If you’ve spent any time on film-centric Internet forums over the past few months, you’re likely to have come across hate of the most recent Star Wars film, The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson). Among other things, one of the most notable criticisms is that the film doesn’t feel like Star Wars. I think this is true. The film explicitly questions the foundations of the franchise, problematizing elements that are usually praised.
The simplistic narrative or myth of “good” vs “evil”, already problematized in the prequel Rogue One, is further distorted in Finn (John Boyega) and Rose’s (Kelly Marie Tran) journey through the Canto Bight casino, where they meet the hacker DJ (Benico del Toro). Once this trio (along with the helpful droid, BB8) have successfully escaped the casino planet, DJ reveals the very exploitative nature of wealth in the galaxy: wealth is derived from weapons sales not only to the First Order, but to the Resistance as well. The predetermined narrative of good and evil are undermined by the material reality that the weapons the Resistance uses are purchased from those who perpetuate oppression and wealth inequality in the galaxy. The First order and Resistance use weapons created and decimated by the same people, who, as we see on Canto Bight, enslave both humans and animals for their convenience, entertainment, and luxury. The Resistance is complicit in the very conditions they seek to remove. This material reality serves to problematize and deconstruct the Star War myth. Where before there was a clearly demarcated good and evil, the material conditions of Canto Bight reveal that neither side is innocent. Both the First Order and Resistance are complicit in the horrors of the galaxy.
This realization is not even the most shocking revelation of the film. While the complicity of the Resistance in the oppression of the First Order is damning, it does not undermine their efforts entirely. One might argue that, given the structure of commerce and trade in the galaxy, the Resistance has no choice but to engage in the purchase of arms from less than ideal sources. Yet, the film goes further to problematize the central Star Wars myth. This occurs through the primary character of the original trilogy, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Rey (Daisey Ridley) travels to find Luke so that he might train her in the ways of the Jedi. Upon arrival, she finds Luke in a state of self-imposed exile. Luke had spent years training a new cohort of young Jedi, only to fail to account for the rise of the dark side within them. After nearly murdering one young Jedi, who then turned to the Sith, Luke imposes his exile. Through these events, Luke comes to realize something that was hidden from the beginning of Star Wars: The light and dark side presuppose one another. Even with the vanquishing of Darth Vader, the very existence of the Jedi will always lead to the existence of more Sith.
The Sith and Jedi seem to exist within a milieu which they structurally necessitate one another. This is further emphasized by Supreme Leader Snoke, who, in talking to Rey states that “I warned my young apprentice that, as he grew stronger, his equal in the light would rise”. This is further emphasized when Luke talks about the balance of the force–a clue that has existed in Star Wars films from the very beginning. The Star Wars milieu is one in which the light and darkness presuppose and need each other–they balance one another. So long as one remains, the other will be there beside it. Thus, when Skywalker tells Rey that “It’s time for the Jedi to end”, it is because in order to truly vanquish the Sith, the Jedi too must end.
It doesn’t go far enough! The Last Jedi pushes past the limit of Star Wars, but at the last second, it turns back.
Despite these realization and problematizations, presented within the film, The Last Jedi fails to accomplish what it sets out to do. I’ve heard it said that the film is a deconstruction of Star Wars, which is true, but this relays something which might be fundamentally flawed about deconstruction: Deconstruction fails to actually change things. This is precisely because it fails to go far enough. Despite the attempt to escape the problems of the Jedi and the Resistance, the film fails to truly escape the possibilities that problematize these entities. In all, the film uses the deconstructed story only to reform Star Wars. The problem with reform is that it fails to account for the structural powers that produce the problems in the first place.
We can think about Star Wars as a milieu with certain possibilities. These possibilities tend to produce Jedi and Sith, but also other things like Storm Troopers and Rebels/Resistances, Empires and First Orders. The problem with The Last Jedi is that it wants to retain certain elements of this milieu, while reforming other aspects. We can think about this as analogous to something like the Civil Rights or Black Power movements. The critique given from Afro-pessimism of these movements is that they attempt to affirm Blackness within a milieu grounded on anti-Black violence. Any attempt to reform the milieu will always return to anti-Blackness, because the structure presupposes an anti-blackness (Wilderson, Afro-Pessimism: An Introduction, 10). Thus, even if we remove Jim Crow laws from the milieu, the possibility of a New Jim Crow correcting the system will always be in play, as the structural anti-Blackness has never been removed or adequately dealt with. In order to truly abolish anti-Blackness, a completely new milieu is necessary.
Harney and Moten suggests that the abolition of anti-Blackness requires a different understanding of abolition. They describe abolition as follows: “What is, so to speak, the object of abolition? Not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery, that could have the wage, and therefore not abolition as the elimination of anything but abolition as the founding of a new society” (Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, p. 42). This, as I understand it, adopts a Deleuze-Guattarian understanding of the movement from one milieu to another. For Deleuze and Guattari, a milieu has both a limit and a threshold. Reform tends to go past the limit, and then turn back. But going beyond the limit doesn’t produce real change, it simply pushes the limit back. In order to truly change, one must go beyond the limit, and then push past a threshold. Past the threshold there is no going back, one enters into a completely new milieu in which completely new things are possible, where everything is different.
The Last Jedi runs into the same problems that the Civil Rights movement runs into. It doesn’t go far enough! The Last Jedi pushes past the limit of Star Wars, but at the last second, it turns back. This can be most clearly seen in Luke’s line to Kylo Ren (Adam Driver): “The Resistance is reborn today. The war is just beginning. And I will not be the last Jedi.” Luke was ready to exit past the threshold of the Jedi, entering into something completely new, where neither Jedi or Sith were possible, but he is drawn back into the traditional Star Wars myth, which is then bound to continue along its problematic path. Finn and Rose continue to fight for the Resistance; Sith and Jedi continue in their perpetual battle; Star Wars fails to go beyond good and evil.
It is easy to see why Star Wars would turn back. The current milieu is a safe, secure formula, which nets billions of dollars a year. Even the act of pushing against the limit of the milieu has led to negative feedback. Is it any wonder that Disney has chosen the safe route of J.J. Abrams to direct the sequel to The Last Jedi. Things will remain the same, there will always be a Jedi and Sith, always good and evil, and the problems exposed in The Last Jedi will be forgotten or reformed, but never structurally dealt with.
One of my favourite aspects of reading continental theory or philosophy is the connects that pop out at you from the pages. The more well versed you are in the tradition, the more things will connect and pop out at you while reading. This is even true within a single text: If you read Being and Time a second time new things will develop out of the reading that weren’t apparent during your initial reading. Because you know where the text is headed, the journey becomes fully new. Subsequent readings allow us to see the dense layering that exists within the text that is not apparent initially. One becomes more attuned to the painting that is being put together by the artist, and is able to see how the various parts of the tapestry fit together.
When we read multiple texts by various authors, it often seems as if we can reach out and bring different parts together, as if we are putting together a puzzle. The more we explore, the more elements of that puzzle come into focus. As a result, new things and new connections might come about that weren’t there in previous explorations.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression here. This puzzle is not the same as a typical puzzle. It does not ‘exist’ in a way that can be ‘discovered’. Instead this puzzle is a work of art that the reader is constantly producing while reading. Each of us is capable of creating our own puzzle or tapestry that brings together different elements from seemingly divergent (or not so divergent) readings. In this act one is acting both a creator and curator: Some pieces might initially fit together, but will require weeding at a later date. But throughout this curatorial process of addition and subtraction (affirmation and negation, one might say…) something novel is created. Through this curatorial process, the puzzle is constantly going through a process of becoming. In this way, the puzzle is never “finished”. Instead, it is always moving, shifting and transforming in various directions.
An initial connection: Derrida and Sloterdijk
In the villa of Ormen, in the villa of Ormen/ Stands a solitary candle, ah-ah, ah-ah/ In the centre of it all, in the centre of it all/ Your eyes. -David Bowie
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve begun reading Derrida for the first time as part of a reading group through the Turtle Island Cooperative Farm and Research Centre (which is doing some really interesting work, and you should check them out!). I’ve really been appreciating this reading so far, as it has opened up a variety of questions and connections which engage with others areas of thought that I have thought about. By connecting Derrida’s project to these other areas, I hope to open up something new, or at least to transform my own creative process in some way.
In his work, Derrida comes to a world that is dominated by structuralism and phenomenology. These are two very distinct and different discourses which are each, in their own ways, attempting to overcome the system of metaphysics which dominated the Western tradition since the time of Plato and Aristotle. Derrida believes that, despite their attempt to escape the metaphysics of presence and logocentrism that are central to the Western philosophical tradition, both phenomenology and structuralism fall prey to what they are attempting to escape. Phenomenology attempts to escape the mediated presence by doubling down into the phenomenal experience, whereas structuralism attempts to alienate all subjective experience in favor of a cold realism. Yet, as Derrida shows in his work, both fail to overcome what they critique of Western metaphysics.
