Friday, January 25, 2008

Disinvesting to Reinvest

After an admittedly over-long sabbatical, taken largely for purposes of upgrading my ideological capital, Projekt Enlightenment is now attempting a second life at a new home,

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Response to Kugelmass

Joseph, over at The Kugelmass Episodes, has offered an trenchant point-by-point critique of my post "Point Counter Point." Below is my attempt at a response, once again organized by theme.


Joseph writes:

Sure, I support people taking professional risks in the name of their political convictions. But while I agree that Zizek’s lifestyle doesn’t make him a hypocrite, I would also point out that it solidly refutes the notion that Zizekian ideas are somehow just too dangerous for academics to espouse. Apparently there’s no surer road to success than being Zizek.

If we’re talking academic success, I’d argue that Zizek is far more of a “public intellectual” than he is an academic. His official post at Ljubljana is more of a sinecure than an actual academic position. It involves no teaching responsibilities, nor does it require him to be in situ for any significant portion of the academic year. How many US universities would promote faculty who accept no teaching responsibilities and spend most of their time abroad, presenting public lectures at other universities as well as at various non-academic forums, and publishing most of their books and articles outside the peer-review system? Zizek is the fantasy of the academic as intellectual free agent, liberated from the disciplinary mechanisms of the tenure-track. As to his ideas, espousing them is one thing, acting on them is another. He was pretty popular until his review of 300, which appears to go “too far” in its call to action. Now, at least among this group, he’s suddenly dangerous, a reactionary. That’s was the funny thing to me, and what motivated my comments, that the line between safe and dangerous appears to be drawn at the issue of political action.


Joseph writes:

H. is not distinguishing here between ascetic discipline and ideological discipline. If he just wants us to purchase fewer products, that’s fine by me. If, on the other hand, he wants to subordinate x number of revolutionaries to y number of revolutionary leaders, which is what Zizek wants, then my response is a puzzled demand to know how such structures differ from existing hierarchical and fascistic structures.

I don’t think the issue is one of asceticism at all, unless perhaps we’re using the word in the technical sense that Foucault used it, as dedicated self-work. Our labor should be determined by our project--as should our pleasure. That means desiring our desire, taking responsibility both for it and for the situation we find ourselves in. In this context, “hedonism” means a relation to desire that enables its objective correlates, its objects petit a, to dominate us, and for which we are willing to make self-compromising sacrifices (the bad kind of sacrifices) that do nothing to challenge the injustices of the status quo. In contrast, Zizekian “discipline” and “sacrifice”--and this interpretation is not only based on his comments in the 300 review--simply mean posing to ourselves the hard questions: What do we really want? And are we willing to follow through with it, to accept all of the consequences of pursuing it? If there’s renunciation involved in this, it can only be determined by the course of our commitment to the desire/project, not a priori. In Nietzsche’s formulation: By doing, we forego. Or, what we do determines what we forgo. Again, I think Zizek’s point is not to assert the value of discipline and sacrifice in and of themselves (“fun is counter-revolutionary!”), but simply to reaffirm their necessary connection to any committed action. And I think that’s a connection that needs reaffirming, especially for those of us for whom a certain level of material comfort mutes the exigency of taking action. Being committed means changing our lives; changing our lives means re-appropriating/reconstituting our desire; re-appropriating/reconstituting our desire means experiencing a kind of “living death,” which is why we so often resist it when it is not imposed upon us from without. Given this resistance, what exactly is so bad about affirming the value of “sacrifice” (empty in itself), consciously chosen, consciously determined, and subordinated to the collective goal of establishing a minimum of freedom for all humankind?

Can it go wrong? Sure. But what is worse--taking the risk or not taking it at all? That is all I think Zizek was going for in “celebrating” the Spartans: despite the very real possibility of failure, the acted anyway, they refused to compromise themselves. And that is the precise definition of the authentic political act.

As for ideological discipline, I explicitly rejected the Leninist vanguard intelligentsia model in favor of the “network” model of anarco-syndicalism, which was an inspiration for both Sartre and Hardt/Negri, if not for Habermas. And the more I consider it, the less I’m convinced that Zizek’s own goal in reviving Lenin is to re-establish Lenin’s proposal for the creation of a revolutionary party. On the contrary, I think Zizek’s turn to Lenin is simply aimed at reaffirming the centrality of the political, that is, of fully committed political intervention in a situation for the purpose of changing its parameters altogether. That’s a question of what, not how. As Zizek puts it in his essay “On Belief”:

The return to Lenin is the endeavor to retrieve the unique moment when a thought already transposes itself into a collective organization, but does not yet fix itself into an Institution (the established Church, the IPA, the Stalinist Party-State). It aims neither at nostalgically reenacting the “good old revolutionary times,” nor at the opportunistic-pragmatic adjustment of the old program to “new conditions,” but at repeating, in the present world-wide conditions, the Leninist gesture of initiating a political project that would undermine the totality of the global liberal-capitalist world order, and, furthermore, a project that would unabashedly assert itself as acting on behalf of truth, as intervening in the present global situation from the standpoint of its repressed truth.

But even if the formation of a vanguard party is not really part of the agenda, does that mean the only alternative is spontaneous political organization/action? Can there be no consciously organized and adhered to political project beyond the centralized, hierarchical model of the party? Can we not deliberate priorities and strategies in a non-coercive way without those deliberations ultimately taking on a life of their own and substituting themselves for action?


In an aside, Joseph writes:

I’d point out that although H. rejects valorizing sacrifice in itself, the whole first half of his paragraph does just that, suggesting some kind of naive solidarity between dreamed-up ascetics and oppressed laborers.

No, I wasn’t trying to express some sort of immediate identity with the oppressed masses. That certainly would be naïve. Then again, I wasn’t really talking about solidarity in the first place. I was talking about the complex but ultimately economic mediations that connect the populations of the global South to those of the global North. If these mediations presently unite us, it’s a union of antitheses. Whether I like it or not, the social character of my private participation in the current mode of production implicates me in the exploitation of others. Granted, recognizing that reality doesn’t immediately change it, but it does make me responsible for it, it makes that reality my reality, and thus enables me to choose solidarity as a project--that is, not something to simply be posited, but something to be diligently worked towards. Awareness is only an initial moment, though at the same time a necessary one. Merleau-Ponty formulated this tension quite elegantly:

[I]t is likely that a man such as Lenin identified himself with revolution and eventually transcended the distinction between intellectual and worker. But these are the virtues proper to action and commitment; at the outset, I am not an individual beyond class, I am situated in a social environment, and my freedom, though it may have the power to commit me elsewhere, has not the power to transform me instantaneously into what I decide to be. Thus to be a bourgeois or a worker is not only to be aware of being one or the other, it is to identify oneself as a worker or bourgeois through an implicit or existential project which merges into our way of patterning the world and co-existing with other people.

That said, one of the things I really appreciated about Joseph’s original post was his foregrounding of the tension between the emotional-temporal state of desire and that of work. The Stimmung of revolution is urgency. The Stimmung of labor is patience. A truly emancipatory praxis needs to hold both in productive unity. A topic for further investigation.


