Monthly Archives: May 2012

Marginalia on Radical Thinking: Interview with KMO. part 2

Continued from part 1. A note: it took KMO a few days to answer the last two questions because he found them much more perplexing upon reflection than he thought at first. 
Skepoet:   You and Doug Henwood have been calling out NPR lately.  Why do you think it has so much cache among liberal and lefty types?

KMO:  I love NPR. I’m a lifelong listener. I think it appeals to lefty Baby Boomers because that’s the target demographic. It’s clearly aimed at people with too much education, critical thinking facility and attention span to take more ‘mainstream’ news and current events programming seriously, and so it flatters its audience with the tacit message, “You’re so smart for not settling for low-brow sound bite journalism and fake debates between shrill talking heads.”

NPR, particularly it’s flagship programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, annoys the living shit out of me because they respect all of the same taboos that the corporate media hold dear and actually serve to reinforce and legitimize those taboos by posing as a free and unbeholden actor. I think they function as what people more steeped in political language than I am like to call a ‘left gate-keeper.’

That said, let me reiterate; I love NPR. I listen to it all the time,  although less so now that I live in New York City and have more alternatives to choose from.

S:  You have been working with Occupy Cafe and you have recently moved to New York: what are you thoughts on the developments of Occupy?

KMO:  You may have heard that Occupy Wall Street has moved from Zuccotti Park to Union Square. I’ve been by Union Square a couple of times to check out the vibe, and except for the inordinate police presence and a table holding up an OWS banner with a donation jar on it, I saw nothing to indicate that there was anything at all out of the ordinary going on there. I know there have been a few Occupy events at which people were arrested, but I think the mild winter weather has not been a blessing to Occupy. I think people need some recuperation, and I think that 70 degree days in February put psychological pressure on the Occupiers to get back in the game before their batteries were sufficiently re-charged.

As exciting as OWS was last year, I don’t really want to see what it will become now that it has solidified into a recognizable brand and a more-or-less fixed organization. I would rather see everybody change clothes, change dance partners, and let the spirit of protest manifest itself in a new form in 2012.

S:  What would you like to the see the spirit of occupy become?

KMO:  Last year, Occupy changed the parameters of the mainstream conversation. At first the corporate media ignored OWS, then they thrashed about, grasping at any possible means of discrediting or discounting it, and then the 1% / 99% lingo entered the mainstream conversation. Suddenly, the vast disparities of wealth and privilege in our society materialized in view and required acknowledgement and comment in the mainstream narrative. That is but one of a herd of elephants in the proverbial room. This year, I want more elephants to
de-cloak.

The Drug War has become an invisible Juggernaut. It’s excesses and the resulting prison nation that have resulted from absurd mandatory minimum sentencing laws are completely indefensible from any rational perspective. In the 80s and early 90s, Drug War propaganda was everywhere. Now, prohibition-themed public service announcements are
rare. The whole monstrous program barrels forward under its own steam, but discussion of its utility or whose ends it serves is completely absent from the mainstream narrative. I think this is starting to change, and the recent Summit of the Americas at which Latin American leaders insisted that we examine alternatives to the Drug War now has
president Obama explicitly defending prohibition and the prison industrial complex. By the time November rolls around, I want it to be glaringly obvious to anyone tuned into the mainstream narrative that Barrack Obama and the Democratic Party are the party of Empire, the party of prisons, the party of the surveillance state, and the party
of the financialized economy. Whether it is OWS or some other mechanism that effects these changes in perception doesn’t matter much to me. I think that Ron Paul’s candidacy has done a lot more good on this front than has OWS.

S: The drug war is one of the few policies outside of the wars in the Mideast in which the majority of the population, outside of law enforcement, don’t support anymore.  It costs the states incredible amounts of money, and it destabilize Latin American countries. Why do you think it continues?

KMO:  Money.

S:  Money for whom?   That’s the real issue for me.  It actually costs most parties involved more than they make in the long run, so the question becomes “who benefits.”

KMO:  I think the key phrase there is, “in the long run.” The Drug War creates huge flows of money, the channeling of which provides short term benefit to entities like governments and corporations. This comes at an enormous short-term cost to millions of individual humans and an ultimately catastrophic cost to society, but the pressure to favor short
term gain over long term well-being is certainly not the exclusive province of the Drug War.

S:  What are the best ways to frame the issue in the general public ?

KMO:  That’s a really challenging question for a number of reasons. At one level, it seems that my own perspective is so deviant that what seems obvious for me is completely alien to “the common man,” whoever he is. So what are my intuitions worth when it comes to a successful re-framing of the Drug War? That viewpoint is laden with a blinding payload of self-flattery. I suspect that when the Greatest Generation dies off and the Baby Boomers are panicked over the fact that their retirement security has evaporated, we can frame the question as, “We can’t afford to fund your retirement AND the Drug War, so what’s it gonna be?” That, I think, will be a no-brainer for the Boomers.

Finally, the whole Drug War stands or falls with the prohibition of marijuana. The propaganda is all about cocaine and heroin, but without the prohibition on marijuana, there are not enough “drug criminals” out in the world to justify the gazillion dollar Drug War budget. Depending on how you massage the poll results, we’re pretty close to having half of the existing population, complete with members of the Greatest Generation who participated in lynchings, already favoring the decriminalization of marijuana for personal use. I heard Ethan
Nadelmann give a talk at the Cato Institute in 1999. He said something that stuck with me for more than a decade. He said, “Support for the Drug War is a thousand miles high, a thousand miles long, and one inch thick.”

S:  Do you think pointing out how insane the prison-congressional complex has gotten which actually privatized profits from prisons at extreme cost to the tax payer could be a way forward? Recently I saw that even at the most high estimates we have beat Stalin’s gulag in raw numbers of people in prison and almost all of it is drug related. One almost sees this as a political crime, like “speculation” was in the Soviet Union, rather than a purely administrative category.

KMO:  The Drug War started in a fairly honest way. It was clear that the prohibition of certain drugs and the enforcement of those prohibitions were intended to single out blacks, Mexicans, and politically and culturally disobedient youth. The architects of the Drug War were fairly open about this motivation, and the majority population favored the suppression of these groups. Now, the official policy of the federal government is one of color-blindness or the embrace of ethnic diversity, and our current cultural narrative condemns racism. While the cultural narrative has changed, the existing apparatus of the Drug War, which systematically imprisons blacks and Latinos, remains in place. Even worse, in the decades since the enactment of the Controlled Substances Act, marijuana has entered the mainstream. It’s prohibition, originally meant to criminalize ethnic minorities and rebellious youth, now criminalizes huge swathes of mainstream society. Because the racism at the heart of the Drug War cannot be admitted, the fact that the same Drug War now criminalizes the lifestyles of tens of millions of otherwise obedient whites cannot be acknowledged as an unintended consequence and corrected.

Those who profit from the Drug War  (a set that includes just about everyone, if Catherine Austin Fitts is to be believed – perhaps link to her essay Narco Dollars for Dummies)  cannot acknowledge the size and composition of the prison population without self-condemnation. No rational discussion of the topic can be permitted at this point, as
the avoidable and egregious harm produced by the Drug War is so glaring. It’s grounding in systemic racism and repression of political dissent is so obvious that it cannot withstand even the most cursory examination.

One reason why many whites still favor prohibition and mass incarceration is that most drug criminals are arrested in cities but housed in rural prisons. Prison jobs prop up many otherwise failing local rural economies. I saw a news story (which I posted to the Friends of the C-Realm) the other day (it was really a piece of corporate propaganda branded with the CBS News imprimatur) touting the benefits of a robotic prison guard. Corporate profits generated by mass incarceration can be increased by increasing the prison
population and decreasing labor costs. If labor costs can be lowered in the short term by replacing human prison guards with robotic systems, then the logic of the corporate mandate to maximize shareholder value in the short term will dictate that this sort of automation be adopted even if it is obvious that doing so will undermine one of the few remaining pillars of support for the Drug War. This doesn’t give me much reason for hope however. Modern-day logging operations employ very few people because technology has allowed one heavy equipment operator to do the work of an army of men wielding saws and axes. Even so, people who live in the economically devastated husks of rural towns that used to thrive on the basis of logging industry jobs still revile environmentalists as enemies of economic vitality. People in these communities still favor logging industry jobs over forests even though the logging industry no longer provides jobs to a sizable percentage of the local population.

