In the centre of it all

The Puzzle of Philosophy

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.

Basic Schema
Basic Structure.

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.

Saussure
Saussure’s System

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).

Sloterdijk
Sloterdijk’s 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.

Derrida

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.

capital

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).

capital

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.

Closing remarks

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.

Advertisements

Crepuscular Dawn Review/Presentation

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.

An drawing of the oblique function. (Source)

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.

Virilio1
A cross-section of The Church Sainte-Bernadette-du-Banlay in Nevers by Claude Parent and Paul Virilio (Source)

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.

Virilio2
The Church Sainte-Bernadette-du-Banlay in Nevers by Claude Parent and Paul Virilio (Source)

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.

Dromology

Bishop Abercius Marcellus - Origins of Christianity
Pharaoh with whip and hook (Source)

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.

Eugenics

File:‘Eternal Singularity’ by Mark Lloyd.jpeg
Eternal Singularity by Mark Loyd (Source)

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.

The World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. (Source)

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.

Photo of the Chernobyl Plant from April 1986. (Source)

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.

 

Lets Have a Conversation About Kevin O’Leary

 

Image result for Kevin O'Leary

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):

  1. Lied about the size of his inauguration crowd through his press secretary under the guise of “alternative facts
  2. Pushed through the passage of legislation that disparages indigenous peoples. Including, but not limited to a pipeline that Trump is invested in
  3. Defunding of the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment of the Humanities (which, to be honest, looks like a move towards a faux austerity, rather than populism)
  4. Threatened relationships with the USA’s closest allies (Canada and Mexico) by threatening the status of the North American Free Trade Agreement
  5. Cutting government funding to healthcare (repealing the APA)

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.

Image result for NoDAPL

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.

Can We Be Nonviolent

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.

 

Reference:
Eagleton, Terry. Why Marx was Right. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2011.

What is violence?

... that Dr. King's legacy commitment to non-violence presents to us

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.

On Positive and Negative Liberties

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.

Plato on the Fall of Ancient and Modern Greece - The Imaginative ...
Plato

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.

similar results jacob s ladder jacob s ladder circa 1925 european ...
Depiction of “Jacob’s Ladder”

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.

 

Works Cited:

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.

On Gentrification

... : Historic Second Ave. undergoes transformation in Cass Corridor
A photo within Cass Corridor

In terms of gentrification, I sometimes feel that my life and belief stand in contradiction. Ideologically, I stand opposed to gentrification, yet, with my current living situation, I could be seen as an agent of gentrification. The neighbourhood within Detroit that I live in is signified with two titles: Cass Corridor and Midtown. Cass Corridor has been known “as a poor downtrodden area” by locals to Detroit, and a history of the corridor can be read here. Recent movements, (spearheaded by wealthy elites such as Dan Gilbert) have led to increasing rebranding efforts in key neighbourhoods near and within the downtown core. The Cass Corridor has faced similar rebranding efforts. The neighbourhood has been renamed “Midtown” in an attempt to make it appear more friendly to outsiders than the old Cass Corridor. This rebranding is partially responsible for the influx of wealth into the Corridor which has displaced populations who have historically lived here  including the homeless the artists, the musicians, the workers, the elderly, and the mentally ill.

I currently live in this area of Detroit, in one of the older buildings that has not yet been renovated. Yet, I could still be classified as a wealthy young professional (though the wealthy part might not be the best designation at the moment, I still have the spending power and relative safety net that most people do not). Because of this designation, I have sometimes pondered whether or not I am morally complicit in the gentrification efforts of this community. I am an outsider who moved into this community, and without a doubt I’ve taken up a space that could have been filled with someone else who has lived here for a lot longer than I have. I have wondered about my place in this community and this city, and I think that it is important for me to analyze the way that gentrification works in order to understanding my role in the gentrifying efforts of Detroit. Do I have responsibility in this or not?