Joseph writes:

consumerism is not identical with pleasure. Zizek really is inhabiting some sort of Puritan fever dream if he thinks that sex or loud music are founded on the oppression of the masses.

No, rock ‘n’ roll and sex don’t exactly oppress the masses. But neither can they (in their present forms) be completely divorced from the functioning of the current consumerist economy. I wouldn’t call myself a Puritan--let alone a feverish one--but I happen to think that repressive desublimation is a very real thing, and something to be fought against. If we want to be more than post-historical animals, I think we must take up again the struggle against the contentment, the complacency that constantly tempts our material investment in existence in the current “biopolitical” paradigm (Hardt/Negri’s sense, not Foucault’s). At any rate, I personally think there is a truly spiritual pleasure to be found in struggle.

That said, am I advocating here some sort of consumerist asceticism? Of course not. Marx:

Communism deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society; all that it does is to deprive him of the power to subjugate the labour of others by means of such appropriation.

Am I advocating then some sort of ethical consumerism? On the contrary, I’m actually trying to shift focus away from problems of individual consumption and towards those of social production.

This is where I think Joseph misreads me. Elsewhere, he writes:

I just don’t think that canceling my subscription to Netflix is going to resolve the troubles in Bangladesh…

And that’s true. But if that’s the only alternative we have, then our situation is bleak indeed. But that wasn’t the kind of action I was advocating here. The kind of action I was advocating was the committed (i.e. sustained) action of a determinate and organized project that intervenes in the situation to transform its presuppositions. I brought up the examples of Onfray and NIACE, not that of a shopper at Target choosing to buy organic dishwashing soap. I also brought up Badiou’s work with l’Organisation politique. I could also have mentioned the GIP (Group d’Information sur les Prisons), the prisoners’ rights organization founded by Foucault in 1971. From the GIP’s manifesto:

We live in a society of “custody.” They tell us that the system of justice is overwhelmed. That is easy to see. But what if the police are the ones who have overwhelmed us? They tell us that the prisons are overcrowded. But what if the population is over-imprisoned? There is very little information published about prisons; it is one of the hidden regions of our social system, one of the dark compartments of our existence. It is our right to know. We want to know. That is why, with magistrates, lawyers, journalists, doctors, and psychologists, we have created an association for information about prisons.


The GIP does not propose to speak in the name of the prisoners in various prisons: it proposes, on the contrary, to provide them with the possibility of speaking themselves and telling what goes on in prisons. The GIP does not have reformist goals; we do not dream of some ideal prison; we hope that prisoners may be able to say what it is that is intolerable for them in the system of penal repression. We have to disseminate as quickly and widely as possible the revelations that the prisoners make--the sole means of unifying what is inside and outside the prison, the political battle and the legal battle, into one and the same struggle.

Closer to home (i.e. contemporary US academia), I could have cited activists scholars like Mike Davis or Angela Davis. Or the Public Sociology project, led by Michael Burawoy of UCB. Or the even more committed Sociologists without Frontiers.

Elsewhere, I’ve endorsed Klein’s work as a journalist/activist collaborator. I could also mention Christian Parenti, as socially conscious journalist cum historian who happens to hold a Ph.D. in sociology from the London School of Economics. There’s the collaborative project Reporters without Frontiers. Or the ICIJ (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists), an offshoot of the Center for Public Integrity.

What characterizes all of these examples is the combination of the metis of a particular intellectual trade with organized action. The discipline of specialized training with the discipline of committed involvement in an ongoing praxis-process.

To present the alternative--as is so often done--as one between resigned quietism and ethical consumerism (both of which are thoroughly individual endeavors) testifies to the current impoverishment of political imagination, which is what I believe Zizek is trying to challenge.

At any rate, these examples are meant to be engaged with, not simply emulated. To paraphrase Julien Gracq’s comment about art: in politics there are no rules, only examples. Choose your own choice. But the important thing is to choose. As long as affirmation or negation take place solely within the abstract realm of consciousness or theory, history is effectively at an end, disillusionment is inevitable.


Joseph writes:

H. writes that I responded “by exhibiting denial” to the suggestion that academia upholds middle-class values. He quotes me on the necessity of academic thought to class-consciousness, and on the association of academia (at other times, in other places) with the aristocracy and the proletariat, then writes: "Aristocracy? Yes, if by that we mean the haute bourgeoisie. Proletariat? Never, except in words. But Rich’s suggestion clearly touched a nerve, which is telling." First of all, don’t psychologize. With a debate like this, one is either passionately involved, or merely condescending. Everything touches a nerve, as H. notes at the very beginning of his post.

Actually, I wasn’t trying to psychologize. My claim that Rich’s comment touched a nerve was not directed at Joseph’s response but at tomemos’, which I immediately quoted:

I’ve gotten well sick of having my values described as “middle class.”

I felt the language there was strong enough to warrant an emotional characterization. But I should say that I didn’t take this emotion as indicative of a strictly personal state of mind, but rather of an impersonal habitus characteristic of academics. (And I am not including myself out here.)

At any rate, the argument that was coming through to me in this discussion was that the academy can’t possibly serve middle-class interests because it promotes radical values in its curriculum. And I just don’t think that argument holds. To me, modern academia is governed by a structural contradiction that forces it to effectively function in the interests of a class society: on the one hand, yes, it has come to promote radical democratic values through its curriculum, but on the other hand it continues to frustrate the social realization of those values through its admissions process, funding, accreditation system, administrative bureaucracy, relations to government and industry, etc.

I acknowledged that tomemos held universal access to education as an ideal, but the fact that the institutional mechanisms I mention above were nowhere addressed in the discussion (except maybe by Rich) as essential impediments to that ideal was what prompted my critique.

It’s also what prompted my mention of Bourdieu, to which Joseph responds:

this is the moment that gave me the most heartache, because if these debates, ostensibly about human suffering, become about a more serious return to this or that thinker, then their objective truth is really academic will-to-power, and nothing else.

No, it wasn’t my intention to engage in some kind of academic will-to-power. Certainly, I myself am not immune to many of Bourdieu’s criticisms of academic intellectuals. For instance, it doesn’t take a lot of procrustean butchery to fit me into his category of the “adolescent,” i.e. the grad student in a relatively marginalized field of the social-sciences/humanities whose attitude of revolt adheres to a kind of utopian voluntarism. All the same, his work has made me vigilant about the complicity of the academy in the reproduction of social and economic inequality, and the need to examine empirically the specific coordinates of that complicity. Unfortunately, that’s a point that often gets lost in these debates. I think that the fullest knowledge of a situation, theoretically-framed but empirically-grounded, is an indispensable aid to action engaged with it. For me, that’s become one of the essential tasks of the ongoing project of enlightenment: to re-synthesize emancipatory reason and instrumental reason. And that’s been the chief motivation for me in starting this blog, to construct/dispense knowledge of our concrete situation in all its concreteness, not simply in terms of those trends that are negating our possibilities, but more especially in terms of those that are negating back in active and concrete ways.

