Bernard Henri-Levy and the effect of discourse


I’ve been having many conversations recently about the power of discourse, the power of philosophy, and philosophical elitism with friends in my anthropology department and fellow bloggers like Landzek over at the Constructive Undoing blog. I found an article that has some relevance here.

I had an argument recently where my friend and fellow anthropology Masters student was arguing that high theory (Deleuze, Derrida) means nothing to the ordinary person, and even postmodern philosophy perpetuates a kind of elitism that separates academia from the rest of society. I told him there’s a term for that Derrida invented called logocentrism- he responded that that’s the point, the coining of these kind of terms perpetuates the gap.

I’ve also been thinking about how much real effect does philosophical discourse have on society while thinking about social movements. Did the Zapatistas need Marx to formulate their struggle? Maybe. The Indian anti-colonial movement certainly didn’t.

Maybe philosophy is not relevant to many people, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that means philosophy has no effect on anything. This is just historically untrue. Take the example I gave above. Bernard Henri-Levy, the archetype of the aloof French philosopher, personally calls French President Sarkozy and convinces him to go to war in Libya. That’s some real power right there!

Of course, Henri-Levy is garbage, but his assumptions and underpinnings of why he argued for going to war in Libya is a perfect encapsulation of modern capitalist ideology, despite his pseudo-Marxist pretenses.

Long story short, when Marx said “philosophers have interpreted the world, the point is to change it”- that statement is taken to heart by neoconservative philosophers as well. Maybe that’s why its important to get the ideas right in the first place.

Theory is important, without it we’d be grasping in the dark for answers

Think. Don’t (just) Act


Money is Time

Really creative post by Larval Subjects. The vampirism of wage labor. Reminds me of Marx’s quote from the Communist Manifesto, “a spectre is haunting Europe”. Also reminds me of a book on bad economics called Zombie Economics by John Quiggin that I really like.

Larval Subjects .

Hopefully I’ll be forgiven this impressionistic, scattered post.  I’ve fallen prey to a terrible cold and am not completely here.

Rather than saying that time is money, perhaps it would be better to say that money is time.  And what is time, if not life? We only have so much of it and then it’s done, gone.  If, then, money is time and time is money, then it follows that everywhere we are buying and spending life.  This is especially true under wage labor– and it matters little whether one is paid by the hour or gets a salary –for in wage labor, I sell my time in return for money.  Those who buy my labor– my time, my life –get to keep the products of my labor, for during that time I belonged to them.  In buying goods with the money I receive, I am in turn buying the…

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Return to the Enlightenment???

Landzek, you are really going to like this post.

So, I was doing my usual thing, watching one of my favorite TV series, the X-files, when it occurred to me to look up philosophy articles written about the existence of extraterrestrial life. I’m going to do an actual article about that, but I managed to find something a little less off the wall, and much more relevant to what I’ve been talking about on this blog. I found an article on Jacobin Magazine (which I normally like very much) which repeats the archetypally Zizekian claim that the Left must reclaim the banner of the Enlightenment because the alt-right has taken over the idea that truth is subjective with their conspiracy theories, etc. The article I link to above tells the story of one Jason Reza Jorjani, a philosophy professor that combines antisemitism with occult beliefs. Now, the article here makes some great points, including the historical link between Judaism and modernity, through the figure of Baruch Spinoza, and Heidegger’s views on the subject. But, let us be frank for a moment, and talk about some of the things the article does, I say, wrongly.

First of all, the article talks a lot about universalism, and almost certainly plagiarizes Zizek because of this. That is the least of its crimes. The article makes this claim in talking about the new Left and their relationship with the Enlightenment: “This rejection of the Enlightenment was not always consistent or total. Some (Adorno, Horkheimer) retained a tension between the Enlightenment ideas of emancipation, on the one hand, and the Nietzschean critique of reason on the other. Others (Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault) resolved this tension more straightforwardly by moving unreservedly toward Nietzsche.”

