Saturday, 29 May 2010

Comment on: 'Lakoff on Obama and the Gulf Oil Disaster'

Comment on:

Perhaps I’m a cynical bastard, but I just don’t think people are primarily motivated by empathy but rather by interest.

The opposition of interest and empathy is an interesting one - I think it is a mistake to see them as being mutually exclusive.

For interest/empathy we can more or less substitute cognition/affect. If we do this we see that these are less terms in opposition and more psychological categories (so, parts of a whole). The point is that, if we divide the psyche up like this, both parts are involved in any event - including political and economic decisions.

Alberto Toscano's recent article 'Powers of pacification: state and empire in Gabriel Tarde' (which I read yesterday so it's fresh in my mind) makes an interesting point: the likes of Tarde (alongside Whitehead, Deleuze, etc.) who have recently been revived because of the central place they give to 'emotion' in metaphysics (and thus politics) have been hailed as displacing the reductive rationalism of neoliberal economics (and so most sociology and political science, too). But what Toscano points out is that this is only one side of the story - the side of the economists; the other side is that of the marketers - on this side, from Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann through to our PR obsessed present, the place of 'affect' has been pivotal (and it has always been associated with anti-democratic sentiments). Deleuze and Guattari weren't the first to describe capitalism in terms of desire - this had been going on for decades.

On this issue I would highly recommend Adam Curtis' documentary 'The Century of the Self (my favourite documentary of all time, in fact) which charts the trajectory of 'affect' through Western society from Freud's psychoanalysis through 60s/70s 'rebellion' to Bill Clinton's PR/market research fueled election campaigns.

All of which is a long winded way of saying that I don't think we have to choose either interests or empathy - it is in the interaction between interests and empathy that politics is to be found. The point that Ian mentions about Lakoff being a "60′s hippie flowerchild" is quite right and Curtis' documentary shows precisely the links between this kind of quasi-political subjectivity and the corporate politics of the present. Whether he is "increasingly out of place in the 21st century" is a more complex question, however. Far from being 'out of place' as such I would see his statements as standing for much of what passes for the 'left' in the U.S. today - that is, a remnant of bygone 'glories' that weren't actually all they were cracked up to be in the first place and still pervade the emotive focus of present discourse. In other words, the centrality of 'affect' or 'empathy' just places all the weight on one side of a, if not arbitrarily then certainly inexactly, partitioned psyche.

The right in the U.S. and elsewhere are under no such illusions - they are more than happy to play on both sides of psychology and be thoroughly instrumental in doing so. (See William E. Connolly's book 'Capitalism and Christianity, American Style' for an account of how the right is able to organise and cooperate even when it is profoundly divided internally between neocons, neolibs and evangelicals, etc.)

The interesting point, if we go back to Toscano's article, is that this 'affective leftism' so prominent in U.S. politics is also present in 'leftist' academia (hence the new popularity of Tarde, etc.)

Now that doesn't mean that I don't think Tarde, Whitehead, Spinoza and the others aren't important but (actually, like Spinoza) we need to rethink the relationship between emotion and rationality rather than just placing all the weight on one side over the other.

In short: neither interest nor empathy rules a priori - the 'left' is doomed so long as it dwells on either half; the right doesn't make this mistake.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Nice documentary from Al-Jazeera English on Britain, the empire and decline

'What is so great about Great Britain?' Not a lot it seems! A fine antidote to our new era of moronic, nationalist, Tory smugness.

Middlesex boycott petition, allegations of assault

It seems that my previous post was not so far off the mark. John Protevi (I'm really starting to love that guy) has organised a boycott petition. The numbers currently stand at 864 and are increasing literally by the minute.

In addition, the latest round of lies and subterfuge from the administration contains allegations that 'broken bones and serious bruising' was suffered by security staff 'protecting' the Mansion House premises from the students who were doing nothing more than turning up to talk to their Dean. (One might wonder why they were being disallowed from doing this in the first place.)

The below I posted at

Besides the various evasions and the familiar misinformation in the letter Kay links to, surely the most serious part is the allegation that, during the Mansion House occupation:
“Assaults were committed on security staff by individuals from the protest on entering the Mansion building resulting in serious injuries including broken bones and severe bruising.”
If this is true why did the police leave so soon after arriving having concluded that nothing illegal had occurred and why has no further action been taken? If there is a shred of truth to these allegations, why has it taken until now to mention the ‘broken bones’ and the ‘serious bruising’. And where is the evidence? You would have thought that if these things had actually happened then evidence would have been taken and circulated as this would be the administration’s trump card PR-wise.

I can only assume on this basis, without having been there, that these claims are completely bogus – that is, that they are lies.

The administration may have been able to make their claims of ‘assault’ stick legally before (i.e. if anyone so much as brushed past a security guard when entering the building this could be construed as ‘assault’) but now that they have made their allegations more specific and more serious this has escalated the situation yet again.

Legal advice should be sought immediately on the subject of slander. A lawsuit should be discussed. This is easy for me to say, I know (it isn’t my neck on the line), but it seems necessary nevertheless.

