The problem with “pop politics” articles

Well I’ve done it already. I’m already going to write about Trump. No surprise there, he’s unavoidable.

Recently, I came across an article on the site “Everyday Feminism” that provoked a lot of questions for me. The article is titled “5 Gaslighting Phrases Donald Trump Used That Remind Me a Lot of My Abusive Ex”. Now I know what some of you are going to say. “But Stephen, why deliberately pick such easy targets of criticism?” As with any article from Salon or Buzzfeed, there’s more here than meets the eye in terms of the current zeitgeist.

This particular site has been a hub of popular Feminist writers, who pen articles on currently salient topics, often from an interesting range of perspectives. Sure, some of the writers may be amateur, but most of them have degrees and write for other magazines (this article in particular was written by Suzannah Weiss, “She is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Seventeen, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, Bustle, and more.”). 

Nevertheless, the site, while aimed at a younger audience, often tries to tackle subjects such as sexism, racism, homophobia and trans issues, often with political undertones, but written from a “self-help” kind of perspective. Some article titles include “How to Compliment Women without Objectifying Them”, “5 Gender Neutral Alternatives to “Boyfriend” and “Girlfriend”, and “But Seriously, Let’s Talk about Millenial Poverty”. Two things strike me about these articles when I read them- they are at once personal, and from a “social justice” perspective. They attempt to integrate lifestyle choices with a liberal/social justice mentality. Many people (critics of political correctness) will immediately dismiss these sites and communities as “social justice warriors” and be done with it. However, there is an emerging identity/community of people like this, many of them LGBT, people of color, or women in the US, who take this kind of thing very seriously. People are trying to apply concepts originally drawn from sociology like “intersectionality” and apply it to their lives. What’s the harm in that, my inner lib says?

The problems I see with these “social justice pop articles” that have recently been ubiquitous on the internet are multiple.

First, it perpetuates a certain standard liberal narrative without any introspection. In terms of this article about Trump, it focuses on the racism/sexism angle of Trump’s candidacy. While these are undeniable aspects of Trump’s candidacy, and the article provides provides effective counterarguments to Trump’s own arguments about why it wasn’t important to focus “pussygate”, several things in this article are very telling.

First of all, when addressing anticipated and real criticisms in the article, Weiss makes the following argument about political correctness. “Political correctness is just being considerate”, and denied accusations of being the “PC police”. This not only represents a heightened sense of awareness of exactly what type of discourse is being presented in these articles, it is interesting to see a defense of political correctness in and of itself (I’d be the first to guess that it would come from this site).

Is she right? To an extent. Critics of political correctness fail to remember that there are moral standards which we should hold people to in public discourse, most of all people in positions of power. Advocates of this PC culture also are correct in saying that sexism and misogyny have been so thoroughly internalized by the populace that they shut down any attempt to be considerate as being “politically correct”. I would go so far as to say every time Donald Trump has mentioned PC culture, he has used it as an excuse to target some minority group. This is hateful and frightfully alarming rhetoric.

But PC advocates also fail to recognize the complex political valences around the “political correctness” debate. This article is shoddy in its attempt to address current politics, first of all because it doesn’t attempt to be analytical, and was written from a personalistic perspective. The metaphor of gaslighting is supposed to carry over seamlessly into politics. She starts the article talking about how people are “traumatized” by this election. This is standard liberal waffling. Have hate crimes against Muslims gone up? Of course! I’m not attempting to delegitimize people’s feelings about this election. I too am VERY concerned about the direction this country is heading. But the sheer psychological impact of this election is reduced in this metaphor to a personalistic metaphor about an abusive relationship. First of all, let’s ignore the fact that a politician can’t “gaslight” in the normal sense of the word. Sure he can attempt to silence his critics (like every politician).

But how did Trump manage to pull out of his nosedive in the polls after “pussygate”? One reason may be that he controlled the policy narrative afterwards, while Clinton focused on Trump’s personal scandals. Just like Bill Clinton was able to get through his impeachment scandal and his poll numbers even went up, Trump was able to refocus the debate and appeal to voters on the basis of his ideas, not his character. Trump said “I’m not proud of my locker room talk. But this world has serious problems”. This resonated with many voters, working class people in Michigan and Wisconsin for example, who have been left behind by neoliberal policies. It sends the message- “I have my human failings, but I will be your defender in the halls of power”. Clinton could not have done more damage to herself by focusing on Trump’s scandals. Aside from quote “normalizing racism and sexism”, what impact could Trump’s words and actions those many years ago on a tour bus possibly have for a family of 5 in rural Kansas?