This is pretty good, but it goes on to unabashedly call for a return to Enlightenment thinking without mentioning what those “Nietzschean critiques of Reason” are. Nevermind that metanarratives are drying up, that the alt-right’s philosopher is just putting forward one more metanarrative. I will return to this- but what I find most outrageous from a philosophical perspective is that they took the link between Judaism and rationalism argument seriously.

Baruch Spinoza was not a Jew. He was ex-communicated. He was born a Jew. The article goes on to simply say that Spinoza was influenced by Jewish Talmudic scholars and philosophers like Maimonides to confirm the idea that Spinoza was just a product of Jewish culture. Deleuze, probably one of the greatest scholars on Spinoza, was the first to recognize how Spinoza was not just a contemporary of Descartes, but his philosophical foe. The article straightforwardly claims, “From Descartes, Spinoza, and the French materialists to the French and Haitian revolutions to Hegel and Marx, we have a strain of thought that proceeds from an intelligible world to the full emancipation of humanity.” The idea that there is a natural progression of history in this way is so typically dogmatically Marxist that it would even make Zizek flinch. This is what Marxist dogmatism looks like, it is subtle and maybe I am missing the point of the article, that there is a certain irrationalism that is being embraced by the right. But the idea that irrationalism and postmodernism are the same is such a grade school fallacious error. Universalism has problems that are beyond the simple problems of cultural relativism- even Zizek admits these problems have more to them then meets the eye. Take the problem of female circumcision in Africa and its connection to ideas of tribal identity. But I digress.

My point or thesis is that there is a difference in embracing the Enlightenment and embracing rationalism. Descartes, the Cartesian view of the world, is if anything counter to ideas of empiricism, of knowing the world for what it is, rather than the idealization of “Logic”. Who gets to define what Logic is? Thats the problem we are dealing with here. Jorjani isn’t simply an irrationalist- he has a worldview that makes a certain degree of sense actually. It all logically connects to him, its obvious there are connections in his mind of telepathy to antisemitism. A true irrationalist would believe that nothing has any center, we cannot say anything, we are mute as it were. But no man is mute, save perhaps Antonin Artaud, who only wanted to make mumbles and screams.

Another digression. But it is completely strange to me to kind of drop in Spinoza, a kind of precursor to postmodern thinking in many ways, as a paragon of rationalism. Which is why its funny to me that the title of the article is “aliens, antisemitism, and academia”. The title is a clever alliteration, and the allusion is clear, although his name starts with A- I don’t know why they didn’t include him. Alex Jones (“they are turning the frickin frogs gay”!) Probably because this article is an attack on philosophy departments that teach too much Foucault, and somehow that is to blame for the alt-right. I hope they don’t believe that, because it would be ridiculous. However they get around this ridiculous accusation by simply saying that the Left must be more rationalist (pro-Enlightenment).

“Jorjani believes that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was an aerial attack and that Lot’s subsequent abandonment of the area indicates nuclear fallout. He thinks “some kind of anti-gravitational beam from out of the cylindrical object hovering over the [Red] Sea” destroyed the Egyptian chariots during the exodus.”

ALIENS! The article is right to say this reminds them of horrible History Channel programming (which has become the opposite). But why would blaming a philosophical camp be the target of the anger, rather than the History Channel? Biblical mythology, Biblical history has always been apart of American life. The belief in extra-terrestrials, as Jung shows, is one of the biggest developments in modern mythologies. It represents a widening of what is known to be possible, the idea that there are other beings out there in the universe.

What strikes me above all as odd is the idea that the universe is always perfectly opaque, and our perception of it never skewed in any way. A kind of naive empiricism. Even Descartes recognized this problem, but resolved it pretty quickly with a belief in a perfect God. The scientization of Biblical belief is actually a rationalist move- it maintains belief in the Bible, a kind of cultural belief, but doesn’t need the belief in a creator God. This makes sense with the alt-right worldview, the Nazi worldview. The founding myths of Western civilization still need a degree of reality or importance, and so the paranoid pseudoscientific theories provide some sort of deeper meaning to them. I think something should have written about that.

