Thursday, July 7, 2011


I don't know how much of a fuss there was about the whole atheist airplane thing, but I am friends with American Atheists on face book, and they posted quite a few little comments on it. The scoop is that AA attempted to hire planes in all 50 states on the 4th of July to carry banners that say "GodLESS America" and "Atheism is patriotic." A few states proved impossible because they could not find a pilot who did not fear retribution, either in the form of the loss of a job or the loss of a life.

For a second I would like to leave aside the virtues of the campaign itself and marvel at the sort of person who is offended by atheism, and who would be sufficiently offended to be driven to violence.

As for the virtues of the campaign, it should first be noted that if nothing else AA has done some work to let people know that atheists are not rare. In Seattle, where I live for now, one might be inclined to look at these flying banners as a waste of money and fuel, since here, as in many urban environments, we meet with very little oppression. Even as nearby as Spokane, however (where I wish they had flown the plane instead), the A-word is not so welcome, and, especially if I were a budding atheist teenager, a symbol of community might do quite a bit of good.

There are, I'm sure, a few other ways to look at this awareness-raising that might not be as optimistic as all this, but I honestly haven't given it a great deal of thought. I've been thinking about another side of things that will tie in with a post I've been thinking of making for a while.

I can dig what they mean when they say "Atheism is patriotic," so what follows here is not really meant to be a retort. I recognize that (some) theists use "atheism" as a thought-stopping abstraction, implying or openly stating that "these people" are outsiders with an alien or non-existent moral compass, whose very existence jeopardizes America's fragile capitalist utopia. So when AA says "Atheism is patriotic," clearly they are normalizing the reality of an atheist voice in the political landscape.

This is where Empire comes in. (I had hoped to return to reading this book again, but alas it was not meant to be. What follows is from months-old memory; I will not be able to return to this book until October, looks like.) For Hardt and Negri--who in this respect follow almost directly Deleuze and Guattari--the most important political and ethical achievement of post-medieval European thought is atheism. Indeed, the bulk of what is often referred to by the short-hand of Enlightenment thinking has been, by H&N's account, a strategic, covertly theistic revision of the advances made by humanistic philosophers since Duns Scotus.

I have to digress a bit here, because H&N's terminology is a bit problematic (and basically has to be). When H&N say "humanism," they are referring to a specific strain of post-medieval thought that really only includes some of those we are accustomed to thinking of as humanists. Sketched briefly, this line begins with the aforementioned Duns Scotus, and includes Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Deleuze. What distinguishes these thinkers from the much broader field of philosophers normally assembled under the general banner of humanism is what Deleuze calls a philosophy of immanence. These are philosophers whose primary ethical/political program is a theory of humanity without transcendence. They observe first that there is nothing in the human experience that is not directly sensible (that is, experienced by the senses); they observe second that recourse to transcendental, divine, or mediating forces is both unmotivated by observation and (this is the important bit) enables bad ethical/political reasoning.

Now part of the confusion here is due to the fact that this had been similarly observed prior to both H&N and Deleuze in the works of Althusser and Foucault. In "The Humanist Controversy," which I may have mentioned here before, Althusser argues emphatically that Marx was not a humanist on exactly the grounds that humanism as Althusser understands it is essentially if covertly theistic. The humanism from which Althusser is defending our memory of Marx is Feuerbach's humanism, which operates through transposing onto "man" those qualities of autonomy etc. which we had previously assigned to "God." H&N push this analysis even further, ascribing to all those philosophers of mediation and transcendence, including (crucially) Kant and Hegel, this same form of covert theism. What is at stake here first is the political refusal on the part of those "state" philosophers (in Deleuze's terms) to acknowledge the extent of existence. In every domain, when faced with the reality of immanence, these philosophers turn instead to mediation or transcendence, both denying the vitality of unmediated reality and manufacturing a false world that lays claim to the achievements and qualities of reality.

