The specter of Marx in anthropology

Anthropology, as a humanistic enterprise, has always had (except for periods of extreme empiricism/biologism and certain isolated schools) a humanitarian mission since its real inception by Franz Boas. With the rise (and maybe fall) of postmodernism in anthropology, which has been always in the context of how to get cultural relativism and the depiction of other cultures right, the question has become not how to depict other cultures, but how to not get it wrong, and see within ourselves as writers of culture possible sources of bias. However, given the enormous influence of political economy, globalization studies, etc. anthropology has still to ask the question- what about Marx?

Anthropology COULD normatively assign Marx the category of another social theorist of the 19th century, and integrate his theories as just one more theory to study along with Weber and Durkheim. Or, it could (and I believe it already has, based on my experience in anthropology) take Marx seriously. I believe the answer why it should is not only an empirical question that someone like David Harvey or David Graeber could answer with judicious use of anthropological data and explanation of the rise of the neoliberal economic order and why it has influenced every local culture. There are a myriad books on this subject, from Graeber’s Debt: A 5000 year History to Wallerstein’s Introduction to World Systems Analysis- the right anthropologist’s have already done a good job of doing this. They have already analyzed colonialism from the right historical perspective, looked at it from the perspective of the colonized with postcolonialism, applied critical analysis. But what I don’t think they have had done a good job of doing is taking philosophy seriously, or justifying their project on a level of fundamentals, ethics, etc.

At first glance, this statement should appear nonsensical, because why wouldn’t anthropology try to accurately describe the postcolonial neoliberal reality of the 21st century? Haven’t they done enough by appealing to notions of human rights, etc?

The political problems of the 1950s and 1960s still haunts anthropology. During the Cold War and the Red Scare, many anthropologists worked for the government to understand the Communist threat, and many of afraid of being accused of having Marxist leanings. But while good critiques have already been made of the sort of public anthropology that sells their soul to corporations, works with the military in Iraq to understand local culture in order to further American foreign policy objectives, anthropologists remain reticent to unabashedly in writing critique capitalism. Now, I say this knowing that some anthropologists (like Graeber) remain professed and “out” anarchists, and many anthropologist’s writings are geared toward working against the established order of things.

But why Marx? Because anthropology still has a commitment at the end of the day, to Fanon’s wretched of the earth”. We remain committed to those who lack the voice to speak for themselves, the powerless. And this commitment, which does not exclude the First World as much as the Third World may be its focus, is fundamentally, and this cannot be denied- a spiritual commitment. This is what Marx himself failed to grasp. Why should he care? Why have compassion at all? Why not embrace the individualism of the modern age?

A “rationalist” or “pragmatic” reason may be that one could easily be oneself in the lumpen, in rags, and that as capitalism ravages our planet, we are beginning to personally feel the heat in our middle class dens (literally). But it is something that we have to own up to- that a commitment to the powerless among us is a fundamentally social commitment, a commitment to what philosopher Slavoj Zizek likes to refer to as the commons- our common social and ecological substance. This is why we cannot pretend that at least in this more deep sense (maybe not in the sense of previous incarnations of the idea in political movements of the 20th century) that the study of society and sociality must be socialist in orientation. To ignore the insights of Marx in history, in the fundamental difference between the haves and have nots, the dynamics between labor and capital, is to be blind to the immensity of human suffering on this planet that is structural, and caused by our economic system working for the few, not the many

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Reflections on Phobjika Valley

Driving down the mountain on the little dirt road, I found a distant corner of the world, a a valley almost hidden even to the distant corner of the world that is Bhutan. Now I know that even this place is not untouched by “the modern”, and is rapidly changing, but to an American eye, Phobjika valley is a Himalayan wonderland. The small village sits nestled by the side of the mountain, beside a few fields of potatoes, overlooking a vast field of grass. Cows roam around the roads unhindered by fences. Dung covers the dirt roads- one of the first things I learned was that stepping in cow shit here is considered lucky. The houses are typically Bhutanese and beautiful, with traditional designs covering the wooden pillars. But what I remember most about Phobjika were the friends I made, and the food. It was one of the most amazing places I visited while in Bhutan, despite an awful bout of nausea and vomiting that left me sick all night.