I think that an examination of how gentrification works can be useful in attempting to determine who has moral responsibility within the system. This exercise will, of course, be simplistic and not touch on the more nuanced and complex realities that exist within systems of gentrification, but it can allow us to determine how gentrification generally works. Cities are composed of a variety of neighbourhoods, each with varying cultures, peoples and costs. People tend to live near people who are similar to them. This takes place because of sorting efforts which take place as a result of various socio-economic phenomena. I want to suggest that there are both “organic” and “planned” sorting efforts. For instance, we can see that people of a certain culture or racial identity tend to live together. On the one hand, a more organic sorting takes place in that people who move to a new country tend to want to live near people who share their culture and language. As a result of this, we see places like “China Town” and “Little Italy” pop up within urban spaces. Yet at the same time there are “planned” sorting efforts which result in similar circumstances. Historically, we see many neighbourhoods implement rules that restrict the neighbourhood of only people who are white. In both of these cases people are sorted based on conditions that they don’t really have that much control over. In terms of “organic” cultural sorting efforts, one could move to a neighbourhood with no relation to their culture, but given the language barrier this seems close to being impossible. The conditions of culture are impossible to ignore as a strong factor in this sorting effort. In terms of a planned sorting efforts, these flows are impossible to ignore. One cannot move into a neighbourhood that one is barred from by law. Thus, it is material conditions, rather than intellectual actions, which lead these sorting efforts to occur. On top of cultural sorting efforts, we also see class based sorting efforts. It would be a mistake to suggest that the cultural and the economic sorting efforts to not intersect – they do – but given the simplistic nature of this exercise, I will not go into detail about this here. Economic sorting efforts would seem to be more organic than planned. Typically, people will move into an area that they can afford. Thus, people of similar economic wealth tend to congregate in similar areas. The material flows of wealth tend to  determine where someone will live. A city is composed of a multiplicity of little neighbourhoods which come about through a variety of sorting mechanisms. These neighbourhoods are divided in terms of wealth and culture (and probably other factors as well). Gentrification begins to occurs when a poorer area’s culture begins to be transformed by more wealthy interests. This tends to occur in a number of stages. First, poorer, creative types (often white), tend to move into a lower income (often non-white) neighbourhoods. These creative types may be motivated by a number of things (living authentically, the thrill of a different world, or even a fictional “blank slate”) but often the most prominent factor is cheap rent. Poorer artist types, looking for cheap rent go and buy or rent property within a poorer area of town (which, because racism has led people of colour to, generally, receive less payment for their labour, tend to be predominated by people of colour). These poorer white artists move into the community and begin to transform the space by transforming the art and culture. This creative class transforms the area into a more trendy, bohemian space. Others white people see the area not as it was, but now as a trendy area that they can move into. Wealthy land owners see this, and use it as an opportunity to buy property and transform the space by creating new housing and business that wealthier white professionals can purchase and frequent. Often (as is the case in with Cass Corridor/Midtown, as well as the transformation of Core City to West Corktown) these wealthy business people will attempt to rebrand a space in order to make it more appealing to young, wealthy professionals. This removes negative connotation from the neighbourhood. All of this results in land and rent prices rising in the area, which also raises property task. These rises in cost lead to a forcing out of community members who have been living in the area for decades. The history of the community and neighbourhood is effectively erased and replaced by a  trendy white faux utopia. An act of artisanal imperialism.

Given all of this, who is at fault in this equation? Who should be held morally responsible. Most of the individuals within this system of gentrification are not attempting to actively gentrify an area and drive those who have lived there out. Instead, people are driven by the material flows which force them to take certain economic actions. Outside of the efforts of capital to capitalize on a gentrifying and rebranding effort, it is difficult to place blame on individuals within gentrification efforts. Rather, when considering gentrification we must consider that it – like racism, sexism, transphobia, and other instances of oppression – is the result of the systems of oppression that exist within our societal spheres. People are reacting to material flows, and these flows exist within systems and machines of oppression which result in unintended results of gentrification. Thus, while it seems easy to blame individuals for gentrification, it would be better to focus on the primary cause of its creation: flows of capitalism. Once we see these issues as systemic we can stop blaming each other and start looking at the root of the problem.

Returning to Horseshoe Theory

A couple of weeks ago, I made a Facebook post complaining about someone using horseshoe theory in an argument regarding fascism. For those who aren’t familiar with the theory. Horseshoe theory believes that the political spectrum looks like a horseshoe with the “far right” and the “far left” actually being quite close together.

File:Political spectrum horseshoe model.svg - Wikimedia Commons
A diagram of horseshoe theory.