S:  The issue of stacking districts with prison populations is an interesting problem. Even though in many of the states that do this felons cannot legally vote ever, the prison population is counted for appointing state representation. So it can be a form of “empty district building” and this increases rural, generally Republicans, representation against urban centers.  This leads me to think that there structural problems of electoral reform, not just for the drug but for many elements of our society, will actually not be particularly responsive to public pressure.

KMO:  Agreed.

S:  What gives you hope right now?

KMO: I hate to give a nit-picky answer to a straightforward question, but as someone who voluntarily engages in philosophical discussions, I figure it’s par for your course.

Channeling Paul Kingsnorth, now. “Hope for what?”

Hope for the future of life on Earth? I know some people who think that human industrial activity will turn the Earth into a Venus-like world, unfit even to support microbial life. This fear clusters in my own consciousness with the fear that the CERN particle accelerator will destroy the universe or that the Bible is literary true and that Christian true believers will soon be raptured into heaven leaving the rest of us in the clutches of the Anti-Christ.  I’m not saying that the danger of a run-away greenhouse process is as remote as the other  two I mentioned, but I have as much trouble working myself into a state of genuine concern over it as I do taking seriously a Left Behind scenario.

Hope for the future of the human species? Ninety nine percent of the species that have lived on Earth are now extinct. Perhaps humans will transcend our biology and project our consciousness out into the larger universe to take our place among the gods, but it’s also quite likely that we will go the way of most of the species that have arisen on this planet, and I’m fine with that. Even if industrial civilization has a short future, I do think that humans will be on the scene for hundreds of thousands of years yet. I’m not worried about
the survival of the human species.

Hope for the continuation of the status quo of global corporate capitalism? For the sake of the non-human life on Earth, I hope it does NOT continue.

Hope for a version of the technological singularity that preserves and advances those aspects of human intelligence that I value? There are people working on so-called Friendly AI, but given the fact that so much robotics research is driven by the military and that the leading forms of artificial pseudo-intelligence operate in the service of corporations and their overriding mandate to maximize short-term financial gain by externalizing costs at the expense of future prosperity, which is to say denying the consequences of their actions, I think that the Vile Offspring of Charles Stross’s Accelerondo is the more likely outcome.

Hope that industrial civilization can execute a deliberate soft-landing and transition to a low-power existence without leaving the survivors in a state of collective PTSD? It’s certainly within our power if we decide that that is what we want to do. The real barrier to this is our conditioned expectations and the psychology of previous investment.

Paul Gilding gave an optimistic TED talk recently in which he basically affirmed the Doomer vision that I’ve been articulating in answer to your question, and then he ended by pointing out that 4 days after the USA entered World War II our ancestors halted all domestic automobile production and converted that manufacturing capacity to the
service of the war. We CAN turn on a dime, but we won’t until a serious crisis smacks us in the face. Gilding’s faith is that the crises are coming and that the turning on a dime will follow. He might be right, and I guess that’s where my own hope finds a bit of traction. I hope he’s right.

My fear is that the media apparatus for worldview management has grown so sophisticated and effective that the majority of people will regularly be stepping over corpses on their way to work and that they will continue to believe that everything is on track for a brighter tomorrow and that better times are just around the corner so long as we all keep the faith and keep plugging away at our assigned tasks.

Hope that we can arrest the slide into a high-tech totalitarian society? Occupy Wall Street, the mass demonstrations around the globe,the work of Anonymous and WikiLeaks all give me reasons to hope.

The hope that I hold closest to my heart is that my two sons will get the chance to live full-featured human lives that include education, romantic love, family life, and satisfying work. What gives me hope here is John Michael Greer’s argument that civilizations in a free-fall state of collapse still move so slowly in comparison to a human lifetime that, for the people living through the collapse, everything seems normal. Unfortunately, his arguments are all
historical, and I think that some aspects of our current situation are unprecedented.

S:  Anything you’d like to say in closing?

KMO:  Last week I gave a talk at Bluestockings Bookstore, Cafe, and Activist Center, and after I had described the seemingly-inevitable and traumatic transition from a growth-based civilization to a steady state or contracting civilization, one audience member asked me what the magic lotto ticket out of our situation was. I said that I didn’t see one that seemed likely. He said he knew what it was, and I invited him to stand up, take the mic, and share with the audience. He did so. His magic lotto ticket: aliens.

He claimed that non-human intelligence from outside of space and time stand ready to resolve our dilemma any day now and that we can make contact with them via psychedelics. I myself have made a sustained and good faith effort to contact and partner with non-human intelligences via entheogens (psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, and San Pedro cactus). I’ve had provocative encounters, but nothing that has convinced me completely that I wasn’t encountering myself within the confines of my own skull and nothing that engenders faith in an immanent helping hand from beyond. I remain open to the possibility, but I’m not pinning my hopes on it. It could well be that aliens or spirits have converged on the Earth to grieve for us and comfort us in
our passing. Or to gloat and feed on our suffering.

I do think that the eager Doomers of the world, the ones who see humans as a plague upon Mother Earth and who want Her to rid Herself of us, have adopted a willful blind spot concerning the progression of information technology, robotics, genetics and nano-materials. What’s more, I feel no sympathy or resonance with their condemnation of humanity. I reject and repudiate misanthropy. I value human imagination and intelligence, and I want to see it continue into the future.

I think that the Techno-utopians of the world have adopted a willed ignorance of hard resource limits in the short term. I agree that some elements of their grand vision, elements that Doomers reject as baseless fantasy, may well be achievable in the long term, but that doesn’t mean that they will come to fruition in time to avert what looks like a looming Malthusian Correction. Techno-utopians like to say that Malthus was wrong, and certainly Malthus failed to predict the Haber-Basch process, mechanized agriculture, and genetic engineering. Even so, by failing to incorporate these factors into his thinking, Malthus may have underestimated the magnitude of his predicted population contraction. It may be true that Malthus was wrong, but that shouldn’t necessarily be cause for celebration.

I’ve related this basic narrative to several live audiences, and it’s always hard for me to end those talks, because I don’t have any rousing conclusion in which I offer reasonable optimism. Some people think that suffering builds character and that we’ll be better humans for having endured the coming hardship. I don’t think so. I think that damaged, victimized people are as likely to harden themselves to the suffering of others, spread the damage, and perpetuate the cycle of victimization as they are to achieve some kind of awakening.

Conclusions are hard, I think, because they are fake. Ends can’t justify means, because there are no ends. The drama continues even though every player will eventually leave the stage.

Some thoughts on Particularism, Racism, and the “Nation”

For each identification (the creation or cobbling together of identity) creates a figure that provides a material for its investment by the market. There is nothing more captive, so far as commercial investment is concerned, nothing more amenable to the invention of new figures of monetary homogeneity, than a community and its territory or territories. The semblance of non-equivalence is required so that equivalence itself can constitute a process. What inexhaustible potential for mercantile investments is this upsurge —taking the form of communities demanding recognition and so-called cultural singularities —of women, homosexuals, the disabled, Arabs! And these infinite combinations of predictive traits, what a godsend! Black homosexuals, disabled Serbs, Catholic pedophiles, moderate Muslims, married priests, ecologist yuppies, the submissive unemployed, prematurely aged youth! Each time, a social image authorizes new products, specialized magazines, improved shopping malls, “free” radio stations, targeted advertising networks, and finally, heady “public debates” at peak viewing times. Deluze put it perfectly: capitalist deterritorialization requires a constant reterritorialization. Capital demands a permanent creation of subjective and territorial identities in order for its principle of movement to homogenize its space of action; identities, moreover, that demand anything but the right to be exposed in the same way as others to the uniform prerogatives of the market.”

Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundations of Universalism

Black Africans first arrived in the lands that would later become the original Thirteen States around 1619, as indentured servants, although the Spanish had brought Black slaves with them to what would later become New Mexico and Arizona as early as 1539. At that time, they were in a similar position to the many poor English people who, in exchange for passage to America, had sold several years of their labor in advance. At first, there was no distinction made between indentured servants of European or African descent. Race-based discrimination as a societal “norm” did not come into being until around the 1680s, in part as a response to Nathaniel Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. The conception of race simply did not exist in the ancient or medieval world; racial discrimination is a product of capitalist society. Throughout history, the slave-owner or feudal lord looked down on his slaves or serfs as inferiors, but this was due to their social position, to the class relationship between them, not because of the color of their skin. Malcolm X once said: “You can’t have capitalism without racism.” We would add: “You can’t have racism without capitalism.”

The formation of a modern, international racial ideology that defines white as “good” and non-white as “bad” can be traced via historical documentation to the institution of modern chattel slavery (more specifically to the transition from indentured servitude to chattel slavery) and the formative period of capitalism. It develops for very material reasons during the course of the 16th and 17th Centuries. One can even trace the changing use of language in letters written in the colonies, i.e. the racism that came to define the American colonies did not predate the colonies. By racism is meant an international ideology of shared “racial” superiority and inferiority based on one’s skin color. This binary distinction, once developed, spreads like a disease from its American origin, framing the conception of race internationally, from the Caribbean to South Africa. - Workers International League, Black Struggle and the Socialist Revolution

 

The existence of a nation (you will pardon me this metaphor) is a daily referendum, just as the continuing existence of an individual is a perpetual affirmation of life. -Ernst Renan.

“A nation is a large group of people characterized by three features. They are kept together by lies about their past, shared enemies in the present and stupid illusions about their future” – Zizek paraphrasing Ernst Renan

When Alternet tells you they have alternatives to capitalism…..

When left-liberals and actionists accuse those like me–who may have philosophical departures from Marx and could give two shits about things like revisionism–of being “conservative economists” because we admit that economic limits are real limits and wishing Keynesianism into being won’t be an answer, I laugh.   When we get called techno-utopians for saying that 99.9% of the population would die under primitive conditions and the survivalists would not likely be the survivors because self-imposed austerity doesn’t trump capital production even with reduced natural resources, I get called a dirty Enlightenment thinker.    I am not a raw “base determines” everything Stalinist, as I think capitalism is a culture as well as an economic mode of production: or more specifically, several cultural kluges that share a few assumptions, but when left-liberals at Alternet start offering alternatives to capitalism, I have to just blink.

Sara Robinson offers this gem at Alternet:  Capitalism Has Failed: 5 Bold Ways to Build a New World

The first normal, and weirdly conservative notion, of “Small is beauty.”  One saw this in the small is beautiful movement: it’s a privilege afforded only to the those who live in hyper-affluent and relatively empty countries like the US. Psychologically, it seems to function like the noble savage that comes up every once and awhile for the affluent and privileged to op  ine to fill a whole in the psyches.  Now I will avoid pointing out that the great leap forward and the Khmer Rouge were also infected with this particular virus, because that’s something “right-winger” would point out, and I am a man of the left: however, it is true, localvorism and the small town are inefficient, given to nepotism, and seems to be an inverse of the facts of reality for most people. Here’s Robinson’s claims for who this is accounted for:

“Making stuff locally in small batches increases resilience, and decentralizing the process means that many more people will have jobs. For example: A single factory farmer can manage thousands of acres. An organic farm might have half a dozen workers on just 20 acres.”

And it will require double the land exhaustion as mechanized planting and advanced agriculture. The resilience argument is decent, but also for employing more people: it would do so, but at lower wages as cost gains don’t scale up.   Furthermore, as Robinson admits, most infrastructure even required for localvorism and other such lifestyle pursuits, don’t scale up.

So then she offers:  Marx 2.0

A”s noted, this kind of constant growth simply isn’t sustainable on a finite planet. People will always trade — it’s an essential humaneness that can stay happy and healthy without being pushed to grow. Worker ownership doesn’t really address this problem, though relocalization, which roots businesses deeply in their own local markets, limiting their reach beyond those boundaries, may provide one natural brake on growth.

For many large and necessary enterprises (utilities; essential centralized manufacturing; big, capital-intensive tech industries; and so on) public ownership may be the only way to ensure that they grow no bigger than they need to be to fulfill their mission. If there are other solutions that will allow us to have complex enterprises minus the growth imperative, they’re still lurking out beyond the horizon.”

Now completely missing that the points of Marx were both value theory and the needs for efficient production: I agree with Robinson that there is an ecological limit to development. What I disagree with is that this is fixed by reversals in technologies or simply scaling down.  Inefficient manufacturing and business methods use MORE energy and resources, not less. The answer of public ownership: social democracy a la Chavezistas?  misses the key points of value-theory: that the problem is as much ideological as ownership. Conservative critiques that nationalizing these industries in the hands of the state only leads to a less efficient form of capitalism is more or less born out, but the state wasn’t the focal point of Marx.   Furthermore, she may be offering a syndicalist transition answer, but this doesn’t deal with the problems of value either.

I fail to see how this is Marxism 2.0.

Then Robinson offers: Systems Theory which is a variant of cybernetic theory.  

Robinson, like most American leftists, don’t realize that Soviets tried this in 1960s and failed as it was a botched alternative to market economics. Furthermore for other applications of this problem see Adam Curtis’s documentary: “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.”

There are two more options but they are just re-metaphorizations of the first three:   so what is offered as an alternative?    Nothing really.  Most of the alternatives either aren’t efficient or are just modifications of the commodity form already in capitalism. It’s time to be serious.

Marginalia On Radical Thinking: Interview with KMO, part 1

KMO is the host of Z-Realm and C-Realm , and a thinker on collapse whose thoughts I have seen evolve through the course of his podcast. While not a hard leftist in the since that many of my interviewees, his perspective is among one of the smarter that some on the collapse end of the left. Avoiding a lot of the common tropes to deep green politics.

Skepoet: How would you describe your political and social journey over the past few years?

KMO: I used to hold pretty orthodox and straight-forward libertarian views. Starting in the 1990s, I voted for the Libertarian Party candidate in every presidential election. My support of the LP ended in 2008, when they put up Bob Barr, a career Drug War blowhard, as their presidential candidate. I’ve always gravitated to artists and creative types as friends, and they tend towards what in modern parlance is known as ‘liberalism,’ and I’ve learned through repeated hard experience with strained or terminated friendships that there is nothing to be gained by engaging self-identified progressives in political debate, so my self-identification as a libertarian comes more as a confession than as a loud and proud declaration.

Also, since I’ve been paying attention, it seems like more and more people who describe themselves as ‘libertarian’ strike me as basically ‘Rouge Elephants,’ i.e. Republicans who don’t want to pay taxes and who gravitate to libertarian ideology because they think it justifies their privileged position in the status quo. These folks seem to have no problem with the Drug War and with imperial ambition. Also, many Ayn Rand supporters gravitate to libertarianism, and they are some of the most obnoxious ideologues I’ve ever encountered. I would hate for someone who formed their opinion of libertarians based on encounters with these folks (I’m working really hard to avoid using the word ‘Randroids’ – I guess I just lost that battle) to slot me into the same mental category with Rand’s most strident and self-satisfied  devotees.

Socially, I’ve gone from being someone who very much wanted to live on a rural farmstead for quality of life reasons, to being a panicked Doomer who wanted to create a lifeboat situation away from major population centers, to being a Brooklynite who has taken a sort of Bodhisattva vow with respect to the potential for civilization-wide convulsions and catastrophes. I’ve made peace with the idea that happens to my society happens to me.

 S:   In the C-Realm podcast, there is a very deliberate attempt to generate consciousness, but from what perspective do you think the most useful  consciousness comes?

The perspective that I encourage and articulate, simply because it’s what I’m best able to represent, is a meta-perspective that contrasts various worldviews. I talk a lot about narratives, world-views, ideologies, belief systems, and, per Robert Anton Wilson, ‘reality tunnels.’

