The Body Count: The Horrors of the 20th century through Fascism, Capitalism, and actually-existing socialism

“Cultures of memory are organized by round numbers, intervals of ten; but somehow the remembrance of the dead is easier when the numbers are not round, when the final digit is not a zero … [I]t is perhaps easier to think of 780,863 different people at Treblinka: where the three at the end might be Tamara and Itta Willenberg, whose clothes clung together after they were gassed, and Ruth Dorfman, who was able to cry with the man who cut her hair before she entered the gas chamber … Each of the 21,892 Polish prisoners of war shot by the NKVD in 1940 was in the midst of life. The two at the end might be Dobiesław Jakubowicz, the father who dreamed about his daughter, and Adam Solski, the husband who wrote of his wedding ring on the day that the bullet entered his brain. The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers, some of which we can only estimate, some of which we can reconstruct with fair precision. It is for us as scholars to seek these numbers and to put them into perspective. It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people. If we cannot do that, then Hitler and Stalin have shaped not only our world, but our humanity.
Timothy Snyder, “Bloodlands”.

The article that I’d like to discuss today, “The Body Count” by Elliot Sperling, the late professor of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University, starts out with a quote by Timothy Snyder that reminds me of the essentially Foucaultian thesis about the increasing dominance of state power over life and death of its subjects. I consider myself a socialist because I believe that anarchism is simply not politically feasible, however we should continue to ask the question: can the horrors of the 20th century repeat themselves? I will situate this question within the context of Foucaultian ideas of biopower, the unique history of Tibet in the 20th century, and the idea of modernity.

It is this question, which answered in a wrong way, gives us the continuation of US military industrial complex, the Orwellian state of perpetual war for perpetual peace. The conditions for the continuation of adventurist imperialism in the 21st century is just the continuation of the logic of capital from the 20th to the 21st centuries, unimpeded by the Communist takeovers in China and Russia, the anticolonial liberations in Africa, because humans in mass state regimes of Russia and China are still regarded as pawns in the grand historical struggle for a perfect world, as envisioned by either side. Granted, that the most brutal manifestation of biopolitcs in history, Nazi fascism, was largely defeated due to the sacrifice of individuals from the Communist Soviet Union under its most brutal realpolitik leader, Josef Stalin, but to attribute the death of fascism to the Soviet Union, the nation, and not to the people, relies on the idea that the Soviet Union leadership was uniquely suited to take on fascism because of technological capabilities made possible under Lenin and Stalin’s modernization. However, this relies on the thesis that modernization itself, in the sense of purely technological progress, is a justifiable end in itself, and is the primary driver behind gains in quality of life. This is the essential “developmentality” shared by 20th century communism and capitalism. In retrospect, Marxism, as it was developed by Marx, can be seen as a philosophical way to tame the brutalities of the Industrial Revolution, by taking the scientific advances made by society and socializing them, spreading their benefits to all. This relies on the thesis that even “primitive communist” societies (as Marxist materialists liked to call tribal societies) must inevitably be brought into the fore of the developed or industrialized world.

The history of Tibet in the 20th century offers us a unique chance to explore complex dynamics relating to global capitalism, anti-capitalist movements, state atrocities, and their relationship to non-modern peoples. The same could be said about what happened in Russian Siberia during the time of Lenin and Stalin, but the case of Tibet gives us a chance not only to put what happened in China in the 20th century into a more objective light, but also to put Tibet into the perspective of world history, from which Tibet becomes a battleground for ideas about what the proper society should be like.

First, the relevant quote by Michel Foucault:

“Outside the Western world, famine exists, on a greater scale than ever; and the biological risks confronting the species are perhaps greater, and certainly more serious, than before the birth of microbiology. But what might be called a society’s “threshold of modernity” has been reached when the life of the species is wagered on its own political strategies. For millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence;
modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question.”

Grand political schemes to save the world have so far ended in total and complete disaster, the result of which is more fodder for the existing authoritarian capitalist structures to present no viable alternative. Foucault situates this moment where politics places life into question for the whole of man with the advent of modernity. Foucault is not only referring here to capacity of states to total war, but also to the invention of nuclear weapons which place the entire human species at existential risk. The dangers facing humanity, in the perspective of the entire history of our species, has never been higher. One can only appreciate this fully if one knows the truth about the actual lifespans and lifestyles experienced by hunter-gatherers for hundreds of thousands of years, which were in no way “nasty, brutish, and short”. Adorno and many others have realized- civilization itself poses its own existential risks, and unfortunately we can no longer turn back the clock.

Industrial civilization also affords many benefits, or rather, informational society: all the information we could ever imagine at our fingertips at the press of a button, as well as all the entertainment. This comes steeply at a price: at the price of the exploitation of the whole mass of the Third World who live under the yoke of poverty and corrupt regimes, who are forced to be proleterianized, disenfranchised, and form the new global class of wage slaves. They work producing our iPhones, computers, in the mines of the Congo, in the factories of Asia. This is the face of violence in the 21st century.

Thus, partially counter to what Slavoj Zizek’s thesis in Did Someone Say Totalitarianism?, that the idea of totalitarianism is only set up as a foil to justify capitalist regimes claims to democracy and therefore to “liberate the oppressed nations”, one should realize that this idea of “liberation” of allegedly oppressed nations, i.e the logic of colonialism carried over to the 20th century, was also perpetrated by non-capitalist states. Here, one must move to an analysis of Maoism in the 20th century.

Maoism sought to eliminate some of the biases of orthodox Marxism in which the agricultural labor force, the peasantry of Asia, could not be liberated without first industrializing. Mao Tse Tung took a different approach- industrialization should be pursued hand in hand with agricultural development and the liberation of the peasantry from the hands of the ruling landlord classes. While Lenin and the Bolsheviks rose to power within the context of the struggle against a feudal monarchy, the Chinese Communist Party rose to power within the context of the anti-imperial struggle against Japan. These historical dynamics cannot be ignored or denied. However, as the Great Leap Forward is a testament to, grand experiments on the scale of Maoist agrarian communism led to the largest loss of life in the 20th century- larger than even the deaths attributable to the Holocaust.

