Monday, 19 December 2011

One reason not to get a Kindle

I'm not sure I like the idea of Amazon knowing everything I've highlighted!

No thanks.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Economics Makes Markets

An absolutely perfect example of how economics makes markets:
Policymakers' riposte to Keynes would be the same as it would be to Hayek: get real. If we take no action to rein in deficits, we will be slaughtered by the markets; bond yields will go up sharply, negating the impact of cheap money. Keynesian fiscal policy, in other words, will only be possible when the markets share Keynes's belief that jobs matter more than the level of national debt, and given the way economics has been taught in universities for the past 30 years, that moment may be a long time coming.
All these years of baseless, absurd, evidence-phobic econo-babble are killing us. And they call it science!

And furthermore:
[Tim Worstall argues] that we should not tackle tax evasion because to do so would reduce GDP. He says the existing rate of evasion is optimal and we should not address it as we are at an equilibrium state where we can afford this level of crime.
I utterly reject that argument.
There [are] no such equilibria. What there are instead are economists and those influenced by them like Worstall who believe in cost-benefit analyses that suggest there are such equilibria. But because they have believed that for so long they now actually think the equilibria exist and that we should positively promote them. They have made their model into the terrain – when it is at best a very imperfect model to start with. That explains so much of the predicament we are in. We are seeking something that is simply not there.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Eyes of Gideon

He keeps his money in a mattress,
He doesn't trust the banks.
We used to think him cowed and strange,
But now we understand.

The eyes of Gideon,
Haunt him daily;
They chase him through his sleep.

The eyes of Gideon.
We used to laugh,
And now we reach for our glass,
Of air and debt, hope and imaginary things;

And we're told: this is what the good times bring;
And we wonder what a world it could be,
When Gideon's eyes can chase us through our sleep.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Perspicacity presupposes perspective

Perspicacity presupposes perspective.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

On 'Lenses'

Two sides of the ocular metaphor:
1. Tinted lenses: 'If only we could see things unimpeded! Our lenses shamefully limit us.'
2. Spectacles: 'Without our lenses there is only blurry continuum! Our lenses are all we have.'

(Aren't we told so often to 'be reasonable' and see through one type of lens with one eye and the another with the other? No wonder we get sea-sick on dry land!)

Both sides of the metaphor rely on a beginning a middle and an end: An 'outside' which somehow gets 'inside' via a liminal point that transforms and protects the outside and inside, respectively. Both versions of the metaphor require the tripartite schema. Thereby, a more elongated, complicated schema is rendered unthinkable; for example, a schema of trajectories, trains or chains with many points of transformation rather than just one.

It is not that there is no transformation (everything being essentially of the same underlying substance), it is that there is no one point of transformation where one substance is trans-substantiated into another (nature into mind, things into thought, world into words). We need to be able to understand transformations where they actually happen without being prejudiced a priori as to where they supposedly must happen (at the liminal point between 'inside and outside' -- always). The location of transformation is a question of fact rather than principle, as is the quality and quantity of transformations (we must assume that there are many).

We can't be the realists of the tinted lenses cursing our luck at the stubborn obduracy of these lenses, nor can we be the anti-realists dismissing all the outside as so much unseeable nebulous hazyness. We must be realists of transformation, wheresoever it occurs.

Therefore, the ocular metaphor is useless for us (unless we can perhaps come up an example of a delicately arrayed series of lenses that are all necessary but independently insufficient to their collective refraction -- but even then we might be reducing each lens to the whole, which would take us back to square one).

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

On Human Exceptionalism

Levi Bryant comments on a debate happening across various blogs on human exceptionalism and anthropology.

This is a really interesting debate and something I've thought a lot about lately.

This kind of problem always reminds me of a passage from Plato's Statesman where the Stranger reproaches Young Socrates for failing to 'carve nature at its joints' and instead making hasty generalisations about kinds of things; of failing to perform the labour required for accurate classification.
Stranger: The error was just as if some one who wanted to divide the human race, were to divide them after the fashion which prevails in this part of the world; here they cut off the Hellenes as one species, and all the other species of mankind, which are innumerable, and have no ties or common language, they include under the single name of "barbarians," and because they have one name they are supposed to be of one species also. Or suppose that in dividing numbers you were to cut off ten thousand from all the rest, and make of it one species, comprehending the first under another separate name, you might say that here too was a single class, because you had given it a single name. Whereas you would make a much better and more equal and logical classification of numbers, if you divided them into odd and even; or of the human species, if you divided them into male and female; and only separated off Lydians or Phrygians, or any other tribe, and arrayed them against the rest of the world, when you could no longer make a division into parts which were also classes.
Plato's method of division and classification is particularly laborious in this dialogue and it has irritated more than a few classicists (I'm not one but I've read a few) who wonder why he doesn't just make broad distinctions and jump to the end where everything is nicely carved up; why go through the process of division (which frequently goes off on tangents that are subsequently abandoned) if you can just state the end product and be done with it? I think Plato realised that that's lazy and that philosophical method is as important as philosophical claims. In short he recognised the importance of working things through, of honouring the mediators rather than fixating on the end products, if you like. But I digress.

Who is more 'barbaric': the multitude of peoples chatting away to each other in their various tongues or the puzzled-looking philosopher who, as if to subconsciously repress his shame and incomprehension, waves his hand and decrees them all 'the same'?

Etymologically, the word barbaric connotes 'babbling' and the sensation of hearing someone talk a language you don't understand. The truly barbaric reaction is to take this incomprehension as a sign of homogeneity - not of the inadequacy of one's comprehensive capabilities but of the uniformity of the phenomena presented.

