Reblog from Constructive Undoing- rethinking the difference between Analytic and Continental Philosophy

via Another Stab at Distiguishing Analytical and Continental Approaches to Philosophy: I Disagree.


A defense of anti-intellectualism?

Without even resorting to French postmodernist terms like “logocentrism”, what was Mao Zedong’s point in singling out intellectuals who don’t go along with the revolution? Part of the logic behind the “Down to the Countryside Movement” was certainly to take student intellectuals who would be critics of the regime and send them to do farm labor in the countryside. But it would reductive of Mao’s thinking here to assume that that was his primary motivation. Mao genuinely believed that certain forms of intellectualism can be just pure “book learning” with no connection to everyday reality. A quote from Mao:

“In order to have a real grasp of Marxism, one must learn it not only from books, but mainly through class struggle, through practical work and close contact with the masses of workers and peasants. When in addition to reading some Marxist books our intellectuals have gained some understanding through close contact with the masses of workers and peasants and through their own practical work, we will all be speaking the same language, not only the common language of patriotism and the common language of the socialist system, but probably even the common language of the communist world outlook. If that happens, all of us will certainly work much better.” 

In the Battle for China’s Past by historian Mobo Gao, Gao talks about how Western portrayals of the Cultural Revolution focus only on the struggle sessions and the persecutions of the era, not on movements like the Barefoot Doctors which were hugely beneficial for the average Chinese peasant.

But is there not an “idolization of the life of the working class and the peasant” inherent in this kind of model? On the contrary, Mao was hugely critical of so-called “backwards” beliefs among the peasantry in China. Of course, this backfired in a major way, causing the destruction of many parts of the cultural legacy of China, as well as the persecution of monks and nuns in Tibet, even by those of Tibetan ethnicity. And as I have written about in other contexts, the persecution of the Tibetan minority didn’t start with the Cultural Revolution, and was not mainly done by those of Tibetan ethnicity. This is a hugely complicated subject, and that’s all I will say about it for now.

But let’s go back to the 1930s in China. Manchuria was being occupied by the Japanese, and people have real decisions to make. Mao’s motto that “power flows out of the barrel of a gun” is not a defense of authoritarian tactics, as many would like to think. Its a realistic portrayal of how power actually works. The Nanking Massacre was motive enough for the average peasant to fight back with their own bodies, their own lives. Any study of history that doesn’t recognize that real people made life or death decisions, and writes from a detached “God’s eye” view, does not understand the stakes. But normal Western portrayals of the situation in China before the expulsion of the Japanese and the founding of the PRC will normally make some kind of narrative in which the Communists used the atrocities of the Japanese to their advantage in seizing power, implying nefarious intent, etc.

The epithet “tankie” used by the radical (usually anarchist) Left describes an apologist of authoritarian communism. Apologists for these regimes will normally reply that building up their military was necessary for the defense of these actually-existing socialist states against American and European imperialism and the early 20th century threat of fascism. While not falling into the trap of “horseshoe” theory with respect to Socialism as an ideal versus Fascism, it should be recognized that Stalinism did employ the model of Party as infallible, the State as supreme embodiment of the People, just as Fascism did, but in the case of Fascism, the People was the ethnic Volk. One could somehow justify this model, as Zizek does, by stating that fascism is a distortion of the working class movement, which is definitely true in its own right. However this doesn’t imply that the movement toward ending class has to be based on the militaristic model, on the model of the vanguard or the model of the “militant”.

Even Deleuze makes apologetics for the “war machine” as a kind of egalitarian principle which is then subsumed by the State and its hierarchy. But I don’t believe the question from a purely ethical perspective is whether an Army can be “non-hierarchized”, the real question is- to what degree is hierarchy in a modern industrial society necessary? The Barefoot Doctors succeeded in raising health standards for poor Chinese peasantry by “conscripting” youth for training.