It is interesting that despite their apparent ideological difference, the writer of this article and Clintonites appeal to the same moral conservatism as Christian conservatives to discredit Trump. Whether this moral critique is true or not (and it certainly is true- Trump is a cancer to the state of decency in political speech), it is the populism of Trump’s message that is completely ignored in this article. Conservative voters or Trump voters will read the first line and think “oh the poor libs went crying to the hotlines after their candidate lost. They’ll get over it”. Simply put- this rhetorical strategy isn’t working. More talk about sexism and racism, mainstream media friendly topics (if it’s about a dirty word a politician said or a picture Anthony Weiner sent, it will make front page) will only serve to make Trump appear like the arbiter of common sense in politics who takes on out-of-control political correctness in public debate.

I do think liberals have to reclaim the side of morality and decency, and fight against sexism and racism. But taking such a complex political issue and reducing it to a metaphor about your relationship only serves to muddy the waters, and represents the problems with today’s mainstream liberal Left.

I’ll also say a quick word (and try not to be too harsh) about today’s “activist blogosphere”. Too often the articles seem to be aimed at an audience which already believes what they are saying. The debate around Trump in particular in social media has become hyperbolic, emotional, and lacks clarity or any attempt to be analytical. Forget comparisons of Trump’s win to Brexit- Trump is obviously winning because of my ex-boyfriend, racists, and other baddies.

Avatar: The Last Airbender and Buddhist philosophy

The popularity of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the young adult action show on Nickelodeon, seems to rest in its action packed plot, the war of the Fire Nation against the other nations and the wicked cool element “bending” powers of the characters. However, Avatar also actively incorporates elements of Eastern philosophy for extra emotional impact, giving the show a more mature feel than an average cartoon. I find that adding elements of Eastern religion into a popular children’s TV show without perpetuating stereotypes or misreadings is a very positive development. Eastern religion is never explicitly mentioned, given that the show takes place in an alternate universe, but certain parallels definitely stand out. I will try to relate certain elements in the show to concepts and teachings of Buddhism and Hinduism, including the concept of an Avatar itself, which I believe exists in both Buddhism and Hinduism. I think the show is a fun vehicle for explaining concepts related to Buddhism that are difficult to grasp for Western people. Its definitely one of my favorites and really resonated with me, in part because of those Buddhist themes.

To begin with, Aang is a member of the Air Nation, a nation of self-sustaining monks who live in a mystical ancient temple complex along with their flying sky bison. This image of an ancient land of harmony has a lot in common with the myth of Shambala, a valley said to exist in a remote region of Tibet, where everyone lives in harmony in a perfect religious society and the lifespan of the people is much longer than humans, if not infinite. The Air Nation definitely reminds me of Shambala, probably because the monks in the show are definitely based on Tibetan monks. The colors of their clothing are even the same (red and gold). Aang, the main character, has a teacher who is the closest thing he has to a father, an old monk named Gyatso. This proves that the show the creators of the show took inspiration from Tibetan sources- Gyatso means “Ocean” in Tibetan, and is the last name of the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. The monks are shown throughout flashbacks to Aang’s past, before he was frozen in ice for 100 years, as Aang’s family and role models, and are clearly modeled on real Buddhist monastic communities of Tibetan origin, and their typical Buddhist ideals of compassion and even vegetarianism are depicted as cherished aspects of Aang’s heritage.

Throughout the series (I am too lazy to find particular episode numbers at the moment), there are specific references and themes related to Buddhist philosophy and teachings. This is deliberate on the part of the creators, because some of the morals conveyed in the show, such as the preciousness and value of all life, especially a human life, form the backbone of the story arc. This is highlighted especially by the EPIC finale of the show, in which Aang faces the Fire Lord Ozai, ruler of the Fire Nation, after Sozen’s comet gives him enormous power, enough to wipe out the world and start anew. While the plot of world destruction may not be that original, Aang’s response to the threat certainly is. The plot revolves around how Aang is going to defeat the Fire Lord and still retain his moral duty to never take a life, instilled in him by his monastic teachings. This is a serious dilemma for him, despite what all his friends say, because for Aang, even though this man clearly deserves to die, it is “not for him to decide” as Gandalf might say. Eventually, Aang channels his spiritual powers and in the final exciting battle, manages to take away Sozen’s firebending powers and subdue him without killing him. This is a clear message by the creators of the show that even someone as despicable as Ozai would still be spiritually wrong to destroy.

The main character Aang himself is a reincarnating hero or World Savior called the Avatar. An avatar is another word for a manifestation of a deity, more commonly used to describe manifestations of Hindu gods like Vishnu (Krishna was an avatar of Vishnu) but also could be used to describe manifestations of Buddhist deities such as Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion (in this sense, the Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso is an avatar of Avalokiteshvara). The avatar concept in the show, used as a spiritual hero who comes back to help sentient beings in every lifetime, is clearly modeled on two Buddhist phenomenon, that of the bodhisattva or Enlightening Hero and the phenomenon of the tulku. A bodhisattva is one of the primary things that distinguishes the Mahayana (Great Vehicle) strand of Buddhism. In Mahayana teachings, there is not only Buddha Shakyamuni who taught the original teachings at Deer Park and under the Bodhi tree, but also countless “bodhisattva-mahasattvas” (Great enlightening beings) who purposefully reincarnate for the sake of all beings. This desire to purposefully re-enter the cycle of rebirth and death (the thing you are supposed to get out of in the first place in Buddhism) is what distinguishes the Mahayana path, because it represents the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of all living beings. It is ultimate compassion embodied in the form of a great being, and this intention to become a bodhisattva is one of the highest teachings of Mahayana. In that sense, the Avatar is clearly a powerful bodhisattva.