Such is the phenomenological experience of any anthropologist at the start of their journey: they are clumsy, awkward, incompetent, thoroughly stupid when placed among their tribe. Their genius lies in correctly deducing that this is an inadequacy of theirs, not of their hosts! Such powers of intuition allow them to gradually become less clumsy, awkward, incompetent and stupid - the generic babbling becomes a flooding plurality of clearly articulated and endlessly diverse conversation. Eventually their hosts become literally familiar - family. They become beings capable of stating their own differences; their babbling disappears as they impress themselves upon their own categorisations. They become subjects, endowed with depths and agencies, possessing unique characteristics.

I'm keen to ontologise this principle.

The reason why we need a conceptual vocabulary that can articulate the qualities and relationships of all things - human and non-human - i.e. the reason why we need a metaphysics, is not because all things (human and non-human) are the same; on the contrary, it is because they are all different. Not just the human and the rock but the rock and the tree, the tree and the ... etc. etc. etc. We can't have a separate conceptual scheme for every possible relationship so we are left with only two options: have an abstract scheme that is vague enough that it can accommodate any thing or engage in the arbitrary bifurcations whereby we have one language for one side and another for the other and then sit around wondering how the two can ever be reconciled.

The reading of Plato's/Socrates' 'cutting of nature at its joints' is always that there are natural kinds that can be rationally deduced. And this has always been used to justify hard-boiled naturalisms that say we must scrub away any trace of our pitiful subjective perceptions from our definitions of objects, etc. etc. On the contrary, I understand it to mean that we should try to learn from things, open ourselves to things, risk ourselves in front of things as Stengers might say. Let them define themselves, let them cease to babble. But don't expect them to suddenly 'speak our language'! This isn't Star Trek - the aliens won't miraculously have a grasp of American English. It takes work to turn that head-spinning babbling into comprehensible conversation.

This, for me, indicates what an object-oriented epistemology would be: a theory of becoming-sensitive to things, of how we can allow things to define themselves while acknowledging that they won't just speak our language as if by some miracle. This would show us that we don't need to purge subjectivity to have objectivity. On the contrary (and my Latourianism is coming out here), becoming-sensitive is an object-loaded activity!


The moral of the story?

One is barbaric when one suppresses one's own ignorance and incompetence by ontologically homogenising all that which one has not gone to the effort of telling apart.

If a phenomenon's nuances are elusive this could simply mean that the phenomenon is entirely disinterested in you! The ultimate narcissism is to assume that this disinterest reflects badly upon the phenomenon! Maybe it wants you to think it's babbling!

Indeed, this is a precautionary principle for all metaphysics: beware babbling, things might be plotting against you and your ignorant ways! Ignorant in every sense of the word.

The real barbarians were the Hellenes and we are their heirs so long as we worship Kant and weep over the white man's burden (homogenising things or peoples, it matters not). Neither things nor folks have any problem differentiating themselves or going about their lives without us. We struggle to keep up - and then we blame it on them!

Carving nature at its joints doesn't indicate that nature is a neatly segmented totality just waiting for the cut and thrust of our instruments. (One surely needn't point out the phallic implications of this modern interpretation!) On the contrary, I think it means that we need to learn how to segment and how to carve.

Even a corpse won't cede so easily to the wild flailing of the butcher's apprentice - he too has to learn his trade, knife in hand, babbling to himself.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

'Out there'

Reality: 'out there' - out where? Out of the window? Sure! Plenty of real things out there! Outside of the realm of subjective perception? Don't be silly. Nothing is outside of a thing that doesn't exist. Or inside.


Just because objects can't be meaningful on their own doesn't mean that humans can be either.


Says the one to the other:
'Every revolution ends in murder and tyranny.'
Says the other to the one:
'You think with your memory! There are more possibilities in the world than the past has known. The next revolution will be different.'
'You bay for blood, in complete innocence. Reform is the only way.'
'You speak the system, it has no outside! You can't reform a universe from within.'
'Now who thinks while walking backwards? If reform needs reform, so be it.'
'Talk, talk, talk. Reform is always the same: more of the same. You can't change that. History needs to start again - a history for the young.'
'Cherish your youth, I cannot but fear it! Every time the same promises and yet when the dust settles we always say: never again.'
'Reform is reform: it'll never change.'
'Revolution is revolution: always the same.'

Who is the conservative and who the radical here?

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

ANT, Actualism and Nuclear Latency

This post by Juan Cole just got me thinking about conceptual revisions needed for ANT (Actor-Network Theory) for studying world politics (or politics generally).
The way you tell if a country like Iran is actively working on a nuclear bomb is that it diverts uranium to weapons purposes. Iran has not done that, as the IAEA repeatedly affirms. Almost certainly, if Iran were seriously working on a bomb, it would kick international inspectors out altogether. ... It is likely that Iran wants “nuclear latency,” or the “Japan option.” That would involve knowing how to construct a bomb in short order if the country was ever directly menaced with an invasion and regime change a la Iraq.
If Latour's philosophy is as strictly actualist as Graham Harman claims in Prince of Networks then it seems that any ANT constructed on this basis cannot really understand the above. (Indeed, given that Harman embraces a rather strict actualism I'm not sure if he could adequately articulate the above in his terms.)

If Cole is correct and Iran are not seeking a functioning atomic bomb but simply a latent capacity to build a bomb then the bare actuality of their project misses that the goal of the process is virtual. Iran is apparently constructing not a coherent material object but rather a virtual capacity to bring into existence a coherent material object (that is dependent upon a pre-existing arrangement of many objects, knowledges, etc.).

If there is any principle that is fundamental to Latour's work (at least as Harman articulates it) it is that if something makes something else happen then it is an actor. It doesn't matter if that actor is fictitious, material - whatever. Moreover, to act is to exist; no action, no existence. (c.f. Nietzsche.)