Despite this, Derrida does not believe that these discourses are worthless. In fact, he garnishes high praise of both discourses, which he claims allowed the very possibility of his own pursuits [in other words they allowed his tapestry to take shape]. Rather than suggesting that these discourses are worthless, Derrida uses them as a starting point for his project of deconstruction.
Structures tend to depend on a centre. For Derrida, it is this centre which acts as a foundation and a limit on the system itself. In Christian theology, the centre of the system was God. The system would not work without God holding the structure in place and allowing everything to function. Yet, at the same time, within the system, the centre is on the one thing “which while governing the structure, escape structurality” (Margins of Philosophy, 279). The centre is the presence or logos of the system–thus a system that depends on the centre is, for Derrida, logocentric. The entire system depends on its logos. For the structuralists–who wished to move away from the transcendental—the sign retains the place of God in the centre of the structure. In this way, the sign remains transcendental, and structuralism remains logocentric.
The structure itself functions as a kind of container, holding the system within. This allows the system to be demarcated or differentiated against those things that don’t fit within it. Thus, each system is granted an inside (y) and and outside (z). For Saussure–a prominent linguist who Derrida spends a great deal of time responding to–the sign is the unity of the signified and the signifier. The signified being the object, the signifier the word describing that object. Writing, on the other hand, is the representation of the signifier; it is a representation of a representation. Writing falls outside the natural system of speech. As a result, it falls outside of a ‘natural system’ that Saussure believes there to be. Writing is thus Othered, and placed outside of the structure. Yet, writing continuously changes the way that we speak, shifting the way that words are pronounced, and sentences are structured. In this way, writing is both political and violent. The written word can pervert the spoken language, as people begin to speak as the word is written. Instead of protecting language, the written word attacks it. Thus the system as a whole, for Saussure, must be set up to protect against the violence of the written word in order to protect the natural order.
This system of inside verses outside looks a lot similar to the sphere of Europe that is put forward by Peter Sloterdijk in his trilogy on Spheres. According to Sloterdijk, the European system “places…God into the center of being and grants him insight into his own universal orb from within” (Bubbles, 89). For Sloterdijk, the Europeans treated God as an immunological system of protection against the outside (those who weren’t a part of Christian Europe).
This connection all fits within Derrida’s reading of logocentrism. Both the Christian/European tradition as well as structuralism fit within this category. Saussure’s structuralism simply replaces God with the ‘sign’ as a transcendental logos.
With this system in mind, we finally get to how Derrida hopes to deconstruct the system. According to Arthur Bradley, a commentator on Derrida, deconstruction is too often understood as destruction. “As its unusual etymology – with those two apparently contradictory prefixes ‘de-’ and ‘con-’ rubbing shoulders against one another – suggests, ‘deconstruction’ actually describes a double process that is both positive and negative, both destructive and constructive” (Bradley, Derrida’s Of Grammatology, 42). But, deconstruction does not put things back together, as we would typically understand construction. Instead, it helps us move in a third direction between destruction and construction, understanding the thing that is constituted. According to Bradley, “deconstruction is not something we do to a text from the ‘outside’, so to speak, so much as something that we reveal about the way in which any text is internally constructed” (Ibid., 43). Derrida himself says the following of Deconstruction:
“Deconstructing this tradition will therefore not consist in reversing it, of making writing innocent. Rather of showing why the violence of writing does not befall an innocent language. There is an originary violence of writing because language is first, in a sense, I shall gradually reveal, writing. “Usurpation” has always already begun. The sense of the right side appears in a mythological effect of return” (Of Grammatology, 37)
Deconstruction does not come from outside the system. Instead, it reveals the internal contradictions of a system which undermines the system itself. This is what happens in Sloterdijk’s Europe.
The people sought to protect against the external with God, but as Europe continued to expand, the sphere itself came to encompass everything. God was no longer necessary against the outside forces. God died not because of an attack from the outside, but because of the logical end of the system. For all of the worrying about the outside, no defence was prepared against the internal attack. In Of Grammatology, and Structure, Sign and Play Derrida suggests that Structuralism’s system will ultimately come to an end in the same way. The internal structure itself is undermined by the violence of writing—not because writing attacks from the outside, but rather because it is already internal to the system itself. Like Europe for Sloterdijk, Saussure has already invited the undoing of his system into the very structure of its sphere.
More Connections: Derrida, Christianity and Capitalism.
In a similar vein to the system of European Christianity and Linguistics, Accelerationists have suggested that Capitalism will be undone not by an external force, but instead by the contradictions internal to the system.
Capitalism creates a new logos: Capital. Capitalism depends against its external limit. This limit excludes things like communism and anarchism, but historically has also excluded groups like homosexuals who have not fit into the heteronormative way of life. This latter example provides evidence of one way that capital defends itself against the outside: it constantly seeks to bring those things outside of itself into itself so that it can make more money off of them. One can look at the difference between the influence of the initial pride parade at the Stonewall bar and the corporate influence of contemporary Pride to see how capital has taken advantage of something that used to be outside of itself. (One could say something similar about the way that capitalism was adopted at a State level by the Soviet Union, and the way that China is, today, among the most capitalist countries in the world).
The reason for these examples is to show that capitalism provides a unique, but strong, defense against external threats. Capitalism is the most effective deterritorializing force that we know of in history–much more effective than Christianity. As Deleuze and Guattari suggest, it is able to reterritorialize everything with capital as it continues deterritorializing its outer limit. Yet, perhaps, if we think about the other structures which are logocentric, and think about how they produce their own destruction from within, we can understand a potential end of capitalism as well.
Derrida’s understanding of this system as theological is immensely helpful for understanding how this sort of overcoming will take place–and there are so many connections to be made between Derrida and other thinkers who produce this sort of overcoming from within. In a lecture series that I recently read through: “Security, Territory, Population,” Michel Foucault suggests that the thing that leads to the destruction of Christian hegemony in Europe is not some external force, but Christianity itself. Unlike Sloterdijk, this deconstruction does not take place because of territorial expansion, but because of the practices of the Church undermining the pastoral order. Foucault suggests that within the system of the Church, there was a requirement of obedience to the pastor (like a sheep to a shepherd). But, over time, pastors and congregations adopted practices like asceticism, communitarianism, and the inerrancy of scripture. These practices stripped the power of the pastorate (giving it to the individual, community, or scripture respectively). This ultimately led to the stripping of political power from the Church in Europe. Yet, these very practices came out of the pastorate themselves, it was not the result of some external force. It was the pastorate itself which led to the undoing of its power—not some external force (See Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 242-248).
I can’t help but bring up the philosopher Slavoj Zizek here as well. Zizek suggests that only thorugh Christianity can one become an atheist. For Zizek, most formations of atheism remain within a system of theology. For instance, many atheists turn to science as a transcendental centre on which they place their faith. It is science, they believe, which can provide them with truth, meaning, and understanding about the reality that we live in. Because of this, God is no longer necessary, as God has been replaced by science. Yet, such a system of thought remains theological. Like the linguist who retains the divine in the transcendental sign, the atheist retains the divine through their faith in science. For Zizek, it is only through God’s death on the cross that one can become an atheist. The main difference between Zizek and Derrida (as well as Foucault) is that Zizek is a thinker of the dialectic. He believes that this process is a dialectical one. Yet, still for Zizek, the way outside of Christianity does not occur on the basis of some force external to Christianity. Instead, Christianity can only be overcome through itself: Theology can only truly be negated through the affirmation of Christianity to its radical conclusion: That God is dead and there is no transcendental or divine left to save us–not science, not the sign, not God (see Zizek’s The Puppet and the Dwarf; The Frail Absolute).
Having gone through this pathway of Christianity overcoming itself, we can perhaps return to the structure given of capitalism. Capitalism is consistently deterritorializing its outer limit, but what of its inner limit? Deleuze and Guattari suggest that capitalism has both a relative and absolute limit. The relative limit is the capitalist social formation. This limit is constantly being decoded and deterritorialized by capitalism in order to create more wealth. Deleuze and Guattari say of this process that capitalism “is continually drawing near the wall, while at the same time pushing the wall further away” (Anti-Oedipus, 176). Capitalism doesn’t allow a full deterritorialization. it seeks to “encaste the merchant and the technician, preventing flows of money and flows of production from assuming an autonomy that would destroy their codes” as such a deterritorialization or decoding would go past “the real limit” (Ibid.).
Such an analysis of capitalism suggests that the way to overcome capitalism is not by means of a dialectic struggle from the outside, but rather from within. That capitalism itself leads to a contradiction through which is will overcome itself. Deleuze and Guattari suggest this even more powerfully in one of the more well known passages from Anti-Oedipus
“But which is the revolutionary path? Is there one?–To withdraw from the world market…in a curious revival of the fascist ‘economic solution’? Or might it be to go in the opposite direction? To go still further, that is, in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization? For perhaps the flows are not yet deterritorialized enough, not decoded enough, from the viewpoint of a theory and a practice of a highly schizophrenic character. Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to ‘accelerate the process’, as Nietzsche put it: in this manner, the truth is that we haven’t seen anything yet.” (Anti-Oedipus 239-240)
Like Derrida, that solution to the structure is not to overcome from without, but from within. This is to attack the structure by driving the structure to its logical conclusion. This is, arguably, more dangerous when it comes to capitalism than when it comes to metaphysics (though one could argue that realities such as racism are just as grounded in faulty logocentric metaphysical systems). Deleuze and Guattari themselves become much more cautious of this sort of acceleration in A Thousand Plateaus.