This brings us to the second, more important stake. Wrapped up in the Enlightenment insistence on mediation and transcendence is an implicit mandate for sovereign rule. The logic of theism--which I have been using as a short-hand for a belief in some extra-human force or authority--transfers to and supports the logic of the authoritative state. It is by this logic that we find ourselves, even in post-monarchical society, constantly returning to centralized models of the state, and particularly models of the state that centralize power on a single person. For H&N, and for D&G before them, the escape from state oppression must coincide with the escape from theological repression. In an alternative formulation, the acceptance of humanity as being capable of collective self-rule (which we should not confuse with anarchy) coincides with the acceptance of humans as parts of a fully immanent, rhyzomatic system, which is not overcoded or dismissed by pointing at "god" or even at "mankind."

In this sense, in an extreme, ethically and politically focused form, atheism cannot be patriotic, for the simple reason that the concept of patriotism relies on the sovereignty of the nation-state, which itself is a theocratic concept.

Friday, May 20, 2011

More like "Boresmopolitanism"...

I have, until about a week ago, been reading an excellent book by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri called Empire, and I was looking forward to writing a little on their association of theology with governmental sovereignty. Regrettably I have to put that off--I will hopefully remember to get to it--since I've been distracted by a book I just finished reading for seminar. I'd like to talk about this book for a moment in stead.

The book is one I have recommended, prematurely, to at least one of you, and though it's not a bad book, I must rescind my recommendation. It is not a waste of time, but it is also not time particularly well spent. The book is Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism.

The gist of this book is that as citizens of the world we are all responsible to one another, and that we therefore must do the best we can to be good to one another. The banality of this position is the main reason I no longer recommend the book. (My growing impression is that American philosophy busies itself only with tackling such challenging questions as this.)

Rather than issuing a full-fledged critique of the book, which would waste all of our time, I'd like to rehash a discussion from class. Toward the end of his book, Appiah reviews a prominent American philosopher's claim regarding moral obligations. If you were walking down a country lane dressed in your finest and saw a child drowning in a pond just off the path, would you dive in to save it, ruining your expensive cloths? The obvious answer--few would disagree--is yes; the life of an innocent is more important than the finest of finery. Would you stop and pick up an injured hitch-hiker, knowing both that if you did not, he would lose his foot, and that if you did he would bleed all over the leather interior of your brand-new Jaguar? (Nevermind this question: would you kill a cow to make your car comfortable?) Here more people would equivocate, but most surely would save the man's foot at the expense of the car. So then, if you could donate $300 to save 10 starving African children, would you? What if you just did; would you again? (Surely the second 10 children are as important as the first 10.) When would you stop? When would you be ethically permitted to stop?

The philosopher Appiah cites claims that you stop donating money when your life is at risk. Appiah finds some faults in this problem. The strongest sticking point is the: would you save the drowning child from the first example if you knew you could sell your suit and save 100 more children?

Now, in our class discussion of this, I asserted that it is patently obvious that the ethical decision, given perfect information, is to live in poverty so that others--many many others--needn't. I further asserted that this truth was evident to anyone with access to perfect information. My philosophy colleagues were eager to provide contradictory evidence from their experience teaching ethics to undergrads: it is apparently common that undergrads are willing to sacrifice a stranger's life for a latte. Overwhelmed by the urgency of my colleagues' rejoinder, I returned that this is an error based on incomplete information: the student doesn't really know what is at stake, because s/he does not know suffering.

I think this response was correct within the framework of our discussion, but it is incorrect in terms of a pragmatic ethics. The problem none of us addressed, and the problem that plague's both Appiah's book and all of the American academic philosophy I've read so far (which is admittedly not very much) is one that many continental philosophers have incorporated fully into their epistemology at least since Adorno, and more likely since Marx. We are trying here to address a question of ethics solely from the perspective of exchange value.

The question Would you exchange a latte for a person? is the wrong question, and it always leads to the followup quesiton, How many lattes is a person worth? (Or how many people is a latte worth?) The undergrad above didn't cling to his/her latte because it was more valuable than a stranger, nor because s/he didn't understand fully the concept of suffering (though this too is true, no doubt. Isn't it always true?) We have to conceive first of the starving person as something other than an object of exchange, and second (this is even more difficult but in this case no less crucial) we must conceive of the latte as something other than an object of exchange.