This vomiting, by the way, was in no way caused by my gracious host and chef, the local guide of the village. It was caused by the altitude, which finally got to me, as I was running up and down the steep hills to get to the archery game. I was really disappointed I couldn’t join in the archery- as I ran up the hill (after a long day of hiking around the valley looking at local plants) I became sick. There, the villagers instantly helped me. I was brought water by a small boy and his mother. I was taken care of, really taken care of, by my host. By the way, I love Bhutanese red rice and egg. The meals we had were great, if more rustic than I was used to, even in other parts of Bhutan. I definitely shouldn’t have tried the suja, or butter tea though. Butter tea is almost undrinkable for Westerners. If you go to Bhutan, stick to the ngaja, or milk tea. Butter tea is butter and salt. A salty drink, that’s right. So salty. Even some Tibetans hate it. I think that, combined with the altitude, made me sick.

You have to be hardy to live in Bhutan, to be a potato farmer, as my local guide is. But the pay off is worth it. The black necked crane comes seasonally to Phobjika valley- its what the valley is known for, even internationally. When our student group left, the next to come were a group of Japanese tourists. There are many things to consider academically about Phobjika- changing political economy, changing agricultural practices. In general, the potato farming is new, they used to grow less intensive crops to not wear out the soil. Potato depletes the soil- but this change also comes with benefits to the village. The village, like all things, is complex.

Of course there was the leopard. The black leopard that has been killing cows. The villagers were very upset. The government has a very strict law not to kill the leopard, because its endangered. Conservation and local indigenous people- in conflict in many parts of the world. The stories they told about the leopard were creepy.

Supporting local ecotourism really helps the village. There are only around 3000 tourists a year. This is about as much as it can sustain, more would probably be bad. They seemed very grateful for our visit. It was especially good to talk about Buddhism with the villagers. The valley was one the home of a monastery built by the Tibetan master Longchenpa. The monastery now lies in ruins on the other side of the valley. I told my guide that I had read Longchenpa and considered myself a Buddhist- we really connected. He told me his lama is a Dzogchen lama. He told me “Dzogchen is based on meditation, not complicated words”. The villagers say you can also see Guru Rinpoche’s prints on a rock face in the valley.

My guide told me the name for the sacred mountain in the distance was Tong Shi La, and when we passed a certain boulder that it was the domain of a spirit. Even the cold small lake in the valley had healing properties, and had cured my guide’s illnesses. It works if you have faith he said. They call this lake/river Mengchu (chu means water in Dzongkha).

In Phobjika valley, there are multiple “villages”. Some are just a few houses. Deep in the valley are a few households that do not farm at all, only herd animals (mostly sheep) and live like highlanders. I think they call it Chakche village.

My guide told me that they use wild strawberries to make into a jam, and that they grow potatoes, turnips, barley, wheat, radishes, carrots, and cabbages. They rise early, prepare for the day, and keep a farmer’s life. Cheesy potatoes- now that’s some good food!

What was most amazing to me was my guide’s active role in the preservation of his culture. My guide really new the history of the sacred sites of the valley, he actively tried to preserve the ancient songs, the customs, the traditions. My only regret was not being able to meet the Gela “shaman” (probably better word is oracle) of the village for mysterious circumstances- I think it was an “inauspicious day”. The tire on the vehicle was flat at that point, so it definitely was inauspicious.

I’ll go back someday, hopefully soon

 

 

Zizek on Deleuze- link to great blog

http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=229

 

This blog articulates my exact problem with Zizek’s critiques of Deleuze in Organs Without Bodies, and my problem with Zizek in general (his unexamined reliance on Hegel as the ultimate horizon of how he interprets everything). I haven’t read all of Organs without Bodies, but it seems like just a recap of Badiou in his book on Deleuze, The Clamor of Being.

My individual thoughts on Zizek and Deleuze that aren’t addressed in this blog:

Zizek’s strength is he tends to rely on history more than Deleuze, while Deleuze is more adept at the anthropological literature. This is representative of the essential divide between them- German/Eastern European dialecticism, materialism, historicism, rootedness, or the common sense attitude (even though Zizek would fiercely deny this), and Deleuze’s typical French concerns with “high” artistic culture, literature (Zizek deals a lot more with ‘lowbrow’ and mundane). But even beyond this divide. I really do believe Zizek, who has clearly tried to read all of Deleuze’s literature, did not understand it. He thinks that Deleuze’s poetics of “flows” can be easily reappropriated to capitalist apologetics, but he doesn’t understand that Deleuze was precisely making a model of capitalism when he introduces the concept of flows in Anti-Oedipus. Fundamentally, Zizek’s disdain for Anti-Oedipus is so obviously misplaced, because there is no fundamental engagement or “encounter” with it. He simply goes straight for the conclusions, does not bother with the theory.