The two worldviews that I contrast most consistently on the C-Realm Podcast are the ‘Doomer’ and ‘Singularitarian’ perspectives. The Doomers see technological civilization as being completely and rigidly  dependent on fossil fuels and economic growth. They think that we have passed the point of global population overshoot, and that a Malthusian Correction is unavoidable at this point. The Doomers remain completely unimpressed with the rapid development of information technology. The Singularitarians on the other hand see peak oil, population overshoot, and in some cases even climate disruption, as non-issues. In their view, artificial Intelligence, nanotechnology, and other game-changing technologies will render these challenges trivial in the coming decades. Many of them think that humans will improve upon the standard issue human template and augment humanity with technology. This belief is called ‘Transhumanism.’ I think that both the Doomer and the Techno-utopian worldview identifies important trends and implications, but each of them seems to be laden with heavy doses of wishful thinking and enormous blind spots. I focus on these two belief systems, because I have been an ardent supporter of each of them and now describe myself as a recovering libertarian and Transhumanist.

There is certainly a lot of unacknowledged political baggage piggy-backing on both of these worldviews. As Adam Curtis pointed out in All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, Silicon Valley is rife with high-powered Ayn Rand devotees, and libertarian memes usually find a receptive environment in the brains of Singularitarians. Doomers tend to condemn libertarian ideology because they think that humans pursuing their own selfish ambitions have ruined the planet and brought humanity to the precipice of extinction.

I realize that I’ve drifted away from your question, so let me bring it back around and say that I think that embodied consciousness is critically important. I think that people reading text on screens and fighting ideological battles on-line or in print produce some very undesirable outcomes and counter-productive hostility. I spend a lot of time in front of the screen myself, and I’m grateful to have encountered Tai Chi and intermittent fasting, as these practices help keep me in my body when my ideological mind would drag me to absurd extremes. I know that you have interviewed more modern magic practitioners than I have and certainly know more about the history of the movement, but I’m attracted to the bodily focus of Chaos Magic and to the emphasis that the Mystery Schools place on self-knowledge.

S;  Do you find it interesting that both mystics and political radicals  (particularly in the Marxist tradition) speak in terms of  consciousness? What do you make that shared lingo?

KMO:  Before C-Realm was an interview-based podcast it was a web comic, and before it was a web comic it was a comic strip in a university newspaper. The title of the newspaper comic was ‘C.’ I came up with that title in my first semester in grad school studying philosophy in a Hegel seminar. The translation of The Phenomenology of Spirit that I used for that seminar used the English word ‘consciousness’ for Hegel’s ‘geist.’ I wrote the word ‘consciousness’ in my notes so many times that I came to abbreviate it as ‘C.’ I was thinking about creating a comic strip for the university newspaper, and when I wrote that letter C in my notes for the umpteenth time I thought, “Hey, that would be a good title for my comic strip.” So the C in C-Realm refers both to both the mystical and political senses of the word ‘consciousness’ which come together in Hegel’s tortuous dialectic of which Marx was so critical.

‘Consciousness’ is an ambiguous term with many meanings. I would find it intensely interesting if I thought that political radicals and mystics were consistently using the word in the same sense, but I do not think that this is the case. I think that ‘political consciousness’ tends to refer to consciousness as the holding of desirable beliefs and priorities while mystics make reference to an awareness, sense of identity, or point of view that transcends the physicality of the individual animal organism. (There are, of course, materialist practitioners of magic whom one could hold up as counter-examples, but then I would quibble with their inclusion in the category of ‘mystics.’) Now, you could say that the two meanings converge in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and that Hegel’s ‘geist’ on its dialectical journey encompasses both meanings, but I doubt that very many contemporary revolutionaries or mystics are that well-versed in or concerned with the details of their own memetic lineages and that their usages of the word ‘consciousness’ have diverged and compartmentalized since Hegel’s day.

S.:  KMO., you predicted exactly my point on Geist and consciousness, but you are right most people don’t see the dialectical relationship.  Do you think that we should re-merge the two meanings of consciousness in a way that would make Marxists uncomfortable?  Ironically, I think the tendency of Marxists or Hegelian Leftists like Zizek to reintroduce lots of psychoanalytic theory into Marxism is actually an indication of the need here?

I sometimes worry that the left–and here I don’t mean liberals or Democrats, but socialists–don’t deal enough in ecological limit theory and how do deal with it.  Murray Bookchin, an anarchist I did respect, thought that neither the singularity types (techno-utopians) nor the primitivists or doomers had much a realistic way to handle the future: the thought socialized and ecologically oriented technology would be important to sustainability?   I actually worry about this, and I am more skeptical of the way this is all framed.  Do you think we will need is somewhere in-between the singulatarians and the doomers?

KMO:  I don’t think it is within my power or yours to re-merge these two meanings of consciousness for anyone but ourselves and the tiny fraction of the population who pay attention to us. There are several more uses for the word ‘consciousness’ other than the two described above. I don’t think that translators of Hegel have any particular claim to the correct definition of the English word ‘consciousness.’ While I think it’s useful to ask people to clarify what it is they mean when they use the term, I don’t see much point in telling them that they have to mean something by it that they didn’t intend. Also, I have no more interest in making Marxists uncomfortable than I do in perturbing the peace of mind of Theosophists or Millerites.

If I could wave a magic wand and instantly infuse the English-speaking population with a correct understanding of words and phrases, I would use that power to rescue ‘decimate’ and ‘begs the question’ from terminal misuse.

As far as ideology goes, I don’t see any indication that political fundamentalists on the left are any more interested in testing their worldviews against empirical data or enhancing them with interdisciplinary thinking than are fundamentalists on the right. As for injecting psychoanalytic theory into Marxism, I’d rather hear political theorists attempt to integrate elements of contemporary neuroscience or even sociobiology into their discourse than try to wring some utility from hundred year old Freudian lingo.

I gravitate to ecological metaphors when it comes to the question of what people should believe, what values they should hold, and how they frame questions. I don’t think everyone should hold the same beliefs and values. Over-specialization and lack of variety set up the conditions for catastrophic failure and extinction. I think it’s good that we have self-aggrandizing, monomaniacal techno-triumphalists as well as sack-cloth-and-ashes, misanthropic Doomers. I’m also encouraged that there are enough people interested in a synthesis of these viewpoints to comprise an audience for the C-Realm Podcast.

S:  On psychoanalytic theory, I think you’re right KMO, the Marixst left avoidance of neuroscience is telling. Psychoanalysis in both Freud and Lacan thought that neuroscience was necessarily, and I don’t think Zizek, for example, truly reject it.  However, dealing with the internal self is something that Marxism doesn’t give you a way to deal with–it is only the social self and it’s alienation that is important.  Given how deeply internalized this is, not dealing with the psyche, is a key problem.  This has led to supplementation.  Is that clearer?

KMO:  Yes. Right up to that last statement.  I don’t think that a political ideology should strive to be an exhaustive guide to living which includes every possible self-knowledge and self-help modality.  Any meme complex that includes an attempted prophylactic against new discoveries and innovation sets off my cult BS detector.

I do think that a failure to deal honestly with the innate features of  human psychology and physiology is a common feature of political belief systems and certainly is not unique to Marxism.

To be continued. 

Homelands and Contradiction: Confucianism, Judaism, Chicago, Koreana and other historical dialectic

Language can only deal meaningfully with a special, restricted segment of reality. The rest, and it is presumably the much larger part, is silence. – George Steiner

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest. – attributed to Confucius

George Steiner’s speech on the central contradictions of Zionism and its relationship to the Prophet (future)/Priest (current) dialectic in the Hebrew consciousness.   This is one of the most insightful and fair understandings of the “sad miracle” that is modern Israel.  The arab spring is a bitter winter that indicates how sad the miracle has been and what the liberalization has been dependent.  There is a dialectic about the movement of Zionism which itself threatens the idea of a Jewish state and even a Jewish people.  It is not just that Israel is rooted, and is, a settler colonial state picks up on religious Zionist motives but exploits, but also is rooted in a real need for the traumized people.  The dialectical irony is there: It is the core of what made up modern anti-Jewish sentiment that also is the theory which undergrids secular Jewish Zionism, and the religious notion of Zionism opposes the existence of the very nation which is no serves as the primary population growth into.  In the diaspora, as Steiner says, the political humilation of others as torture of those outside of the community was unknown, and yet it is the basis on which Israel must be sustained: in order to survive.   Steiner says that this brutality is the price of nationhood, and it is the schism that will cause a drain a between Jews in the diaspora and Israel itself.

