Untimely Italians: A Profile of The Italian List and Interview with Alberto Toscano

When someone begins to study European philosophy and theory, or Continental philosophy as the unhelpful designation goes, the focus is usually on the traditions of French and German philosophy (leaving the term analytic to denote the work of the British, those living on that island off the coast of Europe proper). The relationship between this kind of national identity and those philosophers varies. Oftentimes the position of these philosophers disappoint us, as with Bergson during World War I writing about “French spirit” needing to overcome the “German barbarism” or Heidegger during the rise of the Nazi party in Germany doing much the same with more horrific results. But there is something to naming these traditions if only because the way in which language and location shapes one’s thinking, to say nothing of the importance of particular political situations that arise within these fictional but nonetheless efficacious spaces of the various nation-states. Italian philosophy has largely been ignored by those anglophone readers interested in European thought. This despite the fact that the fictional element of the nation-state is perhaps nowhere better on display than Italy, which never quite coalesced its various cultures into a singular Italian culture the way that French republicanism did. This creates an interesting dynamic and leads to a different style of philosophy. This seems to me to hold especially true for leftwing theorists and perhaps arises from what Roberto Esposito identifies as the clear manifestation of antagonism within the Italian context. Nothing like Italy the nation-state exists except through the process of conflict, the creation of antagonism that continues when Italy the nation-state has to become a part of Europe the economic union.

Italian philosophy has long been an interest for many authors here, with Adam’s work on Agamben and my own less intenstive work on Negri, as well as with many of our readers. We have here discussed Esposito’s attempt to reclaim the distinctiveness of Italian philosophy, already mentioned, and many readers will be familiar with the collection edited by Lorenzo Chiesa and Alberto Toscano The Italian Difference with re:press. So I was excited to see that Alberto was editing a new series called The Italian List with Seagull Books (which has the support of the University of Chicago Press, but apparent autonomy from the usual deadends of academic publishing). While the list has published three shorter texts by Agamben, I wanted to highlight the lesser known figures that Alberto and Seagull Books were bringing to a new audience. In what follows you will find a conversation between Toscano and myself as well as a few side remarks where I provide some summary information about the texts. Because of the length of this post I have also generated it as a PDF for those who prefer that medium for reading longer texts. Read the rest of this entry »

‘Even Lenin’: In the Vanguard of Accelerationism

I am, as usual, late to the accelerationist party (unlike Dan Barber and Josh Ramey, to whom I am clearly indebted here). Reading the Accelerationist Manifesto properly for the first time recently, I was struck by something. ‘Even Lenin’, we are told, supported the idea that socialism depends upon the technological transformations made possible by capitalism.

‘Even Lenin’ makes it sound as if the great Bolshevik were an unlikely ally. Accelerationism is, after all, positioned as breaking with the Luddite shibboleths of the established left. And yet one of the things which stands out from the manifesto is its seeming commitment to the greatest of all far left shibboleths: vanguardism

Social movements – no doubt Occupy is in the crosshairs here – are dismissed for their fetishisation of democracy-as-process, horizontal organisation, communal immediacy and localism. Instead, we are told that ‘Secrecy, ver­tic­ality, and ex­clu­sion all have their place as well in ef­fective polit­ical ac­tion (though not, of course, an ex­clusive one)’. A left intellectual infrastructure is called for, and the means for this will be a left version of the neoliberal Mont Pelerin Society, ‘tasked with cre­ating a new ideo­logy, eco­nomic and so­cial models, and a vision of the good to re­place and sur­pass the ema­ci­ated ideals that rule our world today.’

For what it is worth, I think the manifesto is right on the money in identifying the crucial factor of the hegemony of neoliberalism and the evident failure of the left to respond. It is also surely correct to argue against a fetishisation of traditional forms of protest, or an aversion to technological change. Why, though, is it apparently prepared to endorse a tactic which has been such self-perpetuating disaster for large parts of the radical left?

Let me give an example close to (my) home. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the UK is a Trotsykite organization of a few thousand members, but it has frequently had a higher profile and impact in left politics and movements than its size would suggest. Over the last few years it has been in turmoil, because of the way it handled allegations of rape and sexual harassment leveled at a senior party member.

This is not the place to go into detail about that case, which is well documented elsewhere. Suffice to say that, for many of us, it exposed the utter failure of a certain kind of politics, in which the ‘ideology’ and ‘vision’ came from the centre, from a Central Committee elected on a slate system which was hugely difficult to budge. As a corollary, the party was woefully ill equipped to take on the lessons of feminism and social movements other than through attempts to co-opt and re-educate them through front organisations.