Should it really make a difference whether the actor is actual? This is where things get complicated as actual derives from the Latin actus meaning simply 'act.' What then is the relation of the virtual to the actual if to exist is to act and virtual things apparently can act?

(Perhaps it's the opposition of actual and virtual that is the problem here.)

I'm not sure I'm in a position even to formulate this question properly.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Poststructuralism and the Agoraphobia of 'Thinking Space'

A "post-structuralist discourse" apparently "expands the agenda of social theory, posing questions that other discourses must refuse to ask" (Richard Ashley, Living on Borderlines). It 'opens up thinking space' (Jim George, International Relations and the Search for Thinking Space).

But poststructuralism itself is utterly incapable of asking a whole swathe of questions because of its own dogmatic ontological assumptions; its thinking space is suffocating. In fact, whatever ground it opens up is micrified by that which it forecloses; for example: the assumption that objects are reducible to the discursive conditions of their emergence eliminates the possibility of understanding what it even means to be 'critical.'

Take science (an excellent but not fundamentally privileged example):

Scientists are always engaged in criticism but they don’t criticise everything at once (‘perpetual critique’), nor could they, nor would they ever want to. This would disallow instrumentation or black boxing. No debate could ever end. Scientists don’t engage in perpetual critique because they believe that their subject matter is capable of objecting – of showing itself to differ from established knowledges.

This doesn’t mean that scientific objects can object on their own but many scientific discoveries have been made in the course of otherwise routine experiments that went awry, felix culpa; when one was looking for one thing but found another.

Simply: knowledge can become critical (i.e. unstable) without the instigating (which is not to say intentional, although it's similar) intervention of a (human) critic. Without the labour of scientists most scientific objects have no means of eliciting this surprise, it is true. But that doesn’t mean that making critical is dependent upon critique.

Making critical, in such cases, may only occur during scientific practice but that practice needn’t be critical per se; it is often or perhaps even usually routine, directed towards another end entirely.

And isn’t this how everyone saw the end of the Cold War? As an event that objected to IR theory itself? (Poststructuralists included.) Certainly it wasn’t self-interpreting but it demanded interpretation by social scientists (and everyone else for that matter). It is in no way reducible to interpretation or the sum of all human interpretations. If it was it could never demand interpretation.

(Does this mean that the demand transcends interpretation? I'd say not, it can be ignored, missed - nothing necessitates its being taken as a provocation and so its conditions of emergence remain pivotal but none of that makes its demand reducible to its interpretations. This is realism.)

Beware modesty dressed up as radicalism.

Beware radicalism generally when it runs from the typing fingers of middle-aged academics.

Poststructuralists are truly agoraphobic (and this is a nice little academic play on words). They are afraid of the outdoors, of things (at least in their work - in the rest of life they enjoy all the luxuries). Moreover, for all the talk of radical democracy and opening up debate they foreclose almost all of it by having such a limited and such a dogmatic ontology. They cannot ever genuinely stand in the agora and speak. They are doubly afraid of the outdoors and of things. Of things qua objects and things qua places of politics. They can barely stifle their grins and snorts when people talk passionately about their belief in the reality of things. This is my own ethnographic observation!

The 'thinking spaces' are not wide open spaces, they are closets.

Process and Politics

An ontology in which things are always in process and nothing is ever fully achieved or closed is not in itself morally or politically superior to any other way of thinking. It simply solves some problems some of which are moral and political. In particular, one never has to draw a line between that which is achieved and henceforth settled, beyond dispute and universal and that which isn't.

It is an axiom of experience and so of common sense that not everything is settled, beyond dispute and universal (Parmenides notwithstanding) and so to say that there are some things like this means that there must be a line. The drawing of this line is one of the main problems of modern philosophy and seems irresolvable (as does the question of such resolution's desirability). Doing away with the line does away with the problem, which is both philosophical and political.

We could revive Parmenides but that doesn't seem very plausible or useful (this is dismissive but probably fair, particularly if we take experience as the spur of conceptualisation a la Whitehead). The opposite is plausible and can be shown to work, to generate greatly conceptually sophisticated schemas that are able to do justice to all sorts of aspects of reality while redefining what we mean by reality itself.

If this leads to moral and political sophistication too then this is excellent. Yet these are not the only problems that such conceptual work resolves nor the only problems that it is a response to.

If a term is valuable it must be a 'meso' term. Too general and it becomes meaningless, too global. Too specific and it is too inapplicable, too local. Politics is like this. When politics becomes the question that dominates any given consideration it becomes effectively meaningless because there ceases to be any way of distinguishing between different kinds of good, different valuations. It is valuationally hegemonic - and this is bad for all sorts of reasons, including political ones!

If politics is too easily achieved (if 'everything's political') then there is no reason to do anything in particular in order to achieve politics. If politics is too rare (only appearing in epochal fissures or 'events') then despondency sets in (what agency could anyone have in bringing about something that is by definition vast and impersonal?).

Politics must be accessible but not without effort: just like everything. Moreover, it shouldn't be the only kind of value as this both eliminates other kinds of valuation but also makes politics total, which also makes it meaningless (and so you've lost all kinds of values but also lost politics - worst of all worlds).

Above all politics must be an achievement and this makes process ontology fit it perfectly. The alternative, where elements of reality are absolute, unchanging and beyond dispute, means that the passing and contingent can be subordinated to this fundamentally ulterior realm. Those with access to that realm - which is always already achieved and need only be accessed - thereby become legislators, even dictators, for those who merely splash around in what is contingent. This is intolerable.

For the above reasons: Politics (as I would like to describe it) needs process but process must be justified for more than political reasons. Other valuations must be involved.