This is the why the idea of the Body Count matters. There is a Body Count to any horrific event of any scale- the Holocaust, World War II, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. However, any kind of post hoc rationalization of “acceptable losses” is part of the logic of biopolitics. It is this ends justify the means logic that created the brutalities experienced by regimes that tried to get out of cycles of violence and exploitation. Granted, there are justifiable violent struggles- the war against Nazism and fascist totalitarianism  being the most obvious- but this logic is endlessly extended by those who see violence as the only answer to the worlds problems, rather than an extension of the logic of using people as cannon fodder. Not all biopolitical tragedies have capitalism at their root, or class. This could be considered an obvious statement to make for some, but to imagine that the logic of capitalism is in all consuming Evil, in such a Manichean way, misses the important complexities and contradictions within the existing system, such as how an entire ancient race of people can be wholly slaughtered, their culture brutalized, all in the name of ending feudalism. I am referring of course to Tibet, where there is ample evidence, despite the faulty body count figure of 1.2 million dead in the 20th century, of massacre after massacre by the PLA.

This plays into the question of what is considered a genocide, and the obviously horribly controversial and political dimension of this. However, it may be that what happened in Tibet was not a “genocide”- perhaps the term genocide does not apply to Tibet, or the liberal use of the term genocide in “cultural genocide”. There is obvious political connotations to calling the bombing of Hiroshima an “act of war”, a “war crime” (the preferred terminology by serious people), or a genocide. However, to get lost in issues of semantics misses the real point of the tragedy of Tibet- that many people were slaughtered wholesale by the military. What I am referring to, in detail, is largely before the Cultural Revolution even took place. So, thus, is the Great Leap Forward a genocide? Under the strict definition of the term, no, because the Great Leap Forward was not engineered for the purpose of killing a specific group of people. It was the result of drastic mismanagement, government neglect, and policies which encouraged ludicrous lack of disregard for human life in the name of fast progress. The tragedy of 20th century communism was that it was motivated by the genuine desire to help entire mass of the population, through state engineering.

Thus, it calls into question the very necessity of the need to engineer society on a mass level and the totalitarian undertones this implies. However, I’m not advocating hands-off laissez faire economics- the state and capitalism are both the culprits of exploitation, not just “crony capitalism”. My thesis is that modernization and the colonial mentality is the other motivating historical driver in this process. One must never forget that colonialism was not only motivated by the desire to exploit the wealth and labor of the colonies- it was also the way to civilize the lower races, to bring them into the fold of modernity and Progress. These beliefs are still prevalent in society, even among so-called advocates for the rights of indigenous peoples and anthropologists.

By looking at the historical drivers behind the colonization of indigenous peoples, as well as other traditional societies around the world who fall under the broader definition of indigenous, including the nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples of Tibet and Southeast Asia, we see that the cultural logic of biopower plays out in the dimension of Cold War Tibet.

As a final note, I’d like to see a brief word on the value of testimonial. Testimonial and the spoken word are often the only thing we have when reliable statistics and hard evidence of atrocities are scant. It is a testament to the enduring valuing of scientific logocentrism that eye-witness accounts by real victims are not believed. This tool was used by Rios-Montt and the Guatemalan government to deny witnesses of the massacres- simply call them liars and propagandists. Therefore, the pro-government regime of truth is maintained. The burden should always be on power and the State to provide proof of its innocence or culpability. To accept the Party line, the state line, always comes with a potential for abuse of the truth. This is why Foucault said that truth is a product of power, because sociologically speaking, what people accept as true is a product of power dynamics. Thus, I’ll end with a harrowing quote by a witness to the massacres in Tibet, which should be appreciated not only for its essential veracity, but for the measured way in which the speaker tries to convey his experience to the world. The devil is always in the details.

“As we rode alongside the river, we began to smell something rotten … A little further on, the bodies of dead men lay scattered on both sides of the river. They were naked and dark blue … I had lost my fear of dead bodies. Further on were the bodies of many dead children lying alone, and mothers and children holding each other. In that area altogether there were around twenty six or seven corpses. Looking at their hair one could see that most of them were women and children … There was a higher and a lower shelf on the mountainside … Father and Lochu were sitting on the higher shelf. “Oh, the Protector bear witness!” everyone said when we got there, so great was our amazement. The ground was completely covered by the corpses of men, women, monks, yaks and horses… Wherever I looked there was death …”








Great socialist rap- Taiwanese rap “Your So-Called Freedom and Democracy”

My good friend Xiangyu is an up and coming Taiwanese rapper, talented as hell. Check him out! This song is about the hypocrisy of the US in Afghanistan, written from the perspective of an Afghan civilian

The trouble with Buddhism: parallels between the Rohingya and the Lhotshampa refugees,1046

Unfortunately, the situation in Myanmar/Burma parallels what happened with the Lhotshampa in Bhutan, the ethnic Nepali/Hindu minority that was forcibly expelled from Bhutan in the 1990s. Many Lhotshampa refugees reside to this day in camps in Nepal, and many have made the journey to live in the United States. A peaceful “Shangri-La” is how Bhutan sells itself to the world, and it may be true that Bhutan is a relatively peaceful country, but not for the Lhotshampa in the 1990s, who suffered many human rights abuses. This issue did not receive as much traction as the Rohingya issue because there wasn’t the same scale of ethnic cleansing. But believe me- I have no illusions about Bhutan, and am willing to speak out against the injustices perpetrated there. The Lhotshampa refugee crisis is something even highly respected Tibetan Buddhist teachers do not speak out against enough, including unfortunately the Dalai Lama.

In the words of the article I linked to from the Nepali Times:

“The Rohingya people are looking into an abyss of statelessness, within Burma as well as in the Bangladesh refugee camps. The international reaction is muted. While the Dalai Lama has spoken on the basis of humanitarian principle, Buddhistic societies by and large are silent, be they Mahayan or Theravad adherents. The West is in geopolitical confusion ever since the advent of Donald Trump in the international arena, even as crimes against humanity are committed by the Burmese security forces. If one were to look to India as the largest regional democracy, we have the shocking absence of empathy that has state functionaries talk brazenly of ‘refoulment’ (forcible return of refugees to where they are apt to face persecution).

The Lhotshampa, faced with Thimphu’s rejection of repatriation, were lucky that the international geopolitical configuration made third country re-settlement available. No such luck for the ten times more numerous Rohingya. One of their ‘faults’ – being born Muslim.”