If the History channel doesn’t do enough real history, Jacobin hasn’t done enough historiography, or philosophy of history. The fact stands that you cannot put the blame for the Holocaust on the shoulders of occult beliefs, as many a History channel documentary has tried (Hitler and the Occult! tonight at 9pm). But what the authors do not want to do is indict Western culture, they are trying desperately to salvage Western culture, because it has given them Science! Microwaves! Technology! Progress!

Progress was also the rallying cry of the Nazis. Of course their theories about racial hygiene were based on bunk science, but the problems of eugenics, and eugenic thinking, as bioethicists realize, remain. Antisemitism was not invented by the Nazis, it was a product of Christian Europe. The authors desperately want a philosophy that has remained untainted by the atrocities of the past. Hegel has no real relationship to colonialism- or so they claim, without reading what he wrote about Africa. History is messy.

We shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. But to argue for looking at the world correctly would be a much less strong thesis then “the values of the Enlightenment”. The idea that people didn’t look at the world scientifically until Newton is only true with respect to physics. I think Levi-Strauss has demonstrated that quite clearly. This isn’t even about a Heideggerian right-leaning glorification of ruddy lived experience of the peasant vs. the bureaucratic Jewish functionary who only sees numbers. The problem the authors don’t want to admit is that Heidegger was often right about science, despite being a Nazi. What Heidegger didn’t realize is that the Nazis would be as scientific as their predecessors, perhaps more. History is messy! (Heidegger was not however a morally courageous man).

In conclusion, the authors of this article need to go back to the books, and realize the absolute prescience and foresight of Adorno, also a Jew, and his critique in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, still the essential text on this subject. They also need to read some critiques of Cogito ergo sum, some David Hume, and maybe a few more koans, and there belief in a completely understandable totalizable universe may be shaken for a moment. They may even realize they don’t exist! Most of all, they should make clear to their readers that just because an alt-righter has read some shit about Zen Buddhism doesn’t mean they interpreted it the right way. If they did, we would have never heard of this man, and he would getting drunk in a bar somewhere. Just because the Nazis believed that every Mystic is a born anti-Semite, doesn’t mean that’s a true statement. Does that deserve saying? Isaac Newton himself was a follower of mystical Christianity.

This is where Zizek himself errs in indicting poets as generally right-leaning, etc. I wrote a huge paper on the German poet Schiller and his connection to the rise of German nationalism and patriarchy. The thesis is that poets and artists are the ones connected to the excesses of nationalism. But why on earth should we forget that poets and artists were involved in the Haitian and French revolutions? They are necessary for revolutions. Revolutions are not made by philosophers- they are made by breathing human beings, who sing songs. Unfortunately, so are counter-revolutions.

What we need now is a return to soft thought, to ideas of care, compassion, and love. Not the Enlightenment. Because at the end of the day, poverty and even countering structural violence perpetuated by an economic system are spiritual issues. This is why this article will not stand the test of time, and will only resonate to the already converted. This is how we will argue for a society that takes care of each other, rather than a society based on the ideal of the individual. This is the socialism of liberation theology, of popular unions, of the struggle to remake the world, not of scientific Marxism and Stalinism.

There is a role I think, as Zizek claims, in the Western tradition, and in arguing for the continued existence of a state. But being an uncritical ideologue of the Enlightenment is equivalent in today’s modern debate of being an uncritical ideologue of Science, and everything that comes with that (Atheism, a non-critical attitude toward the scientific and medical establishment). Science, even the Lefty field of conservation, is a political battlefield.

The possibilities of history are endless. Who knows? Maybe the authors will find they missed something if they read this, even come to believe that we may not be the sole source of Reason in the universe.

