Young adult dystopia

It’s well known that dystopia is the hottest teen trend since vampires, but it’s more than a momentary trend — dystopia has been a staple of young adult literature and high school curricula for decades at this point. It’s very strange, because most high schools don’t remotely equip their students to understand the abstract social questions at play in such literature. I assume that part of the reason for spending time on 1984 or The Giver is to innoculate teenagers against the temptations of “totalitarianism,” but it seems like the strategy may be in danger of backfiring. Whereas before we had dystopias about the inevitably horrific consequences of any attempt to indulge in utopian impulses, our new dystopian literature is no longer about the ironic dystopian results of utopia — instead, it’s made up of pretty straightforward extrapolations from our contemporary experience. We’re no longer congratulating ourselves for avoiding the folly of central planning, but instead imagining the consequences of our contemporary ideology of never-ending high-stakes competition.

The Hunger Games is the obvious example. It’s far from a total fantasy, because I assume that someone will figure out a way to make an actual life-and-death reality TV show within our lifetimes. When that happens, people will be outraged, but will they be surprised? I don’t think so. Divergent has a similar immediate pull, as it is essentially about high-stakes testing regimes. And it makes sense that as these dystopias ever more closely approximate our contemporary world, the protagonists tend to be teenage girls — because who has more experience of trying desperately to carve out some space for agency in an oppressive regime than a teenage girl?

Methodist Church Trial This Week! Or: Nihilism, Homosexuality, Pennsylvania, Oath-taking, and Satan

In Sophocles’ Antigone our tragic heroine demonstrates to us what is regarded as one of the greatest moral principles of the Western world:  when the laws of the state require one to do something against one’s own religion, or when following one’s own religious beliefs become categorized as against the law, the right thing to do is to follow your religious practices above the laws of the state.  The legends of Socrates and Jesus, and their traditions, confirm and validate this virtue in the ancient world.

But what to do when religion causes one to break religious laws?  Christianity has always worked through the tensions of what happens when doctrine become dogma, and when either become enforced—sometimes enforced despite of or in spite of contradictory doctrine or flying in the face of tradition.

This is what is being played out in the church trial of a United Methodist pastor from Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, Rev. Frank Schaefer.  Read the rest of this entry »

Like a business

Surely we are all tired of the mantra that everything should be “run like a business.” Surely we all realize that the government, or the health care system, or the education system, or your family are not businesses and should work according to their own immanent logic rather than according to the norms of business.

Yet it occurs to me: is anything inherently a business? We normally think of a bakery as a business, for example, but isn’t it actually a place where people bake things? One can imagine a bakery operating under many different economic systems. The examples multiply. A clothing retailer is a place where people come to get their clothes. A convenience store exists to provide people with easy access to frequently used items. A car factory exists to make cars. Even a bank exists primarily to intermediate between people’s different financial priorities (e.g., saving vs. spending), rather than to make money as such. All of those things are typically “run like a business” in Western countries, but that doesn’t mean that they directly “are” businesses.

Only one type of pursuit is inherently a business: hedge funds. Read the rest of this entry »

Scattered remarks on political theology

From one perspective, it is possible to isolate three types of “political theology.” The first is a liberal one, which seeks to reveal the unconscious theological inheritance in the hopes of purging it and reaching a true secularity. One might include Löwith and Derrida under this heading. The second is a reactionary one, which seeks to preserve whatever homologies are possible with the theological tradition in order to maintain some kind of horizon of meaning over against modernity, which is understood to be a nihilistic mechanism — obviously here one could place Carl Schmitt. Finally, there is the radical leftist approach, which mines the theological tradition for any possible site of radical transformation (and perhaps indulges in the pleasure of “provocatively” needling liberal fussiness about how we must handle the dangerous materials of religion). I would place Zizek in this category.

For all three perspectives, there is a “special relationship” between political theology and eschatology. The reactionary position is basically focused on the katechon, that enigmatic figure from 2 Thessalonians who holds the man of lawlessness at bay and heads off the apocalypse (here one could place Peterson alongside Schmitt). The leftist position is apocalyptic, openly courting the very dissolution that for the reactionary is the worst possible outcome. The liberal position is awkwardly situated in this respect, but I think that we can draw on Dan Barber’s On Diaspora and call liberal political theology basically supercessionistic — a kind of “messianism without messianism” where secularity is continually overcoming religion as such, albeit without any concrete hope of a final consummation.

When it comes to placing a figure like Taubes or Agamben, I think things become more difficult. Bruce Rosenstock has a great essay forthcoming in New German Critique on the Taubes-Schmitt relationship where he argues that while Taubes aligns more closely with the apocalyptic, he also sees the necessity of the reactionary impulse represented by Schmitt in order to keep the apocalyptic impulse from spiralling into sheer nihilism. His exegesis of the final pages of Occidental Eschatology is absolutely essential in this regard — he clarifies that for Taubes, finding humanity’s center in God requires a special kind of balance, because humanity’s orbit is always elliptical rather than spherical and so constantly threatens to go off course. I wonder if one could read Agamben similarly, particularly in light of his recently published lecture The Church and the Kingdom, which in many ways is so difficult to reconcile with his other writings insofar as it seems to call for a kind of “balance” between the messianic impulse and the structure of authority.