Back to the academy. To the comments on its history, Joseph responds:

“Academia” is not limited to the last thirty years in the United States and Europe. There have been academies wholly devoted to revolutionary Marxist thought, with Russia (at least during Lenin’s tenure) and Cuba being the most obvious examples. If the academy was merely a tool of the haute bourgeoisie, then it would have to have been simultaneous with the advent of the bourgeoisie and market capitalism. Its history goes much further back.

I’d agree, the history of the academy is a long and complex one. And as far back as Abelard, there’s been something of a radical core to the project. The word university itself refers to the fact the first academies (in Europe) were legally-recognized corporate-collective organizations expressing common interest between teachers and students over against establishments like the church and the state. And the emergence of the important notion of “objective” knowledge is certainly tied to the emergence of academics as a distinct social group.

Nevertheless, for much of its history the university has served to produce professional elites (doctors, lawyers, theologians, scientists, engineers, managers, analysts, etc.) culled largely from the ranks of the third estate and whose expertise is made to serve the interests of church, state, or (more recently) organized capital. Call them organic intellectuals or mandarins or state nobility or what have you, but the function that these professionals have served and continue to serve (and not necessarily consciously) is to ensure that the system continues to work in both its hegemonic and in its direct mode of domination. (I’d argue this characterization also holds for the USSR, which to my mind was not a revolutionary communist society, but a bureaucratic state-capitalist one.)

Furthermore, with the rise, starting in the Renaissance, of alternative centers of learning/knowledge-production (the humanist schools, the learned/scientific societies, the salons, the military academies, the vocational schools), the academy has striven to defend its privileged position in the educational field and to maintain the cachet of the knowledge it produces/disseminates by restricting access to it even further. The push towards the “democratization” of university education that began in earnest in the early 20th century has certainly posed a significant challenge to the elitist nature of the academy, but nominal diversity alone hasn’t yet radically altered either the academy’s socio-economic structure or its socio-economic function.

I’ll admit, I’m being schematic here, but I think I’m expressing a kernel of truth, which is to some extent confirmed by the socio-economic issues explicitly confronted by the alternative higher-education projects I referenced.

As to those projects, Joseph writes:

These admirable people aren’t risking their jobs; they’re founding universities in countries that invest substantially more in higher education per capita.

Onfray refused to take the classic French academic cursus honorum. His university is financially supported in part from the proceeds from the sale of his many books, most of which are written for a general, not scholarly audience. He also teaches at his university, offering courses on the counter-history of philosophy. Eschewing the safety of a conventional post in the academic establishment, he’s self-employing his capital and his labor together in a project to empower the disadvantaged. NIACE is an independent, non-profit organization; its members include people like Jane Thompson, formerly of the working-class-aligned Ruskin College, Oxford, who has spent her life devoted not to achieving tenure but to enacting the principles of Paulo Freire’s “pedagogy of the oppressed.”

As to national investment in education: both of the ventures I cited aim to address deficiencies in their respective national educational systems, and to do so outside of establishment initiative, financing, or regulation. So while it’s true that in England and particularly in France education in general is far more socialized than in the US and receives far more state subsidization, I don’t see how differential per capita investment in education between US and EU really has anything to do with the issue.

What the issue is really about is summed up neatly by Sartre: “It is evident that the rejection of the principle of authority by the masses themselves and the exercise of a constant auto-critique as well as a critique directed against institutions and politics, implies that greater and greater social groups have access to culture…” And I truly believe that that has to be a ground-up operation, not a top-down one.

Which brings us to...


To my remarks about materialism, Joseph writes:

art is not a “function” of economics, except when the excesses of literary production and consumption are glossed over with superficial appeals to the markets that currently organize them.

I never used the word “function”; in fact, I explicitly rejected economic determinism in its most reductive form. Nor did I say that art wasn’t important, or that it lacks an essential, critical function. Though it’s not my field, I happen to teach literature as a TA, and if were to be stuck on a desert island, and had to choose between having with me Capital or Moby-Dick, you can rest assured I’d pick the latter. If anything, I think the problem is that the negation that art can effect is too much of a free-floating negation. I intervened in this part of the discussion because it seemed to me that once again the critique of political economy was being shunted in favor of what continental philosophy has already been doing for decades: a kind of guerilla art criticism which, while brilliant and inspiring, has hitherto not been able to organize effective interventions in what Spengler* called the “big actualit[ies]” of our world-historical moment, the hard realities of capital markets, labor conditions, real estate, bureaucracy, the military, the criminal justice system, the production of technology, etc. I think that the emancipatory values art can embody can be activated only in conjunction with work towards changing the social conditions that impede the realization of those values, and that means foregrounding issues of political economy in our analyses.

*I recognize Spengler’s right-wing pedigree. But I still think he had some interesting things to say.


About my rejection of the “culture war” paradigm in current thinking about American politics, Joseph writes:

This is circular logic, since the Republican Party imposed discipline on itself after first moving farther right, and since one of the “means of acquiring power” was the rhetorical re-shaping of American political discourse.

He then goes on to say, in response to my characterization of the Green Party as a viable third-party:

Nothing, in the history of leftist politics since my 18th birthday, has made me angrier than Nader’s bright-white campaign and his refusal to concede when his failure was assured. George W. Bush’s victory can’t be blamed on Nader, any more than it can be entirely blamed on the corrupt decision of our Supreme Court. But Nader could have tried to prevent it by urging voters in swing states to vote for Gore. The fact that he couldn’t win five percent in solidly Democratic states is a testament to the Green Party’s lack of diversity and vision.

In my defense: I don’t think my argument here is circular, for the same reason I don’t buy the argument that Nader had some role to play in the loss of the DP in 2000. I’ll admit that manipulation of public discourse has been an important weapon in the RP arsenal and has had pernicious effects--I didn’t really mean to dismiss it outright in my original comments. But political discourse has to be situated in relation to the employment of non-discursive means to seize/maintain power. A random sampling of some of those means would include: direct-mailing, media-consolidation, redistricting, selective disenfranchisement (e.g. of Florida prisoners), sweetheart corporate fundraising deals, tactical lawsuits (like the one that brought the election before the Supreme Court), selective enforcement of the Voters’ Rights Act, coordination of federal and corporate policy (esp. through integration of membership of lobbying industry and of federal regulatory bodies), executive legislation (bypassing of deliberative lawmaking through regular use of executive decrees and administrative regulations), use of secrecy to inhibit public scrutiny, partisan federal funding policy/guidelines, etc. etc.

But while the current situation is bad, I don’t think that justifies romanticizing the Clinton-Gore era DP, which oversaw, among other things: the Telecommunications Act, which enabled the current system of corporate media consolidation; NAFTA; the Financial Services Modernization Act, which did away with the New Deal-era regulations prohibiting the integration of banking, insurance, and brokerage services and has enabled oligopolistic control of capital markets; the replacement of the AFDC program with that of the TAFN; the use of the US military in “humanitarian” missions like Somalia and Kosovo, which set the precedent for the preemptive war policy of the Bush Administration; etc. Whatever its faults, at least the Green Party has stood up against these very things, and I find that promising.