This brings me to another colonial dialectic: the dialectic between Korea and Japan.  Close to my life as I have Korean relatives and live in Korea, it is interesting how the invented tradition on both sides. Much of the modern notions of Korean traditions of Confucianism have Japanese imperial roots (this is particularly accelerated in North Korea, strangely), but I have not looked the way Korea changed Japan.  The ways it has was fascinating.  The master/servent dialectic can been seen in many places.

The last is the way in which the modernization of China has led to a confusion to between Post-Mao Marxist tradition, a state capitalist develoment, and a Confucian tradition which radiate from the core of development in Shanghai.  Shanghai, the site of two communes which were buried (first by the nationalists, the second by the Maoists slowly the cultural revolution), so history here is not a simple movement towards “the future” but an way in which one cultures struggles to pull to the future from current notions of the past.  This becomes really apparent in Shanghai.

To what Steiner says, “No city is so great that one should no run when it is unjust.” We are to be creatures of the air.  In that we’ll on on my comrades, Ross and Ben talking on the situation in Chicago and on NATO.

Perhaps then my long sojourn in Asia is a beckoning to my own diaspora, but I also know, as a good dialectician, there is now nowhere to run the movement of political economies and dying ideas, which often are not just commodity fetishs, but the digging of mass graves and the eating of cultures. 

Some self-reflection in light of the Yeon Deung Hoe Festival and my exhaustion over reification, plus my fiancee.

“Why don’t you blog more about this?” my girlfriend asks as another lantern rolls out of the plaza near Insadong neighborhood in Seoul.

“You mean commenting on flying Buddhas with weird television screens going down the center of a parade in Seoul?”

“Yes.”

“My readers have come to expect an impersonal obtuseness and a reliance of strange readings of Hegel that makes one seem hip.”

“To say ‘seems hip’ means you’re not, love.”

This was the first bit that started this reflection after seeing the fifth or sixth traditional Korean drum dance at Hoehyang Hanmadang. I avoid writing that way because there is some small solace in an impenetrable writing style and an insistence on absolute consistency over time. But there is a limit to that sort of thing when you realize that many of your readers are reifying concepts in a way that makes you wonder if you are doing it too: if you wonder this, it is probably too late. So when I talk about liberals or the left or regression, I realize that language is obfuscating and alienating. It’s part of a “discourse community” that frankly most people could not give two flying fucks about.

It also artificially lowers my own interests which are about left politics, but also the philosophy of science, ontology, epistemology, Buddhist and Confucian Studies, and poetry. While watching the lotus lantern parade, I kept thinking about objects, subjects, and the strange history of Korean and Japanese Buddhism. I kept them about how much I enjoyed a Subway sandwich after not eating them much for almost two years, and about how beautiful Korean started to sound to me, and how close Japanese sounds to it. I kept thinking about endless discussions about history and regression in which history is treated as a ontological force, like a good, which is both human and not. I kept thinking about all the reification of the idea of the left, which, like the reificaiton of religious concepts, becomes both emptier of cognitive and more full of intuitive content over time.

All these axioms can become exhausting, so I am trying to shift gears: To focus on my daily life and its context, the objects of philosophy and the limits to philosophy. More about religion and other cultural elements, and maybe less obscurity and more humor from my daily life.

You can thank a lantern of Buddha and my lovely fiancee for a reminder than even those of who spend time in highly abstract places need to be more rooted in daily life.

For that, I thank her, and move on to other notions: So coming up are more reflections on life here, more interviews in both politics and outside of it: An interview series on the Skeptic’s Movement and the Philosophy of science, a interview series on continental philosophy outside of Hegel, and an an interview series on various religious lefts as well as other things.

Also, a poem for you to enjoy, an excellent one by Gwendolyn Brooks, called “kitchenette building,” which despite it simplicity, one can feel the soft, almost dialectical build-up, of the tension between the humanizing of hope and the abstraction of dreams leading to despair. The simple rhythms build in a way that causes you to miss how much is pasting between the simpler shifts of pronouns and abstractions, which almost seem to dance between symbolic and non-symbolic uses.

El Mono Liso:

Dr. Boer’s point about how useful Graeber’s book is well-taken, but I too thought the Debt jubilee ending was insufficient. I would ask Dr. Graeber to clarify he thought that would actually be an answer or a call for structural provocation.

Originally posted on STALIN'S MOUSTACHE:

While there is a plenty of material one can use from David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years, most of it appears on the edges, in insights scattered here and there. These include, in random order: a market is not necessarily tied to profit, indeed, most markets in history have not had profit as their prime function, if at all (which leads one to the logical position that capitalism and markets are by no means synonymous and may be opposed to one another); debunking Adam Smith’s quaint founding myth of the origins of ‘the economy’; labour under capitalism has hardly ever been ‘free’; the reason why the treasures of the Americas were mined at all was due to Chinese need for bullion (90% of the total output) – most ships simply sailed straight there; redistributive economics is based on the violence and war of warrior aristocracies; markets always arose…

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Some thoughts on Marriage:

I have been toying with sociological data on marriage shift in the larger society, and here are some trends. The first trend is that college educated people are increasingly more likely than the uneducated to get married, according to a Pew Study. :

Throughout the 20th century, college-educated adults in the United States had been less likely than their less-educated counterparts to be married by
age 30. In 1990, for example, 75% of all 30-yearolds who did not have a college degree were married or had been married, compared with just 69% of those with a college degree.As those numbers attest, marriage rates among adults in their 20s have declined sharply since 1990 for both the college-educated and those without a college degree. But the decline has been much steeper for young adults without a college education. Young adults who do not have a college degree are delaying marriage to such an extent that the median age at first marriage in 2008 was, for the first time ever, the same for the college-educated and those who were not
college-educated: 28. As recently as 2000, there had been a two-year gap, with the typical college-educated adult marrying for the first time at 28 and the typical adult lacking a college degree marrying for the first time at Among the possible explanations for this shift are the declining economic fortunes of young men without a college degree and their increasing tendency to cohabit with a partner rather than marry. From 1990 to 2008, the inflation-adjusted median annual earnings of college-educated men ages 25 to 34 rose by 5% (to $55,000 in 2008 from $52,300 in 1990), while the median annual earnings of those with only a high school diploma declined by 12% (to $32,000 in 2008 from $36,300 in 1990).

But it was moderated by this bit of information:

A major finding from the above analysis is that college appears to deter marriage for men and women from the least advantaged social backgrounds. For least advantaged individuals college attendance lessened men’s and women’s odds of marriage by 38 percent and 22 percent, respectively. For individuals enjoying status in the highest stratum college attendance increased their marriage chances by 31 percent for men and women by 8 percent.

Another important finding is the pattern of increasing marriage homogamy with increasing social advantage and consistent with a mismatch hypothesis, the authors found the more disadvantaged college attendees were less likely to be matched on education with their spouse.

So marriage is increasingly becoming a classed commodity. This leads me to another thought, the way we view the present in light of the immediate (but not very distant) past, and the distant past in light of the immediate past and the present. We think, for example, the nuclear family, which its love marriage and male provider, was an American norm prior to the 1960s, but was unique to the 1950s as a social creation. On in which female property was beginning to be liberalized and liberated from assumed ownership from men, but was predicated on stronger sexual differentiation than was held prior by most people. There are a lot of factors into this, and it is too easy to play reduce it to just one idea (liberalization of divorce, predominance of love marriage, the economic need for nuclear families for increased mobility within the US, etc), but there is some evidence that married people have tended to be less social than single people and less involved in the larger community. There is also evidence, however, that marriage bonds are pretty much the only social networks that are really strong by the time most people reach their 40s.

This is all very modern. I was reading Philip Larkin’s Ardunel Tomb and then doing research on the family of the tomb it describes. The love match Larkin is talking about was a political second marriage, the countess had probably never met the Earl of Ardunal when he was engaged to her, and his first wife had died in child birth. Larkin though makes the assumption that he didn’t love her, and it that was a show but that seems problematic too. There is evidence to the contrary in the posture, rare among married aristocracy, of the tomb.