To be perfectly clear, in the 1990s the Lhotshampa did face violence and killings by the Bhutanese military. And as in the case of Burma, there was complicity on the part of a portion of the Buddhist population to this violence, based on a growing sense of nationalism in Bhutan.

The video I link to above is the antithesis of the kind of complicity in human rights abuses that is seen among other Buddhists- Burmese-American Buddhist young people speaking out against the persecution of the Rohingya. I particularly like the ending quote of the video: “Our Buddhism is meant to liberate, not oppress. Our Buddhism is not fearful. Our Buddhism is not prejudiced. Our Buddhism is not passive”.

Unfortunately, there is, as the video describes, even prejudice among older members of the Burmese-American community towards Muslims. This video makes a strong case for political awareness above any kind of ethno-nationalism in general, as well Burmese ethno-nationalism. There is a strong case to be made that the values of Buddhism never truly superseded, historically speaking, sentiments of cultural superiority or led to any kind of antecedent to modern liberal tolerance in many parts of Asia. This is possibly not the case in China. It has to be said that there has been a complicity on the part of Buddhism culturally to patriarchal authoritarian culture in Asia, chiefly due to the “Confucianistic” belief to the respect one’s elders (and therefore superiors) above all else. This is reflected in the high popular opinion of the Army in Burma, even after military atrocities that occurred in the late 20th century- against Buddhists!

It is time for us not only to think deeply about issues of religious fundamentalism in other parts of the world, and introspect- it is imperative that we call out injustice, not be PC, culturally sensitive to a fault, or so culturally relativistic that we ignore basic human values, universal human rights. It is imperative that Western readers, ignorant of the plight of the Rohingya, do their research on this new ethnic cleansing of our generation and donate to charities like the UNHCR, which are badly in need of funding to help the massive influx of refugees to neighboring countries. In particular, the Rohingya has mostly fled to Bangladesh, one of the most destitute countries on the planet. This cannot stand! We must put pressure on politicians to do something active about this crisis, and kick Presidents and Congress-people out of office who don’t give two damns about human rights, starting with Donald Trump- the biggest inflamer of anti-Muslim sentiment in the world. The Trump administration has talked tough on the Rohingya crisis and pays lip service to it, but has not pressed for sanctions, UN-backed or otherwise, on Burma. While sanctions do have unwanted economic consequences for the population, sanctions were placed on Burma prior to 2016, when they were lifted actually by Obama. So Obama also has some culpability in this (shocker).

“Targeted sanctions” may be in the works, Reuters reports as of yesterday. But they do not target the entire Burmese military, and are definitely not widespread economic sanctions.

I’m not an expert on sanctions, and I actually generally oppose economic sanctions on countries like North Korea because they are greatly harmful to the people. However situations of ethnic cleansing are fundamentally different.

Reblog- testimony from survivor of horrible “Buddhist splinter cell” cult

A New Kadampa Survivor Testimony My name is Ivy Wallace and I am a former member of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT). Here is my story in case anyone is interested. I was in the NKT for 5 years. My initial year there was incredible. Everyone was so kind and seemed so happy. I stayed […]

via Finally, After Years Of Fanaticism, I Began Opening My Eyes — Tibetan Buddhism – Struggling With Diffi·Cult Issues

I just came across this. How awful. Really makes you think

The Downfalls of Relationship and Life Coach blogs

I was thinking of writing a post that considered more of the debate surrounding string theory, and discussing my recent foray into Roger Penrose’s absolutely stunning and fascinating book Shadows of the Mind, but I decided to put that off to talk about another subject that I hope won’t offend too many people, but then again, I don’t really care. It’s just an impression of what I’ve seen on the blogosphere, or more specifically, WordPress. Namely, that its all emotional drivel, relationships, and “seekers”. In other words, ideology at its most pure.

Why do I say this? Am I not heavily invested in a relationship? Yes I am, with my girlfriend, soon to be fiancé, that is the love of my life. But why is it necessary to broadcast one’s emotions for everyone to see online? And moreover- why do other people find it actually engrossing, downright fascinating, to read about other people’s deepest emotions and problems?

Granted, most of it isn’t purely like a public diary, but some of it really is! This is what’s referred to as the “Tell-All” type of blog (#8 on the list). There are all kinds of blogs of course- “niche” blogs, blogs related to cooking, etc. But here is something I noticed, and I have verified that it is something people do on purpose, probably as a way to market themselves and make money before they have any interest in the subject- the “Life Coach” blog. Here is a quote from an article about the 10 types of Popular Blogs (link above):

Blog Type #6: The Guide
The Guide writes posts that help readers with their personal lives. Many bloggers utilizing this blog type discuss topics like personal development, life coaching, and/or spirituality.

What can I say? This is ideology at its purest, what Eva Ilouz has referred to as American therapeutic culture, or what I prefer, self-help culture. The amount of self-help blogs I see being advertised is phenomenal! And newsflash: 90% of them are a waste of your time and mine.

Q: “But Stephen, some of these people are licensed professionals. And even if they aren’t, they have good intentions”

Actually no, I don’t know if they have good intentions, as content on the internet nowadays is driven by likes, followers, and subscribers. I am pretty much driven by only my desire to get ideas out there I think are important and to find others out there with good ideas. Unfortunately, ideas aren’t sexy. Perhaps that is the name of the game. In other words, the Life Coach bloggers are also at the same time the Personal Brand bloggers, in the ceaseless logic of self-marketing that Deleuze talked about in the Postscript on the Society of Control (a piece that changed my life).

Q: “Stephen, your critique of the dominant mainstream culture only serves to reinforce it by the model of transgression. Being upset at the mainstream culture just reveals that you are motivated by either jealousy or at best your critique will only serve to reinforce the opinions of people that already agree with you”

I believe in the concept of changing people’s minds. As the old saying goes, one can only change one’s own mind. But I don’t accept that at all. Whenever I am presented with new information, I try to keep a very open mind generally. If I find that someone has superior reasoning than another person I respect, I accept that superior reasoning (rather like what is happening to me while I’m reading Roger Penrose, but that’s another story).

In short, self-help blogging and self-help culture, the social media culture of sharing stories about love and life, are part of the ideological glue of capitalist society. It tells us that stories always have happy endings, that we are good no matter what we do, that we can always be forgiven, to be positive, and most importantly, never ever ever ever bring up politics. I’m referring to a certain strand of (mature) person in America that really does have this kind of naïve optimism. I’m not referring to the largely new phenomenon of social media self-obsession- I’m referring mainly to what is called “New Age” culture, or rather the sanitized, capitalist, new equivalent of New Age culture (actually New Age culture was really a counterculture originally- I’m serious!).

