Category Archives: Media

Appearance on the From Alpha to Omega Podcast: Vanguard Party?

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Tom O’Brien interviews me for the From Alpha to Omega podcast.  We discuss the Russian revolution, the Vanguard Party and it’s problems, the profound failures of the cultural revolution, and the emergence of decentralised movements like occupy and the 5-Star Movement. O’Brien has a move positive view of occupy than me, but he does get into what I see as some of the key problems of so-called “Leninism” is now.  Click here to listen. 

Ideology and the Individual In Cinema, II

By David A.

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First, before I begin, the following is not intended to make a conclusion on whether or not the modern incarnation of film represents “good” or “bad” art; I am not Slavoj Zizek, nor do I intend to be. Instead, this is a matter of examining ideologically functionality. It is intended to glance at what the majority of films, especially films derived from Hollywood, are implemented for with regards to bourgeois cultural hegemony.

We left off roughly at the conclusion that the modern manifestation of the cinematic hero is (consciously or unconsciously) a specific form of interpellation. This edition, however, seeks to understand, at least on an abstract level, the way in which the hero, the protagonist, inevitably serves a different function than it did in pre-Capitalist times given that art then was produced under different ideological circumstances, given the different mode of production which existed at the time. While what I put forth here may, indeed, apply to both the aesthetic form and with literature, I have chosen to dedicate this serial to the subject of film because it is among the chief examples (as well as the most popular) of a form of art which has developed entirely in the context of Capitalist cultural domination, and with regards to Hollywood, is entirely inseparable from the circulation of Capital (as the existence of many a studio film depends entirely on whether or not this is a possibility). This is, of course, not to say that other forms of media have not also been incorporated into the overall bourgeois superstructure; however, having existed throughout the ethos of humankind’s cultural expression, across different modes of production, such an analysis would have to be reserved for another time.

Literature and art of the past has offered us a myriad of heroes, of sagas, which romanticizes the experience of the struggle, something all organisms endure, which, in turn, formulates the narrative itself. Very often, however, the art produced existed in the realm of cultural self-expression wherein, as I previously pointed out, the characters that were produced by the narrative were entirely subject to the objective material conditions which were depicted within the narrative (wherein, also, the line betwixt fiction and non-fiction, myth and fact, was mystified). Let us examine the case of Cao Cao, as so famously depicted in the epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It was not Cao Cao, or any of the other romanticized warlords (Lu Bu, Liu Bei, etc.) who forged the narrative – they were the catalyst for the story of China’s upheavals, rather it was inversed. The troubles of that period were the catalyst for their manifestation, both in reality and, somewhat more importantly, in their immortalized depiction across the annals of history, starting from the aforementioned novel. The epistemological rupture betwixt Cao Cao or Achilles and, to use a crude example, a Rambo archetype, is that the latter exerts his determination very often isolated from or hostile to the objective material circumstances of a given situation, i.e. the masses or the environment (very often both). Only occasionally do modern heroes require the help from characters that are, of course, supporting them in their endeavor of personal conquest. In short, Cao Cao and the like are subject to the narrative at hand, whilst on the other side, modern cinematic heroes are very often masters of that very narrative.

Here I must pause, and for a moment explain that since this is being viewed through the prism of historical materialism, I must point out that I do not think that the protagonist, the hero, while nearly ubiquitous in art throughout human history, retains a transhistorical function. On the contrary, the effort must be put forth to thoroughly investigate the modern origins of the individualist archetype, immortalized time after time in the modern cinematic experience. Here, through Nietzschean self-determination and will, the protagonist is never subject to the objective conditions, but the very catastrophe of it’s being, manifested in explosions and gunfights, forms the modern narrative, seeping down into all manners of artwork from the golden screen above. Wherein did the protagonists’ function depart from an agent of cultural self-expression, in which they are secondary to overall drama of the narrative itself, to functioning as an agent of self-assertion whose very existence is the narrative? When did the protagonist become reified into the narrative itself, and when did narrative no longer from the soil from which various characters spring up? Without the Trojan war, without the siege of Troy, the objective conditions of the time, could Homer have had an avenue through which all those heroes could have been highlighted? Fictional or not, the objective events of that time shaped the stories, formed the narrative, from which characters sprang – and to those conditions were they vulnerable. Without the mistake made by Asano Naganori in assaulting Kira Yoshinaka, and without all the developments which transpired afterwards, again the objective conditions from which characters spring, what would have become of the Japan’s national legend, The 47 Ronin?

It should be noted that while looking fondly on storytelling of the past, this piece in no way suggests that the ethos of art return to the way it was in a previous mode of production, as such a thing would be the act of a philistine at best, and the crime of a reactionary at the worst. Springing back to the present, we can see that the narrative, the objective conditions, does not proceed the protagonists, but rather it is composed by the interpersonal affairs of the protagonist itself; the narrative is subject to them, and as such, cannot form independently. How often does the vigilant movie-watcher spot something attributable to the protagonist which forms a plot hole, and upon pointing that out, is met with the usual,

“Well then, there’d be no movie!”

Behold, post-modern fascism.

The most recent example would be the film Django Unchained, which while personally artistically satisfying, exemplifies this motif. It is a fascistic masterpiece insofar as the entire plot arch revolves around the existence and self-determination of a lone individual, in this case Django, and could not even materialize without him. There are rare exceptions, but generally in the modern ethos of film, this is the formula which is employed to tell a story. Perhaps it can be said that the objective conditions forming the subjective experiences exist, but that the subjective experiences are the foreground, while the masses, the landscape, all exist in the background and would not at all be explored save for the existence of the protagonist. A necessary investigation, which should be saved for another time, would be examining the rupture points wherein the modes of expression changed function, even use-value, and responded to the shifts in the modes of production.

Antiquity clearly employed one distinct form of function in artistic expression from modernity; where we are lost is the in-between, where the function ceased one form and manifested into another.
If we work alongside the notion of material progression, then we are of course bound to incorporate the status of artistic mediums into that overall equation. The key is watching for new artistic mediums as well as the movements which start in their wake, which have a tendency to react to external stimuli, mostly springing from the masses. Clutching to the events and upheavals of a given time, the points demonstrated earlier that art directly corresponds to the ideological mood of the time, and most of it is in turn completely overtaken by the cultural hegemon.

The presence of the gaze, which is something acknowledged throughout production of a film, is itself a direct result of the current mode of production, forms a key function of the shift in artistic, especially cinematic, function, The gaze, often contained within the span of two or so hours, fixates you upon a particularity, who’s aesthetic appeal has a limited span of time, and cannot enjoy the sort of permanence that a book, painting, sculpture, etc. enjoys. Meanwhile, a particular scene can be enjoyed multiple times, but against, within a specific time/framework, while consciously being subjected to the gaze of the viewer. Add the subjective perception of the viewer into this framework, whom is aware of the conditions in which the illusion of film takes places (ignoring it via the suspension of disbelief), here we already have a relationship with a disposition towards atomization. Here, the time to espouse an artistic point is not measured in lifetimes (such as the cultural importance of a particular painting or piece of literature), at most it is measured in generations with the case of film, and certain hastiness must take place. A scene, a filmed narrative, must work to have all the necessary details ready at once, while producing the agents of narrative whose composition is entirely sweeping enough to at least appeal to a majority of the viewership, at least the intended viewership (again, this is a matter of Capital circulation). Here the intention is established; that insofar as it will circulate capital, the development of a narrative which does not relate to a culture-at-large, but rather individual dispensers of cash, i.e. the viewership, films will continuously produce narratives composed by irrational individual heroes.

Knowing this, it cannot be emphasized enough to remember that film is rarely produced for the sake of artistic satisfaction, but instead serves an economic use-value (entertainment) and has proven to a be an extremely viable method of capital accumulation and circulation. We have only faint glimpses of what cinema looks like divorced from bourgeois cultural hegemony, and most of said material has been produced in the past from consciously revolutionary movements which sought to do this very thing, existing only in brief spats of time. Inversing the narrative and protagonist, or clearing distinctions between the two, demonstrates the ideology of rash individualism in society-at-large; through this, even in the most crowded theater or in the thickest of a party, atomization (cinema being on aspect of interpellating this point) has ensured that we shall all continuously be alone together.

In the modern narrative form, which is embodied in most cinema, adapting to all new forms of media, it enforces the notion (consciously or unconsciously) that the mostly socially-constructed notion of the individual exists in its most terrifying form, in completely isolation from one another, and the heroics of modern cinema only serve to reinforce this idea that you and you alone are the master of objective material circumstance. It serves to inject the idea into the masses that the individual exists in the foreground of all matters, severed from the backdrop.

Another crude example is the Batman; Bruce Wayne is the avenue through which we come to explore and understand the city of Gotham, which is the crux of the narrative even though it is quite obvious that because of that environment itself is he initially. Even long before the narratives of Batman, when cowboys were still in style, we see that, no, it is not the chaotic, beautiful (already inhabited) lands of the American West, with all its towering heights, that forms the prerequisite from which the fascistic heroic cowboy emerges; rather, because of that hero and the endeavors which he undertakes do we understand the latter.

Again, partly because of time, because of the gaze, the subject may not be presented with the totality from which our gun-toting ranger first bolts out of upon his trusted steed. Setterlism, in all it’s grotesque romanticism, must be at once personified into a Clint Eastwood, whom above all else is both in the narrative but at the same, because he has the ability to intervene in affairs, is above it. There are, again, always exceptions; however, the ontology of cinema, especially in the United States, can be characterized in this way, albeit very roughly at this stage in the analysis. Art, like many things in bourgeois society, requires remnants of past times to be incorporated into the mold of the superstructure when the use-value of a particular cultural ethos is favorable to bourgeois cultural hegemony. In the case of film, the ethos of the hero, which of course, has thus far manifested throughout history, has been entangled in the affairs of cinematic interpellation, a reactionary left-over from times bygone, yet still retaining the ability to captivate an audience. Although in this way, it shifts in function, and the hero itself transformed into something extreme, into something irrational. Boundless, the narrative must now surrender to the modern individual protagonist, whom now, more than ever, it owes its existence to. Now, more than ever, the narrative is not producing agents of storytelling, but as we have said, it is borne from an agent. Serving numerous functions, chief among them capital accumulation via entertainment value (the economics/chrematistics of the matter of the material base), the precise character of the modern hero fits neatly into the manifolds of bourgeois cultural hegemony, in both the productivist sense as well as feeding the ideological necessity of irrational individualism.

The great thieving empire

I appreciate the many thoughtful responses to my quirky first post regarding reading Zerzan prior to going shopping at a big box store, especially skepoet2’s post. There is a lot to chew on there, and rather than spiral into back and forth contretemps, I thought I would try to clarify a little more what I meant in the initial post, and perhaps show my own hand concerning my opinions if they have not been sufficiently articulated.