A tulku is a kind of Tibetan version of a bodhisattva, a reincarnation of a master that is recognized at an early age given rights as a high lama. This recognition usually happens by presenting the child with a series of tasks like recognizing possessions held by the previous incarnation, something famously done while trying to find the Dalai Lama (as depicted in movies like Seven Years in Tibet). I believe there was a scene in the Avatar show where Aang does exactly this process of recognizing the possessions of his last incarnation.

However, one of the main teachings in Buddhism is how to get out of the cycle of rebirth, or samsara. The way to get out of samsara is to renounce all worldly things and stop the cycle of negative emotions such as ignorance and desire itself. Samsara may not be alluded to in the show, but rebirth is definitely part of the universe of Avatar. However, one of the other themes Avatar the Last Airbender deals with is the theme of renunciation or the typical Buddhist concept of getting rid of all desire. In a pivotal episode of the show, Aang realizes that the only way to achieve his full potential and activate his Avatar powers is to completely renounce worldly life (i.e not fall in love with Katara). In a typically paradoxical Buddhist response, Aang decides to renounce renunciation and give up his desire to achieve full Avatar powers. This is something that may come as a shock for some people, because if Avatar is supposed to be true to Buddhism, then maybe this could be seen as some sort of Western depreciation of Buddhism. This is entirely not the case, for there are many examples of great masters, especially in the Zen tradition, but also in the Tibetan tradition, taking a wife and living as a lay person- in other words, giving up the desire to live in peace and solitude and accept the problems that come with worldly life. Maybe the historical Buddha may have disagreed with this approach, but in Mahayana it is definitely possible, depending on the karma and needs of particular beings, to be a great bodhisattva and be anyone at all, whether a fisherman, a beggar, a farmer, or even a prostitute. In Aang’s case, his full potential was clearly enhanced by his love and care shown by his girlfriend Katara. In Buddhism, this is obviously the highest thing of all, for as Buddha Shakyamuni said (Dhammapada verse 5) “Hatred will never cease by hatred, hatred will cease by love, this is an eternal rule”.

That ends my take on how Avatar the Last Airbender relates to Buddhism and Eastern philosophy, hope you enjoyed it!



A post clash of civilizations framework?

A great deconstruction of “Clash of Civilizations” rhetoric so commonly peddled by the right wing, and more recently pseudo-intellectuals such as Sam Harris

Spirit is a Bone

What if Trump’s upcoming speech in Saudi Arabia signifies a shift at the level of discourse — one that effectively propels international relations into a new, post clash of civilizations framework? A post clash framework no longer requires any allusion to the idea that the west has a moral duty to help Islam revive its lost greatness, etc. The vision of the Neo-Orientalists (Neocons and Neoliberals alike) sought to find allies within Muslim communities to mutually ‘reform’ Islam by identifying Muslim reformers eligible to receive our support is simply no longer necessary.

What undergirded the clash discourse was a false binary logic, wherein conflict across Islamic and Western societies resided first and foremost along an ontological chasm of difference between these two cultures. This vulgar worldview-based theory of conflict was in fact good news to policy elites because it firstly de-privileged the site of antagonism away from capital, economic oppression and placed policy solutions along…

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Short reflection on current trends in popular ideology: Jordan Petersen v. Sam Harris

In terms of popular intellectuals, I see Sam Harris as the archetype of the view to be rejected, for a number of reasons. His background, coming from cognitive science, is essentially a positivist “scientism”, and his views on how beliefs are constructed flow from this paradigm. Harris essentially views the phenomenon of belief in terms of chemical reactions (a reductionist point of view)- when a person believes something, it sends out a positive response from the brain, a dopamine reaction, that creates a kind of feedback loop. In short, it feels good to believe something, even if it isn’t true, especially if that belief makes one feel like one has a life after death, etc. What is the problem with this belief? It is just a modern neuroscientific version of an atheist argument. The problem is Harris abstracts it as a model for all belief, which is where he goes wrong. Harris does not include more complex psychological processes that go with the creation of belief on levels more complex than the neurological- he does not include the familial, the cultural, or the metaphysical (I will explain what I mean by metaphysical or existential). Belief, say in what a human being is relative to the universe, is fundamentally patterned by social group, or culture. Harris knows this, but his model of how culture influences belief is limited/not fleshed out. In short, Harris believes he is writing from a privileged lens, the scientific lens, which is not hampered by superstition or any sort of belief system, even though he has an ideological agenda. That ideological agenda goes as follows- religion, any sort of belief in God or the afterlife, is a BAD belief, it is detrimental to humanity. This is despite the fact that many societies have been fundamentally organized by religious beliefs. Many of these deficits in Harris’ argument are now being pointed out by Dr. Jordan Petersen, a professor of psychology, who includes in his perspective anthropological perspectives, as well as Jungian theory on how humans are driven to find meaning in the world through myth. The inclusion of Jung is a big step in improving the popular conception of religion, which is being heavily influenced by the New Atheists like Dawkins, who idolize science and scientific belief as a new worldview that should overturn religion (an essentially 19th century way of thinking, rationalist in character).