Ultimately, it is a theory used by centrists to attempt to persuade others (and themselves) that centrism is a superior political theory to politics both on the left and the right. Proponents of the theory will often turn to the authoritarian regimes of fascist Germany and communist USSR to suggest that, at their ridges, communism and fascism are essentially the same. Yet, this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of communism and fascism, those two historical examples, and the political left and right. Fascism retains ultranationalism, xenophobia, patriarchy, protectionist trade, strict hierarchical enforcement (i.e. race and class hierarchies), and a mixed/privatized economy. This was the case in fascist Germany where Hitler promised the bourgeois that he would outlaw labour unions in his rise to power.

“Hitler kept his promise to capital. After being declared Chancellor in January 1933 he outlawed both workers’ parties and the trade unions within a few months. Thousands of Social Democrats, Communists and trade unionists were arrested and murdered.”(Source)

Nazi Germany did not attempt to socialize the economy as proponents of horseshoe theory might have you believe. They were proponents of privatized industry – something far away from the socialist approaches in the USSR. Even though I don’t believe that the USSR represents an actual example of communism (particularly with and after Stalin it functioned as state capitalism), it didn’t hold ultranationalism, xenophobia, patriarchy, protectionist trade, strict hierarchical enforcement and a mixed/privatized economy as central tenants of its ideology (though it may have practiced some of those things). The only real similarity between the two regimes was that they were authoritarian. Proponents of Horseshoe theory might use this to suggest that authoritarianism is intrinsic to both the far right and the far left in an attempt to prop up their theory, but this is absurd. It reveals a complete ignorance of multiple political ideologies on both the right and the left: most notably anarchist or autonomous ideologies on the far left which completely shun any institutional political authority.

Thinking about the horseshoe theory, I’ve come to think that this discussion comes about because of a larger error which is taking place. I’ve come to see the idea of a “political spectrum” in general as one that is, itself, problematic. The political spectrum is not a fixed entity, and political theory or ideology do not need to condition themselves to fit into its structure. Horseshoe theory attempts to fit all of the political into a neat little classical liberal box which believes that all political ideology flows out of liberal/conservative dichotomy. Horseshoe theory reduces all of political ideology to notions of liberty (both social and economic, to varying degrees), but political ideologies tend to not fit into these structures. Both “leftist” and “rightist” politics should not be forced into the categories of “more liberty” or “less liberty”, but rather should be understood under the nuanced positions of each theory or ideology.

Attempts to map the political spectrum can get pretty messy…

Political ideologies do not need to neatly fit within a spectrum of the political for the spectrum itself is no more than a mere taxonomy, a device for organizing knowledge of various ideologies. To suggest that it is otherwise – thus granting the political spectrum ontological priority over political ideologies – would be to render the political spectrum a transcendental property. This is absurd. There is a multiplicity of political ideologies that are disparate from one another in a multiplicity of ways. These cannot be nicely mapped onto a structure that attempts to rule them. The ideologies exist prior to the structure, and the structure simply seeks to understand them.

Is this not true of most taxonomic classification? That they are useful as organizing devices, but fall flat on their faces when taken as universals?

Why did the Christians desire Trump?

Just a note before I begin. I thought that I would just mention that this piece is pretty rough. I wrote it to work through my thoughts on the most recent election. It is by no means polished, but I wanted to post it as my blog post this week. My opinion is just one of many think pieces and responses, and it doesn’t really bring forward any opinion or insight but my own struggle to grapple with the results of the recent election. Please feel free to offer feedback or advice on this as I continue to struggle with the political and theological. Because this is more of a personal reflection I haven’t cited strongly. If desired I can look to find citations for facts and evidence that I’ve presented offhand. The purpose of this is not a rigorous investigation into the theories I’ve provided, but a personal grappling which may someday turn into such a rigorous investigation.

Image result for God bless America

Introduction

On the evening of November 8th I felt anxiety and shock. This wasn’t necessarily anxiety for myself (Despite being an immigrant to the United States, I was thrown into this world with a whole heap of privilege), but rather, an anxiety for all of those who don’t have the privilege of being a white, straight, cisgender, male identifying person. My anxiety goes out for the people of the future, and the horror of the world that they might be able to live with. My anxiety goes out to our non-human friends, and to the earth. Who knows what the current administration might hold for these groups?

