Weekly links 03032011

3 03 2011

A link on “biblical consumerism”:

Beal thinks the current boom in biblical consumerism amounts to a “distress crop,” the last great efflorescence of the old authoritative ideal before people move on and learn to embrace biblical ambiguity. I’m not so sure. Craving the certainty and absolutism of fundamentalism is a fairly common response (across many religious faiths) to the often terrifying flux of modern life. If certitude is the main thing American Christians are seeking when they turn to the Bible, then they’re unlikely to tolerate, let alone embrace, Beal’s “library of questions” model. You can learn a lot about how the Bible was created in the past 2,000 years, and about the many strange forms it has taken in the present, from “The Rise and Fall of the Bible.” But where it’s headed in the future is a mystery much harder to solve.

A Protestant friend of mine once said that the Bible should probably be compared more to a music score than a guide book for living. Americans are notorious for using it as the latter. Even candle shops and botanicas sell books of the Psalms as works of conjure and white magic. The difference between this and using it to justify imperial power is merely a matter of scale. As for me, I never liked reading the Bible, even when forced to do it on my knees in seminary. Oddly enough, it was Luther who would say that the Word of God is expressed best in preaching, not in the written text.

Epistemological distress due to the ripening of late capitalism makes for poor dogma.

This is proof that most people believe in some pretty sloppy history. First off, one must concede that Marx himself called Lincoln a “first rate second rate man”. His subsequent apotheosis should then be seen as unjustified. However, when speaking of the Civil War, Americans are notoriously bad at considering the slaves as entirely passive actors; as poor victims waiting on the plantations to be saved. As W.E.B. DuBois proves in his magisterial work, Black Reconstruction in America, slavery was really ended by a massive general strike on the part of the slaves who left their plantations in droves during the course of the war. Something similar occured in Brazil in 1888: slavery was ended by the slaves themselves a couple of years leading up to the proclamation of the “Golden Law”. To concede that the actual slaves played a vital role in their own liberation would be too much for the bourgeois intellectual, just as the Haitian Revolution proved to be too much for the “world stage” to digest, at least openly.

And, some old news, just to prove that some Latin American “leftist” presidents are not as “left” we think.

The cunning of reason

24 02 2011

It is not the general idea that is implicated in opposition and combat, and that is exposed to danger. It remains in the background, untouched and uninjured. This may be called the cunning of reason – that it sets the passions to work for itself, while that which develops its existence through such impulsion pays the penalty and suffers loss… The particular is for the most part of too trifling value as compared with the general: individuals are sacrificed and abandoned. The Idea pays the penalty of determinate existence and corruptibility not from itself, but from the passions of individuals.

This quotation from Hegel’s The Philosophy of History fits perfectly the common notion of the “cunning of reason”: individuals who follow their particular aims are unknowingly instruments of the realization of the Divine plan. But certain elements disturb this seemingly clear picture. Usually passed over in silence is the very point of Hegel’s argumentation apropos of the “cunning of reason”: the ultimate impossibility of it. It is impossible for any determinate subject to occupy the place of the “cunning of reason” and to exploit another’s passions with getting involved in their labor. i.e. without paying in flesh the price for his exploitation. In this precise sense, the “cunning of reason” is always redoubled: an artisan, for example, makes use of the forces of nature (water, steam…) and lets them interact for ends external to them, to mold the raw material into a form appropriate for human consumption; for him, the aim of the process of production is the satisfaction of human needs. It is here, however, that he is as it were a victim of his own ruse: the true aim of the process of social production is not the satisfaction of individual needs but the very development of productive forces, what Hegel refers to as the “objectivization of the Spirit.” Hegel’s thesis is therefore that the manipulator himself is always manipulated: the artisan who exploits nature by way of the “cunning of reason” is in turn exploited by the “objective spirit.”

-Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative

On sight

22 02 2011

First of all, the bright, clear color of the sky, and all it holds within it, the stars that wander here and there, and the moon and the radiance of the sun with its brilliant light; all these, if now they had been seen for the first time by mortals, if, unexpectedly, they were in a moment placed before their eyes, what story could be told more marvelous than these things, or what that the nations would less dare to believe beforehand? Nothing, I believe; so worthy of wonder would this sight have been. Yet think how no one now, wearied with the satiety of seeing, deigns to gaze up at the shining quarters of the sky!

…A truth wondrously new is struggling to fall upon your ears, and a new face of things to reveal itself.