First of all, some of my points concerning the division of labor should have highlighted better the problem at the international level, rather than just hypothetical questions as to who takes out the garbage. I think, for example, of Bolivian president Evo Morales’s overly simplified but still rather intriguing description of the causes of the economic crisis in the “developed world”:

There’s a crisis in the United States, there is a crisis in some countries of Europe. What conclusion do I reach: since they are not robbing us, since they are not looting us, there is crisis in the capitalist European countries, and we are lifting ourselves up… Now that they can’t steal, they are having an economic and fiscal crisis.
Read the rest of this entry

Ideology and the Individual in Cinema part I

David Anspach

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“You don’t know it, but you’re doing it.” – Karl Marx

“For example, in painting the form arises from abstract elements of line and color, while in cinema the material concreteness of the image within the frame presents – as an element – the greatest difficulty in manipulation.” -Eisenstein

Among the necessary tasks which communists must undertake in this wild, untamed new time is a renewal of critiques leveled at all art and media which is produced within the framework of bourgeois hegemony; in particular, we must begin a renewed campaign against literature and film — which undoubtedly act as one of the major sources of cultural interpellation. While this may be a conscious or unconscious effort, I have concerned here myself with establishing the beginnings of a critique towards film, and hope to expand upon it in greater detail throughout the works that will come after this one. It is a subject which, when time is permitting, has held a great deal of my recreational interest (specifically in those dreamy, prepolitical years of my adolescence). My main concern revolving around this cultural critique is that film is not only something which an enormous portion of the American masses come into contact with, it is something by which the whole of the Earth knows us by (especially with regards to our blockbuster films). This subject, of course, should be of immense interest to anyone looking to uphold or anyone looking to cast asunder said bourgeois cultural hegemony, and the fact that this hegemony exists at all should be considered a priori when moving forward with this particular intro, as well as the future works which I contribute in relation to this series
The school of thought from which I approach this work is, first and foremost, heavily influenced by mostly French thinkers (Barthes, Lacan with a heavier emphasis upon materialism, and Althusser) as the discipline in question, Apparatus Film theory, is almost entirely composed of such thinkers. Firstly, within the sphere of historical dialectical materialist thinking the goal of later pieces will surely be an effort at constructing a larger body of work which, eventually culminating in to what I hope will be a worthwhile indictment on the use of none other than the protagonist itself.
You see, being that individualism (or at least, selective individualism) is the dominant segment of thinking within the sphere of bourgeois cultural hegemony, I think it is no wonder that the exceedingly vast majority of film, and literature for that matter, requires the irrational protagonist (that is, the hero, in all it’s manifestations, flawed or otherwise) as a main vehicle for narrative. Insofar as ones mind is driven towards the establishment of collective living, I think it neccessary that Communists begin the task of dissecting, and ultimately, destroying the protagonist as one of the sole means of narrative. It is a daunting task, of course, one which I shall spend a great deal of time upon, and shall attentively study what topics I encounter before posting further works on the matter, yet like this is the case with all tasks lying at the forefront of all which radical thinkers must contend with. And more than a mere critique of the modern film industry, I hope to comb through the historical tendencies in film (those which have persisted through the years, those that have been discarded) in order to try and firmly grasp an understanding of the medium of film as it currently exists.
First, to establish the tone of this and future works, I will maintain the Althusserian view that film, of course, is apart of the vast network of ideological tools which inoculates the masses for a certain mode of thinking.
To quote Althusser, film is a part of the system in which “…all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects”.
Viewing the phenomena of film through this prism, one is almost certainly going to find themselves at odds with the orthodox, petty-bourgeois view of film historians who’s historical logic is quite mired in formalism and Auteuristic thinking. As such, the view that, whether consciously or unconsciously, film produced in a bourgeois framework is inevitably gong to produce reactionary sentiments will always clash with the old guard of film theory (which, in the Western world, is vigilantly watching over the camp of formalist narrative). In an effort to unearth the many reactionary social relations which are exemplified in film, the tool which is the protagonist appears to us as among the most important.
I maintain this because the near-universal prevalence of the individual protagonist epitomizes the grotesquely American mentality of ”rugged individualism”, which daily haunts the efforts of proletarian artistic ambition — along with many other material factors (namely, economic opportunity, but that is a discussion for another time). Communists who are seeking to combat the cultural hegemony at work should not be bashful in their ambitions or in stating their intentions; rather, we should throw ourselves headfirst into the vast sea of historical tendencies towards reaction, which is heavily strewn throughout the pathos of cinema. With this, we should of course be reexamining our understanding of the Lacanian ”gaze”, and beyond the hopelessly amorphous Zizekian reasoning towards it.
The notion of the lone, individual hero, while almost omnipresent, is not a universal phenomena (for instance, in the television series the Wire there was not a heavy emphasis upon an individual protagonist, placing emphasis instead upon the totality of the city of Baltimore itself). There have been numerous and noteworthy examples coming from early Russian and Soviet cinema, particularly in the literary tradition of Ostrovsky as well as the cinematic tradition of earlier Eisenstein, all the way to the achievements in Chinese cinema under the pre-Dengist CCP. Elsewhere, there were some minute attempts towards protagonist deconstruction or even outright destruction in the Situationist movement, albeit with often mixed to mediocre results in terms of conveying this kind of thinking to the spectator (the subject, after all).

Althusser

However, as we all surely understand, the vast majority of cinema, and quite nearly a hundred percent of what comes out of the West, depends upon narratives which are entirely driven by the tragedy and triumph of the individual, even when the suffering of the masses is present in the backdrop. It is nearly an inescapable phenomena, even in the most beautiful of cinematic pieces; from Delluc’s La Femme de nulle part, to Kuleshov’s We From the Urals, all the way up to a modern masterpiece such as Children of Men. Such a thing may very well help compose the essence of art under the hegemony of bourgeois reaction, wherein art (like all things) can very rarely escape the cultural artifacts which to make up the fabric of our interpersonal relations. Knowing this, it is simply a matter of nitpicking films which seem to speak to a revolutionary collective mindset (which would require the employ of opinionated metaphysics) and we instead must take up this sword of Democles against all cinema which has been produced in correspondence with the capitalist mode of production. We must do so with the full knowledge that destruction of the protagonist has only been done in the guise of experimentation, applied in practice with a ”touch-and-go” mentality — without ever once piercing the hull of mainstream, philistine cinema.
No doubt we shall encounter those more or less unversed in the now all too esoteric radical modes of thinking who will ask, ”Why is this, the destruction of the protagonist, of such artistic importance?”

Really, we must answer as honestly as we can by acknowledging, as I have stated, the fundamental use of film as an apparatus, especially in the context of this era. The fascistic drive towards focusing upon the individual hero, of the Overman protagonist, relies upon several subjective human experiences which, in turn, give it potency (various emotional responses, particularly pride, fear and anger). It can often be strange phenomena which, as Laura Mulvey has pointed out, can induce a sort of transsexual identification in the case of female protagonists in films geared towards male demographics, or vice versa (whenever the particular plot or target audience demands this be the case).
This is due not only to the conscious efforts of the studio itself seeking to convey a certain feeling upon the spectator (mostly in the name of profit and Capital, something which destroys the notion of total Auteuristic validity) but it is also due in part to the condition of individualism which is already present in the spectator. In this way, cinema and spectator (object and subject) can very often influence one another while the axis of ”the gaze” remains present. What film produced in bourgeois society does is to (again, consciously or unconsciously) come to terms with the condition of atomization which all those living in modernity experience. This is part of the Althusserian assertion of bourgeois hegemony being conveyed through film, i.e. the hero overcoming the adverse conditions which befall them, often or always upon the basis of their own merit. This should be a familiar mantra, something which the bourgeois state and cultural apparatus daily instills into our heads from the second we enter schooling to the second we are no longer a viable source of producing surplus value.’ And what a convenient narrative it is — and in film, it is forced upon the spectator in the form of that archetypical Ubermenschian who breathes ”the thinnest air of the highest peaks” (to paraphrase Nietzsche) in order to see above the rabble, and the struggle to do so almost always forms the fictional narrative itself. Shouldering this burden, however, are the masses who week-after-week spend countless man hours upon film, flocking into crowded theaters, or increasingly, hiding away in their living rooms or in front of their computer screens, to witness film after film made up almost entirely of grandiose fiction about (obviously) unrealistic heroic peaks. Perhaps this ethos of cinema is most apparent at the moment in the highly entertaining but nevertheless fascistic Django Unchained.
While this piece is intended to be a mere introduction to further periodicals on this subject, I think it’s important to begin the dialogue on this matter. In order to ascertain a bold, new and unflinching proletarian outlook upon the development of film, we who are captivated by this topic must go back through the annals of cinematic history — to the beginning, and back up again. Yet, it is not merely enough to draw upon hitherto established tendencies from the early Eisensteinian (breaking with films such as Ivan the Terrible for both it’s reactionary nationalism as well as raw individualism) or other traditions in the same vein (although that is of critical importance) but we must also travel down new, untested roads which confront the ever-present struggle betwixt the object and subject in the context of cinema. Our (that is to say, we Communists) central task being the confrontation of all things stemming from bourgeois hegemony, then a critical dialectical understanding of film in all its manifestations (film being at the forefront of consumable media) requires our immediate attention. In turn, the cultural vanguard elements, moving along with the masses, must gaze suspiciously unto the hero who confronts us with his harsh individualism. From the director to the protagonist, this sentiment, along with it’s callous disregard for the masses who inevitably are the source of all materials, must eventually be set aside and left at the door for broader horizons to open up before us. The fictional hero, who spreads his wings and soars overhead of the narrative (apart of it, but somehow, also above it) must be done away with. Whether this process is apart of the revolution itself or it forms the way in which the masses prepare for such an event is of no consequence. What matters is that it eventually reach a quantitative-qualitative conclusion, departing from the current (and now, increasingly artistically destructive) way in which a story is told.
These things being said, one of the central tasks of these coming pieces will not only be the opening up dialogue on the destruction of the protagonist of modernity but differentiating it from the hero-myths of past narrative — albeit, the latter is not something we can return to. However, as I will explore in later pieces, I think there is a stark difference between the cultural functions of the Achilles or Liu Bei archetypes, and the John McLeans or Jason Bournes (to name but two philistine examples). Of the former, it can be said that whether or not the character in question is derived from actuality (which very often they were) is of no consequence; rather, we must look at individual heros of antiquity as cultural summations which reflect not only a different mode of production (all cultural activity inevitably correspond with this) but also a different outlook on existence altogether. The hero of Hellenic or Asiatic antiquity does not work in spite of the environment from which he is produced, and when the hero does undertake such folly, it often leads to their demise. This is opposed to the modern incarnation of heroism, where in the realm of cinema, the role is taken one step further, and all things are done in spite of the environment from which the narrative is produced. Again, this struggle may compose the very story itself.

I highlight this difference and will continue to do so because it reflects the essential point of this piece; ideology, and it’s inevitable place spellbinding us in various artistic mediums. While I do not harbor any reactionary sentiment towards the heroic culture of old, understanding the contrasting functions which these two manifestations of story-telling is essential to understanding that cinema has become a medium of irrational individualism, as have most artistic ambitions in the framework of Capital.
If we are not yet prepared to begin the task of destroying the protagonist, which is something I would not hesitate to admit, then we must at least be honest with ourselves relative to the function of the protagonist in modern cinema. The pieces which will follow this, I hope, can serve as a catalyst for this necessary dialogue, which has considerably waned in intensity since the days of Lacan and Althusser, having only been recently employed by the likes of Slavoj Zizek, who’s clumsy analysis of it all has sent us looking further into the darkness. And while one has to begrudgingly admire Zizek for such efforts amidst the grim, lifeless state which academic study towards the subject is in, we simply have to push further towards a new, proletarian understanding of film, and art in general.

Marginalia on Radical Thinking: Dialogue with Keith418 on the moral grounding of political notions

This is the fifth interview in a series with Keith418. The first one is here, the second one is here,  the third is here, and the fourth is here.  Keith418 is one of the most controversial figures in modern Thelema.  His interviews on the defunct Thelema: Coast to Coast were often rigorous and demanding, yet highly contentious.  Keith418 has also documented thinkers on both the radical right and the far left often comparing those thinkers to the problematic thought in the Occult community.  He has recently spoken at C-realm podcast as well. 