Now as for their politics, its true that Deleuze disdains orthodox Marxism, and all hierarchies, while Zizek sees them as necessary for the creation of a new movement to oppose capitalism. But there is more agreement than meets the eye here, and as always, I think that a real dialogue (despite Deleuze’s dislike for this term) could have occurred, simply if Deleuze had lived!! But now we are talking at cross-purposes, because we are attempting to have a dialogue with the dead. It reminds of a quote from an X-files episode, “we always bury the dead alive”. They cry out to us, but we can’t understand them, we can only hear mumbles and imagine what they would have said.

What do I think Deleuze would have said to Zizek? I think he would have said:

Yes, yes, we must reimagine the Left, and capitalism is the enemy, but you yourself know the value of thinking outside the confines of a particular ideology, there are always unseen microfascisms at play, at best we can only make immanent critique, that is the job of a philosopher, this is why you yourself avoid prescription. A philosopher’s job is to create concepts, not be a historian- you have not understood your job description. In your books I see a consistent becoming in you Zizek, a becoming revolutionary, so many becomings, and your books act act as all books should, as rhizomes, as connections to so many territories of thought and culture. These territories are impossible to fully map, the map is not the territory itself. What we can only do, as philosophers, is point the way to certain territories, whether real or imagined. You, Zizek, your job should be that of a cartographer of the imagined territory of post-capitalist life

This is what I believe he would have said to Zizek, he would quickly see that Zizek’s greatest unfinished task is, as he admits, his greatest challenge- imagining the world without capitalism, which as he says is now more difficult than imagining the end of the world.

What rhizomes will form? What new territories will emerge? What is in the process of becoming? Is it too terrible for us to imagine? Deleuze and Zizek’s biggest point of convergence- ecology. Here Zizek has a lot to learn from Guatarri. Ecology- that’s all there ever is, or was. Ecologies- ecologies of ideas, ecologies of people. If all history is class struggle, all history and prehistory is also a complex web of interactions, flows, some that lead to arrangements of rigidity, some that lead to arrangements of plasticity. It is definitely not that Deleuze is not sufficiently Marxian- Marx was not sufficiently Deleuzian, or Nietzschean, or Conradian, or Sitting Bullian, or Black Elkian. What Marx missed is that for all the benefits of abstraction, immanence and detail is primary. Context, context, context, context

We should always attempt to be as Walt Whitman did, and contain multitudes

 

Is Alain de Botton “pop philosophy”?

Apparently, even Alain de Botton has described what he does as “pop philosophy”. For those of you who don’t know, de Botton is the creator of the School of Life youtube channel. Now, I’ve noticed that once I find a critique of someone, I tend to latch onto it, and that person’s life endeavor becomes absolute garbage. I try to consciously limit that impulse. What I will attempt to do here is a scholarly, but very imperfect, reading of de Botton and his position in our culture, what he represents, the space he occupies. So for the record, I’m not impugning this person’s character- this is just my view on his philosophy, from a critique of ideology/Zizekian standpoint. Also, what I’m going to say is not new, but I hope its thorough.

So, Alain de Botton is a philosopher, well published, with many books including The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (the only one I’ve attempted), Art as Therapy, Religion for Atheists, The Consolations of Philosophy, and How to Think More about Sex. So, as a starting point, with de Botton already admitting that he is writing for a popular audience (but justifiably so), we can also identify a philosophy that is essentially de Bottonian. The philosophy/theses are essentially in the titles. Philosophy is worth reading, because it can help you solve real life problems, related to sex, money, work, day to day suffering. Probably his most edifying thesis is the one made in religion for atheists, which is that religion still has valuable moral teachings and truths that atheists should learn from. This is hardly a new thesis, but in a climate of growing opposition to religion and in the context of increased reliance on science and the popularity of New Atheism, this thesis does go against the grain. So far so good.