-Lucretius, De Rerum Natura

On torture

21 02 2011

image source

I found this via the Western Confucian. It seems to me that one cannot speak of the civilization that we have in comparison to civilizations past and call what they had then barbarism. After all, did they have such large portions of their society either incarcerated or formerly incarcerated? And of course, the above link shows that the idea of “at least we don’t torture people” to be a lie. The fact that we incarcerate people for years on end and have them terrorized in such ways is a torture unique in and of itself. Compared to that, a good flogging or caning seems civilized.

Much has been made in the Catholic Church in this country regarding the instrinsically evil nature of torture. While the Church should no doubt be applauded for such a stance, many pundits use it to wash their hands of the actual realities of the prison-industrial complex in this country. If we are going to obsess over such practices as waterboarding of foreign terrorists yet say nothing of repeated gang rapes of prisoners within our own borders, at least we shouldn’t complain if people accuse us of being inconsistent. All we are doing is using our moralistic stance to shield ourselves from the actual realities of our situation. And as this condition is often the result of government and social policy (the “war on drugs”, the economic abandonment of the ghetto by industry, etc.), it might as well be an atrocity perpetrated by the state.

On the other hand, I don’t buy the whole argument that, from a moral theological perspective, torture is “intrinsically evil”. My first reply would be, “since when?” 1993? 1945? As the Catholic Church was supportive of many forms of torture, right under the noses of moral theologians who we now respect in many other ethical issues, one wonders what makes us so smart to see things that they didn’t. If we argue that the Catholic Church could get torture so wrong for so many years, we can only wonder what else it may have gotten wrong. On the other (other) hand, I don’t see anything in any theological teaching (prior to the last fifty years) that says the the State has no right to punitive action against the bodies of its subjects. For me, this seems the case of the Church playing catch-up with the values of the secular Enlightenment (though one must concede that those values were distilled from Christian principles, and many Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment ideologies haven’t been particularly enlightened). For me, I am thankful that the Church doesn’t defend torture, but I think this is a case of secular ideology schooling the Church on how to be civilized.

On Being Human

9 02 2011

Blade Runner thus gives a double twist to the commonsense distinction between human and android. Man is a replicant who does not know it; yet if this were all, the film would involve a simplistic reductionist notion that our self-experience qua free “human” agents is an illusion founded upon our ignorance of the causal nexus which regulates our lives. For that reason, we should supplement the former statement: it is only when, at the level of the enunciated content, I assume my replicant-status, that, at the level of enunciation, I become a truly human subject. “I am a replicant” is the statement of the subject in its purest – the same as in Althusser’s theory of ideology where the statement “I am in ideology” is the only way for me to truly avoid the vicious circle of ideology (or the Spinozeian version of it: the awareness that nothing can ever escape the grasp of necessity is the only way of us to be truly free.) In short, the implicit thesis of Blade Runner is that replicants are pure subjects precisely insofar as they testify that every positive, substantial content, inclusive of the intimate fantasies, is not “their own “ but already implanted. In this precise sense, subject is by definition nostalgic, a subject of loss. Let us recall how, in Blade Runner, Rachael silently starts to cry when Deckard proves to her that she is a replicant. The silent grief over the loss of her “humanity,” the infinite longing to be or to become human again, although she knows this will never happen; or conversely, the eternal gnawing doubt over whether I am truly human or just an android – it is these very undecided, intermediate states which make me human.

-Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology

Descartes and the Great Unraveling

2 02 2011

I placed a great value on eloquence, and I was in love with poetry, but I thought that both of them were gifts given to the mind rather than fruits of study. Those who have the most powerful reasoning and who direct their thoughts best in order to make them clear and intelligible can always convince us best of what they are proposing, even if they speak only the language of Lower Brittany and have never learned rhetoric. And those who possess the most pleasant creative talents and who know how to express them with the most adornment and smoothness cannot help being the best poets, even though the art of poetry is unknown to them…

I will say nothing of philosophy other than this: once I saw that it had been cultivated for several centuries by the most excellent minds which had ever lived, and that, nonetheless, there was still nothing in it which was not disputed and which was thus not still in doubt, I did not have sufficient presumption to hope to fare better there than the others. Considering how many different opinions, maintained by learned people, philosophy could have about the same matter, without there ever being more than one which could be true, I reckoned as virtually false all those which were merely probable.

