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).

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

My new crush

So I'm on to part six of "Beyond Belief," which I plugged earlier, and it consists of a few interesting talks. The first one, Susan Neiman, is my new crush. Some of her comments make sense only with relation to the talk on Spinoza that is in part 5, but it's still intelligible on it's own if you're in a hurry. My particular interest in it is the attention and respect she grants to religious thinkers; if she were a post-structuralist (and she is clearly not) she would surely remind us that all thinking is constrained by some unverifiable belief, but the next best thing is to present a more realistic picture of the size of the divide between religion, categorically, and science. She also takes the time to distinguish between science and the humanities and arts. Also yay Kant.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Komen after your cash.

Dear Reader,

I've joined a walking team for the Susan G. Komen 3-day walk for the cure, and I'm looking to raise some money to fight breast cancer. Please follow the link below and donate if you can, and pass on the URL to anyone you think might be willing and able to give a little.



Thursday, March 4, 2010

Current events.

It's almost rhythmic, the frequency with which public, polemical homophobes expose themselves as hypocrites. The most recent in this surely endless stream of bigots is a politician who was caught drunkenly driving away form a gay club with another man in my lovely hometown of Sacramento. The narrative is so well established that even moderates have begun to suspect that most outspoken bigots are compensating for their own self-loathing, that they are closet cases.

And there is something appealing about that story, about the source of extreme bigotry being in fact bigotry itself; there is something human about these angry rabble-rousers being the the primary target of their own hatred. It quite neatly gives some meaning to their hatred--they are expressing their own fear of who they are in a society that makes of them something vile--and it allows us to sympathize with and humanize our enemies. Indeed, they may not even know what they do, so deeply can we suppress our unwanted desires.

And perhaps it's true, perhaps it isn't. Clearly it explains some people well enough, and we do well to temper our condemnation of their hatred with sympathy for their situation; after all they more than anyone know how much they are despised by the bigoted for their sexual orientation.

What troubles me is the kind of moral outrage and mockery that accompanies these outings. And I'm concerned not on righteous or ethical grounds, but on pragmatic grounds. What concerns me is how these sorts of events are constituted as wrong. The wrong here, unambiguously, is the rhetoric that brought these individuals into the public arena to begin with. What they have done wrong is established a career as hatemongers and bigots; they have garnered support with homophobia as their platform, and they have incited others to the same violent sort of hatred they themselves have practiced.

What they have not done wrong--from the standpoint of ethical imperatives--is sleep with another man, or hook up in an airport bathroom, or frequent a gay club. Too often these stories focus on the homosexual act itself, which in fact we ought to applaud these repressed, fearful men for committing. Of course, there is the problem of marriage infidelity--and that is a serious problem--but even this issue tends to take a backseat in the press to the homosexual act.

I'm not saying that it shouldn't be reported. To some limited extent, events such as Ashburn's arrest serve to undermine the public support of outspoken bigots. But too the type of publicity these stories accumulate does as much to reinforce homophobia as the outing of bigots does to undermine it. Instead of emphasizing the corrosive rhetoric, they focus on the contradicting behavior; homosexuality, or more specifically the homosexual act, becomes the negative element, not the bigotry. Instead of a career of hatred being seen as Ashburn's shame, the story is a fall from grace, into the depravity of gay sex.

We're telling the wrong story, and by doing that we're ensuring that we'll get to tell this story over and over again.

Monday, March 1, 2010

TSN: Beyond Belief

So I'll say first that I've been meaning to write a lengthy response to Kai's earlier comment, but have lacked the steam. Instead I'll sum up what have been my idle thoughts on the matter, and I'll do it briefly. Literature suffers from a problem of a peculiar relationship with agency and representation. An individual can make liberated choices (ideally) that still coincide with stereotypes and have but a marginal effect on the relationships of others to stereotypes. (It is when lots and lots of people make these same decisions that they become normative.) In literature this marginal influence on normativity is magnified by the singularity of the protagonist (particularly in classically heterosexual romances such as His Dark Materials). The problem is then not in accurately presenting or participating in free choice but in depicting a healthy protagonist, who, like it or not, becomes something of a model, which is in turn a norm. Now I think Pullman does as good a job of this as can be expected; my criticisms we nits, not full grown lice. (More honestly, I now think whatever criticism can be leveled would be against nits, but since I haven't re-read my earlier post, I'm not sure if that was the case then or not.) (Thanks, Kai, btw, for chatting about this with me on the phone; it was, as always, very pleasant.)

