Heidegger and science

One thing that is perhaps surprising about Being and Time, for someone familiar with the later Heidegger and with the continental tradition that grew out of his work, is how positive it seems to be about science. He never denies that science is extremely powerful or that it produces true and useful results, and in chapter 2 of division 1, he seems to grant its role as a “primary mode of Being-in-the-World” a certain legitimacy. The purpose of the analytic of Being is not to call science into question but to provide the kind of robust conceptual underpinning that they all need — and the contemporaneous “crises” in the various sciences (as listed in the introduction) demonstrate that the sciences themselves are calling out for just this kind of operation. The problem with scientific knowledge is that it has covered over its own deepest sources and obscured our view of the phenomenon of Being-in-the-World, but presumably once this has been secured, science will be able to achieve ever greater things that comport more fully with what is most important about human existence.

It strikes me that, without the benefit of hindsight, one could view fascism — including its local German variant of Nazism — as a marriage of technology with the authentic lifeworld of the people, and that one could view Communism as an attempt to uproot that lifeworld once and for all. And after fascism’s horrifying crimes and ultimate failure, one could then say: “I see where I went wrong — it was granting legitimacy to technology!” Hence his infamous gloss of “the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism” as “the encounter between global technology and modern humanity” — and so the way to get past the mistake of Nazism is to turn against technology itself as inherently hostile to the authentic lifeworld of the people.

With the benefit of hindsight, of course, the original judgment of fascism seems obviously stupid, and the explanation of how he was able to make that mistake also seems pretty dumb. Hence, perhaps, the almost universally shared position among “left Heideggerians” that there is something trite about Heidegger’s famous critiques of technology.

This is of course over-simplified and likely unoriginal. Still, what do you think, dear readers?

“Stand Your Ground” and sovereignty

Before the advent of Stand Your Ground laws, to claim self-defense you had to demonstrate that you genuinely had no other option. Violence was supposed to be a last resort, and even if the other guy clearly started it, you had no legal defense if you gratuitously escalated the conflict when you could have walked away. This approach makes sense as a way of balancing out the state’s claim to a monopoloy on legitimate violence and the individual citizen’s inalienable rights — in the last resort, everyone is entitled to do what’s necessary to preserve their own life, but it genuinely has to be the last resort.

With Stand Your Ground, a new regime has arisen in which the presumption of de-escalation no longer holds. Instead, the law functions to actively encourage the escalation of violent confrontations and defends the actions taken in that context regardless of “who started it” or whether another option was possible. Under the old regime, I think it’s pretty clear that George Zimmerman would have been found guilty of murder, because he initiated the confrontation and stuck with it when he could have easily run away. Stand Your Ground removes those standards — it’s as though the state is saying, “No, don’t walk away, we want to see how this plays out.” And that seems difficult to square with traditional state sovereignty.

What is going on here? Read the rest of this entry »

What if Zimmerman had been a cop?

Many people have been asking the rhetorical question, “What if Zimmerman and Martin’s races had been reversed? Would a black man be allowed to ‘stand his ground’?” It’s obvious that the result would have been very, very different, and so this is a good way of highlighting the racism involved. Yet it seems to me to be a little too abstract. This isn’t about racism in general — it’s about the racist structure of law enforcement. We should be asking, “What if Zimmerman had been a cop?” And the answer is, if anything, more appalling: we probably never would have heard about this incident in the first place.

I don’t pretend to have exhaustive knowledge of the case, but the local police do not seem to have treated Zimmerman as just “some guy.” He was well known to them as a neighborhood watch volunteer and was in fact in radio contact with them when carrying out his “duties.” He clearly wanted very much to be in law enforcement — and his idea of what law enforcement does in this country is to control the black population by keeping them within their designated areas. We talk about the “militarization” of the police, and in addition to all the ridiculous weapons they now equip themselves with, they appear to think of their encounters with the black community in terms of a war. Ideally, the “rule of engagement” would prevent the deaths of innocents, but at the end of the day, you’d rather that an enemy teenager die than one of your own guys be over-cautious and wind up dead.

If an actual cop had shot Trayvon Martin, he wouldn’t have been arrested, either. There would have been protests, but there would have been no national attention and no trial. But this only happened because the local police in Sanford, Florida, appeared to regard Zimmerman as more or less one of their own — hence he walked away, hence he got a lackluster prosecution, etc. This isn’t just about some crazy white dude who up and shot a black teenager, nor is it simply about white people’s fear of black people. This is about the structure of the police violence that devestates the black community every day.