And also, aliens exist:)






UFOs and the CIA

I know what you are thinking when you see a title like that. However, I’ve got data! (Cue laugh track)

The link I provided is to actual documents requested through the Freedom of Information Act on Unidentified Flying Objects in the CIA files, on the webpage. The title of the section on the website is actually “UFOs: Fact or Fiction”! Look guys, our government has a sense of humor. The description on the page is:

“This collection catalogues CIA information on this subject from the 1940s through the early 1990s. Most of the documents concern CIA cables reporting unsubstantiated UFO sightings in the foreign press and intra-Agency memos about how the Agency handled public inquiries about UFO sightings”

All the documents I’ve been able to find on the site had an original classification of U, which means Unclassified and available to the public. So unless I’m missing something, no startling revelations await us on the CIA’s actual homepage (shocker). What is interesting is that this FOIA request was actually approved! The files are ordered in chronological order mostly, the latest documents available are from 1997. There are only 13 pages of reports, most of which are small inter-agency memos. Nothing too exciting- there was a sighting in Norway or two the agency was interested in. Why? Perhaps curiosity, or fear that it could represent something real from the Soviets. So it dawned on me- hey, let me look for stuff after 1989, then the Soviet boogie man is gone.

Everything else is laced with Cold War paranoia. Reports on sightings in the USSR. There is a very interesting document, 400 pages long, on the details of the U2 bomber project from 1954-1974. According to the document, Project Blue Book was set up to check logs of U2 flights and compare them to UFO sightings. According to this document, more than one-half of reported UFO sightings in the late 1950s and most of the 1960s are because of U2 bombers. “At this time, no one believed manned flight was possible above 60,000 ft. so no one expected to see an object so high in the sky”.

What kind of insights do these files reveal? It gives credence to unconfirmed (until now) belief in a serious link between the CIA and UFO sightings. The government, in a way, was covering something up, and now its right under our nose for us to find and put the pieces together. Do conspiracies exist? They make for good television, but there is no conspiracy here.

It also provides a sense of closure for me about this whole phenomenon. It doesn’t call UFO eyewitnesses crazy or insane. For the longest time, I remained on the fence about this phenomenon simply because I was unwilling to accept the explanation of mass hallucination. Hoaxes? For sure! Attention seekers and potential profiteers? For sure! But not mass hallucinations. I don’t believe there is such a thing. The whole term, the idea that multiple people at once can lose their sense of rationality, has no basis in my understanding of the human psyche.

Are there unanswered questions about the governments role in this? Did the CIA feed mass hysteria about UFOs as a part of Cold War hysteria? Will a document like that ever surface? This is my general point. Fascination about UFOs in US culture, for me, has two sources, one of which is our general fascination with the scientific and technological, combined with our unique spirituality, an eclectic mix of things. Scientology could only have been born here, in the US. Combine this with a rapid development of our understanding of the world and the universe, the birth of movies, and the further de-centering of the human in the scale of an ever-expanding cosmos, and belief in intelligent life in the universe other than the human species has become not only a rational opinion to have, but a mark of being aware about the current progression of the sciences of cosmology and physics. Throw in the harnessing of atomic technology and aerial technology, and you have a recipe for UFOs.

One of the best skeptic arguments against extraterrestrial UFOs I’ve heard so far is why would the sightings be limited to after World War II? Cue the Ancient Aliens documentaries.

In short, I believe that its essential to distance belief in the possibility of life in the universe other than our own, an exciting and thrilling possibility, from UFO documentaries. Maybe a handful remain unexplained under close examination. But what I do believe is that UFOs represent something not just in the Jungian collective unconscious, akin to a religious experience- a figment of the imagination, or more poetically, an expression of deep unconscious desires for wholeness and a desire to understand the mysteries of the universe. This kind of devaluation of perception- the idea that if I see something in the sky, or something I can’t readily explain, maybe I should believe I’m crazy before I believe my own eyes- I think is very dangerous. I think this line of thinking can possibly one day fit into some kind of Huxleyan or Orwellian nightmare. Foucault would have had a lot to say about the UFO eyewitness and his relationship to power. Truth is always connected in a regime of discourse of what can and cannot be said. This is not an endorsement of the paranormal- this is an endorsement of the power of witness. Effective parallels can be drawn to conflicting accounts of atrocities before the Cambodian genocide. The public should not laugh at the idea of a campaign of misinformation or the notion of government propaganda and its ability to shape our reality and view of the world. To a large extent, it has continued to work.