The problem is that our ideas of love are based off of love marriage, which seems to privilege the dopamine phases of human sexual interaction, which fade off in most people after a few years. However, sexual bonding between humans does lead, in most cultures, to oxytocin bonds, which may be why arranged marriages have such high satisfaction rates (but then again, it may also be because other options just aren’t common). The privileging of our notions of love to the media portraits and romantic notions which are all based on dopamine reactions, and culturally primed ones at that.

What people say about history also seems to apply to human nature, we rhyme with our ancestors as much as merely replicate them. We are objects of and subjects to history, but we also produce it to paraphrase Marx and Hegel.

The idea that human nature is eternal and unchanging privileges the present, but the idea that we are radically and unknowably “other” to the humans to the past is so discontinuous with my experience of the natural world that it leads me to see the “Chomsky” and “Foucault” positions (Chomsky, human beings are innately what they are and Foucault, human beings are completely historical contingent) as both being sort of a false dichotomy. We are social by our “nature,” and thus primed by social cues, but these cue change us. They change mating habits, change environmental reactions, and even can cause stress hormone releases with change specific manifestations of genes. We are different from our ancestors, but in very consistent ways.

So in a way, we see that marriage has always been about the production of “society” which is to say, it is human relations that reproduce human relations: not just in the form of children. So it should be no surprise how much economic changes affect it, and our ideas about love, which in turn, affects economics. One can see the pull and push here.

Marginalia on Skeptical Thinking: A Dialogue with Jamie McAfee, part 3

This is the third  part of an interview series. I strongly suggest you read the first part and second part prior to this.

Skepoet:  I find the rhetoric of the rhetoricians quite interesting.   I feel like we are diverging on the topic, but I keep meaning to point out that there is a danger to high level specialized academic discourses and that is one can forget that other academic discourses may completely reject the terms of engagement.    For example, the way literary historicists u e Foucault without interrogating his notion of power which Foucault rejected any attempt to pin down as reductive. This has always seemed to me to be a cop-out.    Here’s another example: your tropes of meaningful, colonizing, imply normative boundaries that you can’t make without a coherent social epistemology which is something you are bracketing out.

This is why I reject the idea of “science as rigorous common sense” in that those notions are over-filled signifiers semiotically which have almost no cognitive meaning to demarcate them even in “everyday” language. What does it mean to say science is “rigorous common sense” and this seems like saying “We don’t need any normative constrains on method and thus any rigorous applications about what is none science,” and it seems to me that the bracketing that is done methodologically in rhetorical science studies makes that impossible.

Again, I feel like we have similar problems with the Skeptic’s community, but for reasons of method, we can’t make the same critiques nor can we even recognize the validity of the critiques.   This allow puts out the necessary for structural demarcations and not just the borrowing of political-philosophical language to talk about ideas.  I suspect this is why there is some hostility between rhetorical scholars and leftists in practice:  one uses the other’s categories but uses them to almost opposite ends.

I want to push you on another assertion: What is the substantive difference that invalidates Lacan? How is Science Studies in Rhetoric avoiding it, particularly when using frameworks from liberal post-Marxist who extensively use Lacan like LaClau?

Jamie McAfee:  You’re losing me a bit here.

“What does it mean to say science is ‘rigorous common sense’ and this seems like saying “We don’t need any normative constrains on method and thus any rigorous applications about what is not science.’ and it seems to me that the bracketing that is done methodologically in rhetorical science studies makes that impossible.”

I’m perplexed. What is “rigor” if is doesn’t include normative constraints? As I discussed way back, rules and norms make science science. I’m not trying to be glib, but I don’t see where this is coming from. I’m deferring, as a rhetorician, to scientists about what the norms are. I’m not saying there are none. Sokal was, as a scientist, saying that there rules that defined what he did. (Well, that’s my charitable interpretation. If he meant something lazier, then up against the wall with him.)

I’d concede that I’m unable, as a the kind of rhetorician that I am, to comment on what the norms are. I don’t have any interest, as a rhetorician, in doing so. I can understand why they are and what they afford though. I can talk about the discrepancy between why the norms are, and they are justified, and I can talk about how arguments that flow from those discrepancies are problematic. Arguments are safely rhetoric, so I think I’m okay if I can get to that point.

“I want to push you on another assertion: What is the substantive difference that invalidates Lacan? How is Science Studies in Rhetoric avoiding it, particularly when using frameworks from liberal post-Marxist who extensively use Lacan like LaClau?”

Well, I don’t think anybody has “invalidated Lacan.” I just meant that some of the trendy science studies that was trotted out during the science wars is stuff that rhetoricians don’t read very much. I’ve never seen anybody reference heavily Lacanian science studies article in rhetoric. I’ve never seen Irigaray cited in a rhetoric article of any kind, for example. Laclau is something that I’m interested in. It’s not actually very popular, although not unheard of, in rhetoric. That was just sort of an aside about the science wars stuff. Some of the very technical Lacan business, about math for example, that’s been pored over isn’t really stuff that defines science studies as I know it. So I’m not sure there’s an issue there, unless you think Lacan should be discussed in science studies for some reason that I’m not catching

You’re making an excellent point here by the way about the appropriation of bits of theory out of context. Within rhetoric (and withing literary criticism before I switched over for my PhD program), it was something I tried to deal with to the extend that I could with the resources I had at the time. The magpie approach to theory that people in English departments do can be really problematic. There’s a limit to how deeply we need to get into the weeds as we are rhetoricians and not philosophers, but we need to go deeper than we often do.

“I suspect this is why there is some hostility between rhetorical scholars and leftists in practice:  one uses the other’s categories but uses them to almost opposite ends . . .It would be mutual in a sense because critical theory does build on rhetoric but doesn’t address it as such and rhetoric seems to using the concepts and boundaries of critical theory while bracketing out the epistemology and political economy that under-girds them. I suppose this is the hostility that only related fields could have to one and other. “

I’d like you explain this more, as I’m interested. There’s plenty of complaint about aspects of leftist theory in some corners of rhetoric. One of the few rhetoricians I know who calls himself a Marxist, not just as a scholar, but as a person, is sometimes pretty brutal about the failures of Marxists theorists. I’m somebody in rhetoric who is particularly interested in some leftist theory, and I fell the friction as well, and not just as a scholar.

I don’t quite follow what your take is, but I’d like to hear more about your take on this divide, as I find it a little puzzling.

S.:  I think you’re losing me too:  I am saying that critiquing something without defining it as a set of social practices but even as a set of social practices that are recongizable as such you have to have a normative definition.   Since science itself lacks a hegemonic
singular epistemological justification at the moment “accepting science’s norms” seems hopelessly confused.   The language about colonization and colonization of other discourses implies meta-demarcations between them and that requires a coherent
epistemology, which are not spelling out for methodological reasons. The rhetoric of rhetoric seems incompatible here with the bracketing.This tension is always there.   I  don’t think its cagey, I think there is a ideological apparatus at work in rhetorical language being employed here that assumes a philosophical framework without at once bracketing it out.

This is the crucial frustration is that langauge employed, as you acknowledge, actually assumes a framework but its a framework that cannot be addressed within rhetoric.  That’s fine in a way: that’s true of say physics too (which assumes methodological naturalism and a universal metaphysics that is coherent with mathematics in a consistent way.)  Philosophy itself has such limitations and many checks, but the order of checks seem different.   But it seems like one cannot just assume that there are different discourse communities that are coherent in their social practices when there isn’t always consensus (or even awareness of conflict) within the field.

Now put myself in rhetorical mode for a second, I can totally see how frustrating this is for the rhetorician who thinking, “Man, I am just pointing problematic assumptions that is betrayed by the language of the community” and in a way the critical theorist would do that without thinking as consistently on language as rhetoricians do.  Yet I would say that this frustrates the relationship between critical theory and rhetoric/literary theory.  It seems like there are bracketing out of the very epistemological and political economic categories that created the concepts’  specificity. For example, “Hegemony” without some notion of class conflict seems odd to me.   It seems like there has been a move to use that rubric, but to disconnect it from real social conflicts between groups of people over various forms of valuation.  So when we talk about “hegemony” in science, Iwant to go for whom as I don’t see scientists are a class or even a coherent enough community, but mainly as  a set of practices with a specific aim and specific limitations.  The definition I am working with though see to agree with yours until the last instances of “specific limitations” while merely descriptive approach can’t really set.

