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?

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

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


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