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.


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 »

What is a U.S. “state”?

It’s right in the name — the U.S. is a union of “states.” But what is a state in this sense? What makes a state a meaningful political unit? What’s more, what makes a state meaningfully sovereign, such that the powers granted to the national government have to be specifically enumerated in the U.S. Constitution?

Read the rest of this entry »

More on the US as party-state: With related reflections

Perry Anderson has a good piece in the most recent New Left Review contextualizing the Obama administration in the broader sweep of postwar U.S. politics. It provides an account of the economic factors that I more or less bracketed in my post on the U.S. as a “party-state,” advancing the sensible position that the reason the two parties can so often switch positions, etc., is that there is no ground for a more fundamental disagreement, given that all significant political actors in the U.S. are 100% on board with capitalism.

One thing that stood out to me was the oft-forgotten fact that it was actually Carter who began implementing the neoliberal turn. Yet only Reagan could really carry it through, insofar as the Democrats were tarred with their association with the failed postwar settlement, over which they had mainly presided. Coming as I do from Michigan, where the transition from Fordism to neoliberalism produced a particularly brutal change in fortunes, I’ve often been nostalgic for Fordism — and nostalgic in the proper sense of missing what I’d never experienced, given that I was literally born in the year Reagan was elected and Roger Smith of Roger and Me fame became GM’s CEO — and had fantasies of how it could have been saved (specifically, union contracts should have been pegged to core inflation, not headline inflation, so that stagflation could have been avoided!). Perhaps my fascination with the Soviet Union stems from the same source.

In any case, I keep returning to Hardt and Negri’s claim in Commonwealth that neither neoliberalism nor the welfare state can actually direct and organize production — they both rely on syphoning resources from production that is just presumed to happen somewhere, somehow. The situation may not be quite so bad with Fordism and the Soviet command economy, because it’s hard to deny that they organized production on a massive scale, yet there may be a related problem at work insofar as both saw their chosen priorities (heavy industry and consumerism, respectively) become ends in themselves, divorced from whatever goals or promises had originally legitimated them. The USSR was never able to turn the corner and make the economic apparatus serve the consumer rather than demanding endless sacrifice — though the discovery of oil papered over this for a while. In the U.S., we continued to build suburbs and highways and new houses even when the economic underpinnings of the postwar boom had disappeared. The suburban lifestyle, which in the years of high Fordism was already recognized as a recipe for boredom, isolation, and despair, has transformed increasingly into a recipe for financial ruin for many who have aspired to it. But hey, it’s what we’re supposed to do!

A nation of torturers

What is it like to be a torturer? Certainly some of them are just sadists, and they will naturally gravitate to that kind of work. What about the “good people,” though? What about the people who are initially repulsed by what they’re doing and have to rationalize it? I’m sure some of them find the sadistic part of themselves and cultivate it, convincing themselves that the people they’re torturing are scum who deserve it. But there’s also another, bolder strategy for retaining one’s moral self-image — thinking of the very immorality of one’s actions as a paradoxical kind of sacrifice for morality. This means viewing oneself as the primary victim, forced to sacrifice your everyday moral integrity, and viewing the tortured person as an antagonist who is forcing you to do such terrible things. If only they’d confess, none of this would be necessary! Look what they made me do!

Not everyone in America is a hands-on torturer, of course, but these stances seem to have propagated themselves beyond the black sites. The sadists are easy to identify, as a critical mass of Americans become dominated by spitefulness — these are the people who embrace the dystopian vision of a society of “go fuck yourself.” The “good people” are just as prevelent, though, if not moreso. Think of all the liberals who managed to convince themselves that they should vote for Obama somehow because of his betrayals on civil liberties, as though this showed that they had a truly grown-up and realistic attitude and were willing to do what needed to be done. Of course, we have long been a nation of victim-blamers, but it’s becoming increasingly clear to me how fine-grained it is, how it seeps into everyday interactions. We can see it in the blogger who becomes verbally abusive in defense of civility, the public figure who persecutes women to show he’s not misogynist: “Look what you made me do! I’m a good person, and look what you made me do!”


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