We have the vocabulary readily at our disposal to talk about humans as unique and unexchangeable, and I won't rehears this step here; surely it is still abhorrent to most people to consider people in terms of their dollar value (hence in part the success of "Fight Club"). What about the latte?

I submit that the reason we have a difficult time thinking of the latte outside of the system of exchange (aside from the fact that we are very used to exchanging money for lattes) is that we tend to think of human identity in terms of bodily coherence. A person, common sense tells us, is that which is that person's body. We know from psychology however that our brains don't really work that way. Mirror and "Gandhi" neurons obscure this ostensibly clean boundary (which is why, in part, maybe only in small part, local violence is much more distressing than distant violence). We also know that when a person drives a car or uses a tool, that tool becomes a part of the person's body image; we literally conceive of these objects like parts of our body. Why would the latte be any different?

The argument here is that the latte, though it may seem to have an exchangeable dollar value (it does not: try selling your latte to the next person in line) actually constitutes a part of the undergrad's identity. Now, we can still expect, ethically, that a person be willing to sacrifice a part of his or her identity for the safety and comfort of another, but talking about this in terms of monetary value misses the point; it is founded in capital, and essentially does not value the human life it argues we must support. We should expect the undergrad, whose identity is more or less constantly under pressure from peers and parents and others (though surely not so intensely as it was in high school or before) to cling more ardently to their identity than a more confident and safe adult--though certainly many many adults are also constantly anxious about the safety of their identity.

For a concluding remark, I would like to follow this thread quite far afield from the previous topic. Now most reasonable people, it seems, do not like our compatriots in the tea party. We call them stupid, racist, selfish, short-sighted, and we tend to think of them as a group that deliberately tries to hurt our country (and in particular women and the urban poor). What we typically refer to as identity politics is extremely important to the tea party phenomenon: its base is conservative white Americans who organized in response to the election of a black president, they ardently oppose gay- and women's-rights, they are vociferously and inhumanely anti-immigrant. From the progressive perspective, it is easy to think of them as simply evil (or to think of them simply as evil), and while their political agenda is surely, obviously, patently harmful, it does us no good--it gets us nowhere--to call them evil. When we conceive of their political position in terms of anxiety--misplaced anxiety, I would suggest--about identity, we are in a better position to redirect their power positively. I do not have any idea how we would actually do this on anything other than a person-to-person scale. :/

Monday, March 14, 2011

Planned Hatred

Being a conscientious participant in the American democratic process, I recently wrote to my congresswoman, Cathy McMorris Rogers. The purpose of my email was to express my dissatisfaction with Ms. McMorris Rogers concerning her decision to stand with the majority of her party in the House of Representatives in voting to eliminate government funding for Planned Parenthood.

The ideological context of funding Planned Parenthood may appear complicated, and I won't go into it here; suffice it to say that regardless of how you feel about abortion (whether you think it's a right or a wrong, if you'll excuse my pun), the fact is that the "planning" portion of Planned Parenthood's budget far surpasses the portion dedicated to abortions, and it is further not unreasonable to theorize that PPH prevents--through education and contraception--far more abortions than it provides. (I, regrettably, have not researched any empirical support for this claim, and I welcome comments with evidence.)

Ms. McMorris Rogers replied to my email with a form letter, replicated below:

Dear Peter,

Thank you for contacting me regarding funding for Planned Parenthood. It is an honor to represent the people of Eastern Washington and I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts with me.

I do not believe that federal funds should go to Planned Parenthood. Last year, U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) did a study revealing that the federal government's support for Planned Parenthood has reached billions, a large percentage of which go to family planning services. In 2009, according to Planned Parenthood's own records, 332,278 abortions were performed. This is unacceptable. The GAO study and Planned Parenthood's statistics demonstrate that in the last several years, focus has not been on the needs of the county. We need to focus on jobs, balancing the budget, and our national debt. To that end, I supported efforts to eliminate federal funds to Planned Parenthood.

Thank you again for contacting me on this important issue. As your Representative in Congress, I am committed to putting the best interests of Eastern Washington first. I invite you to visit my website at for additional information or to sign up for my e-newsletter. Please do not hesitate to contact me if I can be of further assistance.