Peterson starts by deconstructing the model of humans as being essentially irrational until the Enlightenment, and then through science became rational people. However, I find his approach to be lacking rhetorically. Peterson starts (in an interview) by referencing the fact that religion is not always the motivator of conflict. A good start. However, his evidence is that chimps also go to war. I find this to be a shoddy use of evidence, given that the close cousin of the chimp, the bonobo, is essentially docile. The book War, Peace, and Human Nature by Douglas Fry is an essential reference on this topic, however Petersen probably is unaware of this book, given that its in the modern anthropological canon. Petersen relies on writers such as Jung, who try to move away from the positivist doxa, but more prescient deconstructions of scientism exist now, in the works of Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Slavoj Zizek, not to mention most of the anthropological canon (Evans-Pritchard, Malinowski, Levi-Strauss, etc.) Much more has been written on the structure of the human mind by these theorists. Petersen’s book is called Maps of Meaning– I would find an even more enlightening book (perhaps one I will eventually write) be Maps of the Mind (or Cartographies of Subjectivity, in academic speak). Petersen’s book explores how humans make sense of the world, through religion, etc. What I would explore is how each of these different ideologies (or great thinkers) conceives of the human itself- how does Jung think of the mind? Freud? Then go back to Christian conception of the subject (the soul), contrast it with the modern conception of the subject- in short, a complete version of what Foucault attempted to do (Foucault was limited in his archaeology of the subject to the Western world, but still got pretty far with his work the History of Sexuality). I would try to include more cross-cultural sources- an encyclopedia of how humans think of themselves.

What I’m trying to get at, in a matter of speaking, is that trying to form a way of thinking, a model, about how we think, from a purely scientific perspective, is essentially reductive and limited- it leads back to one source- the baseline of atomic reactions- while a more holistic way of thinking is unending in scope. Its also much more interesting. Sam Harris never fails to be reductive in this way, whenever he tackles some phenomenon related to belief or religion- take Islam and fundamentalism for example- he always reaches the wrong conclusion for this essential reason. He can never include any other reason for why people believe the way they do in his frame of reference. We must always remember the essential wisdom of Buddhist metaphysics- the web of causes and conditions is so complex and multifaceted, it can only truly be comprehended by an omniscient being. Sam Harris always follows the reductionist pattern when talking about Islam because of this- “they hate us because they hate us”.

All human beings have these kind of cosmologies or “maps of meaning”, even if they aren’t religious. We have to because we are, in Heideggerian terms, Dasein or “beings thrown into the world”. Everyone knows the story- we search for the reason why we are here, look up into the stars and wonder why things are the way they are. This fundamental existential level is only conceived through language, which is taught at an early age, and thus all belief is conditioned by culture. It is good to see a real intellectual (Peterson) introduce these concepts to a wider audience and receive a level of respect, and try to drown out the chorus of New Atheist science-worshippers.


On Theresa May’s “Deal with the Devil”

This will be a short entry, as everything that has been said will be said about the “disastrous” 2017 UK election.

First of all, it is wonderful that Labour gained so many seats. But they came up just shy of true victory it seems. The Conservatives are allying with, it seems, the only other Parliamentary party on the right wing of the political spectrum, and even that is enough for them to gain a majority still. And what is that party? The DUP, the Northern Irish unionist party, known for their extreme anti-abortion views and anti-gay views. The DUP opposes abortion for rape victims and incest, and perhaps even more astonishing than that is that their dominance of Northern Irish politics means that abortion remains illegal for all except in extreme medical circumstances in Northern Ireland. But perhaps most vile of all is the fact that the DUP was once allied with right-wing paramilitaries. Of course, the same accusation could be leveled against Labour with respect to Sinn Fein.

But my real point is that while the Conservatives broadly failed, in that they turned their clear majority into a minority, Labour also failed to win. If all it takes is 42% of the English people to vote Conservative to form a government, it seems the situation is hopeless, because of the reactionary tendencies of the large swath of the upper classes.

The only ray of light seems to be that Labour increase its main body of constituents, the working poor, by letting Conservative policies take their toll.

Here’s hoping for more storms on the horizon, so we can see that silver lining in the clouds.