In the wake of this anxiety, I’ve been trying to make sense of why people voted for Trump – especially the estimated 80% of white evangelical voters who voted for him. I do recognize that a good number of Christians likely voted for Trump in order to gain a conservative Supreme Court. I get that, but at the same time I still find it horrifying that so many Christians took to the voting booths and voted for a xenophobic bigot. Christianity, as I understand it, holds to the central tenants that we must love one another unconditionally, that we must help the oppressed, and serve those who persecute us. Xenophobic nationalism does the exact opposite of these things. Those evangelicals who voted for Trump did not vote in favour of the oppressed or the persecuted – they voted for the oppressor and the persecutor. This is what I’ve been struggling with.

What I’ve been trying to situate is this: why did the Christians desire Trump? What caused evangelical Christians – en mass – to go out and vote for a candidate and party that seems paradoxical to the teaching of Christianity? This post will show my rough conclusions on the topic. I begin by looking at the death of God in the 19th and 20th century to show the need to develop and create new gods. From there I explore the transformation of Christianity into the American religion, a chimera of Christianity and capitalism. Under this framework, I examine the principal claim of the Trump campaign: “Make America Great Again” by suggesting that this assertion is synonymously a call to “Make God Great Again”, “Make Capitalism Great Again” and “Make Whiteness Great Again.”

This post seems especially pertinent given recent events which include increases in violent attacks  against minority groups in the United States and the release of a horrifying video showing “alt-right” Nazi propaganda with a focus on white power. This latter group has ties to Breitbart media and Stephen Bannon who is a “alt-right” proponent (read: Nazi) and was recently announced as President elect Donald Trump’s chief strategist and Senior Counselor.

The Death of God

“‘Whither is God’ He cried, ‘I will tell you. We have killed him – you an I’”

Nietzsche’s cry of the death of God is often misunderstood by people who don’t read Nietzsche. People like to throw out (or criticize) the claim that “God is dead” without actually unpacking what that means. The Death of God is the loss of ground. This loss of ground might be the loss of empirical ground, moral ground, immunological ground, etc. For instance, Peter Sloterdijk writes that, throughout Christendom, God functioned as an sphere or ground that provided immunological protection against the external or outside. Developments in modernity led to the shattering of this sphere. With the ability and desire to transverse the globe through scientific and technological advancement, humans no longer needed God to account for many of the mysteries of the world. Enlightenment thought’s emphasis on rationalism and science provided explanation for the mysterious. God was no longer necessary to provide a grounding principle for experienced phenomena.  With an increase in global travel, the outside was no longer as terrifying making the protection that God provided meaningless.

In Nietzsche’s writing, God’s death is the demise of a moral grounding. Unlike the empirical and rational spheres, the moral retains an element of mystery. Questions of morality cannot be answered through empirical or rational means in the same way that questions relating subjects like biology or physics can. Nietzsche is writing during the 19th century when the church is still a central agency within the European public sphere. Yet, Nietzsche sees that the actions of those around him are not grounded in a morality based on Christian principles. Nietzsche fears that the God whom the people profess has, in essence, died, because no one is following Her. What Nietzsche fears in the Gay Science is a loss of the moral ground and a fall into nihilism – a groundlessness. The Gay Science the madman cries out in vain over the loss of God. It would be a mistake to call Nietzsche a proponent of nihilism: Nietzsche initially mourns the loss of the moral grounding, fearing that the people are governed by nothing (Nietzsche comes to affirm the groundlessness, but that is for another post).

The American Religion

“What, after all, are these churches now if they are not the tombs an sepulchres of God?”

What, then, comes after the death of God? One way of responding to the death of God is to replace God with another God or gods. This requires retaining the religious qualities of the Christian deity, while attributing those characteristics to Her replacement. In leftist and neoliberal circles, N/nature has taken on the attributes of the divine. Jeremy Butman states that “as the Christian God retreated after Descartes, the attributes traditionally ascribed to Him — goodness, perfection and permanence — were in different ways transposed onto the body of nature.” Christianity’s notion of the divine provides a foundation or ground for the contemporary liberal movement of environmental sustainability. God, as traditionally understood, is ignored or considered insignificant, while the attributes of God are retained.

Conservative circles did not, in the same way, retreat from Christianity. God, the church, and the religious fervour remained accepted truths within these groups. For many, the belief in God still remains a central precept to one’s life. This is especially the case in America, where Christianity is still upheld as a stronghold. Yet, even from the earliest conceptions of America, we see that ‘God’ is not identical to the God of Christianity. The classic quote of Benjamin Franklin that “God helps those who help themselves” shows the merging of the American mythos with that of the Christian mythos. Within America, particularly in protestant America, the role of capitalism and Christianity begin to merge.  Weber’s protestant work ethic communicates a blending of capitalist and protestant forces. The difference between capitalism and Christianity become opaque. Many would attribute the prosperity of America’s free market on the centrality of Christianity within the nation. Within this mythology, American exceptionalism bled into American Christianity.