Best Wishes,
Cathy McMorris Rodgers
Member of Congress

Now, one expects that she would avoid supporting her position that 332,278 abortions is "unacceptable." (It seems to me a startlingly low number when compared to any cause of death--driving for example, or smoking, or war. Again, I welcome evidence on this point.) The American debate on abortion is not a debate, after all, but the statement of claims.

What I take issue with, or rather, what I did not expect, was the claim that "the federal government's support for Planned Parenthood has reached billions." Billions of dollars, it is presumed. She does not specify the time period, but since budget numbers are often presented in annual totals, it seems that this is her implication. According to (an anti-choice site), the GAO number is $650 million, but not over one year: $650 million over seven years. ( goes on to tally funding for plan B outside of PPH--which they count as abortion. Taken together, these numbers to total to over $1 billion, though again over seven years. Nevermind, again, that most of this funding--95% in the case of PPH--goes to family planning, not to abortions. And nevermind again that they will not analyze the logic behind their claim that abortion is evil.)

I do not know what percentage of the annual budget PPH funding constitutes (and still does as long as none of these budgets are signed), but I do know it is pathetically small. The federal assault on PPH (as well as PBS and NPR), while couched in terms of deficits, is ideological, but in order to garner wide-spread public support, it is important to deceive the voting public into believing that the dollar amounts dedicated to PPH (as well as PBS and NPR) are far larger than they are.

Many have commented on why this ideological war is being waged, particularly taking note of the odd alliance between the extremely wealthy and the middle and lower classes. The explanation du jour is that Republicans since Reagan are exploiting the socially conservative bias of much of the middle and lower class in order to convince them to vote against their own interests. This explanation is compelling, and surely true, but it doesn't quite get to the heart of the matter, at least not in the present-day setting. In fact, from one perspective, we might suggest that the right has an incentive not to pass thoroughly regressive legislation, since doing so would erode the dedication of their base; why bother to vote if you're agenda has already passed?

I think Naomi Wolf's editorial on feminism in the Middle East revolts, which you can find at al Jazeera, sheds some further light. Wolf argues that one important source for the relative success of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions has been the dramatic increase in the number of educated women in these countries, saying that it is easy to rule a population when over half of them cannot read or write (and therefore organize in a modern world). The success of the ruling class, in other words, is defined in large part by the structured partitioning of its population. Here we find, in clear terms, the core of conservatism, as well as where its name comes from. The business of the ruling class (and this is why business is allied with the right) is to maintain or solidify its strength, and this is achieved through partitioning its subjects.

The attack on PPH, which provides birth control--both in the form of contraception and in the form of education--to millions of women, is an attack on women themselves. But, of course, not all women. Wealthy women are not effected, nor are many rightist Christian women, who see their own bodies as baby machines. Many feminists have commented on the importance of the development of effective and affordable birth control for the emancipation of women. When we dismantle PPH, we revoke the access to birth control, and therefore to relatively unfettered admittance into a society of equals, to countless low-income women.

There is no such childish thing as evil. People do tremendously bad things, and perhaps they sometimes do them for no reason. But the strategic decision to exclude millions of women from a society of equals is not done to hurt those women, it is done to keep society divided and weak. To borrow from Stephen Colbert, these are the least of our brothers and sisters--as are the teachers in Wisconsin, or the "illegal" immigrants in Arizona. They are not being attacked out of bigotry or hatred; they are being attacked in order to cultivate bigotry and hatred.

Saturday, January 29, 2011


The way I was educated I was not given the meaning of discipline. I was told that if I were going to be a composer I should know harmony, counterpoint, and all those things. you are told that you have to study those things, although they are of no use to you ultimately, and that you learn those things in order later to give them up when finally you get around to self-expression. But this isn't the nature of discipline. True discipline is not learned in order to give it up, but rather in order to give oneself up. Now, most people never even learn what discipline is. It is precisely what the Lord meant when he said, give up your father and mother and follow me. It means give up the things closest to you. It means give yourself up, everything, and do what it is you are going to do. At that point, what have you given up? your likes, your dislikes, etc. When it becomes clear, as it now becomes to many people, that the old disciplines need no longer be taken seriously, what is going to provide the path to the giving up of oneself?