I have too much self-esteem already to have other people tell me how to live my life. Even giving someone advice to me always comes with a degree of suspicion- why do you think you know what’s best for me? Perhaps their really is a self-esteem problem in America in a way, and everything that is being done to fight it by “positive reinforcement” isn’t helping.

Now, I’m not going the way of internet reactionaries, the “Red Pill” crowd, who tells you to grow up and stop being PC and stop being a special snowflake. In a way, I’m targeting people who I believe are mostly sincere, good people. But that’s not my point. My point is simply that one should maintain critical distance towards these things. Many of you already do, and for those that do- congratulations! But I would argue we need to (as always) delve even deeper into these social phenomena- much good anthropological work is being done on medical narratives and self-help narratives. Arthur Kleinman and Susan Sontag come to mind, particularly Susan’s book Illness as Metaphor. Even though its a work of critical theory though, deep in history and actual cultural analysis, even Sontag’s book could be co-opted into some kind of “self-help” narrative. I won’t give a full argument for that here, but its enough to know that good anthropological and sociological scholarship is being done now on self-help culture. Eva Ilouz stands apart as a pioneer in this field of research, with very remarkable results.

There is another blog type that is also fascinating to me- #7 “the Homer”:

No, the Homer is not a label reserved for blogs about doughnuts, nuclear power, or Duff beer.
It’s reserved for bloggers who write posts of epic proportions — posts that take readers on a 2,500+ word journey every time.

My friends have told me my posts are very long- I just checked the word count of this one- around 1,100 words so far. Not bad- not on Homer level apparently! Is this article trying to say this blog type is the “intellectual” type? No not exactly, its referring to the Odyssey -badly, they don’t mention the Odyssey, or Iliad, don’t use any metaphors about a journey, and just that Homer just wrote big books. Thus, it doesn’t matter what kind of words you use or the topic! Granted, they may be a little less pedestrian (see the example given in this section, from the blog Johnny B. Truant “The Universe doesn’t give a fuck about you”).

Well, take Johnny’s blog. Its about a big existential question- do we matter in the grand scheme of things? Maybe just to us. But he doesn’t say it this way- in fact he says it in the most pedestrian simple way possible that makes it into a self-help message-simultaneously!

“There is only now. If you have power, it’s now. If you can change anything, you have to do it now. If you want to be or to have that next great thing, be it. Have it. Take it. Own it. Do it. Become it.
Be awesome. Do epic shit.
Do it now. The clock is ticking.”

I’ll admit its funny, a little tongue in cheek. But I can’t help but be jaded at posts like these. This is a slightly more pedantic version of #YOLO, to be frank. It’s also ripping off the Power of Now (look it up- its New Age bullshit masquerading as Buddhism).

This is why in terms of REAL self-help, I can’t recommend this book enough- and I haven’t even read it! But I know that Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is a very great master of the Buddhist tradition- and its his book Not for Happiness. 

Woah! Not for Happiness- a book about religion! Then what is it for?? Spirituality that is. Well, in short, wisdom. I’ll give a link to an academic talk that discusses this in further depth:

I hate to be a “Buddhist jihadi” as Khyentse Rinpoche likes to say, but I do believe that what people are searching for is really even deeper than what unenlightened beings have to say. The leap is to believe that what the Buddha had to say came from an enlightened perspective. But this is not necessary actually. One should come to one’s own conclusions about this, but I believe that people should not ignore these ancient wisdom traditions in favor of a watered down version of it that may be diluted by desires for material gain or whatever.

I will say though, that there is no guarantee of finding what you desire in Buddhism as well. There is such a thing as Buddhist fundamentalism and fanaticism:

Revisiting the Crisis in Burma and Buddhism’s Role in it

So for me, the Buddhadharma has been so helpful to me in helping me through life. But at the end of the day, what’s needed is love for other people. That is the true antidote to suffering. So are the perpetrators of genocide in Burma “true Buddhists?” Of course not, to claim otherwise would be unfair to Buddhism, ” not any more than ISIS is true Islam or the KKK is true Christianity” as Buddhism Controversy blog states.

I hope I haven’t digressed from the original point at all, but I believe I can wrap it into a coherent framework. Instead of more self-care, self-love, what this world needs is more Other-love, and Other-care. The self-obsession one sees among the younger generation in the West is just a byproduct of Western individualism. Thus we need the antidote, and what is the ultimate antidote? Trying to alleviate the suffering of others- this is true road to happiness.

May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness

May they be free from suffering and the causes of suffering

Homage to Great Compassion!


Link to great mathematics channel


I’ve been binge watching Math channels on youtube like Numberphile and Sixty Symbols, both of which I would highly recommend, but I just recently came across this channel, which explains mathematical concepts like derivatives with very visually appealing graphics. Definitely a step up from the Numberphile channel’s trademark brown sheet of paper (although they employ actual professors for their videos). The little Pi guy is a nice touch. I’d check out the ones, in addition to this highly useful one on derivatives, the video on visualizing higher dimensions (which I might write a separate post on) and the one on Riemann Zeta function (the core of the famous Riemann hypothesis). Helpful learning tools are at our fingertips nowadays, its stunning what the internet can do. I wish I had this kind of material for high school calculus class, I came a little too early.

The Riemann Hypothesis, String Theory, and the Scientific/Mathematical obsession with absolute truth

If I tried to submit a paper like this to an actual scientific journal, I would be laughed out of the room, probably for not following protocol, secondly for not being one of them. However this is how it looks to a fledgling student of “science studies” to look at the debates currently going on in physics and mathematics and to be dumbfounded that ideas and theories that are entirely plausible to still receive some skepticism because they aren’t  proven “indubitably and undeniably true”. Let’s enter into a discussion about scientific convention through the process of analyzing two current scientific debates, one in physics and one in mathematics- string theory and the Riemann hypothesis.