A deeper point that de Botton tries to make is that philosophy has always been about solving real problems, its not all about abstract concepts. There were essentially spiritual messages that many philosophers, eastern and Western, tried to convey through their teaching. This is where things start to break down. For de Botton, like most “New Agers”, spirituality or philosophy is all about “solving real world problems”. It is essentially an individualistic pursuit of self-gain. Now, there are positives to this- working on one’s own psychological problems by yourself, without necessarily having recourse to a psychiatrist or psychologist, can be good- I don’t think that people should never read philosophy and only stick to the “medical experts” when it comes to one’s own well being. In that way, I see what de Botton is doing as positive. But I do see it as an extension of “self-help culture”.

“Self-help culture” and “therapy culture” are not the same thing. One is about buying books to help you sort out your life and “reprioritize your goals” “become successful” etc. One is going to a licensed, degree-ed person with good intentions of helping you. There are critiques of therapy culture, which I won’t get into here, but self-help culture is largely a byproduct of late capitalist consumer fads in diet, exercise, and lifestyle magazines. De Botton, while he tries to put real philosophy into his books, is still within that paradigm.

Now, one could argue that de Botton is consciously using that paradigm to get people into more fulfilling pursuits, such as reading philosophy, understanding the world around them on a deeper level, or simply just trying to help people. The problem is, diet books also just try to help people overcome obesity, and lifestyle magazines are geared toward helping people. The problem is- do they work.

The answer is- maybe? Maybe they do “work” for some people. It depends on the diet magazine. In Eva Ilouz’ book  Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help, Ilouz explains that (from the back page) “contemporary notions of identity” are profoundly impacted by “therapeutic discourse”.  I would argue that for philosophy, de Botton is doing a disservice to philosophy by restricting the discourse of philosophy to a therapeutic discourse. That sounds pretty smart, so, I think I’ve found the way to articulate my problem with de Botton finally.

So what would the discourse look like if it was unrestricted by therapeutic discourse? Well, it would be normal philosophy. As in, it could tackle every controversial subject under the sun- the State, ethical dilemnas, death, things that are generally bigger than personal dilemnas. Moreover these personal dilmenas that de Botton tends to concentrate are apoliticized and largely bourgeois concerns- one has the luxury to think about love and relationships when one can put food on the table. But even beyond a Marxist critique of what he is doing, de Botton sells himself as a repopularizer of philosophy itself. His brand is “you too can know philosophy- without the hard work!” Even while saying pithy phrases like “We must fiercely resist the idea that true love must mean conflict-free love, that the course of true love is smooth. It’s not. The course of true love is rocky and bumpy at the best of times. That’s the best we can manage as the creatures we are. It’s no fault of mine or no fault of yours; it’s to do with being human. And the more generous we can be towards that flawed humanity, the better chance we’ll have of doing the true hard work of love”.

I’m sorry, but even as relationship advice, this is hardly profound. “You have to work at your relationships”. Any husband who has ever taken their wife out to dinner knows this- its almost as if de Botton is writing to 15 year olds.

At the end of the day, de Botton is contributing to an anti-intellectual culture by pretending to be a guru.

This is where I start attacking people personally. I’ll stop now

 

Is Marxism’s biggest problem its atheism?

Of course this question sets up about four false dichotomies, and assumes that there is only one Marxism and not an assemblage, but I will pose the question regardless. It is well known in anthropological/philosophical academic circles that vulgar dialectical materialism has serious philosophical problems. The idea of the ideological superstructure being completely determined by the material infrastructure of society is complete bogus environmental determinism which ignores all context. This idea of infrastructural determinism is a vulgar simplification of Marx’s famous phrase, “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but their social being that determines their consciousness”. And yet, despite the oversimplification, even Marx’s own high minded words deserve close scrutiny. Is it impossible to think outside the confines of one’s own culture? Is cultural innovation therefore impossible? Obviously extreme versions of this theory would result in a static picture of cultural change, or rather that cultural change is a mere byproduct of changes in material conditions and revolutions in the means of production. All these terms, as Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek points out, deserve rethinking. This is the broad philosophical context, beyond the analysis or historical truth value of class struggle, behind critiques of Marxist orthodoxy. Marxism, or Marxian thought differentiated from the political movement, is, as Michel Foucault pointed out, a “19th century fish in 19th century water”. It is well known, even by Marxist social critics and historians like Mobo Gao, that Marxism existed historically within the context of the Western Enlightenment mind colonizing previous ways of thinking and modes of being.

