The tradition of the oppressed

As the governor of Missouri declares a state of emergency in anticipation of a ruling on the murder of Michael Brown, I’m sure many of us were put in mind of the famous quote from Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History”: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of exception’ in which we live is the rule.”

Last spring, I was teaching that text in a course where we had previous spent a week on James Cone’s God of the Oppressed, and Benjamin’s quote became immediately intelligible in terms of the black tradition in the United States. For the black community in America, there has never been a “normal” baseline experience from which emergencies are exceptions: unfortunate but episodic deviations. Rather, it has been a rolling emergency, interrupted by brief windows of relative promise. And from this perspective, perhaps we can understand the enigmatic “real state of exception” that Benjamin calls for — because from the perspective of white power, those moments of promise are the true emergencies that must be shut down at all costs.

Living Thought Book Event: Other “Italians”?

Roberto Esposito’s Living Thought is a strange hybrid of a book. On the one hand, it’s an extremely erudite and yet readable history of Italian philosophy, but on the other hand, it’s also a creative and constructive work of philosophy. The burden of the argument is that there is something about the Italian experience of the late and never fully constituted arrival of a nation-state that allowed for the development of a style of thought that sits askew relative to the mainstream discourses of modernity — and that this is the reason for the contemporary success of Italian thought under the conditions of globalized late capital. He proceeds by pointing to a series of distinguishing traits that mark the tradition of Italian thought from its beginnings in Bruno, Vico, and Machiavelli: an ambiguous relationship to the question of “origin,” resulting in a curiously bi-directional concept of history; a mutual “contamination” of philosophy with other discourses and practices; and an emphasis on immanence and life.

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Martin Luther King Day

In past years, I’ve linked to an old article about Martin Luther King’s more radical activism toward the end of his career. This semester, though, it so happens that the concluding reading for my class Social Sciences 2 (The Western Political Tradition) is the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. This morning, Corey Robin posted an excerpt that I will post as well:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

I’m reminded too of Benjamin’s thesis on liberal dismay that progress might go in the wrong direction:

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “emergency situation” in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve. Not the least reason that the latter has a chance is that its opponents, in the name of progress, greet it as a historical norm. – The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are “still” possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.

Agamben and Heidegger

Spending time with Heidegger at the same time that I’m translating Agamben is proving fertile — it’s obvious that Agamben is “influenced by” Heidegger in a lot of ways, but it’s good to get a firm handle on exactly how. It’s now beginning to seem to me that the ambition of the Homo Sacer series is to rework Heidegger’s “history of Being,” in part by treating Nazism as a decisive event in that history in a way that Heidegger’s direct involvement could not allow him to.

I also have to admit that I feel a little dumb for not realizing that the emphasis on Aristotle most likely comes from Heidegger and that the priority of potentiality over actuality is found directly and directly in Being and Time: “As a modal category of presence-at-hand, possibility signifies what is not yet actual and what is not at any time necessary. It characterizes the merely possible. Ontologically it is on a lower level than actuality and necessity. On the other hand, possibility as an existentiale [i.e., the equivalent of a “category” for Dasein’s special way of being] is the most primordial and ultimate positive way in which Dasein is characterized ontologically” (M&R trans., pg. 183, original pp. 143-44).

(I thought I saw a book with the title “Agamben and Heidegger” in some context recently, but I can’t find it on Amazon now.)

A poem

I first came across this poem in Hardt and Negri’s Multitude, but in these dark days, it seems relevant — differently, but perhaps even more.

On the Suicide of the Refugee W.B.
(for Walter Benjamin)

I’m told you raised your hand against yourself
Anticipating the butcher.
After eight years in exile, observing the rise of the enemy
Then at least, brought up against an impassable frontier
You passed, they say, a passable one.

Empires collapse. Gang leaders
Are strutting about like statesmen. The peoples
Can no longer be seen under all those armaments.

So the fugure lies in darkness and the forces of right
Are weak. All this was plain to you
When you destroyed a torturable body.

One might substitute “debts” for “armaments,” but it amounts to the same thing.

The state of emergency in which we live

This morning I taught Benjamin’s On the Concept of History to some baffled students, and I was struck by the contemporary relevance of Section VIII:

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge—unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.

The basic attitude Benjamin is critiquing seems remarkably similar to that of contemporary “progressives,” who always seem to believe that if we simply wait out the current “emergency” of conservative governance, they will ultimately undermine themselves — or else simply die off, leaving the more liberal younger cohort to take over and set things right. Read the rest of this entry »

Some Thoughts on the Politics of “Suburbs”

The place I grew up was not exactly the suburbs, more like some post-industrial small city out of a Springsteen song.  Nonetheless, there’s something about Arcade Fire’s new album that I find affectively striking.  This is because the titular “suburbs” are not an actual place—though, sadly, they are also that—but something like the condition of possibility for contemporary North American existence.   It is in this sense, I think, that we can speak of the political character of The Suburbs.  They have made an album that is not “realist” so much as an encounter with that which enables what we call reality—the feelings, the patterns of thought, the capacities of sense that one cannot avoid encountering.

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