Now I’ve already done some stuff on string theory debate previously (see my earlier posts), so let’s tackle the Riemann hypothesis. A brief synopsis:

The Riemann hypothesis, called by some the “most important unsolved problem in mathematics” is about a function involving complex numbers with real and imaginary parts, called the Riemann zeta function. Bernard Riemann was one of the most famous mathematicians who basically invented the geometry of higher dimensional spaces (non-Euclidean geometry) that laid the foundation for Einstein’s general relativity. So if what Riemann said about the function is correct, that all the non-trivial zero values of the function lie on a critical line 1/2+i(t) and not outside that line, then the hypothesis is correct, and the function can be used to predict the distribution of prime numbers. It is the distribution of primes that makes this function useful and interesting, not that it is evaluated using real and imaginary numbers, that is a ubiquitous feature of complex analysis. The function itself is interesting in itself, in that it is a convergent series. I’ll show you what I mean:

{\displaystyle \zeta (s)=\sum _{n=1}^{\infty }{\frac {1}{n^{s}}}={\frac {1}{1^{s}}}+{\frac {1}{2^{s}}}+{\frac {1}{3^{s}}}+\cdots }

This is the actual Riemann Zeta function. So if you plug in 2 for s, you get 1/1^2 +1/2^2+1+3^2, etc. I.e you get the perfectly understandable 1+1/4+1/9…i.e the sum of the reciprocals of the squares. Here’s the interesting part (there are actually many interesting parts of the Riemann Zeta function, and you can go down the rabbit hole with how interesting it is). At s=2, the answer converges to something astonishing- \zeta (2)=1+{\frac  {1}{2^{2}}}+{\frac  {1}{3^{2}}}+\cdots ={\frac  {\pi ^{2}}{6}}=1.6449\dots \!

pi^2/6!! Where did pi come from? What does this function have to do with a circle? And that’s not all!

So to recap, the function is just a function, it exists by definition. What Riemann’s hypothesis is is that all the zeros of the function (except the ones on the x-axis) are on a critical vertical line when using complex numbers and imaginary numbers are given by the y dimension.

Ok so what does all this math mean? It means that Riemann came up with an astonishing theory that shines a light on something fundamental in mathematics- prime numbers, which seem to be randomly distributed, but actually according to this theory can be predicted using a formula. The only problem? The hypothesis isn’t proven.

Why? That’s a good question I’m still trying to figure out. The best we’ve come up with is we haven’t been able to disprove it. There is no logical/mathematical proof as of yet of the Riemann hypothesis. The theory rests on the fact that there are no zeros outside a certain line- despite having found BILLIONS of zeros (actually over 10 trillion) using supercomputers- and they are all on the line so far!!

So mathematicians, even when there are “probabilistic proofs” of the theory (given by Denjoy) still have to say “the jury is out” because math is not a science of probability, but requires, in the words of basically every mathematician, “absolute knowledge”. Things like the weak Goldbach conjecture, which were “first proved using the generalized Riemann hypothesis” were also later proved unconditionally true, but this is too indirect a line of evidence for mathematical minds.

My argument to the mathematicians- if we can’t do brute calculations to infinity, no matter how many computers we have, maybe its time to call a spade a spade. The “consensus of survey articles” is that it is probably true. That sounds good enough to me.

Maybe mathematics should take a page from quantum theory and accept imperfect knowledge a la the uncertainty principle. I’ve watched many talks now about how the cutting edge of mathematics is coming from physics. It sounds like mathematics needs to import some of that physics “can-do” mindset and drop the Platonism.

In addition, when it comes to string theory, “indirect” evidence for string theory is also very strong, almost implied by some observed phenomena about particle physics. It doesn’t take a genius to understand this- even a layman can understand this and sift through the morass to find the answers. String theory is probably correct, so is the Riemann hypothesis. I’d bet money on it.

A definitive proof of the Riemann hypothesis gets the mathematical prize of 1 million dollars from a certain institute. This is proof of the value, the actual monetary value, placed on absolute proof in the field of mathematics. In a sense, it is what everything in it is based on- geometric proofs for example, or just the simple fact that you get one answer to a math problem. 2+3=5 dammit, and nothing else! Now, you can get two values for a particular equation, but that equation still has One answer. But what I’m saying doesn’t contradict this grade school logic. All I’m asking is that alternative lines of proof, including mathematically rigorous lines of evidence, from a “probabilistic” perspective, be given credit. It seems always that in these debates, something is left unsaid to the general public. What is left out here for the RH is “its basically been proven already”. What’s been left out for string theory is that “we already have a theory of quantum gravity, it doesn’t even require string theory, etc.” More on that later.

For now, just realize that these “definitive proofs” that we lack of unsolved problems in physics and mathematics have many dimensions to them. It is more indicative to me of a cultural issue, an obsession with Absolute Truth, and not being satisfied with relative truth. Maybe we can go ahead and say that relatively, the Riemann hypothesis should be assumed to be correct. We already know that primes aren’t randomly distributed- they make spirals and diagonal lines when you chart them:

Image result for prime spirals

The black dots represent the primes. If this doesn’t represent proof that they aren’t random, then call me Ishmael.

Edit: sorry for the typos before, I wrote this late at night

Capitalism and Schizophrenia: a book for our century

THE text, the seminal text, written about our society, industrial and digital society, modern society, especially American society, in the 20th century, is not the Postmodern Condition. It is not Dialectic of Enlightenment. It is not even One Dimensional Man, or Empire by Antonio Negri. The seminal text, the Das Kapital of the 20th century, is not Civilization and its Discontents. That is THE text to be opposed. It is Capitalism and Schizophrenia by French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Philosopher Michel Foucault agreed, “the 21st century will be the Deleuzian century”.

In an era of mass incarceration, of mass shootings, of one day of depressing news after another with no end in sight, why do we need to read a book written by an eccentric French philosopher with unkempt hair? Why not, as Marxists argue, should we not continue to comb the archives of a communism that failed? Why not Lenin? Well, we should read Lenin. We should read everything else I mentioned as well, and not be exclusive. Because at the heart, Deleuze is the philosopher of addition, not of subtraction or opposition, which is the dialectical logic. Are “dialectics” (whatever that means) still useful? They are one tool in our arsenal, our assault against the forces of oppression, which has begun to tear away at the fabric of social reality itself, and has begun to convince people that their servitude is their only chance at freedom. Deleuze offers us a theory for thinking the Whole, for rethinking what Being itself is, that offers us also a pragmatics of the possible.