BTW, if the idea of ideological discipline imposed for the sake of ensuring the victory of a hierarchically organized party is truly problematic, shouldn’t the accusations by mainstream DP liberals that the Green Party has “betrayed the cause” by involving themselves in politics bother us? Doesn’t that smack just a little of Bolshevism?


In response to comments I made about postmodernism, Joseph writes:

This shoehorns me, or me and some portion of the commenters on that entry, into the world of the postmodern. Yes, I find the single-minded eroticism of certain postmodern systems rather one-sided and lame. However, I also find the asexual sterility of capitalism quite odd. But if the point here is that the hungry want feeding, I’m sure I’m not alone in finding that a truly perverse way of disagreeing with me, since it is absolutely beyond dispute and comprehensible to a six-year old.

I’m sorry for the snarkiness of the remarks I made on that subject, and I thank Joseph for putting me in my place. It wasn’t meant as a personal attack. It was only meant to point out the way in which theory itself can obscure the reality its supposed to enable us to grapple with. How objective reality somehow becomes superfluous in theory’s functioning as a discourse, and thus inhibits its revolutionary potential. My motivation for intervening in this discussion was primarily to draw attention to essential realities that for some reason were being passed over in silence. In all the talk about the impotence of continental theory, no one brought up the existence of alternative discourses and practices. In all the talk about the social status of higher education, no one brought up the actual institutional mechanisms of its functioning. In all the talk about political action, no one brought up the human suffering that supposedly such action is aimed to eliminate. I don’t buy the argument that these things are so “obvious” that we don’t need to keep them at the forefront of our thinking. It’s the most obvious that demands the most sustained attention, the most intense scrutiny.

Friday, July 20, 2007

There's a Specter Haunting Theory--

--the specter of existentialism….

I want to thank larvalsubjects for taking the time to respond to my previous post. Again, I apologize for the irate tone I had adopted there; my goal sincerely was to open up dialogue, not shut it down, and I’m happy that I succeeded despite my own heavy-handed efforts. I also apologize to larvalsubjects for his inability to directly comment here--I’m new to blogging and failed to realize that my default settings prohibited anyone without a blogger account to post a comment. That’s been changed.

Below are some of my responses to his responses:

Larvalsubjects writes:

All too often values of discipline and sacrifice, rhetoric of discipline and sacrifice, have been associated with fascist, dictatorial, and totalitarian regimes. Are these really the sorts of doors that we wish to open? Why not instead the valorization of values such as equality, justice, fraternity, freedom?

I agree, equality, justice, fraternity, freedom are indeed wonderful things, and should be valued first and foremost. But what does it actually mean to value equality, justice, fraternity, freedom? What value do those values have if they’re not given determinate content through praxis, through tranformative action oriented within the horizon of a collective project? How can they not be otherwise rendered untrue? As Sartre says:

the only way to determine the value of [an] affection is, precisely, to perform an act which confirms and defines it.

But in performing such an action one must simultaneously take into account the fact that

man is in an organized situation in which he himself is involved. Through his choice, he involves all mankind, and he can not avoid making a choice…

Larvalsubjects overlooks the central point in my defense of Zizek, which is that in its present form, the hedonism of the global North, both as a value and as a practice, negates its own emancipatory potential, because the social production that subtends it entails the systematic exploitation/deprivation of others. Refusal to engage with that fact--to recognize this “organized situation”--amounts to condoning it. I.e. consciously registering the facticity of a situation means taking responsibility for it--which means in turn that if I fail to do anything to change it I must accept it as if it were my choice. The point I felt Zizek to be making in his review was that, given this actual situation of global capitalism that we find ourselves in, the truth of emancipatory hedonism can only be found in the form of its opposite, action qua discipline and sacrifice. But far from being ends in and of themselves (as in the case of fascism), the value of discipline and sacrifice here is determined solely within the horizon of a totalizing project whose real end is establishing, in Sartre’s words, “for everyone a margin of real freedom beyond the production of life” (his emphasis, not mine). The values of discipline and sacrifice can be emancipatory when--but I’ll agree only when--they take the creation of a truly universal, democratic hedonism as their content. I.e. the only thing to be sacrificed here is our complicity in a system that exploits others while asking us to sacrifice nothing except our willingness to work towards liberating those others from that exploitation. To reclaim that willingness--to sacrifice the sacrifice--means “disciplining” both our desire and our labor, which means nothing more than taking back control of our desire and our labor, something that can be done only at great risk--like risking the failure of simultaneously securing, in our careers, a comfortable material existence for ourselves. That’s not an abstract risk, but one presented to us by our concrete situation (qua academics, or whatever other profession we’re involved in).

And until we recognize this situation in all its concreteness and take responsibility for it, the objective substance of our existence will continue to effectively negate our values, however laudable they may be in the abstract.

So if there’s a theoretical issue here, for me it’s not one of a choice of master-signifier--or if it is, it’s about the relation of the master-signifier to actual praxis. The issue, that is, is recognizing the dialectical relations of valuation and action, belief and socio-material reality, and their effective contradiction in the present situation. This is the essence of Marx’s critique of ideology:

[The] transformation of history into world-history is not indeed a mere abstract act on the part of the ‘self-consciousness,’ the world-spirit, or of any other metaphysical specter, but a quite material, empirically verifiable act, an act the proof of which every individual furnishes as he comes and goes, eats, drinks and clothes himself….

Cp. this with Locke’s solution to the problem of the perpetuation of the social contract, i.e. the fact that generations that did not take part in the original formation of the contract are nevertheless still bound by it: every time you take advantage of the roads (a secondary effect of the conditions of order and property established by the contract), you’re implicitly ratifying the contract.

Marx again:

[The material conception of history] is not, like the idealistic view of history, in every period to look for a category, but remains constantly on the real ground of history; it does not explain practice from the idea but explains the formation of ideas from material practice and accordingly it comes to the conclusion that all forms and products of consciousness cannot be dissolved by mental criticism…but only by the practical overthrow of the actual social relations which give rise to this idealistic humbug; that not criticism but revolution is the driving force of history….

The sum of productive forces…is the real basis of what philosophers have conceived as ‘substance’ and ‘essence of man,’ and what they have deified and attacked: a real basis which is not in the least disturbed, in its effect and influence on the development of men, by the fact that these philosophers revolt against it as ‘self-consciousness’ and the ‘Unique.’

Zizek is thus simply iterating this basic Hegelian-Marxian point here when, on other occasions, he brings up all those examples about European toilets, Tibetan prayer wheels, canned laughter etc: regardless of how much the social and material determinations of our situation might contradict what we “really” (that is, inwardly) believe, regardless of how much we might inwardly disavow them, until we actively strive to transform them, they’ll constitute the effective substance of our beliefs. This is also the idea behind Zizek’s fascination with sci-fi movies about alien possession--disavowed, our own objective existence seems to inhabit us as an alien other, compelling us do and say things we subjectively reject. This idea can be traced back at least to Augustine’s theory of the diremption of the will into free will and the “will” of habit, which contradicts the “free” will: through sin (i.e. loss of total commitment to God, fragmentation of the will through pursuit of centrifugating distractions) our outward existence becomes an infernal machine that we have no control over; we are reduced to being the impotent ghost that haunts it (cp also Dante’s characterization of Satan qua windmill in the Inferno).