The biggest historical *problem* (something without an easy answer) with Marxism is its relationship with the Enlightenment project of “civilizing” backwards peoples and combating “backwards” superstitions and false ideologies. This conception of ideology as a false idea is what makes historical Marxism antagonistic to religion. Religion is conceived of as a purely reactionary force. This is the seat of the historical antagonism- during the French revolution, certainly the Catholic Church was a source of oppression, by owning land, tithes, and its stranglehold over power that it shared with the nobility. But transferred from one context to the next, like rural China, and you get a more complex picture of the relationship of religion to society and power. The easiest way to conceptualize this problematic is to use the historical example of the Chinese takeover of Tibet. Regardless of Tibetan participation in the events of the Cultural Revolution, or the Chinese government’s official role or sanctioning of activities, hundreds of monasteries were burned, ransacked, and destroyed, hundreds of monks were killed, and Tibet has been a situation of complete and constant surveillance since the dawn of the modern era. Critical readings of history aside, Tibet has seen a cultural genocide. But the question does bear asking- does the Marxist conception of religion hold some degree of truth?

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people“.

This is the full infamous quote from Karl Marx, in full context. When put in full context, religion seems to Marx as a solution to worldly problems, albeit one that is temporary. Marx’s earlier critiques of Feuerbach actually argued that critiques of religion do not go far enough, in that what is needed is a critique of society, not just religious ideology. In this Marx is certainly not a purveyor of atheist thought. However, the idea that religious institutions have a degree of political power is not a controversial statement. All I ask of Marxists is that instead of generalizing, they borrow from the anthropological method and in each instance contextualize the situation. Which religion? Which people? What time period? What degree of influence over which aspect of society? What degree (if any) of coercion? These factors are why I disagree with the idea Buddhist religious institutions in Tibet were oppressive institutions. If anything, like medieval Christian monasteries, they were seats of learning, and cultivated (possibly unlike medieval Christianity) a sense of peace and a philosophy of non-violence among the people. The idea that these forces were conservative forces on society that stunted social or technological progress are simple-minded assumptions, ones that ignore the real material conditions of living on the highland plateau of Asia, and ignores the serious adaptations and innovations made by Himalayan peoples, made in agriculture, pastoralism, and indeed in other areas as well such as medicine.

Simply put, the idea that the Chinese brought modern medical doctors to Tibet justifying an invasion is another insidious form of colonialism, and precisely the type of logic used to justify the “white man’s burden” of British colonization of Africa and India. With Chinese colonization, Tibet was introduced to modern medicine, roads, but also to modern problems such as resource depletion, environmental degradation, and mechanized state surveillance. The ideological label of “socialism” does not apply.

However, it must be acknowledged that certain religious forces did exist in certain parts of the world that have and continue to justify state violence and oppression. Examples include Catholic priests in El Salvador and Guatemala, as well as fundamentalist versions of religion being used against other religious minorities (the oppression of Rohingya Muslims by the Buddhist majority of Myanmar for instance). The idea that social antagonism will be magically lessened by the wiping away of previous forms of superstition is itself a superstition, a dream of a secular world in which no one has any prejudice or bigotry. But while the socialist community has largely repudiated the obviously reactionary ideologues of the New Atheist movement, it has yet to confront its own skeleton in the closet- the persecution of the religious in actually-existing-socialist states.

Persecution of communists by religious people (the genocide in Indonesia) aside, this problem still haunts Marxism, and has plagued many a postmodern philosopher, from Derrida to Deleuze, to question Marxist orthodoxy on the matter of religion. The heritage of the world in the form of its religious sites, philosophies, and texts are not the “garbage of the past”. They are treasures to be learned from, and deal largely with what Marxism by definition cannot do- the transcendent, the beyond, life beyond this one, powers beyond the human. When they deal with ethics, they largely offer something to Marxism in the form of deep philosophical speculation about the nature of compassion, love, and the ethics of caring for one’s fellow man.