It was only Zimmerman’s self-appointed “unpaid internship” as a cop that allowed this event to register in the national discourse as something “wrong,” and that unofficial status risks obscuring the real stakes here. The problem isn’t just that Zimmerman was white and Trayvon Martin was black (as we’ve heard endlessly, actually Zimmerman is Hispanic…) — the problem is that Zimmerman was effectively a cop and Trayvon Martin was black.

James KA Smith On Being Beyond Left and Right

So James KA Smith has often been a proponent of Radical Orthodox Christian political theology being “beyond left and right”, you know like Benedict XVI was. In recent days on his twitter feed he has come out against gay marriage. That is not surprising, though he’s of course couching it as a question of who gets to define marriage and doing so in an utterly idealist manner (so the state doesn’t get to in his view, but no discussion of how the state supports marriage and how that plays out in terms of equality). But he has also come out in support of the state of emergency provisions imposed by Michigan Governor Synder (R, of course) upon the City of Detroit. Suspending its democratically elected city government and installing an unelected “business manager” (we all know what this means…). He will bristle and sneer at this being called fascist, but this is exactly fascism. The state and capitalism coming together under a state of emergency. And the Christian witness to that fascism is a sneer at critical voices and an expression that the installed, unaccountable leader be a “catalyst for indigenous change”.

So, once again we see that beyond left and right always means right-wing policies plus a few token remarks about community and poverty. Or, like I said with Benedict, Bonoism but no gays.

Fear of the state

It has always puzzled me that some people can look at something like public provision of health insurance and see a fateful step toward tyranny and oppression. What this requires is a suspicion of “the state” simply as such, and it seems to me that Foucault was right to say that the greatest achievement of the early neoliberal theorists was to convince seemingly everyone in the world that the lesson to be drawn from the experience of “totalitarianism” is the dangers stemming from excessive state power.

In fact, if there is anything to be gained by placing the Nazi and Soviet experiences under the same conceptual heading, it cannot be a lesson about the dangers of state power — indeed, it has to be just the opposite: the dangers of a weak and impotent state that cannot restrain the power of a para-state movement. Read the rest of this entry »

A Fun Fact about Privatization: With Scattered Reflections on “the State”

James Meek’s LRB article about electricity privatization in the UK includes an interesting tidbit:

How did we get here? In 1981, with inflation and unemployment at 10 per cent plus, with the recently elected Conservative government forced to yield to the demands of the miners, public spending cuts provoking general outrage and Thatcher’s prime ministerial career seemingly doomed to a swift, ignominious end, a 38-year-old economist from Birmingham University called Stephen Littlechild was working on ways to realise an esoteric idea that had been much discussed in radical Tory circles: privatisation. Privatisation was not a Thatcher patent. The Spanish economist Germà Bel traces the origins of the word to the German word Reprivatisierung, first used in English in 1936 by the Berlin correspondent of the Economist, writing about Nazi economic policy. In 1943, in an analysis of Hitler’s programme in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, the word ‘privatisation’ entered the academic literature for the first time. The author, Sidney Merlin, wrote that the Nazi Party ‘facilitates the accumulation of private fortunes and industrial empires by its foremost members and collaborators through “privatisation” and other measures, thereby intensifying centralisation of economic affairs and government in an increasingly narrow group that may for all practical purposes be termed the national socialist elite’.

That’s right: privatization of government functions and state-owned industries was literally invented by the Nazis.

This reminds me of something I’ve been meaning to blog about for months. Read the rest of this entry »

The fantasy of fetal personhood

Most debates about abortion begin from the assumption that the fetus is a more or less isolated entity that can be considered in itself, that it is an individual. We talk about when this entity has “life” in the relevant sense, what its rights are, etc., completely ignoring the distinctive trait of fetal life: that it is radically dependent on, and indeed takes place entirely within, an autonomous human being.

This framing concedes the debate in advance, placing the fetus in the series of other entities with human DNA that were belatedly recognized as being entitled to full human personhood, with the attendant rights. Read the rest of this entry »

Stalinism and the Psychoanalysis of Politics

One of the biggest disappointments in the new movie adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy comes when the mole explains himself to Smiley upon being found out. The television series had had him launch into an anti-American diatribe, talking about the evils of consumerism and essentially the need to resist the capitalist degradation of all culture. In the film, however, he simply says claims that he had to choose a side and that the West has become “ugly” in some unspecified way. The mole becomes a shallow aesthete, impotently and arbitrarily “acting out,” whereas in the television adaptation, one could see a certain nobility to the character. I think one could read this shift as symptomatic of the historical shift that occurred between the two adaptations: after the fall of the Soviet Union, the appeal of communism, even as an alternative to what is undesirable in the West, has become unthinkable.

