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.

Donald Trump is not funny

Grab the popcorn! Donald Trump has made the 2016 Republican primary the entertainment event of the season! And though they admit it’s terrible, plenty of liberals almost hope that he gets the nomination — because it’d be comedy gold, and of course, because then Hillary would win easily.

The former reason relies on the logic of politics as entertainment, while the latter presupposes the theory that Democrats will benefit from right-wing overreach. There is literally no evidence of the latter theory, however — if anything, just the opposite. What could possibly represent a greater overreach than lying the country into an unnecessary and criminal war, all on the backs of the victims of 9/11? Yet lo and behold, Bush won reelection. And since then, the Republicans have been more successful wherever they’ve been more extreme. Obama’s unique personal appeal masks this somewhat, but the Tea Party has made steady gains during his presidency. On the state level, no overreaching Republican governor has been punished for his foolish and reckless policies — the archetypal Scott Walker not only survived a recall, but was subsequently reelected.

We also know that Republicans have been pushing to restrict voting as much as possible, and there have been strong suspicions of election fraud — in Florida in 2000, in Ohio in 2004, and in Wisconsin during the recall. If it can happen during the most important and closely monitored elections, it surely must be happening lower down as well.

Even leaving all that aside, if Trump wins the Republican nomination, that makes him more, not less likely to become president. And given what we know about him, that’s a frightening prospect. His business career does not provide us with much confidence that he will live up to America’s international agreements. He is a misogynist whose ex-wife has accused him of rape. His immigration plan amounts to ethnic cleansing, and he is not shy about stoking up violent emotions about immigrants — most notably when he claimed that Mexican immigrants were all a bunch of rapists. And when one of his followers was literally inspired to commit murder by his rhetoric, he did not appear to care at all. All this adds up to fascism — not as a slur, not as a rhetorical exaggeration to rally the troops, but literal, textbook fascism.

Some might say it could never happen here. Well, then exactly where the hell else could it happen? This is a nation where ethnic minorities are gunned down in the street by the police, and where the murderers hold successful Kickstarter campaigns. It’s a nation that is perpetually at war and whose military and intelligence services are well known to have used torture with impunity. It’s a nation where the powerful have perfected scapegoating and victim blaming to a science.

All of this admittedly plays into another favorite Democratic pastime — demanding people hold their nose and vote for unappealling Democrats in order to stave off the worst. I hope we don’t have to test how big a motivator that strategy is this time around.

Fun facts about Islamic law

The last item on my summer reading list was Knut S. Vikør’s Between God and the Sultan, a survey of Islamic law. It provided a less partisan counterpoint to Hallaq’s work, which had been my primary source of information previously (aside from the segments on Shari’a in Hodgson). Some very general points that I found particularly interesting or salient:

  • Classical Shari’a was never a standard code of law that can simply be applied — instead, it was an attempt to discern the ultimately unformulable perfect divine law that only God knows. Hence the practice of law grows directly out of the radical monotheism of Islam, which denies any commensurability between God and humanity.
  • In classical Shari’a, law was independent of the state in a way we can’t really imagine today. While the sultan or other ruler was required to administer some punishments, the practice of Shari’a law was monopolized by a self-selecting group of scholars.
  • At the same time, Shari’a was never the “only” form of law — the sultan and police often ran their own courts, which were much more flexible and practical in certain instances (because the burden of proof for securing a criminal conviction in Shari’a is extremely high, so that even obviously guilty individuals may wind up going free).
  • Classical Shari’a only arose centuries after the rise of Islam, as a practical solution to political conflicts at that time (namely, a trans-national Islamic community divided into smaller political units). Law was practiced differently in Islam before that, and presumably it would also be legitimate to practice law differently after that (as is in fact the case in virtually all Islamic countries).
  • Classical Shari’a was never any one thing — even in its most established form, it stabilized into four different schools of law, within each of which there was still room for debate.
  • The social conditions that produced classical Shari’a have been irrevocably altered. No modern state — even Iran — is likely to concede its monopoly on law to a group of self-selecting scholars. (The one arguable exception is Saudi Arabia, which was never colonized and hence maintains some level of continuity with pre-modern Shari’a practices.)
  • In contemporary parlance, “Shari’a” has more often served as a rallying cry than as a concrete proposal, and attempts at literalism have ironically enshrined some of the most severe punishments as “Shari’a” when they were actually little used and significantly ameliorated in classical Shari’a.
  • The emphasis on the “worst” provisions of “Shari’a” often has more to do with an attempt to differentiate Islam from the West than with any substantive commitment to (or even knowledge of) Shari’a law as it was actually practiced in pre-modern times.

