to 21.9 percent

In one generation, then, the numbers of those majoring in the humanities dropped from a total of 30 percent to a total of less than 16 percent; during that same generation, business majors climbed from 14 percent to 22 percent. Despite last year’s debacle on Wall Street, the humanities have not benefited; students are still wagering that business jobs will be there when the economy recovers.

What are the causes for this decline? There are several, but at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself

You can read the rest here.  I don’t agree with the entire assessment, but the situation is real and disheartening and, I would argue, dangerous to democracy.

On the “bright” side, perhaps this whole question will go away…you know, like manufacturing and family farming:

Meanwhile, undergraduates have become aware of this turmoil surrounding them in classrooms, hallways, and coffee lounges. They see what is happening to students only a few years older than themselves—the graduate students they encounter as teaching assistants, freshman instructors, or “acting assistant professors.” These older students reveal to them a desolate scene of high career hopes soon withered, much study, little money, and heavy indebtedness. In English, the average number of years spent earning a doctoral degree is almost 11. After passing that milestone, only half of new Ph.D.’s find teaching jobs, the number of new positions having declined over the last year by more than 20 percent; many of those jobs are part-time or come with no possibility of tenure. News like that, moving through student networks, can be matched against, at least until recently, the reputed earning power of recent graduates of business schools, law schools, and medical schools. The comparison is akin to what young people growing up in Rust Belt cities are forced to see: the work isn’t here anymore; our technology is obsolete.

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Are you going with me…?

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Howard Zinn on Anarchism

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My day, yesterday….

[NOTE:  actually, the day before yesterday…my blog had the swine flu, though, and I couldn’t post…]

It was one of those days.  I got to campus at the usual time, but unlike usual, there were no parking spaces in the lot.  So I had to drive around the neighborhood awhile to find a legal spot.  Finally found one.  Had my classes (always good), checked a few subversive books out of the library, chatted with  Margaret the Librarian about restaurants and food (as usual), then went to my car…in the parking lot…where I usually park…see where this is going?  That lot, it turns out, is the exact opposite direction of where I actually parked my car.  Turned around, crossed the campus, entered the neighborhood, chatted with the school crossing guard about the beautiful weather (which she doesn’t always get), and found my car (this all took some precise amount of time, of course).

Started driving through the maze-like (to me) streets, heading back to the main drag.  Finally found a street that, I thought, if I turned right, would take me to the main drag.  Ooops. Turned out this was the main drag.  I’m heading back to campus (all of this taking a certain amount of time).

No problem. I’ll just drive down here, make a right, make a right, and be back at the main drag, and this time I’ll turn left to go home.  So I make a right…but there is no immediate second right.  I follow the street a ways, and what do I see?

Muslims in the street!  Not a demonstration or anything like that, just walking about, chatting, etc.  As I drive through the activity, I slow down to see what’s up, and I see I am at the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship.  I’d heard of him—the Sufi Sheikh with the Golden Words, and I knew their headquarters were in the area, but I’d never been here.

Now, as I brought my eyes down from the Fellowship’s sign to the car next to me, I see I am right next to Barbara and Jeff—friends I had not seen in quite a while.  Just then, at that exact time.

I parked my car.  They parked their car.  I found out they were headed to the BMF to pick up a friend to head to an amusement park that was celebrating the Muslim holidays.  Barbara and Jeff know lots of people at the BMF, so they took me inside and introduced me around.  I was offered what seemed like a very tasty meal (I declined, graciously, I hope).  I was loaded up with pamphlets about the Bawa and the organization.  Very nice, very hospitable, very warm and friendly.

The BMF feeds the neighbors every day, the ones who don’t always get a meal…did you know that?  (It’s not just the Catholic Workers, then….)

So here’s my question:  Was it coincidence or kismet that I ended up where I ended up yesterday?

Anyway, here’s an interview with Bawa, who died in 1986.

What do you think???

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