What we aren’t being told may be far more frightening than little green men from outer space. What may be more frightening is the idea that the people themselves have been robbed of the desire to know. Unfortunately, that desire to know the truth can be also subverted into pursuits that are, essentially, fun stories. The stories we tell ourselves…



Unintelligibility, paradox, and emotion- Deleuze and conceptions of the unconscious in anthropology

This essay is going to be very haphazard and schizophrenic, cover multiple topics at once, because of the distance between what I am reading at the moment. However I will try to spin them all together into a whole, a partial whole. So- it is fashionable nowadays in anthropological literature to criticize the overuse of “Continental buzzwords” and loanwords like biopolitics and deterritorialization. Again- context! If a concept fits, use it! Sure sometimes it is overused at the expense of coming up with new theories or thinking for oneself. But I see a certain trends happening in anthropology- a trend toward totalizing, conceiving the world system as a whole, and the postmodern trend toward incommensurability, cultural relativism, and reflexivity. Zizek likes to critically oppose these two poles- one the one hand is the continuation of the Enlightenment project, of conceiving history and social movements in a dialectical way, and on the other is the Foucaultian-Deleuzian project of history as a discontinuous set of events, each contained in their own cultural world. The only thing that seems to give any sort of continuity to it all is ideology, the continual flux of ideologies and practices that come with it. I believe there are insights in both of these theories.

“Postmodern” anthropology, particularly anthropology that looks at such hot topics such as violence, continues to be a hodgepodge of various theories that are, in describing various topics, very insightful, but depending on the geographical/historical area of study, still widely variant. There are certain trendy topics- a renewed interest in the topic of the Body, and with it all the biopolitics. I am thinking of a current reader, called Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology, edited by anthropologists Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe Bourgois. The selections are not just anthropological canon, but contain excerpts from biographies, accounts of the Holocaust, Foucault and Sartre essays, an ethnography of Cambodia after the genocide, and Michael Taussig’s interpretation of Walter Benjamin. That is- anthropology and critical theory have made an interesting marriage, as applied critical theory. I find that as an anthropologist, even though my desire to contribute “new data” remains salient, there is a consistent lack of secondary or tertiary interpretation in anthropology. The closest we get is the theoretical “ontological turn”, which is another way of saying we have to think about philosophy and create philosophical anthropology. But the practice of philosophical anthropology, the interpretation and critical examination of ethnography, seems to be secondary still to the “holy canon”.

If anthropology is going to continue to make essays like “Why Do you Kill?: The Cambodian Genocide and the Dark Side of Face and Honor” using anthropological “thick description” to gain insight on deep questions about violence, there needs to be deep theoretical engagement with prior theories. Take theories of violence for example. Inclusion of Stanley Milgram’s obedience study is not enough. We have to take obedience as a sociological phenomenon, and the dynamics of obedience or hierarchy, and essentially make a model. Renato Rosaldo does a good job of doing this in Grief and the Headhunter’s Rage. There was one previous model of ritual, which he contrasts with his own model. I say- go further. Make diagrams, draw maps. How are these models of ritual as microcosmic deep culture and ritual as a busy intersection contrasting? If Rosaldo already has an article on this, then I apologize in advance, but what I’m saying is- MORE THEORY! How do these models of ritual play out in terms of models of human nature- i.e the psyche itself?