Zizek and Harman talk- response to Landzek

I have been watching the March 2017 talk with Slavoj Zizek and Graham Harman titled “Duel and Duet” and I was not disappointed at the intellectual stimulation value. Zizek, as most of you know, is the Marxist genius, and Harman is the obvious philosophical windbag stereotype. For those of you who don’t know, Harman belongs to a school of philosophy known as “Object-Oriented Ontology” (OOO) a kind of post-modern school. Object-oriented ontology, following Bruno Latour (who is notably an anthropologist) is a recent conceptual approach involving rethinking the role of objects in metaphysical schemes, how most approaches before the advent of postmodernism were concerned with the role of the human in the universe. Thus a lot of OOO tends to vibe well with environmental philosophies, Derrida, rethinking the relationship of the animal with the world, often Deleuze is thrown in there, etc. I have seen people do good things with OOO, but it often has an element of something that I hate. I couldn’t put my finger on it until tonight when my guy Zizek got up there and sparred with Harman.

In the talk, Harman begins by restating what OOO is, distinguishing it from “naive realism”, talks about how he thinks Zizek is more sophisticated than other philosophers, but then proceeds to critique him in several arcane respects. First he brings up the philosophical problem of essences. Harman sees no problem with essence as such, but thinks that essence is only knowable indirectly. So the essence of humans is different from other things, but…in fact, I don’t know exactly what he says about humans being different than other things. On the one hand, he says that humans are objects like any other object in the material world, and that we shouldn’t inscribe the difference in humanity into philosophy itself, that Western philosophy has inherited this gap between Creator and Created in medieval thought.

First let me reply to Harman. Harman thinks in such a dualistic way, even though he is trying to get beyond dualisms. Humans are subjects and objects, knowable and the knower. That is what makes us different- we are the knowers. We perceive things, we are existential beings who feel pain. Isn’t that a DUH???

For Harman, nothing seems to be a duh. The problem of essences he speaks of turns into the question of what is culture, with reference to Edward Said’s Orientalism. Harman says Said goes to far in his critique of Orientalism, saying there is no essence to the Orient. He says that when one claims to know something about it, then it becomes a problem. He then (in my view correctly) says but what about Culture and the difference between East and West as cultural systems?

To me, Harman is wading too deep into the waters of anthropological theory here. ***On the one hand, I believe that philosophy should have an open and engaging dialogue with anthropological theory, where many insights have occurred relatively unknown to professional philosophers***. That was one of the main ideas I had while watching this talk, because obviously Harman is a disciple of Latour, the philosopher cum anthropologist par excellence.

I realized my problem with OOO goes back to Latour and the whole “we have never been modern” thesis, which Zizek goes on to critique at the onset of his talk immediately. It is clear throughout the talk that Zizek is on a different level than Harman. Zizek’s whole style is to engage the audience immediately, claiming that differences between two philosophers does not matter so much as clarifying what is the problem. Zizek’s sense of responsibility in his thought is far superior to Harman’s. Harman in my mind (and this is kind of a straw man, because I haven’t read his books) fills an intellectual gap, sees OOO as superior, and proceeds to critique Zizek not understanding fully his whole approach, which takes into account the zeitgeist of the time, etc. Harman’s points become as DRY and emotionless as the subjectless ontology he philosophizes. Zizek’s motivation is an IDEAL, that is what makes him truly an idealist. It seems Harman doesn’t understand Hegel at all.

Back to my critique of Latour. Latour’s whole approach is based on a need to understand the non-human. While this is a great approach, it was essentially a copycat version of other developments in anthropology, such as Viveiros de Castro’s perspectivism (as far as I can tell). Perspectivism is a theory which looks at the Amerindian view of the human being as not separate from nature, etc. and is a brilliant theory of the way Amerindians see the cosmos and how we can use that. Latour is a post-modernizing of that approach, which has consumed anthropological high level theory as the “ontological turn”. Yay more philosophy in anthropology! It seems we have also inherited the bullshit

Finally, a response to Harman on culture and Said. Yes culture exists, and your about society not existing being conservative ideology is a great point. But one can’t merely just drop this point in for the sake of argument itself. Its a complex topic, one which Said has contributed more to than you. I found the same problem in Said’s work, his lack of acknowledgement of Difference in culture. Which is why I find my biggest problem sometimes with postmodern philosophy is that none of them seemed to have read the Upanishads.

In short, this video has given me insight that anthropology and philosophy need to engage FULLY with non-Western philosophies and ontologies. The problem of essences has already been dealt with by Madyamika-Prasangika school of Buddhism- essence is always changing, therefore there is no essence, only relative identity. Landzek’s post about this subject raises the question of philosophical EGO- a running theme in some of his posts (see the post on his blog about Obscurantism which I will link to ). He ends by saying philosophers should not worry about bruising the egos of others in dialogues. Often it is the most personal that is the hardest to put into words. That is what non-Western philosophies often handle best- the *emotional core* that has been strayed away from, even in postmodern ontologies.