Walter Benjamin writes that capitalism adopts religious structure and tendencies to become, itself, a religion. In America it becomes difficult to toe the line between the  religion of capitalism and the religion of Christianity. Together these forces would become what I’ll term “the American religion.” The Bible suggests that one cannot serve two master, one cannot serve both God and money. In order to solve this problem – so that  this religion could retain both the God of capital and the God of Christianity – it was necessary for the American religion to merge the two deities. As Benjamin writes in Capitalism as Religion “God’s transcendence has fallen, but he is not dead. He is drawn into the fate of man” (p 260). God doesn’t die for the American religion. God is retained within capitalism. Benjamin writes at length on the merging of capitalism and Christianity into the American religion:

“Capitalism is a purely cultic religion, without dogma. Capitalism itself developed parasitically on Christianity in the West–not in Calvinism alone, but also, as must be shown, in the remaining orthodox Christian movements – in such a way that, in the end, its history is essentially the history of its parasites of capitalism. Compare the holy iconography of various religions on the one hand with the banknotes of various countries on the other: The spirit that speaks from the ornamentation of banknotes….Christianity in the time of the Reformation did not encourage the emergence of capitalism, but rather changed itself into capitalism. Methodologically [it] would be [productive] to first examine what associations money has adopted with myth in the course of history – until it could draw from Christainity enough mythical elements in order to constitute its own myth.” (p. 263-264)

The American religious myth might be the most strong example of Benjamin’s claims. A country where Christianity and capitalism merge into the central mythology and religion in order to become the true American religion.

Making America Great Again

What does it mean to “Make America great again”? At the time of Trump’s campaign the economy was doing decently, unemployment was quite low, and America, by generally used metrics, was doing pretty well. What is failing – in the eyes of some, at least – is the great American religion. Despite unemployment being low, wages for many white workers have stagnated since the 1970s while the cost of living has continued to rise. This is a major issue, and one that both the left and right should be critical of. Elsewhere, many see the atheism of academics and elites as a certain godlessness that goes against not only Christianity but America. “Progressive values” of free choice abortion and same sex marriage are seen as direct attacks on Christianity, but this is a Christianity imbued with social and class antagonism which see the move towards egalitarian institutions as a direct attack on the American religion. This Christianity is spearheaded by the patriarchy and social antagonisms of capitalism. The American religion places an emphasis on individualism (c.f. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps). Thus, when proponents of the American religion see themselves falling, they see their religion under seige. A need was created to “Make America great again” which functioned as a rallying call to “Make the American religion great again” while simultaneously working towards “Making Christianity/Capitalism/Us (White, evangelicals) great again”.

The use of “again” signals the fact that this call is inherently reactionary. The American religion must have been great at some point for it to be returned to. Given the rhetoric of the Trump campaign it doesn’t seem far fetched that this (imaginary) past existed some time when there was stricter separation between the races, a time when White communities were allowed to deny access to Black people; the time of Jim Crow. This is emphasized in the campaign rhetoric surrounding Islamic refugees and Mexican immigrants. American greatness can only be realized through the eradication of the Other. A return to greatness is conditional on building a wall on the Mexican border and insinuating the dismissal of Islamic refugees from the country. Xenophobic and nationalist rhetoric is necessarily tied to the promotion of the great American religion. Keeping people who aren’t white out of America functions as the innermost ethic of making America great. (This isn’t even to mention the promotion of ‘stop and frisk’ as a means of controlling the Black community.) In order to make America great,  America must first be cleansed of all its undesirables – it must be cleansed of those who aren’t white so that it can be made great for those who are.

Desiring Greatness

“No, the masses were not innocent dupes; at a certain point, under a certain set of conditions, they wanted fascism”

Much like the crowd who desired Barabbas, and the masses who desired Hitler, evangelical Christians desired and elected Trump. This was caused, at least in part, through the polymerization of Christianity, capitalism, whiteness and patriotism under the guise of the American religion. The Christians desired greatness. They desired the return to the greatness of the American religion. What American evangelicals believed was that their God – their great religion – was under threat (whether this religion was ever great, and whether it ever ceased to be great is another conversation). In the minds of many individuals this great religion needed to be saved.