My goal in these brief musings has not been to solve anything. I have likely opened up more questions for myself and others than I have closed–but that has been the precise point. My goal was to connect things–things that have likely been connected before, and will likely be connected again–but to connect them as my brain connects them while reading. To open up new thoughts, and to produce new pathways.
These connections should not be taken as fixed. Deleuze and Derrida, for instance, have much different projects, and should not be taken as producing the same theory. That said, there are connections between the two (connections that likely result from their mutual admiration for Nietzsche). In any case, I’m excited to read more Derrida over the next 7 or so weeks. It’ll be interesting to see what other connections pop out.
The following is the text for a presentation that I gave recently in Jason Adam’s class Virtual Virilio which is taking place through The New Centre For Research and Practice (which is a fantastic institution that you should definitely check out!). It is a review or presentation of Virilio’s interview with Lotringer entitled Crepuscular Dawn. Because this is a presentation for a class, it might not be as clear as a well formulated essay, and does pre-suppose some knowledge or awareness of Virilio and other texts that have been covered in the class. I hope to eventually distill the themes that I bring to light here (specifically that of the oblique function) into a more thorough essay.
This text contains a number of interviews between Sylvère Lotringer and Paul Virilio relating to Virilio’s oeuvre. In the introduction to the text, Lotringer suggests that the “oxymoron of the title” indicates “something deeply ambivalent about Virilio’s work” (8). The Crepuscular, signifying an animal relating to twilight, meets with the Dawn, relating the introduction of the sun. Together, the Crepuscular Dawn signifies the coming or introduction of the night—a night that is no longer distinct from day; an end of human light; a “black hole”.
The text is composed of four major sections which relate to four area’s of Virilio’s thought—architecture (archeology), speed (dromology), eugenics, and the accident (of science)—to more general themes of escape velocity and grey ecology. Rumbling beneath the surface of the text is an encounter with the positive negation of the death of God, the striation of the tower, and the death of this world—the end of humankind. These themes, I argue, underlie Virilio’s thought more generally. Furthermore, I believe that Crepuscular Dawn provides a key to understanding Virilio’s work as a whole—through the oblique function. By examining the oblique function in relation to the tower of 90 degree angle, we can interpret how Virilio responds to other striating technologies and designs—not through a Luddie-esque Stoppage, but rather as a call for struggle (or a brake) rather than a full forward acceleration by stomping down on the pedal (as is common in scholarly engagement with technology).
The Oblique Function and the Bunker Church
The book’s first section explores a discussion between Virilio an Lotringer on architecture. There are two major concepts or themes which are explored: the oblique function and the bunker. Even though it comes second in the conversation, I believe it is important to deal with the oblique function first–as it informs the design of Virilio and Parent’s Church Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay in Nevers.
Virilio describes the architecture of the oblique function, which he devised with Claude Parent. The Oblique function is an architecture of the slanted form. It follows nature—there are no 90 degree angles or flat spaces in nature. In this way, the inclined plane is ergonomic—it is built for humans, not for machines or gods. The oblique function attempts to think architecture through the ground rather than the wall. It does this by working on an incline. Two biblical events shape the coming of the oblique function—the flood and the tower of Babel. In both of these events, the tower—in one case a literal tower, in the other the tower of human achievement more generally—is deterritorialized by the power of God, leading back to the ergonomic reality of inclined planes. The tower and the city are not built to ergonomic, human proportions. The tower attempts to build up to the level of gods. The idea of overcoming humanity and becoming gods, is central to Virilio’s critique of technology, speed and eugenics. I tend to read this through the earlier texts by Deleuze and Guattari (Nietzsche and Philosophy, A Thousand Plateaus), which focus on a control of speeds by starting in the middle. Virilio’s work isn’t interested in the perpetuation of the tower—absolute speed—but he isn’t vying for a flat space—or absolute stoppage—either. He’s interested in a struggle with speed in order to come up with something different, perhaps in the middle. Something on an incline which remains ergonomic and livable for humans.
Continuing with architecture, we can take a look at the bunker church, which in some ways engages with the oblique function. If we look specifically at a cross section of the church, (see above) we can see that the church is never flat, but always on an incline. As a result, the church appears to be collapsing in on itself. This is not the inversion of the way that things are, but a struggle. This idea of struggle is also biblical. Near the end of the text, Virilio discusses the character of Jacob wrestling with an angel. Virilio suggests that “I am simply saying that we have to fight like Jacob. Each person must wrestle with the angel. It is an awesome fight” (170). In a sense, the bunker church could be read as a struggle with angles, rather than angels.
This is interesting in light of the relationship that the church has with Brutalism. Both the bunker and brutalist architecture use concrete and simplicity to their end, but Virilio suggests that where brutalism is all about progress, the bunker has no progress. Instead, it is a “kind of symbol of this century of concentration and elimination” (24). Where brualism is an acceleration of progress, the bunker is the production that struggles against progress. The bunker is the result of bombs—it was designed without straight edges, so bombs would not detonate. It doesn’t exist as progress, but the realization of destruction, of war. It is a place of horrors—and this is why Virlio considers it the perfect place for a church: He suggests: “I decided that the grotto at Lourdes was today’s bomb shelter. It is the place of horrors, the place of great fear, the end of the world.” He suggests that this makes it a perfect place for a church, relating it to the question of Judeo-Christianity:
‘I admit that I am a total bastard, mea culpa.’ What I admit, what you admit. You don’t say: ‘I’m wonderful, I’m pure.’ Then, on the other hand, as soon as you realize that you’re a bastard, at that moment, we can love one another. This is the whole question of Judeo-Christianity. Anyway, this was my interpretation. And, of course, the chapel is an absolute monstrosity. It scares everyone. (28).
For Virilio, while progress attempts to overcome God, the bunker understands the need to struggle with God, and the importance of God as a brake on progress.
Virilio begins to talk about speed by looking at May 1968. This quickly moves into a conversation about Lefebvre and the rhythms of society. This eventually leads us towards an understanding of grey ecology and the contraction of distances. I’ll begin the discussion on speed with a longer excerpt from the text that deals with contemporary vs. Ancient speed. Virilio discusses a piece of art that he put at the start of an exhibit on speed:
The Pharaoh. Why? Deleuze and I discussed it quite a bit. What is the Pharaoh? The two hands crossed on his chest are holding, on the one side, a hook, and, on the other, a whip. According to Egyptologists, the whip is a fly-chaser. I said: You’ve got to be joking. Think of a chariot: there is a hook to pull the reins, and a whip to accelerate. What the Pharaoh possesses is the power of the Pontif, the one who directs energies. The hook is wisdom, it’s the brake. It is also the Pope’s hook or the Bishop’s cross. Then, on the other side, you have the fly-chaser? I’m sorry, things like that drive me crazy. The whip no one discusses anymore is Ceausescu, the conductor. Except today we don’t have a whip anymore, we have a pedal. (65)
The Pharaoh controls speeds with the ability to accelerate or put on the brake. There are interesting resonances with the religious aspect of this, as in Egypt the Pharaoh served the dual role of being both man and God (an interesting parallel to Christianity). Additionally, the image of the Pharaoh portrays the struggle between the different powers—the military power and religious power—that are key to understanding the role of the struggle in this text.
The contemporary world has not just a green ecology, but also a grey one. The grey ecology is the pollution of distances. In Egypt the Pharaoh had the power of the brake, in the medieval period the church had this same power, in other periods this power was held by the philosopher. But today (as Virilio explains in depth in the section on the accident) there is nothing to hold back the speed. Thus, we are continuously contracting distances; distance is being polluted; and we are producing a grey ecology. If we think, again, about the idea of ergonomics—of spaces created for human survival—we can think about the problem of the grey ecology in relation to the green ecology. The pollution of the green ecology produces a world that is unlivable for humans. Virilio suggests that the pollution of distance does the same thing. The world becomes small and contracted: through tele-politics, tele-war, and tele-sexuality, the computer allows for teleportation. We have come to a point where we can go everywhere without leaving the couch (through these tele-technologies), or remain at home, despite traveling anywhere (through the use of cell-phone and mobile technologies, as well as Standardization and synchronization—i.e. I can eat at a McDonald’s everywhere).
The grey ecology produces a world that is unlivable for humans. It closes in the world through surveillance. It produces a claustrophobia, an inability to breathe. This leads to something that is not quite human, since the human can no longer live, ergonomically, within the world. These speeds produce an omni-presence. Like the tower of Babel, this omni-presence is an escape from the human and the becoming of a god—and this occurs without a struggle. But this ‘god’ doesn’t understand the accidents that are created through the creation of this omni-presence—problems that are explored more thoroughly under the two sections on “The Genetic Bomb”– Eugenics and the Accident of Science.