Those who scoff at the idea of revolution will always tell you- “the banks are too big to fail”, “not in my lifetime will that happen”. They have accepted life as it is- for how can they not? They don’t want to live a dreamlike reality. Deleuze takes the schizophrenic, who already lives in a dreamlike reality, the crazy, as the model of the subversive, as the model of a person who imminently fights against the capitalist model of a lifetime of servitude to work, because they truly have no other choice. Deleuze proposes that instead of going to “resolve your problems”, going to therapy or on the psychoanalyst’s couch will only put a band-aid on a problem that emanates fundamentally from the social field. This is what Freud missed, and this is why Deleuze titles the first book of Capitalism and Schizophrenia Anti-Oedipus. 

Deleuze starts by talking about schizophrenia in the abstract, and moves on to conceive of how we could remake the whole “socius”- we need a psychoanalysis of the social itself, society itself needs to go to therapy! Who would be the psychoanalyst for that? Well, we, each other, would be. Schizoanalysis is born- we realize we are all crazy together, and we can do something about it. Because before the father beats the son, the father is beaten by the system every day at work, by the boss, by the check out line, by the debt collectors, by his whole life. This is no justification of the way things are- it is a way to get out of the moralism that traditionally plagues psychology, the moralism attached to what are essentially just the norms of bourgeois society. And as Foucault and Deleuze realized, though Marx is the towering thinker of the 19th century, he still swims like a fish in 19th century water. The 21st century is here, Mao is dead, Marx is dead, and we have to carry on, with only the record and ghostly trails left in the tracks.

How do we make sense of reality, Deleuze claims, when one is constantly fed information by way of digital feedback? When the advertisers know exactly what to show you at any given time on your computer screen, how do you escape from the digital prison? Deleuze not only shows, like Guy Debord in the Society of the Spectacle, that modern subjectivity is formed by the media, but how they form an inseparable whole, how they together form a person-media-technology assemblage. Why is this important? Because it portrays reality the way it actually is, where two things that look separate actually are not. Deleuze’s conclusions start out looking like common sense, but put together, they challenge the fundamental wisdom of Capitalism. Put together, like the main character in They Live, we are able to see through the prison of how we were conditioned to see the world, and a whole new world of potentiality emerges, almost visible, sometimes perceptible on the margins.

Deleuze continues his saga in A Thousand Plateaus, considered in postmodern philosophy a conceptual breakthrough and a work of towering genius. It must be said at this junction that Deleuze co-wrote the book with anti-psychiatric radical Felix Guatarri, to whom I have not given enough credit. The only reason Deleuze has been marked here as the genius is because we are pre-programmed to prefer the work of One over many, even though there have been many productive intellectual pairs- Watson and Crick, Marx and Engels, Sartre and Beauvoir, and not enough women pairs. Deleuze is the philosopher of addition, of multiplication- we need new assemblages, new becomings. It is here that Deleuze elaborates on the concept of becoming. This may be too much of a poetic concept for those hardened political and social thinkers who are concerned about the value of the GDP, materialism. But Deleuze is also a materialist, and becoming is essentially material. There is materially a becoming that we experience concretely when we take a walk in the woods, we become more like the animals themselves. We don’t want to be told anymore about logic and maxims and means of production- feeling matters to us. We don’t want to be told our culture doesn’t matter, our traditions don’t matter- they do, and capitalism has been stripping them away from us, and we are continually alienated from ourselves. Of course there are material processes going on, and I could quote statistics about world hunger. But I could also tell you about the story of one woman who contracted AIDS from a soldier in Haiti she thought loved her, and before that worked as a maid in the capital city for pennies while her rich clients engorged themselves. That is what we aim to do! Our suffering is real, and also our happiness!

This is why Deleuze and Guatarri are important to me, and important to the world, and self-respecting “experts” on Deleuze should not look to his more “rigorous” books on Kant and Hume as examples of his “true genius”, for they are perpetuating the logocentric model of thinking that has driven people away from academia, from thinking, as yet another example of “disconnected elitism”. Philosophy can matter to our lives, so much so that can shape history. D&G can shape history, and should, or we may face even darker times

Lyotard, Science, and Kurt Godel

In a passage in the Postmodern Condition on the way science legitimates itself, in the sense of obtaining the addressee’s assent, I came across this:

The following question is more pertinent to legitimation : By what
criteria does the logician define the properties required of an axiomatic?
Is there a model for scientific languages? If so , is there just one ?
Is it verifiable ? The properties generally required of the syntax of
a formal system are consistency (for example , a system inconsistent
with respect to negation would admit both a proposition and its
opposite), syntactic completeness (the system would lose its consistency
if an axiom were added to it), decidability (there must be an
effective procedure for deciding whether a given proposition belongs
to the system or not), and the independence of the axioms in relation
to one another. Now Godel has effectively established the
existence in the arithmetic system of a proposition that is neither
demonstrable nor refutable within that system ; this entails that the
arithmetic system fails to satisfy the condition of completeness. 
Since it is possible to generalize this situation , it must be accepted
that all formal systems have internal limitations. This applies to
logic: the metalanguage it uses to describe an artificial (axiomatic)
language is “natural ” or “everyday ” language ; that language is universal, since all other languages can be translated into it, but it is not
consistent with respect to negation – it allows the formation of paradoxes”

It seems I’ve been beaten to the punchline by Lyotard in assessing how Godel’s incompleteness theorem could apply to philosophy. I generally agree with Lyotard, but think I can offer something here. I think we have to clarify what Lyotard and Godel mean in order to avoid mistakes in interpretation, namely to correct the interpretation of Lyotard that all interpretations are equal and its all just “language games and metanarratives”. The term postmodernism in the title doesn’t help at all in this regard…but lets start with Godel.

If one were to apply the analogy (and Lyotard is here playing a bit of a language game himself) directly from Godel’s incompleteness theorem, one has to recognize that any formal system of logic, or at least the formal system of the rules of arithmetic logic, are incomplete by the fact in every formal arithmetic system that attempts to find the “basic axioms”, there can be found an axiom which agrees with the other axioms, i.e it isn’t refutable, but it can’t be derived from the foundational axioms. Therefore, there are missing rules. In fact, there might be an infinite number of basic arithmetic rules. Examples of these axioms are propositions like a=a, a+b=b+a, etc.