It is here that I think Zizek’s obsessive investigations of Stalinism are most important. On a certain level, he is simply following a “psychoanalytic” approach to politics, focusing on the pathological in order to shed light on the so-called normal (in this case, liberal democracy). Yet after reading Adorno for the last few months, I’m increasingly convinced that Zizek’s insistence on the distinction between Stalinism and fascism and his choice of Stalinism as the privileged object of critique — and his criticism of the Frankfurt School for taking the opposite approach on both counts — is justified, at least as a strategic choice. Choosing fascism as the “pathology” that is supposedly revelatory of the real content of the “normal” can fall much too easily into familiar patterns of liberal political analysis: moralism, progressivism (i.e., fascism shows that pre-modern national loyalties “still” hold great power), and the easy dichotomy between Enlightenment reason and its irrational other.

The privileging of Stalinism gets around that, because one can position it specifically as a failure within the Enlightenment tradition, rather than a failure of the Enlightenment to overcome the forces opposed to it. Adorno (and Horkheimer) are much more sophisticated than your normal moralizing critique of “totalitarianism,” yet I do think their work can very easily be appropriated by such discourses — whereas Zizek’s valorization of Stalinism, at least so far, apparently cannot. Another advantage of the emphasis of Stalinism is that it can shed a more interesting light on contemporary power relations. It’s much too “easy” to prove that supposedly “pre-modern” forms of power (patriarchalism, tribalism) are on the loose — and then we get to feel a nice buzz of liberal righteousness denouncing these people for failing to get with the program. It’s a lot more interesting and surprising to hear Zizek say, as he did once in a public lecture I attended (but has unfortunately not followed up on yet to my knowledge), that Stalinism has finally come into its own in contemporary corporate culture.

Posted in Adorno, Communism, fascism, Zizek. Comments Off

A critique of the police

What the police did in Oakland the last two days was, by any reasonable standard, a terrible crime. Faced with a group of peaceful, unarmed people exercising their constitutional right to free speech and free assembly, the police used brutal, military-style tactics to disperse them. They used chemical weapons whose use in war is banned by international treaties. They fired rubber bullets that, while not as deadly as normal bullets, can still cause very serious injury.

They did all this in order to disperse a group of people that was doing absolutely nothing wrong. As I said, this was a crime — and on the face of it, a profoundly malicious act as well. No moral person should consent to participate in such activities. Yet the Oakland Police Department not only apparently faced little resistence within the ranks, but was also able to get neighboring departments to contribute supplemental forces.

The degree of moral bankruptcy this act displays is shocking. Willingness to go along with it is indicative of one of three things. First, it might indicate that the person involved is morally depraved. We should not be surprised if a profession that requires the use of violence attracts people who enjoy using violence. Second, one might conclude that the person involved is completely unthinking, blindly following orders. Finally, it might indicate that the person involved is a moral coward who realizes what they’re doing is wrong but goes with the flow anyway. And this goes not just for exceptional acts like the breakup of these riots, but for the everyday acts of racism and repression that are part and parcel of contemporary law enforcement.

From this, I can only conclude that America’s police forces are profoundly corrupt and corrupting institutions. If you go into the police force as a basically good person, the odds are much greater that one will grow more morally callous than that one will remain true to one’s conscience. It is only in this context that the hero-worship surrounding police in American culture is understandable: only by imagining all police officers to be saints and heroes can we ignore the obvious facts about the nature of the job. I can imagine situations in which joining the police force would be a necessary or appropriate choice, but contemporary America is not one of them.

The Haunting by the Angel of History

Some things stick with you. I can’t seem to shake it today, even though I want to refuse the stupidity of our political discourse. The media screaming in all our faces, “REMEMBER!” From where does this imperative come from? Why do we have a duty to remember? And perhaps I wouldn’t be so resistant to remembering – so utterly disgusted by all the public forms of remembrance with their attempts to write the deaths of thousands of American as well as the deaths of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of non-Americans – perhaps I wouldn’t be resistant if I didn’t feel like part of this imperative is to remember the way they want us to remember. It feels like this 9/11 there has been a reversal of the usual Christmas slogan, “Remember the reason for the season.” In this case we are told only to remember our fear on that day, our horror, our loss. And of course that happened, but there was a reason for it. There was a reason why this happened that none of our leaders and the majority of our citizenship ever came to grips with. I’m not sure we can give that reason a name because we refuse to think it.

Read the rest of this entry »

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