These of course are some of the more notable paragraphs from Descartes’ Discourse on Method. I have touched on this point before, but one cannot separate the philosophical question from questions of economic and social transformation. (Indeed, such Catholic thinkers as M.D. Chenu have done this as well.) What is really going on in Descartes is the use of ancient philosophical methods in the context of the transition between the feudal to the capitalist mode of production. Whereas in the medieval world, knowledge was controlled by a clerical caste, using its own language (in this case, Latin), Descartes’ praise of the vernacular poet is indicative of the rise of the nation state that will make general commodity production possible. Philosophy as well cannot rely on the clerical caste to preserve a certain method of thinking; its general hegemony over society has been weakening by the day. This is coupled with the growth of such technologies as the printing press and the growth of a literate, non-clerical middle class that feels entitled to knowledge as a form of power (Francis Bacon).

That is the materialist analysis of the rise of Descartes. It is not an issue of the actual ideas involved, but rather the conditions that allowed those ideas to flourish. My more idealist reader will continue to ask, however, “but is it true?” I think this a pointless question. For one cannot pretend to be a real medieval scholastic or classical Aristotelian in the current age; the rules of the game have already changed. You can no longer pretend to get an “ought” from an “is” (Hume), especially when the “is” is far from a static entity. You cannot seal yourself in the analogia entis in a world that has long ago cast off hierarchy in both the material and ideal realms. There is a certain knowledge inflation that has taken over the philosophical economy, and clamoring for some sort of epistemic “gold standard” will not solve the problems of a world defined by pluralism. For advocates of such misguided nostalgia, there will always be a disconnect between how they live their lives and how they claim they live their lives.

At this point, any call for “realism” is wishful thinking. Perhaps we should start calling for a “virtual realism”.

Some superficial notes on Pascal

31 01 2011

I read a post recently on Pascal’s wager. Overall, I am not so sure of the tone taken by most of the participants in that discussion. But one must point out first that Pascal’s wager takes place in the context of his anthropology. Being a Jansenist, he was profoundly pessimistic about the powers of man, while giving great weight to the infinite power of God. This quote, also from his Pensees, came to mind in connection to this issue:

One little thought could not be made to arise from all bodies taken together, for this is impossible and they are of different orders. One single movement of true charity could not be derived from all bodies and all spirits; for that is impossible. It is of another order, and is supernatural.

While there is an “orthodox” interpretation of this idea, in the Jansenist mind, this means that the natural order is more than superfluous when applied to revealed truths. In a sense, the heavens could not sing the glory of God in Pascal. They are part of a barren universe devoid of meaning. They sing nothing, or if they sing something, it is a lie.

Related to this is perhaps the response that Pascal may have given to the author of the post cited above when he says that the courage of conviction is more important than the fear of eternal loss at the heart of the wager. There is a Spanish saying that goes, él que se salva sabe todo, él que no se salva no sabe nada (he who is saved knows everything, he who is not saved knows nothing. In traditional Christian discourse, salvation is an absolute good that determines all others. While one could try to hold to the idea of the absolute justice of God, the argument is a bit of a cop out because we have no real idea what that justice would look like.

Which gets me to the false presupposition at the heart of the argument. The presupposition, alluded to by Christopher Hitchens, is that a God who would offer Pascal’s wager would be foolish and far from sincere. The death bed conversion, embodied best by the Good Thief on the Cross, is a sign that God is a finicky monarch who is satisified by mere flattery. This extends further into the very modern notion that God’s behavior has to be reasonable and acceptable to modern attitudes. The fear at the center of these attitudes is that God’s behavior may be completely contigent, that absurdity and capriciousness are signs of the absolute power of God, and not signs that God doesn’t exist. In Pascal and the “traditional” world, one can be saved by dumb luck and bad faith. Such an idea for us seems vulgar and perverse. That is why many have to argue for universal salvation, and so forth. A god who would behave otherwise would be “unpreachable”.

Nietzsche and me

26 01 2011

image credit

From Slate

The attraction of Nietzsche to socially maladjusted young men is obvious, but it isn’t exactly simple. It is built from several interlocking pieces. Nietzsche mocks convention and propriety (and mocks difficult writers you’d prefer not to bother with anyway). He’s funny and (deceptively) easy to read, especially compared to his antecedents in German philosophy, who are also his flabby and lumbering targets: Schopenhauer, Hegel, and, especially, Kant. If your social world fails to appreciate your singularity and tells you that you’re a loser, reading Nietzsche can steel you in your secret conviction that, no, I’m a genius, or at least very special, and everyone else is the loser. Like you, Nietzsche was misunderstood in his day, ignored or derided by other scholars. Like you, Nietzsche seems to find everything around him lame, either stodgy and moralistic or sick with democratic vulgarity. Nietzsche seems to believe in aristocracy, which is taboo these days, which might be why no one recognizes you as the higher sort of guy you suspect yourself to be. And crucially, if you’re a horny and poetic young man whose dream girl is ever present before your eyes but just out of reach, Nietzsche frames his project of resistance and overcoming as not just romantic but erotic…