This talk of balance seems liberal from a certain perspective, but it is not a secular liberalism — indeed, the question of secularity is simply sidestepped altogether in the meeting of the two extremes. Or is it perhaps instead a question of creating a space for a tenuous secularity, keeping God at a respectable distance without becoming completely untethered from it? Is this elliptical balancing act perhaps the way we render the theological “inoperative” precisely by maintaining the constant reference to it — like the legendary rabbinical school that bases all of life on the divine law while pointedly telling God to shut up when he tries to intrude on the debate?

From this perspective, it appears that we could add a fourth position of Jewish political theology as a distinctive alternative to the liberal model. The question that then arises is whether this kind of political theology can really be practiced by a non-Jew, or whether it will always wind up spiralling into a one-sidedly katechontic or apocalyptic position.

Anger’s Nonidentity / Occasion Against Universality

I recently looked back at Judith Butler’s response to her having been awarded a “prize” for writing in an especially non-commonsensical style. She observes that the recipients—or “targets,” as she aptly redescribes—of such a prize “have been restricted to scholars on the left whose work focuses on topics like sexuality, race, nationalism and the workings of capitalism.” This then raises “a serious question about the relation of language and politics: why are some of the most trenchant social criticisms often expressed through difficult and demanding language?” Read the rest of this entry »

Depression and OWS

I am, of course, supportive of the Occupy Wall Street sit-ins. I have had issues relating to some of it, mostly to do with my pre-existing distrust of anarchist style political organization and seeing how little it gets done while protecting the beautiful souls of the leaders who deny their leadership. As Adam has said I think it is very silly to pretend that I, or any of us, know what the hell we are doing (though Adam said it, I am sure, much more eloquently). But this is what has depressed me so much about these sit-ins. First, I think we need to get some assumptions out of the way. I don’t think this is a revolution. It’s a clearly political act, but revolutions, at least real ones that don’t just sink into a form of liberalism, are radical breaks. It seems that they involve violence necessarily. And not the kind of low-scale violence that comes from clashes with police. Revolutions actually involve taking power from those who already hold it (and this, by the way, is why I don’t think Egypt, now under a form of dual power between parliament and the military, has yet been a revolution). But, and this is the second point, just because this is a revolution doesn’t mean it isn’t inspiring or worthwhile in a number of ways. That “revolution or bust” mentality is not the root of my depression and I think it’s at least as puerile, if not more, as the anarchist techniques that bother me about the groups running OWS. So in a very popular post I suggested that if we were not hate the poor we had to refuse to hold one opinion regarding the English riots. I think that holds true in the case of OWS and what follows is more of a confession, perhaps entirely too personal, than it is a work of political criticism.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Cthulhu Cult of Capital

An apocalyptic mode has descended upon me in recent weeks. The winter is always a difficult time for me, as it is for a lot of people living this far North, but the usual doldrums have been intensified by the depressing social and political situation so many of us are finding ourselves in. The culprit of this situation is clear to me; it is primarily economically determined and its name is capitalism. But understanding the particularity of the crisis had eluded me for some time. After all, for the rich to get richer it would seem that they need people to buy more products so that they can profit and so it would seem like a broadly Keynesian approach would be attractive to THEM (to use the negative name for the ruling class, since it seems more and more difficult to even point them out anymore). Such an approach is attractive to me too! I would prefer to not live under harsh austerity measures, which threaten to turn me and my friends into a permanent debtor class and to increase the suffering of those who were already worse off, or see the profession I’ve been training for disappear in the name of belt-tightening.

Does anyone really believe THEY are worried about inflation? The current “jobless recovery”, a very soft name for a harsh reality, reveals the underlying vindictiveness of the capitalist class towards both the working class and the middle class, who inexplicably buy the austerity line. As they continue to magically make profits they refuse to redistribute that wealth along even the softest Social Democratic means and punish workers and professionals for something the capitalist class themselves caused. It’s a true anti-humanism and I finally gained some understanding of it through reading Alberto Toscano’s “Chronicles of Insurrection: Tronti, Negri, and the Subject of Antagonism” in the edited volume The Italian Difference: Between Nihilism and Biopolitics (available for free through the Open Access publisher Re.Press). In the article he discusses Mario Tronti, the virtually unknown theorist of workerism, and his description of the unilateral relation of capital to the workers. In other words, capitalism is dependent upon workers to function in real terms, but nonetheless “the political history of capital is the history of the successive attempts of the capitalist class to emancipate itself from the working class.” Capitalism, too, has it’s theory of antagonism and utopia: “capital is concerned with the dialectical use of antagonism, whose ultimate if utopian horizon is the withering away of the world class the untrammled self-valorization of capital”.

For some time now my working mythic-model for capitalism, especially through the technology of money, has been the Golem (which Hardt & Negri use in Multitude). However, if Tronti’s description of the separation of workers and capital is true, and it does seem to me to explain the current intentional attempts at a jobless recovery and destruction of any secure, non-precarious career for workers, then this myth doesn’t do it for me. Instead, capital is not a Golem, but Cthulhu and the capitalist class are his priests. It isn’t just the workers anymore, capital wants to be free from all humanity.

“If we don’t get them, they gonna get us all” – Dead Prez

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