Pluralism must also mean that politics is only one value among others. This is what too many people forget.

Beggars of 'Reality'

Words like ‘reality’ just beg questions: ‘Which?’ ‘What?’ ‘Where?’ ‘All of it?... At once?!’

Friday, 4 November 2011

Adam Curtis on Greece

A superb piece by Adam Curtis on 'the ghost of the colonels' that hangs over Greece and the severe threat to their democracy that is posed by the present crisis and its would-be legislators:

Particularly wonderful and haunting is the response of the man towards the end of the Panorama excerpt:
* 'What do you think of what the government has achieved here in the last five years?'
# 'Ah, you picked the wrong man to ask the right question.'
* 'Why are you the wrong man, why is it the right question?'
# 'Well, if I give you the proper answer you might not see me here tomorrow.'
The wrong man to ask the right question. I like that a lot. There's ever so much more to politics than asking the right question - although the right question is no less necessary for all of that. It's what happens to that question. This transcends intellectualism.

An Elisional Theory of Anti-Realism and Ignorance

Something that realist critiques of anti-realism rarely acknowledge is that anti-realism works more by elision than by denial. Anti-realists rarely deny anything, they just affirm particular kinds of things (words, practices, discourses) and, by using these materials to construct (or deconstruct) everything else, ignore everything else. They'll say that "the constitution of the event and its elements is a product of its discursive condition of emergence"(1) – and hence suggest that the discursive conditions are all there is (by failing to mention anything else) but not come right out and say it (and how could they?).

This is why they get so upset and indignant when called ‘anti-realist’! ‘I’m not denying reality!’, they say, ‘I am simply critiquing the naive realism that assumes that we can perceive things as they are regardless of our historically contingent socio-linguistic presuppositions! Down with Enlightenment Reason, Scientism, Man, Phallogocentrism, Universa...’ (I usually mentally turn the volume down at this point; it’s amusing to watch lips flapping philosophically and in anger to no end at all).

Realists misstep when they say that 'anti-realists deny any reality beyond perception' or something like that because that actually gives the anti-realists an exit, a way out.

When realist critics accuse them of ‘denying reality’ they can always shoot back ‘I’m not denying anything!’ – They refuse to deny it; they just refuse to talk about it – at all. They refuse, they ignore.

This habitual elision deserves to be called ignorance because it is precisely a process of ignoring most of reality (and, indeed, most of experience), pretending it isn’t there (at least so long as one is sat at one’s desk and doesn’t need, say, medical attention or transportation – then we all become stubborn realists; poor old desks, so incapable of making obvious what we would be doing without them: scribbling on our knees!).

‘I may make assumptions with regard to the reality of things whenever I eat, walk, drive, medicate, breathe – but I refuse to accord things any reality in my political analyses! There’s room for things in my lungs, my house and my stomach but not in my philosophy!’

How snide, the elite who elide.

Elision – a stutter, a stammer, a break, a gap where the things should be. It’s not that we don’t get ‘the whole picture’ (as if that is even what we’re after) but rather that we only get every third picture and are left to make wild guesses as to what goes in the gaps. We're apparently just meant to pass over them, 'unseeing.'

This is the difference between the big, old, bad realism and more refined kinds we find presently: The former would scold anti-realists for not ‘looking at things on the whole’ and ‘breaking away from subjective perceptions to see how things really are’; this is not the way forward, it is the way back (towards the wrong side of town, the estates we did well to escape!). The latter realists will just want to fill in the gaps, without the grumpy, pumpkin-sized gesticulations suggesting that we take in ‘the big picture’ or look at things ‘as they really are.’

Saving realism from the realists, again.

(1) David Campbell, International Engagements: The Politics of North American International Relations Theory.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Facing the Object

"Correlationism affirms the indissoluble primacy [emphasis added] of the relation between thought and its correlate over the metaphysical hypostatization or representationalist reification of either term of the relation." - Brassier, The Enigma of Realism.

Facing the object:

So, the object exists? Contentious! They say: "Ah, but you could be wrong, naïfs!"; we say: "Ah, but who cares, waifs?!".

Am I so certain of my own existence that I might haughtily dismiss the 'object' as a mere - yes, the merest! - figment of my imagination? - And scoff, mouth full, spittle flecking, chops flapping, snorting like an engorged drainpipe, an inch from choking?

Am I so confident of the existence of my language that I could - with a salivated sneer of the lips and a righteous roll of the eyes - wryly denounce 'the object' as a therefrom generated fiction? ('A convenience, at best'; seminar fodder; grad-bait.)

What a spectacle: With my sly, glinting, dying slither of selfhood self-absorbed in gloaming I would prance (then hobble!) - face pallid and ashen, casting askance glances -, lurching wretchedly, shimmying limpingly, all to convince all - really: all! - that my being is so bearably light. - Impaled on my own pretensions. A tragicomic parade of crushing inadequacies. Put this dog down!

In short: Why would I be so willing to ground my skepticism in the obvious fact that I could be wrong and yet not equally willful in grounding my realism in the equally obvious fact that I could be right? Why does one variant of the obvious obviate the other?

Calling all previous claimants to the radix!:
Dwellers of the subject.
Incumbents of the object.
Cosmopolites of the inbetween.
The radix is a fatty root: purple-faced belly-belchers, the lot of you!
Wheretofore, denizens of the obvious? - Majestic citizens of the commonplace; living; braving a fresh air that nourishes.


That most grumpy of disgruntled, growling 'realist' grumblers - our dear friend and valued colleague, Ray B. (rhymes with baby; if there were more than one it'd rhyme with rabies [easy now, ed.]) - is a little too enamoured with only allegedly forgotten 'realities' (not to mention: his own intellect). And his enthusiasm for everything bifurcating is grating at first glance and and galling last. But he's definitely got a point there, innum?