Virilio begins the section on Eugenics by outlining two ways that the body is being attacked: 1. Through bionics/prosthetics/cyborg technologies; 2. Through information technology—the mapping of the human genome. Together, these produce an endo-colonization of the body. They body itself becomes the sphere for study and experiment. Virilio suggests that in order to struggle with these aspects we must see them as they are—Eugenics. These practices lead to an artificial selection, and, ultimately, to a new form of racism between the cyborg super-humans and the sub-human (who exist in this way due to their relation with the super-human). Virilio that “Racism posits that there are ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ races within the singleness of the human species. The biggest racist in the world recognizes that.” (107) The production of the super human creates the same sort of distinction—just a different kind of racism than we typically think about (a Super Racism).
So how do we reach this point of racism? We know that both the Nazi’s and American’s experimented on people before and during WWII. Virilio suggests that the bifurcation of the production of bionics and the mapping of the human genome, creates an art or creation of bodies. Science has become an act of creation. Here, again, we see a relation to the tower of Babel. In the tower of Babel the people wanted to become God; in Eugenics, we seek a similar end. It is a war on humanity, much like speed and science, which attempts to wipe out the human in favour of God. The death of God allows for this ascension. Through these eugenic movements, Virilio argues that “Science has become art. There is an art of science which is the end of science, and maybe the end of art” (117), and in this art, science creates monsters.
Virilio turns to art to examine this as well. He discusses a number of artistic projects in which the body becomes a canvas for new technologies. This leads to art polluting itself. As genetics and cloning are adopted as techniques for artists, Virilio sees the potential for accidents and problems, and ultimately, again, the death of the human. Science has taken art to the extreme, and in some ways has itself become a myth. With the death of God the religious myths were absconded, but today “Science is becoming myth again. Instead of enhancing reason, it is welcoming unreason, and magic, a factory for anything at all” (126). Science, then exists without limits. In the Nazi camps, the scientists lost their ability to see the affect in their victims; they became apathetic to human suffering, and this allowed them to be cruel. The Nazi’s erased the victimhood of their victims—they were no longer humans, but simply flesh to be experimented on. Virilio suggests that the same thing is occurring in the development of the superhuman. We begin to think of ourselves as Gods, as creators, and there is nothing to hold back. There is simply a pure affirmation of this speed without hope of struggle. God is dead, so humans do whatever they want, not thinking about the accidents of science.
The Accident of Science
Throughout this text and presentation, we can begin to see that Science has run amok. Virilio suggests that there is no brake or limit on science. The Pharaoh no longer has a hook, but again, only a pedal. Virilio suggests that historically, religion and philosophy have acted as brakes on scientific acceleration. He says that following of Galileo’s trail: “What is so bad in Galileo’s trial is condemning Galileo. Having brought him to trial is not” (143). For Virilio, then, the act of religion keeping science in track is not a negative thing, but something that is of utmost importance to stop science from accelerating out of control. Today, Virilio suggests, science has no limit. To some degree it even wants to be automated. This is the end of science, insofar as humanity is speeding towards an escape or exit velocity—towards a black hole—where the human is ended. There is no longer a religion or philosophy that is up to stopping this acceleration, as science itself has become the guiding myth. God no longer exists to stop the tower of Babel from hitting the sun.
This black hole, or escape velocity, is tied to the Total Accident. War is an accident, the atomic bomb was an accident that started the death of humanity, and the information and genetic bomb will finish the job. In the conclusion, Virilio suggests that the great accident is on its way, a total accident that will profoundly lead to the death of this world. In the conclusion, he looks specifically at the nuclear accident in Chernobyl and the Terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. In each of these cases, many people died, but many more could have died. Virilio estimates that if the towers had fallen at an expected 15 minutes—rather than the hour it took—an estimated 30,000 more people would have died. In Chernobyl, had the nuclear reactor not been covered by cement in time, Virilio estimates that half of Europe would have been wiped out. These accidents could have been so much worse than they were, and Virilio suggests that such an absolute accident is coming—an accident that will lead to the end of humanity, the end of a world. We are, then, on a runaway train, there is no struggle against this train because philosophy and religion no longer have the power to stop science.
Furthermore, Virilio explores the nature of the double-bind. This concept is important for understanding the accident. It is to suggest that the best things are simultaneously the worst things. Progress is simultaneously catastrophe. So, a technology like planes—which allow us to travel around the world at unprecedented speeds—also produce the ability to kill thousands. Nuclear energy plants—which provide cheap energy, which (I believe) is cleaner than many alternatives—provide the accident of wiping out half the people on a continent. Any progress is a double-bind, a double edged sword. Technology is not good or bad. Technology is both good and bad. The problem is that there is no struggle, no longer a brake. Simply an affirmation. A Yes, Yes, Yes, to everything.
Returning to the Oblique Function
Virilio is not a Luddite. Despite his critique and negative understanding of technology, he does not want to start over. The goal for Virilio is a brake, not a stoppage. Like, Deleuze and Guattari, he doesn’t want to start over—his text is not a call for anarcho-primitivism or anti-civilization. Instead, he desires a struggle; he wants us to be like Jacob, and wrestle with an angle. This is what his texts appear to do—they wrestle with technology. They look at the negative aspects of technology, not in an attempt to create a flat surface, but an inclined one—one that starts from the middle.
Throughout this text, we see how humans are constantly returning to the tower—humans want to overcome humanity and become a god. In doing so, they produce an exit or escape velocity which propels them towards a black hole—a darkness where humanity is ended; a crepuscular dawn. Yet, Virilio adamantly suggests that nothing is per-ordained. His work is a struggle, an attempt to produce an oblique function against the 90 degree angle of science. It isn’t clear that he wants a return of a dominant religion, but he merely wants the creation of a brake. The pedal leads towards a suicidal State, towards a black hole, towards the end of humanity. Contemporary thought that deals with technology tends to simply affirm that speed. Virilio doesn’t want to blindly affirm, but he doesn’t want to get rid of the pedal either. He wants both the pedal and the brake, struggling against one another, controlling the speeds along the inclined plane.
When watching Star Wars: Rogue One, many realized something interesting: The Rebels looked like terrorists. What might be even more interesting is the response to this realization. A wave of think pieces, which could be thought of as Star Wars apologetics, emerged discussing this phenomenon. These pieces, for the most part, compared the Rebels to Terrorists and the United States to the Empire (as I do below). Yet, they fail to interrogate the material realities that actually produce what we might call terrorism. This is what I attempt to do in this article.
Many have suggested that some form of political transformation occurred after the Second World War. Before World War II it could be said that Western States were disciplinary. Discipline is a concept that is developed by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punishment and other texts. Disciplinary society is best shown in the prison. Prison architecture is set up so that the prisoner always feels like they are being watched, even if no one is actually watching. Because of this, the prisoners must act as if they are being watched at all times. In this way, the material or physical architecture of the prison disciplines the way that the prisoner will act.
Foucault extends this disciplinary model to a number of other cultural spheres. These include the church, the school, the military and the factory. Like the prison, each of these institutions work to discipline people’s actions by making them feel like their are always being watched. In the church they are watched by the priest; in the school it is the teacher; in the military a commanding officer; and in the factory one’s supervisor. One can already see that this model of discipline functions through hierarchy: The priest is watched by the bishop; the teacher by the principle; the commanding officer by her superior; the supervisor by the boss. The prison structure that the disciplinary society is based off of is called the Panopticon. It was developed by the utilitarian Philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. Prior to WWII it could be theorized that society was panoptic or disciplinary. In all areas of life, one was subjected to the disciplinary mechanisms which disciplined one’s actions.
After World War Two a transformation took place. With the invention of the computer and expansion of other communication technologies, the hierarchical structure of command became less necessary. As communication sped up, it was no longer necessary to create a panopticon where the prisoner felt like they were always being watched. With the advent of video surveillance, the prisoner was always being watched. Today, we live in a world of constant surveillance. From CCTV to our mobile phones, each of us is constantly being watched. This results not in a form of discipline, but of control. I don’t want to focus too much on the sociological implications of this surveillance, but rather a particular result of it: How does surveillance impact war?
When I think about war as an abstract category, I tend to think about it as a struggle between two States. Growing up in Canada, the British French Rivalry over North America was a common conflict of study. Simplifying the reality of the conflict: It is easy to think about two opposing sides roughly equal in strength attacking one another. The only real distinction between these two sides was that one wore red and the other blue. This type of war doesn’t exist anymore. WWII was the last time that major military powers went into combat against one another. Now, while there are many interesting things to unpack about communication and military speeds in relation to the Cold War, what is of more importance to this exploration is what war looks like after the Cold War (though much of this is true of the proxy wars that the United States engaged in during the Cold War). Following the Cold War, the world shifted from having two military powers to one. This meant that any conflict the United States would engage in would be asymmetrical—meaning a war between two States of unequal power.