This should NOT be confused with the idea that all metalanguages or systems are fundamentally INCONSISTENT. Merely incomplete- as Lyotard says, this means that a set of axioms can prove or entail a certain number of other conclusions, but each theory has a “scope” or set of limits. This is so basic a proposition as to merit being common sense. For instance, general relativity is an accepted theory, it is viewed as legitimate science, certain calculations can be done on the basis of general relativity, but it has certain limitations at certain energy levels, special physical situations, etc. In fact, science often progresses by questioning the limitations of an existing theory and then creating a new theory that explains those previously unexplained phenomena.

So my grade- does Lyotard pass? Exceptionally well. He does a good job of translating Godel’s theory into basic language. But I’d give him a B, because we can derive more from Godel- Godel’s incompleteness theorem tells us even more about systems of knowledge. Moreover, Lyotard switches registers with regards to going into the realm of logic itself- do you notice? “All other languages can be translated into it, but it is not consistent with respect to negation”. To me this doesn’t necessarily follow from Godel. Even going with him that Godel’s theorem can be abstracted to all logical systems, incompleteness is NOT inconsistency!!! This may be some of the source of giving Lyotard a bad rap as a relativist.

It is true that science has to use the language of common sense, of discourse itself, to legitimate itself. Using the analogy of Godel can also be profitable. But a precise reading of what Godel’s incompleteness theorem actually is requires scientific literacy, requires (to make things even more complicated) not only an in depth knowledge of a concept, but also the intellectual tools to understand it. How’s that for an epistemological whopper!

Lyotard gets things 3/4 right, but opens himself up to the critique of pure relativism, instead of stating outright what he really is- a social constructivist. And one has to be an idiot to not be a social constructivist, because of course science is made by man. The question is whether the Knowledge (capital K) man has is fallible. And….it depends on the circumstance! And of course its incomplete!

Of course scientific research in this regard plays the political game, and it forms the kind of pursuits and questions they are after. But the “paradox” is that the science produced in the meantime as a result is not untrue- atomic physics is all too real. It would be better if we take what we need from Lyotard et. al. as social theorists, productive concepts like postmodern informational society, and use them to enter into a dialogue on what exactly is going on now. Zizek uses the critique that postmodern digital society concept actually can obscure the dynamics of capitalism- yes but maybe only the appropriation of this idea, not within the confines of Lyotard, where he is definitely employing Marxian analysis of social phenomena. Take this passage from the same chapter on the “Pragmatics of Science”:

“—-what happened at the end of the eighteenth century , with the first
industrial revolution , is that the reciprocal of this equation was discovered: no technology without wealth , but no wealth without technology. A technical apparatus requires an investment; but since it optimizes the efficiency of the task to which it is applied, it also optimizes the surplus-value derived from this improved performance.
All th at is needed is for the surplus-value to be realized , in other
words, for the product of the task performed to be sold . And the system
can be sealed in the following way : a portion of the sale is
recycled into a research fund dedicated to further performance
improvement. It is at this precise moment that science becomes a
force of production , in other words, a moment in the circulation of

It was more the desire for wealth than the desire for knowledge
that initially forced upon technology the imperative of performance
improvement and product realization. The “organic” connection
between technology and profit preceded its union with science.
Techn ology became important to contemporary knowledge only
through the mediation of a generalized spirit of performativity. Even
today, progress in knowledge is not totally subordinated to technological investment.” 

The obvious employment of terms like surplus-value means that Lyotard is faithful to the Marxist cause of identifying science as a force of production, as Marx elaborates on in the German Ideology. Lyotard takes this history of science and abstracts it to the development of technology and capitalism itself. He demonstrates that science was not always synonymous with technological advancement- today those two are intimately connected, due to the development of research institutions, which he goes into. Lyotard’s critique here seems to be that while there are some “pure research institutions”, the goal is not knowledge as such, but technological advancement for profit.

Of course, one could apply this critique to the field of medical research in pharmaceuticals, for example, with great effect, and that would have to be done in detail and in the concrete. Some anthropologists have done things to that effect, looking at the Monsanto Corporation and how research on safety is rushed in order to put out a product in as quick a time as possible, specifically for fertilizers, pesticides, etc. I.e things that are necessary for the survival of the human species at the moment. But what does this level of abstraction miss?

It misses the fact that in the politics of Science in the abstract, there are many fields, many different social interactions. Yes there is one principle axiomatic that has corrupted this field, that has been correctly identified by Lyotard, and that is the axiom of Capital, of gaining power and notoriety, but often what comes out of this is not only the commodification of knowledge, as Lyotard has so presciently realized is happening, but also the creation of new real powerful technologies. This is why I believe that instead of postmodern informational society, media society, even society of the spectacle, or bureaucratic society of controlled consumption (as Jameson has identified as parallels for Lyotard’s concepts), what is the society of today? It is the digital society of control. This is the immanent, concrete way we should talk about the world, because you know, in your heart, that these mechanisms of control operate. They will find you if you don’t pay your credit card bill- believe me, they will find you. The knowledge of how that credit card operates is well known, well defined, almost perfect. There is a margin of error, things that can be exploited, but in objective, solid (or should I say fluid) reality. So is there such a thing as “objective reality”? Again, I want to make this perfectly clear- it depends on your definition!! If your definition of objective reality is something separate from human consciousness, something inherently stable, then no. If it means that reality simply exists, then yes. Of course there is reality! And as we are beginning to show in quantum physics, that reality is no different than virtual reality. It’s one big show, and the advertisers know just how to manipulate it.

Have a happy Christmas season, and remember, Never Work, fuck Trump, and don’t buy beyond necessity.

P.S: Do I even need to mention how horrible Trump’s tax plan is? The bank robbery has begun

Physics in modern culture: more thoughts on the String Theory debate

It seems that every mathematician or physicist out there, whether they are working in string theory or not, has an opinion about the subject of string theory. My review of the debate currently surrounding string theory has revealed that there is an ongoing heated debate in the physics community that is revolving around a philosophical debate, that is being characterized as a debate between empiricism vs. rationalism. I will make the case here that regardless of what is actually true about this famous “Theory of Everything”, this debate has not made things more clear, but actually shrouded everything in a kind of conceptual haze that distracts from the details of the actual debate (of which I am NOT an expert).