We can all agree: it is a question of primacy (emphasis added?).

Monday, 17 October 2011

Secrecy and Think Tanks

The public sector is now so transparent that we have a right to read the private emails of climate scientists working for a state-sponsored university. The private sector is so opaque that we have no idea on whose behalf the people who appear every day on the BBC, using arguments that look suspiciously like corporate propaganda, are speaking.

What does political theory have to say about secrecy? It seems that a large part of power - be it with tax havens or lobby organisations as above - is vested in its secrecy. Yet secrecy isn't ignorance. Secrecy has to be maintained; it takes intensive legal and political enforcement, not to mention highly convenient delineation. Secrecy itself is something fundamental to power - the power to define privacy. Making something public and hence political certainly takes power and a lot of work but this is no less true of making something private. This 'liminal power' that decides the contours of 'the political' is decidedly interesting to me.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Occupy London and the Church of England

I'm not a man of faith but I am a man of belief - belief that political alliances cannot be fussy or precious.

The Left so often acts as if until we agree on everything we can't do anything. The Right don't have this problem. They understand that if anyone agrees on anything then there is business to be done. Rightwing evangelicals and neoliberal bankers don't have a lot in common but they have enough to use and get used by each other. The usage is mutually beneficial. Their 'resonance machine' as William Connolly puts it is formidable.

What relationship does the Left have with organised religion today? Well, what does the canon chancellor of St Paul's cathedral Reverend Giles Fraser have to say about the protestors camped out in front of his 'house of god'?

Not a lot. Is it so hard to see dog-collared clergy and dishevelled youths standing and shouting side by side? They don't agree on a lot but they should agree on enough to know the exact answer to the question 'What would Jesus do?'!

Of course, this assumes that the Church of England isn't just another finger in the pie/dam (that damn pie) of the prevailing order.

Are they corrupted to the core too? Is there any trace of Christianity in the C of E?
It’s time to get off the fence Giles. It’s time to make your church the centre of resistance in the City. Or to admit instead that you’re just running a tourist attraction. That’s your choice. And there’s only one right answer if you really believe why you wear that dog collar.

So open those doors wide – especially when the police are nearby. It’s your job to provide a place of sanctuary or frankly that building you tend is of no relevance at all and nor is your faith.
Hard words - and, as usual, just the right ones. We need this alliance.

Of course, this alliance might require some people giving up - for a time - the prevailing sub-Dawkins religion-phobia and stop yapping on about religion being the root of all evil for long enough to actually engage in some politics: that is, collective action: that is, acting with people you don't necessarily entirely agree with about everything.

There's definitely a Leftist resonance machine to be constructed; but to do so will require some scheming, some cunning and some compromise.

Politics happens not when everyone agrees on everything but when some people agree enough enough something - anything - important enough to make them work together.

If these are not times for putting aside petty theological differences then we really are in the end times!

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Some questions on 'dissidence' and platitudes

For true dissidence today is perhaps simply what it has always been: thought.
- Julia Kristeva "A New Type of Intellectual: The Dissident"

If ‘true dissidence’ is thought then why is it paid for in blood?

If ‘true dissidence’ is thought then are the people mown down by gunfire or armoured cars (a) ‘thinkers’ or (b) ‘false dissidents’? If (a) then what is thought?

If ‘true dissidence’ is thought then the most immobile, self-satisfied lump of an academic can pretend to breathe the air of rebellion from whatever air conditioned room they hunker down in.

One cannot be a ‘dissident’ while suckling from the very system that one claims to disdain.

This is not a reason not to be an academic; it is just an exasperated reflection on faux-radical platitudes.

This is not a reason to give up and do nothing; it is just an urge to recognise that writing books (or, even more, journal articles!) does not in and of itself make anyone in the least bit 'radical' in their politics.

Politics includes but is more than thought.

No one is of the radix when atop the tower.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

A somewhat off topic musing on photography

I ask only half facetiously (bear with me): What about a photo that was taken accidentally, when you accidentally set the camera off when its pointing at your feet or when its in your bag or something? (We've all done it, I'm sure.) Would that photo be 'staged'?

Of course such a picture probably wouldn't be very good and would hardly qualify as 'photography' but I've seen weirder things in art galleries and I think it raises a conceptual point that could do with being worked out.

If it is staged then that would imply that the staging at the most basic level occurs either (a) in the design and basic materiality of the camera, which precedes taking the picture, or (b) in the interpretation of the photo after it is taken. It doesn't seem possible that such a photo could be staged (c) at the moment of taking it if the taking was accidental and no consideration was given to what was being photographed and how (Freudian slips of the finger notwithstanding).

Can the camera really compel its user to perform such a particular and complex function just because it is what it is? Perhaps this could be true to an extent but staging is surely more than whatever we could attribute to the unilateral powers of the object itself. The second option would imply something like backwards causation, which I know your occasional interlocutor Colin Wight gets all worked up about. More than that (let's avoid that discussion!) it would mean that the photographer doesn't necessarily conduct the staging, which would seem to run counter to your argument.

In short: neither of these options seem very acceptable to me so it seems as though such a picture would be, in fact, unstaged, which then begs the question: at what level of intentionality does a photo become staged? Is there a purely 'accidental' state which can be clearly bracketed off as an exception to the rule or do all photos, because the photographer never knows just how they'll turn out (isn't this the excitement of it all?), carry an unstaged-ness -- an immanence to the unpredictability of the situation -- in them?