(John Cage in Richard Kostelanetz ed., John Cage, an Anthology, 13-14)

I'm putting this quotation here in part so I can find it again easily enough. Quite a bit is made, especially in the arts and humanities, of the perceived shift from the strict disciplinary boundaries of modernism to postmodernism's aspirations of fluidity. (I put little stock in either claim, since in both cases they mistake the example for the rule--compare Greenberg and Adorno, for example.) Especially in feminist literature one comes up against the problems of being disciplined, and how that limits one's epistemological capacity: historians understand things through a different methodological framework than philosophers do, for example. Cage, as he formulates the situation here (through his Zen lens) sheds an liberating light on the problem. I don't think I presently have the vocabulary to remark much further upon this.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

More like "Borientalism" amiright?

The seminar I'm attending is called "The Study of Western Civilization," and that is what it is about--that is, it is about the study, not about Western Civilization. We've been mostly reading texts that draw their argument out of the Western canon (especially by connecting the Greeks to the Romans to etc.) to address the problems of modernity. This fortnight, however, we read Said's Orientalism, a widely read and influential critique of Europe's treatment of the notEurope.

I've been around the block enough times to know that this is a book that evokes strong passions in many readers. One camp is stirred by Said's portrayal of British and French imperialism, which for them feels like a moment of justice after centuries of continued oppression. On the other end of the spectrum, angry readers see in Said a vociferous (and largely unfounded) dismissal of all European political and academic practice, leaving them indignant, presumably with no avenues of action left available. I fall into neither of these camps, though I can see why this (boring) book can lead to both sentiments with equal ease.

In thinking about how to summarize Said's book I am already faced with what I had thought I would save for my conclusion: this book is cripplingly undertheorized, so much so that it is probably impossible to put forward a central thesis on behalf of the book that another close reading couldn't with good cause dismiss. I will propose, in the face of this, that the central thesis of Orientalism is that, when faced with an imbalance of power, those on the privileged side do well to keep track of the effects of their learned prejudice, keeping in mind that, all provisions taken, they will fail to be perfectly neutral, no matter how scholarly and rigorous their work. (The pro-Said camp says "because of this you are guilty of repressing us/them" while the anti-Said camp says "don't call me a racist, I'm not doing anything wrong, and besides you haven't even read my work yet.")

The problem is that Said is woefully uninterested in his own work. Many of the readings he performs of 18th and 19th century Orientalists and novelists seem, to my ignorant mind, perfectly reasonable--and indeed it is, nowadays at least, perfectly commonplace that many, most, 19th century Europeans were terribly racist. The problem is that his criticism of them is that they generalize "the Orient," adopting observations on some few encounters as the rule for the totality of the (expansive) region. (It is worth noting that "the Orient" for most of Said's book is limited to the Middle East and Egypt, though in some examples it extends to India.) The reality of course is that the danger of this sort of generalization harries nearly every discipline in the humanities; Orientalism is peculiar because the geographic and political distance of the object of study from its studying subject, combined with the shear heterogeneity of that same object, has had such disastrous political and humanitarian consequences that it is difficult to imagine that Orientalism as a 19th century practice was at no moment deliberately malicious in its use of generalization.

And though Said himself seems to my recollection to be fairly non-committal on this point (his interest, by my middle-road reading, is in the effects, not the malice), I don't think it is too problematic to argue that many Orientalists deployed their racist tropes in the service of Empire (Napoleon in Egypt is least disputable example). Surely there is no harm in pointing to these authors and discussing the extent and repercussions of their racism; what I have trouble with is the ease with which Said moves on to other authors in search of similar problems, and manages from there to suppose that the racism of disciplined, state-funded orientalists is unavoidable for any European writing on the world outside its immediate geography.