But isn’t this model of the “humanitarian military” also used by the US Armed Forces to justify interventionism? And to what extent was it justified? Despite claims to the contrary, Milosevic in Yugoslavia would not have been stopped without NATO intervention, which came too slow, and yes, NATO bombing did cause massive damage to the countryside. But imagine if somehow, the argument in the United States was not whether or not we should aid the Saudis in their war against Yemen, but to stop the Saudis from committing atrocities, to send NATO troops to stop Saudi Arabia- would the right answer still be to not intervene? Only those who support a pacifist view of war as “never the answer” (one which most Leftists, if pressed, don’t support) should say the answer is no. If tough sanctions were the easy answer, we would have to justify the effect of sanctions on the Saudi people. Stopping arms sales to the Saudis is one thing- taking an active role in a conflict like that, actual armed military intervention *against* the Saudi regime, seems like the point of the impossible sine qua non of our current situation. And yet, we did the exact same thing in Yugoslavia, because the intention in this case was geopolitical, not humanitarian. Therefore, the moniker “liberal humanitarian interventionism” as applied to something like Iraq is a horrible misnomer, concocted by academics to refer to neoliberalism, failing to distinguish between neoconservativism and neoliberalism. Failing to see how Hillary Clinton is just a neocon, who thinks in terms of her buddy Henry Kissinger, can have disastrous consequences. And just so you know, I believe going to war with Saudi Arabia would be a terrible idea- it would just be more morally defensible than what we are doing now. In other words- just because the UN failed to protect people in Rwanda, and supported the war in Korea, doesn’t mean the ideal of internationalism should die. In an ideal world, the UN security council would not be dominated by the superpowers, and could clearly discern what is a justified act of intervention versus a pre-emptive imperialist act. The excuse of the “humanitarian military” is not justified in its current form- but was that really the excuse that was given for the start of the Iraq War? It was the excuse given for its continuation, but not its beginning. Afghanistan was simple enough- the excuse was the global War on Terror. Then, the accusation was that Saddam Hussein funded jihadis and was a rogue nation that could sell “weapons of mass destruction” to terrorists. It was only humanitarian as it pertained nakedly to the threat against the US and Western powers. The lives of Iraqis was merely an afterthought. “We will be greeted as liberators”- isn’t this just a prime example of afterthought? Was the Iraq War a crime, not a mistake? No, we should emphasize that it was also a tragic miscalculation.

As a simple counterfactual- what if the WMDs were actually true, instead of a lie concocted by the Bush administration and Dick Cheney? Would it be justified to intervene? Did the Bush administration somehow ignore the lack of evidence of weapons of mass destruction? Did they bet that they would find something despite the evidence, as an ad hoc justification? It seems like the Bush administration was guided by an extraordinary naivete- that they could admit to the American people that no weapons were found, and they would keep on going regardless. And that’s precisely what happened! It seems that the American people are just as naive as their leaders. This is what ideology means.

My point is precisely that the logic of non-interventionism that we have to use should not be conditional, insofar as it pertains to the US military and NATO. We should, however, not throw out the baby with the bath water and throw out the idea of humanitarian intervention as an ill-conceived liberal fantasy. We should not be faux-intellectuals who look at what’s happening in Yemen or Burma, something we could accurately label genocide, and equate them to what’s happening in Syria, which is a multi-pronged civil war. At the same time, we shouldn’t be convinced simply by appeals to emotion.

But this is something that the full moral weight of needs to be grasped- sometimes, for evil reasons, good can come about. A true consequentialist, a Utilitarian (in a strong or weak form) must sometimes back things he knows are being done for the wrong reasons. This is how I feel about Trump’s attitude toward Russia. Trump is obviously friendly toward Putin for the same reason he’s friendly toward Rodrigo Duterte, nonetheless if it prevents armed conflict, the lives of potential innocent people outweights a “principled stance against authoritarian dictators”. The logic of detente, the logic of making allies out of people you hate- this is the logic of war, and unfortunately, when it comes to the truly hard ethical questions of our time, we still have to make these kinds of judgments. Take the current debate on the tactical choice of voting against Trump and voting for Hillary, or voting your conscience and voting for the Green Party, or not voting at all because the system itself is rigged. (I’ll leave voting for Trump based on the intention to vote for him out of the realm of conceivably good choices). What if the “real right choice” isn’t known until after the fact? I understand the motivations behind all of these choices, and find myself vacillating between them on a regular basis. Although I’ve moved in the direction of “we shouldn’t vote out of fear any longer, and its time to break out of the Two Party system”, and I hate blaming people for voting their conscience, I don’t blame regular people who voted for Hillary either. In fact, I don’t blame people who voted for Trump! Ultimately, I don’t blame anyone, except perhaps the war profiteers and the leaders of the Big Banks, etc. I blame the system, I blame the system that forces us apart and makes us vote for people who are obviously ethically questionable, or in bed with people who are ethically compromised. Politics is a game for many average everyday people, and for many the trajectory of history is outside the scope of their power because of the erosion of truly mass collective movements for liberation that are actually viable. People turn to the Republican and Democratic parties partly for reasons of stability, something I think is lost in the attacks against the “status quo”. Those who live precarious lives don’t have time to think about rocking the boat.

