Weaponized Relativism

Thinking critically about thinking about religion is fraught with misdirections. I’ve been reflecting on a post that Steven wrote last week highlighting the way that individuals are able to combine a ‘default cultural relativism’ with a ‘high level of dogmatism.’ He does an excellent job of outlining how a student has combined contradictory arguments:

(a) how you describe God is a matter of personal opinion and what you want God to be like; (b) Christians who did not believe in a literal six-day creation and a young earth were guilty of a totally illegitimate ‘pick and choose’ approach to their faith.

How to account for this contradictory logic and its bloody repetitions? And it is, to be sure, a repetition. Talal Asad has identified this logic at work in the doctrine of secularism–especially in the discourse on “Islamic terrorism” and its supposed existential threat to the West: (a) The Qur’an is posited to be absolutely binding upon Muslims. (b) Christians and Jews may come to various interpretations of the Bible. Asad states that “On the one hand, the religious text is held to be determinate, fixed in its sense, and having the power to bring about particular beliefs [and subsequently actions]–rendering readers passive. On the other hand, the religious reader is taken to be actively engaged in constructing the meaning of texts in accordance with changing social circumstances–so the texts are passive.” Perhaps Steven’s student has been watching too much Bill Maher. The six-day creationist is absolutely passive in his or her relation to the Bible, and yet, somehow, they seem to keep finding ways to apply the Bible to all these new scenarios. It seems that the brave atheist has found an enemy internal to the West against which to deploy the orientalist logic.

We should not be suprised that there are enemies both internal and external. The brave atheist will be disappointed to hear this, but at the end of the day they are just being a good Christian. However, what if the literal six-day creationist and the brave atheist come together in the same room? God knows they love a good debate that goes back and forth for hours. I remember countless youth group lessons devoted to training for these opportunities.

These debating sites are not just in college dorm rooms or online forums. They also include the U.S. Senate chamber, the Palace of Westminster, and CNN roundtables. In those rooms the debate over contradictions no longer matters. Relativism is fine–nay encouraged–as long as we are safely dealing with the internal thoughts and intentions of subjects of the Western political project. We can amicably disagree over matters of religion because we have isolated a secular plane upon which we translate our private motivations into common cause. ‘Separation of church and state!’ Believe anything you want privately, but in public you must believe in the secular. Nevertheless, when it comes to foreign policy, the mandate is clear: abandon our bold binary and present a unified front against the Axis of Evil. Those others have not attained to the height of human culture: privatized relativism. Better bomb them until they do.

The uncomfortable origins of ‘Afrofuturism’

The term ‘Afrofuturism’ was coined by Mark Dery in his article ‘Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose’. I finally got round to reading the piece recently; as you might infer, it’s not my area of expertise, so it’s more than possible that someone has made these observations better than me, before me. But I thought it was worth writing about: firstly because I was so taken aback by how uncomfortable it was to read, as a white person who’s minimally aware of the many perils that beset the work of white people like me writing about black culture; and secondly because after a throwaway comment I made on Twitter, Mark Dery took it upon himself to sealion me, and demand that I explain in detail my critique of his work:

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I’m doubtful as to the sincerity of this demand – the Panopticon is, after all, a tool of discipline rather than reflection. But as a scholar of Žižek, one thing I’ve learned is that sometimes the most ethical thing to do is simply to take a person at their word.

‘Black to the Future’ opens with a conundrum: ‘Why do so few African Americans write science fiction, a genre whose close encounter with the Other – the stranger in a strange land – would seem uniquely suited to the concerns of African-American novelists?’ Why is it that African Americans are not producing the sort of culture that Mark Dery, a white guy, thinks they should be producing? Dery does at least realise that if there’s an answer to this question he can’t figure it out on his own, and so the bulk of the article consists of interviews with Samuel Delany, Greg Tate and Tricia Rose. Most of the words are not Dery’s own. It’s not clear how closely the text itself hews to the original interviews, but on the account that Dery himself gives, the bulk of the analysis the article contains is Delany’s, Tate’s and Rose’s. They’re fascinating, smart, insightful interviewees, with a lot to say about the relationship between black culture and science fiction. Dery? Not so much.

For someone who is so sure about his competence to assess the contributions of African American science fiction, Dery is remarkably unreflective about his own position in relation to the people he is interviewing. African American culture which engages with technological, sci-fi and futuristic imagery and concepts is a ‘largely unexplored psychogeography’ towards whose exploration Dery himself is taking ‘a first, faltering step’. That’s right: Dery, a white guy, is positioning himself as bold explorer into a largely unknown region populated by people of colour. A voyage into the heart of darkness, if you will. This ‘largely unexplored’ region is so unknown, so previously unthought, that Dery must appoint as his native guides an author and literary critic (Delany), a musician, producer and cultural critic (Tate) and a Professor of Africana Studies who is ‘currently at work on a book on rap music and the politics of black cultural practice’ (Rose).