The more pressing issue on my mind is a wonderful link I found in a Reddit comments thread. I've only had time yet to listen through session 3 (it is a very handing addition to crocheting), which concludes with Carolyn Porco's talk on Saturn. (This includes a picture and description of a shot of Saturn eclipsing the sun--taken from the far side of Saturn--which alone is worth the time.) The conference deals with the question of religion and science, and the majority of the speakers thus far suggest that the former interferes with the latter, and that we'd all be happier (and more alive) in the long run if we could just do away with the former.

Two points are underdeveloped so far, though perhaps the second half will redress this: 1) An understanding of the disciplinary element of religion, and 2) The possibility of a fully non-religious morality.

Now I have a hard time keeping track of what thoughts I've taken the time to elaborate on here, so forgive me once again if I repeat.

Point one is particularly conspicuous in Porco's talk, where she partitions the concern of the conference into God on the one hand and religion on the other; but it is introduced much earlier and involves a common counter-atheist argument. Religion offers community, and it is a sign of my privilege--economic, social, historical, educational, sexual, geographical, political--that I can live happily without a religious community. But in many places, religion binds a community together, giving its constituents communality and place. In short, religion provides social comfort.

Of course, the response to this is clear to anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of the Jewish diaspora, though this is not by a long shot the only handy example. The fact is that while religious communities are capable of tremendous good--the example from the conference is the donations to Katrina victims--they operate on what is sometimes called a politics of the same. This is the politics that enables the Salvation Army to threaten to close its soup kitchens if New York doesn't ban gay marriage, for example. It is a politics of defining community by who is excluded and why (think of the inanity of the Bible study groups, where a sub-group--married women, married men, teens--of the church examine famous passages with the intent of reinforcing their received wisdom).

This is not to say that religion is intrinsically or necessarily disciplinary (in the sense that these groups discipline their members to conform, under the threat of exclusion). Nor is it to say that it is exclusively religious organizations that employ this sort of discipline. The question is whether or not this mode of discipline is in fact fundamental to faith (for example, to be christian you must have a common belief in Christ, but how far does that commonality go?), or, perhaps more broadly, whether a method of disciplinary exclusion can be employed without a tangible connection to ethics (that is, can a church exclude homosexuals without denouncing them, for example). (A lot of work, incidentally, has been done in this vein, but it does not often fall under the banner of science.)

The second point came up most clearly in an exchange between Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Joan Roughgarden (the lone open theist thus far). Roughgarden suggests that a viable source of morality is unlikely, and at the least has yet to be demonstrated, without religion--and if I recall correctly, she means specifically a founding religious text.

I was sure that Harris, who apparently has a degree in philosophy, would come back with the rich philosophical tradition of non-theism, starting with the Categorical Imperative, and bringing it up to the recent (comparatively) formulation of groundless solidarity and the politics of difference (though these last two stray a ways form philosophy proper). Because after all one of the primary preoccupations with intellectuals on the left since WWII has been how to talk about ethics when everything--God, religion, progress, humanism--has died or failed.

And this leads me to conclude with a broader concern regarding these talks. It is clear that they don't all mean the same thing when they say science. At one point Lois Althusser, a French Marxist philosopher from the middle of the 20th century, characterizes the history of Marxism as the struggle of science to clear itself of ideology. By this he means that unbiased, open-ended inquiry is science--and can be philosophy as well as it can be genetics--while inquiries with an interest in what can or can't be the answer are ideologies. From this perspective, the contrast between religion and science is apt, and can even be pushed to the point of equating religion with ideology (Harris talks instead of dogma, but means much the same thing).

Adorno, though, and Derrida subsequently (really this could be a very long list), shows us something a little different. It is unrealistic for any of us to ever presume a clear picture; we all always have biases, and these biases will always form "epistemological barriers," as Althusser says. It is naïve to suppose we will ever perform without them, and dangerous and condescending to claim we do. This is not to say that science is a religion, but that all thought, no matter how radical or scrupulous, is partly habitual--which is almost to say partly linguistic.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Spoiling His Dark Materials

As is becoming my custom, I am now going to write something silly about something I just read/viewed that I don't get to use for school. This time the object is the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman (thank you Mike; I'll bring them back to Spokane now that I'm done so they can be passed on to the next reader). As always, I will spoil some plot details.