The combination of asymmetrical warfare and constant surveillance results in a world where Terrorists are no longer able to identify themselves. The United States is capable of constantly watching its enemies. Through a combination of CCTV, drones and satellite technology, the US military is able to be watching its enemies at all times and in all places. As a result, it would be foolish to identify oneself as an enemy of the United States. If someone were to do so, they were be instantly under constant surveillance, not being able to act without the enemy knowing what they were doing. As a result, the weaker actor is forced to work in the shadows, blending into the population, and not distinguishing themselves until the moment before they attack. In the words of the French autonomist group Tiqqun, the enemy of the United States must make themselves invisible.
Invisibility is a refusal to identify. A soldier who wears civilian clothes in a city square is invisible. The People’s Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam or the Viet Cong used tactics of invisibility to surprise and terrorize American troops during the War in Vietnam. By becoming invisible, the insurrectionary force can attack from the shadows using guerilla methods. They can attack the imperialist force in the ways that the force least expects it.
Invisibility is also a tactic seen in Star Wars: Rogue One. Rogue One shows a rebellion operating in the shadows of the Empire. The Rebels must use tactics of invisibility or be wiped out automatically by technology (the Death Star) that they are not able to compete with. Thus, the Rebels must hide their faces; they must operate in the shadows; and they must use means that might be considered nefarious in a traditional war setting. The Rebels in Rogue One operate using tactics of invisibility because if they did choose to identify themselves, they would be instantaneously obliterated. The conditions of asymmetrical warfare and surveillance lead to the adoption of invisible warfare. These tactics are shown in the original Star Wars trilogy as well, though they are not as explicitly represented. The Rebel Alliance is constantly hiding in the shadows of Empire, never attacking head on, but always using insurrectionary tactics. They travel across the Galaxy, constantly hiding until they attack at random.
The reality is that the imperial state is an integral part of the production of terrorism. It is the strength and surveillance of the State that necessitates the tactics of invisibility in the dissident. What is equally interesting is how the State uses the actions of the insurgent force in order to justify the surveillance apparatus that has been created in the first place. Legislation such as the Patriot Act in the United States led to an increase in surveillance in order to protect citizens from terrorist activities. One can already see a vicious circle taking place where surveillance breeds invisibility which breeds in turn more surveillance. While the audience is not privy to the everyday political actions of the Galactic Empire, it isn’t hard to imagine an increase in surveillance in order to keep an eye on potential rebels. It is also not too difficult to imagine that the Empire would use language of terrorism to describe these rebels.
Furthermore, the State is able to completely demonize the tactics of its opposition. Those who use tactics of invisibility are seen as cowardly and evil, while the State apparatus which functions to control the population is seen as benevolent and good. One common rhetorical strategy used by the United States and other Western powers is that they want to bring peace to whatever region they are entering into. Those who attack the United States are shown as barbaric and evil. This is perhaps why Rogue One’s use of these tactics was so jarring. I’ve been told that some people didn’t like Rogue One because it blurred the line between who was good and who was evil. Yet the film itself never really questions the moral justifications of the rebel alliance. The only blurring which occurs is that Western audiences find themselves cheering on the use of tactics that are usually only used by terrorists. Again, it isn’t hard to imagine the Empire condemning the rebellion on the basis of its tactics alone, and justifying its imperialism on the basis of peacekeeping.
This isn’t to say that groups like ISIS are justified in their actions. It is only to say that a wholesale condemnation of invisibility perpetuates the current global relations of power. By equating invisibility with terrorism, and suggesting that these tactics are always wrong, we fall into an assumption that the empire they are fighting against is always right. If that is the case, it means that we side with the Empire against the Rebel Alliance.
To some degree, I’ve known Canadians to feel a sense of superiority of the United States in terms of the political sphere. Canadians are proud of their single payer health care system, and view themselves as more progressive and open than their neighbours to the South. This sense of superiority was illuminated in the recent election of Donald Trump in the US. I’m not sure that I’ve met or talked to a Canadian who can’t believe that what has happened in the US did happen. Every Canadian I’ve talked to has been highly critical of the new American President. There is an apparent sense that “something like that couldn’t happen here”. This strikes me as ironic, given the fact that, during my political science education in the United States there were similar feelings about how a person like Silvio Berlusconi – the Italian oligarch who can be seen as a good reference for what a powerful businessman might look like as a head of state (his time in office was rifled with scandal) – could never get elected in the US.
With the ascendency of Trump, the Canadian sense of superiority (which may have dimished during the co-current leadership of Obama and Harper) seems to have, anecdotally at least, returned to many Canadians. And yet, many of these same Canadians, have turned towards conservative business mogul Kevin O’Leary as the future face of the conservative party of Canada. Mr. O’Leary is, in many ways, not all that different from the newly elected POTUS. He has had controversial views on poverty and climate change, refusing to believe the latter and suggesting that 3.5 billion people in poverty is “fantastic news”:
But, the real similarity is not in terms of personality. O’Leary is not President Trump. He’s even said so himself. He provides a more Canadian right wing alternative to the populist and outright xenophobic, anti-globalization movements that have occurred across the Western world (seen in the advent of Brexit in the UK, President Trump in the US, Geert Wilders’ The Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, etc.). Now, I don’t think that O’Leary is xenophobic or anti-globalization, but he is a wealthy businessman in the breed of Berlusconi and Trump, and his popularity in Canada signals a similar shift in the Canadian political process.
The populist movements in various countries have each been unique to their individual country. One wouldn’t expect Le Pen’s rhetoric to be the same as Trump’s. Yet, each of these movements have tapped into the populist rage surrounding failing economies, reduction in wages, and work shortages. Again, unlike his opponent Kellie Leitch, I do not see evidence that Mr. O’Leary has tapped into the xenophobic elements of this movement, (a fact that I am thankful for), but he, like Trump and Berlusconi, appears to be in a position to financially benefit from the political changes that he proposes. Despite this, many of the same people who hold a sense of superiority over the Americans voting for Trump will likely be enticed by someone like O’Leary. In the rest of this piece I intend to explore why, though he is different than President. Trump, Mr. O’Leary is and equally problematic political figure for Canada.
Why Comparisons to Trump Don’t Work
A number of articles have gone through the effort of showing why Mr. O’Leary is not the Canadian Donald Trump. I have seen articles by both CNN and Forbes (that latter of which is posted on Mr. O’Leary’s website)both of which suggest that the two men are not the same. Mr. O’Leary felt the need to establish a gap between him and the POTUS in one of his first videos as a candidate.As far as I can tell, these articles are quite accurate in their separation of the two individuals. They articulate the various personal and preferential differences between the two individuals. During his campaign, Trump established himself as an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim candidate. The same cannot be said of O’Leary who is the child of immigrant parents. Furthermore, I haven’t seen any evidence that suggests that O’Leary takes the same demeaning and threatening attitude towards women that has been shown over and over about President Trump.
The Forbes article for instance, contrasts O’Leary and Kellie Leitche. Leitche’s candidacy was based much more closely on the model presented by Trump (anti-immigration was at the forefront). As the article mentions, this is likely due to the savvy nature of Mr. O’Leary. Canada prides itself on a certain level of openness, and as Leitche’s message showed, a rhetoric akin to the message of Donald Trump is not as likely to work in the Canadian political environment. It is clear that, in terms of message and rhetoric, Mr. O’Leary and President Trump are not the same. I’d even argue that, when it comes to the basis of “social issues” (women’s rights, immigrant issues, indigenous rights, LGBTQ+ rights, etc.) Mr. O’Leary is far and away different from Mr. Trump.
However, positioning politics into two categories of “economic” and “social” is a reductionistic move which doesn’t account for the intersectional nature of their policies. While Mr. O’Leary might not be openly anti-indigenous, or anti-immigrant, or anti-women, these articles fail to account for the impact that O’Leary’s economic proposals of austerity (which we’ll get to below) will have on these populations. One does not need to be openly misogynistic in order to propose policy that is detrimental to women (for instance). Furthermore, these articles fail to account for one of the area’s in which O’Leary and Trump are on the same page: The environment. This final area of politics has, without doubt an impact on all other areas of government. Environmental policy is the most important legislation to be made by current and future governments. It impacts not only today, but the future of human and non-human life on earth.
In any case, I think that its important to examine what sorts of policies O’Leary might be likely to engage in. As a tool for this exercise, I thought that it would be useful to look at the actions which President Trump has enacted in his first 3 days in office as of Tuesday. (Thanks to me friend Dean for this list):
Of these actions, which again, took place during the first 3 days of Trump’s presidency, which might Canadians expect if O’Leary was Prime Minister? There is nothing to suggest that O’Leary would like about inauguration numbers, so we can eliminate number one. Furthermore, given the status of Canada on the world stage, number 4 seems unlikely as well. Third, despite cuts to government being on the agenda, Canadians see our health care system with a sense of pride, so an outright appeal not only seems like political suicide, but an impossibility (though cuts in that area do seem possible under an O’Leary government).
