Mapping European Anxiety Between Conversion and Submission

“Look, the Enlightenment is dead, may it rest in peace.”

An interview with Michel Houellebecq made its way into my twitter timeline. While I am tempted to read this new book I will admit at the outset that so far I’ve never finished a Houellebecq novel. I tried Atomised (or The Elementary Particles in the US translation), but it just felt a bit like sub-Vonnegut, self-indulgent gloominess. Of course there is plenty to be gloomy about, though I suspect Houellebecq is one of those contrarian types who in the drive to stake out their own purity shit on everyone else, especially those who are already not counted or are counted as less by the hegemonic forces in whatever society. So, in France that would of course include feminists (to a certain extent, for there is a form of feminism determined by the Enlightenment tradition that is rather reactionary) and immigrants (specifically postcolonial immigrants from North Africa). Reading the interview I felt more secure in my intuitions regarding Houellebecq, but in the midst of his clear trolling there was something like an insight. While there are moments of insight in Houellebecq’s own words, like the rather blunt pronouncement on the mainstream Enlightenment undergirding contemporary French identity, mostly I saw his remarks as simply manifesting a symptom that tells us something about European anxiety today. Read the rest of this entry »

Heidegger and science

One thing that is perhaps surprising about Being and Time, for someone familiar with the later Heidegger and with the continental tradition that grew out of his work, is how positive it seems to be about science. He never denies that science is extremely powerful or that it produces true and useful results, and in chapter 2 of division 1, he seems to grant its role as a “primary mode of Being-in-the-World” a certain legitimacy. The purpose of the analytic of Being is not to call science into question but to provide the kind of robust conceptual underpinning that they all need — and the contemporaneous “crises” in the various sciences (as listed in the introduction) demonstrate that the sciences themselves are calling out for just this kind of operation. The problem with scientific knowledge is that it has covered over its own deepest sources and obscured our view of the phenomenon of Being-in-the-World, but presumably once this has been secured, science will be able to achieve ever greater things that comport more fully with what is most important about human existence.

It strikes me that, without the benefit of hindsight, one could view fascism — including its local German variant of Nazism — as a marriage of technology with the authentic lifeworld of the people, and that one could view Communism as an attempt to uproot that lifeworld once and for all. And after fascism’s horrifying crimes and ultimate failure, one could then say: “I see where I went wrong — it was granting legitimacy to technology!” Hence his infamous gloss of “the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism” as “the encounter between global technology and modern humanity” — and so the way to get past the mistake of Nazism is to turn against technology itself as inherently hostile to the authentic lifeworld of the people.

With the benefit of hindsight, of course, the original judgment of fascism seems obviously stupid, and the explanation of how he was able to make that mistake also seems pretty dumb. Hence, perhaps, the almost universally shared position among “left Heideggerians” that there is something trite about Heidegger’s famous critiques of technology.

This is of course over-simplified and likely unoriginal. Still, what do you think, dear readers?

“Stand Your Ground” and sovereignty

Before the advent of Stand Your Ground laws, to claim self-defense you had to demonstrate that you genuinely had no other option. Violence was supposed to be a last resort, and even if the other guy clearly started it, you had no legal defense if you gratuitously escalated the conflict when you could have walked away. This approach makes sense as a way of balancing out the state’s claim to a monopoloy on legitimate violence and the individual citizen’s inalienable rights — in the last resort, everyone is entitled to do what’s necessary to preserve their own life, but it genuinely has to be the last resort.

With Stand Your Ground, a new regime has arisen in which the presumption of de-escalation no longer holds. Instead, the law functions to actively encourage the escalation of violent confrontations and defends the actions taken in that context regardless of “who started it” or whether another option was possible. Under the old regime, I think it’s pretty clear that George Zimmerman would have been found guilty of murder, because he initiated the confrontation and stuck with it when he could have easily run away. Stand Your Ground removes those standards — it’s as though the state is saying, “No, don’t walk away, we want to see how this plays out.” And that seems difficult to square with traditional state sovereignty.

What is going on here? Read the rest of this entry »

What if Zimmerman had been a cop?

Many people have been asking the rhetorical question, “What if Zimmerman and Martin’s races had been reversed? Would a black man be allowed to ‘stand his ground’?” It’s obvious that the result would have been very, very different, and so this is a good way of highlighting the racism involved. Yet it seems to me to be a little too abstract. This isn’t about racism in general — it’s about the racist structure of law enforcement. We should be asking, “What if Zimmerman had been a cop?” And the answer is, if anything, more appalling: we probably never would have heard about this incident in the first place.