Here is what I can say as a non-expert that I find fascinating:

The Large Hadron Collider, the famous particle accelerator, has continued to turn up nada for a proof of super-symmetry, one of the necessary predictions of string theory, and continued to make observations consistent with the Standard Model. This is fascinating because on its face value, theoretically, the Standard Model does have weaknesses, recognized weaknesses, most famously that it isn’t compatible with general relativity. String theory emerged not as a makeshift candidate for how to address these problems, but in trying to work out the problems of their own accord. So what does that mean? It means that in all the headlines you read about how “string theory may finally be killed!” it actually hasn’t definitively been killed or not killed. There has been no evidence found against it. Strangely enough, string theory has weaknesses as well, like preferring a cosmological constant that is negative or 0 (we know that the cosmological constant is in fact positive).

So it seems like we have an answer- that the Standard Model is incomplete, but string theory won’t do the job. The strangeness of this is that we really don’t have any other alternatives. Great scientists doing work in theoretical physics have looked at string theory and marveled at its elegance and how it gets rid of certain problems with quantum field theory. So it seems like everywhere we turn, we find more contradictions.

What strikes me as odd in this whole debate is that pop scientists and professional mathematicians who aren’t string theorists love to hate on string theory because of lack of evidence, but there is never any questioning of the methodology of the experiments. It seems to me that there is more room for human error in an experiment as complex as the LHC.

Let’s take a closer look at the Large Hadron Collider, which has famously announced the existence of the “God Particle”, or the Higgs Boson/field that gives particles mass.

The Large Hadron Collider, the largest single machine in the world, and therefore ever built, sits on the France-Switzerland border. Data from the LHC is analyzed by 170 computing centers in 42 countries, according to Wikipedia. Now, I’m not a math scientist [laughs], but that seems like a lot of room for potential error. At any given time, the beam pipe of the LHC needs to be almost a complete vacuum, with only the amount of hydrogen that can fit in a grain of sand allowed. With a total operating budget of $1 billion per year, and a construction cost of around $7.5 billion, the LHC has been more the object of marvel than of scientific scrutiny in the popular press.

Famously, public concern over the safety of the LHC, whether it could produce a black hole, etc. was met with scoffs and simple dismissals. Of course, it can be reasonably assumed that after years of operation, the real dangers of the LHC are not on the order of a “doomsday weapon” like in the Dan Brown novel Angels and Demons, but it is fascinating to me how it seems like the single largest machine ever constructed by mankind seems to be escaping scrutiny. The best demonstration of this I can find is how the LHC is described by “Rational Wiki”, the kind of site that is frequented by Sam Harris lovers and “sciencephiles”. The description of the LHC on Rational Wiki is “the LHC is a kick-ass piece of scientific designed to replicate conditions immediately after the Big Bang…” etc. Now, it seems to me that the term kick-ass is not very rational or logical, it seems pretty emotional to me. But of course, the defenders of Rationality will always be right by definition!

There is absolutely no doubt that this subject is fascinating, but there are of course two questions that come out of this debate:

  1. Are the questions we ask worth $1 billion a year? The answer is probably yes, considering if you compare the cost to America’s skyrocketing military budget, it seems trivial in comparison. Still, gone are the days where we can verify physical theories with simple telescope observations, expect the costs to only grow for particle accelerators.
  2. What are the potential technological benefits that could accrue from this device that essentially just runs experiments? Computers have not even reached the point where they are utilizing all the quantum phenomena we know about. Is verifying string theory or quantum gravity even necessary? Of course, these kind of questions are blasphemy for the scientific establishment, but that is exactly the kind of questions currently being asked by the directors of the LHC, who after not finding any evidence of super-symmetry this year, expect to move their focus to other areas that are admittedly less “sexy”.

Proponents of the LHC will invariably point to the achievement of discovering the celebrated Higgs boson. What I want to avoid is this kind of unthinking mindset, “oooh, muons! quarks! oh my!” as well as the simple dismissal of science. Oftentimes criticisms of scientific work as simply demonized as anti-Science. In short, there needs to be the kind of Latourian anthropological analysis of particle physics that currently goes on in other fields. I probably won’t be the one to do it, as it would require such a highly specialized knowledge of the field, and I am currently pursuing other projects. But I encourage others to!

What would a science studies analysis of the LHC yield? What would the “discoveries” be? Hopefully it would simply offer a realistic portrayal of what’s going on at the LHC on a daily basis.

Here’s a ray of hope that the people at CERN are concerned about practical applications of the LHC: applying the particle accelerator to developing radiation cancer treatments for people in developing countries:

This particularly hits home for me, because my father was a radiation oncologist who worked on developing treatments for prostate cancer. My father was a research scientist with an avid interest in physics (he was a physics major) – so I am no stranger to the wonders of science and what it can do for real people. In a severe twist of irony, my father passed away of cancer, and it wasn’t able to be treated with chemotherapy. Perhaps we need to do far more in the way of preventative treatment and larger policy changes, not just finding treatments for the worst case scenario. That’s not to say I’m devaluing the work my father did- he actually contracted a case of esophageal cancer that is far harder to treat.

In short, there always needs to be theoretical work done, and I recognize that. But perhaps with more humanists working in the field, more practical applications could be developed, burgeoning costs could be contained, and maybe even theoretical debates could be seen in a new light.

But my last and probably most crucial point is this: governments find no shortage of cash to throw at the largest scientific device ever created by man. Maybe they could throw some of that money at the refugee crisis, or eliminating poverty?

What we need now more than ever is a “string theory” of humanity- of how the economy, the environment, and society form an integral whole, and our arbitrary designations of where one ends and the other begins are only, well arbitrary. If string theory is meant to show the subtle interconnections between all aspects of physical reality, then maybe we should take the poetry of this elegant theory and apply it to social reality. Can we, for instance, demonstrate the relationship between human psychology and the environment, as Gregory Bateson has done in the Steps to an Ecology of the Mind? Could we not go further, and connect the philosophy of science with a political ecology? Anthropology continues to be the field that describes these interactions as all emanating from underlying dynamics within the social field, which have been revealed to be patterned, not meaningless and random. Kinship structures, political organization, ideology, cosmology, belief, values, norms- how do these function within, say, the search for a God particle? The answer we will get is pretty straightforward, as my adviser George Mentore has suggested, the cosmology that is operating here is the search for origins, the metaphor of discovery that is at the bottom of Western understandings of the self and the cosmos. Is this metaphor inhibiting “real” discovery? Is it helping? Are there different metaphorical patterns at work? An ethnographic study would reveal this in detail