Skepoet: Recently, you and I were discussing about how even in groups that are interested in “inequality” or even “the working class” or “labor” there is an avoidance of class dynamics. I think we both think this comes from training class as if it were just another “identity” like gender or race.  Would you like to elaborate on that?

Keith418:  A friend noted that, when class is discussed at all these days, it’s talked about as another kind of “identity.” As in, “respect people from the working class.” It’s not about how those people are formed or used or how those subjects are created and why they are here. Instead, it’s a demand that they be honored and respected and appreciated – not that “class” as an issue be erased or that the forces that create different classes be eliminated. People are supposed to be proud to be “working class” – just like they are proud to be “gay” or proud to be “black.” The underlying mechanism of class and class domination is never discussed. This naturalizes class. It looks like a trenchant criticism of the status quo, but it’s not. How is this not a problem and why aren’t people addressing it? If we all learn to respect the “working class” does that mean we use them with cleaner consciences? Is this what the left wants?

S.: Clearly this seems to be a move towards things that are more obvious, but also more obviously arbitrary.  They can be subsumed in liberal modernity pretty easily, while class if viewed as a something that is unacceptable is not something that accommodation can handle.   In that sense, actually winning would require something that is destabilizing.  Although oddly, this brings me to our recent debate on Jonathan Haidt, do you think that focus on class as identity instead of class as foundation is part of a liberal moral virtue of inclusiveness?

K.:  I think class as identity is just easier for them to cope with  than class as a product of human relations. This is the same, when you think about it, with gender and race. There is a virtuous sense of equality and value that seems to assume that “respecting” people alleviates the need to stop exploiting them. Liberals and the left like to look at problems, but examining the causes for those problems is harder for these folks to do. That “racism is wrong” they will readily acknowledge and helpfully explain to us. But what causes it?
If everyone is guilty and implicated, who will guide to our glorious new society and who – untainted – will govern it?

Who will be the left’s managers? If we assume a revolution, who will manage the resources after it is over? How will these people be trained and developed – and what would prevent them from simply be assumed into the ruling structure the left is seeking to overthrow?

The anti-revisionist left used to urge people to “go into the factories” right? Why didn’t that work out? Is anyone asking? Did factory work become too numbing for everyone? Or did the other workers simply not respond to their ideologies? I find the fact that so few seem to be curious about the history of these groups and their struggles and decline to be itself curious. You’d think people would be researching this stuff so as to learn from these groups and their mistakes. Who does and why don’t they?

We’ve talked about the people who are “Progressive Except for Palestine.” What about the folks who are “Progressive Except for Income Inequality”? This not insubstantial group views the current society as a meritocracy and wants to make sure everyone gets a fair shake within it. They care about every liberal issue – like gay marriage, environmentalism, and women’s rights – that doesn’t call into question the ownership of the means of production and how their own particular privilege is maintained within it.

What I don’t grasp is why the “real left” never goes after these people. Instead, everyone wants to target what remains of the white working class and its issues – never the privilege of the NPR-listening, Prius-driving, white liberal elites. What I see on Facebook and elsewhere are people who keep shooting down the class slope. They may see themselves as “leftists” but their cultural targets are always poorer and less educated than they are. As long as the working class and the poor do not obey the left’s ideological dictates about, say, science and gender issues, they will remain the enemy.

S.:  This is an interesting contradiction then isn’t it?  The right is supposedly exclusive, but has a populist base largely on a willingness to be broad on cultural issues, but leftist and liberals both tend to be supposedly populist but whose ideological and aesthetic judgments are elitist.  Do you think this contradiction is something Haidt’s research help you understand?

K.: No, I’ve looked at it for a long time – as I think anyone who has worked seriously in left-liberal circles has. Ken Minogue pointed out, some time ago, the way the left has a very elitist nature. They are the ones who are enlightened – the elect seeking to liberate the ignorant. This kind if condescension appears to me to be another way Judeo-Christian translates into the left’s approach. “The blessed” – who are distinguished by being always ready to profess the right and virtuous opinions are in conflict with the “poor and benighted” who don’t get. It’s worse lately. now the left seeks to speak ‘truth to the stupid” rather than speaking truth to “power.” they ARE the power and their values and the the ones that dominate. In any event, it’s always about attacking the people poorer and less privileged than they are. The people who weren’t privileged enough to go to good schools and who don’t understand why you have to listen to NPR, drive a Prius and take canvas bags to the grocery store. Those people, of course, are the problem – not the people running the non-profits and elite foundations.

S.: What if the left or liberals just openly embraced elite culture and values?  It seems like conservative values in the US are just as elitists in their function economically, but it just a different set of elites. What bothers me is the patent hypocritical nature of both claims, again, with a slight deviant perhaps being paleo-conservatives who do see themselves as a remnant elite, but as you have said, “they were bad suits.”

K.: What does it matter to us if none of these groups has any real authority or even an understanding of what that is – where it originates, what it constitutes? I’m not seeing any evidence that any of them has the slightest clue. Science cannot tell us what our values should be, and the values that used to motivate people before the age of science aren’t working well no matter how they get restated or disguised and stuck into new, and usually threadbare and cheap, costumes. A real elite needs real authority, They don’t have it. None of them do. It’s all increasingly revealed as feeble and inauthentic posturing. Real authority is like real art – it has to engage with and proceed from and return to the absolute. What Facebook and the Internet show us is that no one can be consistent any longer – and without that sense of consistency there is no authenticity and no real authority.

S.:  If I understand you correctly, at the moment, no one seems to be operating from a point of consistency ideologically, or in connection with power.  So embracing elitism honestly would be impossible in that situation.  Do you see this increasing?

K.:  I think we have to look carefully at the ‘truth to power” line. Lately, the leftists I know want to speak “truth to stupid.” We see this with their anger at the small government types, the people who deny climate change, or the religious. This is a very different dynamic and one that has come to usurp the former idea. Are we oppressed by power or by ignorance? The frustrations and the contempt the managers have for the managed is not “revolutionary” – is it?

I also notice that many leftists seem reluctant to lampoon, satirize, and generally disparage the accouterments and excesses of the privileged. Look at the paintings of George Grosz and the cartoons in The Masses. Who is going after the privileged elites today with the same kind of venom and sharpened ire? Look at the wealthy families with their spoiled children and their paraded pretensions – this isn’t ripe for criticism? Yet who on the left does this? We don’t see it – any more than we see leftist satires of elite and, obviously hypocritical, “liberal” Zionists. The desire to target the lifestyles and presumptions of the privileged elites just isn’t there.Why not? Is it because these people are allies against the “conservative” masses? Do people on the left aspire themselves to lofts in Brooklyn with nannies who know to recycle?

Maybe the old WASP elites were different. Now that new elites, from other ethnic groups have emerged, no one feels the same motivation to take them out and to subject them to righteous ridicule.

S.:  This seems tangentially related to another issue you and I have talked about: The refusal to look seriously at failures of left-wing thought in the past is deeply there. For example, you pointed me to a Kasama post reviewing at book on the Sojourner Truth Organization which flippantly skipped over both the fact that STO had got little support from the racial communities it was aiming to aid and also ignored the later ideas and controversies of  Noel Ignatiev.   What do you make of that?

K.:   I’m not sure. I read and wondered what planet these people are living on. It’s like the truth, the reality is so painful they explore these histories as barely explored mythologies and leave as much as they can out of it. Where are the left’s much vaulted critical thinking skills?

What about all the people in the STO that put years of their lives into that project only to watch it crash and burn? Did it strike you as strange that there seemed to be so little looked at there?

S.: It does strike me as strange. In fact, it strikes me as strange that few people discuss the 1970s and 1980s New Communist movement, they always focus on the anti-Revisionists in the 1960s and just want to pretend that the 1970s didn’t happen, and then the 1980s emerge as some kind of conspiratorial relapse. Both the far left and the liberal left does this: the liberal left pretends that Stagflation didn’t happen in the 1970s and neo-liberalism emerged solely as a political project, and the far left doesn’t want to look at the 1968 in France was put down without a single shot fired, how Nixon won in the end of the 60s, etc.  The right is in denial about a lot of things too, but I am not a rightist, so it isn’t my responsibility to criticize it.

Do you think this runs into basically ideological tribalism where one gives one’s own group a heuristic of charity and the opposing group at a heuristic of demonization?

K.:  I tend to see these partisan battles as the result of the way Judeo-Christianity has permeated secular political thinking – what you refer to as “political theology.” One group is either the “elect” or the  “chosen people” who are always innocent and the other group is ignorant and beneath contempt. The good and noble group is the “light unto the nations” and the rest are seen as without redeeming or admirable features. Likewise any undeniable faults in your own group are understandable and “tragic” while the problems the  other groups face are a result of their bad ideas and beliefs.

In looking at some of the left discourse, it seems to me to be less about a political movement for real change and more of a way to have a kind of secret and superior analysis of events always at hand – like many occultists seem to see occultism.  You get to feel superior by knowing, for example, when an institution is “patriarchal” while never criticizing your own continuing participation in said institution.

Are those on the left really as smart as they think they are? If they are that smart, where is their challenging thinking? Why aren’t there hundreds of Glenn Greenwalds rather than just one? What kills me are all the leftists I know who claim to admire Greenwald and go right ahead cheerfully carrying water of Obama and ignoring everything he says. The “far leftists” do want to make their middle of the road liberal friends mad by attacking Obama with any real venom. I do not get it.

S. I wrote something on Tim Wise attacking Greenwald for being a racist for saying that Ron Paul was better on war questions than Obama, but really, Ron Paul is.  Furthermore it struck me that Wise was trading in the symbolic capital of a “black” President for the actual lived lives of brown people far away. Now admittedly both Wise and Greenwald are white, but it seemed like a laughably bad argument.

This brings me to another topic: even fairly well-off conservatives, as you have pointed out in some of your writings, say the correct liberal things on race in public and when they don’t the backlash is extreme. But as you point out, this can lead to a “leftism” and a “rightism” without much substance. For example, one can renounce one’s own privilege, say all the right things, hire the right people, and have  a few symbolic members of the right minorities in your in-group but nothing fundamentally has changed for most people economically.

K.:  There’s a couple of things here. One, Look at Ron Paul on drug use. Assuming he is a racist – and I don’t think he is at all, but let’s allow the assumption – he still wants to end the drug laws and release every black person in prison who’s there for drug charges. Obama, as we have seen, has been determined to not only coninue the drug war, but his AG has even started to go after medical marijuana in places where the voters have approved it. In old Marxist-speak, can’t we then say that Obama is more “objectively racist” than Ron Paul? No one is pointing to this because the left has backed away from opposing the drug war. If anyone disputes this, then why aren’t they more enraged at Obama and his supporters for continuing it? Even the Marxists I know do not get on Facebook and rage at their liberal friends for supporting Obama. Do you see this? I do not see it.

We can say that the right has been co-opted by its own commitments to a Judeo-Christian ethic that has been secularized into “progressive” positions in various ways, but I would look to Hegel as to why they can’t resist this process. There is no “right” in America that is harshly critical of Judeo-Christianity the way there is in Europe – no meaningful tradition or one that has produced an insightful and substantive literature. Therefore, when the American right is appealed to in Christian terms, it tends to cave sooner or later.

We can go back to the work of Kenneth Minogue, who I have been reading recently, who carefully analysed the way being a liberal means having the right opinions and saying the right things – it doesn’t mean DOING all that much. People recite the opinions they know they are supposed to have and go right on living their lives the same way. Nothing changes except for what they say. That’s how everyone knows you’re a good person. Minogue – in his day – carefully criticized ideologies, but I wonder how the people who read him in the ’60s see how neoconservatism fulfilled every single one of his criteria for what an “ideology” consists of. Few on the right realize this.

 S.:  I was amazed at that actually: How accurate the some of the proto-conservative critiques of ideology where and yet how quickly they developed into the most obvious and crude form of an ideology?  Leftists, of course, sort of pioneered this self-blindness in modernity, but it’s probably a near universal trait to monist onthologies. Do you think the neo-conservatives can be a lesson to Marxist in a deep way and not merely as a cautionary tale that Paleo-conservatives tell their children?
K.: Well, look at the way those on the left seem to prefer the neocons to libertarians. They almost always prefer a pro-war neocon to an anti-war libertarian. And the neocons are careful to make their appeals for imperialism in language that will appeal to the left. We invade other countries in the same way we sent the National Guard in to help desegregate schools in the South – for humanitarian and democratic reasons! Dick Cheney came out in favor of gay marriage before Obama did!Where is the real hostility to the neocons on the left? Where is the analysis of their origins, their policies, their motivations in left circles? I am not seeing it. Why the lack of curiosity and interest? Given the amount of power they exercise, this seems strange. I am far more invested in what people don’t want to think about and talk about these days than I am in looking at why they are saying.

S.:  Well, I see plenty of hostility to the name of neo-conservative and to key figures, but I don’t see a lot of hostility to the policy consistency between Obama and Cheney in the US liberal and even some of the far left circles.   Furthermore, when most liberals and left-liberals use the term neo-conservative, they honestly seem to have little idea where it is from.  Or the closeness of the key figures in both the US and Europe to Social Democratic and Trotskyist positions.

So why do you think Marxists are so afraid to seriously look at libertarians? Most Marxists have never cracked Von Mises, Rothbard, or even Hayek, and keep Rand around as a sort of easy scare tool.    We know what left-liberals do: In times when Republicans are governing, they cozy up to libertarians only to denounce them with utmost vitriol as a conspiracy by the Koch brothers later.   I have little love for libertarian economics, but it seems even from an heightening “the contradictions” tactical front, Libertarians are better are pointing out the problems of the military-police state than most liberals.
K.:  Many on the left want to attack the libertarians for being the stalking horses of the corporate capitalists. They aren’t though. That’s the problem. Corporations desperately need big government to keep themselves going: contracts, bail-outs, interventions, protections, etc. No corporation wants a real libertarian agenda. If they did, Fox News would be lionizing Ron Paul instead of censoring him and cutting away from him during debates.My friends on the left hate to look at this because it wrecks their narrative. If they abandon that narrative they have to look at the way they demand obedience to the state in ways that make them uncomfortable. Remember, Buckley and the neocons tossed the libertarians under the bus quite a
long time ago. Murray Rothbard was one of the early people who went through the purge process at National Review. The neocons may hate the paleocons, but they hate anti-war libertarians even more.I have no idea why the leftists I know have no interest in studying and attacking the neocons. Is it because they are afraid of being called antisemites? That fear seems to prevent them from criticizing Israel most of the time. Do liberals even know the socially “left” necons like David Brooks really aren’t fellow liberals? Sometimes I wonder if they grasp that fact. Remember, you can be a neocon and support gay rights and abortion. They welcome people with those positions. You can actually be okay with socialized health care too.
You can stay a neocons and be quite liberal on every domestic issue. It’s the Foreign Policy stuff that makes for trouble. There you have to toe the line. How is that really any different from many liberals we know?

Real libertarians are principled and consistent in ways that a lot of folks just aren’t right now. The anti-war libertarians are just as hard on Obama as they were on Bush as they were on Clinton as they were on Bush. Again, this messes up the left narrative – a narrative that plays down its own tendency to play partisan games and cut people defying its own principles slack when convenient. The liberals I know do this weird thing which thing where they embrace Obama while attacking his actual policies. It’s schizophrenic. Or they pretend the bad things he does need to be blamed on others. It’s part of the strange, unremarked upon, and nearly universal inconsistency we see on Facebook all the time. I see people on Facebook decrying an Obama policy one day and then posting these “Awwww!” pictures of him and Michelle dancing together the next. They take umbrage when you point out that they are being inconsistent – but does anyone link automatically link personal authenticity to personal consistency any longer?

S.:  Do you think the post-structural acceptance of inconsistency has any influence here? As many do? Or is it more profound than that?  I seems to me that if the left really believed in the contradictions of capitalism and had faith in it’s motivations, it would just let the libertarians try and fail instead of demonizing them.  If the libertarian position is impossible to put in practice, it seems odd to spend so much time critiquing it and not other forms of “bad leftism.”  Or is this about a call to solidarity that is about an inch deep?
K.: Why doesn’t the left go after the liberals more? Look at what Obama is doing. Are you really all that tough on him and his fans?
S.: I believe one) most of the left in the US and probably in Social Democratic Europe has liberal tendencies, and two) many people who still, in my opinion foolishly, have pretensions for some kind of left-liberal/left voting coalition.  So it seems like a double problem, but it is definitely a real one.  I personally take a lot of shit for mildly rebuking people for  the pale excuses the left gives liberals on fear of Republicans, but one must almost admit that from a anti-imperial standpoint, the Democrats can more easily start wars and have drone strikes than a Republican. Sort of the inversion of the only Nixon can go to China problem.Still we aren’t as tough on him as we should be. No doubt about that.  I suppose one can see similar incoherence on the American right, but it seems like actually internal critique on that end is higher while maintaining much more discipline.

K.: Pointing back to the right is a partisan reflex. It doesn’t answer the question. Are people on the left worried about criticizing Obama because such attacks might be seen as racist? Are they really all that worried about offending their liberal friends? Concerned that they might not “get invited to the right parties” as a friend of mine put it? Or have they abandoned principles and are just as inconsistent as everyone else?I’m not convinced anyone believes what they say they do when they don’t act consistently. Justin and the other people at Antiwar.com might be libertarian wackos, but they are all far more consistent when it comes to their principles than any of my liberal friends ever are. You could be as vociferous as Phil Weiss is, or as consistent as Justin is, but are you? If you’re not, why aren’t you? These are questions people on the left need to ask themselves and pointing across the aisle – isn’t that another dodge away from accountability?

At a certain point, in its early stages, the Internet and emerging social media was interesting because of what it said. Now, what it won’t say, what it won’t discuss or talk about, is even more interesting.

S.:  Do you think social media has actually reigned in and limited views through social over-exposure?
K.:  Or has it exhausted itself? Over time, we can watch certain discussions follow well-established routes. Things trail off just when we know they will. Facebook pulls in people you know from different parts of your life: extended family, neighbors, schoolmates, co-workers, romantic partners, etc. How honest and direct can anyone be about essential and controversial matters in front of such an audience? We now have the ability to publish our thoughts, for next to nothing, and have them instantly available to a large audience all over the world. And, just at that moment, no one has anything important to say, do they?
S.:  There is both no cost to publish and a high cost in social standing for saying the wrong thing.  That does exhaust thought.On left’s critique of Obama, have you heard of Roberto Unger?

K.:  Yes I have. And I’ve read similar pieces by others – like the folks at Counterpunch. They are not the ones who interest me as much as the liberals and leftists I know myself. Their choices, their reactions (or lack thereof) – that’s what interests me.
S.:  Why do you think critiques like Unger’s aren’t taking hold?  I have issues with his substantive politics, but his critique of Obama is obvious and yet if you say this you’ll get something like “Obamacare gives many human beings dignity.”    The root of the matter seems to be that this even when substantive critiques of Obama are made, they are ignored.  Now that was NOT the case on in libertarian circles for their allies in the the GOP.  It’s fascinating.  I suppose we can take it around and end in back on Haidt: do you think that the collectivist-oreintation that liberals have doesn’t show up on the Haidt’s radar because it’s a people don’t see it in themselves?
K.:  I think you have to ask the leftsists and liberals you know why these arguments don’t work. We’re all on Facebook, after all.
S.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
K.:  “It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving, it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.” – Thomas Paine

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.

A Talk on the Wind From the East

A Book Chat with Richard Wolin on Wind from the East, on the French Moaists and their original hostility to May 1968, and the merger between the anarchists and Maoists after the first botched 1968. The tensions within Maoism and Post-Maoism seem to be encapsulated in this, to use an ironic work, “problematic.” So the Maoist point of reference is moved away from 1974 afterwards for “cultural revolution,” sort of merges in cultural politics one sees in the Foucault-inspired left in both France and America. One sees a rightward shift after 1968 in France for many of the Maoists who shifted towards the nouvelle philosophie, and while one sees Alain Badiou as a development of the period, there is a highly problematic tendency of the Post-Maoists in France to resemble the Post-Trotstkyists in the US.

I wish Wolin would have gone into more detail about the influence of the Alhusserian strain other than Foucault particularly given the popularity of Ranciere these days, but we can’t always get what we want.

Meta-Politics, Geo-Politics, and Foolishness

I have talked to everyone from die-hard Eurasian (read: Russian) Nationalists, who seem to the think Putin is the walking manifestation of a meritocratic Russian nationalism that will one day rule of Europe and Asia.  Frankly, given the massive capital flight out of Russia, this seems like dreaming for  a second coming of Stalin.   I suppose one knows the future by its wish fulfillment.  As I write this there is almost monarchical pomp over Putin’s reassumption of power, and protests in the streets.   RT, which I call Radio Free US, has some great programming, but it is a Putin-friendly arm of Russian state and it good not to forget that.   Sadly, the same is true for most of the UK, and so the recent debacle involving Assuange’s show is met with the liberal critique of tepid variety: 

US cables released by WikiLeaks in December 2010 paint a dismal picture of Putin’s Russia as a “virtual mafia state”. Has Assange read them? It seems extraordinary that Assange – described by RT as the world’s most famous whistleblower – should team up with an opaque regime where investigative journalists are shot dead (16 unsolved murders) and human rights activists kidnapped and executed, especially in Chechnya and other southern Muslim republics. Strange and obscene.

There is a long dishonourable tradition of western intellectuals who have been duped by Moscow. The list includes Bernard Shaw, the Webbs, HG Wells and André Gide. So Assange – whether for idealistic reasons, or simply out of necessity, given his legal bills and fight against extradition to Sweden – isn’t the first. But The World Tomorrow confirms he is no fearless revolutionary. Instead he is a useful idiot.

But like the the Eurasian nationalists and Putin apologists that Luke Harding cannot stomach, he ultimately sees things in same jilted hope for a Cold War area unipolar world.  So why do so many leftists take the enemy of my enemy is my friend approach to politics?  It’s hard to say, but it is a simpletons move.  Still, this is what shows you who is serious in politics: the left is not neither is the right, because you see simple platitudes and not facts being marshalled for decision making.   We live in a broadly liberal movement, but not liberal-left in the way American’s understand it.  Chomsky is right to point out that if you Foreign Policy, The Financial  Times, The Economist, the Wall Street Journal (prior to Murdock), you got honest news and detailed specifics because those who are in power need that in way those who merely dream of power don’t.

NPR is an example of this: It is liberal media in both senses: in the sense that it serves soft capitalist interests and that it placates the sensibilities of the center-to-center-left liberal.  It is mid-brow/mid-cult capriciousness consumption plus decent news with a milder (but still dangerous) US-tinged corporate slant. In coverage of the French elections and the Greek elections, one could hear defenses of Sarkozy passed off as impartial:  the American left always secretly wants to be the European center right–capitalism with a human face. Although if one actually knew the rhetoric of in Sarkozy in daily life, or if one took time to see how religious the rhetoric of David Cameron was, the vapidity of the American left is the European center-right meme would be apparent.

Still, an example of the good news “liberals”  give to themselves:   Take the Planet Money podcast In A Leaderless World, Who Wins?, which is based on Ian Bremmer and Nouriel Roubini‘s notion that “even is America is not declining, we aren’t a hegemon anymore, and despite word to contrary, it is unlikely that Russia or China will be it either as both have serious issues that largely unaddressed, and I’ll quote here instead of paraphrase:

This is not a G-20 world. Over the past several months, the expanded group of leading economies has gone from a would-be concert of nations to a cacophony of competing voices as the urgency of the financial crisis has waned and the diversity of political and economic values within the group has asserted itself. Nor is there a viable G-2 — a U.S.-Chinese solution for pressing transnational problems — because Beijing has no interest in accepting the burdens that come with international leadership. Nor is there a G-3 alternative, a grouping of the United States, Europe, and Japan that might ride to the rescue.

Today, the United States lacks the resources to continue as the primary provider of global public goods. Europe is fully occupied for the moment with saving the eurozone. Japan is likewise tied down with complex political and economic problems at home. None of these powers’ governments has the time, resources, or domestic political capital needed for a new bout of international heavy lifting. Meanwhile, there are no credible answers to transnational challenges without the direct involvement of emerging powers such as Brazil, China, and India. Yet these countries are far too focused on domestic development to welcome the burdens that come with new responsibilities abroad.

We are now living in a G-Zero world, one in which no single country or bloc of countries has the political and economic leverage — or the will — to drive a truly international agenda. The result will be intensified conflict on the international stage over vitally important issues, such as international macroeconomic coordination, financial regulatory reform, trade policy, and climate change. This new order has far-reaching implications for the global economy, as companies around the world sit on enormous stockpiles of cash, waiting for the current era of political and economic uncertainty to pass. Many of them can expect an extended wait.

In the interview, Bremmer talks about how the Chinese growth model must change, not be based on 21th century mercentilism, and raise net-GDP which makes it far more unstable than it appears now.  He points the contradictions exposed in the Bo Xilai, which of course is painted in the liberal media as a story of ruthlessness (I saw this headline in HuffPo, NYTimes, etc) and fails to mention Bo’s popularity among the Chinese Left, the fact that Aei Wei and other luminaries praised him. But the  liberal reformers (in both the positive and negative sense) have used this to push for change in China, against both the Dengish middle and the Maoists left, or at least that is what is passed along in the media in South Korea.    Bremmer has a point: there is a fundamental problem to the paradoxes of PRC’s strange blend of New Confucianism, Legalism, and Maoism with mercentilism-esque State Capitalism. Although as the London Review of books point it, it also points out that there is a move to try re-centralize as Maoism is beginning to start on a public now see the benefits:

In Chongqing there was more emphasis than in some other places on redistribution, justice and equality, and because the province was already highly industrialised, state-owned enterprises were important to its model. Chongqing’s experiment with inexpensive rented housing, its experiment with land trading certificates, its strategy of encouraging enterprises to go global: all these, under the rubric ‘the state sector progresses, the private sector progresses,’ contributed to society’s debate. Chongqing may not have offered a perfect blueprint, and it’s hard to know whether Bo himself was corrupt, but its architects stressed the importance of equality and common prosperity, and tried to work towards them.

The Chongqing experiment, launched in 2007, coincided with the global financial crisis, which made a new generation feel less confident of the benefits of free-market ideology. The policies followed in Chongqing demonstrated a move away from neoliberalism at a time when the national leadership was finding it harder to continue with its neoliberal reforms. What the Chongqing incident now offers the authorities is an opportunity to resume its neoliberal programme. Just after Bo was sacked the State Council’s Development and Research Centre held a forum in Beijing at which the most prominent neoliberals in China, including the economists Wu Jinglian and Zhang Weiying, announced their programme: privatisation of state enterprises, privatisation of land and liberalisation of the financial sector. At almost the same time, on 18 March, the National Development and Reform Commission issued a report on ‘Important Points and Perspectives on the Deepening of Economic Structural Reform Priorities’. It contained plans for the privatisation of large sections of the railways, education, healthcare, communications, energy resources and so on. The tide of neoliberalism is rising again. But it won’t go unchallenged, even when left-wing websites have been closed down. In the past ten days both the People’s Daily and the Guangming Dailyhave devoted several pages to the achievements of state-owned enterprises and the argument against privatisation.

So there is a limit to liberal honesty in the news, and the comments at the NYTimes section prove it.   What is missed that many International News carriers didn’t was this:

According to several reports, Bo and Zhou had been plotting a smear campaign against future Chinese leader Xi Jinping, while planning to install Bo as a high-level official.

So who knows if all those liberals know they are spreading p.r. related to the PRC’s politoburo.  I guess one can say that Assuage is not the only useful idiot.   But there this big trouble in big China, and the signal to move investment into India and Brazil as well as Latin America is telling.  Canada’s turning to China is telling too, but perhaps short-sited ultimately.   The one thing is true:  The 1%, to use Occupy’s somewhat vapid term, thinks in global terms in ways Occupiers, despite all their rhetoric, don’t comprehend.

While I am endorsing “Liberal” media for news, let me point you to a serious liberal podcast that I have come to like for its honest wonkiness: Bruno and the Professor is good, honest liberal Keynesianism.  That has all the weaknesses that Keynesianism does: It ignores that stagflation, not just neo-liberalization, was part of why things were abandoned: Neo-liberalization was a political project empowered by stagflation, and as Bruno and Professor point out, was often  started by Carter, not Reagan.   Anyway, their analysis of the brain-drain in Southern Europe to Germany,  explains, for the first time, what the ECB could be doing, no order explanation of the sado-monetarism adopted by the Germans was really that coherent.

Now, before you critique me with “Why are you endorsing managerialism and the state?” Who says I am, but to change the world, you must see the world as it is.  The abstractions, hypotheses, and refusal to understand managerial logic and the flows of capital that under-grid it is a refusal to be able to offer a real counter-point. To have a theory of what politics should be, one must see what politics is.

Marginalia on Skeptical Thinking: A Dialogue with Jamie McAfee, part 1

Jamie McAfee is a Ph.D. candidate in Rhetoric and Composition and a long-time friend and former colleague of mine.  Jamie and I both were involved in the early “skeptic’s movement” in middle Georgia and are both atheists.  We have both, although from entirely different grounds, taken issue with sloppy epistemology, naive views of the sociology and ideology around the scientific community, and problems with scientism; however, it is also clear that we disagree fundamentally on what is at stake in the problems of the “Skeptic’s movement” and “New Atheism” as problems of the practices of the scientific community and what makes a conceptual distinction of the demarcation line.  

This also begins my “marginalia on skeptical thinking” in which I will interview and interrogate different thinkers who adopt various postures in regards to science as a means of knowing, skepticism as a means to philosophical inquiry, and doubt as a part of a dialectical project.   Often this series will venture away from politics directly, and into the realms of science, science communication, rhetoric of science, the philosophy of science, sociology of scientific community, science journals, as well as epistemology, onthology, and the semantics of methodology. 

I have interviewed Jamie on populism and argued with him about liberalism in practice.  This is is the first part of several sections of this interview which have been broken down for length. 

Skepoet: You and I have been complaining about the rhetoric in the North American/Australian Skeptic’s movement and in the lay cheerleading for “science” for a while.  While I think I am probably more “pro-science” in the way many in the Skeptic’s movement mean than you, but we have both been accused of being anti-science for pointing out the unthinking ideological categories that are hidden in framing in the presentation and even design of scientific work.   We are also both skeptical of the scientific community’s  representation in popular culture (Dawkin’s, Hawking, etc) who have written off rhetorical and philosophical criticism of ideas.  How do you see your own relationship to science and, how is it different from the post-modern strawman that is often thrown at many of who “skeptical” of the “Skeptic’s movement” claim to objectivity?

Jamie McAfee:  I’ll start by explaining “what my problem is” with the Skeptics. I’ve got four big, closely related, beefs with the skeptic movement. I’m generalizing, of course, but this is what I’m seeing from those guys:

1. They describe science using what we might (as sloppy shorthand) call a naive modernist or neo-positivist perspective. That point of view is, as an ideology for empowering scientists, just fine, but it’s really untenable as a way to discuss what science is or to talk about the place of science in society or in public debate.

2. They are still fighting the science wars, and they seem to think that any effort to discuss the cultural embeddedness of science is extreme relativism and nihilism. I think that science can be subject to extrinsic politics (like, for example, if a granting agency demanded certain results), and that is inappropriate. Richard Dawkins would agree. The next step though, is to think about all of the ways that politics are intrinsic to science. Scientific methodology does not allow you to be free of always in social context. That’s a truism (or deepity, if you will), so it’s not a big whoop. “Duh,” right?  Well, go tell some of the Skeptic spokespeople to stop making fun of people who try to interrogate science using that truism as a starting point. I don’t know if they would concede that truism as a truism (they probably would, actually), but they act as if it’s a threat when people actually try to act on that assumption.

3. They actively disparage non-scientific ways of knowing. Humanities inquiry and, yes, religion have well-developed, robust ways of talking about the world. In fact, for some kinds of problems, we are nowhere close to having built enough hard science for hard science to be as useful as those other ways of talking. A little modesty is in order. (I would say the same thing to some of the more extreme outposts of science studies like some of the post-Lacan business that was going around a couple of decades ago making some really extreme claims. But, you know, that was a faddish avant guard that doesn’t really represent science studies as I know it.)

4. This one is less closely related, but still related. . . the really naive engagement with the public and with their own movement. I haven’t been spent much time with a community that is as as unself-critical as them dudes. A specific place this pops up is in some of the more grotesque sexism that you see from people like Dawkins. That the Amazing Atheist has a following is noteworthy. I think that flows from their naivete in other areas.

Really, my complaint is that they have swallowed the philosophical problems introduced by the enlightenment hook, line, and sinker, and that they are really combative about it.

Why am I not the postmodern strawman?

The biggest difference between me and pretty much everybody in my field who does something like “science studies” and the postmodern strawman is that, to paraphrase Bruno Latour, we “believe” in “reality” and we respect that the practices we call “science” have a unique ability to address some kinds of problems. So like, science is real and it does stuff that other enterprises can’t do.

The biggest difference between how I would talk about science and how Skeptics talk about science is that I talk about science as an industry rather than an epistemological enterprise. I wish, frankly, to avoid the issues that informed the science wars, not to simply take a modified version of the humanities “side” (although, except for the Lacan people, that’s a bit of a strawman too, I think). Science is a rhetorical practice that includes the material, as does all rhetoric. The self correction and rigor of science, along with the increasingly huge networks of material stuff that it includes, make it uniquely powerful for making arguments (which are still just arguments) and for designing technical procedures.

That stance makes science MORE “real” than modernism allows, but it doesn’t divorce science from some of the different things we mean by “politics.” When I say that science is one way of knowing among many or that science is never free of culture, I don’t mean that there is no way to make a distinction between medicine and faith healing.

This is kind of a rhetorical appropriation of Latour, but it’s drawing from a lot of the assumptions of cultural studies oriented rhetoric and professional communication scholarship as well. Technical communication is about understanding a place in a network where material facts are translated into semiotic artifacts so that you can produce other artifacts to help actors make the system work, etc.

I was a rather enthusiastic booster of the Skeptic movment a few years ago, believe it or not. Read all the books and even the magazines. Watched my Penn and Teller. Watched all the youtube debates and followed all the gossip. But I’ve come to think of them as being really problematic. I know people who live in very conservative communities for whom the Skeptic thing is a lifeline, and I sympathize. I haven’t written off the concept of a Skeptic movement. But as it is, it’s a mess.

S.: What caused you to see the Skeptics movement as problematic?

J.M.:  I think that 5-8 years ago when it was really getting rolling, when the “four horsemen” of atheism were really becoming widely popular and when big conventions like the Amazing Meeting were becoming a regular “thing,” it was a real breath of fresh air. I’ve always been a fan of some of the guys who’ve been in the business of debunking hookum, Shermer and Randi in particular, and to see that corner of pop culture really grow into something bigger that might stand up to the fundamentalists was pretty cool. Like, trading videos bashing Ray Comfort was a lot of fun. (I am, of course, remembering my experience of the skeptic movement here. I haven’t checked up on my history.)

I think the problem, for me, was that skepticism and atheism had made it’s initial splash as a pop culture “event,” it failed to really define itself in a self critical way, and some of the roots of the movement, particularly the science wars stuff I’ve alluded to earlier, have caused a bunch of trouble. The antipathy toward feminism, the snotty attitude about humanities studies of science, etc., seem rooted in that stuff. Dawkins also has his baggage from arguments about culture with Steven Gould. The other problem is that with some exceptions (Daniel Dennet being the big one, obviously) these guys aren’t trained in anything to do with philosophy. So it went, for me, from being a refreshingly honest response to the religious right to being an endorsement of a really problematic brand of commonsense, a synonym for which is “hegemony.”

I’ve kinda watched this thing unfold over the years and gotten increasingly antsy about it. I think maybe the realization that some of these guys (Shermer too) were embracing American styled libertarianism, along with several ugly incidents involving women in the Skeptic movement made me really think that there was a big strain of thought going on there that I was pretty actively repulsed by. That, along with re-reading stuff about the science wars (which I followed, vaguely, at the time as a teenager) made be really wonder if skepticism as a “movement” was something I could identify with. I’ve also done a lot more thinking about religion, and I’ve become bothered that the Skeptic movement defines religion in the fundamentalists terms. It seems to be that they are just reinforcing fundamentalism when they do that. So they aren’t even good at the thing that first attracted me anymore.

The Skeptic “movement” seems to be riddled with problems up and down. I’m particularly troubled by people like Dawkins and Harris who use their authority as “experts” to talk about philosophy and theology when their expertise is in neither. But I’m also troubled by some of the 4Chan like troll culture and the misogyny that you see on the bottom end of the online skeptic community.

As I said before, I sympathize with people for whom atheism provides a way to participate in an alternative community. For me, though, the past few years have been a process of growing increasingly annoyed as this community has developed.

S.: For me the biggest offender was Sam Harris who seems to try to naturalize a political philosophy that is basically a form of militant Benthamite utilitarianism, but even Michael Shermer, whose tone I like more, tries to naturalize markets and conflates the rhetoric of libertarian capitalism with natural selection–ignoring the utter inefficiency of natural selection and its incredibly high failure rate  (99.9 of all species that ever existed are extinct).  I actually see this as an ideologically motivated ignoring of the demarcation line even in the terms of analytic philosophy. What do you think about the demarcation line?

J.M.:  Sam Harris is undoubtedly the worst of those guys, in terms of his work as a public intellectual. Dawkins is worse, for me, in the way he abuses his authority as a preeminent scientist, and he’s done worse in terms of bad behavior, but Harris is, as a thinker, really pathetic. The fact that he gets invited to talk to people about philosophy is a symptom of a problem. I do like Shermer more, even now. I’ve stopped reading his books, but his rhetoric is a lot more modest, even if his claims sometimes aren’t.

By “demarcation line,” I assume you mean between science and “not science”?

I think it’s a sticky wicket. It’s important to have some way to distinguish between the two, but I don’t know of a way to do it that is clean or problem free. I don’t think there is or could be one. What I would say is that science is a social practice that scientists do. It’s not anything else, and when you try to base demarcation on some kind of epistemological something or other, you have erred seriously. I’d base the demarcation on practice, and I’d want to perform that demarcation on the specific circumstances of specific disciplines. So, like, the demarcation in medicine is not the same as psychiatry (I mention those two because there is a lot of messy overlap and because I study therapeutic rhetoric), and neither are the same as for physics. There will always be a way to deconstruct that demarcation, but ce la vie.

When I say “based on practice,” there are two good ways that I know of that you can do that demarcation. One is the “Latour/Harraway” techno-science way, and the other is the Collins and Evans expertise way. I’d endorse, perhaps, some combination of those two ways.

The “Latour/Harraway” (also John Law and the whole Actor Network school) method, which I’ve alluded to in a previous answer, is to understand science as the enrollment of people and objects into networks. The shape of those networks might be variable, but the object are going to have to co-operate. So, like, while the rubber often meets the road through texts of different kinds, and while we are ultimately going to understand science as rhetoric, the objects have to co-operate for it to be science. I could spend all afternoon in an occult bookstore, and no matter how robust the networks of text I might find there, I wouldn’t learn anything that would enable me to make a rocket work. That’s because their was at no point a disciplined transference of data into the network. When networks get really big they get more stable and reliable. So evolution is probably true because there is SOOO much independently collected data that has been incorporated into the networks of practice that study it and that USE it for things like vaccines or animal science.

The “Collins and Evans” method is to understand legitimacy in terms of expertise, tacit knowledge, and inculcation into a community. That’s not particularly novel, but they develop that a lot more, and they spend a lot of time worrying over how people who don’t have accredited expertise can be experts. There’s a famous rhetoric of science article (well, we read it as that, but it’s really just British science studies) about sheep farmers who argued with scientist about how widely nuclear fallout was going to disperse. The sheep farmers, because they had a lot more tacit knowledge and local expertise, were a lot more right than the scientists. You get a lot of that kind of “commensuability of expertise” stuff in studies of anything to do with agriculture. They also have the category of “interactional expertise” which is when you understand, tacitly, the problems of a discipline and can “talk the talk.” A lot of what you learn in graduate school is interactional expertise. I have never run a study about teaching composition because I don’t do research about that topic, but am a hare away from being ABD in a professional communication program, so I could go to a conference and have a conversation, perhaps even a heated argument, about somebody else’s research. Many parents with autistic children could sit down with someone who researches autism and have a peer-to-peer conversation about it.

I think that maybe instead of demarcation, I want to think about two different kinds of legitimacy. One is some kind of “downwardly” discriminating legitimacy, which, I think, you could pretty clearly talk about using some combination of the two frameworks presented above.

Of course, being a rhetoric guy, I’m not so sure that “downstream” is the direction we need to think about, and so there are issues of talking about how to critically engage science without cordoning off “bad” science from “good science,” and issues of talking about how the public recognizes legitimacy. The latter is pretty much a straightforwardly rhetorical (or maybe political) problem, but the former is tricky. It is important that we DO NO draw the demarcation retroactively so that we’re ahistorically describing science as a progressive march. That means recognizing errors as being “science.”

S.:  The rhetorical definition as you laid 0ut is circular and can be reduced something like “science is what scientists do” which is logically tautological in the same way the  economic definition of rationality is.  I will be frank, I find this to be a logical cop out.   So while it may be true that there are always ways to deconstruct the demarcation line, it does not logically follow that there is no demarcation line or lines.  This is especially a problem when you have claimed that other means of inquiry are valid. Philosophically that’s incoherent.

I admit that this is not the position that rhetorical studies which is concerned with social legitimacy as a matter of method, but to say “instead of” demarcation, it looks like a legitimacy grab for rhetoricians to claim that demarcations of process and method don’t matter and social legitimacy does.     That is, by the way, a relativistic claim that seems to assume that truth of a discourse isn’t relevant outside of social practices.  I don’t think you mean that or most in the rhetoric of a science mean that but it was it looks like to those schooled in analytic philosophy.   So you may want to elaborate more.
I think the question of social legitimacy is important, but that it is an entirely separate question from demarcation line(s).
I think the questions raised by Collins though is interesting.   I recently read a report on types of expertise which indicated that layman, specialists, an hobbyist have different kinds of knowledge.  The intuitive reasoning of a understanding being only valid in a structural since to hobbyist and scientist who shared almost a subconscious ability to understand the projects correctly, which lay people who had not invested significant time in study, but the intuitive and structural knowledge between hobbyists and scientists was fundamentally different but no less correct.   What do you make of this study in relevance to the rhetorical frameworks you mention?
J.M.:  Well stated objection, but I’m not sure we are understanding each other, or at least, not completely. You’re saying a couple of things about my position that I don’t think.I think you might still think I’m coping out. I might concede that I’m punting, but I’m punting contentiously.I DO, actually, think that the answer is “science is what scientists do,” but I think it’s a more thoughtful move than you are giving me credit for. It might be that I’m saying, essentially, that I don’t think it’s appropriate for ME to have an answer for the demarcation problem, but I can talk a bit about demarcation. I’ll make four points to clarify what I mean, then I’ll talk about a major problem with my answer that I would acknowledge that you imply but didn’t state explicitly. I’m building up to answering the question you asked, sine this is all related stuff.1. A part of what scientist “do” is what we call “boundary policing” (I dunno if other people call it that- it’s what it sounds like), and they have methods for doing that. Here’s where we are missing each other: ” for rhetoricians to claim that demarcations of process and method don’t matter and social legitimacy does . . .” That would be a ludicrous thing to say. I understand how it sounds like I mean something like that, but I absolutely don’t. That’s a silly position.

Boundary policing, of course, involves issues of social legitimacy (cultural capital might be a term I would use), but it involves a lot of deliberative rhetoric about process and method. Studying boundary policing has at times been a preoccupation of rhetoric. It involves logic and data and disciplinary rules. I don’t want to imply otherwise.

Being able to explain yourself in the language of science using the logic of your discipline is what makes you a scientist. For me that is the end of the story. I’m not saying that language or logic can’t be (and shouldn’t be) interrogated, but that when we demarcate “science” from “not-science,” that is the only valid way to do it, for me anyway. If you’d like to to explain the demarcations of process of a specific site, you can go in there and study how they police themselves. These are ongoing struggles that happen in particular scientific disciplines. I’m NOT saying that there are no logical or methodological rules that make science science. It might be that I’m refusing to give a philosophical answer and am giving a sociological answer instead because I think that’s a more appropriate way for an non-scientist to think about science. So it might be that you and I have an incommensurability problem here.

You are onto something very serious when you complain that rhetoric might be doing a bit of a power grab when we want to posit deliberation and argument as the key to demarcation. That’s astute. It’s an issue that we sometimes call the “Goankar problem” after a the author of a very contentious essay about science studies in rhetoric. My knee jerk answer is that I’m trying actually to deffer to the expertise of scientists, but that IS a cop out, so screw that answer. I won’t get all into it here, but Alan Gross’s “Rhetorical Hermeneutics” is a very good book containing the Goankar essay, a bunch of responses, and a bunch of commentary. There are ways to talk about that issue. We sound like we are saying that “everything is rhetoric all the time,” and that is thorny. I don’t think that’s quite what we’re saying, actually. (I think we are saying “rhetoric is a vocabulary for talking about practices all the time.”)  But it’s a pretty central issue. I was tempted to bring it up before, but didn’t. I’m glad you caught it.

2. It’s important to note that people can be “doing” science and doing it badly. Some of the sillier evolutionary psychology that gets reported in the popular media is very bad science because the arguments that they make connecting their data to their conclusions is bad, but it’s still psychology. It’s psychology because they are playing by the rules of their discipline, but because it’s right. “Science” does not means something is accurate or good. Deeming something “science” just means that we are saying the people involved are following certain kinds of rules. I think that plenty of “science” is flimsy and transient. It’s still science. We might conclude some sub-disciplines are out to lunch and still say they are doing science.

“Science is what scientists do” is only relativistic (or even tautological) if we put “science” on a pedestal or essentialize science so that it is something other than a kind of practice. (And if it’s a kind of practice, the practitioners get to decide the boundaries.) Because I differ to scientists to discern what science is doesn’t mean I can’t, even as a more informed than average layperson with no particular expertise, make judgements about their work (sometimes anyway). They still get to decide what science is. I can say “this is really shitty science, and people should stop doing it.” Nothing about “science is what scientist do” means that I can have discernment. As somebody (don’t remember who. . Feyeraband?) said, it’s foolish to think that science should only be of concern to scientists.

3. Both the Latour model and the Collins and Evans model I mention are very much concerned with practical knowledge, materialism, and efficacy. Things that don’t involve certain kinds of data or manipulating the material in a disciplined way are not science, and we can have some faith in the legitimacy of “science” because it is able to incorporate material things into its practice. (This, of course, gets messy in social sciences or medicine.) It’s not magic. Or rhetoric, for that matter.

I’m not proposing that we replace demarcation with some kind of free for all, but that we think about science as disciplined ways of acquiring practical knowledge. It is NOT episteme. It is some combination of explicitly discusses techne and tacit, generally unacknowledged phronesis. The “rules” of science are designed to patrol the boundaries of science, but also to accomplish things.

4. “So while it may be true there are always ways to deconstruct the demarcation line, it does not logically follow that there is no demarcation line or lines.”  Agreed. Here’s an issue though. . .science is often driven bey exigency (there’s my using “rhetoric as a vocabulary”), and exigencies do not always match up very well with the disciplinary division we have. Science is ontologically and epistemologically messy, and dismissing the difficulty of demarcation as “deconstruction” (I said it first. . .I’m no accusing you of anything) is deeply misguided. Here’s a statement from the profile page of a rhetorician working at Los Alamos National lab:

“Many of the ‘big science’ problems that come to the national labs are “messy.” That is, they aren’t clearly a physics problem, or a chemistry problem, or an engineering problem. Like in the fable of the blind men around the elephant, multi-disciplinary communities often stand around these problems unable to define the problem in a way that they all can begin collaborative work. Dr. XXX uses qualitative tools to begin to build shared understandings of the problem space, and he uses graphical methods to map out the different areas of knowledge about the problem so that interdisciplinary communities can begin to talk and perform work.

I’m my brief encounters with actual scientists (and because I generally study how scientific rhetoric is used publicly, I don’t have the experience doing that that some rhetoricians do) and conversations with rhetoricians who work with scientists (we do that more than you’d think)I see a lot of messiness and disciplinary miscegenation, to borrow a word from Latour. I’m, as a little part time job, working on something right now that’s a bizarre, from a demarcation perspective, interdisciplinary, political, and industry project. (I’m the English monkey who  is helping write some reports for a big meeting.)

Latour, and Harraway, argue that impurity is THE defining feature of science. Not A feature, but the very thing that makes science more efficacious than other ways of knowing. It’s not a trick I’m doing to unnecessarily problematize something; it’s the thing that makes science powerful. So when I seem like I’m circumventing the demarcation issue, it’s for more serious reasons than it might seem. Boundary policing is crucial, but I’m not sure that “demarcation,” in the way you mean it, gets me anywhere. If it gets somebody else somewhere (and, hey, Collins and Evans have two whole chapters about it, so they don’t agree with me), that’s fine.

The major objection you could make that I would agree with is that I’m saying that science is only science when institutionally recognized authority recognizes it. Because science is an industry housed in universities, government labs, etc, I’m essentially saying that science is what happens in those spaces. I’m also making it difficult to think about the history of science before the 20th century when that infrastructure existed. That’s a can of worms I’m not that interested in. (Although it’s really serious stuff.) Peer review, for example, would be a standard I’d think that most efforts to handle demarcation would discuss, and those institutions are where the people who do peer review work.

There’s a very good early rhetoric if science article by John Campbell tracing the development of the scientific article from a brief note that reported some novelty to a developed genre that discussed methodology, etc. That development can be understood in part as a growing sophistication in our efforts to control the material, and it can also be understood as the development of a style of argument. Eventually you had to be able to argue in a certain way to participate in the conversation. So, like, where on that spectrum is it “science”? What about people outside of those institutions who follow scientific rules? Can we gerrymander in some practices from outside of the establishment? I’m at the boundary of my concern right now, but this is seriously problematic, perhaps destabilizing stuff. Imma leave it alone though.

I think the question you concluded with cuts to the heart of all the unpacking of my defense that I just did. Scientists discipline themselves in particular ways so that they remain within the boundaries of science. There are good reasons that they do that (most notably, to try to filter out, or at least responsibly account for, their own cultural position and bias . . . that’s the goal anyway, to construct some kind of objectivity), and the recursiveness of how more “informed” people like scientists, and hobbyists, approach problem solving has advantages. I’d say that hobbyists and scientists are approaching problems from disciplined perspectives, and while the “disciplining” works according to different rules, it allows for the creation of tacit expertise (slipping into Collins and Evan speak here).

Again, science is what scientists do, but we can recognize expertise in non-scientists. Perhaps using tools that scientists have developed.

To be continued.  There will be arguments about demarcation lines, the meaning of discourse, and the whether or not rhetorical doesn’t bracket out the very categories it bases many of its criticism on.  Fun if highly technical.  

Interviewed and Occupied Part 2: Nik Zalesky on Occupy Philly and Labor Tactics

Skepoet: So it’s been a few weeks since we talked, but we have seen a seeming organized crack down on Occupy in the States.  The Occupy Seoul has long since died down. I am going to shot-gun a few question at you. What is going on in Occupy Philly?  In a recent conversation, you told me there was tensions between the Unions and the activists in Philly? Has there been scapegoating of anarchists in Philly?

Nik: Occupy Philly, in the vein of many of the other Occupations, has largely split among people who favor more direct action and not yielding an inch, and a group who want to accommodate the city at every turn. Most of the discussion has centered on if we will move from City Hall across the street to Thomas Paine Plaza. There is a federal/state/city infrastructure project that calls for the refurbishing of the space we are Occupying and for an ice skating rink to be built there. There are many issues that cropped up because of this. First, the permit application had no end date. When the permit was returned by the city, it said a TBD date for the renovation project. Second, it’s union work, which I’ll get into more in the second question. Third, the renovations would provide more disabled access to the subway station and plaza where we are camped. We tried to contact the city about the move, but received no response, other than to say they wouldn’t issue another permit until we moved. This brought about concerns of if they will issue it at all. A proposal to move was brought up at the General Assembly and it was soundly defeated. This led to a splinter group calling themselves Reasonable Solutions to declare that the GA wasn’t speaking for the Occupation, and that they were the real Occupiers and they were going to negotiate with the city. I’ll get into what followed in the third question.

The tension between the Unions and the activists is simply jobs. The trade unions want their jobs. The project creates 20 permanent jobs, and over a hundred temporary jobs. The Union leadership asked the activists to move, and promised assistance. The issue there is that the Radical Caucus thinks moving is giving in, and wants concessions from the city and promises of more help besides moving from the Unions. In addition, the trades have a reputation for getting what they want and not delivering.

As far as the scapegoating of anarchists goes, there has been much of it from the beginning. Certain groups, including some of the Reasonable Solutions people, have been circulating the theory that there are anarchists being bused in to sway votes at the GA. Cindy Millstein, an anarchists activist and writer, has been their target. The City Paper did a wonderful job of pointing out that Philadelphia has one of the largest, most diverse, and active anarchists population in the country. The corporate media jumped on board the scapegoating this week. There was an issue where a homeless gentleman spray painted and defecated on the walls underground. The Daily News blamed this on anarchists. They also called the people who wanted to follow the vote of the GA “mostly anarchists.” We have not had many arrests here, but the ones that have come lately have been violent in nature. The media has connected this to anarchy for the most part. Fortunately, in serious incidents, like a rape that was alleged, they didn’t tie that to the anarchists.

One other thing that’s become a problem is the homeless. Not that they’re there or causing problems, because that happens everywhere. The issue is that various groups are speaking for them instead of letting them speak for themselves. Some people who want to stay are saying they should because otherwise it makes the homeless move as well, and a lot of them stayed there before we Occupied. Valid point, perhaps, but not one that a group of young people who have homes to go to should be making. The city is claiming that we are damaging the homeless by providing them with food and protection in the group. They claim that the homeless would be moving into shelters if not for us. Not accurate, and again, speaking for people who may be willing to speak for themselves if asked. The one good thing is we managed to wrangle 4 gyms and another property to use as emergency shelters for them.

Skepoet: Did Philly act in solidarity with OWS in general strike on the 17th?

Nik: Philly did act in solidarity with the call to action. They marched in an event to the Market Street bridge, which the state of PA has said needs to be repaired or replaced, and sat down in the middle of the street and blocked traffic on one of the busiest streets in the city during rush hour. Even this did not come without conflict, as the original organizers of the event would not let people join in on the street who wanted to. The radical caucus was upset by this, because some of them were looking to get arrested.

Skepoet: Can you describe the poilitical orientation of the each faction in more detail?  Have Democrats been more involved?  Are there large groups of libertarians and Ron Paulites in the group?

Nik: There are some Democrats involved. MoveOn, Union leadership, and politicians affiliated with the Dems, like Jesse Jackson, have all stopped by to offer support. The good news about the horizontal setup is it’s been impossible to really co-opt because unless they join working groups and show up for a lot of GAs, they’re not making decisions. There are enough different factions, ranging from Paulites to syndicalists, that are wary of everyone. There is a Paulite tent. For the most part, they kind of operate in their own world. I think there are a lot of people tied into the divisiveness that affiliate themselves with those libertarians and Paulites. They built a propane heating room, which didn’t sit well with the city because of the fact that there was basically a bomb sitting on their doorstep. Also, it’s hard to get a handle on the guy who was in charge of the Facebook page and started the splinter group Reasonable Solutions. I’ve had a lot of people say he is “weirdly conservative.” The constant desire to march on the Fed as the solution to all problems is proposed by them constantly, and regularly defeated. As far as the factions, it’s not political lines per se. There are anarchists that are part of the Radical Caucus and ones that pushing for the move. There are union rank and file members who are pushing to stand up to the city, and union leadership that’s pushing to work with the city. The divisiveness has become less about political lines and more along the lines of issues that have cropped up down there.

Skepoet: Has any paranoia sat-in within the movements?

Nik: As far as the paranoia, it’s there. People can feel the inevitable crackdown of the city coming. Living on the streets breeds a specific paranoia in and of itself. People’s lives are there, and their stuff is there, and the fact is that some people view an encampment as an opportunity to take things that don’t belong to people. In addition, the media has been producing divisive articles, so that has caused a lot of people to accuse other people of looking out for themselves. In addition, the lines of division listed above have the daily ability to cause people to think that people who don’t believe what they believe are going to go behind their backs. There actually have been groups that set up secret meetings with the city, and filed for permits elsewhere. Since this movement, has in general, become about holding land in the face of power and not about the original meaning of pointing out what is wrong with the system, it allows paranoia to run rampant because the city does actually want their land back. There are simple ways to fix this, and to make the movement evolve, so we will see if the GA is willing to bring new ideas to the table, or if they are going to descend further into the rabbit hole where a plaza in the middle of the city is the center of the universe.

Skepoet: Do you worry that the focus on the occupation actually leads occupiers to miss the what is at stake or do you think this actually clarifies matters or, perhaps, both in various proportions?  Would you explain the reasons for your answer there as well?

Nik: That’s my biggest concern right now. Holding a piece of land to defy the state may be admirable, but it isn’t effective. In Tahrir Square, they solidified one demand and so were able to keep coming until it was met. We don’t have that in the U.S. On the plus side, it has awakened many people to the idea that we have to do more. Other avenues and ideas are being tossed around to both implement now and bring about after the Occupation ends. I think the issue comes from the fact that there are a lot of utopians who think that this Occupation is run the way things should be- consensus-based horizontal democracy. They think that the whole world should be that way. Anything that suggests taking a step back and evaluating or trying something else is met with claims of not supporting the GA, the Occupation, or the Revolution, depending on who you talk to. Now, as far as the people who view this as more of an opportunity to reach people and awaken them to the struggle that’s going on between the classes, they have realized that they have to go out among the people instead of isolating themselves in a place where the media and the politicians can take pot shots at us. This has lead to a more visible support among other groups and attempts at education. The unions came out in their colors yesterday, and explained more about organizing and what they’re trying to do about class struggles. It’s a pleasant surprise to hear the unions talking about class. More direct action has come about. The march on the bridge, occupying a Wells Fargo bank, and more planned for the future. I feel like these actions speak to a lot of people that the real action is going to take place away from City Hall, and out in the streets. We can have continued events and education to mark the Occupation, but I think a majority realizes now that it’s not about the place; it’s about what’s going on everywhere.

Skepoet: Are you aware of the anarchist essay from a few years ago: “occupy everything and demand nothing?”

Nik: I am not familiar with it.

Skepoet:  Its central thesis is that any demands legitimate the current political system and that “you should demand nothing because everything is already yours.”  I find this fascinating because I think there is truth to it, but I also think it leads to some really inchoate politics when it isn’t articulated directly. Do you think there should be demands?

Nik:  I don’t think there should be any demands in the Occupy movement. The only demand I’d personally support is revolution anyway, and this isn’t that. I also think it would be far easier to co-opt if demands were introduced. If our demand was reducing the economic inequality, the Republicans would proclaim tax cuts were the way to go, and the Dems would say to support Obama’s job bill. This needs to be a movement of action, not of begging and waiting for an answer. Now as far as the “everything is already yours” part of the idea, I suppose that’s a philosophical debate rather than a practical one. The practical matter is one class owns nearly everything, and has the ability to get more, which they are currently using with devastating consequences to the working class. I would say “you should demand nothing, but do everything” would be a far more effective thing to say about Occupy.

Skepoet:  I am going to push you on this, we’re both on the left, but when you say one class owns everything, I am not quite sure you’re right:  Do CEO’s or the bourgeoisie owe everything?  Here’s the crux of the question:  CEO’s are not truly speaking capitalists in the strict sense, they’re labor aristocracy or the managerial class.  Yet many of them are in the 1%, and many petite bourgeoisie are not.  So how do you see this class entanglement actually breaking down?   Furthermore, how do you see this as related to the 99% rhetoric of #Occupy?

Nik: That’s fair. It was a hyperbolic statement. Do I think there needs to be a new way of breaking down class? Yes. Working in finance has shown me that even people who are not capitalists and even those who are not wealthy will work actively to oppress people in other classes. I imagine you do have to step away from the Marxist definition of class as only relating to the means of production. Instead of the Victorian model of the petite bourgeoisie who mimicked the behavior of the capitalist class, today’s labor aristocracy and managers, as well as many workers, try to mimic the values of the capitalist class in terms of greed, patriotism, and the thought process that the capitalists earned everything they had and they deserve it. What the labor aristocracy and management class do possess is capital, therefore the own potential forces of repression and they own people’s excess labor tied up into a social concept that has come to dominate the meaning of life in the U.S. I imagine at this point, the State would be less likely to defend factories from workers than they would banks and financial centers. I do support a redefinition of the classes and the relationship between the classes in general. I’m sure someone has tackled that, but I haven’t come across it yet. Some of the 1%, especially people who don’t own the means of production, may find themselves siding with some of the ideas of Occupy. I think the 99% is crap. I think it lumps people into a mass that has the potential to silence them, because some of us do want to see revolutionary change. Some people want reform. Some people have no idea what they want. It works in today’s media, but as a real concept, it’s ridiculous.

Skepoet:  It was done by Maoist thinkers in China, but eventually led to Third Worldism, and was done by James Burnham in the Trotskyite mold, but he predicted a fascist victory in World War 2 and when that panned out wrong, he became a neo-conservative. So these thinkers haven’t been addressed in the more popular left.    Do you think another part of the problem is that most of the Marxist and, honestly, social
anarchist rhetoric is around factories even though the means of production in most of the world now are far more subtle? There are many people working on this so it’s not entirely new or relegated  marginal parts of the left, but it is an issue.

I suppose my question is that is #Occupy forcing us to deal with these problems and how do you see the increased pressure from the police and from internal factions clarifying things for you personally?

Nik: I personally think that’s a huge problem. Instead of worrying about the means of production, which is still a concern, I don’t think there is enough written about how the movers and holders of capital exploit workers and the unemployed. We talk about how it’s generally unfair, and how the system sucks, but we haven’t been able to connect the dots enough for people to understand.

I don’t think Occupy is forcing the masses to deal with this problem, but it is awakening an awareness of the problem, especially among the radical left. It is pointing out to the radical left that we are not connected with the workers, the unions, and the community-at-large though we should be. I think the police pressure is clarifying that for me, because there are a ton of people who have to deal with that pressure every day, for nothing more than standing there. The repression is a daily activity of the police in some communities, and it’s something we need to address on the left. The factionalization of the Occupy makes it clear to me that all leftists, and especially leftist organizations, have to make it a point to educate themselves on not just theory, but on interpersonal relationships and working with other groups. We may all have our own ideas about what is going to work, but we don’t have the ability that other organizations have about how to work together. It’s a standard practice of businesses to give training in that, and I think the left would be served learning it. It also showed me, again, how many people think that they’re way is the only way, and anyone who doesn’t agree is somehow damaging the movement. Trying to control a mass movement is just a wasted effort. I’ve learned that people should look to participate and help where they can. Especially, as this is a leaderless movement, this isn’t the action to try to impose preconceived notions and standards upon. The media and the capitalist system has done a good job of making people not trust any leaders, which ties into some anarchist groups as well. It’s a problem, because no revolutionary action has taken place without some kind of leadership, even if it’s a council. The GA is an interesting force, but it’s intentionally made to be difficult to pass motions. I don’t have a solution for how to find new leaders who can inspire the masses, or what kind leadership would be the best for a mass movement, but I know that this isn’t it.

Skepoet:   Well, consensus decision making is not true or particularly radical. It’s commonly tried in new moments, but consensus organizations are easily taken over oddly.    Do you think the square one element of everything is obfuscating that?  Which groups have been better able to use to the census elements of the GA in Philly?

 

Nik:  Sorry, I took a local reporter to task for his coverage of Occupy Philly, and I’ve been going back and forth with him about his characterization of all who don’t agree with the “Reasonable Solutions” group that is trying to invalidate the GA. He claims that we need liberal capitalists like them, and everyone who doesn’t agree with them are anarchists and socialists, so we’ll see what happens.

I hate consensus. It confuses enough people to allow anyone to slip in and take charge, especially when one group controls what comes to the vote. I think certain utopian groups think consensus is some kind of miracle way of governing and pushed it in the various GAs. Various groups have been able to use the elements. Depending on who you talk to, there are claims that people stack the vote during issues that concern them, or that it’s fine. I’d have to say the Radical Caucus and the Direct Action working group have used consensus well, but the thing is that every GA is livestreamed, and those votes and propositions on the chat there are taken into consideration, if not actually counted, and all the GAs are announced, so anyone can use it.

Skepoet: What, in your opinion, is a more realistic organizational method?

Nik: Man, I don’t know. I’m trying to learn about more effective organizations, but I don’t have the time right now. I wish I knew a way to keep from becoming bureaucratic and still be effective. If we could figure that out, I think the left would be able to make great gains.

Skepoet: Let’s talk about a few more things on the ground:  Do how do you see Occupy Philly fairing in the winter? What preparations are being made?

Nik: Well, with hints from police sources and the behavior of the press and the city lately, I think there will be a crackdown long before winter starts. Latest hint is tomorrow the police have been ordered to remove us from downtown. Preparations are asking for more warm donations, planning more actions because marching in the cold is better than sitting, and many of us discussing different tactics such as occupying buildings or sending people home and holding weekly rallies instead.

Skepoet: Wasn’t there a move to roll yourselves back just before this happened in preparation for winter (or the Democratic Elections)?

Nik: Some of us were talking about it, but it never went further than that. I imagine the dialogue will continue, but the actions of the mayor and the police have lowered it as a priority.

Skepoet:  Honestly, there is an argument that police actions are actually keeping Occupy relevant and improves its public image. How do you react to this argument?

Nik:   It keeps it in the forefront of sensationalistic media. Independent media sources are reporting on it whether there is police suppression or not. It does improve its public image, among the people who can afford the news. Sadly, that’s not a lot of people that I’m trying to reach. I’ve lived in the largest open-air drug market in the country. People there rarely get their news from anything besides the free Metro or the 6 o’clock news on the local networks. There isn’t much positive coverage there no matter what happens, because those broadcasters need access to the mayor and the police commissioner. To me, we have to reach people in the communities independent of the media who are reporting on the crackdowns. I’m not opposed to them doing it, and sharing disturbing images that reach some people all over the country, but it’s just not enough for me. I wanted to be a journalist, and most of the reporting on #Occupy by major outlets has just been poor.

Skepoet:  Why do you think it has been so poor?

Nik:     Well, since Occupy, though an old tactic hasn’t been used in modern media’s time, they have no idea how to cover something ongoing that doesn’t fit into their box. I’ve taken enough journalism classes, and written for enough school papers, to know that modern journalists aren’t taught to think on their feet. Since it can’t be wrapped up into headline, soundbite, and a good guy vs. bad guy narrative, they are floundering. It has shown how the better commentary and investigative journalism has moved into new media instead of the classic forms, but, unfortunately for the left and #Occupy, the classic forms still reach the most people.

Skepoet: Well, I think we may be talking about this again in the future, but could you talk about the possibility of #Occupy reviving the labor movement in closing? I’ve enjoyed our discussion.

Nik:  I think #Occupy showed an example of what labor should have been doing. It’s a movement where people aren’t backing down due to politics. At least here, we’ve marched in support of labor concerns, and labor has turned around and done some self-examination. It has made both the leaders and rank and file more politically involved, and caused them to realize that workers are still exploited, and they need to do something about it. In addition, it provided a link from labor to the younger generation. Everyone I’ve known knows someone in a union. What this did was make sure everyone was friends with and worked side by side with someone in a union, and it also made the unions realize that they have to stand up for workers that aren’t able to be in a union. I do have higher hopes for a more educational and politically-involved labor movement, at least in my city.

The first interview in this series is here. 

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