The clearest example of this problematic approach to critique--the generalizing approach that critiques generalization--is Said's treatment of Marx. Marx is certainly not immune to the 19th century compulsion to conceptualize the multiplicity of the orient as a unified totality, but Said's specific example does nothing to understand how this functions in Marx. Said draws his example from an essay by Marx on England's role in India. Marx is repulsed by the violence and destruction wrought by the British abroad, showing a perhaps unprecedented regard for Indians as human beings on equal footing with Europeans in terms of their rights to freedom and safety. Marx also regrets the pre-colonial despotic regime under which Indians were oppressed before the English usurped authority for themselves, and he sees in this historical moment--here Said thinks he has him--the possibility for revolutionary change: English colonialism, for Marx, is the crucible in which India's post-capitalist society is forged. To Said this is too close to the popular orientalist belief--popularized by Kipling as "White Man's Burden"--that Europe was in the orient for the benefit of the oriental himself. But Said completely ignores that Marx's reading of European industrialism is completely parallel, and that for Marx violence is the historical prerequisite for a new, post-capitalist society, whether at home or abroad. In short--and examples of this abound in Said's text--the major shortcoming of Orientalism is its refusal to explore the implications of its own analysis on the rest of European thought, or indeed on itself.

My counter thesis to the thesis I attributed above to Said--what I would have written Orientalism about--is the replication of domestic modes of oppression in orientalist literature. Said on some few occasions points out similarities between misogyny and orientalism, but consistently declines to elaborate. To my mind, this is the actual story: the growth of capitalism in the 17th and 18th century was facilitated by the tacit, naturalized oppression of a tremendous portion of the European population; orientalism is the rhetorical/political justification of the application of this matrix of oppression to the entire rest of the world. Orientalism secures the seat of authority for those who have already inherited it. I would propose that critiquing orientalist texts in the 19th century from this perspective would lend Said the ability to move beyond mere observation--which ultimately is all Orientalism is. We could see, in this light, what these texts do rather than merely what they say. Further, such a perspective would allow a more dynamic reading of authors like Flaubert, whose work is much more literary than literal.

But I suspect that had Said conceived of his project from this point of view we scarcely would be reading it today. The unreasonable popularity of such a lazy, repetitive book is imaginable only under the conditions in which it was written: the conditions of a complete disinterest in theory. Said's book is easy to read, both in terms of the simplicity of the text itself and--this is the important point--in terms of its malleability. It is this last problem which prohibits me from unequivocably endorsing a single statement of the books thesis. Even when Said explicitly states that all Europeans writing on the Orient are "racist" (204) the claim is so loosely formulated that he could as easily be condemning all of Europe as dismissing "racism" as a meaningless word. ( I think, particularly given the rest of his work, that he is doing neither.) The book is fraught with ideological, theoretical, and epistemological inconsistencies, but instead of thwarting the extraction of any meaning or implication from the text, this litany of problems has enabled any given reader, without much effort, to derive support for whatever reading is most convenient to her or his momentary agenda.

That said, I can only conclude that I am glad this book was written (even if I'm not glad I had to read it). Thirty-three years after the fact, the procession of diligent scholars working on themes of racism and colonialism, capitalism and empire have constructed wonderful and useful scholarly edifices through critique and appropriation of Said's work, and it is difficult to imagine them having been successful without Said's help. One can--and I think must--regret the reactionary, uncritical anti-canonism that Said also helped spawn, but in the historical scope of things, one must suppose these reactions to be but a swing of the pendulum, and a swing that would seem to have reversed direction. So while it is a poor, boring, and nowadays uninteresting book, it is one of those problems that almost has to happen for there to be growth; Said's book is almost like Britain in India (in Marx's mind): borish, stupid, destructive, but necessary for growth.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Laboring over Anti-Oedipus again.

“Let us return to the dualism of money, to the two boards, the two inscriptions, the one going into account of the wage earner, the other into the balance sheet of the enterprise. Measuring the two orders of magnitude in terms of the same analytical unit is a pure fiction, a cosmic swindle, as if one were to measure intergalactic or intra-atomic distances in meter and centimeters. There is no common measure between the value of the enterprises and that of the labor capacity of wage earners.” (230)

I'm going back through my notes on Anti-Oedipus in preparation for a paper I need to write pretty soon, and came across this gem. People often have a hard time understanding the importance of Marxism after the rather catastrophic and brutally inhumane failures of Stalin and Mao (whom some consider to be "proof" of communism's impossibility), and in the face of the seeming and likely impossibility of a global economic revolution that would benefit the poor. Indeed, the failure of Mao and Stalin can be to some extent understood in light of the instability of revolution, and the ease with which the powerful can disenfranchise the weak.