Dery is right, however, that his first steps into this region are faltering. His unfailingly gracious interviewees spent a truly remarkable amount of time gently correcting the assumptions which underlie the questions he asks them. It’s excruciating:

Dery: One thing that intrigued me about your brief essay [on cyberpunk] is that you made no mention of the orbital Rastafarians in Gibson’s Neuromancer. I find that curious.
Delany: Why should I have mentioned them?
Dery: For me, a white reader, the Rastas … are intriguing in that they hold forth the promise of a holistic relationship with technology.
Delany: You’ll forgive me if, as a black reader, I didn’t leap up to proclaim this passing presentation of a powerless and wholly nonoppositional set of black dropouts, by a Virginia-born white writer, as the coming of the black millennium in science fiction; but maybe that’s just a black thang…Your question is indicative of precisely what I was speaking about in the essay you cited: the interpretive idiocies that arise as soon as a book is lifted out of its genre and cut loose from the tradition that precedes and produces it.

Dery: Why, then, would black youth be alienated by SF signifiers for high technology?
Delany: The immediate answer is simply that the sign language is more complicated than you’re giving it credit for.

Dery: Wasn’t there an elitist, if not crypto-right, slant to [science fiction] literature from the very beginning?
Delany: Once again, that sounds to me like a simple historical misunderstanding about the history and tradition of science fiction … I’m not even sure what you could be referring to.

Dery: Why has there been so little overtly gay SF?
Delany: There is, of course, a whole bibliography full of gay science fiction … And there is a considerable gay fandom …. There is at least on annual gay science fiction convention … And the gay programming that regularly, today, turns up in other science fiction conventions is almost always among the most crowded, standing-room only event.

Dery: Why hasn’t the African-American community made more use, either as writers or readers, of science fiction?
Tate: I don’t know that that’s necessarily true.

Dery: I sometimes wonder if there isn’t an inherent dichotomy in hip-hop between a displaced people’s need to reaffirm a common history and the quintessentially American emphasis on forward motion, effected through technological progress. Don’t these contradictory impulses threaten to tear hip-hop apart?
Tate: No, because you can be backward-looking and forward thinking at the same time.

It’s clear that Dery simply hasn’t done the work required to be a good interviewer. He asks his interviewees about areas of culture in which, as they make clear to him, they have no interest or expertise. Many of his questions draw not on Dery’s own observations but on work that has been done by other people. The article ends with the final interview: Dery writes no summary, and makes no attempt to sketch out a map of the terrain in whose exploration he describes himself as a pioneer. What’s interesting about the article, one of Dery’s best known works and the reason why his name is so omnipresent in discussions of Afrofuturism – a phenomenon which he both names and claims to have discovered – is precisely how little work he does. A great deal of intellectual labour is visible in the essay, but almost all of it is undertaken by Delany, Tate and Rose, who not only tolerate Dery’s ill-informed and – let’s be honest – occasionally racist questions, but offer smart and insightful accounts of the areas in which they are, after all, experts.

There’s so much in here that I want to reflect on, to digest, and to be formed by intellectually. But I can’t cite this work on the part of Delany, Tate and Rose without citing Dery himself. What’s worst about ‘Black to the Future’ is that Dery has found a way to identify an area of black culture, declare it unknown territory, and, by appropriating the labour of black creators of both culture and critical reflection on that culture, has ensured that this terrain has come to bear the name that he chose for it.

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.

And miles to go before I sleep

This has been the busiest semester of the busiest year of my life. Every time I think I’m “over the hump,” I realize there’s another mountain of work. By the time the semester ends — a semester during which I’ve taken on a teaching overload — I not only need to complete my grading (including grading for Shimer’s first-year comprehensive exam, as a kind of bonus) but write two articles on which I basically haven’t even started and also put (hopefully!) finishing touches on my co-authored book on Agamben with Colby Dickinson.

Then over the winter break, I need to finalize a syllabus for my Qur’an course, a task that will include a lot of tedious detail work to make sure I cover the whole text in some kind of compromise between chronological and thematic order, and start getting up to speed on Shimer’s Social Sciences 4, also a new prep for me. In addition, I need to make at least some progress on my big Agamben translation, hopefully getting it to a place where I could send a major section to an Italian colleague who has agreed to look over it.

Then, of course, I need to actually get started on my long-promised devil book, presumably striking while the iron is still hot after having taught the material twice in the last calendar year (once at Shimer, once at CTS).

Read the rest of this entry »

An Opinion For Which I Could Live and Die

For anyone teaching philosophy, one of the most frustrating responses to a question asked in class is ‘it just comes down to opinion’. Variations on this include ‘it depends on your personality’, ‘it depends on your upbringing’ and ‘People believe what they want to believe’. In other words, many undergraduate students (unsurprisingly) reflect a default cultural relativism, in which there are no certainties and absolutes and in which talk of criteria for making valid critical judgements is assumed guilty until proven innocent.