Will Trump be able to make their religion great again? We cannot let that happen. Because making the American religion great requires the elimination of the Other. It means oppression for many who are seen as minor within the American landscape. We see this already in the propaganda of right wing Nazi groups in the United States – groups that are no longer afraid of professing white supremacy – and we see it in the attacks on individuals who do not fit the privileged norm. This is not something that I, nor any person who professes that love should conquer hate, should hope for. We must fight against the desire for hate with an affirmation of love, affirming differences rather than attempting to homogenize them. The God of America may have won the election, but we cannot allow it to win the day.

 

Citations and Mentions

Benjamin, W. (2005). Capitalism as Religion. In E. Mendieta (Ed.), C. Kautzer (Trans.), The Frankfurt School on Religion: Key Writings by the Major Thinkers (pp. 259–262). New York ; London: Routledge.

Butman, J. (2016, August 8). Against “Sustainability.” The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/08/opinion/against-sustainability.html

Gilles, D., & Guattari, F. (1994). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. University Of Minnesota Press.

Nietzsche, F. (1974). The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. (W. Kaufmann, Trans.) (1 edition). New York: Vintage. Thesis 125.

Sloterdijk, P. (2014). Globes: Spheres Volume II: Macrospherology. (W. Hoban, Trans.). Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext.

On Affect

Note: This post contains spoilers for the film Inglorious Basterds

Asger Jorn 1961 'The Suicide of Mr. H', Institute of Arts, Detroit ...
Asger Jorn ‘The Suicide of Mr. H’ – at the Detroit Institute of Art

Since reading Deleuze and Guattari’s “What is Philosophy” earlier this year, my engagement with art has been profoundly impacted Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of the subject in that book. D/G think about art in a way that is different from most engagements with the subject that I have seen. For many, a piece of art is imbued with meaning from a variety of factors such as the artist, the cultural environment, the contemporary zeitgeist, or what have you. For Deleuze and Guattari, art does not contain meaning, rather art serves as a means of preservation. For Deleuze and Guattari, art preserves “a bloc of sensations, that is to say, a compound of percepts and affects” (WTP 164). The key to art, for Deleuze and Guattari, is its ability to produce sensations in bodies. They key element of this production are the affective capabilities of a piece of art.

The concept of “affect” is one that Deleuze and Guattari borrow from Spinoza. Spinoza defines affect as “affections of the body by which the body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time the ideas of these affections” (The Ethics, 11/139). According to Spinoza, “the human body can be affected in many ways in which its power of acting is increased or diminished, and also in others which render its power of acting neither greater nor less” (11/140). This means that various affects, such as love, hate, anger, hunger, etc., impact our bodies in certain ways that shape the desire or will of the body. The body then responds to these affects. Spinoza gives a number of examples:

“the infant believes he freely wants the milk; the angry child that he wants vengeance; and the timid, flight. So the drunk believes it is from a free decision of the mind that he speaks the things he later, when sober, wishes he had not said. So the madman, the chatterbox, the child, and a great many people of this kind believe they speak from a free decision of the mind, when really they cannot contain their impulse to speak” (11/143).

In each of these examples the actor believes that they are acting freely, but really they are acting as a result of affects which are acting upon their bodies. The infant is affected by hunger, the drunk is affected by alcohol, etc. People are conscious of their actions, so they believe themselves free, but there are other actions which are acting upon their bodies in ways that shape their desire, and ultimately their action.

Deleuze and Guattari expand on the idea of the affect. Affects are central to their notion of becomings. Becomings take place as the affects affecting bodies. They describe affect in their “Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal…” Plateau “For the affect is not a personal feeling, nor is it a characteristic; it is the effectuation of a power of the pack that throws the self into upheaval and makes it reel” (ATP 240). This might not be the most clear description, but the affect is an action or power upon a body. The power of the pack (a multiplicity) which throws itself into a body to cause some action to take place. Affects take place between bodies. One body affects another in shifting its desire or will. The result of the affect is a becoming: “Affects are precisely these non-human becomings of man. just as precepts – including the town – are nonhuman landscapes of nature. Not a ‘minute of the world passes’ says Cézanne that we will preserve if we do not ‘become that minute’” (WiP 169). What this means, roughly, is that a body is infected by another body at a minor level, which shifts the being. This intermingling of bodies is the affect affecting the body, creating a new sensation.