Is it better to believe in God or not, if one’s object is the betterment of one’s fellow man? Maybe this question itself is false one, and the problem isn’t the stories you tell yourself. We must get rid of the binary logic that plagues the modern mind, the “right or wrong”, “X or Y” mentality

One further addendum- Zizek defends the Enlightenment project by saying essentially that the Enlightenment allowed Europe to articulate its lack of freedom, and that the reason Asia, for instance, didn’t have this critique of religion was that it did not have the Enlightenment. Zizek’s proof for this is the caste system and other religious based forms of oppression. While this is certainly a formidable argument in the context of the caste system and Hinduism, it must be remembered that there were indigenous critiques of the caste system, and not everyone chose to participate (the Adivasis, the Jains, the Buddhists). It is equally possible that this critique of religion did not arise because the material conditions of oppression did not exist. From a purely materialist standpoint this is a possibility! There were certainly periods of India’s history where caste was not a fundamental feature of society. Again, this just allows history to be painted with a broad brush, to ignore the dynamics that existed between and within religious movements. I have previously argued that the Dzogchen tradition in Tibet was an emancipatory anti-institutional religious movement which sought to distance itself from institutions such as monasteries (at least at first). What I am most reluctant to do is to categorize religion as purely superstition, and not as a philosophy or way of life.

The environmental battle of the century

Image result for belo monte dam

This is the 3rd largest mega-dam in the world, Belo Monte dam on the Xingu river in the Amazon rain forest. This is Ground Zero for the most important environmental battle in the world- the destruction of the Amazon rain forest. It is human rights disaster of monumental proportions. Alone the dam will displace more than 20,000 riverine and tribal people in the region. The dam is built squarely within the bounds of the Kayapo Indigenous Reserve (Xingu Park), and so is a violation of right to self determination of indigenous peoples of Brazil, as well as representing the destruction of one of the largest rivers in the world.

From Amazon Watch:

“The Brazilian government is building the world’s third largest hydroelectric dam on the Xingu River, a major Amazon tributary. Now over fifty percent complete, the Belo Monte Dam complex is designed to divert eighty percent of the Xingu River’s flow which will thus devastate an area of over 1,500 square kilometers of Brazilian rainforest and cause the forced displacement of up to 40,000 people. This project gravely impacts the land and livelihoods of thousands of riverine, urban families and communities, and indigenous peoples from several neighboring areas.

The Xingu River basin is a living symbol of Brazil’s cultural and biological diversity; it is home to 25,000 indigenous people from 40 ethnic groups. The Xingu flows north 2,271 kilometers from the central savanna region of Mato Grosso to the Amazon River. Nominally protected throughout most of its course by indigenous reserves and conservation units, the Xingu basin is severely impacted by cattle ranching and soy monocultures. Belo Monte is the first in a planned network of mega-dam projects which will pose additional devastation to an already threatened region.”

The same thing is happening to India’s indigenous people with 2nd largest dam in the world, the Sardar Sarovar dam. And so, Belo Monte may be tied with the Sardar Sarovar dam in terms of its displacement of people. Nevertheless, THIS is the face of the most forgotten human rights struggle in the world- the indigenous peoples of the world, the Fourth World, soon to be gone forever

Rhizomatic thought and the enterprise of being an intellectual

Nowadays, as a Leftist intellectual in any discipline, there is always the incentive to produce for the sake of producing. Publishing for the sake of money alone, and so the push is to say something original for the sake of saying something original, instead of saying something meaningful. Even Leftist intellectuals seem to fall under this trap. How many variations on “this is why capitalism is bad, neoliberal economics is bad” can people write before people start to wonder “well they got published, maybe capitalism is fair after all, there is a readership, etc”. The only way to counter this obviously flawed point is to point out the embarrassingly large volume of right-wing talk radio garbage best sellers at Barnes and Noble storefronts. There’s a market for every ideology. But there isn’t a market for genuine philosophical innovation, or books that should be at the forefront of the public consciousness. At one time, Margaret Mead was a bestselling author and columnist- now, the most well known anthropologist is a social Darwinist xenophobe who stands for everything anthropology is against (this may be an overstatement but actual book sale numbers suggest this is the case). So there seem to be two options for the aspiring academic- write to a popular audience (sell out) or write to a specialist audience (which may be another form of selling out). How do you ride the line?

Zizek seems to me to be the paragon of how to talk to a wide scale audience and manage to produce excellent scholarship. It manages to be both entertaining and engage with a wide berth of subjects that most of the public probably knew nothing about beforehand (post-Freudian developments in psychoanalysis, critical theory). In a sense, he is carrying on the tradition of people like Adorno and Walter Benjamin.