With those three options out of the way, we might look at the two options which can be seen as examples of things that an O’Leary government would likely enact. Thus far in his campaign, O’Leary has focused on cutting government through austerity measures and reducing taxation. His ideology seems to be that of a trickle down economic theory which has been popular in right wing circles since Ronal Reagan (and has been repeatedly shown to help the wealthy, rather than the working or middle class). Thus, it seems like that, given the opportunity, Mr. O’Leary would defund arts and humanities research. Now, if you don’t think that the arts and humanities are worth funding, I’m not going to try and convince you otherwise in this blog post. I’ll just say that art and the humanities allows for the development in culture that brings about positive political and social change. Cutting funding to these areas of study would ultimately harm the future of Canada in politico-social ways.
The issue that may be more concerning is the pushing through of the Dakota Access Pipeline. In his video “I’m not Donald Trump” O’Leary suggests that he would curb regulation, cut taxes (likely refering to Trudeau’s governments increase on those making >$200,000/year), and cut the recent carbon tax. It seems likely that O’Leary’s pro-business demeanour would be in favour of something a kin to the Dakota Access Pipeline. It should be noted that this wouldn’t really be a change from the current Canadian government (who also deserve a heap of criticism) who recently passed Pipeline expansion. O’Leary might not be openly xenophobic or sexist, but if we look at the policy he is likely to enact, he likely thinks that economic policy is more important than the lives of the indigenous people’s that are harmed by pipelines. When electing a leader we need to ask ourselves the following question: When push comes to shove, do we want a leader who will fight for the rights of oppressed populations or do we want a leader who will continue the oppression of these people’s in order to obtain economic prosperity? In the case of Kevin O’Leary (and, unfortunately, Trudeau as well) it seems that economics will win over human rights
In this way, O’Leary has a striking resemblance to not only Trump, but other right wing movements. His goals seem focused on building up the workforce through trickle down economic measures by lowering regulation on business while simultaneously cutting taxes and public funding.
O’Leary’s Stated Goal: The Destruction of Trudeau’s Legacy
Again, in his video “I’m not Donald Trump”, O’Leary states that he “was amazed when Trudeau didn’t pivot after the Trump election in the US. He kept on taxing, kept on with carbon, kept on with regulations and as a result there are no more jobs in this country. It’s a very uncompetitive place now, and I’m going to go to Ottawa and fix it in 2019.” It is interesting that O’Leary suggests that taxation and regulation have led to the decrease of jobs in the country. It is unlikely that Trudeau’s policies have anything to do with unemployment, which has remained fairly stead since 2014 (after the highest rate in the last 15 years in 2010). We do see a dip in GDP over the last two years, but this is likely the result of the drop in the cost of oil, rather than any of the policies that Trudeau has put into place (See also: 1, 2). One might recall that the failing economy which led to the ousting of Stephen Harper (who O’Leary resembles as well) were the result of these same failing oil prices.
O’Leary has been cited as saying of Trudeau “I’m going to unwind everything [Trudeau] did when I get in there,” O’Leary promised. “Canadians won’t remember his name after I’m there for 100 days.” This seems fairly reminiscent of the current republican platform which – rather than positing their own political agenda – is completely centred on repealing everything that Obama has done over the last 8 years (i.e. Getting rid of environmental protections, gutting funding to the arts and humanities, dismantling the affordable care act, to name a few). What does a similar move look like in Canada? What would O’Leary undermine or overturn that Trudeau has done?
Well, what things has Trudeau done during his time in office? He’s implemented a new tax thresh hold for households making over $200,000/year (all income over $200,000 is taxed at 33%) while instituting a tax cut on the 2nd tax bracket or “middle class” (those making between $44,701 and $89,401 pay at a 20.5% rate on that income, down from a previous 22%).It is unclear whether O’Leary would reverse the 2nd tax bracket back to 22%, but it seems likely, given his rhetoric, that he would do away with the 5th tax bracket and 33% rate. In terms of corporate tax rates (currently at a federal rate 26.5 percent – which admittedly doesn’t include provincial rates which add 11-16%), these taxes have gone up since the Harper government, but are still much lower than any point between 1987 and 2009. It is unclear if O’Leary would reduce corporate tax rates further, and it is unclear how a reduction in these tax rates would benefit anyone other than large business and business owners. The argument might be made that more business would move to Canada in the event of a cut in corporate tax, but the tax would likely need to be an amount that would cripple the federal government.
In terms of environmental issues, Trudeau has a mixed resume. On the one hand he has introduced a carbon tax, but at the same time has approved two oil pipelines in BC. Given his pro-business, anti-regulation stance, it seems likely that O’Leary would do away with the Carbon tax, while allowing the pipelines to continue. Under an O’Leary government, Canada would likely return to Harper era draconian environmental policies. In doing so, O’Leary, along with Trump, signals our future doom through the disposal of environmental protection. Mr O’Leary doesn’t seem to believe in climate change, and his stance toward environmental protections reflect that. With 2016 being the hottest year on record (for the third year in a row), along with the fact that we will likely blow past the 2 degree thresh hold sooner rather than later, it seems that we’ll likely begin to see the impacts of climate change in our lifetime. In fact, many have argued that aspects of the Syrian Refugee Crisis can be tied to climate change.ith the world heating up, we will likely experience more droughts leading to further humanitarian crises and concerns. We need leadership that takes climate change seriously. Even if our neighbours to the South do not believe that we need to live ecologically, Canada needs to stand up for our values of care for creation. An O’Leary government will lead to an increase in destruction of the earth, not a curbing of our already problematic policies.
Furthermore, if we stay with actions surrounding the refugee crises, Canada was one of the Western leaders in bringing in refugees. Under the #WelcomeRefugees initiative, Canada has accepted almost 40,000 refugees.While this includes a mix of private and publicly funded support, does it not seem likely that a government and Prime Minister promoting austerity would cut funding from any refugee program? This isn’t to suggest that O’Leary will turn to the xenophobic rhetoric of Trump and others, but it does suggest that there will be cuts to public support of refugees.
In any case, if we care about concerns over ecological, social, or humanitarian concerns, we need to be wary of someone like Kevin O’Leary who promotes economic prosperity over everything else. We must not succumb to the ideology that everything can be reduced to its economic potential and efficiency. If Canadians care about these issues at all, they should not entertain the possibility of a person like Mr. O’Leary as Prime Minister of Canada. Many are frustrated with the Trudeau government – for legitimate and illegitimate reasons – but moving towards a politics that further prioritizes the economy over everything else is not a solution, its simply adding to the problem.
Last week, I attempted to present an understanding of what constitutes violence. I’m still not sure that I did a good job of this, but for now, we’ll work with the definition that I gave near the end of last week’s post: That violence goes beyond physical violence and is working in the civil wars of structural violence. These forms of violence can, together, be understood as any attack which harms a person, an animal or the planet. Throughout the rest of this piece, I plan to use the term “Zoe” (adopted from Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman) as a word for these three categories (persons, animals, planet) in its uniting of life. This week I hope to explore the possibility of nonviolence. It should be noted, that this is not a discussion of whether or not we should be non-violent, but rather whether we can actually be nonviolent.
In conversation, pacifism is often presented in a violence/non-violence dichotomy. I wish to suggest that this sort of view is reductionist, and doesn’t take a full account of the actual phenomena of violence in the world. I wish to return to the example from last week that is given by Terry Eagleton in Why Marx was Right. Unlike last week, this week I’ll actually provide the full example. Eagleton makes the following claim about pacifism:
“The only pacifist worth arguing with is one who rejects violence absolutely. And that means rejecting not just wars or [violent] revolutions, but refusing to tap an escaped murderer smartly over the skull, enough to stun but not kill him, when he is about to turn his machine gun on a classroom of small children. Anyone who was in a situation to do this and failed to do so would have a lot of explaining to do at the next meeting of the PTA” (Eagleton, Chapter 8, Why Marx was Right)
While I’m not sure that I completely agree with Eagleton’s dismissal of pacifism outright, I do think that this is an example that is worth exploring. It is worth exploring precisely because of Slavoj’s Zizek’s sentiment that “Sometimes doing nothing is the most violent thing to do” (a sentiment humorously portrayed in this video). In the scenario granted by Eagleton, each of us is presented with an either/or. We can either use violence to stop the murderer, or we can do nothing and allow him to kill the children. Neither of these examples strikes me as inherently “non-violent”. In fact, attacking the murdered strikes me as much less violent than not acting. In this way, Zizek is right, performing a violent act is much less violent than not acting.
This is, of course, an extreme example. It is an example that we will most likely never find ourselves in, and its presentation as an either/or suggests that its scope is extremely limited. But, I think that we can expand the example to see how we face similar decisions within modern capitalist society. Last week we explored the structural violence that takes place in the world, and I used Lazzarato and Alliez’s article “To Our Enemies” to suggest that we are always already acting within a multiplicity of civil wars. This structural violence places us in the midst of a conflict where all of our actions are already imbued with violence. We can, of course, attempt to take measures that lead to the least amount of violence, but even then we are still performing violent actions.