I return to a conclusion from my previous post- we don’t need more theories, we need more open debate, more compassion, more EMOTION, less objects and ontologies.

Link to Landzek’s Constructive Undoing blog-

Lacanian or Deleuzian Anthropology? Paradoxes of thought

Following Deleuze, it may be enough to ask “what does this concept do” rather than say “what does it mean?” For the ethnologist, or ethnographer, a concept can only be useful, to reduce the interpretation of a given field to “One Grand Theory” must be missing the point. We have reached the point as anthropologists where we can hold two contradictory thoughts at once in our heads, I believe that must be the case, if and only if we have already taken the “Crisis of Representation” seriously. For there are still far too many anthropologists, or at least anthropology students, who cling to simple explanations, simple Cartesian dualisms, and “vulgar materialisms” to quote Levi-Strauss.

But as far ethnology is concerned, particularly the interpretation of symbols, is it enough to always follow the “emic” interpretation? The question of the emic vs. etic distinction in anthropology has always seemed to revolve around the question of which should be privileged, the native’s point of view or the view of the anthropologist. Continually vacillating between the extremes of relativism and objectivism, anthropology’s ontology has never been stable, and of course is not singular, for there are multiple anthropologies. There are probably multiple anthropologies inside a single anthropologist! And not just when considering the change in the perspective of an author over their lifetime- no, as Whitman saw quite clearly, we all contain multitudes. It is this problem that I am grappling with currently, which must be taken from the abstract to the concrete and particular- which “mapper of the unconscious” has more to offer anthropology? Which French elite intellectual, Lacan or Deleuze, is a better fit for anthropology?

Point for Deleuze: Deleuze engages with a wider variety of anthropological material, from structuralists like Leach and Levi-Strauss but also has incorporated insights from more than the “French elite”, like Victor Turner. In fact Deleuze’s take on Victor Turner’s work with the Ndembu is fascinating.

Point for Lacan: Lacan’s model of the unconscious is also a model for enculturation, the Big Other who gives the signifiers, the Symbolic Order as such

In this sense, Deleuze and Lacan both offer ways to interpret the symbols of other cultures from a dimension that is beyond “structural-functional” or Durkheimian. For Lacan, it moves to the psychological dimension of structure, how individuals inhabit the social roles, their “fit” behind the mask, their identification with their social roles. This proper kind of psychoanalysis is a good fit for anthropology, because it can offer psychological portraits of certain individuals in complex societies that serve certain functions. How does an Ndembu man think about fatherhood? These are properly psychological/Lacanian-inspired anthropological questions.

Both authors seem to situate Desire as being a necessary element in the psychological constitution of an individual. Lacan’s concept of the “objet petit a”, a continual striving toward an unobtainable goal, is a fascinating concept. But it seems to always boils down, to Lacan, as with psychoanalysis in general, to the pathological individual, to the hysteric, to the individual as having some form of mental pathology. Or rather, that pathology is inherent in the psychological make-up of humanity, and that society “patches over” or represses these pathologies, or subverts them, or channels them.

Deleuze brings back the properly existential into this debate. For if Lacan says that we do not simply desire objects, in a economic reductionist sense, Deleuze takes it a step further- what about those who desire the end of Desire? The yogic assemblage. Or those for whom endless Limitless Desire is not the defining characteristic of the unconscious. Of course, for Freud, it was Libido that was universal. But what would Buddha say about this?

Of course, Desire is a defining characteristic of Man, in the sense of Want. But something that is different about Man, is that Man can withhold himself, stop his urges. In Buddhist cosmology, the human realm is the Desire realm, after all. But it is also the realm of Anger, to which the Freudian would reply “at not getting what one wants, frustrated Desire”. True- but it is also true that man can overcome! Perhaps we should go beyond the simple pathologization or valorization of Desire. For anthropology, maybe it is not Deleuze vs. Lacan that matters in terms of a model of subjectivity, but Nietzsche vs. Schopenhauer.

In any case, anthropology needs a broader engagement with the philosophical, because only through philosophical reflection can the world be properly conveyed in all its depth, its drama, its gravitas. The social is more than a simple scaffold or structure, it is a narrative, a grand drama of history in which there are “players”. Perhaps it all signifies nothing, in the end, but the model anthropologists should perhaps take from the best biographers is that in describing culture, one should attempt to draw a psychological portrait, to the extent that this is able to be done. What was the intensity of emotion at a certain moment in time? How did the lines on a face furrow? How did it impact the ethnographer? And how can we get at this thing called Emotion? In short, Deleuze offers me a better picture of how to be a better anthropologist, because Deleuze and Guatarri’s “ethico-aesthetic paradigm” (emphasis on aesthetic) is the only proper way to convey things like compassion. Any good author knows that to evince compassion out of a reader, poetry is necessary, and poetry is not just a string of pretty words. Anthropologists have the advantage of being in contact with the real, but no one is going to be swayed by caloric intake charts. Only a master craftsmen can get what he needs to across while touching the SOUL of the reader. Anthropology, despite its duty to faithfully collect “data”, must be already by necessity an art, insofar as it uses words and tries to convey a MEANING. If information tells us how we are supposed to think, meaning tries to convey a FEELING. In short, anthropology has yet to fully incorporate the existential in writing. It does not need a new “interpretative schema” or mechanism. It just needs more heart