The only other intellectuals that I believe also made this jump to popularity without sacrificing something essential in their thought were Foucault and Deleuze. Contrary to what some people believe, these two thinkers were popular enough to be featured on French television, and Deleuze in particular was an intellectual reference point in May ’68. The key text on this subject seems to be the dialogue between Deleuze and Foucault called “Intellectuals and Power”:

https://libcom.org/library/intellectuals-power-a-conversation-between-michel-foucault-and-gilles-deleuze

A most enlightening quote I find is this one:

“Intellectuals are themselves agents of this system of power-the idea of their responsibility for “consciousness” and discourse forms part of the system. The intellectual’s role is no longer to place himself “somewhat ahead and to the side” in order to express the stifled truth of the collectivity; rather, it is to struggle against the forms of power that transform him into its object and instrument in the sphere of “knowledge,” “truth,” “consciousness,” and “discourse. “(4)

Although Foucault has written other enlightening things on this subject, such as his work on the function of the Author itself.

This is precisely why Postmodernism should be privileged within the Anthropological theoretical debate, and not discarded. Because we MUST continue to ask the question- why am I writing at all? Even if our enlightened wish is to expose the neoliberal structures of power for what they are, and speak truth to power, and all those high and mighty slogans, there seems to be, at a certain distinct level, by my reckoning, a certain powerlessness at the heart of current academic political anthropological discourse. What do I mean by this? I mean not just that there is theorizing for theorizing’s sake, but that even “practical” discourse functions as a mechanism just by which to perpetuate the discipline. Finally, we must shed the notion that discourse exists for the sake of the Other, because the Other, at every level, takes care of themselves, and it would be to perpetuate a certain type of “white man’s burden 2.0” to assume that one is writing for the sake of the Other. Now, I say this with a kind of sinking feeling, because I do believe that academics can participate in certain ideological battles, change hearts and minds, and ultimately help certain members of the “wretched of the Earth”. But I believe it comes by only once in a blue moon, and the instances that I’ve heard of radical change coming about as the direct result of an anthropologist’s or philosopher’s work are few and far between. But I mean that the ideological WORK- and I do believe, as a good Marxist, we should think of ourselves as intellectual workers- and by this, I mean that our work is like this metaphor. As Deleuze likes to say, “a theory is exactly like a box of tools”. Thus, we can build mighty theoretical edifices, or tear existing structures down. But the primary goal of an intellectual is not as bricklayer, but as foreman. We build the intellectuals of tomorrow. We give the intellectual tools to the future politician, the actuary, the lawyer, the salesman. And not just in the sense of some kind of intellectual capital that can be used to sell one’s own labor- tools that are used in the broader social sphere. Tools that cut through the divide of right thinking from wrong thinking, in political and social life. Tools to know how statesmen of the future may promise and lie and sell you false hopes and dreams. Tools to know how to anticipate developments that haven’t happened yet- when the floods will come, to anticipate the struggles that have only barely begun.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Deleuze, its to connect, and to think organically. Every day, the dynamics of the world change. That is the only constant. One has to learn to think “underground”, in a subterranean fashion- what is only below the surface now, and has not yet breached the public consciousness. That is why ecological problems are the most devastating in the end- everything we depend exists on a fragile ecological basis, and all of Marxist class dynamics exist upon a fragile framework of the earth, the one we continue to poison, destroy, and torture. Its the dams themselves that do the exploiting now- no need for an army to uproot the local population- development comes with its own internal colonizing process. Thankfully, it will begin impacting the one thing we all depend on (agua)- when the water tables start drying out, due to a variety of climatic and over-development/agricultural factors, then maybe the tides will change of their own accord. All an intellectual can do now is to try to redirect the currents, and shine a light on what is below the surface of the water, waiting to be exposed.

And maybe, the metaphor of conceptual tools is not good, or hasn’t been carried far enough. We must be on the side that says subjectivity is molded- it is a cultural construct. For what we are doing at the end of the day as intellectuals is molding, like a potter, desire. Instilling the desire to resist the consumer deluge. The desire to break out of the confines of mass society. The desire to see the spectacle as it really is. The desire to continually remind ourselves to be disgusted with the being we could be, or could have been. Our discourse is not for the Other- it is for ourselves. We are not discoverers of truth- only truth’s handmaidens, stewards, or even…creators