At this point, it is important to acknowledge that the Manifesto endorses a pluralism of organisations and methods, and a spirit of experimentalism on the left. In an interview, Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek have cited networks such as Plan C alongside feminist initiatives around basic income as essentially working along the right lines. So I am not trying to crudely tarnish accelerationism with the misogyny and bullying found in various far left sects.

However, I become concerned when it is implied that a central hub can be constructed to filter and connect these ideas and practices, since that is just what Central Committees imagine themselves to be doing (even if what is envisaged is much smarter and better funded than a small far left party). And I am especially disturbed by the rather easy characterisation of social movements as obsessed with ‘internal direct-​democratic process and affective self-​valorisation’ as opposed to which ‘Real democracy must be defined by its goal — collective self-​mastery’. How can we simply leave ‘democracy-as-process’ behind, if chauvinistic sectarianism and authoritarian centralism are to be avoided?  (as a footnote: during the SWP crisis, branch meetings were addressed by members of the Central Committee, and representatives of an opposition faction. The Committee member was allowed 30 minutes contribution, the opposition was allowed 5-8 minutes. The justification was that the Committee member was the one who could set the debate in its ‘proper political context’. ‘Democratic centralism’ in action – and this is only one of the most benign examples).

Process matters: if the process of revolution is one of instrumentalising democracy and our desires, then it kills the very thing it longs for. Accelerationism’s recognition of the need for experiment augurs well here, but it should lead to a further realisation: particular shared experiences of non-capitalist space and community matter. They may be local and ephemeral, but it does not follow that they are tied to ‘localism’ or that they are ‘merely’ ephemeral when set alongside ideas of reason. In fact, I’d argue these experiences are indispensable to rationality as a form of embodied discernment.

There is no politics without affect. The manifesto itself sees the need for ‘affectively invigorating’ visions of a transhumanist future. But the notion of constructing affects is fraught with danger, not least the production of future legions of self-intoxicated militants and dictatorial organisers, whose principal affect to date has been one of joyless immersion in sacrifice. Please spare us from the heroic vanguard, speeding ahead to save us from the future they have already grasped.

“clumsiness & truth are so often intertwined we tend to take their copulation for granted.”

[Re-posting this old piece of mine -- conjuring days of old in the spirit of May Day.]

Dear ________,

You misunderstand me, so let me be clear: I do not want the City to “support” the Occupy movement or its Commune. Indeed, though I risk misunderstanding yet again so soon after such momentary clarity, I think it would be very foolish public policy for them to do so. Much better, I think, to go the disingenuous route of the Councilperson whose letter you’ve attached, and insist on a vapid sympathy.

While I agree with the message of the Occupy movement and consider myself, along with all City Employees, including the men and women in our Police Department, to be part of the 99%, I disagree that occupying Frank Ogawa Plaza, shutting down the Port, or calling for a general strike against our City, is going to impact the 1% that this movement is supposed to be targeting.

What genius is on display here in one of the more nakedly clumsy co-opting of populism in my recent memory. The Councilperson doesn’t even bother to give the dignity of a period to his agreement. Here in the opening paragraph of his letter, the feeblest of commas is all that separates his agreement with “the message of the Occupy movement” and his self-consideration as “part of the 99%” from the declarative strongman of this magnificent sentence, “I disagree.” Provided the Occupy movement does not camp, strike, or shut down a port, which is to say, provided it does precisely nothing it has in actual fact done the past three weeks, he supports it completely. The only reservation he has concerning the Occupy movement is its actual existence. Would that it could be but a “message”! — by all means, a call to be dissatisfied, even angry, but to be so at home, please, as quietly as possible, yes, at least until election day, when those so called might vote for cynical opportunists like himself.

This Councilperson is in the minority, I believe, in his clumsiness, but not in the desire to show support for the Occupy movement on his own terms. And while I understand perfectly well why the City, all of its administrative stars & ideological stripes, would go this route, I fear you don’t appreciate why the Occupy movement would do well to develop a strong allergy to any & all public expressions of sympathy by those who are formally in (or are seeking formal) power. It seems to me that the moment a city officially loses the “but” after its stated solidarity is the moment the truth of this allegiance has been lost — clumsiness & truth are so often intertwined we tend to take their copulation for granted. (Or, I should add, it is the day after a revolutionary upheaval. But, alas, I am not at all confident any of us have enough dying light remaining actually to see that morning. Rome was not unbuilt in a day, as a friend said to me recently, and arguably our allotment of days are insufficient to the cause, if not the struggle itself.)