But it should be recognized that at the end of the day, many people want the boat rocked, because the ship is sinking anyway, and the captain is asleep at the wheel. Those who don’t want the boat rocked largely won’t live to see the boat capsized (its sinking slow enough), and the party on deck is great! For those of us on the lower decks, who want to get on those lifeboats, we should realize we are all in this together. Let’s reclaim the spirit of Woody Guthrie, a truly American man of the people, who spoke common words for common folk. Let’s combat elements in ourselves, if we are members of the educated, privileged elite, the “petty bourgeois”, to remove ourselves forever in the ivory tower. This doesn’t mean we have to change ourselves into different people, or go take a job on a farm to “get back to our roots”, but we should recognize how, in the words of Chomsky, higher education is meant to perpetuate a certain class.

So this is not a defense of anti-intellectualism, but a reminder that knowledge of what happened in the USSR in the 1930s, or this or that member of the Frankfurt School, won’t do anything for that man who lives on a bench outside your local library. However, if you truly want to do something structurally, think, but for a purpose, and then try to do something about it every day. The choice between thinking and action is a false choice. I choose both!

Resist the double blackmail


Thoughts on Zizek’s Disparities and preliminary thoughts on The Parallax View

I recently finished Slavoj Zizek’s most recent book Disparities, I even bought the hard copy after having read it once through the library because I believe it will definitely become a major reference. At over 400 pages, Disparities is a whopper of a theoretical treatise, and takes its place alongside Zizek’s other major theoretical works such as Less Than Nothing and The Parallax View (published 2006), which could be said to be its sister work. Zizek tends to structure his books in terms of one specific concept, a feat which is itself hard to do in our current post-ideological atmosphere, in which scholarly works should focus on a specific historical era. However Zizek emphasizes in both The Parallax View and Disparities that Marxist historical materialism should be reevaluated in favor of the maligned dialectical materialism. While rejecting the version of dialectical materialism expounded by the Soviet apparatus, Zizek maintains that Hegelian dialectics provide a theoretical window into explaining the complex interplay of signs, institutions, people, etc. in the contemporary world. Zizek has a knack for what Deleuze might have called identifying “dark precursors”, or rather hidden connections, between such seemingly disparate topics as psychoanalysis, contemporary art, classical literature, architecture, and film, always within the “background” of contemporary politics.

Zizek’s concept of parallax and the concept of disparity, each outlined in the respective introductions of the books, are sister concepts. Zizek himself explicitly says this in his “aspects of disparity”: “Disparity should be added to the series of notions which offer themselves as the ultimate Master Signifiers of dialectical materialism (negativity, parallax, etc)”. His definition of disparity itself he says flows from the usual list of connotations: “disunity, dissimilarity, incongruity”. He states that, “at its most elementary, disparity points toward a Whole whose parts do not fit together, so that the Whole appears as an artificial composite, its organic unity forever ruined”. So adding to the connotations of disparity we have here inharmonious and contradictory, a far cry away from a mere “large difference”. The Hegelian philosophical point of disparity is that, “the organic (immediate, as Hegel would have put it) unity of a phenomenon is by definition a trap, an illusion which masks underlying antagonisms, and the only way to arrive at the truth is to brutally cut into parts this unity in order to render visible its artificial and composed character.”

By contrast, the concept of parallax view is in relation to the concept of disparity, in my mind, the philosophical shift in perspective one makes by shifting focus from one incongruous aspect of a phenomenon to the other. Parallax itself is the contradictory relationship, or the feature whereby something appears different from different perspectives, and the disparity is the actual difference.

