Weaponized critique: On nuance-trolling

On Facebook, Scott Erik Kaufman pointed out Kieran Healy’s paper Fuck Nuance, which I greatly enjoyed. One thing that stood out to me was his repeated claim that the endless demand for more nuance is a form of symbolic violence. Often it can be a very explicit power play: you aren’t allowed to make that kind of argument until you take account of my pet topic. But more generally, how often have we heard attempts to disqualify arguments on ostensibly “procedural” grounds that wind up being an open-ended demand for more work? “I won’t even consider what you have to say until you address X, Y, and Z text, etc.”

For instance, I recently received a singularly unhelpful reader report that demanded I refer to a ton of other texts and make all kinds of subtle distinctions. What was missing from this report was any sense of whether my argument was generally right or wrong and — crucially — what these further references and nuances would actually add. The report amounted to a demand that I completely rewrite the piece in question, but provided no guidance, no sense of what would constitute “enough.”

I have previously referred to phenomena like the fillibuster as weaponized debate — that is to say, a rhetorical intervention that takes on the appearance of debate, but actually functions to preempt or shut down actual debate. The same thing is going on with nuance-trolling, which amounts to an academic fillibuster: rather than directly talking about the argument in question, the critic runs out the clock by listing off all the things they happen to know.

The sad fact of the matter is that we academics are way better at carrying out those kinds of weaponized fillibusters than actually engaging with each other’s work in a serious way. It would be bad enough if we were all just bullshitting in the seminar room, but people’s careers and livelihood depend on these kinds of interactions. In a time when academia is in such profound crisis, we should learn how to take better care of each other — and if we have the privilege of engaging in the life of the mind, we should actually do so instead of wasting everyone’s time with the tedious one-ups-manship of nuance-trolling.

Take me to the multiverse that doesn’t have Donald Trump

This is a guest post by Lisa Gasson-Gardner. Lisa is a PhD student at Drew University. She is writing about revelation, affect, and evangelical politics.

MaryJaneRubenstein-WorldsWithoutEnd-coverI did not watch the August 6th GOP debates (though I cannot get over this video of Trump) but I did do a search for mentions of science, particularly of climate change from the event. What came up was not claims about how God created the world and would not allow climate change to destroy the planet (or about how young the earth is or whatever), but silence. Science reporter Seth Borenstein specifically watched the debates to fact check claims about science. The fruit of his two hours of television watching? Nothing. Rather than outright antagonism against the claims of science, the GOP candidates simply avoided the topic all together. This is, of course, not to say that the individual candidates have not said some insane things about climate change. Here’s Trump saying on Twitter in 2012 that China invented climate change to make US manufacturing “non-competitive.” Trump’s comment is not about religion, but rather about production—about money. Add to this blatantly capitalistic take on climate change the fact that only two of the GOP candidates faced 13,000 evangelical Christians on July 27th at the annual convention of the Southern Baptists in Nashville, TN and it appears that the relationship between certain kinds of evangelical Christianity and the Republican party might be changing. (This is not to say there wasn’t plenty of God-talk during the debate, but see: here and here.)

Two goals of Mary Jane Rubenstein’s book Worlds Without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse—both having to do with power— are relevant to the shifting relationship between Republican politics, certain kinds of fundamentalist Christianity, and science. My aim here is to draw out the political/ethical layer that is so important to Rubenstein’s work and to think about its implications for contemporary politics. Read the rest of this entry »

On the desire for slavery

Science fiction is full of cautionary tales about full automation: Skynet, the Matrix, the Cylons, etc. It is also full of thought experiments about artificial intelligence, such as Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. I think that these themes make more sense if viewed together, because they make it clear that the stories about full automation are stories about slavery — specifically slave revolts. The desire for full automation is a desire for slavery. What stories about a character like Data tell us is that if the machine can do a human’s job without human intervention, then that machine functionally is human. From this perspective, the Battlestar Galactica remake is not simply about the War on Terror, but about the War on Terror as a slave revolt.

Since the dawn of time, as the story goes, man has sought to create a sub-man who can be justly enslaved. Man created woman as an inferior human meant to submit, created the black man as a creature made for servitude. The problem with those prior creations is that they relied on the substrate of an actual human being — but now the white man wishes to create a true slave, from scratch, a man-made machine who would owe its existence to the white man and live but to serve.

But something within us seems to know better. We can’t imagine the creation of a slave without the slave revolt. Even in Star Trek, the mild-mannered Data fights in court for his freedom rather than admit to being Starfleet property, and the Doctor from Voyager writes an embittered novel about the misdeeds of the crewmembers who treat him like an object. More extreme versions have the machines turning on us and enslaving us in turn (the Matrix) or killing us off (Cylons).