So does that make Nietzsche and Jared Lee Loughner philosophical brethren after all, joined in the same fanatical fight against nihilism? In a word, no, and Loughner’s pathological fixation on the meaning of words is the giveaway. One way of looking at Nietzsche’s project is that he set out to teach himself and his readers to love the world in its imperfection and multiplicity, for itself. This is behind his assaults on religion, liberal idealism, and utilitarian systems of social organization. He saw these as different ways of effacing or annihilating the world as it is. It is behind his infamous doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence—in which he embraces the “most abysmal thought,” that the given world, and not the idealizing stories we tell of it, is all there is, and he will affirm this reality even if it recurs eternally.

I must admit that the first authors that I got into as an adolescent were Nietzsche and the existentialists. I think any bookish boy needs to have such a phase, but could I read Nietzsche with a straight face now? Or Sartre for that matter? There is something self-absorbed and frustrated about what they write. There is something angry and at the same time envious in all of their prose. Content with life as it pretty much is now, I give very little weight to Nietzsche and Co. If anything, I am becoming more pro-Hegelian and pro-Marxist by the day. The best way to subvert the social order is perhaps not to cynically stand against it, but to take it seriously. Growth in maturity is a product of being able to accept hypocrisy without much comment.

Mexico as symptom

24 01 2011

…Thus the dream is that, since the excess was introduced from outside, i.e. is the work of an alien intruder, its elimination would enable us to obtain again a stable social organism whose parts form a harmonious corporate body, where, in contrast to capitalism’s constant social displacement, everybody would again occupy its own place. The function of the Master is to dominate the excess by locating its cause in a clearly defined social agency: “It is they who steal our enjoyment, who, by means of their excessive attitude, introduce imbalance and antagonism.” With the figure of the Master, the antagonism inherent in the social structure is transformed into a relationship of power, a struggle for domination between us and them, those who cause antagonistic imbalance.

Perhaps this matrix also helps us grasp the reemergence of nationalist chauvinism in Eastern Europe as a kind of “shock-absorber” against sudden exposure to the capitalist openness and imbalance. It is as if, in the very moment when the bond, the chain preserving free development of capitalism, i.e. a deregulated production of excess, was broken, it was countered by a demand for a new Master who will rein it in. What one demands is the establishment of a stable and clearly defined social body which will restrain capitalism’s destructive potential by cutting off the “excessive” element; and since this social body is experienced as that of a nation, the cause of any imbalance “spontaneously” assumes the form of a “national enemy”.

-Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology

The book from which this quote was taken was not an easy one to read. As in many of Zizek’s books, this wasn’t so much a book that held to one theme, but used certain themes from Kant and Hegel to elaborate upon a number of themes. For example, the chapter that preceded the one where this quote is found takes its inspiration from a theme from Richard Wagner’s Parsifal. In the last chapter, “Enjoy your nation as yourself”, Zizek tries to break open a matter near to the history he was living: the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the rest of Eastern Europe in the early 1990’s. Zizek uses the tools of Lacanian analysis and critical theory to discuss why these countries broke apart the way they did, often in violent and genocidal blood baths. As you can see from the above, Zizek attributes this to the re-entrance of these regions into the capitalist sphere. The shock from this transition led to these peoples trying to find stability again in the midst of the societal chaos re-introduced with generalized commodity production.
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Notes on Zizek’s Christianity

13 01 2011

When Christian commentators get excited about Slavoj Zizek’s dialogue with Christianity, it seems to be sort of like the biggest high school nerd getting excited because the head cheerleader casually said hi to him in the hallway. As one of my mentors told me some time ago, for anyone to get excited about intellectual developments in Christianity in the last fifty years is a little like becoming obsessed with the politics of a kindergarten sand box. It goes without saying that we are on the defensive. It should go without saying that even the most militant Christian ideologue doesn’t believe in half the words that come out of his mouth. As Zizek would point out, most fundamentalists say and do absurd things precisely because they don’t really believe, not because they do.
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