But quotations like the above remind us of Marx's continued importance, and of the importance of reading Marx and Marxists critically. Why do we call the gains of the capitalist by the same name as the wages earned by the laborer? We can understand the why when we examine the consequences. The wages of labor insert the laborer into a system of exchange, and the dollar value of labor is the conceptual means of exchanging. Labor, and laborers, become a good to be purchased, and the surplus value of labor is appropriated by the capitalist. To call capital gains and wages by the same names puts surplus labor value under erasure, and permits or even impels wage laborers to invest desire in the class that oppresses them, to wish and work for their own oppression. Further, it creates the appearance that higher incomes correspond to more or better labor, as if the capitalist labored in the same sense that the factory worker does.

And since an increased wage for a laborer would likely lead to an increase in spending (since there is so often not enough to make ends meet as it is), and since laborers also conceptualize capitalists as both wage earners and wage payers, it is not to much work to understand from this why so many Americans are demanding that high-income tax cuts be left in place.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

owe-riginal sin

So I'm reading Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia in preparation for a paper I'm writing (which will maybe be published!), and I've come across an interesting insight that will likely not make it into my paper, so I'm preserving it here for now. Much of the book, I'm sorry to say, won't have much of an impact on my paper, not because it is a bad book (it is excellent) but because it is so focused on its subject matter (capitalism and schizophrenia). The twin institutions of psychoanalysis and capitalism are subject to rigorous critique, but most of the discussion is a technical analysis of psychoanalysis that is both outside my discipline and unconnected to my topic.

The chapter I'm looking at now partitions human history into three phases: the savage, the barbarian, and the civilized man. These terms are to be understood in relation to the tradition of anthropology and ethnography; while "savage" and "barbarian" are heavily prejudicial terms, their technical use, however problematic, is meant merely to apply to specific cultural epochs. I am taking their use in D+G's book to be a strategic necessity without which they could not communicate and engage with anthropology as it intersects both psychoanalysis and the study of capitalism.

But I am in danger of digressing beyond rescue. The point that caught my eye was an argument concerning what they are calling primitive society. Primitive society is placed at the beginning of this tripartite progression, as the phase of civilization characterized by the structure of filiation and the extension of filiation through family alliances. (I think...The model seems to be that pre-savage societies have family lines but no structure of relation between lines. Alliances--marriages--intervene to code and extend filiation, establishing social taboos, for example against incest. Their discussion of this, which of course involve Oedipus rather a lot, is very interesting and a topic for another time.) At this stage capitalism doesn't exist in any useful sense. There is barter, there is production of goods, but there is no system of exchange. This last point is emphasized by D+G because some anthropologists refute it. To demonstrate why exchange doesn't exist in savage society, they draw a distinction between exchange and debt, which they imply are confused by those who read savage society as capitalist. This is the point that is interesting to me.

Drawing on Nietzsche, they argue for debt as a regulating mechanism in society. Debt is incurred whenever we benefit from society (always) and the cohesion of society depends on debt's enforcement. The purpose of debt is "to breed man, to mark him in his flesh, to render him capable of alliance, to form him within the debtor-creditor relation..." (190) We cannot confuse debt then with owing money, or with the levying of a fine (though these can be forms of debt). "Far from being an appearance assumed by exchange, debt is the immediate effect or the direct means of the territorial and corporal inscription process." (190) It is not revenge, not ressentiment. (191)

And to a large degree, I think we "know" this to be true--and I mean know in the same way one knows there is a god, for example. If debt operated under exchange, there would be a much smaller prison system. That debt and exchange are fundamentally separate is evinced by the fact that one cannot pay a fine for murder, or, in the opposite direction, that we know it to be unjust for a rich man to be charged some small fine for committing a crime. I suspect that they will soon go on to explain that in a post-savage society such as our own, a society which has passed through and incorporated despotic barbarism, these debts are linked to religion, through the face of the despot (who ruled through his own divine authority). And through capitalism, religious despotism is recoded into new forms of repression (Oedipus, presumably).