I think that our goal should be to reduce violence against Zoe, but the unfortunate reality of a world with imbued violence is that any action we make already is violent against zoe. Timothy Morton gives the example in a number of his lectures where he says something along the lines of if we’re being ecologically kind to bunny rabbits, we’re not being so kind to bunny rabbit parasites (I’ll update if I find the actual quote). The act of being kind to one aspect of zoe, can be violent against another. A classic example of this would be the use of pesticides. By helping plants thrive, we perform violence against bugs that would typically eat those plants. This isn’t to say whether pesticides are good or bad, but only to recognize that in performing actions that intend to help, we are often violent in other ways.
So this leads me to the question about the possibility of non-violence. If the idea is to not perform violent action in any way, then non-violence strikes me as an impossibility. No matter the action performed, some violence will occur. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive to be non-violent. I think that our ultimate goal should be to live in ways that are as ecologically peaceful as possible. This is to say that we should attempt to reduce violence against Zoe to the extent that we are capable.
Eagleton, Terry. Why Marx was Right. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2011.
While studying for my undergraduate degree, I identified myself as a pacifist. A burgeoning radical thinker, I detested the idea that violence could be used for good. Why would one use violence as a solution when many of those who we hold up as ideal — Ghandi, MLK, one could argue Jesus — were committed to radical stances of non-violence and pacifism in response to the violence that they faced.
My pacifist ideals were shattered when reading a book by Terry Eagleton. In the book (Why Marx was Right) Eagleton presents a scenario in which a gunman has taken a group of school children hostage. In the scenario you have the opportunity to either take him out through violent means (such as shooting him with a gun) or he will kill the children. Given such a scenario, it seems like violence is not only the right thing to do, but the only thing to do.
Today, I still detest violence, but I’m not sure that I can call myself a pacifist. This is not because I view pacifism, or striving for pacifism as wrong, but , at least in part, I am not convinced that pacifism is a possibility. Like the scenario proposed by Eagleton, there are some scenario’s where violence in the only response to a violent situation. This is a thread I wish to explore in this week and next week’s blog posts.
Before I begin, I wish to recognize that I do not agree with the often straw manned understanding of pacifism as a sort of “passive-ism” wherein individuals refrain from any action whatsoever. I recognize that non-violent protest is an active, affirmative action that attempts to dismantle violence through its antithesis.
Now, there are a couple of aspects of non-violence that I would like to consider. This week, I hope to provide a brief interrogation into the question “What is violence?” I believe that an examination of what constitutes violence can help us determine the possibility of non-violence. Next week, I hope to explore the dichotomous nature of violence and non-violence by suggesting that this view of the world is too rigid in its structure.
The question “what is violence?” is, without a doubt, a difficult one to answer. Often when we talk about violence we talk about violence of a physical nature. Violence of this variety can be seen in a battle during warfare, or in a physical assault. Violence of this sort could be interpreted as physical violence against the body of some other being (whether they be human, animal or Gaia). But how far does this extend? We would likely agree that if someone punches you in the face, that the punch is a violent act. However, what if we look at a disciplinary system such as a school? Schools manipulate the bodies of the youth who attend them through regimented habits. Students bodies are forced into regimented systems regarded when they can sit or stand, when they are allowed to talk or stay silent, when they are allowed to get up and walk around, go to the bathroom, etc. One could interpret these actions as violence that affects the bodies of students to conform to certain societal standards. But would we usually think about this as violence? Is it physical violence, or violence of another variety?
E-flux recently published an article entitled “To Our Enemies” by Maurizio Lazzarato and Éric Alliez. The article offers the insight that within our contemporary systems of capitalism, we are always already within a flux of violence — or, as they deem it, civil war. Their second thesis reads as follows:
“Capitalism and neoliberalism carry wars within them like clouds carry storms. While the financialization of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries led to total war and the Russian Revolution, the 1929 crash and European civil wars, contemporary financialization is at the helm of global civil war and controls all its polarizations.”
Violence is always swirling around us. Lazzarato and Alliez argue that we are surrounded by civil wars that are constantly being fought. A prime example is the increasing violence against women in the United States. Populism and neo-facism are increasingly destroying the rights of women in terms of their autonomy — their control over their bodies. This is a violence which isn’t physical but directly attacks a woman’s freedom of choice through the legal system. If we understand these events as systemic acts of violence, we must extend our definition of violence beyond the physical to the structural as well. These structural forms of violence occur everywhere. Within the United States alone we see attacks on people of colour through mass incarceration and police violence; we see attacks on women in the aforementioned loss of autonomy in regards to personal anatomy; we see attacks on transgender and non-binary people with the loss of the ability to go to the bathroom; we see attacks on disabled people through our design processes which ignore the abilities of those who cannot walk, cannot see, or cannot hear; in these ways, and so many others, there are active attacks on peoples within the United States which rage not on a physical level, but a systemic, structural level.
To extend our look at structural violence, I wish to argue that escaping violence is an impossibility. Within western nations, by law, everyone must wear clothing. Walking around naked will result in some sort of criminal fine – whether it be monetary or jail time, I’m not sure. In any case, the system makes us wear clothes. In order to wear clothes, we need to either purchase or produce our own clothes. For the sake of argument, we’ll look at an individual who needs to purchase clothes. Now, the systems which exist make it impossible to really purchase clothes that escape societies of violence. Unless one has a substantial degree of wealth, one is likely forced into buying clothing that was made in hostile conditions for below a living wage (likely in a foreign country, but not necessarily). Furthermore, the item likely had to be shipped from wherever it was made. In this example, we can see that, by purchasing a shirt, I’e already participated in a system that is inherently violent. Violence is produced against the worker who is working for next to nothing to produce this clothing. It is also produced against the ecological system through the shipping of the material to where I purchase it. One might try to counter this argument by looking towards a local-vore type movement, but even then there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. Furthermore, the reality is that being a local-vore requires a substantial amount of wealth, which is nearly impossible to ascertain without some form of violence.
Despite what we’ve explored above, we still do not have a substantial understanding of what constitutes violence. What we do have are examples of violence – with the suggestion that violence is more than simply physical. So what is violence? For a working definition, that I’m not quite content with, I’d like to posit that violence is an attack on a person, animal or the planet which harms or limits that body in some way. This definition attempts to encompass both physical and structural violence, and it also includes violence that isn’t physical or structural (such as the violence that took place during the cold war).
To close, I provide a brief excursus: Often, the liberal call to “non-violence” is merely an attempt to make passive groups that are being physically violent. An example in recent years has been the imperative of nonviolence given by white moderates to people of colour in response to rioting over the violence against black individuals by the police force. The call of the media is often that these protests ought to be non-violent, rather than violent. The reality of the situation is that the majority of these protests are already nonviolent in the traditional sense (i.e. they are not producing physical attacks against other people). These calls for nonviolence, then, call to end these protests through a making passive of the protestors. To some degree, these calls for nonviolence signal a particular kind of act that could be considered violence: property damage. But, if we take our definition of violence as an attack on the person, animal or planet (depending on how far we wish to extend violence), property damage does not properly fit into these criteria.
While reading through Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge I began to ponder on the role that systems of rules play within our discourses on liberty. Foucault’s text sets out to define Archaeology, and comes to the conclusion that “Archaeology defines the rules of formation of a group of statements” (167). For Foucault, there are certain rules that make any discourse possible – and it is archaeology will attempts to show what these rules are. A common example that he uses within the text is the discourse of medicine. Medicine comes about because of a series of rules that allow medical discourse to take place.These rules prescribe what subjects are discussed within the discourse, what methods are utilized, etc. Within any discourse there are rules of this sort that limit what can be talked about. What struck me while reading is that these rules can have implications for both positive and negative liberty. They perform the action of making a discourse possible as well as confining it to a certain number of topics.
Initially, this made me think about grammar. To the annoyed 5th grader, grammar is a nuisance which infringes upon one’s liberty to perform whatever writing function they wish. Rather than simply using words, grammar forces them to learn a set of rules that disciplines their writing and speaking styles. While this 5th grader might see grammar as an imposition on their liberty, they might eventually begin to see the positive aspects of grammar. It is grammar, of course, that makes any communication possible. Without grammar the structure of our sentences would disappear, making any sort of conversation impossible. In this way the confines of grammar constitute a positive liberty. Rather than promoting freedom from something, they advance the freedom to do something. In the case of grammar the rules allow us the freedom to speak and communicate with one another.