tl;dr: The system of classical Shari’a law is fascinating, but it would be impossible to restore it in the modern world. People who claim to be doing so are not in fact doing so.

Posted in Islam. 8 Comments »

The last day of summer vacation

Tomorrow I have my first faculty meeting of the fall semester, making this the final day of summer vacation. Aside from a certain Unfortunate Incident involving unwanted online attention, it was a good one. It was obviously dominated by my work on The Prince of This World, the full manuscript of which is now under review. Finishing it was a big milestone in my life, but it was more than just checking something off a list — I enjoyed the work. And given that I had enough time to pace myself appropriately (3-4 hours of concentrated writing a day, max), it also provided a steady background for a very “civilized” lifestyle. I struck a good balance between semi-random reading and getting my sci-fi fix (I’m about halfway through Babylon 5 currently), for instance. Though we didn’t take any major vacations, we took advantage of The Girlfriend’s unexpected car ownership (the last vestige of the Minneapolis episode) to take a weekend trip to Milwaukee and several day trips for outdoor activities and/or visits to various brewpubs.

I also worked on piano in a more sustained and focused way than I have in many years. Yesterday I had a major breakthrough on my Schubert piano sonata, finally getting the most intricate new material to an acceptable level and playing through the whole first movement in one go. Much of what I have left to learn is a repetition of previous material in a different key with small variations, and it was gratifying to be able to sight-read passages that had taken weeks of hard labor on their first incarnation. It felt good to work on something that was purely an end in itself, with no greater purpose or goal.

At the same time, I did check plenty of things off the list. With my big translation submitted and the book under review, my decks are cleared in a pretty radical way. And over the last couple weeks, as a kind of cool-down exercise, I wrote an article on Star Trek that is quite literally the last piece of writing I’ve promised to anyone. My “writing” time for the next few months will therefore be dominated by responding to reader reports, answering copy-editing queries, and correcting proofs — a suitable accompaniment to my labor as a mid-level functionary at Shimer. In so many ways, becoming Associate Dean this year marks the end of a long class-aspirational journey for me: I’ve emerged from a working class background to become middle management. And as an added bonus, I am now, for the first time ever, a member ex officio of a committee. Oh, the policies I’ll draft! The data I’ll analyze! The resolutions I’ll propose!

“They’ll never win!”: On creating your own electorate

We often hear about how left-wing candidates can “never win in the general” because they’re “too far outside the mainstream.” Instead, we need candidates who can “appeal to the center.” And this may well be true — as long as you hold the electorate constant. Bernie Sanders probably is a little too extreme for the ideological “center” of the declining number of people who show up to ratify the depressing mediocrity that the major parties serve up, just as Jeremy Corbyn is likely to turn off those who relish the opportunity to choose between Tory Classic and Tory Lite.

One unique property of someone who is “outside the mainstream” in those terms, though, is that they can appeal to people who usually don’t bother to vote. We know that this works because it has literally happened in both of the most recent presidential elections, where the “unelectable” Barack Obama — a black man, with the middle name of Hussein, with Muslim family background, with ties to a radical black preacher who declared “God damn America,” etc., etc., etc., etc. — managed to get elected by reaching out to a good chunk of the people who have no time for the uninspiring products of the “rush to the center” strategy.

If he was running only within the 2000 or 2004 electorate, I have no doubt he would have been destroyed. But in a country with low voter turnout, you also have the option of creating your own electorate, which is what Obama effectively did. And I daresay that the left has more room to generate fresh voters than the right does, as evidenced, for instance, by the fact that it’s the right that’s trying to suppress voter turnout.

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