Before we continue, it is important to realize that these sensations are not conscious. Affect, here, is different from the use of affect as an emotional state. If we look a moment at Anti-Oedipus, a text that doesn’t actually touch on affects directly, we can see an example of how the affect works at a level below the intellect. A central question for AO is Reich’s question of “Why did the masses desire fascism?” (AO 345). D/G deny Reich’s answer, which relied on the ideological, subjective, irrational and negative criteria. The cause of this desire took place at a lower level: “There is an unconscious libidinal investment of desire that does not necessarily coincide with the preconscious investment of interest and that explains how the latter can be perturbed and perverted in ‘the most somber organization,’ below ideology” (AO 345). The shift in desire takes place at a pre-ideological level – on the level of affect. It is the rhythms of the Fascists, the rhetoric and the speeches which acted directly upon the bodies of the masses. These rhythms affected the bodies in such a way that their desire was predisposed towards fascism.

At face value this concept – that it was the sounds and rhythms acting upon the bodies of the people which shaped their will to desire fascism – seems absurd. However, if we look at an example in film it might begin to make a bit more sense. In the film Inglorious Basterds by Quinten Tarantino, there is a scene that takes place right after the Basterds (a group of American Jewish militants sent to Europe with the task of “Killin’ Nazi’s”) have defeated a group of Nazi soldiers. Three Nazi’s remain from the conflict, and the Basterds have taken them prisoner. Lt. Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt, interrogates the commanding officer of the Nazi. The commander refuses to answer Raine’s questions, so Raine threatens him with the “Bear Jew” – a member of the Basterds who “Bashes [Nazi] brains in with a baseball bat.” After the commander continues to refuse, the music begins to swell up, and the “Bear Jew” – Sgt. Donny Donowitz, played by Eli Roth – comes into the scene and, at climax of the music, begins to beat the Nazi commander with a baseball bat. As he strikes the Nazi officer with the bat, the music stops, and Donowitz beats the Nazi soldier to death to the cheers of his comrades.

The horrifying aspect of this scene is that, as it is taking place, you begin to cheer for the man who is about to beat another human being to death with a baseball bat. The music wells up inside of you, affecting you in such a way that you want it to happen, you desire this horrifying event to occur. There are multiple things acting upon you in that moment: The music, the events of the film leading up to this occurrence, the smugness of the Nazi officer, one’s prior knowledge of the horrors committed by the Nazi’s upon the Jewish people, etc. All of these things culminate in our desire to watch a man beaten to death with a baseball bat. Finally, it happens; the music stops; the viewer comes back to reality. We watch a man beaten to death on the screen, to the cheers of others. We hear ourselves cheering and are disgusted that we could cheer for a man to be beaten by a bat. Those things – the music, the events leading up to the killing – are things that have affected us. These affects have shaped our desire. They are affective powers which intermingle with our bodies and render us to act in a certain way. Tarantino’s films are particularly proficient at doing this – moving the audience to desire things that are contrary to the ways that they usually feel.

Returning to art, Deleuze and Guattari argue in Anti-Oedipus that “art, as soon as it attains its own grandeur, its own genius, creates chains of decoding and deterritorailization that serve as the foundation for desiring machines, and make them function.” (p. 368). Art opens up new lines of flight and escape; it is able to tear down – deterritorialize – the structures or territories that are built upon a body. Art, then, is able to create sensations that work upon the body, affecting it in various ways, in order to shape desire. This is brought forward even more in Deleuze and Guattari’s final text where, as mentioned near the beginning, they posit that the purpose of art is to preserve and create sensations. For D/G “Abstract art and conceptual art are two recent attempts to bring art and philosophy together, but they do not substitute the concept for the sensation; rather they create sensations and not concepts” (WiP 198). Through these sensations art is able to build monuments, but these monuments are different than we might initially thing. According to these authors “A monument does not commemorate or celebrate something that happened but confides to the ear of the future the persistent sensations that embody the event: the constantly renewed suffering of men and women, their re-created protestations, their constantly resumed struggle” (WiP 176-177). The purpose of art, then, is to create sensations and build monuments which perpetuate a struggle. Art’s purpose is to affect bodies in ways that shape desire. Art affects bodies – and effective art is art that more strongly affects our bodies.