Here’s what I do like about your posture though: It actually avoids the “linguistic turn” in philosophy in a way by pointing out that this really is the domain of rhetoric and cannot deal with truth.  Badiou would call this an acknowledgement of anti-philosophy, and he wouldn’t consider it an insult.   I actually think this is important admission. It just seems that there are some many assumptions in the language that we trip up.   It is infuriating though to see Marxist theory being divorced from political economy in a way that makes it amendable to ignoring productive and structural elements of  class, and it seems   like methodologically rhetoricians can’t address that and maybe that this can lead to the sort of left-liberal tendency one sees in popular
uses of rhetoric. You can see how this would completely frustrate Marxists and anarchists who think that material conditions would have to be changed for serious  identity change to happen.  It would seem to be losing “our” (if anyone can have a claim to discourse) weapon in a way that doesn’t fight the battle “we” “designed” it for, no?

Anyway, we need to refocus on our common concern: Why do you think the New Atheist movement and the Skeptic’s movement has been increasingly co-terminus over time?

J.M.:  Ah. I gotcha. This is an interesting digression, but it’s not what we set out to talk about, so I’ll be quick.

“Since science itself lacks a hegemonic singular epistemological justification at the moment ‘accepting science’s norms’ seems hopelessly confused. . . but it seems like one cannot just assume that there are different discourse communities that are coherent in their social practices when there isn’t always consensus (or even awareness of conflict) within the field.”

Yes. We tend to study controversies in science or think about agency in terms of change. I’m not sure why you’d think that I think that “science” or even a discipline is monolithic. I think this gets at where we might be talking past each other. I didn’t mean to suggest that “science” had “a” set of norms necessarily. I think you have to talk about science as locally and specifically as you can.  I’d respond by saying that if science doesn’t have a single epistemological justification, I’m not sure how it’s a problem to think about it in social terms, particularly in terms of thinking about how people argue. Our starting point is “science is messy, let’s not accept the coherent, neat ways people talk about it and look at what people do instead.”

“It don’t think its cagey, I think there is a ideological apparatus at work in rhetorical language being employed here that assumes a philosophical framework without at once bracketing it out.” Yeah. I’m glossing stuff. The alternative way to look at this is to say that rhetoric purposefully blackboxes certain philosophical baggage.

I’m borrowing a technological metaphor here. A machine is a blackbox, and when it works, you don’t open the box. I scan my page in the copying machine and copies come out. It the machine isn’t working right, I open it and see where the paper is stuck. There are many, many moments in rhetoric when people open the box, but in order to “do rhetoric,” you are going to have to close it. The same it true of any intellectual activity. I want to bracket things that you don’t.

The specific complaint you make here is not a new to me though, and I’ve indirectly referenced the problem during the conversation. Rhetorical Hermenuitics, which is an anthology about Dillip Goankar’s essay about rhetoric of science is all about this issue. There are many efforts in there to deal directly with what you’re saying. I won’t claim it’s been solved, but it’s not new territory. The “ideological apparatus at work in rhetorical language” is what Goandar is worried about.  (Again, you are very much on the ball if you are making that complaint.)

You’re point about hegemony is astute, and I like it. Hegemony is, to be clear, my imposition. Talking about modern culture as a hegemony is not a widespread thing in rhetoric. It’s something that I’m working out, and I agree with you about the class thing. There is a response to that in Laclau and Mouffe, but I’m not really getting that into the discussion yet. I’m revealing thinking in progress there. I agree with your critique. I think using hegemony as I am trying to us it is not wrongheaded, but I’m happy to admit I haven’t worked it out. Your comment is a good one, and helpful.

The worry about what happens when we use Marxist theory is a good one, and I’ve complained quite a bit about it (in graduate school, not here).  There is a crisis communication article I know that describes Nike as a subaltern, so I feel your pain. I’m trying to be a lot more contentious than some rhetoricians about using leftist theory, but you are right that our differences in what to explore and what to blackbox, and the anti-philosophical nature of rhetoric is going to make some tension. (I think that antiphilosohpical stance IS the goal, by the way. I saw a presentation from the little Latour cadre at a conference that explicated Latour’s version of anti-philosopihcal. He is against “critique,” and is very emphatic about looking at “surfaces.”)

But enough of that. I think I see our differences better. I appreciate your perspective quite a bit, and this was useful for me. I hope it was, at least, entertaining for you.

Back to our charge. . . . there was an older and smaller group of public skeptics out there, and I think the Atheist thing offered a more ideologically driven position that has created the bigger and more political Skeptic movement.

There has been, for example, a Skeptic society and a Randi orginazation for a long time, and folks like that used to concern themselves with “critical thinking about popular culture” and debunking hokum. Randi going after faith healers, for example. The first Shermer book I read was all about cults, groupthink, and superstition, not about the more political stuff he’s been into in recent years. (Interestingly enough, he talks about having been an Evangelical Christian and then an Objectivist. Micheal Shermer is an interesting guy.)

New Atheism, I think, allowed skepticism to become a movement. It wasn’t just explaining away fringy parlor trick stuff or sensational pop culture hokum or aliens, but a serious complaint about the power that religion has in society. I can’t imagine a Skeptic movement as big as what we’ve got without new atheism. Like, there would there be a widespread movement to complain about fortune tellers? The two aren’t exactly inseparable, but from where I’m sitting, they are damn near close.

I think the materialist point of view and the concern about the influence of religion predate New Atheism, but that stuff wasn’t articulated into something resembling politics before New Atheism got rolling.

Here’s an interesting exercize. Go to The “List of Episodes” page on wikipedia for Penn and Teller’s “Bullshit.” The show starts off, in 2003, firmly in the tradition of James Randi, with episodes about psychics and Near Death Experience. By 2006, you’ve got very serious episodes about the Death Penalty and the religious influence on the Boy Scouts. (That is not an orderly progression, as they did some political topics early on, and they kept doing silly hokum stuff until the end of the show.) If we put them in the context of New Atheism in popular culture, in 2006, the Blasphemy Challenge was going strong. The tipping point had been reached by then, I think. There were probably other reasons for for the changes in that show (like running through all of the usual targets for debunking. . . I don’t think they ever did a holocaust denier show though, or P and T getting more self important or self indulgent as the show went along), but I do think there was in increasingly political point of view that Bullshit that became felt along with the rise of New Atheism. Like, these guys who were in the tradition of magic performers to debunk things (which came from Houdini, although he wasn’t a magician) ended up being political commentators. Penn has made appearances on Fox news, and he’s become a popular online personality who talks about politics, ethics and religion. I think that without new athiesm, he’d have remained a magician.

S.:  It found it interesting that some many in the New Atheist movement were actually attracted and assumed to be true some really questionable (by anyone’s standards) science like Evolutionary Psychology and memetics. This is not entirely true for the skeptic’s movement in which memetic and evo-psyche are actually high points for debate and have many within the movement considering them either proto-science or even psuedo-science, but with the New Atheist movement it seemed like evolutionary psychology and memetics were used to push evolutionary biology into the social sciences and the humanities.  I have seen this in narratology where increasingly you see evolutionary psychology used to read literature.  I found this problematic because it seemed to stem from the same disrespect for any demarcation line of discplines in a way that was really scientistic. I also noticed increasingly after Shermer a movement to talk about markets as if they were memes or even evolutionary which is something
one had seen in Von Hayek and in, frankly, in social Darwinism. Now I do know biologists who pushed back on this:  evolution is not efficient and if that comparison is being done then some primary economic assumptions even by neo-liberals can’t be shared with evolution. Do you see this drift? It is interesting to me because I have seen real push back within the Skeptic’s movement itself on evolutionary psyche and I hear fewer and fewer people pushing memes around as a serious science, but now I see it more in the humanities.  What do you make of these tendencies?

J.M.: Yeah. That pushback is maybe a way to kinda untangle the New Atheism thing from the broader Skeptic thing. I seems to me that some of New Atheism’s roots in the sciences (what I mean is simply that some of those guys are professional scientists who became being public intellectuals) have lead to efforts to appropriate, really, science rhetoric as a way to talk about philosophy, religion, or politics. The bizarre hubris of some of those guys, and the really cavalier way they make huge claims, seems to come from confidently using the wrong tools for the jobs they are trying to do. (Here’s my physics hammer that I’m going to unscrew this theology screw . . . ., and then Sam’s gonna come out with his neurology broom to replace the morality light bulbs.)