Contemporary western political discourse is inundated with negative conceptions of liberty. Negative liberty is the freedom from something. A basic example of negative liberty is that I have the freedom from infringement on my personal speech (i.e. I have freedom of speech). When we speak of freedom in this way we are speaking of freedom from some constraint (taxes, immigrants, courts, etc). Negative liberty is an important component of our culture. It is a key concern of many of the freedoms that we hold dear — freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom to vote for whomever you wish, freedom of speech, etc. — but with all of the focus on negative conceptions of liberty, positive conceptions are often left to the wayside.
in the tenth book of The Republic Plato argues against democracy for the reason that it promotes negative liberty to the detriment of society. In 558 b-c Plato writes, “We said that no one who had not exceptional gifts could grow into a good man [sic] unless he were brought up from childhood in a good environment and trained in good habits. Democracy with a grandiose gesture sweeps all this away and doesn’t mind what habits and background of its politicians are; provided they profess themselves the people’s friends, they are duly honoured” (p. 294). Throughout much of The Republic Plato makes the case for an educational program that would produce the ideal leader — a philosopher king. The ideal leader can only come about through a series of harsh educational regiments. These educational regiments take place as constraints on the individual who is attempting to become a philosopher king. From one perspective these restraints can be seen as attacks on an individuals liberty (and education can for sure be used as a means of discipline and control, c.f. Foucault’s Discipline and Punish), but within the context of becoming a leader, they allow for the individual to attain certain practices that would be impossible without constraint.
Part of what Plato is attempting to show in The Republic is that too much negative liberty is detrimental to an individual. Too much negative freedom leads to chaos. If we return, for a moment, to the discussion on grammar we might try to imagine a text that exists without the constraints of grammar. When imaging such a document one might be reminded of a random texts from Borges’ The Library of Babel where the texts, void of any semblance of grammar, appears to us as pure gibberish. The grammatical rules that are in place allow us to communicate with one another. These rules can provide us with the ability (at least to some degree) to flourish or perhaps — in Aristotelean terms — to reach our telos.
From a religious perspective this shouldn’t appear to be anything new. Within the religious sphere — even more so than in the political sphere — we are quite obsessive about positive liberties. In You Must Change Your Life Peter Sloterdijk writes about the ways that religion uses liturgy and ritual to shape the habits of believers. Religion creates social hierarchies that can only be climbed if one performs the rituals (or Anthropotechnics) which shape ones desires and habits to the degree that one’s body is affected in such a way that these habits become second nature. For many religious peoples the goal is to not simply refrain from our sinful desires, but to shape our bodies in such ways that those desires no longer even occur to us. In this way, religion uses educational constraints that allow for flourishing. Through the restraints imposed by religious practice one is granted the freedom to flourish within the religious sphere.
These systems of rules that exist within the political and religious spheres hold implications for liberty in both the positive and negative senses. In these religious practices, for instance, we can see clear examples of times where these rules move from positive liberty to infringing on negative liberty. One can look to the barbaric practice of conversion therapy as an example of this. It seems to be the case that when we stop understanding these systems of rules as helpful tools that allow us to flourish and transform them into universalizing truths that must be followed, they stop providing us with positive liberty, and begin to infringe upon our negative liberties. We must remember that the rules which give the ability for positive liberty are not universal rules. They are confines which exist in order to allow us to do things, to fulfill things. When these rules lose any flexibility and become written into law, they fail to participate in any notion of liberty, and instead fall into the realm of discipline and control.
in this way, we can see that the distinction between a positive liberty and an infringement on negative liberty is not so clear cut. To make things more difficult, one might see a positive liberty as a clear infringement on a negative liberty (and vice versa). Where we draw the line is likely up to our political or religious ideology. So far as it is possible, however, we must attempt to examine how we are using the rules that we have established. So long as our rules are allowing us to flourish and grow into the people that we want to be, we can see these rules as positive influences. It is when our rules start to become inflexible and oppressive that we ought to take the time to re-examine, change, and, perhaps, abolish them.
Foucault, M. (1982). The Archaeology of Knowledge: And the Discourse on Language. New York: Vintage.
Plato. (2007). The Republic. (D. Lee, Trans.) (New edition). London: Penguin Classics.
About a month ago, my friend sent me a syllabus that he found from high school that was based on “The Great Books” (specifically The Great Books Tutorial) with texts such as Marx’s Capital, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. While looking at the syllabus, I began to think about the fact that while I have a general understanding of much of the theorists and authors and texts involved, I had never really had the opportunity to read through these books. I began to look more closely at the notion of these Great Books – books which helped shape and form the Western canon and Western thought in general – and began to think about indulging in a study of my own which focused on reading through some of the Western Canon. I have, since, come up with a reading list that I have been following. My hope is to get through a significant portion of this list throughout the new year.
One of the problems that I have been coming back to in regards to this project is the fact that the Western canon is dominated by white men. Once we travel past Augustine of Hippo (an African man) the list does not reach another person who doesn’t fit the criteria of “white male” until we reach Wollstonecraft. Going forward I hope to contemplate ways of bringing in more diverse readings. The alternative is to follow this study of Western canon with an abbreviated look at texts from other cultures and histories. In any case, this bias towards certain types authors can be understood historically, but it is something I hope to keep in mind while reading through these texts.
Below I have presented a reading list that was inspired by The Great Books Tutorial reading list that I found through my friend. I’ve gotten rid of some texts which I feel I have no interest in reading at this time (mostly the theologies of John Calvin and Martin Luther). These may be replaced with more abridged, short studies that take less time than reading through the entirety of something like Calvin’s institutes. Some texts on the list I have already read in the past. These I have marked with an apostrophe. I am unsure if I will re-read them or not over the course of this project. As I have already begun the project (at the beginning of December), texts that I have already read will be marked with (Read) behind them. Note: Some of the “texts” are not actually texts, but plays or musical numbers. I’m interested in more suggestions on classical music as it is something I am interested in, but do not know much about.
The Iliad – Homer (Read)
The Odyssey – Homer (Read)
Oedipus the King – Sophocles (Read)
Oedipus at Colonnus – Sophocles (Read)
Antigone – Sophocles (Read)
Agamemnon – Aeschylus (Read)
The Libation Bearers – Aeschylus (Read)
Eumenides – Aeschylus (Read)
The Poetics – Aristotle (Read)
Gorgias – Plato (Read)
Euthyphro – Plato (Read)
Apology – Plato (Read)
Crito – Plato (Read)
Phaedo – Plato (Read)
The Republic – Plato
Aeneid – Virgil
Nicomachean Ethics – Aristotle
De Anima – Aristotle
Theatetus – Plato
Physics – Aristotle
Metaphysics – Aristotle
*The Symposium – Plato
Phaedrus – Plato
On the Nature of Things – Lucretius
On the Incarnation – Athanasius
Confessions – Augustine
City of God – Augustine
Proslogium – Anselm
Monologium – Anselm
Summa Theologiae – Aquinas
**Duns Scotus – Open to Suggestions
Divine Comedy – Dante
Canterbury Tales – Chauncer
As You Like It – Shakespeare
Henry IV – Shakespear
*The Prince – Machiavelli
Richard II – Shakespear
Don Quixote – Cervantes
St. Matthew’s Passion – Bach
Essays – Montaigne
Novum Organon – Bacon
*Discourse on Method – Descartes
*Meditations – Descartes
Pensees – Pascal
Paradise Lost – Milton
Leviathan – Hobbes
*Ethics – Spinoza
Discourse on Metaphysics, Monadology, Principles of Nature and Grace – Leibniz
A Treatise on Human Nature – Hume
Woman Holding a Balance, A Lady Writing – Vermeer
Gulliver’s Travels – Swift
Second Treatise on Government – Locke
On the Vindication of the Rights of Women – Wollstonecraft
Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics – Kant
Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals – Kant
Wealth of Nations – Adam Smith
The Federalist – Hamilton
Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
*War and Peace – Tolstoy
Logic – Hegel
Phenomenology of Spirit – Hegel
Capital – Marx
Fear and Trembling – Kierkegaard
*Tristan and Isolde – Wagner
Beyond Good and Evil – Nietzsche
*The Brothers Karamazov – Dostoevsky
Democracy in America – de Tocqueville
The Ego and the Id – Freud
This is what I have planned thus far. After this I may look into German Phenomenology with Husserl and Heidegger (and, perhaps, Gadamer). Moving afterwards into French thought with Sartre and Beauvoir. I might also consider reading some structuralist thought such as Saussure, and I might include some Bergson as well. This will not, of course, constitute everything that I read, but I feel that it provides me with a solid foundation of a reading list going forward in the next year and beyond. Through this reading I hope to gain a deeper appreciation for Western though. In this, I hope to be able to examine the threads of culture, literature and philosophy that have provided the groundwork for the Western ideology that I have been educated in and thrown into.
If you have any suggestions for particular translations (or recording) of any of these works, I would be happy to hear them. Thus far I have been using a mixture of public domain texts and what is contained in both my personal and local public library. Thus far, this method has been effective, but I imagine that I will need to purchase some of these texts in the future. I am also open to suggestions on texts to add (or even subtract) from this list. If there is a text (or musical piece) you believe that everyone should read that fits within the lineage I have provided above, please let me know about it, so that I can make to get to it eventually.
Update: While I don’t think I’ll be continuing with this plan in the near future (I made it to Aristotle’s Physics), I do hope to continue with this at some point. In any case, I’ll leave it here for the perusal of any who might be interested.