More socialist ramblings

The ad hominems continue…

If you follow that link, you will find another half-assed attempt to discredit Zizek and a bogus argument for why he is wrong about Trump and accelerationism. Here is just some of the genius:

“Trump is a loaded, unknown package for the ruling class which is precisely what has made Markets and most sections of the US ruling elite fear him. ”

So that’s why the Stock Market went up in value and continues to climb. Sure Trump represents a degree of instability in the market, but there is no elaboration, no citing of evidence in the critique. The predicted market crash has not come, even though the dollar is expected to lose value. And why? Well the market is based on speculation, like all predictions about Trump. Their guess is not a unified guess. Trump definitely represents a gain for Big Oil, symbolized by his unabashed support for the Keystone XL and DAPL pipelines and his appointment of Rex Tillerson. Considering that Big Oil represents some of the top 10 biggest companies in the world, including Exxon, I expect “most sections of the ruling elite” aren’t as anti-Trump as they think. The situation is perfect, the capitalist personified is power. Those who have the ability to see it have already seen it. The Koch Brothers represent an exception that may give the opposing argument a chance.

Misrepresenting Zizek’s position as “endorsing the far-right” notwithstanding, what does this kind of Leftist position mean, this idea of unified opposition to Trump? Is it the authentic moment we have been looking for? It certainly *feels* like that to some, but then again, politics has always been the realm of dashed hopes and dreams. The audacity of hope should always be questioned.

So the question is, is Zizek too optimistic? Will Trump lead to a resurgence of a radical Left in 2020 and beyond? It should be recognized that Trump is considered a deviation from the normal, and Americans do want change, but a kind of pseudo-change. A certain section of liberal voting class is quite comfortable without shaking things up. The only chance of success seems to be a sort of revenge motive, to get back at Hillary’s wing for letting Trump win, thereby letting the progressives win. These sort of psychodynamics drive American politics, ressentiment and resentment. If this feeling of genuine outrage can be channeled, a left-wing populism can emerge, one that is genuinely frustrated with the DEMOCRATIC AND REPUBLICAN parties for not delivering. Even Trump voters will switch over, if caught up in Bernie mania.

Of course, this isn’t enough, but its a start. A start to the end- a foreseeable end to adventurism. The glimmer of hope I see on the horizon- if Americans can protest in airports all across the nation in defense of foreigners who can’t enter the country, they can protest against our interventionism and endless war. They just need to be reminded of what has been there all along- and guilt, I find, is a good psychological tool for awakening this kind of consciousness.

What needs to happen subjectively in the minds of the populace? A kind of psychological shift from rage to compassion? A shared sense of struggle? Perhaps rage and compassion need to come together. Perhaps a politics based on fear and anger is what gives Zizek an ill feeling about the anti-Trumpers, with the accompanying feeling of paranoia. “Will he drop the nukes?” we all wonder. Maybe we need to question why we have nukes at all. We need to move from a political moment to a critique of the broader SYSTEM. Therefore, by definition, the anti-Trump movement as such cannot represent an authentic political revolution. It is only an attempt to return to the status quo as it is- and what we need to wake up to is the pressing reality that what allowed Trump to happen in the first place NEEDS TO BE ERASED

A diversity of struggles need to be integrated. The fight against the military-industrial complex, Big Pharma, Big Oil, Wall St.- in short, capitalism itself. In other words, the government is not the primary enemy. It is the pullers of the puppet strings- and we need to remember that


“Untimely” Meditations, Part 2

Historians will look back on this time period, like many eras, as another example of the limitless bounds of human folly. Socrates would be the first to comment, “why should we leave the governing of people to themselves? They do not have the background knowledge to sufficiently make rational choices. Too much is left to chance”. It is certainly the case that the idea of democracy as a fetish is becoming SO apparent that even liberals can see where Socrates is coming from.

But it is certainly not the case that only a demagogue, elected by the people, have been the only actors in history that have done massive harm. Hitler was a demagogue, but Stalin was a military man and bureaucrat, and a revolutionary.

Why did I title this rambling untimely meditation? Because it is not written for the people of today. Nietzsche, in choosing to write for an audience beyond provincial Germany (somewhat), became a figure of history.

Will the historians again universalize this period of history as yet another demonstration of “x”? I tell you, denizens of tomorrow, that I did not choose to be in this time period, and that the majority of my fellow men live in what they feel is a reversal of the norm, a “Bizarro” world. The most searched word on the online dictionary of 2016 was “surreal”.