With their backs against the wall, as they now undoubtedly are, and with their own jobs on the line, as they may well be before long, do you think that these people, given their conduct so far, will not file criminal charges if they think they can? If we are to assume that they believe their own claims then they must at least believe this to be a possibility.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

More on Plato

After further reflecting on my earlier post on Plato, I think I've identified a little more closely what resonates for me between the Statesman and the object-oriented philosophies of Harman, Latour et al.

The resonance: (pre-Kantian) epistemology. Plato treats knowledge as an object; or, more accurately, as a wide variety of objects to be discerned through division and organised through a procedure of combination (thus mirroring in terms of philosophical method what skills the ideal statesman is supposed to have). It is clear that the Statesman is a product of knowledge - an epistemic being - but this epistemology is unconcerned with whether or how we 'really' know the statesman. Simply, the statesman is both the product of and the holder of a certain kind of stately knowledge. In the Republic we learn the importance of education and calisthenics; presumably these are the methods through which the ideal statesman is to be moulded. He is a construction, in other words; the meeting of knowledge and flesh; of rhetoric and star-jumps! How we know him is a methodological question not one of correlation (at least this is true after Plato gives up searching for the seventh, perfect kind of politics as this serene harmony could only be known to gods - how modest he is!).

So, the statesman is both the holder of the knowledge of (political) weaving and the product of the knowledge of (philosophical) weaving. This is a most important point. Would it be so hard to generalise this lesson - to collapse the structure of the dialogue into a political-philosophical kind of weaving?

What I want to take from this dialogue is a more generalised account of political subjectivation that takes the subjectivising powers of knowledge seriously but doesn't reduce the debate to Kantian epistemological questions of correlation. I think the weaving metaphor allows this precisely because it serves as a metaphor on a number of levels - principally as a philosophical method and as a metaphor for the statesman.

Plato shows a fondness elsewhere for imagining the philosopher as the statesman so this parallel shouldn't be surprising; is it all that hard to imagine going one step further and imagining every subject as a political-philosophical weaver? (There is something really rather Whiteheadian in this particular notion.) It seems quite straightforward to me. In fact this is more or less exactly the idea of the subject that we get in ANT - the semi-blind lay metaphysician plodding ever onward, simultaneously weaving and woven; entangled in the heterogeneous web by which it climbs, from which it feeds and of which it is spun. We need only forget the pre-existance of the subject and our work is done.

This I think is the trace of dialectic I find in Latour - the careful, methodical extraction and combination occurring not on the vertical axis of reality (not shuttling back and forth between ideology and nature, for example) but on the horizontal axis - shuttling back and forth between heterogeneous objects of many kinds; many of them epistemic in kind, many of them not.

New Statesman on Middlesex

Another article on the goings on at Middlesex, this time on the New Statesman website.

I felt compelled to post this comment:
In recent days I have begun to think this but now I am completely convinced: The only possible next step for the resistance to this decision and its aftermath is legal action against the administration.

The administration has made clear that there are no depths it will not stoop to in order to crush entirely peaceful dissent. It is willing to evade, delay, go to the High Court, spread disinformation, lie and even suspend (and, it seems likely, expel) entirely innocent staff and students with no semblance of due process or reason (let alone justice) whatsoever. Brian Leiter commented on his blog that this sort of behaviour from an institution in the US would result in law suits being filed - and won. John Protevi in his email to the administrators mentioned the possibility of financial, legal and political action from the relevant professional organisations.

It might be about time for philosophers and other concerned citizens to put their hands in their pockets and set up a legal fund (particularly for the cases of students who may be expelled but also for resisting the closure as a whole).

So long as this fight remains legally asymmetrical (i.e. one side have lawyers and the other side don't) it will continue to be a situation where the big institution can unilaterally bully and intimidate with impunity. It is sad that protest alone is so impotent without establishing legal connections but that is how it is, it seems.

Also, a petition should be formed and circulated allowing people to declare that they are completely and totally boycotting Middlesex until the decision is reversed, students and staff are reinstated and unequivocal apologies are issued (if there is no such thing set up already). They haven't responded to countless declarations of outrage but they might respond to being told that a whole swarm of senior academics won't have anything to do with the "University" for the rest of their careers and will do everything in their power to discourage others from doing so if they don't retreat from their present position.

Philosophy at Middlesex is not the first case of this kind and it won't be the last but it could well be a tipping point. The fight simply must be won.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Plato's Statesman - 'Lump Ontologies' and 'Barbarism'

I read Plato's Statesman last night; a quick and enjoyable read - and food for thought aplenty (which is good seeing as I'm basing the essay around this dialogue!). One thing that stood out was the very briefly examined issue of 'barbarism'. Initially, this piqued my interest as it gives a hint at Plato's attitude towards what we would now call 'international relations'; but on reflection, it is much more significant than that:
VISITOR: [Attempting (with a hint of impatience) to explain to Young Socrates the dialectical art of division] All right, here's an analogy. Suppose one wanted to divide the human race into two parts. What most Greeks do is make the division by separating Greeks from all the rest: they use the term 'barbarian' for all the other categories of people, despite the fact that there are countless races who never communicate and are incompatible with one another, and then expect there to be a single category too, just because they've used a single term.
Young Socrates, in his inchoate wisdom, fails to 'carve nature at its joints' but rather opts to jump straight to the conclusion (he attempts to define humans in opposition to beasts instead of taking all the progressive steps of division that the visitor demands).