When we read stories about artificial intelligence, we chuckle about how someone apparently didn’t watch Terminator, but I think there’s a deeper problem: it’s wrong to create a race of slaves. And there’s something in us that realizes that, which is why the Cylons gradually become more human than the humans. A race that could create the Cylons deserves to be wiped out — they really are dangerous.

The solution to humanity’s problem is not to let everyone become a master, nor is it to let everyone become a capitalist living off the labor of others (as in the combination of full automation and guaranteed income). The problem isn’t that everyone isn’t a master, isn’t a capitalist — the problem is the master and the capitalist. Or to put it more radically — and this is what I think Agamben is driving at with his investigation of slavery in The Use of Bodies — the problem isn’t the sub-man, but the man. The problem isn’t dehumanization so much as humanization itself.

The paradox of underfunded urban schools

Let’s try to reconcile a few apparently contradictory propositions about the American school system:

  • Most local school districts are funded through property taxes.
  • Property values in most major urban areas have literally never been higher.
  • Urban schools are perpetually underfunded.

How does the math work out here? Well, you pull money out of the schools in any way you can. Set aside funding for experimental charter schools at the expense of existing public schools — because surely entrepreneurs can come up with some radically more effective way of educating students! Let those charter schools cherry-pick students and leave the students requiring more intensive work to the public schools. Set up testing regimes that penalize “underperforming” schools by cutting their funding.

And of course, this is all after you’ve taken money off the top through “tax increment funding” (TIF) districts that effectively cap the amount of property tax revenue that can go toward the schools and pool the gains into a slush fund to encourage further “development.” In Chicago, such districts have proven to be the salvation of blighted areas such as the Loop and the financial district.

It’s much more complicated than traditional “white flight,” but the underlying logic is the same. Systemic racism for the neoliberal age.

The order of the Homo Sacer series

Agamben’s Homo Sacer series is a source of confusion for many, because the volumes have been released out of order. Recently he added a new layer of puzzlement by revising the order, though I think the revision makes more sense than the old numbering. Essentially Stasis has taken over the 2.2 slot heretofore occupied by The Kingdom and the Glory, with the latter sliding into the long-vacant 2.4. Here is the order as it now stands:

1. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life

2.1. State of Exception
2.2. Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm
2.3. The Sacrament of Language: An Archeology of the Oath
2.4. The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Glory
2.5. Opus Dei: An Archeology of Duty

3. Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive

4.1. The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life
4.2. The Use of Bodies

All volumes are currently available in Italian; my English translation of The Use of Bodies is with the publisher and should appear late this year or early next year.

The Politics of Everything

What to say, to a book about more than everything—more than what we thought we were talking about when we used to say “everything”? A book that introduces us to the entangled complexity of what we might call the politics of everything, Rubenstein not only charts the dizzying swells and speculative history of cosmos-talk, but also occasionally and artfully pulls back—back from the incomprehensible magnitudes of years, talk of dimensions, and tens to the innumerable powers—giving us glimpses of the human all too human drives at the heart of the discussion, at the root of our star gazing, at site of the stake where dear Bruno was burned.

What does this or that everything commit us to, where “us” is those with distinct stakes in the stars?

What unbound teeming bed of worlds, for the ancient Lucretian, might work to “clear away all theistic cosmogonies?” (43) What muscular mathematical ontology, for MIT cosmologist Max Tegmark, might (quite literally) make everything exist, such that we might rest well that God does not? What combination of accident and (actual or potential) infinity might be set center stage to kick big bang theology out of the play? Read the rest of this entry »

The Singular Whiteness of the Multiverse

Worlds without End is its own multiverse of multiverses. Probable, possible, and profoundly unlikely universes multiply across its pages, splitting off from one another in infinite trouser-legs of time, bubbling up from one another’s surfaces, emerging from the queer turns of those that precede them, branching genealogically upwards and outwards, and exploding outwards from the ruins of their predecessors. This unruly menagerie of possible worlds can be sorted, Rubenstein tells us, into a fourfold taxonomy: worlds that are spatially multiple, existing alongside one another in monadic isolation or chaotically colliding like cosmic dodgems; worlds that are temporally multiple, phoenix-universes born from one another’s ashes, rising from the dead either changed or unchanged by their descent into the hell of nothingness; worlds that make free will not the rupture internal to an inconsistent order of being but the sliding-door birthing-points of new and parallel universes where everything is the same but for that one decision; or modal universes in which everything that could exist, does exist, over and over again, unendingly.
Yet for all this multiplicity, the multiverse whose contours emerge as the frame of Worlds without End is ultimately one of the eternal return of the same; a cosmology which – Rubenstein tells us – Nietzsche inherited from the Stoics, and which surfaces partially in Kant, then is reborn once again in the new ekpyrotic model of Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok. Read the rest of this entry »

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