One can immediately see the problems here- if thought itself is a kind of “cutting” or conceptual breaking down into parts, those parts already refer to the whole insofar as they are parts, and not complete objects in themselves. But from another perspective, they are already complete objects- how would an object itself be “incomplete” from something other than a human perspective? Take a mechanical watch for example- when we take apart the watch, and remove say one gear, and put it back together again, we have an incomplete watch, it is missing one part. But from the perspective of Zizek’s dreaded philosophical enemy, Object Oriented Ontology, we merely have a collection of metal objects which are either connected with each other or not. Its function as a timepiece is its social function, but its material stuff, metal, is normally (or should be) unseen, not perceived. If say, one of the metal gears of the watch is broken, or becomes misshapen, than the metal of the gear becomes apparent again, it becomes a problem to be fixed. So the parallax shift one makes in this case is viewing the watch as a cultural product with a specific function to a material object, made using a certain process of production, etc. In this case, the watch is a particularly good example, because the timekeeper is used itself to regulate the flow of material goods, to regulate the labor time of the workers, in order for the whole system itself to function.

But this is why I think Zizek has to critique Object Oriented Ontology in Disparities (and he does give them a great deal of credit for conceptual innovation as well). We can’t ignore the human perspective in certain instances- at the end of the day, for the purpose of cultural critique or analysis, we can try putting ourselves in the position of a purely material object, or a purely “inhuman view”, but if we were to analyze, for example, the production of watches, and analyze purely from the standpoint of “where does the metal come from” in a kind of ecological isolation, without the human entering at all, except as another actor, one ignores that the human actor is the dominant factor, let alone what the subjective experience of that actor is. We devolve into a kind of vulgar materialism in which subjective experience is not a legitimate material factor. In other words, OOO devolves into a kind of idealism if it ignores subjective experience, which is materially felt. Put another way, as Marx tried to do in the latter chapters of Capital, the actual “violations of human rights” of workers can themselves be materially catalogued, through the process of taking meticulous record of how many hours are worked, the rates of certain diseases and ailments, etc.

It may seem like a kind of schoolboy critique, that OOO as object-oriented misses the subjective, but in defining the subject as another object, rather than a special kind of object, or rather putting forward an ontology in which the landscape of everything is flat, one enforces a kind of egalitarianism where there is actually hierarchy. We live in the Anthropocene for a reason- humans are the dominant influence in today’s climactic and ecological patterns, rivaling the role of geological processes, precisely because humanity is an Aristotleian special animal. From an anthropological perspective, this signifies to me an important break- rather than the emphasis on humans as just another animal, in that our brains did not evolve until very late in our evolution, etc. we must continue to ask- if Homo sapiens are apex predators, The apex predator, what does that mean in terms of our global ecological situation? Perhaps the Anthropocene started thousands of years ago- archaeologists are quick to point out that the myth of the “ecological Indian” ignores the extinction of megafauna which corresponded to the colonization of the Americas (similar megafauna extinctions happened previously as well).

But where I tend to disagree with the anthropological “realists” is they ignore the precise way in which humans are able to adapt and manage their environments in a sustainable way- humanity is full of contradictions or disparities. From one perspective, we are  Shiva, destroyer of worlds, we have the power of life and death over all life on the planet, especially now with the advent of nuclear weapons. But that potential for death is also the potential for real “stewardship”, in the real Biblical sense of the world, over the other inhabitants of this planet. Conservation as a science is the acknowledgement of humanity’s profound power to change the planet. Imagine, for instance, if even a fraction of the amount we spent on weapons development in the United States was spent on finding innovative ways to prevent endangered species from going extinct. Attempts to stop the Bald Eagle from going extinct were met with tremendous success, in part due to the sheer fact that the Eagle is the symbol of the nation, and could not be allowed to go extinct in good conscience. Now, the restoration effort of the Eagle represents a broader possibility, but only that- the potential to stop the ecological crisis from unfolding.