A helpful footnote on this same page:
'Barbarian' literally means someone whose language one does not understand. The visitor's point is that this does not pick out a unified class; various peoples are not brought into a single natural grouping by the fact that they are not comprehensible to Greeks, and an important sign of this is that some of them are not comprehensible to one another.
So, Plato goes beyond many other Greeks of his time in not dissolving all foreigners into one homogeneous mass; good on him, but this is not the interesting point here, I think. Rather, this moment in the dialogue hits on something most important; a point made more extensively and convincingly by the likes of Bruno Latour and Graham Harman; specifically, he refuses to reduce a group of beings to one ontological category just because there is a convenient noun for that group of beings and because those beings are linguistically incomprehensible or mute. He refuses, in other words, to reduce foreigners to an undifferentiated 'outside' against which the 'inside' is defined. Thus, he refuses the dominant trope of both modernist and postmodernist political ontologies.

So, Plato grants ontological self-distinction to foreign beings.

But wait!: "Various peoples are not brought into a single natural grouping by the fact that they are not comprehensible [i.e. they do not speak] to Greeks". Well, isn't this more or less the same point Latour et al. make about non-humans? They have the ability to act and differentiate themselves without subjective attribution of such difference; without, even, the need to communicate this differentiation linguistically. So it is with non-humans: telephone wires, space dust, cows and gyroscopes possess the ability to act to differentiate themselves from other objects beyond what these nouns do to/for them. Certainly it would be difficult (if not impossible) to speak of these objects without having individualised words for them but that does not reduce their being to these words, just our relation (note: not 'reference') to these objects through these words. Plato recognises foreigners not as an undifferentiated lump, but as multiplicitous and active. He recognises reality as something that can be ‘cut at the joints’ (and therefore as having joints).

However, while he doesn't relegate foreigners to a ‘brute lump,’ he does something similar – he relegates the polis to something like this. For Plato, it is the polis that is a brute lump, an anarchic mass of flapping mouths and flailing arms (and this he loathes). It is active, fractious even; dangerous, certainly; a many-headed monster, as they would say in the seventeenth-century. It is self-differentiating to be sure but it cannot be self-organising except in the most basic and flawed ways. It needs organisation, it needs care, structure, it needs a statesman. This is not at all unlike the 'lump ontology' so loved by post/moderns; it identifies an aggregate of actants as undecidedly mixed up; as effectively homogenous and unknowable; above all, as dangerous.

In this latter sense, then, we recognise clearly what 'Platonism' has come to mean today; the philosophy by which the polis is an unruly force to be ordered by an enlightened, all powerful leader. Yet in the section I've highlighted we notice something else, something irrepressibly present in Plato's texts, something not anti- but un-Platonic. It is a germ, a sapling, it is embryonic, but it is there.

Is it too much to refer to 'lump ontologies' as committing 'barbarism'? I like this word; I think I will keep it!
Barbarism: The fallacy by which any aggregate or collective (and so that is anything) is conceived of as being an undifferentiated mass incapable of self-differentiation or action because the differences between these objects cannot be linguistically communicated. The fallacy by which an outside force (mind, discourse, Geist, political structures, etc.) is said to be necessary to impose order, establish differentiation and provoke action. A close cousin of 'hylomorphism'. [A definition in progress, clearly.]
This all begs for me a large number of questions but, in particular: I've been wondering a lot while reading Latour's work of his relation to Plato and to dialectical method more generally. Certainly he rejects absolutely 'dialectic' as it is received today but there is something in Plato's (often painfully) slow, methodical reasoning, his progressive distinctions, his acts of division and combination, that resonates with Latour's methodology.

The essay that I am planning will basically argue that if we can stop reading the Statesman as a dialogue on how to conceive the ideal autocrat and instead read it as a work on method that folds back into a work on subjectivity generally, we can drive a stake into the hearts of Platonism and anti-Platonism (so, that is one heart from different directions, really) equally.

Detaching Plato's dialogue from his transcendental cosmology and his (entirely co-dependent) transcendental political prescriptions is no small task but I don't think, having read this dialogue now, that it is as hard as one might think. There is so much in the dialogue that it completely overflows any attempt to narrate it definitively - much less can it ever be reduced to the clich├ęd received Platonism that so many love to bash today. That said, it is completely understandable why people bash Plato - there is a lot there to dismiss - but that has for too long been used as an excuse to not read more creatively. At least that is what I hope I'm doing!