This was also the point I was trying to make in my last post in my reading of the Lord-Bondsman relation.

Foucault’s notion of disciplinization--that disciplinization works by dissociating body and mind, alienating the productive forces of the body and inserting them in a network of power where they can function independent of our conscious control--can be read as a further version of the thesis, or as its application on a radical socio-historical level.

In fact, if we perform a somewhat artificial operation and make the “body” in Foucault‘s analysis coterminous with the global population, the hedonism of late consumer capitalism does not constitute the negation of disciplinization at all, but on the contrary is its affirmation in true global form, bringing together in mutual dependency (but also mutual misrecognition) the “liberation” (in the global North) of compulsive behavior under the sign of inwardly multiplying desire and the enslavement (in the global South) of free behavior under the sign of externally imposed necessity. In Augustinian terms, the global North is the sinful habit-body entrapping the global South’s free historical subject.

Back to Zizek, then, in our world-historical situation, the proper negation of the negation of disciplinization would not be its rejection in favor of hedonism--which already in itself subjects us to a regime of disciplinization--but rather the radical appropriation of discipline--i.e. appropriation of discipline for the freely self-determined end of establishing global democracy, bringing subject and body back in alignment with one another.

Of course it should be made clear that in consciously choosing discipline and sacrifice as the proper form of action (though not its content), reflexivity is not thereby excluded. No one--least of all Zizek, I like to believe--wants to create a movement of blind obedience, of mindless, totalitarian conformity. I certainly don’t. That’s why I argue that the true re-appropriation of discipline renders it self-reflexive and self-determining--a creative form of conditioning for praxis. But I think it is important to recognize in any case that the ungrounded and ungroundable choice to commit is the precondition for any meaningful reflexivity. So I agree with larvalsubjects when he writes:

The time will never be right, and certainly the elements populating the situation will never suggest that the time is ripe for revolution.

We cannot know what we want to do until we’ve taken the fateful step and begun doing it. As Hegel put it:

The individual who is going to act seems…to find himself in a circle in which each moment already presupposes the other, and thus he seems unable to find a beginning, because he only gets to know his original nature, which must be his End, from the deed, while, in order to act, he must have that End beforehand. But for that very reason he has to start immediately, and, whatever the circumstances, without further scruples about beginning, means, or End, proceed to action….

In Sartre’s terms:

the revelation of a situation is effected in and through the praxis which changes it. We do not hold that this first act of becoming conscious of the situation is the originating source of an action; we see in it a necessary moment of the action itself--the action, in the course of its accomplishment, provides its own clarification.

The ironic thing is--and this was the point I was trying to make in my original post--people have already proceeded to action, and the action has begun to clarify the situation. I wasn’t trying to criticize larvalsubjects on this point in my original post, and I’m glad that we’re on the same page. But the truth is, the “people who do not yet exist” are us. What’s left to us is to get involved. At the least to enter into active dialogue--I really do want to stress that option, as a concrete possibility of acting. I think of Chomsky, who keeps up continuous private correspondence with various activist groups, including locally-based, socially-responsible religious groups. That’s a good start, I think.

As to larvalsubjects’ comment:

What interests me is how these groups emerged at all, what affects they mobilize, how they have managed to motivate people, what new sorts of subjectivities they produce, and how they have effectively challenged, and arguably transformed, various institutions whether at the governmental level or at the corporate level, and so on. This is what I find missing in so much of the political thought I read.

I wholeheartedly agree: these are essential questions, perhaps the essential questions. I think Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason is an excellent source of conceptual tools for thinking about them; it’s a shame it’s been so utterly neglected. I would just warn that pursuing these questions for their own sake, without commitment, risks us falling back into an impotent sociological formalism.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Point Counter Point

The present post was written in response to a discussion a few months back over at The Kugelmass Episodes, which should be consulted first before reading on, else my remarks not make entire sense. Kugelmass is a grad student, like myself. I'll say at the start that both his initial post and the ensuing discussion are thoughtful, and I'm sympathetic to some of the sentiments expressed. That said, many of the arguments I found there touched nerves, and I felt prompted to reply. If my tone occasionally comes off as cantankerous, I apologize, but I think these are issues that are worthy of being passionate about. I've encountered these kinds of arguments elsewhere, and would go so far as to characterize them, within certain quarters of grad school/academia, as pervasive. So it shouldn't be thought that I'm singling out this discussion and its participants for criticism; on the contrary, I'm addressing this particular discussion only because it so neatly encapsulates representative currents in recent left-academic thinking, and thus affords me the opportunity to clarify my own positions. And for that, I'm grateful.

I've organized my notes under major themes.


Joseph writes:

It should be obvious that the term “radical” is now in trouble. The small cluster of blogs, including K-Punk and Antigram, that are most involved with Slavoj Zizek’s “radical” thought (more so, even, than Larval Subjects or Adam Kotsko) have been responding with intelligence and disappointment to Zizek’s review of the film 300, which he thought was a great example of discipline (the good guys) battling hedonism (the bad guys). Of course, Zizek could have done himself a favor by simply not publishing the review, but there is a larger problem here — in the face of a market-driven overload of meaningful pop culture, Zizek has begun to revert to an ideological stance that is exactly that of Vladimir Lenin circa What Is To Be Done?, and thus has made himself politically irrelevant despite his semblance of up-to-the-moment cultural engagement.

To my mind, the paroxysms of outrage that Zizek’s recent review of 300 provoked amongst certain members of the left academic blogosphere have only confirmed the basic truth of his argument that a truly progressive prioritization of values, in the current postmodern academic environment, is effectively impossible, because no one is willing to take responsibility for what a totally committed choice to pursue real social justice might actually entail--like, say, loss of job security. “If revolutionary action doesn’t include working full-time towards academic tenure--then no, thanks!”

As I took it, Zizek’s whole point in his review of 300 was that, while this may appear to be a false choice to us--i.e. securing a comfortable academic liberal bourgeois lifestyle vs. committing ourselves to political engagement/struggle--it’s not for them. For the majority of the world, it’s not a choice at all. Destitution is a necessity. So which side of history are we on? Zizek’s point is not to valorize sacrifice in itself, but to recognize that our “hedonism” is, in its current state, dependent upon the deprivation of others. The real political goal that Zizek is advocating here is not a fascistic state founded on a discipline fetish--how strange!--but a world where, to paraphrase/parody Marx, the hedonism of each is the condition for the hedonism of all. But to work towards realizing that project we’d have to surrender the privileged hedonism we enjoy now--subtended as it is by military imperialism and the exploitative practices of global capital--to enjoy a more democratic hedonism later.