Here I have to commend Zizek for being the only socialist writer I know to speak about the fundamental problem of the Ecological Crisis on a regular basis. Only tremendous international cooperation can bring about a change in these global level trends. Zizek’s penultimate book to date, Living in the End Times, is his apocalyptic diagnosis that functions as the material cultural critique par excellance. We live in the era of crises- ecological crisis, refugee crisis, financial crisis, emerging crises around the world such as the famine in Yemen. It is not the emergence of crisis itself that is new- capitalism reproduces itself by crisis, after all- but the scale of the crises that are deepening, to the point where another major financial panic may be all it takes for the Left to actually be able to seize power. We live in an era of moral crisis- the head of the CIA is set to be the former leader of the “enhanced interrogation techniques”. Everything seems to be, like the hoaky Christian apocalyptic thrillers, reaching some kind of grand finale. We must however, resist the temptation that there will be some kind of miraculous tipping point- the point is that precisely this feeling, from a parallax view, is evidence that there are even more tipping points to come. Nothing revolutionary will come of it unless real action is taken.

To end on a properly Zizekian pessimistic note, the success of the Bald Eagle should not be taken as a sign things can get better- they are, from a parallax view, a sign of our selective empathy, a sign that we may care about one large predator, but when it comes to the predator we don’t like, for instance the restoration of the wolf, which is opposed by cattle farmers due to hunting raids by wolves, we turn a blind eye. The image of the polar bear barely able to stand on melting ice should be replaced with a less familiar, more haunting figure- perhaps the seagull covered in oil, a more ominous and yet closer to home image from the BP oil spill. This image is a better representation of the ecological crisis because rather than the nebulous task of “reducing global emissions”, the blame is immediately put onto the real culprit- the fossil fuel industry. The image of the polar bear represents standard conservation, an appeal to the exotic- the oil covered seagull radical conservation. We should in every instance identify how and why certain potentially revolutionary practices have been co-opted into the status quo. The relationship between the co-opted practice and the status quo is precisely such an “inharmonious balance”, there exists a potential disparity which can be widened, if the Green movement can capitalize on the growing frustration at the fossil fuel industry, etc.

So, finally, this is less a review of Disparities and Parallax View and more an attempt at how these concepts can actually be applied. I will attempt a more comprehensive review of Disparities at a later date, but a review of every chapter would probably constitute an article in and of itself.

Good and bad reasons to hate Trump

Bad reasons to hate Trump, based on the criteria of what effects the average American:

1. Stormy Daniels
2. Putin or “Russia”
3. High turnover in the administration
4. Things he tweeted/”tone”
5. The blanket charge of “bigotry”
6. Talking to North Korea (its something Obama should’ve done but didn’t)
Good reasons to hate Trump:
1. Tax bill
2. Getting rid of individual mandate
3. Increasing military spending by $60 billion
4. Littering administration with Goldman Sachs employees
5. Actually bigoted policies like ramping up ICE deportations
6. *Possible* corruption involving money laundering with Russian oligarchs AND Saudi Arabia (the latter no one remembers)
7. Ignoring climate change (just like the mainstream media does)

Symbolic castration and the role of the Father- is Zizek a Father figure? Or are we Oedipalized subjects?

As my friend Landzek over at the Constructive Undoing blog has suggested, the academic propensity to continually reference what one says and back it up by an unending stream of authorities is a product of our culture, a culture that is trained to “go to the authorities”, thus reproducing power. Here I’m tempting to quote Foucault and Lacan, but I will try to “authentically” reproduce their arguments on my own, as well as synthesize them. The author, the omniscient third person narrator, conveys authority by virtue of being a kind of “wise detached figure” who replicates, in psychoanalytic terms, the detached Father figure. When authority is unquestioned by use of these micropractices, power replicates itself. To Zizek’s credit, he continues this psychoanalytic tradition by continuing to elaborate on the concepts of symbolic castration. But where does the source of symbolic castration come from? Is it a natural process that every child must go through, according to Freud? This is the heart of the anthropological critique of Freud, first made by anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski, and later theoretically by radical psychoanalyst and one-time disciple of Jacques Lacan, Felix Guattari.

The video above by Zero Books correctly locates the source of the search for a Father figure in a societal event, in the lack of authority that currently evades the “establishment” -the bumbling buffoon in the White House, but also the weak opposition of the Democratic party. But it refers, by virtue of Zizek’s Lacanian pedigree, to a Freudian theory of the universality of the Oedipus complex (which as a rule, Zizek tends to evade in his theoretical work, due to certain improvements by Lacan).