I don’t pretend to have exhaustive knowledge of the case, but the local police do not seem to have treated Zimmerman as just “some guy.” He was well known to them as a neighborhood watch volunteer and was in fact in radio contact with them when carrying out his “duties.” He clearly wanted very much to be in law enforcement — and his idea of what law enforcement does in this country is to control the black population by keeping them within their designated areas. We talk about the “militarization” of the police, and in addition to all the ridiculous weapons they now equip themselves with, they appear to think of their encounters with the black community in terms of a war. Ideally, the “rule of engagement” would prevent the deaths of innocents, but at the end of the day, you’d rather that an enemy teenager die than one of your own guys be over-cautious and wind up dead.

If an actual cop had shot Trayvon Martin, he wouldn’t have been arrested, either. There would have been protests, but there would have been no national attention and no trial. But this only happened because the local police in Sanford, Florida, appeared to regard Zimmerman as more or less one of their own — hence he walked away, hence he got a lackluster prosecution, etc. This isn’t just about some crazy white dude who up and shot a black teenager, nor is it simply about white people’s fear of black people. This is about the structure of the police violence that devestates the black community every day.

It was only Zimmerman’s self-appointed “unpaid internship” as a cop that allowed this event to register in the national discourse as something “wrong,” and that unofficial status risks obscuring the real stakes here. The problem isn’t just that Zimmerman was white and Trayvon Martin was black (as we’ve heard endlessly, actually Zimmerman is Hispanic…) — the problem is that Zimmerman was effectively a cop and Trayvon Martin was black.

James KA Smith On Being Beyond Left and Right

So James KA Smith has often been a proponent of Radical Orthodox Christian political theology being “beyond left and right”, you know like Benedict XVI was. In recent days on his twitter feed he has come out against gay marriage. That is not surprising, though he’s of course couching it as a question of who gets to define marriage and doing so in an utterly idealist manner (so the state doesn’t get to in his view, but no discussion of how the state supports marriage and how that plays out in terms of equality). But he has also come out in support of the state of emergency provisions imposed by Michigan Governor Synder (R, of course) upon the City of Detroit. Suspending its democratically elected city government and installing an unelected “business manager” (we all know what this means…). He will bristle and sneer at this being called fascist, but this is exactly fascism. The state and capitalism coming together under a state of emergency. And the Christian witness to that fascism is a sneer at critical voices and an expression that the installed, unaccountable leader be a “catalyst for indigenous change”.

So, once again we see that beyond left and right always means right-wing policies plus a few token remarks about community and poverty. Or, like I said with Benedict, Bonoism but no gays.

Fear of the state

It has always puzzled me that some people can look at something like public provision of health insurance and see a fateful step toward tyranny and oppression. What this requires is a suspicion of “the state” simply as such, and it seems to me that Foucault was right to say that the greatest achievement of the early neoliberal theorists was to convince seemingly everyone in the world that the lesson to be drawn from the experience of “totalitarianism” is the dangers stemming from excessive state power.

In fact, if there is anything to be gained by placing the Nazi and Soviet experiences under the same conceptual heading, it cannot be a lesson about the dangers of state power — indeed, it has to be just the opposite: the dangers of a weak and impotent state that cannot restrain the power of a para-state movement. Read the rest of this entry »

A Fun Fact about Privatization: With Scattered Reflections on “the State”

James Meek’s LRB article about electricity privatization in the UK includes an interesting tidbit:

How did we get here? In 1981, with inflation and unemployment at 10 per cent plus, with the recently elected Conservative government forced to yield to the demands of the miners, public spending cuts provoking general outrage and Thatcher’s prime ministerial career seemingly doomed to a swift, ignominious end, a 38-year-old economist from Birmingham University called Stephen Littlechild was working on ways to realise an esoteric idea that had been much discussed in radical Tory circles: privatisation. Privatisation was not a Thatcher patent. The Spanish economist Germà Bel traces the origins of the word to the German word Reprivatisierung, first used in English in 1936 by the Berlin correspondent of the Economist, writing about Nazi economic policy. In 1943, in an analysis of Hitler’s programme in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, the word ‘privatisation’ entered the academic literature for the first time. The author, Sidney Merlin, wrote that the Nazi Party ‘facilitates the accumulation of private fortunes and industrial empires by its foremost members and collaborators through “privatisation” and other measures, thereby intensifying centralisation of economic affairs and government in an increasingly narrow group that may for all practical purposes be termed the national socialist elite’.

That’s right: privatization of government functions and state-owned industries was literally invented by the Nazis.

This reminds me of something I’ve been meaning to blog about for months. Read the rest of this entry »


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