If this is so then it becomes legitimate to discuss the extent to which a photograph was staged, because this extent would be linked to intentionality and preparation, and we should then consider modes of staging, as not all stagings happen in the same way and are not directed towards the same ends. And this is where things like this start to get interesting, philosophically at least, as we move from a quite negative argument 'nothing isn't staged' to a more creative and challenging one 'things are staged like this and that and the other'.

I hope that I'm making at least some sense.

I'm just thinking 'out loud' really but if I were to state a real opinion it would be: saying that all photographs are staged is not enough without a counterpoint that tries to understand the element of surprise that the photograph always springs upon the photographer, the element that they did not and could never expect or plan for. Otherwise it just seems like all photographs are equally staged and in the same way, which is a rather dull and homogenising manoeuvre (and I doubt this is what you're trying to say at all).

Isn't a really good photographer one who lets themselves be surprised by their own photographs, who lets go, who doesn't try to master the frame but takes the risk of letting their heart race and their trigger finger do its own thing? Isn't this why many photographers don't like digital photography because it eliminates the excitement, the delay in gratification that comes with taking your films home and processing them? If, as with most digital cameras, you can see your picture immediately and discard it as if it was never there then aren't you mastering the frame by commanding supreme destructive power? The right to immediately ordain the life or death of the photo! Mastery par excellence. With film each photo is given its own unique life, even though most will eventually be discarded somehow. Even if it lives only for a short time each captured moment must be taken seriously. It is precisely because so much in it is not staged and can never be staged that this excitement is possible at all.

No photo (besides perhaps the blind, accidental one) is purely unstaged, sure; every photo is taken in a certain way due to the photographer's training, experience, political or unconscious predispositions, absolutely. But by detracting from the surprise of the event and thereby neglecting most of the many and varied vectors that swarm into the frame quite beyond the control of the photographer aren't we doing a disservice to photography, even as we make an important political point (which I understand to be: don't use 'reality' or 'objectivity' as a crutch; it's silly and lazy; take responsibility for your clickings, however frenzied and in-the-moment)?

I'll shut up now. Alas, everything begins in politics and ends in mysticism!

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

On 'Theory'

I've been reading John Mearsheimer's essay 'The False Promise of International Institutions' and am somewhat irked by its many weaknesses. So much so that I don't really know where to begin. (Some of the contradictions he makes are so blatant as to be funny.) I think the most objectionable aspect is the role he assigns to 'theory.'

In my opinion: Any given international incident is sufficiently different from all other comparable incidents that responses to it will always be conditioned, primarily, by situational rather than theoretical knowledge. Theory will never determine practice. However, without theory in the broadest sense it is impossible to make sense of any situational details. Therefore, theory can never determine practice but practice depends upon theory nevertheless.

'Realism' (in the vein of Mearsheimer, not generally) is a bad theory because it aspires to a level of power that could determine the response to any given incident. As such it abstracts from almost every situational detail. As such it is flawed, perhaps even dangerous. It ignores the vast majority of what goes into any given situation and, what's more, is proud of this fact. And, of course, it fails.

The complexities of international politics demand empiricism with theoretical support; the half-baked social physics of latter-day realism is less than useless. By portraying all action that conforms to its assumptions as necessary action, action that it would be irresponsible not to take, then it justifies - a priori - that action.

That said, more subtle varieties of political realism exist and are both deeply necessary for political theory and largely neglected by mainstream IR theory.

Political realism must not determine any given view of any given incident but it must not be eliminated from it either. It is both too limited and too important for the role that realists ascribe it. It can never fulfill the role they dream of for it and the more they try to shoe-horn it into that role the less relevant it becomes for its proper task: framing the situational specificities of particular incidents.

Totally empirically unfounded transhistorical, transcultural (so, really, universal) forces of 'human nature' are just too unwieldy and monolithic to, effectively, automate intellectual and political responses to intensely detailed particularities, as Mearsheimer apparently wishes they could.

Political realism, at its best, is a theory of contingency and the lack of assuredness or foundation when encountering concrete particularity. It is itself an argument against grand theory of this sort.

But this is not the 'realism' of the 'rich tradition of realism' that Mearsheimer claims, without citing any evidence whatsoever, goes back 700 or 1200 years (he claims both).

Grumpy proclamations of the importance of 'external reality' and theories of correspondence thereto are placed in quite comedic contrast when grandiose assertions about the millennia long endurance of a single theory are provided without even a hint of evidence for such an improbable and unbelievable trajectory.

And so it is for so many who defend epistemological realism and 'science' in IR: when they take on critics of their position they fail to correspond to those critics' arguments in any way!

Realism of all kinds deserves better. So does science for that matter.

Annoying Fallacies

I am so very tired of that most widely committed logical fallacy (does it have a name?) where the refutation of a proposition is assumed to denote the endorsement of that proposition’s opposite (which is itself assumed to be both obvious and singular). The denial that there is ‘a real, knowable, objective external world’ is taken to constitute an affirmation of the inexistence of anything ‘outside’ of what had previously been assumed to be ‘inside’ (and against which the ‘outside’ of the ‘real, knowable objective world’ had been defined). Namely, this ‘inside’ was ideas, sociality, consciousness or human subjectivity. The fallacious observer cannot comprehend how anyone can refute the existence of ‘a real, knowable, objective external world’ as this, to them, automatically denotes the affirmation of the inexistence of anything besides ‘ideas, sociality, consciousness or human subjectivity.’ Non sequitur.

The situation is made even worse when the doer of the denial attacks the fallacious observer by critiquing the ‘outside’ reality and posing it as ridiculous. In so doing the denier implicitly or explicitly endorse the floating, lifeless, immaterial ‘inside’ and set the two parties at each others’ throats for eternity. This is how wars get started. (And it is over little more than which end to crack your egg.)