It is here that the contribution of Bronislaw Malinowski to the debate about psychology must be brought into play. In all literature on this subject, with the notable exception of Deleuze and Guattari, contributions from the field of anthropology are, as a rule, ignored. Malinowski, in his book Sex and Repression in Savage Society, in addition to presenting his own concrete ethnographic material on the psychology of peoples from southeastern New Guinea, contended that the “Freudian dogma of the universality of the Oedipus complex” obscured the diversity of familial structures that existed across time and space in human societies. Despite having certain dated aspects to the work (the word Savage in the title being the most glaring) authors like Zizek tend to forgive Freud’s 19th century underpinnings in discussions about psychoanalysis. Malinowski was a staunch advocate of cultural relativism based on objective data. Any and all philosophizing about the nature of Man without reference to anthropology is, for me especially as an anthropologist, laughable, and bound to come from assumptions driven by our culture. Similarly, we may think- “is the Oedipus complex merely a reflection of our society?”

Surely, however, Zizek would contend this debate has no relevance to contemporary psychoanalysis, which has “transcended” these issues. I would argue that contemporary Leftist intellectuals, Zizek included, have all but ignored the contribution of Felix Guattari to the field of radical politics and “psychoanalysis”. Despite Zizek’s contention that the only salvageable parts of Gilles Deleuze’s legacy is his pure philosophical works, not his work with Guattari, Guattari’s break with Lacan marks an important point in the history of radical psychoanalysis, and is fundamentally rooted in the latter’s skepticism of the political revolution of May 1968 in France, something Guattari viewed as fundamentally reactionary. That debate being too deep to go into in the context of this article, it is important to note that while Lacan shared Guattari’s skepticism about reproducing structures of oppression in a social movement, Guattari took the line of direct critique of the Stalinist French Communist Party that was unwilling to condone the actions of the May 1968 protestors.

Back to the debate about psychoanalysis. Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus contend that our culture has been “Oedipalized” by existing power structures, and that behind every authoritarian father there is a patriarchal Boss, the dehumanizing bureaucratic apparatus, the mind numbing effect of the commute, etc. etc. Truly, then, we must contend that it is OUR society that is pathological, not primitive societies, as originally contended by evolutionary colonialist anthropologists. Malinowski and later Margaret Mead were the first pioneers of this line of thought, and even greater contributors to thinking about the ramifications of this than even radical French philosophers D&G.

But what does this mean for the Jordan Peterson v. Zizek debate? Peterson admits wholesale in the video clip that he is a psychologist who believes we should defend the existing social order, thus proving wholeheartedly Foucault and D&G’s point that the true gatekeepers of society are not its policeman or the army- it is the policeman of the mind, the psychologists, the philosophers even! “The maintenance of the social order is necessary”- society must be defended from intruders, internal and external! This is the paranoid mindset that Foucault defines as the archetypal “fascist psychology”. It is this paranoia that animated the Stalinist purges, it is this that truly defines what fascism is- the paranoiac belief that the Other is coming- right outside your doorstep! The Jew, the Muslim, the capitalist roaders even- it is this paranoia that should be outright rejected, even in the face of real onslaught by forces that seek to do harm on “society”.

So we should reject all Father figures then, including Zizek, while engaging in productive discourse, not accepting the party line. We should not allow microfascisms to colonize the mind of the movement toward social liberation. But is it New Age speculation to say that we have to move beyond even the “social revolution”? What if what is really necessary after all is a change of heart, a collective change of heart? It is hear that I go beyond critical theory, anthropology, psychoanalysis, or mythology as intellectual reference points, and appeal to general compassion. Human Compassion- not political ideology or Thought- to human sentiment, to Feeling. To define what is right, we need to delve deeper into the territory of compassion, something Peterson in his pseudo-Buddhist wisdom tends to forget about Buddhist philosophy. The absolute pacifist should remember that inaction is a form of silence and passive observance of the status quo, and forgets their ethical obligation to society. But the militant should also remember that the ends do not justify the means if one hopes to create a better social order, for another form of oppression will inevitably replace the existing one. This fuzzy line should be guided by the credo of compassion.

Therefore, in the interest of humanity, we should reject all Father figures- Mao, Jesus, Buddha, Marx, Freud (notice they are all men), and maybe, just maybe, we’ll get somewhere. There is no Big Other- this is Zizek and Lacan’s lasting contribution to psychoanalytic philosophy. We should be merciless in its application.


Edit: I embarassingly put the wrong Zero Books video link. Now its right