Once again, we are back in the trenches of the paradoxical unconscious, all at once possibly the realm of archetypes, dreams, drives, cognitive structures, desiring machines, languages, you name it! If one thing Lacan said is right, it is that the unconscious the biggest discovery of the 20th century, it upends the idea of the enlightened self-conscious entity at the center of the universe, or even at the center of the self. Processes as large as history flow through the individual to the point where the individual is no longer “himself”. This is why, if we are to rehabilitate “psychological anthropology” in the sense of a refocusing on cultural subjectivity, with new ways of thinking about identity, belonging, etc. we must continue to reference those theories of the past about concepts of the Self, what I have been calling Cartographies of Subjectivity. Each culture has one- a map of the soul. It is this deep map of the soul in relation to the world that has the capacity to produce emotions, and they are as informed by experience and everyday events as they are by processes of enculturation. In fact, they often serve to reinforce each other. This in other words is the process by which Ideology reproduces itself. How does the practice of headhunting in the Phillipines reproduce itself? How about the practice of renouncing worldly life in Tibet? We need to begin to think about the unconscious again, it is more important than ever in an age of subliminal advertisement, digital marketing, when capitalism has become the very fabric and texture of reality. How are revolutionary subjects produced? The subject as hunter? As wife, or how about as religious member? I think that the most important concept to remember and continue to say over and over again is Becoming. In a ritual, in a rite of passage, there is fundamentally a transformation, a passion, a becoming, one that has a spiritual pull that is hard to resist, because it is fundamentally communal. This is how one can become ready to kill, ready to serve the nation.

Now we shouldn’t reduce this to a sort of Durkheimian interpretation of ritual as a cultural glue, because its not like the ritual is a kind of “hoax” perpetrated by the elders to ensure order. This is what Nietzsche essentially thought- that religion was a way for hucksters and tricksters to profit off communal religious feeling. Certainly some of that goes on, but it happens much more deeply, at the level of understanding who one is in relation to other people. That is given to you very early. If one has grown up in the environment in which taking another’s life in ritual revenge is compensation for a loved one’s loss, that is simply one’s way of looking at the world- in other words, the spirit of the jaguar actually visits them, they feel it. This is the power of perception over the human mind. And this is what we as moderners have to be burdened with- the knowledge that these mystical experiences, which are quite normal for the “savage”, if experienced, are at best contrived. Castenada could get himself to believe that spirit of the Yaqui had actually visited him until he made a certain leap of faith.

If postmodern anthropology seems too “spacey” to neo-Marxists and neo-materialists, it is because they simply have never had a near-death experience, and don’t realize the way in which for much of the world what matters is not what is right here before us, but the beyond. This pull of the spiritual is a strong temptation, just as the pull of a Communist utopia is a strong spiritual ideal for many people. A transformed world- isn’t that what many people are looking for?

This line of thinking, of criticizing desire for revolution as millenarian, has some legitimate critiques by Marxist thinkers, but my point isn’t to discount the relevancy of material/historical analysis in anthropological thinking- its only to emphasize again that the convictions of an anthropologist, of any writer or philosopher, are fundamentally human or spiritual convictions. The desire to stop violence, to understand or prevent violence, systemic or otherwise, to people and our earth, is a sentiment current anthropology shares as a humanistic discipline. If anthropology is going to take its role seriously as an intellectual enterprise, not an enterprise in remaking the world, it should provide the applied anthropologists of the world with such a deep appreciation for culture as to evince a becoming in the subject. In my case, I desire in the reader a becoming-revolutionary, a becoming-minoritarian, as any good Deleuzian would have it.

At the end of the day, what I’m talking about is the intellectual’s choice of subject matter or area of study- there needs to be not just intellectual commitment, but human commitment. At the end of the day, real people become affected by anthropology, as the writings of Darrell Posey, Michael Taussig, or anyone would explain quite clearly. There is often a certain bond with the host community or family that is very deep. This is not necessary however. I think that the real goal of anthropologist should be to try to shift the culture at home. To hold up a mirror to ourselves and ask- is this all there really is?