To preempt the potential ad hominem attacks on Zizek, I’ll admit that there’s a certain disjunct in Zizek between his position of enunciation--e.g. the extravagantly paid guest lectures, the handsomely remunerated piece for the Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue, the Brazilian super-model girlfriend, etc.--and the enunciated content, but that doesn’t invalidate the content. And at any rate, it’s far less of a disjunct with Zizek than with most academics of a leftist bent, especially in the US. This contention holds even more for Badiou, whom LarvalSubjects criticizes here for being skimpy on the concrete details of radical commitment, offering only “platitudes of fidelity” instead. Maybe on the printed page, but in real life since ‘68 Badiou has been involved with activist groups like the post-Maoist l'Organisation Politique, who have pushed for, among other things, immigrant rights.


LS writes:

I think this is a problem across the board in continentally influenced forms of theory, whether we’re talking about literary theory, political theory, philosophy, and so on. Often I find myself reading texts that are pervaded by some grand vision of revolutionary political transformation and I find myself thinking of my neighbors, my students, family members, existing infrastructure, etc., and I just wonder how such a grand vision can even be enacted concretely in practice. I then find myself suspecting that these political theories are more about ego and being superior, than about enacting any sort of real world change and are more about shoring up one’s academic standing and cred than the world.

Instead of continuing to parse Lacan, Deleuze, Foucault, et al, perhaps we should start devoting some of our attention to the abundant situated literature that’s being produced by the very real social movements we academics for some reason continue to strenuously deny exist. For instance, you might check out some of the websites for the activist groups listed under the “Contacts” section of Naomi Klein’s website You might also check out web resources like SolidarityEconomy and Anarcho-Syndicalist Review.

The oppressed aren’t stupid and they aren’t mute. They don’t need speaking for. They’re not a given “in-itself” waiting for us hyper-educated academic “for-ourselves” to properly theorize into a meaningful project. It smacks of obscene arrogance to think that the marginalized, the exploited, the oppressed of the world are incapable of reflecting on their situation in a sophisticated and nuanced way. Let’s stop treating them as inert objects, and start listening to them, start recognizing what they have to say. And, who knows, maybe even enter into dialogue with them. This is where I part ways with Zizek and his advocacy of the top-down Leninist intelligentsia qua vanguard model. I’m with Sartre and Habermas, Hardt and Negri instead: mutual recognition + intersubjective communication amongst groups-in-fusion= common value formation, i.e. the only horizon of a truly democratic, emancipatory, and transformative praxis.


LS asks:

While it’s difficult to directly demonstrate the relationship between transformations in ideas and transformations in political and economic structures, certainly these intellectual transformations produced through writing and teaching play a deeply important role in historical dynamics, no?

And elsewhere, in response to Rich’s suggestion that the academy effectively serves bourgeois interests, tomemos writes:

I didn’t say that teaching is inherently politically functional, only that it can and should be so.

Certainly, education can be a form of engaged praxis, and one of the most important. Nevertheless, if we’re really convinced the masses need our education, why settle for assuming a pre-established research/teaching position within the current structures of academia, which are clearly designed to reproduce existing social hierarchies, not subvert them? Despite the “radicalization” of US academic curricula, the socio-economics of higher education (as well as of the secondary educational system that feeds it) are actually becoming less democratic.

Nevertheless, in response to Rich’s characterization of academic values as “middle-class” values, Joseph exhibits denial:

The academy does not represent “middle-class” values; frankly, without the academic traditions of sociology, political science, literature, and history, neither you nor anyone else would have the slightest idea what a phrase like “middle-class values” was supposed to mean. At different times, in different places, the academy has tried to shoulder the perspective of the proletariat [???] or tried to defend a notion of aristocracy.

Aristocracy? Yes, if by that we mean the haute bourgeoisie. Proletariat? Never, except in words. But Rich’s suggestion clearly touched a nerve, which is telling. Tomemos writes:

I’ve gotten well sick of having my values described as “middle class.”

To which Rich replies, naively:

one of the relics of cultural Marxism that I’d like to toss in the dustbin is the strange idea that middle-class values are bad.

In truth, both tomemos and Rich are correct here. Middle class values aren’t bad, per se. But as Hegel or Marx would say, the truth of those values lies in their democratic universality, which has been negated by the actually existing middle-(to upper-middle-)class. It’s the abstractness of the privileged expression of bourgeois values--in themselves universal--that renders them untrue, not the values themselves. So, for example, freedom (a quintessential bourgeois value) is good, but “freedom without opportunity”--which is the way this value has so far been concretely realized--“is a devil’s gift,” in Chomsky’s pithy formulation.

In theory, at least, tomemos recognizes this:

Ideally I’d want the whole world to have (or at least have access to) the sort of education and self-consciousness you describe as “middle-class.”

Key word here, however, is ideally. Tomemos appears not to recognize that the restricted access that presently characterizes higher education--the abolishment of which is summarily relegated to the realm of the utopian--effectively renders his values false, no matter how sincerely he holds them. And that makes them determinately bourgeois. As does denying one’s objective complicity in the system one subjectively rejects, which happens to be an excellent example of those "middle-class habits of thought" that Joseph claims he "wouldn’t know how to populate…with content."

The negation of the truth of bourgeois values in academic education is effected through concrete mechanisms designed to reproduce disparate distributions of capital (cultural as well as economic): linking of local public school funding to property taxes; linking of federal public school funding to individual school test scores; use in admissions evaluations of competitive aptitude tests, which favor those who can afford the costly private prep courses; exorbitant (and ever increasing) tuition, even for public schools, which necessitates for many students either the taking on of second jobs or heavy students loans w/substantial rates of interest (subsidized by the gov.t but ultimately benefiting private financial institutions); the vertical integration of academy and business, especially in the sciences (public-private partnerships that gear research/curricula towards current human resource needs of tech and biotech industries); use of BA/BS’s and MA/MS/MBA’s to scale pay; etc. etc.

So while tomemos can complain that we left-leaning academics are

accused of being fifth columnists every time we turn around

the reality is that until we stop challenging merely the curriculum (abstract values), and start challenging these concrete mechanisms of social reproduction--which effectively negate any emancipatory potential that change in curriculum might bring with it (“Think critically! So you can get a good grade in this course, keep up your GPA, graduate cum laude, and get a good entry-level job at an investment firm…”)--what real threat do we pose?

Maybe we should take a page from Michel Onfray and his founding of a free university in the south of France aimed primarily at the working-class and immigrants. The British organization NIACE is pursing similar ends, with its project of “emancipatory learning.” To pursue these alternatives would be to make what Zizek would call truly “free” choices: choices that breaks out of the horizon of existing choices. But how many of us are willing to risk our jobs that way?


CR contends:

economics by itself is truly, truly bad at helping us understand what it is that we want to do and why it is that we want to do it.

Later, and in a similar spirit, Joseph writes:

the exclusive focus on the economy still tends to pull us away from literature. Radical movements that tackle issues of race and gender do intersect with literature and philosophy, and may not be specifically economic in nature.