Now I will always have trouble reading fiction that is both highly recommended and not yet "literature," because I am a pretentious ass. However, I am not so far gone that I cannot recognize a good thing when I see it, even while I may become frustrated with nagging flaws of either style or detail. His Dark Materials is a successful text in a genre that is entirely too small: atheist youth literature. Even in the more secular corners of our large nation, there are great numbers of people who believe that deliberately raising your children to be atheists is dangerous or wrong, even if these same people are often willing to admit that being both atheist and moral as an adult isn't terribly difficult. Because the false link between religion and morality is so forcefully forged, there is a certain unease at the prospect of not teaching children to believe in god from the get-go. (And incidentally, we ought perhaps to be skeptical of any truth that requires years of youthful repetition--not exploration--adequately to take hold. What I mean by this in part is that the strength and beauty of religion is in its absurdity and novelty; habituation robs it of even this.)

So since, from one point of view, the grounding moment of Pullman's trilogy is the disruption of Christianity's claim to moral priority, the books are valuable, even if only for this. However, Pullman's motive is not only negative; there is an affirmative element as well. I think St. Paul is whom he sites when he bases his model for the constitution of the human on a three-part structure. Rather than the normal body/soul dichotomy, it is useful (for the plot particularly) to extend this to a third element: body/soul/spirit. We might distinguish the second from the third through consciousness; by spirit Pullman seems to mean something that includes mind. Regardless, though, of how soul and spirit partition the immaterial aspects of humanity, Pullman makes clear, especially in the third book, where his model for the universe is fully revealed, that the body--the material existence of humans--is the best and most enviable element. (Indeed it is what drives God and his angels to subjugate humanity...though it's not quite clear why they stop there, and leave other material beings to their business.)

This is, to my mind, the most successful aspect of Pullman's books. It is particularly in the treatment of the body that Christianity is problematic, and easily accessible books that challenge this dogma both directly and positively--that is, by offering alternative ethics--are most welcome. (It is worth noting, though, that a great deal of the Christian/Catholic dogma against the body stems as much from Plato and Aristotle as it does from the Bible. There is some very good, if confusing, work done by a number of feminists--and non feminists--on how Plato's philosophy, and later that of Aristotle and Plotinus, has hamstrung our ability to think maternity and womanhood, and by extension humanity generally, in a non-violent way. But I've commented on much of that already, and will avoid the side track for now.)

I do have some problems with these books though, as I hinted at above. Some are trivial (there are abundant flies at the north pole), some are narrative (would you really not spend all your time checking the alethiometer? and why did neither side manage to score some A-10 Warthogs or something?), some are somewhat metaphysical (if Metatron--really? his name is Metatron?--used to be Enoch, which Enoch? did all Christian worlds split off from one another after Enoch dies? Then why are there daemons in the Adam and Eve story? etc.), but there is a looming one that is ethical.

When I got to the end of The Golden Compass, I was excited at the prospect that lay ahead. It seemed clear that Pullman was driving toward a world view where the priority of the church--who was locally stifling research into multi-world science much as it had heliocentricity--would give way to free thinkers, and that the authority from which it derived its dominion would be revealed as false. Pullman did go this direction more or less, but he swerved into the sort of humanism that I find suspect. Instead of the sort of purposeless, beautiful universe we ourselves inhabit, Lyra et al. gradually discover themselves to be traveling through a universe with as much divinity and purpose as supposed by the church; the only difference is what the purpose is.

So it turns out that God is really just an angel, he didn't create the universe, and he is so dreadfully jealous of humanity's flesh that he has waged a thousands years war of oppression and suppression to make us all as miserable as he is. Behind this, forces have been at work to overthrow this Authority--these are the dark materials?--and allow us to love each other in peace. The problem, then, is not that we worshiped a false god, but that we worshiped the wrong god.

Now I don't have a problem with this from certain narrative perspectives. If we accept the proposition that there will always be someone who has some authority over our lives (and there likely will be) it is better for us to expect that person to respect our loves and lusts; then we can fight for having repressor and oppressors replaced. But, from a religious perspective (let's call it that for now), I am uncomfortable with the argument that this authority is metaphysical--that is, above physically observable experience--and universal. So long as we are teaching our children to face the universe bravely, we ought to help them toward imagining a world of purposeless purposiveness. Instead Pullman replaces an autocracy of repression with an autocracy of love. An improvement, surely, but not perfect.

And this is how I feel about the books in general. An improvement. I'm still not perfectly happy with the gender roles (though I LOVE Mary Malone, and I particularly love that at no point does Pullman make her single status seem at all a failure or inadequacy), though again, it is an improvement. The principal protagonist--and for quite a while the principal antagonist as well--is female, and for the most part she avoids stereotypes, though perhaps by unhappy coincidence she is the artful liar, while Will is stalwartly honest. It is also maybe coincidental that she had the enigmatic and endlessly complicated compass while he had the knife. It would be terribly difficult to write a convincing adventure story with a boy and a girl where the girl is the physically dominant one throughout. Like I said, it's an improvement.