Don’t refuse the pole, refuse both poles and the opposition. Break each element down into its constituent parts, ask what each part was doing in the previous schematic and put the bits back together again in a way that avoids the traps and pitfalls of the previous arrangement.

Please don’t take sides over false oppositions; he who decides the sides decides the whole bloody game.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

"The governments don't rule the world - Goldman Sachs rules the world"

Same video as the last post:
The governments don't rule the world - Goldman Sachs rules the world
This is why all conspiracy theories are ridiculous: True power laughs in the face of secrecy. True power just doesn't care.

But let's be clear: it isn't shocking that this guy exists. The world is full of heartless bastards and always has been. And, to be fair, his job is to make money from this sort of thing. So it isn't the fact that this guy exists that this is shocking nor that he holds these beliefs: it is that these are the people running the world!

That is why I said it is 'institutionalised sociopathy'. It's an entire civilisation built on finance capitalism, which is in turn built on the most openly, utterly, deeply unapologetic nihilism imaginable.

The Eternal Return of Nietzsche!

"I go to bed every night and I dream of another recession"

I go to bed every night and I dream of another recession
This deserves to be the headline of every newspaper everywhere. Not because it's news but because it's the most utterly perfect encapsulation of our times. Not just institutionalised sociopathy but shamelessly so.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Thursday, 22 September 2011

On 'Of Disciplines and Practices'

Larval Subjects: 'Of Disciplines and Practices'

What a story! Inspiring.

It presents such a stark contrast to the majority of students I encounter at the elite British university in which I work.

Their apathy is palpable. It drips from their every expression. And their self-confidence is unbearable. They desire nothing they cannot immediately possess and so neither recognise their desire as desire nor encounter a moment of doubt as to the naturalness of their satisfaction or the plenitude of the vessel from which they drink.

The worlds of thought, education, employment and recreation are theirs by right. They are ready to hand.

The schools they go to and the neighbourhoods they grow up in are largely homogeneous, if not so much with respect to race and sex any more then certainly still with respect to class. Universities are social bubbles and designed as such. And the neoliberal university exists to make the transition from school to employment, in whatever area, as seamless as possible. Of course good middle class kids go on 'gap years' to 'see the world' but what does this usually entail? Global gentrification. Sun, sex, sandals, sangria and the servitude of the locals. 'Roughing it' generally means getting alcohol poisoning, a tan, chlamydia and a souvenir t-shirt. They pass through carefully designed conduits for gap year cash that let strapping young go-getters criss-cross the world without the trouble of actually talking to anyone who doesn't speak English. And they'll be back in time for the First Day of the Rest of Their Lives.

Is it any wonder that so many care so little for so much? They might pass their Others every day but they've never met them. What could the Little People know?

Their path is a superhighway; they glide along it, frictionless, scarcely noticing their own movement. They glance out at everyone else trudging along, hacking their way through the undergrowth. How could those people have anything interesting to say?

Movement is truly relative.

And the 'best and brightest' will run the world.

And so it's little wonder that for so many the world is like a camera lens perpetually focused on the foreground. Everything else is shapes, shadows, brown skin, weird food and mystery. And so it's little wonder that so many feel compelled to subordinate all knowledge to that of their particular clique.

There's much to recommend taking the rickety road.

On Perspective

Henceforth, my dear philosophers, let us be on guard against the dangerous old conceptual fiction that posited a "pure, will-less, painless, timeless knowing subject"; let us guard against the snares of such contradictory concepts as "pure reason," absolute spirituality," "knowledge in itself": these always demand that we should think of an eye that is completely unthinkable, an eye turned in no particular direction, in which the active and interpreting forces, through which alone seeing becomes seeing something, are supposed to be lacking; these always demand of the eye an absurdity and a nonsense. There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective "knowing"; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our "concept" of this thing, our "objectivity," be.
- Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals (iii: 12)

What a monstrous notion: a truth is only true from a perspective. Doesn’t it follow that the mob rules? The truth of a hundred wretched thugs automatically overwhelms and outweighs that of a single, solitary beautiful mind. Could there be anything more threatening to civilisation?

Perhaps some would relish the rise of the baying mob. Yet to interpret ‘more eyes, different eyes’ as meaning simply ‘more people’ seems, to me, to be a little simplistic. When we re-read something we wrote a length of time ago do we not say that we are doing so ‘with fresh eyes’? When presented with fresh experience who doesn’t ‘change their minds’? What Latour says of scientists is true of everyone (and perhaps everything): we never stand in our standpoints (Pandora’s Hope, p.66).

Place a scientist, a painter, a builder, a journalist, a historian and a politician in front of a statue. If they are made to stand completely still, unable to move a muscle what will they be able to tell you about that statue? ‘There is a statue.’ Nothing. From a single perspective nothing can be said. But what if each are allowed to move, to follow whatever trajectory they please? Then you will see that each move differently. The scientist may examine the statue closely and perhaps take a sample of the stone and head towards a laboratory. A painter may set up an easel, size the object with thumb and forefinger and mix paints to match the weathered hue of the stone. A builder might wander up, kick and prod at the base and wonder how ‘they’ fixed it there. A journalist might walk around, asking other people what they think. A historian might head away from the statue and dig around in archives to discover what other people have thought. A politician might stand up and address the crowd, hoping to get a statue of her own!

Each subject, armed with its own interests and abilities, proliferates perspectives. This is why we should understand ‘perspective’ absolutely literally. If you stand bit to the left you are in a new perspective. If you close one eye, that is a new perspective too. This may seem ridiculous until you realise that the manner in which one (a) proliferates perspectives and (b) joins those perspectives together differs enormously. No one ‘stands in their standpoint’ but some shift in and out of frames of reference faster than others and there are as many ways of shifting in and out as there are subjects.