Specifically economic in nature? Perhaps not. But if they aren’t fundamentally economic in nature, how can they be considered truly radical? Marx was right--economics, understood as the “mode of production of material life,” is the fundamental determinant of our existence. That’s not “economism”; it’s the simple recognition of fact. The struggle for subjective recognition must be simultaneously the struggle to control the means of reproducing one’s objective material existence. That was Hegel’s monumental insight in The Phenomenology of Spirit--the full significance of which of course was not lost on Marx: the Lord-Bondsman situation is mutually untenable: the Lord refuses to employ his own labor in reproducing his own objective existence, while the Bondsman must alienate his own labor for the reproduction of the material existence of the Lord. Only when the two labor together, equally in the production of a common material existence can full and mutual recognition occur.

Postmodernists like to dream of a society consisting primarily of values, symbols, desires, subjectivities, and discourses referencing only themselves, a society where the material constraints of existence have become immaterial. I’d love to know where to find it. The de-industrialization of the US economy and the outsourcing of “real” production to the Third World has no doubt made this rather perverse fantasy more plausible. But it’s still false. True, many postmodernists express intense interest in the “body” as a determinant of the real. But Eagleton’s quip is apropos here--that postmodernists are only concerned with the body when it’s erotic or coupling, not when it’s starving or laboring.

Only a reductive take on the notion of economic determination conceives it as a reductive one. Determination negates transcendence, but doesn’t eliminate it. But there can be no transcendence, no freedom, without a determinate situation to transcend, without facticity. The real issue is not whether material/economic relations are important, but how they are important, in any given historical moment. In particular it’s crucial to understand the ways in which material/economic relations serve to mediate consciousness (self and self, self and other) and thus to simultaneously perpetuate social violence (symbolic as well as real) and suggest the means of overcoming such violence.

It’s ironic--but also revealing--the sense that academics have that they are somehow immune from such mediation. Apparently Bourdieu is less popular now in grad school than Deleuze, Zizek, or Agamben. But we’d do well to take him seriously, and submit our current habitus to scrutiny. CR is right to point out the narrow market for academic works, but the question isn’t just who are we producing for, but also what makes our production possible?

Finally, Rich asks:

What is the current economics that the left would suggest? In terms that would tempt people to replace the somewhat still workable system we have now?

In fact, such alternative economic models already exist. I’d recommend starting with Robin Hahnel’s book Economic Justice and Democracy. I’d also suggest the website Z-net, which is a forum devoted to envisioning practical means towards realizing a more participatory economy. You might also be interested in the economics-oriented radio programming of the Doug Henwood’s Left Business Observer. Finally, there’s the extensive economic analysis on the leftist blog-zine Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice.

Apropos comments by CR and Joseph: economic ideas do influence reality, but only in conjunction with political power. As Zizek put it, ironically paraphrasing Clinton: “It’s the political economy, stupid!” The neo-liberal rhetoric on the right about free-markets etc. has effectively masked capital’s necessary manipulation of political power for economic ends. It’s time the left in the US woke up to that. The state’s the prize--it always has been. On this score, take a look at economist Dean Baker’s book The Conservative Nanny State, available free online as an e-book. To get a more detailed sense of the ongoing cash-nexus between private interests and public policy, check out the excellent in-depth coverage to be found at The Center for Public Integrity.


Joseph writes:

I should add, while we’re on the subject of “fact,” that the Democratic Party has had the facts on its side for my entire life, and nonetheless lost power at a moment when the consequences were absolutely horrific. They lost power because they were consistently unable to put the facts in a compelling rhetorical frame, and found themselves trapped within discourses of “morality” and “responsibility” invented by reactionary politicians, conservative think-tanks, and other wordsmiths.

Please, let’s put a stop to this whole “culture war” argument concerning the failure of the Democratic Party in the US. The DP didn’t lose because it was “trapped in a discourse”; it lost because the Republican Party was ruthless in imposing discipline on itself and in exploiting any and all means of acquiring power. And let’s not fool ourselves: the DP may not be as fully in the pocket of Big Business as the RP--indeed, the “fair and balanced” lobbying policy that capital used to pursue has largely been jettisoned in the past half-decade in favor of exclusive RP sponsorship--but it certainly isn’t innocent. You don’t need Chomsky--though Profits over People is a good primer--to realize the complicity of the DP in the construction of our current imperial neo-liberal (dis)order. For sure, that began under Clinton, in the ‘90s. But pace Thomas Frank, exactly when was the Golden Age of labor-oriented DP politics? The Cold War and the “liberal consensus” effectively killed internationalism in the US. It’s only been in the past decade or so--i.e. concomitant with the rise of neo-liberal globalization--that labor has started to revive it. And is it a coincidence that this revival has more or less coincided with the emergence of the first viable third party on the left in over a century, the Green Party?

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Superstructure, Meet Base

In recent years, Naomi Klein has emerged as one of Left journalism’s most trenchant critics of late capitalist economy. Her website is available at:

In her 2000 book No Logo, Klein confesses to having been, in college, a acolyte of postmodern cultural criticism, rallying militantly for more democratic “representation” in late capitalist culture, while ignoring the persistence of concrete socio-economic inequalities. Ironically, it was the very successes of PC agitation in the early to mid-90s that ultimately inspired to her convert to an older, more economically-oriented Leftism. She came to realize that achieving greater “diversity” in campus curricula or magazine adds didn’t exactly make for a more equitable society, when most minorities continued to be denied access to tangible means of economic and political self-determination, when the gap between rich and poor continued to widen, and when the concentration of capital continued to reach historic magnitudes. In fact, she discovered in the victories of Gen-X demands for cultural pluralism a kind of repressive desublimation at work: global capital figured out that it could make the face of capitalism more "funky," democratic, and multicultural--and thus more mass appealing and legitimate--without having to change the underlying realities of exclusion and exploitation. In other words, nineties' identity politics did more than fail to subvert capitalist hegemony; it actually collaborated in designing its most recent atavism.*

In the past four or five years, Klein has spent her time researching what she terms “disaster capitalism”; the fruit of that research has been both insightful and disturbing. Through investigations into the handling of post-invasion Iraq, post-tsunami Asia, and post-Katrina New Orleans, she’s uncovered global capitalism’s latest, and most pernicious strategy: exploiting disaster to implement radical neo-liberal policy reforms. A book on this theme will appear in September; this article, which appeared in The Nation in 2005, offers a précis of her basic arguments:

Klein’s angle on the Iraq war, to my mind, is among the most penetrating to have yet appeared. In her September 2004 article, “Baghdad Year Zero,” she makes the compelling case that not only was the war initiated to fulfill the neo-con dream of establishing a laissez-faire utopia, but the very policies that have been implemented in furtherance of this dream are one of the chief causes of the violence that continually threatens both our soldiers and the nascent Iraqi democracy, not to mention hundreds of thousands of everyday Iraqi citizens. Her article, which appeared in Harper’s, is available online at:

Subsequent to this article, in early 2005, Klein gave a public lecture that expanded upon her thesis of a relationship between neo-liberal ambitions, the Iraqi occupation, and the insurgency. While some of the material will be familiar from the Harper's article, much of it--including her discussion of the suppression of spontaneous democratic activity in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, and of the true significance of the 2004 Iraqi elections--is new, and worth checking out. The lecture is available in ten parts on youtube. Here’s the link to the first part:

The importance of Klein’s work on Iraq is that it makes clear that all this current talk in our public discourse that blames the problems there on a putative “culture of dependency” or on long-standing sectarian hatred is ultimately a screen. While Klein herself has admitted that the situation in Iraq may very well have degenerated to the point of intractability (and she was writing in 2004), the unavoidable conclusion to be drawn from her investigations is that no viable solution is truly conceivable that doesn’t confront first and foremost the fundamental economic realities there and the forces determining those realities, chiefly the neo-liberal policies that were initiated during the regime of Paul Bremer and the CPA.