What I’ve found interesting recently is how such sentiments can be combined with a high level of dogmatism. For example, in a recent seminar on Hume’s Dialogues, a student said both these things: (a) how you describe God is a matter of personal opinion and what you want God to be like; (b) Christians who did not believe in a literal six-day creation and a young earth were guilty of a totally illegitimate ‘pick and choose’ approach to their faith.

The student seemed unaware of any contradiction between these statements. Now, maybe they were just being inconsistent, as we often are. However, I wonder if there is something more going on here. For what the combination of the two positions amounts to is this (which I guess is a Zizekian point): all you have is opinion, but you (or someone on your behalf) must hold that opinion absolutely. It is a microcosm of neoliberal ideology: everything is flexible, everything is subject to maximum choice and competition – except the system of flexibility, choice and competition itself.

In this scenario, the only thing to take seriously is the utter arbitrariness of the act of choice itself, to the extent that we become angry with those heretics who presume to make judgements about what choice is. The existence (real or fantasised) of others with non-ironic absolute commitments thus plays an essential role in maintaining the corrosive power of capital. They are the ultimate figures of the ontology of Opinion, whose foundation in naked power and terror we must always keep contained.

“White men” as a curriculum

It’s always easier to design a syllabus with only white men — a particularly potent instance of the way Sara Ahmed teaches us to view “white men” as an institution. An inclusive syllabus is a struggle. You can anticipate the dismissiveness, the uncomfortable silence, the angry rejection. The syllabus filled with white men, by contrast, is calm. Their debates are all well-known, and they’ve all staked out positions that have their valid place in the intellectual firmament. They are precisely debates — ritual exchanges of well-known positions and evidence, rituals that we must reenact. After all, those debates have been so “influential”! You don’t have to agree with them, of course, just be able to give an account of them. Such soothing neutrality. Such comfort and familiarity.

Who would want to disrupt this equilibrium with arguments that don’t already have their pat answers, with positions that haven’t already been incorporated into the repertoire of reasonable options? Why gum up our political discussions with questions of how we structure our households, how we act in our most intimate relationships, how we go about excluding and corralling some so that others can feel comfortable and safe? The pushy interloper’s positions don’t seem to belong to the set of familiar toys we know how to manipulate. They don’t seem to allow us to take up our accustomed stance of studied neutrality, don’t let us assess them from afar by clear rational standards everyone would agree on. We’re trying to have an intellectual debate here, and the pushy interloper insists on asking us questions about how we live our lives. Worse, they seem to be insisting that we change our lives — and not in the uplifting way of that Rilke poem!

The endless conversation: who could want to bring it to an end? Who would dare interrupt it? Better to tell, once again, the story of how secular tolerance solved the problem of religious conflict while leaving room for the exploration of spiritual truth. Better to review the three ethical options: utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics. Better to trace the progress of those scientific and artistic and literary traditions in which white men have been in such intricate, intellectually satisfying dialogue over the centuries.

To bask in the influential and the great — who would turn away from this to pick a fight, to document a struggle, to leave no room for neutrality? Why would we turn away from the influential and the great, from the guaranteed payoff of quality (well-attested!) and prestige (well-deserved!) to risk our world enough and time on texts that almost certainly are not the very best, and that surely can’t dream of the level of influence of the greats. And where would there be room, when we already know for a fact that they must read Homer and Dante and Plato and Aristotle and all the names we all know how to name in the syllabus we could all sketch out in five minutes or less if pressed? Surely you would never ask us to deprive one of these great and influential texts of its rightful place in service of a divisive partisan agenda.

So much easier, then, to reproduce influence under the guise of neutrally, objectively responding to it. After all, we already know the correct liberal positions we’re supposed to have — a skill we demonstrate when we ignore or explain away passages in which the influential greats contradict them. We all know that one must transcend those merely time-bound elements to reach the universal truths, whereas the texts you’re asking us to include do just the opposite, openly wallowing in the merely particular, the concrete, the historically conditioned. Don’t we enter the seminar room to escape from all that? And aren’t we glad of it? Isn’t it calm? Soothing? Comfortable?

Why do we do courses?

During my five years or so of teaching, a nagging thought has kept resurfacing — namely, that the traditional course format is remarkably unforgiving. This was especially clear when I taught on the quarter system, where a moderately serious illness could very easily lead a student to miss 10% of the class sessions. Yet semesters have their own drawbacks, as they can sometimes feel like a marathon. In fact, a semester is just long enough to have multiple spells of sickness, which tend to hit first-year students particularly hard.

And all these issues could even happen under the best-case scenario of a full-time, residential student with no significant work commitments and no serious family crises during the semester. Once you start throwing actual reality into the equation, things quickly become more complicated. Work schedules tend to accomodate class time itself, but not prep time — and often students will schedule the maximum amount of work time possible for their normal weekly workload, leaving them no additional time to work on longer-term priorities such as papers.

In short, it seems like the format was devised for a particular kind of privileged student, and it isn’t even very forgiving for those people. I might be okay with this if there was some kind of positive pedagogical justification for the format, but I’m not sure there really is.

Let’s look at the format objectively. Read the rest of this entry »

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