So, in close, while we agree that the Commune should remain illegal, I have no interest in its relocation. I would much prefer that it be declared illegal and remain exactly where it is, in order that it might continue to test the City’s ability to uphold the consequences of that illegality. The gross flouting of the law–or at least its outright disregard–this is what seems necessary to expose its many inadequacies (& those of its administrators). In this way, the Commune’s symbolic value as a site of disobedience is also the unavoidable germ of its undoing. The present age, you’ve insisted in the past, has had very little real use for such symbols, but are either of us yet prepared to say the same of the future that remains?

Yours,

Posted in politics, Rhetoric, Writing. Comments Off

On Heidegger’s Anti-Semitism

A couple days ago, I posted a confused series of tweets on the revelation of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism in the recently published “black notebooks.” It was exceptionally unwise to attempt to address this issue in that format, and so I thought I would try to post some more coherent reflections here.

I’m not one who is inclined to explain away Heidegger’s reactionary views in general. Even some of his greatest works, like The Origin of the Work of Art, clearly include proto-fascist elements. I’ve never been convinced that he joined the Nazi party out of mere conformism — it’s clear that he had very firm ideas about how to reform the German university and jumped at the chance that (he thought) the Nazis offered him to carry out those reforms.

What makes me suspicious about the furor surrounding the notebooks is the notion that they are a decisive revelation of some kind. The remarks in his notebooks may be uglier and less guarded than we would anticipate, but it cannot possibly be a surprise that a provincial Roman Catholic with reactionary views (including a distrust of the rootlessness of modern society), views that made him very comfortable with Nazi affiliation and unwilling to unambiguously renounce it later in life, would also be personally anti-Semitic.

There are of course very serious questions to ask about Heidegger’s politics in relation to his thought, but the most creative and influential interpreters of Heidegger’s works have always been asking those questions. Aside from people who are pure expositors, there is literally no one in the post-Heideggerian tradition who has taken over Heidegger’s views wholesale — indeed, it would be more accurate to view the post-Heideggerian tradition as a tradition of critiques of Heidegger than as a mere continuation of Heidegger’s project. I don’t think anyone can claim that Derrida, for instance, accidentally imbibed fascist principles in the course of his deconstruction of Heidegger’s project.

And here we come to the contemporary political stakes. I understand that journalism by its very nature seeks out newness and exaggerates its importance when it finds it. Even taking that into account, however, I can’t help but see the coverage of these notebooks as part of a broader trend in the English-speaking world of trying to use Heidegger’s disastrous political commitments as a way to discredit continental philosophy and literary theory. In short, the ongoing journalistic “controversy” over Heidegger’s politics is part of the broader culture war polemic against “postmodernism.” And the irony is that the culture warriors who have such an eagle eye for the Nazi influences of their opponents invariably advocate for nihilistic militarism and simplistic nationalism every chance they get — without offering us anything close to the creativity and fruitfulness of Heidegger’s radical reworking of phenomenology and innovative rereading of the history of philosophy.

From R.A.P. Music to Run the Jewels: Killer Mike and the Homonymity of the Idea

What follows is a first pass attempt to bring together the themes of sovereignty I have been exploring alongside Stephen Keating this semester with contemporary hip hop.

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What could be an anonymous homonymy that moves towards the name itself? A herald from Atlanta carries the answer. Read the rest of this entry »

Some reservations about non-violent resistence

Like many people, I have a vague if unexamined sense that non-violent resistence is somehow the “best” political strategy — even if it doesn’t work under all circumstances, it would in any case be somehow better or preferable to use non-violent resistence. In light of the white-washing of Nelson Mandela that’s currently underway, though, I started wondering about a couple things. Above all, I started to become suspicious of the very fact that mainstream political leaders are so eager to praise Mandela as a non-violent resistence leader.

It’s easy to see why the powers that be would be willing to embrace non-violence as a strategy for their opponents. I don’t think it’s a simple matter of effectiveness — after all, the state is very good at fighting violence with violence. Rather, the strategy of non-violent resistence seems to implicitly presuppose the basic legitimacy of the existing order. Those who are in charge of it are being asked to change their ways, but they or their peers will still presumably be in charge. Indeed, responding favorably to non-violent demands can be a great way of shoring up the legitimacy of the existing order by showing generosity of spirit and an openness to reform.

I also wonder if part of the appeal of non-violent resistence for Western audiences doesn’t come from Christian ideology that views suffering as redemptive. When watching the Occupy protests unfold, I couldn’t help thinking of the Rolling Stones line: “I went down to the demonstration, to get my fair share of abuse.” Several people I talked to went to the Occupy encampment specifically in order to get arrested, and I could never really make sense of that. It’s as though suffering for the cause has some type of automatic, quasi-magical effect on public opinion, which will recognize the protestors as righteous and grant their request.