I’d have to do a lot more study and deeper reading to really make the case, but some of the more problematic scientism that I see in Skepticism seems to be coming from there. I haven’t gotten down in the weeds with that stuff in a while.

As for people in the humanities messing around with claims about  evolution. . . . ug. I haven’t read that stuff, but I’ve heard of it. It seems like the latest version of  something like early psychoanalytic criticism or archetype-oriented criticism or structuralism that some other schools that maybe tried to do to uncover some underlying “truth” in literature. I’m not familiar with the stuff you’re talking about (except for having had previous conversations with you about it), so I’m not sure what it looks like, but that move doesn’t seem that novel. Silly, but not unprcidented. (These are outside of my areas of expertise.  My interests back when I was a literature guy were really different. I haven’t read Nothrop Frye in years, and was never an expert.)

It seems like this speaks to some authority (we’ll not call it “hegemony,” but it’s some legitimacy granting sparkle dust that we seen to believe in) that science has. Like, if we can enroll ourselves in the physical, even if it’s some indirect semiotic structural way, we’re getting at an underlying reality. I know this problem a little better, oddly enough, in some social sciences and in medicine than in the humanities. There was a fallout recently in Anthropology between the social people and the “sciency” people (I don’t know what to call them).  The DSM is now supposed to be “evolutionary,” and whenever they work on a new edition, there is an outcry from therapists and researchers who see their work as being social. Or the sometimes whacky ontology of medicine. (I think by the way, that this psychical/social division is a really screwed up way to categorize things, but that’s where the fault lines of argument are. I’d say that those fault lines are problems for talking about how people do things.)

Not a “rhetorical” question: while there is pushback from skeptic people against some of the abuse of scientific rhetoric that some of the New Atheists have committed, are there people arguing for the validity of knowledge that makes no effort to do the sparkle dust thing? That, for me, would be the move that would align skepticism more in line with the arguments I’d want to make about legitimacy of practice. As was the reason for our discussion, I’ve dropped out of the skeptic thing except for reading about the occasional flashpoint, so I don’t know exactly what the conversations are right now.

S.:  I find the humanities aping the sciences problematic, and it always seems to be done with a prior paradigm is just lingering too long. In this case, I think this comes from a push back to dominant historicism. Still what bothers me is that this doesn’t seem to be the same kind of theoretical enterprise, the claim is that we are making literary studies scientific by using the sciences, not scientific by adopting their methodology. That seems to indicate that the humanities have already fell into some of this cache. Now I come with a harder sense of the demarcation line, but I see this move as invalidating in two fronts: One it weakens to humanities separate project and two it weakens clear demarcations.  To use your rhetoric, it’s self-colonization.

Do you see this as a problem?

J.M:  Probably so.

One of “our” (rhetoric’s) answers for identity/demarcation stuff is an insistence on some idea of a classical heritage, which tends to mean that we define problems according to our vocabulary. So, like, when I read Collins and Evans, for example, I want to use it to figure it out how to discuss ethos or agency. Of course, this gets us back to the Goankar problem, since that vocabulary comes with ideology. (It’s very “thin” theory, though, that can be built upon in different ways.) Actually, some of the liberal-rhetorical vs. cultural theory tension might come from that. I think the dialogue between those two ways of thinking about relationships between discourse and material culture is harder than, I think, many rhetoricians let on. (Of course, lost of folks aren’t interested in that.) And, I think, that common exigency is the reason those ways of thinking are important, and why I think they should be in dialogue. (Although, again, it’s a bear though. We’ve, I think, found differences though this conversation that I’m not sure rhetoric has thought about very much. At least not in the professional communication areas where I am.)

Arguing for the strength of the humanities (or social science that doesn’t do the magic phsycialist sparkles) as a way to know things (as opposed to it being a pedagogical or aesthetic tradition or something) without appropriating problematically or doing some other odd thing is, frankly, really tough. Not just for “cultural” or institutional reasons, but because it can be tough to argue for the legitimacy of recursive social ways of knowing that don’t end up as some kind of “linguistic turn” defense. I think the kind of literary studies you’re describing (which, again, I don’t know much about) is a major misstep in trying to think about this problem.

S.:  Anything that you would like to say in closing?

J.M.: One tricky thing about this discussion that we didn’t explicitly talk about is the difficulty in defining a “Skeptic movement.” Is is the active online communities who participate, the public intellectuals, the activists, or something else? My having “dropped out” a few years back makes me less in touch with the conversations going on at the moment, but I think I’d be a little fuzzy on that even if I were reading the blogs every day and going to events. I’m glad you pointed out that its not a monolithic perspective. One issue that we didn’t get into is that we might talk about it as a kind of identity politics, or at least, there’s some identity politics involved. That I don’t identify with.

I think many of the issues that have come up in this discussion, both in terms of talking about lenses through which we can discuss science, and in terms of the ways that science discouse is used, might be understood in terms of the constraints/affordance theme that I recognize in my rhetoric. Of course, by focusing on that theme I’m giving up other possibilities. And with the shadow of the meta creeping up again, I’ll call it a day.

Thanks for the invitation, and I really appreciate your toughness. For me, the most valuable part of this has been seeing your more political take on the Goankar problem. You’ve cogently elaborated problems in trying to think across the rhetoric/Marxian theory gap.

Graeber and Dialectics

Professor Boer over at Stalin’s Moustache has been charitably pointing out the bright spots in Graeber’s Debt, although he indicates that he has some damning criticism to follow:

Indeed, one could judge how egalitarian a society really was by exactly this: whether those ostensibly in positions of authority are merely conduits for redistribution, or able to use their positions to accumulate riches. The latter seems most likely in aristocratic societies that add another element: war and plunder. After all, just about anyone who comes into a very large amount of wealth will ultimately give at least part of it away – often in grandiose and spectacular ways to large numbers of people. The more one’s wealth is obtained by plunder or extortion, the more spectacular and self-aggrandizing will be the forms in which it is given away. And what is true of warrior aristocracies is all the more true of ancient states, where rulers almost invariably represented themselves as protectors of the helpless, supporters of widows and orphans, and champions of the poor. The genealogy of the modern redistributive state – with its notorious tendency to foster identity politics – can be traced back not to any sort of “primitive communism” but ultimatelyto violence and war (Debt, p. 113).

So I noticed that Graeber points out what Bataille pointed out in the Accursed Share, it is often largess that redistributes, but often for achieve or maintain that largess, not out of primitive communism or a non-consumptive capacity.   So unproductive wealth is shared more readily as it is gained more readily though primitive accumulation of capital.  But I fail to see, as I suspect Dr. Boer fails to see as well, how this would be a particularly new insight?   The genealogy of the welfare state is not a means to give into democratic impulses (or corruptions if one takes Nietszche at his word), but is part of the design of maintance. Identity politics means this easier to naturalize as an organic whole which is fundamentally a fetish. A physically real unreality.  But this is already implied in Marx’s terminology, which is not to say that Marx articulated this as well, but does not  contradict the general thrust of Das Kapital.

Yet it is easy to be, the Marxist watch-word, undialectical about this structure, as if the liberal revolutions did not have some element of truly liberatory mechanism:  so Graeber sees the structure trans-historically and thus prefigurative to the form, but the management of the nation-state through the welfare state does have roots in the tension between a truly egalitarian notion of “the people” as a universal and “the people ” as a nation. In other words, Graeber tries to make this a fundamental characteristic of attempts at violence and war against “primitive communism” and which thus manifests in tact in the welfare state, bu this misses that both impulses existed within the liberal revolution, otherwise it would have never been seen as break with the past, which it must have been to unleash and accelerate both productive and consumptive capacities. 

 Graeber is often interesting despite his naturalizing of proto-capitalist production and thus his transhistoricizing of prefigurative politics. In fact, his is instructive because his misreadings because even his  valid points, of which their are many, are often limited by trying make structures transhistorical.

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