*Thomas Frank, in One Market Under God, offers a different, but equally compelling critique of this 90s form of “market populism.” On the complicity, conscious or otherwise, of “radical” postmodern academics and neo-liberal ideology, see Chapter 7 of One Market Under God, “The Brand and the Intellectuals.”

The Black Box

About a month ago, Steve Shapin, historian and sociologist of science, wrote a favorable review of The Shock of the Old, a new book on the history of technology by David Edgerton. Here’s the link, for those of you who are interested:

Shapin used to be faculty at my university, but he left us a few years back for a more prestigious post at Harvard. Now, having achieved the pinnacle of the academic cursus honorum, he’s also begun contributing occasional pieces for the New Yorker, where his review of Edgerton appeared.

Although Edgerton is a specialist in military technology, his new offering is a general history of technology, and it proposes the important thesis that we should reorient the focus of our histories of technology away from innovation and towards use. Apart from registering the obvious truth (recognized now in the specialist literature for about three decades or so) that what we do with things is often more significant, in terms of lived experience, than either their novelty or the intentions of their designers, such an approach has the added benefit of decentering the typical Eurocentric perspective of most histories of technology. As both Edgerton and Shapin point out, the Third World has become a huge dumping ground for cast-away western technology; in the hands of the poor but resourceful multitudes, technological goods that we have come to see as disposable, notably cars, take on a new life. African mechanics, for instance, have developed ingenious means of repairing automobiles that can make them last virtually indefinitely. (In an interesting turn of phrase, Shapin labels such skills “ ‘creole’ technologies.”)

But even if we in the west were so inclined to practice this kind of frugal and pragmatic maintenance, the know-how required for it becomes more and more impossible to acquire as more and more of our essential technology gets “black boxed,” a popular science-studies term (borrowed from engineering) that refers to the extent to which the expertise that goes into the making of the technology we consume is rendered inaccessible. Back in the day, it was fairly easy to “reverse engineer” your radio: all you had to do to figure out how it worked--even how to build one yourself--was to take it apart and put it back together again. Only a select few could do that today with an ipod--or afford to try. Technological knowledge has thus been rendered much less independently and democratically accessible.

Shapin doesn’t have a problem with that; he even goes so far as to argue that it’s better this way. The “enormous gap between the knowledge of makers and the knowledge of users,” he writes, “is exactly as it should be,” since it is “a sure sign of the success of a technology is that we scarcely think of it as technology at all.” In other words, I don’t need to know how my ipod works; I just need to know how to make it work for me.

I part ways with Shapin on this point. I think he takes Edgerton’s conclusions too far, and in the process undercuts the more radical perspective that Edgerton’s global approach opens up. Shapin’s position, to me, is indicative of an increasingly popular--and increasingly dangerous--consumer-centric approach to social issues. The problem with this approach is that it blinds us to the ever-important role of production and labor in structuring our existence, and subtly reinforces the neo-liberal ideology that sells us dependence and alienation by packaging them as their exact opposites. The Third World, for instance, has not only become a kind of afterworld for western technologies; it’s also where most of those technologies are being produced in the first place, often under exploitative conditions. In essence, under the present system Third World workers are forced to make things twice--once for us, and once, much later on, after we’ve used them up and discarded them, for themselves. Indeed, it can be argued that the very disposability, the very “high-throwaway” nature of our material existence is grounded in the easy availability to global capital of cheap labor in the undeveloped world. Contenting ourselves to keep our technology black boxed does not, as Shapin suggests, empower us; it renders us complicit.

This is also one of the major snags, I think, that has hit the mainstream environmentalist movement. It’s actually become easier for socially conscious people to envision the individual consumer saving the world through his or her private choice to buy organic dishwashing soap than to envision some kind of democratic, socialized control of the complex forces of production that are threatening both the environment and society in the first place. So I buy organic, to help the environment, but fail to realize that organic agriculture is heavily reliant on the exploitative use of illegal immigrant labor.

Don’t get me wrong. Organic food is good; technology is good. Like many on the far Left, I wouldn’t really want to live in a world that didn’t cultivate pesticide-free strawberries or produce mp3 players. But unlike Shapin, I don’t think that that means we should be content to know about technology only the use we make of it; it behooves us to know something about where it comes from, and how our consumption of it implicates us in the bigger scheme of things. Otherwise, any hope for broader social change is bound to wind up in disillusionment.

L'Université populaire de Caen

In 2002, the French philosopher, author, lycée instructor, and self-proclaimed "Nietzschean of the Left" Michel Onfray founded a free university in the south of France. Funded in part through proceeds from the sale of Onfray's numerous books, l'Université populaire de Caen aims to "democratize culture and freely dispense knowledge to the greatest number." Onfray's idea was to provide a mass alternative to the "elitism of the universities and the offhandedness of the intellectual cafés," while retaining the best and most progressive features of both institutions. Like many standard universities, instruction at the Université populaire is offered by accredited faculty in the form of weekly seminars that divide time evenly between lecture and debate. But fees, enrollment requirements, exams, and degrees--the classic academic instruments of social reproduction--have been thoroughly dispensed with. According to Doug Ireland, who profiled Onfray in the Winter 2006 edition of New Politics, the majority of attendees at Onfray's free university are of working-class or minority background, and since its founding its example has been copied in nearly a half-dozen other French cities and one in Belgium.

Where, I wonder, are our free universities? Are they even possible here? At the same time, are they not also more and more necessary if we are to achieve true social progress? I say "true" progress for a reason: for more than a decade now, the postmodern left in the US has been steadily converging with the neo-liberal right in its fantasy of a democracy that operates through the spontaneous and untutored expression of individual desire, that "liberates" desire from the pesky elitist mediation of critically-tested knowledge and progressively-acquired skill. That's not liberation; it's repressive desublimation. The essential problem is not the content of instruction--it's access to instruction, and the complicity of our educational institutions, through their funding, their selection processes, and their certification rituals, in the reproduction of social and economic inequalities.

For those of you who can read French, I encourage you to check out the Université populaire de Caen's website, at:

In addition to stating the goals of the university, the website also includes schedules and course summaries, which give you a sense of the kind and quality of knowledge being made available to those who have been historically excluded from it.