Remember, you judges of history and the human race, don’t judge the powerless by the actions of the powerful. Humanity is not wholly evil. Please spare your grandfathers a harsh judgment, as we spare ours

The Fallacies of Neoliberal Protest, Part 2

Recently, a professor at Cornell University named Russell Rickford wrote a fascinating article about the Black Lives Matter movement called “The Fallacies of Neoliberal Protest”. In this article, Rickford outlines what he calls the “false assumptions” that are “propagated by the corporate power structure [sic]”. He calls these fallacies “dialogue and awareness” “appeal to authority” and “the myth of the disembodied voice”. In short, the first fallacy is the idea that protest should be channeled into legitimate “safe channels”, the second and third fallacy is the idea that the people in power know how to manage effective protest, and the disembodied voice is the idea that people in power will adequately respond to the concerns of the protestors. We see all these fallacies currently at play with the protest movements at Trump’s inauguration. How so?

The Women’s March on Washington, the protest movement that has gained so much traction that plans to protest the inauguration, is essentially a mainstream protest. While it is expected that the March will have 3x the amount of actual attendees of the inauguration in what is expected to be a historic movement, we can safely say certain things about this march. The Women’s March, planned and funded by Planned Parenthood and NARAL, is largely geared toward a single issue, namely the woman’s right to choose and pro-choice movement. Given Trump’s stance on abortion, this is not a bad thing to protest about, and the protest is more broadly a show of opposition toward the incoming Trump administration. It is ALSO true that this opposition has already been co-opted by these previously established “legitimate” power structures and organizations in exactly the way Rickford describes. This is exactly the way wide-scale opposition toward a government is “pacified” and “de-fanged”.

Now, of course, the Women’s March plans to be non-violent, and I am NOT advocating violence. But I believe the “pressure politics” of this protest have been rendered largely impotent, even before it began. Why? Because there is no “day after” for this protest, no concerted movement. People will come to Washington, they will leave on the same Planned Parenthood buses they came in on. Families will come in, experience the “high” of organized activism, the ecstatic moment of being apart of something historical, and then go home.

Precisely by being under the banner of something “legitimate”, opposition to Trump  has been stripped of any power to scare or influence the incoming regime. Yes, I said regime. The incoming regime of the Trump administration is completely illegitimate. In my mind, as Trump was outvoted by 3 million votes, he has absolutely no mandate, and even worse. If it was not for our antedilluvian election laws, we would not have this reactionary holding the highest office of the United States. He deserves to be protested, 100%. But we ourselves our to blame for it, for protesting at the gates of death. We could have broken the electoral college long ago. But now, it seems as if the whole world is panicking the prospect of a Trump presidency, when this is the natural outcome of successive neoliberal policies. Brexit was partially a reaction to corporate neoliberalism which removed all barriers to trade, and Trump is also using anti-globalization sentiments to his advantage by playing the right-wing populist (even though his administration picks demonstrate he is staunchly corporatist).

I like Planned Parenthood, but in this context it also has to be admitted that they are part of an existing power structure, even if that structure is social justice/activism groups. Planned Parenthood’s sponsoring of the march also sidelines economic issues in favor of more identity specific issues (hence Women’s March, even though other groups will also be hypothetically targeted by the Trump administration even more fiercely, like immigrants, Muslims, and people of color).

I think that political will in this country is very dependent on circumstance. And that is ok, to a certain extent. One shouldn’t just protest without just cause. But I believe that these “fallacies” about neoliberal protest and its supposed effectiveness are still in play, especially the “appeal to authority”. If we allow all protest to be guided, managed, and staged, yes we risk the protest devolving into unorganized chaos, but we also also risk the protest becoming part of the existing system. For some, this is a good thing. The protest “should be perceived as legitimate”. The problem with this argument is that civil disobedience, in even wide-scale protest like this one, in the eyes of a reactionary administration, will NEVER be perceived as legitimate. Expect fierce opposition, by reactionary counter-protestors, agitators, and police.

My larger issue with this Women’s March protest, however, is that it does not encompass enough issues. The march is purely an “anti-Trump” movement, and that is how the media will cover it. Sure there will be signs that will say “Save Healthcare”, “protect immigrants”, and “Black Lives Matter”, but if these struggles aren’t given their specific articulations, the existing power structures will not hear the voices of concerned citizens. It does not matter the size of this protest. It could be 1 million, it could be 3 million people. If it continues to be an anti-Trump and nothing but anti-Trump march, and that is the messaging people get, then that is all that will register. Neoliberalism will continue, in its completely unfettered form, and the protestors will all transform back into paranoid and frightened private citizens.

Here is my advice- THINK. Don’t just act. Yes, this is the time for action. But the more we question the ways in which we too, are participating in our own subordination, the more I think we can change the course of history.

Link to “The Fallacies of Neoliberal Protest”: