Category Archives: Socialism

All Roads Lead to Communism, or None Do: Theses on Marxism & Intersectionality

(The following is my response to the “Exiting the Vampire Castle” controversy on The North Star webzine about tensions between Marxism, intersectionality, and left politics.)

1) Communism is the goal of ending human domination, exploitation, oppression, and repression in a world of abundance, justice, and harmony among all living beings. Therefore, the practical subject for revolutionary analyses are the social systems that perpetuate and extend systemic suffering for living beings. It is proposed based on careful study of social science and left-wing political theory that the basic categories of human social systems are eightfold:






Martial Systems (institutional use of coercion)



2) No single one of the above social systems is independent or dominant over all others.

3) Revolutionary analysis identifies institutional structures that perpetuate systemic suffering and propose political collective mobilizations to overturn these structures and replace them with emancipatory new systems and institutions.

4) Revolutionary analysis considers the objective collective systems to be the primary focus of activist mobilization and engagement. It is also engaged with collective cultural aspects of these institutional systems. It considers interpersonal and personal subjective behaviors and attitudes of subordinate importance, though not entirely unimportant.

5) By identifying eight interdependent social systems, an adequate revolutionary analysis cannot advance communist goals by minimizing the objective importance of any of the social systems. A “revolutionary” change in one or a few aspects of these social systems without attempting broad changes in all of them will leave the new institutions vulnerable to counter-revolutionary mobilization from one of the unrevolutionized social systems.

For example, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 did indeed radically change the political, religious, and economic character of Russia, but it at best merely reformed systems of cultural, gender, martial, ecological, and ethnic domination and oppression, which formed the basis for the counter-revolutions against communism from within Russia and the Soviet Union.

6) There are important aspects of Marxism, feminism, anti-racism, radical democracy, pacifism, sex radicalism, progressive religion/irreligion, and environmentalism that must be applied to revolutionary analysis to better equip radicals to overturn the systems that dominate our world. Posing irreconcilable oppositions between feminism and Marxism or any of these important approaches to social criticism is to betray the revolutionary movement from the very start.

Ideology and the Individual In Cinema, II

By David A.


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.

Why the Left Needs to Be Agnostic about Religion: Part I

In an essay recently re-blogged here, the author lays out a case for why he believes a rapprochement between socialism and religion is ill-advised or even impossible, depending on how you interpret his claims about the incompatibility between them. It would be tempting to argue back that he is characterizing religion incorrectly, or that he fails to account for positive religious involvement in struggles for liberation around the globe. But to make such arguments would be to compound the primary error, and reinforce the dysfunction of the understanding which produced the author’s arguments in the first place. What we must do, if we care about the future success of leftist endeavors, is to question the idea of religion as a meaningful category in the first place. That is, not to argue over whether religion is good or bad, or whether it is compatible with socialism, but to deconstruct the idea of religion as a cultural category.

Over the last couple centuries, social scientists have been studying religion, and have created a succession of different definitions of religion in the process. Unlike the study of, say, geology, the study of religion presents the challenge that it has no concrete referent. When one studies geology, one does not have a great difficulty in identifying the object: rocks are rocks. When one studies religion, however, one does have the difficulty of first creating a definition that allows us to call one thing (set of beliefs, actions, symbols, institutional arrangements, etc) religion, and yet exclude another thing as not religious. (See Arnal 2000 here for a thorough discussion.) Long story short is that none of these definitions have been able to simultaneously include all those things which we consider religious and exclude those things which we consider non-religious. Not, that is, without recourse to theological notions that are unsupportable within a scientific context. Whether it is Rudolf Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans, or Mircea Eliade’s “orientation to the sacred,” these substantivist definitions only work if one assumes that religion is a sui generis category which exists in relation to an actual God or Divine Reality. That transcendent reality may exist, but it is beyond the ability of science to speak to it, and therefore can not be the basis for a scientific definition. The problem of definition here is the problem of the actual existence of the category. Anthropologists came to the same conclusion about “race” in the 20th century, and we should detect here a useful pattern: when the thing you’re trying to define eludes all attempts at useful definition, the thing just might not exist except as a cultural construct. (See also Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions.)

Arnal suggests, following Talal Assad’s reasoning in Genealogies of Religion, that the task for the social-scientific study of religion therefore must be to deconstruct the idea of religion in order to uncover not what religion “is,” but rather in what cultural contexts the concept of religion is evoked to separate some human phenomena from others. And it is in this task that the importance of understanding what we are talking about is made clear for the success of the left’s intellectual projects. Give Arnal a listen:

 The very concept of religion as such—as an entity with any distinction whatsoever from other human phenomena—is a function of [the] same processes and historical moments that generate an individualistic concept of it. The concept of religion is a way of demarcating a certain socio-political reality that is only problematized with the advent of modernity in which the state at least claims to eschew culture per se. Further, one of the current political effects of this separation—one of the political ends served currently by it—is the evisceration of substance, that is, collective aims, from the state. That is to say, the simple positing of religion is a covert justification for the modern tendency of the state to frame itself in increasingly negative terms: the secular state is the institutional apparatus by which the social body prevents the incursion by others into the personal and various other goals of individuals, rather than being the means of achievement for common projects and the collective good (pp. 32).

Which is why it would be dysfunctional to argue against Cancovic’s claims about the incompatibility between religion and socialism: it reinforces the category we should be exposing as a tool of the state. When you see a self-professed leftist talking like Richard Dawkins, it should give you pause. An academic like myself would be inclined to use one of the many functionalist definitions of religion popular in social science still, despite their fundamental inability to effectively circumscribe a real phenomena; but here we have no attempt at definition whatsoever. “Religion” seems to be, for Cancovic as with Dawkins, “whatever people I don’t like believe.” That essentially anti-pornographic definition (I can’t define it but I know it when I see it) might suffice for casual conversation or beer-fueled debate among college sophomores, but it most certainly does not suffice for a discussion of leftist organizational tactics in which religion is problematized as the main subject.  It is in Dawkins’ interest to discourage the study of religion as a serious topic, because if his audience understood anything about religion from a social-scientific standpoint he wouldn’t have an audience.  One can’t make a career selling books blaming religion for everything bad that ever happened if people know that “religion” is whatever thing you want to call it willy nilly. But the concern of the left is, at least ostensibly, to make real changes in the material conditions of human beings.  We can not do this if we are hampered by belief in categories which exist only to subjugate people to regimes of thought facile to state control. It should be an item of concern that leftists are borrowing rhetoric from modern supporters of right-wing state policies (Hitchens, Sam Harris, et al) which spread war and terror around the globe in the name of combating “religious extremism.”

Volumes could be written about this, and very well likely will be, but time constraints at the moment prevent me from anything more than this short first draft at a reflection. Suffice to say for the moment that claims about how religion “does” this or “says” that must rely on a refusal to study religion scientifically, or else such claims could not be made. Not least because religion is a made-up category. Religion is dying? Somebody should talk to Peter Berger. One of the ironies of the piece is the call to “always preach the scientific worldview.” Which scientific worldview is that, exactly? The one that refuses to study religion scientifically but feels specially entitled to denounce religion? Again, hello Christopher Hitchens. Preaching is the correct word here.

Rather, what we need to do, how we need to be, is agnostic about religion. The obsession with the beliefs in other people’s heads is an Enlightenment hold-over natural to fundamentalist Protestantism and its sibling New Atheism, but it is not useful to the cause of social emancipation. Cancovic’s essay amounts to “I don’t want to play with those kids I don’t like.” Okay, maybe they were mean to you; but guess what? They’re the majority of people on the planet for all of human history (by any of the definitions of religion or religious out there). If you want to build a movement, you should probably not be looking at the comrade next to you digging that ditch, and tell him he can’t help because he worships an Octopus. Or, worships himself for not worshiping an Octopus. Instead of telling people they’re not allowed to have symbolic culture you don’t approve of, just try explaining political economy to them.

Interview with McKenzie Wark on the outer limits of Marxism and Information Theory

McKenzie Wark is originally from Newcastle, Australia, but moved to New York City in 2000. He is Professor of Media and Culture at Eugene Lang College the New School for the Liberal Arts and Professor of Liberal Studies at the New School for Social Research. He is the author of several books including The Beach Beneath the Street.


C. Derick Varn:  Recently, you mentioned in an interview on Douglas Lain’s Diet Soap that you didn’t think Marx had an understanding of theories of Information, such as that of McLuhan, and that limits a lot of Marxist answers to fundamental problems.  However, there is something similar to information theory in the idea of the objectification of the commodity fetish (the abstract idea that is given material manifestation and then thus drives material production).  Do you see a relationship between this theory of reification and information theory?

McKenzie Wark:  Well, you could get a theory of anything out of reading Marx, or any other classic text, if you want to. You could get a theory of information out of Aristotle. You could get a theory of fly fishing out of The German Ideology. But my method is to ask: what would Marx do? I think he would read the technical literature on the subject, like Shannon and Weaver. I think he would read equivalent of the political economy journals of his time, like the Macy Conference proceedings. I think he would look for something like the Parliamentary reports on factory conditions, which in our time probably only comes out in court cases, and so on. He wasn’t just making notes on Hegel in his voluminous journals, he was also drawing steam engines. So I think we have to get away a bit from this text-grubbing approach to Marx, which is so utterly unmarxist, and study the forces at work in the class struggles of our time. We need the spirit of Marx to do that as well as the letter. Central here is the rise of a whole techne that barely existed in his time, the control technologies of the information age, which have so fundamentally reshaped the production process, not to mention its spatial distribution over the planet. Its what Norbert Weiner called the second industrial revolution.

C.D.V.:   You have no argument from me on the focus of current conditions of life and its empirics.  Why do you think Marxists have gotten away from going through the hard numbers?  Furthermore, do you see this shift as a sign of developments within what you see as the information economy itself? Or to be put it simpler, is there something about the text focus that shows us something about our political reality today?

M.W.:  The problem is more that the theoretical and empirical sides of Marxist work drifted too far away from each other. The intellectual division of labor as the university defines it edged out any other way of organizing the production of knowledge, such as around a common sense of struggle.

Perhaps the beginning of the end was Althusser. The doctrine of the ‘relative autonomy’ of the superstructures legitimated working on just one, and using the conceptual tools of a given discipline: economics, politics, culture. And of course in his universe philosophy retained a policing role overall in relation to method. For a while it was enabling, but then each of the separate bodies of Marxist work were absorbed by their respective disciplines.

I am of course in favor of a close reading of Marxist classics, but they have to be understood now as classics, as works of another time. They cannot be read philosophically, as Althusser did in his own disingenuous way. They are texts from a project that has to be re-imagiend in all its components.

First of all: I just don’t think we can assume that we are living in ‘capitalism’ as Marx defined it. Just exactly what kinds of mutations occurred in its form between the 1850s and our time? But to frame such a question one has to overcome the tremendous unthinking insistence by — of all people — ‘Marxists’ that nothing much has changed. Ironic given that “all that is solid melts into air.” And note that all I want is to ask the question; and yet the alleged Marxists keep telling me the answer in advance. This is scholasticism. It isn’t method.

C.D.V.:  What can we learn about capitalism from information theory?

M.W.:  If one were to root this in Marx it would be in something he mentions occasionally but does not yet grasp conceptually — the telegraph. He sees how it is part of an extension of the turbulence of capital in space, but he does not quite see its distinctiveness as part of the ensemble of technological changes going on around him in the mid to late nineteenth century.

The telegraph is really the first time that information can be mobilized at a different, and faster, speed, to any other kind of ‘thing’. Labor, commodities, munitions — all those things are moving rapidly by the railway age, at least along those vectors where there is a railway or a steamer. But information is suddenly moving even faster. Its the real beginning of the ‘market’ as an abstract, non-localized place. What Marx presciently describes as the ‘world market.’ But one not based on ‘adventure’, which was when merchants set off with stock not even knowing who or what they would trade with. The telegraph closes the era of adventure.

But the concept of information is not really going to appear until after world war two. And its connected to another dimension of information. The telegraph is what I would call an extensive vector. It enables information to move across broad spaces. It enables commodity markets to exist that are uncoupled from space yet still based on calculation rather than adventure. But there is also the intensive vector, which is the capacity to process information rather than merely compile it.

One of the first forms of which was the modern newspaper. Marx himself is a journalist of the telegraph era.Techniques of sorting and ordering these vast flows of information from remote sites is a nineteenth century invention. But the quantitative evaluation of information is another side to the intensive vector, and it takes a big step forward due to war time logistics and code breaking. People start using machines to find patterns in information.

Information theory arises out of the needs of managing production and distribution at new scales of complexity and over unprecedented territories. Control is vested much more in information than in the design of physical plant. The design of the labor process within the factory to extract maximum value was at the center of nineteenth century capitalism, and this is still being refined into the twentieth century. But the new kind of production and distribution circuits take full advantage of the intensive and extensive vector together. To the point where ownership and direct control of the factory becomes optional. (Samsung runs its own factories, but Apple does not).


C.D.V.:  What do you think you can seem about possible post-capitalist futures through information theory?

M.W.:  Like anything that emerges out of the development of the forces of production, one has to separate out the actual and potential powers of a technology. The tendency in what Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron used to call the “California Ideology” is to talk only of a potential, and to make that potential equivalent to some sort of free market libertarianism. The tendency on the left is to take those people at their word, and to merely address the negative side of that rather narrow understanding of potential. Its really striking how critics on the left often just take the Silicon valley mouthpieces at their word about the shiny free market future.

But I think there’s another way to go about it. And its to ask: who are the organic intellectuals of these new developments in the forces of production? One has to seek out people actively exploring the hidden potentials of information based technology. Yes, overall it is being used to control the labor process in ever widening and deepening patterns. Yes, it is being used to extract information from people’s nonwork activities and valorize it. But those uses are not identical to the potential of the technology itself. So in short, its about reconnecting Marxist thought with the leading sectors of workers, or as one might also call them — hackers.

For those who think everything about information technology is always evil, just remember that the only reason we know about climate change is because of the bringing together of the intensive and extensive vector. Its messy big data sets massaged via computer and put through models which simulate the laws of physics. And the result is robust science. We have a pretty good idea of what after Marx we could call the “metabolic rift” opening up through the displacement of carbon into the atmosphere.

At another scale altogether, if you look at Occupy Sandy, it turns out the be a counter-logitics exercise. Can we use mutual aid to start learning how to run infrastructure where both capital and the state are failing? But for that mutual aid to be effective takes a whole lot of information-based tools. Its a small thing, obviously, and does not confront the totality of — call it what you like — neoliberal or vectoral commodity production in all its flailing glory. But points to the kind of praxis we might need to develop when the current infrastructure starts to really fail. I think we’re going to need every tool we can get, no matter how embedded it is in the old regimes of accumulation, to start putting together coalitions of those who work with their hands and those who work with their heads in a common front to build again in the ruins of the old commodity economy.

C.D.V.:  Do you think these counter-logistics movements could be scaled up to deal with problems the size of the ecological problems we have now?

M.W.:  Well, we’ll see! In one way not. We really are sitting on top of a massive infrastructure that was built for a mode of production for which we are simply running out of planet. If you have ever seen an open-cut coal mine or a steel plant or have flown over the midwest and seen industrial agriculture — the scale of these things pretty reliably produces the feeling of the technological sublime. And we need not just other technologies but another mode of production — or maybe modes. So scale is a major problem for our times.

The importance of something like Occupy Sandy is on the one hand that it reveals the scale of that problem in negative. The gap between what can be done and what is to be done is always the space where critical thought happens. And its a school for techniques of organizing life and labor and the everyday otherwise.

And also — who knows? — the future might actually be about a more finely distributed network of finer links and nodes, rather than the massive hub-and-spoke approach of late capitalism. But one would want to sever that technical and geographic imagination from some of the ideological baggage that currently comes with it.

There’s always a difference between the space of possibility that a technology implies and its actual deployment within a given economic and cultural context. Technologies are usually brought out of the lab into the world to fight some war or other, be it actual war or economic war. But these things exceed their instrumentalization.

The tools for the kind of cybernetic socialism imagined, say, by Bogdanov in Red Star now actually exist. But it is as if we are caught in an additional regime of surplus extraction. The extraction of surplus information, and not just from labor, but from non-labor as well, from everyday life. At least a part of what is distinctive about Google for example as a business is the capture of surplus information.

But that’s not all these sorts of tools could do, and a different, more livable, more equitable organization of life is certainly an affordance of what half a century of information technology might enable. Classic case of the forces bumping up against the fetters of obsolete relations of production, although not quite as Marx imagined.

C.D.V.:  To shift gears for a moment, I would like to ask you about what do you see as the limitations of left-wing imagination since Occupy?

W.M.:I’m a bit tired of ‘critiques’ of occupy by people who were not even there. I was myself only one of the crowd, a body, and only ‘part time’, as it were. Actually I spent more time writing in Zoccotti Park than anything — all three of my pieces where actually written there! That’s why they are rather abrupt — the battery does not last forever! And particularly in ‘This Shit Is Fucked Up and Bullshit’, which ended up in my book Telesthesia but circulates pretty freely as well, I wanted to concentrate on the ‘glass half full.’

I went to the launch of the latest issue of Tidal just last week, and I was impressed with some of the directions people were pressing an activist analysis. Looking at how the Palestinian Authority, and Palestinian people, are increasingly controlled by debt. And I was particularly interested in the attempt to reach out to comrades in Detroit who have many decades now of organizing in the ruins of the old capitalist mode of production. What Grace Lee Boggs calls visionary organizing rather than protest organizing.

But I think one forward step would be to join up critical energies coming from the humanities and the technical fields again. It Happens intermittently: in the thirties, again in the seventies, and it needs to happen now. The mutual suspicion of these two domains is an effect of reification itself. So I would like to see something like Mike Cooley’s work, and the Lucas Aerospace Plan, but imagined for this whole, emerging, post-capitalist but still commodity and exploitative economy we are entering upon. Given current productive capacities, what other totality could this be? That strikes me as a key question for the times.

C.D.V.:  Why do you think there is much more interest in Humanities on the academic spectrum of the left and seemingly less interest in sciences in the theoretical discourse?  Do you think this is a large part of why there has been less thinking and writing on information theory in Marxist and post-Marxist circles?

M.W.:  Its good to have a knowledge of Marxist philosophy, but one can only get so far reading ‘classical’ texts and interpreting the world through them. That way you end up often seeing what is old about the present moment and not what is new. You see how it still conforms in a large part to the analysis Marx makes in the 1850s. But then he was talking about emerging tendencies. You do this now and you see the residual ones more clearly than the new ones. And one is certainly not going to have much clarity on forces of production that did not exist in his time. One is in short going to see the thermodynamic economy rather than the information economy.

There’s several historical twists where the interest Marx and Engels had in all things technical gets downplayed and we end up with a Marxism of the residual superstructures (culture, politics, art, literature) rather than of the emerging technical forms.

One is Lenin seeing of his rival Bogdanov, and opting for Plekhanov’s rather dogmatic materialism rather than Bogdnaov’s open-ended critical theory of science — his ‘tektology’. Another is Lukacs’ polemics against ‘reified’ scientific knowledge — about which he actually knew very little. He does not see, dialectically, how his knowledge of the totality is also reification, in negative. There’s Althusser’s return, not to science but to the philosophy of science, and the ‘high’ sciences at that. And where incidentally philosophy still claims for itself a regulatory role.

Perhaps most important for our historical moment is that I think we are still in the shadow of the ‘western Marxism’ put together after the failure of the moment of ’68. A western Marxism that retreats to the superstructures. It curious how Perry Anderson can claim with a straight face that outside of historiography there is no English Marxism. He pretty much totally ignores the great anglophone marxist science culture of the 30s and 40s. It was rather Stalinist, so there were good reasons to slight them at the time. But those reasons no longer apply to us.

And, unfortunately, a ‘one-dimensional’ romantic anti-scientism took hold. This was not without its merits, but in our era of climate change denial and evolution denial, it is definitely time to ‘bend the stick’ (as Lenin would say!) back the other way. Of course actually existing science and technology are homologous with the commodity form, but so very obviously are culture and philosophy. Its time for the dissenters on both sides of the ‘two cultures’ to find each other. One step towards that might be a revisionist history of what i would prefer to call ‘Northern Marxism’, some of which i just sketched.

And that might clear some space. Not to go off and obsess about Cantorian set theory or magically withdrawing objects or some other distraction, but to look at the sciences and technologies that really did reshape both the world and our perception of it in the late twentieth century, of which information science is an element. There are some elements of this already, but the task would be i think to reimagine Marx’s 19th century critique of political economy as a 20th century critique of information science.


C.D.V.:  Do you think that the last say five years and the reemergence of popular forms of Marxian discourse could open up a way out of the current malaise?

M.W.:  I think its good that there’s been a revival of interest in Marxian discourse. There has also been a renewal that you can see going on in several directions. The critique of university, of precarious labor, of finance and debt, even of the new post-culture industry media. There’s also new theoretical work going on and also some interesting engagements with various past thinkers. There’s a more practical discourse going on connected to occupations as well. Its all good.

On the other hand there are some more etiolated philosophical trends that may not be so helpful. The task is to get out of philosophy, not to endlessly return to it. After Lukacs and Sartre, there may be diminishing returns in yet another return to Hegel, for instance.

Some future paths to explore might include looking back through the archive for paths not taken, which might be useful now in ways they did not appear to be at the time. Why did Merleau-Ponty have to say about nature? How can the ecological and the informational components of marxian critique be brought together? But I think in the end its the vitality of social movements that leads to the vitality of theory, and not the other way around.

Contemplating anarcho-primitivism in a suburban parking lot

Or: If there is a Hell in John Zerzan’s universe, I deserve to go there

You ever get that feeling that you walked into the wrong classroom on the first day of school? That seems to be the case here. Awkward.

But the show must go on, I suppose. Reading anything has been a challenge with two rug-rats in the home, a wife getting increasingly tired of my introverted scatter-brained ways (I have been called a “space cadet”, and I didn’t argue with that characterization), and a day job that sinks me deeper into the dark entrails of the inner workings of capital (but at least I can keep the door of my office closed and blast French baroque music from my computer much to the the dismay of my coworkers). The mortgage, the lawn, the neighbors with anti-Obama and Tea Party bumper stickers on their cars, the heat, the humidity, the crawfish, the swamp, the gators… all a far cry from my intellectual blossoming in Berkeley. I was just another Mexican kid from the fields getting radicalized and spending too much time at political meetings, thinking that changing the world was as simple as 3, 2, 1… But that all went to Hell, didn’t it? And now I have a two year old sleeping in the back seat, and I’m reading some book about how humanity went wrong when it first invented language. This is a new low. I just hope I remember to buy the right twelve pack of bar soap at the Sam’s Club.

Read the rest of this entry

The Egalitarian Principle

Recently, SkePoet posted a critique of Bhaskar Sunkara’s “Beyond Warm and Fuzzy Socialism.” He quotes from Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Program,” a text that is often quoted these days as objecting to equality as a socialist value. SkePoet specifically takes aim at Sunkara’s invocation of the French Revolutionary slogan, “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” He chides Sunkara for using the term “equal respect,” which he charges is “fundamentally liberal” not socialist.

So, on the point that “equal respect” or its cousin, “equal opportunity” are not in any sense socialist values, I concur. However, I have found myself increasingly uncomfortable with a sort of Marxist distancing itself from what I would call “substantive equality.” While making sure that people aren’t discriminated against when seeking employment is a fundamentally good thing, and a part of a socialist reform agenda that overlaps with liberalism, I can’t escape my conviction that when we propose a socialist revolution, we are proposing a leveling that radically alters the economic and political power differentials in society from those in the ruling classes to those in the working majority. The working classes become self-ruled in order to abolish class rule forever. To say this is not a process of equalizing wealth and power seems to deny the meaning of the word “equality.”

Yes, the liberal view of equality is formal and thin, and in any event always contested from the Right, who in our day are winning substantive roll-backs to gains in formal equality won in earlier struggles. We are seeing massive unemployment and incarceration of young black men in our day, that makes the celebrated gains of the 60s Civil Rights movement seem stunningly irrelevant. Only substantive egalitarian reforms, such as changing draconian criminal statutes, radical improvments to education, poverty relief, and economic leveling could make a dent in this deadly and tragic situation. Such reforms seem almost impossible within the current configuration of our political and  economic systems, so calls for radical change are the only route for advancement.

So, we do make common cause with liberals on formal equality, but radicals must push further and demand substantive equality against a world system of horrendous inequalities.

Ideology and the Individual in Cinema part I

David Anspach


“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).


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 Skeptical Thinking: A dialogue with Rob Tarzwell

Rob Tarzwell is a doctor of nuclear medicine and a psychiatrist, a skeptic, and a health advocate.

Skepoet: How long have you been involved with the “skeptic’s community” in Canada?

Rob Tarzell: My involvement with skepticism in Canada in any identifiable sense began informally via Skeptics in the Pub in about April 2009. I then attended a Skepticamp, again just as an observer, and then the annual JREF conference, TAM, in Las Vegas that summer.

Formal, participatory involvement started in Fall 2009. This was sparked by the H1N1 Swine Flu epidemic. A lot of fear arose about the vaccine, stoked by deliberately uninformed anti-vax fear-mongering. Although the information was false, it did result in genuine fear, and I attempted to address those fears with short notes on Facebook about the flu, flu shots, adjuvants, and additives. I also dove into discussions about swine flu and vaccination on various discussion threads, which is how we first became acquainted, since there was a rip-roaring thread churning away on your profile. These notes and discussions ended up being somewhat widely distributed, and anecdotal feedback suggests they were helpful to some individuals.

This led to an invitation to give a pubic lecture on vaccine safety at UBC and then a live radio debate on Radio Freethinker. Apparently, people aren’t tired of me yet, and I’ve been asked to co-convene a series of public lectures on vaccine safety on behalf of Green College, UBC, during fall and winter terms 2012/13.

The short answer to your question is: 3 years.

S: What do you think about the relationship between scientific Skepticism as a “movement” and “new” atheism as a “movement”?

R.T.: The relationship between scientific Skepticism and atheisms new and old is at once simple and deeply complex. In terms of addressing the simple proposition, “God exists,” skepticism as a method of inquiry brings exactly the same sorts of tools to bear as it would to questions like, “Bigfoot exists,” or, “Electron microscopes exist.” Evidence and arguments are marshaled and scrutinized. The skeptical method is simply to apportion belief in proportion to evidence in favour of a proposition. Most skeptics would say the evidence for a divine being doesn’t pass muster.

The complexity emerges from Skepticism and New Atheism as social phenomena. While atheism itself is at least as old as the Greek Sophists–”Man is the measure of all things,” said Protagoras–this linking of atheism with activism, at least here in the West, is new. My sense of it is, “We’re not going to politely let you hide behind the cover of faith or sacred belief when you say something that has important social consequences.” At least, that’s the message I take from Harris, Hitchens, and to some degree, Dawkins.

I’m ok with that. When theological ideas infuse policy and law, we have a huge problem, in my view. Bluntly, we’re then trying to govern society with false ideas. So, that gets my hackles up, and that’s the point where I get involved.

But something unfortunate has happened. I worry that a kind of arrogance has crept into the movement. In some cases, PZ Myers comes to mind most readily, religions are not just to be dispassionately analyzed and stopped when they enter the polis, but they are to be ridiculed. And not only are they to be ridiculed, but if you think otherwise, you’re an “accomodationist,” something akin to a yellow traitor. This seems to be the closest the Skeptical community has ever come to frank thought-policing, because you do not want to be so-labelled by the superstars du jour like Myers or Jerry Coyne, or suddenly you might find your ideas ridiculed and even your motives questioned.

An example who comes readily to mind is Alain de Botton, the English philosopher who has explored what religions do well. He grants right up front that theological conclusions are nonsense, but then he says we need to pay attention to religious methods of inspiration and education, because these seem to have been rather successful. I’m not sure if de Botton is correct, but surely this is a non-controversial, straightforwardly empirical claim. It is clear, it is falsifiable, and I even grant that it is very interesting. However, de Botton is endlessly labelled an “accomodationist.” It’s also de rigeur to declare he simply must be angling for a Templeton prize, the implication being he has sold his intellectual honesty for dirty money.

I think this is really problematic, for two principal reasons. First, if the real goal is to try and bring about a society which is governed more rationally than not, we need to model rational behaviour. McCarthyesque pissing-contests about who the real rationalists are is really not reflecting wellon big-S Skepticism. Second, to achieve that society, you need to win “the hearts and minds.” Well, you aren’t going to get that done by ridicule.

It fascinates me that we’re in the midst of a ridiculous debate about confrontationalism and accomodationism. Again, let’s be empirical and look to the evidence about what actually works at winning someone over. If you don’t want to look at the evidence, here’s a quick thought experiment: hands up everybody who wooed their current beloved via ridicule.

S.: What do you think about the charge of scientism against Dawkins and Harris? This seems like an entirely different problem than the Coyne/Meyers one. In fact, in recent claims Harris has made about the is/ought distinction and a softer demarcation line, both Meyers and Coyne took more moderate positions than Dawkins and Harris and stood by the Humean distinction.

R.T.: I think against Harris, the charge sticks. We can empirically discover what values people actually hold via anthropology. We even discover how and why they priorize their values via the methods Jonathan Haidt has developed. Where empirical methods fail is when we take two lists of priorized values and seek to determine which is the better ordering.

In medical ethics, we broadly place a premium on patient autonomy, but not so long ago, we priorized physician paternalism. That seems repugnant to us now, but it didn’t in the 1940′s, when patients were routinely *not* told about grave diagnoses, for fear that would overwhelm them with hopelessness needlessly. Were we right then, or are we right now? It’s a great question, and I think it is even answerable. How neuroscience contributes to that, I have no idea. I think we’re likely to get better engagement with the problem from cultural historian and ethicists than PET scanners.

That’s not to say PET scanners have no role in ethical explorations. They may, for instance, help us answer intriguing questions about why individuals and groups publicly endorse one set of values while privately adhering to another. Writing off that kind of behaviour as “hypocrisy” may be smugly satisfying, but it hardly constitutes an inquiry. If Harris, as a trained neuroscientist, focused his efforts on those sorts of problems, I’d be very interested in the results.

Within Skepticism, there certainly has been a heavy emphasis on rationalisitc, scientific inquiry in an almost Victorian, reductionistic sense. That sort of scentism or at least priorization of scientific methodology is changing. It’s great to see new voices emerging, like Natalie Reed who writes in a wonderfully rational way about LGBT issues, or Ian Cromwell applying skeptical methods to overt and covert racism. It’s really refreshing to see the movement getting beyond Bigfoot!

S.: What do you make on the problems raised by the Rebecca Watson/Richard Dawkins spat a few years back?

R.T.: That whole incident was a real eye-opener. A quick recap for your audience is in order.

In the original video, Rebecca describes having been at a conference in Ireland where a topic of one panel was being emotionally sensitive to another person’s feelings when making sexual advances. She’s out until 4 after the day’s events and announces she’s going to bed. A chap she never names follows her to the elevator and invites her up for coffee. She says she found that creepy and mildly exhorts the men: “Guys, don’t do that.” Then she briefly explains what it was like on the receiving end and moves on to other topics. (starts at about 4:00)

Well, then the furies begin howling, with a lot of sharp division, all the way up to death threats against Watson. Dawkins posted a satirical letter to an imagined female, Muslima, about how she should stop whining about genital mutilation, because American women are getting invited for coffee in elevators. (Comment #75)

Although in the main people lined up for Watson, there was a surprisingly loud and strident support for Dawkins, among both men and women. She has been accused of holding a double-standard, along two distinct lines (and I’m paraphrasing here): 1) “You don’t like that this guy did this, but I bet it would be ok if he was hot and rich;” and 2) “Double standard! Guys wouldn’t mind if girls did this, so girls shouldn’t mind if guys do it!”

Now this is genuinely surprising. Apparently, at least with some individuals in the skeptical community, it’s simply impermissible to describe circumstances which you find anxiety-provoking and request that they not occur. This has been described as privilege-blindness, and perhaps it is, but that does not explain the numerous females who rallied to Dawkins or just generally against Watson with accusations of hypocrisy. There was massive attribution to Watson of all sorts of motives which are patent nonsense when examined in the clear light of day.

In my line of work, when someone gets attacked for saying what makes them feel vulnerable, the term is emotional abuse. Another is identifying with the aggressor. Something about Watson’s honesty triggered an enormous and hostile reaction in some quarters. As a community, some of us absolutely fell from the standard of rational inquiry, including rational inquiry into our own behaviours and genuine motives.

While it was perhaps right to call Dawkins out in no uncertain terms, or to call out the really nasty and abusive responses, there was far too little, “Hmm, Dawkins said that. Now, that’s really interesting. Why did he say that? What are the arguments for and against that stance?” So, maybe this is another take-away: we’re not very rational as a community when it comes to turning our rational gaze upon ourselves. It’s far easier dissecting homeopathy and the anti-vaccine cranks.

To his credit, Dawkins announced that the Richard Dawkins Foundation would pay for child-care at future TAM’s (the annual meeting in Las Vegas hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation) specifically so that single mothers could attend and engage in the rational community. I asked Rebecca in a chat thread whether she thought that might constitue an indirect form of apology from Dawkins, and she speculated that it might.

S.: Why do you think the spectrum of skeptics runs liberal to libertarian politically now. This was not always the case historically. Many of the philosophical icons of the skeptics movement prior to its current incarnation being socialists ( Bertrand Russell) to Marxist (Stephan J. Gould) to even moderate conservative. Why do you think the political spectrum now is more narrow and liberal in the European sense of the word.

R.T.: Oh, that’s a *really* interesting question. I’d be dishonest if I said I had definitive, expert insights into this, but perhaps I can offer what looks like a perspective in political culture.

Within Canadian skepticism, we are by far overwhelmingly liberal, which may in part explain the rise of Canadian skeptical bloggers looking at specifically liberal topics, from a liberal perspective, like the aforementioned Ian Cromwell on race or Natalie Reed on transgenderism. Is that a product of a generally more liberal, Canadian society? Possibly. We’re single-payers on health-care in our very bones and opted in favour of gay marriage in the mid-90s, right around the time we banned smoking in bars and restaurants. Abortion was decriminalized in the 80′s, and we gave capital punishment the boot in the 70′s. The skeptics that Canada produces may be more liberal simply by virtue of marinating in this.

The American story is a much more interesting one to watch. The early composition of some of the earliest skeptical organizations, like, say, CSICOP, would certainly have found a congenial mix of liberals, conservatives, moderates, and perhaps libertarians or anarchists. To the degree that skepticism becomes linked to atheism, then it also becomes linked to folks like Ayn Rand, and that probably makes the link to libertarianism. Rand never really caught on in Canada the way she did in the US, and it’s interesting that libertarian skepticism seems almost singularly an American phenomenon. I meet all kinds of libertarians, Randians, and various other flavours of soft and hard Objectivists at TAM, and sometimes have to act as a kind of cultural interpreter for European skeptics who come to Vegas.

Another hunch I have about this is that whereas in the 60′s and 70′s it was the left which had renounced science, today it seems to be the right. Climate change is the most obvious example of this departure, though certainly we lefties have our share of loonies: anti-vaxers come to mind, or alt-med adherents. But on the big culturally and politically relevant questions of the day–global warming, evolution, “choosing” to be gay–the right is just flat-out bonkers wrong on the science. Since skeptics of various political stripes are surprisingly unified on the science, this is going to repel people who have prior ideological commitments.

As a side note, it’s refreshing and fun to chat intelligently about global warming with a political conservative who advocates for free-market solutions to the problem, as it is to grumble with Berkeley flower-power lefties about all their neighbours who don’t vaccinate the kids. Science, because of its open model of truth-seeking, has a capacity to draw us all together in the movement, by providing a common touchstone of agreement.

S.: Marxists never renounced scientific thought. For example, I have many, many problems with the Sokal hoax and the books that it spawned, but Sokal was a Marxist. Still the relationship to vulgar postmodernism is interesting. For clarification, the Canadian liberals are left liberal, as in liberal in the American sense, no?

R.T.: Broadly, yes, we’re mostly left-liberals. Even a majority on the right here would support gay rights single-payer health, and social regulation over things like where we can smoke in public. Many of the former Progressive Conservatives worry about the hard-right social swing the Conservative Party of Canada caucus keeps trying to reinvigorate. To his credit, our conservative Prime Minister Harper has been opposed to reopening debates on abortion and gay marriage. He got caught in a parliamentary procedural snag that basically forced an hour of debate on a private member’s bill about fetal personhood recently, and both he and the party whip spoke unequivocally in opposition to the private motion. That would look positively alien, if not repugnant to most Republicans, methinks.

Have Marxists always been pro-science? One example that comes to mind of a potential exception would be Lysenkoism ( To be strictly fair, you might just as easily link that to Stalinist excesses as to Marxism proper, but where do we ever find a pure political strain?

S.: Lysenkoism is not post-modernism. It’s not a denial of science as a discipline, it was bad science that was politically enforced. There is a pretty substantive difference there. I mean I can go off on liberal bad science now: Neo-classical economics has pretense to science, or how polygenism was pushed in North America by liberals and conservatives for racist reasons, or that frankly many European liberals enforced bad anthropology to maintain their beliefs about race and their justification for colonial expansion. This would be to weaken my own point. When people talk about the left turn against science in the 1960s and 1970s, they mean specific readings of continental philosophers who broke with the Marxist tradition (Deleuze, Foucault, and Lacan), although I actually think outside of some of the Lacanian stuff, a lot of the scientific criticisms didn’t really understand the philosophers they were criticizing, but those philosophers were being used that way, so perhaps it was fair. This also gets tied into the “Science Wars,” which was about sociology within science and the functioning of the community. Some of this did get taken in an anti-science direction, but some of the criticisms of this seem to be me opportunistic. The scientific method does not protect one from all the logical failings inherent in community power-relationships.The idea that science can bring you together though seems optimistic to me. For example, what is was proven through game theory or through observational data that the free market can’t solve climate problems? Would your friend change? Behavioral economics cast a long shadow over readings of rationality in micro-economics, and I have to admit that even many Marxist have ignored this. So to put in your terms, how would holding on to that belief not be like holding onto Lysenkoism for political reasons? It seems like the anti-science bent of conservatives and liberals has lowered the bar.The American libertarians, for example, often compare evolution to the market, but this is no less unscientific than way Sokal criticized Deleuze for using biological terms metaphorically. Evolution isn’t like the market: It’s massively inefficient and prone to failure of catastrophic variety for the individual and gene centered point of view. If the market is evolutionary in a pure sense, then it would an argument against the very function most people ascribe to it: efficiency in the “knowledge problem.” Yet I don’t see a lot of skeptic’s pointing this out–although I do see some–because it would alienate the libertarian element in North America and the liberal (in the European sense) in the UK and Australia.So the umbrage taking seems highly selective, or if not, then opportunistic to keep the coalition of ideologies going. Honestly, this was the kind of thing the sociology of science people were first interested in pointing out.

Your thoughts?

R.T.: I believe I may see what you mean. Essentially, if I read you correctly, there is selective attention within Skepticism (and within other formal movements you’ve outlined) given to certain topics while others are ignored, perhaps willfully, perhaps not. I suspect that’s true. Other topics are grossly misunderstood or oversimplified. The easy explanation is, it’s simply impossible for any group to be interested in all things at all times. That wouldn’t be a group anymore, rather, it would be the entire population of the planet.

The harder explanation regarding what catches our interest and why is still unfolding. It may ultimately never find a satisfactory answer. There are hints, perhaps, in the founding of various skeptical organizations. When James Randi began turning his attention toward psychics and faith-healers, it really bothered him that people were being swindled by self-proclaimed miracle-workers whose miracles often amounted to little more than the same kinds of conjuring he was using to entertain his audience. I’m speculating, but perhaps he was motivated by moral indignation against swindlers, the misuse of his own profession’s skills, and compassion for desparate individuals seeking out, say, psychics, to help them cope with their own grief over a lost loved one.

One needn’t look too far to see that the early members of CSICOP were most certainly motivated by a moral mission. It really troubled them that the Uri Gellers of the world were making scandalous amounts of money through pure fakery, even securing government grants for research into spooky mental action at a distance. Project Alpha or Carlos stand as brilliant demonstrations of the human capacity to be fooled by conjuring, a kind of reminder to us that we’re perhaps not half so clever as we imagine. That bug in the mental software is something Randi takes seriously, as do, I think, many of the more morally motivated within the various organizations.

Speaking personally for a moment, I’ll admit that a lot of my fuel for tilting against anti-vaxxers or alt-med proponents comes from the intentional misuse and appropriation of scientific language and terminology, the frank abuse of rhetorical techniques (“Your ‘science’ is a closed paradigm!”), leading to real harms in the real world. Thanks to dropping vaccination rates, there’s a massive outbreak of Whooping Cough where I live, probably the largest outbreak since we introduced effective vaccines. It’s a disease that kills infants or can permanently maim. This is horrendous! If people had effective strategies to notice and then undo pernicious rhetorical techniques, that would literally save children’s lives.

So, yes, selective for sure. It drives me a bit crazy at times in certain quarters. Haven’t we heard enough about UFO’s and bigfoot? There are real problems in the world which deserve critical attention that needn’t even be at the level of specialists. Basic critical thinking skills will do.

S.: This focus on basic critical thinking skills is good, but this is why I am cautious about things like the Harris version of new atheism, or the Dawkin’s promotion of memetics. These actually don’t seem to be all that far off from bad philosophy using science language and scientific evidence out of context. Is that fair? Why do you think these had so much attraction in the beginning of the movement? Why does popular evo-psyche catch on, for example?

R.T.: Indeed! To some degree, there may still be an element of excessive deference to Harris or Dawkins in some regards, but there’s also an interesting self-correcting mechanism that pops up in unexpected ways. One example would be the rapid backlash about Dawkins’s satirical letter. Another would be Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a Dick” speech from TAM 2010, which drew both praise and sharp reactions.

Other new voices are also rising to take on Harris’s ideas about Islam, warfare, and profiling, exposing what essentially amounts to simplistic racism. John Shook has taken Harris to task quite effectively, right on the Centre For Inquiry website. This is important and healthy. All the dirty laundry needs to be right out in the open.It’s crucial, I think, that criticisms are beginning to arise not just about the methodology but about the ideas themselves, and from new voices. One of the most interesting yet under-noticed critics of Sam Harris is a grad student in strategic studies who also has a background in analytic philosophy, Simon Pratt. His academic interests include terror and assassination within a strategic context, and his blog recently included a really important and clarifying discussion of suicide bombing which shows almost immediately how facile Harris’s analysis remains.

So, in a sense, while we’re inevitably always behind the curve, the reasoned voices of dissension are arising. I’m very much looking forward to Skepticism 3.0!

S.: I have found Massimo Pigluicci’s blog, Rationally Speaking, to be a corrective to a lot of this sort of thing. Now, I still think many in the Skeptic’s movement don’t take “Continental” philosophy seriously enough, but I understand why. When I first came into the skeptic’s movement there was a hostility to almost any sort of philosophy aside from Dan Dannett, but that has changed. However, I also feel like there are move divides within the “movement.”I think the Watson issue really illustrated that there were political tensions and problematic normative assumptions. I have a question though, do you see scientism as a real threat to skeptic’s movement? I found the denial of the concept in many of my skeptic friends problematic. Of course, I would say “undialectical,” but I will avoid the jargon of my philosophical leanings. I actually think scientism is dangerous to science because my demolishing clear ideas of demarcation and justification, it makes science look “just” like another social practice and thus appear entirely relativistic. It’s almost like an inversion of the post-modern critique that validates it. I remember in the Sokal and Bricmont book, they defined science as “rigorous common sense” and I have trouble seeing how that could possibly be true: it seemed like a move to avoid the issues, but in a way, it does the opposite of what it is designed to do.What do you think on this matter?

R.T.: Right away I’m going to sound more weaselly than I’d like to and say, it depends on which concept of scientism we’re referring to. I think there certainly are some versions of scientism which do attach to some skeptics at some times, and Pigliucci is an important astringent to this process. It does bother me that a lot of skeptics have little time or patience for philosophy, because I think it has an inescapably important role, actually, as outlined by Pigliucci himself in a recent post.

S.: The same with Eco-psyche, which Coyne and Pigliucci both have said major problems logically and methodologically in the comparative biological field. So this seems much larger than just Austrian economics. String theory is another example of a science that is completely non-empirical, although one without social consequences.

It is interesting to me that Dennett is okay because he uses memetic theory, a theory that is also non empirical and frankly seems to be a way to avoid sociology and more developed social theory in favor of something that looks like evolutionary biology. The fact that Dawkins speculated on memetics early on seems to be a place where this came in. While memetics seems to have reached it high tide, the journal of memetics having closed down, and there still being nothing stronger than a metaphor for the mechanism, but it still has much pull in the community.

Do you see why I think this is a bigger problem than just with libertarians?

Hard scientism, the idea that only scientific approaches can yield knowledge succumbs to the same kind of critique which brought hard positivism down: there’s no way to scientifically the statement that “only scientific approaches can yield knowledge.” Even so, it’s strangely common among more strident and uncritical skeptics. I sometimes wonder if even Dawkins himself might be some varietal of the species, given his notorious impatience with philosophy of science, Dennett being the single exception.

I can see what motivates the stance. As soon as you open the door to non-empirical methods of inquiry, perhaps the worry is that you let theology and parapsychology in the door. The trouble is, of course, non-empirical methods already are in the door: von Mises and the Austrian school of economics come immediately to mind, particularly among US right-libertarian skeptics. Somehow, he gets a pass while Freud and psychoanalysis get the boot. Fascinating!

R.T.: Ahh, ok, yes, now I see what you mean. I think ePsy is indeed very problematic, and I’m hardly an outlier. No less a light than Gould considered ePsy essentially a farce and not even worthy of the label “science.” It’s all a bunch of post-hoc stuff with various levels of plausibility. Niles Eldredge’s book, “Why We Do It” is a wonderful critique of ePsy as applied to human sexual behaviour. Yes, sadly, it’s got great traction within Skepticism. Perhaps it is precisely the kind of theory that appeals to non-expert but nonetheless intelligent lay audiences. It is simple, has elegance, and it appears to have broad explanatory power. There may even be limited applications where it is genuinely useful and offers real lift.

Memetics is another field. It seemed like there was a time in the late 90′s when you could hardly turn a corner without running into another book about memes. Like ePsy, it certainly looks like an elegant and easily understood theory which unfortunately lacks falsifiability. This isn’t to say it’s wrong or even bad. However, if it is to be understood as some kind of science, it certainly isn’t hypothetico-deductive science. Rather, it’s more along the lines of psychoanalysis, ePsy, and Austrian economics.

These aren’t bad things in themselves, but they’re not *empirical* things. Perhaps once the movement has demonstrated a capacity to accept that there can be non-Popperian kinds of science, it will be able to look more dispassionately at all knowledge claims and methodologies and judge them on their own merits, not on crude versions of scientific realism. The recent rise of non-scientific writers and concerns within Skepticism is a source of hope that these types of critiques may arise.

S.: Well, Popper’s falsification criterion cannot apply to any form of statistical analysis as probability can never be completely falsified empirically or experimentally. So the fact it has so much hold in the community seems problematic. But I have seen a slow shift too, but the shift has left rifts in the community.

Another worrying trait is that I see postmodernism used as a strawman to attack any thick and qualitative analysis in the humanities as “anti-scientific” to favor statistical analysis which is necessarily thin and cannot account for qualia in any way.

This I actually think is a bad strategy: most of us continental philosophy/critical theory people do believe in science as a methodology for physical understanding, even if we may take a Kuhnian view of its conception or be critical of attempts to destroy the is/ought distinction; however, the contempt that some seem to hold out enterprise in seems to be a double standard. When people like Harris or Sokal assert that there is no meta-ethical or meta-scientific point worth making, this looks like a cultural power grab and an attempt to naturalize particular perspectives. It makes the vulgar relativists suspicion that science is veil for cultural power look legitimate. If anyone in the humanities said that “humanities are universal because the humanities is just what humanists do” or “the humanities is just rigorous common sense,” the patent absurdity and circularity of that would be laughed at. Yet I have seen those claim made for science by people in the skeptic’s community.

So how do you think the community can police itself on these points? Obviously, I think some of this is actually happening now as you point out. In fact, that is the very point of our dialogue.

R.T.: Self-policing is likely only going to occur among the willing. I think we’re still somewhat too reliant on our rock-stars to guide our thought, in the main at least. This is one of the issues which Pigliucci has been making louder and louder noises about, and I applaud that. I’m not sure why Dawkins and Krauss are so pig-headed when it comes to the value of philosophy. They don’t even seem to know, or even care to know, what it is that philosophers do. This is despite both getting on famously with Dennett, who I imagine must be mounting some sort of lobbying campaign. It’s really astonishing that Krauss criticizes philosophy for not making scientific contributions. Nobody expects Krauss to be making philosophical contributions.

The irony is, Krauss makes all sorts of philosophical statements, as does Dawkins, and they seem to do so quite obliviously, since in neither case are they saying anything terribly novel. Hume already laid far more sophisticated groundwork for the limits of empiricism and induction centuries ago. I think even Aquinas would have been bored, or at least no more than mildly amused, with Dawkins’s philosophical efforts. So, it’s a pity, but there’s the Dunning-Krueger effect for you, writ large. There’s nothing new or exceptional about this, but what it does is tend to also disincline the Skeptical faithful against philosophy, except for Dennett, who carries the imprimatur of “sciencey” philosophy, though of course, Dennett’s *not* doing science, and I wish Dawkins would stop saying that Dennett is a scientist.

If the only thing we managed to accomplish was getting everybody driving in their own lane with appropriate humility, a lot of these misguided critiques of Kuhn et al would vanish like morning dew. Now, that’s not to say we could actually interest skeptical folk, who in the main are still 20- and 30-something white, bearded, male IT guys in the broader philosophical debate, but it’d be nice if we could at least ratchet down the mockery.

S.: Let’s move back to some policy issues: The state of Washington in the US seems to having some real issues with anti-vaccination ideology leading to communities without herd immunity, to use a technically correct, but horrible public relations term. What do you think we can do about it? Are you seeing anything similar in Canada?

R.T.: Ha! Yes, it would actually be harder to come up with a *worse* PR term than “herd immunity.”

As it happens, a Whooping Cough outbreak hit both the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and Washington State essentially simultaneously. Since those are neighbours which share a border, it’s instructive to compare responses. As of 8 days ago, Washington had recorded about 1300 cases, about 10 times the normal amount, and climbing. BC at its peak had about 230, which is 2.5 to 3 times typical, and that number is falling.

I think policy differences are interesting in these jurisdictions. In both places, public health officials were aware quite early of the rising number of cases in the early part of the year. Both regions also recognize multifactorial issues in the outbreak. Vaccine refusal is higher than it’s ever been, and it may well be the largest component, but also, infants who have insufficient immune maturity can’t benefit from the vaccine and so are ineligible. Also, the immunity wears off after 5 years, so boosters are required. Essentially, pertussis is a real pain in the ass to keep down in a population. So, why is it skyrocketing in Washington and waning in BC?

We’ll only know the whole story in retrospect, but in Washington, a lot of uninsured families simply can’t afford the shot, and it was only 2 weeks ago that the Washington State government released emergency funding and declared an epidemic. In BC, by sharp contrast, from when the outbreak was detected, local health authorities rapidly defined at-risk groups and offered free boosters. Risk groups were defined very broadly, even including anyone with the potential to have contact with children under 18 months of age. Essentially, who doesn’t qualify at that point?

Just like with SARS in 2003, which hit Toronto hard but was hardly noticed in Vancouver, it was a case of early detection, early response.

What lessons can skeptics draw from this? The most obvious one is, get vaccinated! But there are subtler lessons here: policy matters. What makes good policy? Well, that’s quickly becomes a discussion of values. Crudely, this could be seen as a test-match of individualist (American) values vs collectivist (Canadian) values. Maybe you could make the case that collectivism won the day here, but that might be only a superficial analysis. Both public health authorities knew what was up. Perhaps the greater budgetary autonomy in the BC CDC vs the Washington State CDC made the difference, and it essentially came down to speed, but in both cases driven by the same values. However, you do the analysis, though, what *did* happen was influenced by prior views of policy-makers as to what *ought* to happen.

I’m not sure I articulated that very clearly. Do you see what I mean?

S.: You know I actually don’t buy this individualism difference as the prime identifier, I do and continue to think it is more governmental than cultural, and not just in the mild social democratic tenor of Canada. The congressional as opposed to parliamentary politics leads to more options for policy.

However, the rise of libertarianism in the US does seem based on a type of pseudo-individualism that is kind self-deluding. But as far as public policy goes, I definitely can see which has better outcomes in healthcare.

What do you think the case is of the spike in popularity of this anti-vax nonsense?

R.T.: Fair enough, and I’ll admit that’s nothing more than loose speculation on my part, plus an effort to demonstrate the pervasiveness of is/ought distinctions.

Why is anti-vax on the rise? This is a really important question. I think anthropologists will have much more useful things to say than I do, but I’ll offer an interested layman’s opinion. First, it’s important to observe that not just anti-vax is on the rise. It is only one boat rising in a tide of misinformation. Other bad ideas on the ascent appear to include moon-landing deniers and 9/11 truthers. There’s even a newly emerging interest in geocentrism!

Now, I find it impossible to believe that we’ve suddenly become dumber as an entire culture. I wonder if it isn’t simply something like the Internet being a universally available megaphone for anybody to pick up and shout out their ideas. Ideas then end up finding receptive audiences, inevitably a discussion board arises, and you’re already rounding 3rd base on the way to creating a new society for the promotion of a ridiculous idea.

In the vaccine story, take all the above, and add in the incredibly primal fear parents feel when it comes to the safety of their children. I think fear is the real psychological battleground, which makes it an asymmetric war. An anti-vaxxer is able to stoke fear, and once that’s stirred up, rational analysis is paralyzed. All a guy like me can do is try to de-escalate that a bit.

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

R.T.: A few things: first, my apologies for leaving you with such gargantuan blocks of unedited text, largely of questionable worth! Next, thanks for the questions. It’s helped me think through some issues I hadn’t paid enough attention to, particularly my unease with the New Atheist trend in Skepticism.

I’m seeing “New Atheism” as more of a reactionary movement and methodology than I had previously. In the heady days of ’03 to ’06, it was great fun seeing polemic after polemic hit the press. Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, for me at least, hit a felt need: why *do* I need to be respectfully silent when someone plays the religion card? That was great. I think these guys genuinely came to believe, unfortunately, that they had done all the hard work, religion was demolished, and ta-da! I’m overstating the case, but I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that Dawkins, and certainly Harris really believe they’ve offered something dialectically new.

They just haven’t.

Dawkins is a biologist, not a philosopher or theologian, yet there’s little evidence that he has realized this. Harris continues to make ridiculous pronouncements on whatever strikes his fancy, and I find his rationalized racism nothing short of repugnant. His thoughts on security are just bloody stupid, and yet the man really thinks he’s offering something golden and important. The principal two tricks the NA’s seem to deploy is to offer polemics as dialectics and to devalue fields in which they lack expertise. This arrogant attitude is beginning to leak well beyond the boundaries of Skepticism and is beginning to do more harm than good. I see early signs of this reversing, but it will take some time. Not too much time, I hope, because I’m getting tired of having to undo the Dawkins-damage whenever a religious person bristles at my mention of being an unbeliever. We can’t even get started until I assure them I’m not there to ridicule them. This is an unfortunate change in the culture, and one we can’t be rid of quickly enough.

Marginalia on Radical Thinking: An Interview with Graham Harman

Graham Harman is a professor of philosophy at the American University in Cairo, one of the prime-movers of Object-Oriented philosophy and Speculative Realism as development in post-Continental philosophy, as well as an excellent writer on Latour and  Heidegger as well as H.P. Lovecraft.  He blogs at Object-Oriented Philosophy.  Between his recent travels and his following the Egyptian election, he took the time to answer these questions for me which range from his philosophy to what he sees as a real failure of imagination of the left. 

Skepoet: I am interested in your idea that I heard best expressed in the keynote speech you gave at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin (on February 2, 2012) that the idea of “connection” was “once but no longer liberating.” What interested me in this is its emergence in a time of both network theory and a resurgence of interest in Hegel. While your keynote speech pretty clearly articulates your view on the way networking has become ossified, I want to ask why this knowledge of relations and connection was once liberating.

Graham Harman: There were numerous problems with the traditional conception of individual substance, and no doubt the turn to relations had a great liberating force for that reason.

According to the reductionist view, only the ultimate tiny components of the world have reality, and there is something purely accidental about any combinations of them. Consider Leibniz, for whom (despite his notion of monads as reflecting each other like mirrors) there is an absolute difference between “substance” and “aggregate.” For Leibniz a person is a substance, but a circle of people holding hands is not. A diamond is a substance, but two diamonds glued together is not. A tree is a substance, but the Dutch East India Company is not. The mistake here is to think that if something is built of pieces, then it does not deserve to be called an autonomous real thing. The reason this is wrong is because things are not entirely dependent on their pieces. You can replace or remove a few ships of the Dutch East India Company without changing the nature of the company. Obviously, there are certain boundaries of change that cannot be crossed, and it may be difficult to know where to draw the line. If the Dutch East India Company still existed today but used only air transport, and had abandoned business to become a human rights watchdog, would it still really be the same company? But there is equally little reason to hold the opposite view, so that when one hair falls from the head of a single sailor, the company is no longer the same.

A related view considers only natural things as real, so that anything constructed by human artifice is deprived of anything more than accidental status. Or perhaps durability is used as an implicit criterion of the real, so that events such as the 1969 moon landing or snapping one’s fingers are excluded from the ranks of real entities. Sociology and geography become less real than particle physics insofar as everything is supposed to be “grounded” in that more ultimate discipline.

On all these points, the relational view has a strong hand to play against traditional substance. The coalescence of tiny things into a larger one, or the specific local effects an object might have at a fleeting moment, also deserve to be bona fide topics of philosophy— not just empty surface effects waiting in a prison cell for scientistic elimination. There is also the fact that many philosophies of substance tended to assign permanent essences to things, and this had dubious political consequences. If you speak of “the Arab mind” or “the feminine essence” as if these were eternal and knowable constants unchanged across the centuries, rather than as historically produced phenomena, then there are obvious problems. Relationality was supposed to free us from this bad sense of essence. Philosophy shifted from a fascination with the deep, the real, and the substantial to a preoccupation with performances, events, and surfaces that hide no “true” reality underneath. The rights of history were reclaimed, and objects were made to enter into the fray of the world. All of this was liberating indeed.

But it is seldom remembered that every revolution has a limited shelf life. There comes a point when each revolution transforms into the next stale orthodoxy, an empty litany of banal slogans fighting yesterday’s wars. And I’m afraid we have now reached that point with relationality. Now that relations and events have become king in continental philosophy, these battles have largely been won. Rather than endlessly using these theories to beat up the decreasing number of reactionary holdouts, we ought to take a closer look at the problems with relationality itself.

First, there is a simple metaphysical problem: if everything were defined by its relations, then nothing could ever change. Aristotle already showed this in the Metaphysics when speaking against his rivals the Megarians. If I am defined as the person who is sitting on this green stool in Room 208 of the Hotel Braavo in Tallinn, Estonia, and wearing this particular blue shirt at 5:30 PM on June 1, 2012, if there were nothing left in reserve in me beyond my deployment in this specific situation, and if the same were equally true of everything else (as a fully relational ontology requires) then everything would be frozen in its current state. The reality of everything in the universe would be adequately and exhaustively deployed in its situation in this very instant. You can’t get out of the bind by simply positing some sort of magical élan or conatus that would provide a principle of change, because this would merely amount to saying “the world changes by means of a changing faculty”— no better than the famous vis dormitiva of Molière’s comedy Le Malade imaginaire, in which a sleeping pill is said to cause sleep by means of a faculty for causing sleep. For change to be possible, there must be a reservoir of reality not exhausted in the current relational state of a thing. There is also the further point that everything is not related to everything else. Some things and people interact and some do not, even when in the closest physical proximity. This proves that holism is not true. But if everything is not related to everything else, then there is already a buffering principle that isolates things from each other. Any philosophy needs to account for such buffering.

Next, it is especially surprising when the political Left embraces relational ontology (I am astonished that Peter Hallward defends such an ontology), because nothing is more politically reactionary than the idea that we are all exhaustively the products of our context. If I am nothing more than the logical outcome of neo-liberal, late capitalist America, then in the name of what am I supposed to rebel against it? I should instead be profoundly grateful to this system that produced me, since under a different system I would simply vanish and be replaced by a different entity defined by its different relational context. Political transformation is not supposed to be a form of suicide, but a form of liberation. And there can only be calls for liberation if there is something to be liberated— something that does not deserve to be stifled and oppressed by its currently mediocre or horrible conditions.

The problem with the old theory of objects outside of relations is not that they were outside relations, but that one also thought they could know what these things were, and then use that knowledge as political or epistemological leverage. For example, despite the possible objections of Edward Said, there probably is a real thing approximating what we call “the Arab world,” a real cultural structure that channels the individuals who inhabit it in specific directions without their conscious choice. Or “the American mindset.” Or “the age of Romanticism.” Not all such claims will be accurate, of course. If someone speaks of “Des Moines grunge rock” as if it were a genuine musical style, then this is probably just a ludicrous marketing gimmick. In principle, it might be nothing more than a similar gimmick to speak of things like “Southeast Asian culture” or “the female approach to love.” Maybe so.

Nonetheless, if things are not purely relational, then it  also follows that things have essences. I am not the same person as you are. My individual qualities do not erupt into the world for the first time only once they have an effect on something else. I thrived in Egypt, while other expatriates gained nothing from being there; presumably there are things about me that Egypt successfully addressed, while those same traits were absent from the others. Matisse became an artist by accident at around age 21, and van Gogh even later in life. Yet it would not be nonsensical to claim that both of them had artistic gifts preceding those biographical dates, at least for a little while in advance. There is also a reason why it was Matisse and van Gogh rather than any other two people selected from their generation at random. This points to an essence, a reality in the two artists that is not exhaustively deployed in their total artistic catalogs or in their public “performativity,” no matter how unpopular essence has become in philosophy.

There are really just two problems with essence, and it is frankly not that difficult to remove them from your metaphysics while keeping the term “essence.”

1. The idea that the essence can be known. In other words, there is no political problem when we simply speak of “the Arab world.” The political problem comes from thinking that a certain elite group of Orientalist scholars from Oxford and Cambridge can identify the features of that Arab world, and use those features to proclaim that it is essentially Arab to be undemocratic, sensually corruptible, fanatical, retrograde, disorganized, and so forth. This would be an attempt to identify the essence of the Arabs with certain tangibly determinable traits, most of them negative. But in a philosophy like mine, the essence of the Arabs is no more knowable than the essence of van Gogh, a cat, a table, or a neutron. Orientalism results not from calling the Arabs dark and mysterious, but quite the opposite— it comes from explicitly identifying them as undemocratic, sensually corruptible, fanatical, retrograde, and disorganized. The minute you realize that everything is withdrawn from immediate access and can only be known obliquely, an automatic dose of caution and humility is injected into your knowledge.

2. The related idea that the essence is eternal is also a problem. Consider the Scandinavian people, who once produced an endless supply of ferocious Vikings, but are now often viewed as the “peaceniks” of Europe, champions of human rights and social and gender equality. Obviously, one must analyze the history here. If you were simply to say “the Scandinavians are such a civilized people,” this would be no more and no less true than saying “the Scandinavians are brutal marauders with no respect for the sanctity of monasteries.” We must recognize that Scandinavia will follow a different future path from Japan, Kenya, or Lebanon, because these places all have different cultures and histories and different aspirations. But this essence of a culture, like the essence of a person, eagle, army, or coffee mug, is not so easily pieced together from a list of explicitly proclaimed properties that one knowingly ascribes to them.

Stated more technically: metaphysical essentialism is politically harmless, but epistemological essentialism is not.

There is a certain hollowness to the relational standpoint that is not difficult to hear once you tap on it solidly. It has become both metaphysically and politically harmful, and the pendulum is about to swing in the other direction.

People speak of “fashions” in philosophy only in the negative sense, in order to dismiss shallow opponents who always latch onto whatever is trendy. But there is a deeper sense of fashion in philosophy that demands our attention. The world is a mysterious place, and it is not made of propositions. It follows from this that a proposition that is fresh and liberating in 1965 can become the most banal academicism by 2005, if not sooner.

For this reason, it is really quite important to be a trend watcher in philosophy, because trends give us a good sense of where the current boundary lies between fresh statements and platitudes. There is nothing superficial about, say, cheering Deleuze and Badiou in one decade and denouncing them in the next. Philosophy is historical because any statement can turn into a platitude once the surrounding conditions have changed, and philosophy is more about outflanking platitudes than about making eternally true propositions. I don’t believe we are capable of the latter— not because there is no reality, but because reality is not made of statements, and hence every statement is doomed to become an empty platitude someday.

And incidentally, this has nothing to do with being a contrarian. Contrarians simply reverse whatever the mainstream is saying, and therefore are merely parasites on the mainstream. Yet real innovators cannot just reverse the mainstream, but have to dig a new stream where no one was expecting it. It takes a great deal of vision to do this, because it is all too easy to fall into the pre-existent trench wars of the time and place into which we are born.

S:  Similarly, I became aware of your work because of my rejection of the idea of nature as an undifferentiated (thus not understandable) totality that could only be comprehensible by positing a schism that removes humans from the totality falsely. This while coming from a Hegelian background, and not so much a Heideggerian one like yours, but this is effectively the similar problem of the false implications one can draw from misunderstanding the relations between objects/subjects as a relations between independent realities and not something completely formulated by the structure. Why do you think this Gaia hypothesis/Romantic view of nature is so easily matched with the Newtonian/machine view in a way that viewing what we call nature as a relationship between subject/objects or an ecology of those relation may not be so amendable?

G.H.:  I regard Bruno Latour’s views on this topic as definitive. We Have Never Been Modern (1991) is the best account of modernity I’ve seen, and I am often stunned at how little headway it has made among philosophers, as opposed to Latour’s more devoted clientele: anthropologists, geographers, sociologists.

For Latour, the modern world is based on a false dualism between nature and culture, and an equally false effort to purify the two from one another’s residues—all of this accompanied by a hypocritical multiplication of nature-culture hybrids at the very moment of denouncing them. The mission of We Have Never Been Modern is to expose the trickery of these dualisms, and Latour succeeded in that mission flawlessly, though he was only 43 years old at the time, quite young for a philosopher. I cannot stop admiring that book.

Just as the mechanist view is based on an overvaluation of the “nature” pole of reality, the romantic view overvalues the pole of “culture,” or rather of “spirit.” Both strategies are totalizing maneuvers. For the first, nature is a gigantic clockwork system of dead matter that engages in stupefied collisions. For the second, nature is a holistic system of vital interconnectivities. The true situation, by contrast, is that there are simply objects (whether they be plastic, organic, or sandy). These objects are not holistically intertwined; indeed, they have great difficulty making connections, and only some combinations work. Everything does not affect everything else.

However, I’m not sure that any of this speaks against the Gaia Hypothesis. As far as I’m aware, Gaia is not making the massive romantic-metaphysical claim that the entire cosmos is one weeping, pulsating, vital organism. It seems to be the more limited hypothesis that the earth can be viewed as a living organism. This is something that must be decided on the evidence rather than on the basis of some programmatic aversion to romanticism or vitalism. I heard James Lovelock lecture in Dublin in April 2009, and found him perfectly tough-minded— indeed, even a bit grim.

S: Am I to understand you as being somewhat agnostic on the Gaia hypothesis?

G.H.: Only in the sense that I’m not a technical expert on climate change arguments and so can’t say whether Gaia is the right model for understanding global warming or not. But that wasn’t my point. My point was that you can accept Gaia without accepting a metaphysics of spiritual holism in which everything is a big happy organism of mutual interconnectivity. You could be convinced by Lovelock’s argument that the earth functions as a single organism, while still being “parsimonious” and rejecting any claims that there is some sort of world-soul governing the universe as a whole. Stated differently: Gaia is a scientific hypothesis, not a metaphysical one.

But that doesn’t mean it has nothing to teach us about metaphysics. What Gaia teaches us is that some objects might be deeply unified even though at first glance they look like a mere aggregate of multiple entities. If our planet functions as a single organism, then perhaps even larger or more complicated ones do as well. Perhaps entire galaxies or even fields of peas are a single communicating organisms. It doesn’t follow that we must immediately shoot the moon and assume there’s something called “the universe as a whole” that also functions as a single organism.

S: One point I have always wanted to get clarification on is at what point a system becomes an object in your view?  This seems vital to the project of trying to avoid both hyper-reductivism and the privileging of subjects.

G.H.: A sensual object is anything that we regard as a sensual object. We ourselves are the judge of this, because there is no reality principle at work in the sensual sphere apart from what we regard it as being. As soon as I acknowledge Popeye walking around on screen, a unified character enduring through various motions and changes of posture, then Popeye exists as a sensual object. There is nothing “inflationary” about this, because I am simply saying that Popeye must be taken into account, not that there is a real man named Popeye. I suppose certain cases of self-deception are possible even here, but that’s more a problem of faulty introspection than of bad epistemology.

However, as concerns real objects, your question is legitimate. Here we do need to make sure that the gates don’t open and let Popeye, unicorns, and square circles enter our farms and valleys. And we do this by saying that a system is a real object when it has intrinsic qualities that cannot be undermined or overmined.

If all the qualities of the morning star and the evening star turn out to be nothing more than qualities of Venus, then we have successfully undermined these two, and neither is a real object. They are relational phantasms generated by our own interactions with Venus.

If all the qualities of witches turn out to be nothing more than qualities of various disconnected phenomena that people have directly experienced (dead babies in the village, drops of blood near the well, a scarlet fever epidemic) then the supposed object “witch” has been successfully overmined, and the witch is not a real object. Note that Hume and his heirs treat all objects as if they were nothing but witches, breaking them up into symptoms, or into “bundles of qualities.” Despite his jovial demeanor, Hume is a cruel judge, condemning all real objects to be burned at the stake.

But the best we can do is build certain fallible methods to determine what can and cannot be undermined or overmined. That’s because, by definition, there is no direct access to real objects. Real objects are incommensurable with our knowledge, untranslatable into any relational access of any sort, cognitive or otherwise. Objects can only be known indirectly. And this is not just the fate of humans— it’s the fate of everything. Fire burns cotton stupidly, paying no heed to its color, smell, or beautiful purity and softness. Fire interacts with the cotton only insofar as it is flammable. And the same holds for all relations.

S: Why do you think Latour has had so much difficulty being taken seriously by philosophers and has had so much more appeal to anthropologists and sociologists?

G.H.: An excellent question! Perhaps the best way to answer it is to look at what has succeeded in philosophy in recent decades, and then think about how Latour might be a square peg in the eyes of the reigning trends.

We can simplify recent continental philosophy into four basic tendencies:

1. There is phenomenology in the widest sense: including Husserl and Heidegger, then Levinas, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, and Gadamer, and one must put Derrida on this list as well. Then there is a handful of more recently favored examples such as Michel Henry and Jean-Luc Marion.

2. There is also a separate, Hegelian strand in continental thought. The Frankfurt School can be placed here, and in a different way there is the marked Hegelianism of Žižek, Badiou, and Meillassoux (though Meillassoux is now claiming that I am the one who is stuck in the elevator with Hegel, while Meillassoux himself has moved elsewhere, towards dead matter without a thinking subject). In yet another sense, Judith Butler also belongs to the Hegelian trend, and Butler has to be taken seriously even if her writing isn’t one’s cup of tea. (Butler’s impact has been even more widespread than Latour’s, and she’s also one of the smartest people and best listeners you’ll ever meet.) And I think we can put Lacan here too, or at least Lacan as retroactively read from Slovenia.

3. There is Michel Foucault, who of course wasn’t born in a vacuum, but who does stand somewhat apart from the other trends we’re discussing. Here the subject is not a unified and eternal ego-pole, because it is the historical product of discursive and disciplinary practices that must be studied in detail.

4. Finally, there is the group centered in Deleuze and also containing Gilbert Simondon. The conventional wisdom is that Deleuze can be read as a fusion of Bergson with Spinoza, and this is a case where conventional wisdom hits the bull’s eye. (Dan Smith, one of the best Deleuzians, tells me that Deleuze is actually Spinoza plus Leibniz. But I see nothing at all Leibnizian in Deleuze’s contempt for autonomous individual substances, and also don’t see how one can ignore the deep Bergsonism of Deleuze. In fact, the reason I don’t think that Deleuze is one of the very greatest philosophers is because I don’t think he fully overcomes the gifts that Bergson already gave us.) This group also tends to appropriate Whitehead to itself as a “process” philosopher, even though Whitehead has little in common with Deleuze, as will one day be seen more widely.

This looks like a marvelous diversity of options. But where could Latour possible fit in this schema? For the phenomenologists, the Hegelians, and the Foucauldians, the human subject stands always at the center, despite the constant assertions of many that they have overcome the Cartestian cogito. The human subject might not be so central for Deleuze and the others in Group 4 (though some interpreters still disagree). Yet even in Deleuze’s case there is still no room for the determinacy of individual objects. Some Deleuzians protest loudly at this, but Deleuze is all about becoming, lines of flight, trajectories, pre-individualities, virtual depths and vertical causation rather than horizontal causation along the surface of individual things.

So in the first place, Latour’s philosophy is a theory of individual actors of every sort, engaging in duels with one another, or in trials of force. They are not just phenomena in consciousness, but bona fide autonomous actors. These actors include atoms, skyscrapers, armies, national anthems, canoes, and cartoon characters. The only really object-oriented continental thinker in the four groups above is Husserl, and for Husserl there are intentional objects in consciousness, not actors independent of consciousness.

Whitehead is another object-oriented thinker, and Latour and Whitehead do have a great deal in common. But Whitehead has already been hijacked by Deleuzians, and thus he has not helped make an opening for Latour, since people are too ready to turn Whitehead into the proto-Deleuzian that he is not. And now there are efforts to turn Latour himself into a Deleuzian, which is not what Latour is either. We are well into the “Deleuze is compatible with everyone and foresaw everything” phase, the lack of a challenging outside, which always announces the closing decadence of any philosopher’s vogue; Derrideanism got this way by the early 1990’s. And now the Deleuze industry is finally on the point of overheating and excess inventory, and soon there will be layoffs and plant closures.

On one level it’s a shame, because Deleuze was such a liberation in the mid-1990’s from the all the excesses of Derrideans. But this is how the life cycle of popular philosophers works: all are doomed to overthrow by some future young generation. The really great thinkers are simply the ones who can bounce back from the collapse of their fashion. People keep coming back to the great thinkers because there is no alternative—there is something in those thinkers that you can’t forget, that you can’t get from anywhere else, even when they are no longer the latest style. Over the next twenty to thirty years, we’ll learn for the first time what Deleuze is really made of. Can he bounce back and remain an obligatory thinker even after Deleuzianism has become as dated as disco and lava lamps? Even now, we’re in the midst of seeing whether Derrida can clear this hurdle. And if speculative realism is successful, then someday it will happen to us as well. Our words will all look like annoying, imprisoning clichés at some point in the future, and (assuming we succeed to that degree in the first place), we will be a new orthodoxy that one must overthrow to build anything new. Fifty to sixty years from now, our grandchildren can see if we’re able to bounce back from that coming traumatic blow. And then Tristan Garcia and his peers will be fed through the same furnace a generation later. This is, inevitably, the price to pay for a successful philosophy.

But to return more specifically to your question… In the second place, the human being is of no central importance for Latour. We are just one actor among others. It may be true, as I’ve heard Manuel DeLanda claim, that Latour still requires a human observer for any network of actors to exist. In a sense, yes, this sometimes seems true of Latour. But I see this as an artifact of his focus on the philosophy of science, and science by definition always involves humans. There are other passages where Latour clearly states that objects interpret each other just as we interpret them.

To summarize: Latour like Whitehead has a flat ontology in which all entities are equally entities, and in which human knowledge and perception are not privileged forms of relation. But for most of the recent successful continental philosophies, either the human was overtly privileged, or if this was not obviously the case (as in Deleuze), then there was still a focus on “becoming” or on pre-individual forces and fluxes rather than on fully-formed individual things.

Object-oriented philosophy does the opposite, and thus it has found a living ancestral hero in Latour. Garcia never cites Latour and doesn’t seem to read him, but the increasing visibility of Garcia will probably also help the fortunes of Latour in philosophy, simply by helping shift attention away from the privileged human towards the multiplicity of both human and non-human actors.

So, why has Latour succeeded in anthropology and sociology nonetheless? For obviously enough, those disciplines have always been even more human-centered than philosophy. Perhaps it was through their very excess, the extremity of their anthropocentric illness, that they were desperately in need of an antidote. Perhaps this is why Latour became a necessary cure for them, and why so many of them remained Latour addicts even after the disease was cured.

S: What do you make of the recent turn from Heidegger to Hegel in many circles? Do see you this as merely due to mystification by other academics? Fear of political contagion? Or real, substantive difference? Or bits of all these?

G.H.: I do think political reasons are partly responsible, though not in the sense that “Heidegger was a Nazi, and we must have nothing to do with Nazis anymore.” A few scandalous books still say this sort of thing, such as Emmanuel Faye— but who in philosophy takes Faye seriously? Heidegger has received a fair hearing from philosophers despite his Nazism, and I must say that Heidegger deserved this fair hearing, despite his execrable politics. He was simply the greatest philosopher of the past century, and we can’t afford to get rid of him, even if it would feel good in some ways to give him the boot. If he were any less a thinker, he would already be an outcast, but he forced himself into the party through sheer genius. And he won’t be leaving the party, so get used to him.

But the political factors at play in the shift to Hegel are less negative ones against Heidegger than positive claims in favor of Hegel. Hegel stands for the elimination of the unknowable thing-in-itself, for the rationality of the real. In Hegel’s own case, this famously leads to a form of conservatism: the way things already are has a certain internal logic to it. Thus it is that (non-Marxist) Hegelians have not generally been revolutionaries. They tend to feel well-adjusted to their surroundings, and are often very happy people. And no wonder, since they do not feel haunted by the tragic, ungraspable residues that eat at the souls of Heideggerians.

But if you eliminate the thing-in-itself, then at least you eliminate the sense of a non-human element of fate or destiny that efforts at political change would otherwise be stumbling over. Politics becomes the sphere of what is knowable, and with Hegel the sphere of the knowable and first philosophy are one and the same. Thus, the turn to Hegel has obvious political motives to accompany the non-political motives of those who are convinced by the critique of the an sich in German Idealism.

Yet as I’ve said, there is nothing inherently “Left” in Hegel, and even something pretty conservative. To make Hegel worthy of the Left again, it is necessary to restore some contingency and decision-making power to the mix. And this is precisely what we find in three of the most powerful Hegelian thinkers of today: Žižek, Badiou, Meillassoux. In Žižek there is the mad human subject that punctures the fabric of the world and makes its own decisions. In Badiou there is the sudden event that breaks with the state of the situation and commands our fidelity (and all of Badiou’s “events” are recognizably “Left” events that pose little intellectual challenge to anyone who is already radical enough to admire Mao). And in Meillassoux there is the destruction of the principle of sufficient reason, the metaphysics of contingency, and the view that just as matter, life, and thought emerged suddenly for no reason at all, so too a world of justice might one day appear in which God and a Christ-like mediator resurrect all the unjustly slaughtered people of the twentieth century and earlier times.

In all of these philosophies, the subject remains at the center, and frankly it is always a privileged human subject despite Badiou’s various attempts to deny this. In such philosophies, politics may be a realm of sudden upsurges and surprises without any reason outside the subject itself. Yet they remain philosophies dominated by the subject, and too little aware of the political role played by non-human things. So, go ahead and call Bruno Latour “Roman Catholic and neoliberal” all you like. In the long run he may still have more to teach us about politics than these others, who are simply putting a new “contingency” spin on an already well-digested Marxism that has had more than enough problems of its own.

Q7: I was reading a dialogue you had with the blogger K-Punk on the failure of leftist imagination. While as a person in the harder Marxist tradition, I may be an offender, I actually found that I agreed with you on how severely limited the imagination of the left: not just the Marxian left either. Has Occupy changed your mind or expanded your thoughts on the matter? Or perhaps your direct experience of the so-called “Arab Spring?”

K-Punk (Mark Fisher) is a friend, and I greatly enjoyed his book Capitalist Realism. It is undeniably true that the political imagination has become paralyzed (though I doubt this is more true of politics than of other fields). I saw parts of the Arab Spring up close, and the events of that period taught me something, as genuine events should. There were plenty of protest movements throughout my time in Egypt against Hosni Mubarak, against torture, against the Emergency Law. And one could always agree with these criticisms while still thinking that “for now, Egypt is probably better off than it might be under other circumstances.” But in January 2011, I like others was shocked into realizing suddenly what a wrong-headed attitude that was. Mubarak became for me, retroactively, something terrible that always had to be thrown out all along. The Revolutionaries showed me this through provoking a brutal response that showed the truth of the situation in Egypt, which I now see that I had accepted too lazily as a given. Indeed, I had been guilty of a failure of imagination, which is what philosophers should always be ready to avoid. The killings by snipers, the use of plainclothes thugs on camels and horses, and the cynical machinations of Mubarak in response to calls for his ouster, may simply have brought the pre-existent life of the Egyptian dungeons onto the street, as one of the human rights groups remarked at the time. But it took the events on the street to shake me from slumber, and I have not yet recovered from that experience.

Nor did it stop with the departure of Mubarak. In March, one month after Mubarak’s departure, we had the grotesque “virginity tests” on female protestors at the Egyptian Museum— effectively rapes of which no one was convicted. In the autumn of 2011 we had the massacre of peaceful Copts and their Muslim supporters in the Maspero neighborhood of downtown Cairo, and even worse, the bloodcurdling call on television for Egyptian citizens to come out and protect their army from the marauding Copts. In February 2012, we had the Port Said massacre of the pro-Revolution Ahly Ultras after a football match, an incident for which remnants of Mubarak’s apparatus were no doubt responsible. And now we have the upcoming June runoff election, with the terribly painful choice that seems to pit religious fascism against military fascism. Nonetheless, one must have hope. And having no voting rights in Egypt, I am at least spared what looks like a miserable decision between the two candidates.

Egypt was a great moment for the Left, and I even think it was a great moment for Badiou. Rarely have I seen such a great example of a Badiouian “event.” There was a bit of a backstory to the Egyptian Revolution, of course (the murder by police of blogger Khaled Said in Alexandria in June 2010, the Revolution in Tunisia just before Egypt’s). Nonetheless, it met many of Badiou’s criteria for a sudden event not previously inscribed in the situation, and it did command fidelity for any clear-thinking person who could sense what was at stake. We Americans were also clearly implicated in the counter-Revolutionary currents in Egypt, including our unlikely President Barack Obama (someone I like a great deal and whom I have supported, whatever complaints might be made about him).

Having said all of that, it is always important to avoid what I have called “the taxonomic fallacy.” The taxonomic fallacy is the belief that one particular entity or kind of entity can perfectly incarnate some ontological structure. The concept is not that different from Heidegger’s or Derrida’s critiques of “onto-theology.”

For example, the scientistic wing of speculative realism (Brassier and his associates at the journal Collapse) sometimes say that since speculative realism favors realism, then it must favor science against the humanities and listen to physics and brain science rather than sociology and literature. This is an obvious philosophical blunder. For the humanities also deal with what it is real, even if we are speaking here of large-scale realities such as nations and literary styles rather than particles and fields or neural activation patterns. At the same time, the natural sciences are also perfectly capable of failing to confront the real, as when they reduce bona fide mid-scale entities to an ancestral narrative of micro-sized physical subcomponents. The lesson of realism is not that certain human disciplines are realist and should be praised, while others are anti-realist and should be denounced. Instead, the lesson is that we should beware the tendencies of anti-realist currents in all human research, the natural sciences included. Otherwise, we commit the taxonomic fallacy in the typical manner of Brassier and his followers.

And this was one of the things I said to K-Punk in the exchange on his blog, or at least one of the things I was trying to say (I haven’t read that debate since it was posted). If we say that “capitalism” (or fuzzier still, “late capitalism”) has paralyzed the political imagination, it still does not follow that all capitalism oppress the imagination while all Left academic activity liberates it. As I asked K-Punk rhetorically, is Fredric Jameson really more imaginative than Steve Jobs?

We may live in a world dominated by “late capitalist” enterprises such as Apple, Amazon, Starbucks, and Facebook. And these companies can usually be found to have some blood on their hands, simply because you can’t grow that large without taking advantage and cutting corners (who wasn’t disturbed by the New York Times exposés on Apple’s metal-polishing practices in China?). Nonetheless, when that much money is poured into something, it’s not just a sign of exploitation and the sickening concentration of wealth, but also the sign of vitality. “Follow the money” is not just a maxim that allows us to point fingers at the morally corrupt. It is also a desperately needed reality principle that shows us where the energy can be found, not all of it bad.

And like it or not, Apple and Amazon are stirring up more interest, even among intellectuals, than most academic critiques of capitalism. Is that just because we are all a bunch of brainwashed idiots locked in on our own trivial conveniences? Hardly. It’s because these companies are also doing something exciting that addresses where consciousness really is today, and which it didn’t know that it wanted. Did I know in advance that my brain would catch fire as soon as I had a smartphone and a tablet computer? Not at all. I initially thought both of these things were consumerist pseudo-needs, just like the academic Left still does. But I was wrong, and so were they. To have the right electronic device in your hands can sharpen your brain as much as the discovery of an important new author. We should of course be aware of how the relatively cheap availability of such products leads to explosions, lung disease, and suicides among Chinese factory workers, and it’s a terrible failure of imagination if we close our ears to such reports. But it is also a grievous failure of imagination to be always on the side of the critics and the grumblers. Life has to be optimistic, or it becomes merely reactive. And I really fear that the Left is becoming the permanent homeland of the critics and the grumblers. The Left has its moments (Egypt for sure). But we should not commit the taxonomic fallacy of holding that to grumble is always a more profound political act than to put all the books of the world on an easily accessible website.

What I also miss on the Left, for instance, is a sufficient appreciation of 1989 (the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 is old news by now, but ’89 is an earthquake that many of us still remember). It is frankly a failure of imagination to try to explain away 1989 by griping about how Central Europe was simply recuperated into a banal consumer capitalism and nothing changed, or that at least political discourse mattered behind the Iron Curtain before ’89, and so forth.

Don’t underrate the obvious: would you want to live under Honecker or Ceauceşcu or Jaruszelski? If you can’t answer that question quickly, then you’ve had a failure of imagination, and I would recommend that you make some more friends from the former East Bloc. They will set you straight, and you will be ashamed to say the sorts of things to them that you might say among grumbling Western academics. But it’s a lot easier to forget and ignore what the years before 1989 meant in the East, because it’s a lot more fashionable to complain about late capitalism.

There is something to be said for making a virtue of necessity. The Leftisms we know were born amidst nineteenth century philosophical idealism, and it is hardly any wonder that they appeal to that idealism ever more explicitly as time goes by. But my sense is that the contemporary capitalism they detest harbors a fresher and more imaginative principle of reversal than the ones for which they call, which tend to be little more than Maoism or Stalinism—or worse yet, condescending grumbles without a program (at least the Maoists and Stalinists put their cards on the table and risk being harshly judged).

S: Do you think your concept of vicarious causation has political implications?

G.H.: I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll think of some, or maybe others will think of them for me.

What I most resist is the idea that philosophy should be the handmaid of anything else. I suppose we all agree now that philosophy is not the handmaid of theology. But now there are those who want to make it the handmaid of the Left, or of ethics, or even of brain science. Consider Thomas Metzinger’s appalling and shallow vision that brain science will solve all the traditional philosophical problems, but that we’ll still need philosophers to sit on ethics panels.

Philosophy is the handmaid of nothing, not even the handmaid of climate change. Does that mean philosophy is apolitical? No, it means that philosophy should play a longer game when it comes to politics. Locke, Rousseau, and Marx all had their real political effects long after their deaths. We’ve become too addicted to the specifically recent French model of the philosophe engagé, which is just one model among others. It is not necessarily one that can be exported outside French social conditions— the French politics of radical manifestoes and “clear and distinct ideas” does not work well in America, just as dry, ultra-technical German philosophy succeeds only when the social prestige of university professors is guaranteed in advance, which is not true in the United States.

Even from attending university time management workshops you can learn the valuable distinction between “important” matters and “urgent” ones. The urgent matters are those that must be taken care of right now, without delay. Climate change is one of those, and many of the other causes of the Left are urgent, since they deal with addressable exploitation going on at this very minute. But it does not follow that the mission of philosophy is to deal with urgent matters. Philosophy is not governance, but it is also not activism or militancy (I openly reject Badiou’s concept of philosopher as militant).

It is far from clear that philosophers can even be of use to activists, who are generally driven by facts on the ground that no philosopher is in a position to know, unless that philosopher happens to be an activist as well as a second occupation. Philosophy should not be “apolitical,” because politics is one of the important spheres of human life. But it does not follow that philosophy must always address the urgent political issues of the moment in which it is written. Urgent issues have a way of changing from decade to decade, while any philosophy worthy of the name ought to be readable fifty if not one hundred years or more after it is written. Feel free to appreciate the philosopher-activist. But do not demand that the philosopher be an activist.

Franz Brentano, one of the most underrated philosophers of all time, makes the claim that the great periods of philosophy have been periods when philosophy was committed to a purely theoretical standpoint, rather than used for ulterior motives such as political ones. Like all sweeping claims of this kind, there are surely counter-examples (though the remarkable contrast between the philosophies of reactionary Germany and revolutionary France at the time of the Revolution is widely known). But let’s take Brentano seriously for a moment. Is there not something to be said for the philosopher not getting too closely entangled with the passing events of the day? There may be times when this is irresponsible or even reprehensible. But if you find that you must act, whether by joining the resistance or denouncing a tyrant, is it really qua philosopher that you act, or only qua human citizen? And when you do resist or speak out, is it really the case that in doing so you must be informed by your metaphysics? Pure theoretical contemplation has a bad name these days, but it has its place under the sun, even an important place. We should no more expect metaphysics to save democracy, immigrants, and free speech than we should expect a mountain to dodge a cannonball shot at its face. The scale of movement is much slower. You can’t expect tap-dancing from a whale. What you can expect is that eventually, the movements of the whale will throw powerful waves against the tyrants living on shore.

Marginalia On Radical Thinking: Interview with KMO, part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued. 


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