These two dynamics feed into each other, so that the violence of the powers that be is actually necessary to the movement — which again implicitly legitimates the power structure even as it is taking clearly illegitimate actions. We need to go through the whole cycle: you guys beat us up, then we nobly bear it, and then we all really grow as people and change our ways, together. At least until the next time we have a request that you’re not immediately willing to grant, and then we do it all over again. It all starts to sound eerily like the dynamics of an abusive relationship.

None of this is to say that non-violent resistence is a bad thing or shouldn’t be used. But isn’t it strange how the great non-violent resisters wind up being taken up as legitimating symbols for the systems that oppressed them? We recognize the irony that Jesus becomes part of the ideology of the Roman Empire or that Martin Luther King emerges as a symbol of America’s ever-closer approach to perfection — but maybe there’s a deeper, harsher irony at work.

It’s the *political* economy, stupid!

We live in an era where there is a deep desire to view humans as machines. Humans are not machines — they are free beings who can do surprising things for a variety of reasons or no particular reason at all — but our whole society is set up to hide that fact. Public policy is now the art of “nudging” “incentives,” setting up conditions where human-machines will respond appropriately. Important social choices are outsourced to something called “the market,” which is presented as a kind of naturally-occuring decision-generating machine despite being a product of human choices that runs on human choices.

It makes sense that people would turn to such impersonal, supposedly a-political models of our shared life. Politics has always been traumatic, particularly in the 20th century. We’ve all heard it before: “You think people can take collective control of their destiny in a deliberate and purposeful way? So did Hitler and Stalin!” But politics in the sense of purposeful human decisions about the distribution of power and resources is irreducible. Even if there were a supercomputer perfectly calibrated to distribute the best possible outcomes to everyone, the decision to entrust it with this responsibility would be a human decision — as would the ongoing decision to continue to submit to it. We like to pretend that something called “the market” effectively is that supercomputer, but it isn’t. All it does is cover over the human decisions that are being made.

The irreducibility of actual human decisions holds even at the level of the global market. Read the rest of this entry »

Set your own house in order

I have been known to say that I would find the figure of the “activist academic” more plausible if academics hadn’t failed so abyssmally in the case of their own institutions. As I reflect on the idiocy of a potential “humanitarian intervention” in Syria, I find myself thinking similar thoughts. I have no doubt that the Syrian regime is brutal and that terrible crimes have been committed and are still being committed.

At the same time, the international arbiter of morality is a state that, for example, is running a torture camp on foreign soil specifically to be “technically” outside the realm of U.S. law. This is a state that imprisons more people — not in per capita terms, but in absolute numbers — than any other country on earth. (Oppressive Communist China has four times our population but only 1/6 our per capita imprisonment rate.)

Imprisonment disproportionately affects the group that the nation held in slavery for the first hundred years of its existence and then subjected to legal segregation and extra-legal campaigns of terror for the next hundred years.

In those prisons, solitary confinement is used routinely despite the devestating effects it has on mental health, and rape is so common as to count as a de facto part of the punishment in any prison sentence. Our culture is so debased, meanwhile, that rape, whether in prison or elsewhere, is a common topic for jokes.

Our nation just celebrated a massive protest march, but contemporary protestors are brutalized and abused by an increasingly militarized police force that is literally equipped with chemical weapons. Ordinary Americans are daily subjected to constant surveillance and humiliating “security” rituals with no apparent purpose but to instill fear in them.

Social spending and education are routinely cut for arbitrary reasons stemming from the political rivalries of self-interested elites, while the government itself entraps the younger generation in ruinous and inescapable student debt.

I could go on. If the U.S. government lacks either the will or the ability to take care of those very serious problems in a country where it enjoys largely unquestioned legitimacy, stable institutions, and a docile population, exactly why the fuck is it remotely plausible that it can solve problems in a foreign country embroiled in a civil war?

Leaking and consequences

This weekend, I went on a Twitter rant in which I took the extreme position that Wikileaks had done no good whatsoever, then challenged defenders to prove me wrong. It took a while to get even one concrete example of a change directly attributable to the leaking — namely, the video of U.S. abuses in Iraq that forced the Iraqi government to deny the U.S.’s request of legal immunity for residual troops.

That was a good thing, in my opinion, but it’s small compared to the original vision of Wikileaks. As implied in the name, it was meant to be a distributed network of leakers — rather than the bizarre personality cult it ultimately became. The goal was to restrict the ability of the elites to operate in secrecy by making the cost of secrecy astronomically greater and thus to limit their ability to abuse their power.

There was simply no way this plan was ever going to work. Read the rest of this entry »

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