Finally, I will say I wish someone else had written these books. In spite of the well-crafted plot and generally agreeable characters, I found that more often then usual, I would grow sleepy and, in the middle of a suspenseful moment, indifferently put the book down and get ready for bed. His prose does not move with much grace, and much like myself he is prone to repeating himself in what he surely thinks is a clarifying gesture, but what is in fact boring and distracting.

But do read these books, if you haven't...I think I've not spoilt them too much here. No more than if you read the back cover (those things should be illegal).

Monday, January 4, 2010

Dances with shellfish.

Don't read this if you haven't seen District 9 and Avatar.

* * * * *

Sci-Fi might be lauded as the cinematic genre that lends itself most willingly and transparently to allegory, and District 9 and Avatar are certainly exemplary of this bias. Both films simplify, for the purpose of moralizing, one of the formative moments of the last five hundred or so years: the colonial encounter.

Both movies use non-humans to represent the dehumanization by the colonizer of the colonized. In District 9, the setting is a city dealing with a displaced population (we are led to think of the New World and the African diaspora). Every human we meet harbors some bigoted view of the prawns, ranging from open hatred to patronizing contempt. The journey ok the mentally-challenged protagonist traces the depth of this bigotry, as he is forced to rely upon those he can see only as dangerously incompetent and stupid. Bigotry's irrationality and potency take center stage in what is surely the movie's most irritating scene, where Wikus assaults Christopher Johnson, with the hopes of commandeering his ship and curing himself on his own. Our perspective beyond the screen makes Wikus's decision as abhorrent as it is stupid: Christopher Johnson is the only with any competence in flying, and the only one with any chance at all of knowing how to reverse Wikus's tranformation. Wikus, though, cannot see from this perspective, because he cannot overcome his epistemological barriers. For him, prawns are always inferior. It is not until he embraces his transformation--symbolized by him stepping into the prawn battle suit--that he can understand Christopher Johnson as an equal; until that point, he sees himself as the boss. The movie has an uncharacteristically sad ending; Christopher Johnson escapes, but his time in transit is much too long for cinematic gratification. In the mean time, district 9 is moved into a more efficient concentration camp. And while Wikus has overcome his bigotry, no one else has. (I will say that I enjoy how many technical points, particularly regarding the origin(s) of the prawns, are left unaddressed.)

Avatar is set much earlier in the history of colonialism, and keeps the relationship simple: the colonizers are landing on alien soil and extracting resources as cheaply as possible. The narrative relies on old fears of ethnic contagion (think Heart of Darkness) but deploys them with the liberal view of the white man as savior (think Dances with Wolves). While District 9 was concerned with the question of how different groups of people can live along side one another, Avatar is concerned with how greed ruins purity--in this view, the allegory of colonialism is an allegory for corporatism, which nowadays amounts to the same thing. The advantage lent by Sci-Fi is that the old liberal trope that mistakes the Indian for nature can be relieved of its racism: here the natives are verifiably connected to their ecosystem. The plot is driven by the blindness on the part of the colonizers, which prevents them from seeing Pandora in terms of anything but exchange value. This forges the epistemological barrier between the native population and the colonizers, with the latter (excepting our wise liberal surrogates) implacably decimating with no regard for efficiency or taste, and the former left unable to act at all. Like District 9, this barrier provides a dramatic climax: the gunships are fast approaching, the warning issued, and yet they do not flee. Why are they so stupid? you ask. Again irrationality signals difference. Unable to comprehend the essential differences between themselves and the human aggressors, the Na'vi cannot, even in the face of all evidence, believe the assault to be real, and still further they cannot conceive of it being successful. Even the choice to flee is not truly theirs to make. A full understanding of the destructive capacity of the human exchange value economy is not arrived at until Jake Sully wrests ownership of his body (his human body) away from corporate control. Once it has been spirited away to the Tree of Souls, he can claim his rightful place as the leader of a society that evidently is incapable of organizing itself against an imminent threat.

This movie ends happily though. The capitalists are run off, and the pure natives can continue to commune with nature. What is the moral we learn from this story? Perhaps that if the Native Americans really could commune with nature, we wouldn't be here to talk about it? Or maybe that Kevin Costner didn't do a good enough job sticking up for them?