Perspectivism is only agnostic – not knowing – if we imagine each subject as a fixed point, forever condemned to see the same world through the same eyes. Perspectivism only leads to not knowing if we imagine each subject as a statue. Perspectives proliferate and they translate in various ways. Once we recognise this we become aware that we can follow the proliferation and translation of perspectives. The process of epistemic realisation becomes ontological, therefore experiential, therefore empirical.

But are statues ‘statues’? Do they remain fixed to their own standpoint? Hardly! They move and creak and groan. Some have captured the gaze of humans for centuries, even millennia. Conquerors and colonialists may have had no respect for those they raped, murdered and enslaved but they respected the statues they brought home with them. Statues might not prance, ponder, paint or pontificate but their reality is their own. They go about subsisting in their own way. And they might not ‘think’ but they do ‘act’ upon us. Their reality is not our own.

It should have been obvious – few philosophers despised the masses more than Nietzsche – but ‘mob rule’ and perspectivism have nothing to do with each other. If some have celebrated the descent of truth from a twinkle in a star-gazers’ eye to a cloud of spittle launched from a wild-eyed horde then they have been clutching very much the wrong end of the stick. If from a crowd of ten people you count ten perspectives then you have somehow remained stuck in three dimensions; you have forgotten time.

Everyone shifts perspectives but the (a) rate and (b) manner of this shifting is widely variable. Our task is to understand these variables.

Henceforth, my dear philosophers, let us be on guard against all those who would forget time and lock each and every person into ‘their’ standpoint.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

John Protevi: "Mindless"


'Mindless' indeed. As ever conservative politics is methodologically individualist. They want to focus only on the individuals, the 'rotten apples' on whom all blame can be placed (you conserve the whole by sacrificing the parts - the parts that don't matter, anyway). This is, of course, tied into all the pseudo-Biblical 'fall of man' nonsense that gets regurgitated as so many 'Broken Britain' cliches - the idea that the 'decline of traditional values' is (a) somehow uncaused, emergent from itself and (b) responsible for all our ills. The more powerful rhetorical strategy, however, is to try to collapse the distinction between explanation and justification. To try to explain the actions of the rioters, looters and muggers (and these, we are told, are all equivalent), it is supposed, is in some way to justify them. After all, doesn't it detract from denunciation? And denunciation is the only response politicians can muster. Anyone who tries to think beyond the mere, brute fact of criminality to any degree seems to make the denunciation less radical and so, it is inferred, that person must be a sympathiser merely mouthing the words of disapproval as opposed to the true believers who damn the perpetrators unconditionally. This is, of course, complete nonsense. One can explain actions in terms broader than essentialised, moralised, individualism without justifying those actions. All this constitutes a total refusal to engage in politics, to recognise the possibility of politics even occurring. Denunciation is the opposite of politics insofar as it cannot tolerate the separation of justification and explanation. One needn't justify action to explain it; one needn't endorse action to engage with it. Are these actions criminal? Yes. Must they be punished? Yes. But none of that need stop us thinking politically - that is, thinking of an explanation we can justify and a course of action to prevent these kinds of events. That, however, is of no use to conservatives who want nothing more than these people to shut up and make do with their lot.

Dave Hill on the London Riots

Dave Hill's five-point analysis in the Guardian is spot on.

Theresa May and the London Riots

When asked whether the economy and jobs had anything to do with the London riots Theresa May replied that it was 'sheer criminality, nothing more.' Saying that these acts are unjustifiable, criminal and that the people involved must be prosecuted is of course completely correct, however it does little more than state the obvious. It is the 'nothing more' that is telling. We are told that there is 'nothing more' to this than 'mindless thuggery' (one wonders how a messy scramble of youths have been able to run rings around the entire police force while being 'mindless').

To say that the riots are 'sheer criminality and nothing more' makes claims on two registers: justification and explanation. With respect to justification I am wholly in agreement: nothing justifies these acts and those responsible must be made responsible. But it also carries a subtextual explanation: these things have happened because these people are criminals; bad people do bad things; the context is irrelevant, the individuals are responsible. This is completely wrong. The 'nothing more' suffix tries to distract us from pondering the obvious questions: why now? why there? If these acts are the result of bad people then we cannot understand why they happened now and where they have as badness is everywhere and always. Moreover we cannot understand how these people became 'bad.' They just are, and that is all there is to say about it. In this respect it isn't much of an explanation at all. It's just a device to try and stop people thinking, to cut thought short.

It is perfectly possible to explain the riots in broader social terms while giving no justification or sympathy whatsoever to those involved. To cut explanation short is just a political device that attempts to distract attention from the obvious: that these riots are the result of serious, long-term and worsening deprivation. The claim that any such social explanation is necessarily a justification of the acts is the same: a political device that tries to cut thought short and focus solely on the individuals involved in the most reductive fashion.

So, I agree with Mrs May - there is no justification for these acts - but I also completely disagree with her - there is a great deal more to be said than a simple condemnation. After all, in analysing a war we don't just say 'well, they should just stop being so violent and nasty and resolve their differences peacefully', no matter how true that may be; instead we see what can be done to bring the conflict to an end, we see what the grievances are and we try understand how they can be resolved. None of that involves justification for killing, much less an endorsement of it. Justification is beside the point, we neither begin nor end there; we, instead, engage in politics. This is precisely what politicians are refusing to do.

To explain in terms broader than the circular and really quite stupid 'bad people do bad things for no particular reason' explanation in no way leads to justification or sympathy with the perpetrators of the acts. Instead it tries to understand how our society could become so fractured. And in contrast to the consonance of 'Broken Britain' it isn't the 'decline of traditional values' or any other pseudo-Biblical 'fall of man' bullshit: it's the economy, stupid.