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 »

All I want for Christmas is for everything to just stop

Every year, the arrival of Christmas music season is equally jarring and unwelcome for me. While I’ve heard the songs over and over for decades at this point, I am somehow unable to allow them to fall into the background. Instead, every word and every note functions somewhere along the spectrum ranging from “object of bemused overanalysis” to “personal insult.” This is especially the case for the newer Christmas songs, which are not only much more inane on average but also grow increasingly insistent on a rather puzzling Christmas theme: romance.

If we look back at the Christmas story, there does not seem to be much room for romantic love. Certainly there is a family theme to be discerned, but the entire point of Mary and Joseph’s relationship is that they are not romantically involved. And the most successful Christian contemporary songs of recent decades — Mark Lowry’s “Mary Did You Know” and Amy Grant’s “Breath of Heaven” — actually have the virtue of highlighting the strangeness of Mary’s situation.

By contrast, new secular hits — above all Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” but also the various also-rans that can be represented by “Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart” or whatever it’s called — completely ignore that aspect and go straight for the jugular. Indeed, there is one canonical Christmas song that actually renders Christmas a site of transgressive sexuality for the mother figure, namely “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” (The song is particularly poignant in the Jackson Five’s rendition, which has Michael plaintively testifying to sexual misconduct as the rest of his family mocks and dismisses him.) And let’s not even talk about the abomination that is “Santa Baby” — much less the creepy scenario of “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”

What is going on here? Is this an attempt to shore up the ideology of family by guilting people for being single? Did romantic love simply get drawn into the general miasma of cloying sentimentality that surrounds the holiday? Is a significant other the ultimate Black Friday deal?

I’m joking in part, but when I was a young adult, the flood of messages mandating romantic attachments for the holidays was actually very difficult to deal with in a season that already made me feel isolated and depressed. Being called upon to summon up “spontaneous” emotions of gratitude and familial warmth was difficult enough, and the implicit requirement to have a romantic partner just felt exhorbitant. Perhaps this is my own personal neurosis, but I doubt I’m the only one who has felt that way during the holidays.

What about you, readers? Did you see mommy kissing Santa Claus?

The false rape accusation as witchcraft

One of the primary sources for my devil research is the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, a witch-hunting manual that became one of the first best-sellers of the early print era. As I’ve worked through its theological logic in a couple different courses, I’ve come to see a basic underlying structure to the bewildering array of accusations against witches. The pattern is that feminine sexuality is something unruly and powerful, and if women are allowed to control it themselves, they will use it to dominate men and destroy men’s sexual agency. This is what is going on with the classification of midwives as witches, as well as the frequent claims that witches cause male impotence — indeed, at the most extreme, the text allows that witches can make the male member seem to disappear (though thankfully for us men, this is a mere illusion and the member remains intact through God’s grace).

Much contemporary anti-feminism follows the same underlying logic: if women are allowed to control their sexuality, they will use it to dominate and destroy men. Sometimes the power attributed to women is still quite literally supernatural in scope, as in the claim that legalized abortion will allow women to destroy the white race. The most insidious application of this logic, however, is in the myth of the false rape accusation, which the news media, television drama, and many individual men are deepy invested in. The woman in this myth is an evil creature indeed, seducing a well-meaning man and then using her sexuality as a weapon to ruin the man’s life and reputation.

In real life, of course, a woman would have to be insane to use a rape accusation as a power play, given how hugely tilted the American justice system is toward the accused in cases of sexual assault — and how complicit the media is with the campaign of character assassination that the defense conducts against every accuser. As with all ideological myths, however, the myth of the malicious rape accusation is not about real women at all, but rather about justifying the existing power structure. It’s a kind of preemptive strike, as though they’re saying, “Look at what would happen if we did take rape accusations seriously and gave women the benefit of the doubt! All hell would break loose!”

The minimal fantasy of Downton Abbey

We’ve been expecting less from our fantasies for quite some time now. The turning point, in my mind, was “trickle-down economics.” The entire premise was of course absurd — the whole point of capitalism is that wealth tends to flow upward — but even if it worked as promised, it would avowedly be only a “trickle.” I make a similar point in Why We Love Sociopaths about the deflationary fantasy of the ruthless social climbers and lawless lawmen:

What kind of fantasy is it to say that people can get a satisfying job, if they are capable of amazingly ruthless behavior unrelated to the ostensible skill set required to do that job? How reassuring is it to learn that the U.S. will be free of terrorist attacks, as long as there’s one guy willing to take it to the limit and openly defy every law and authority?

And on the latter point, of course, even that tepid fantasy has been downgraded in Homeland, where there’s one woman who truly grasps the terrorist threat and predicts every attack — but no one ever listens to her until it’s too late.

There seems to be a similar minimalism in Downton Abbey, a show that I keep watching more for the pleasures of its surfaces than the intricacies of its plots. Here we have a world with a yawning chasm between social classes, where the majority of characters are toiling day in and day out for the benefit of an idle few. This is of course just like our world, with one important caveat: everyone admits that’s what’s going on. No one in the aristocratic family is under any illusion that they “deserve” what they have due to their intelligence or hard work — they were just born into this family, while others weren’t.

The frank class division opens up a space for the ruling class to feel a sense of obligation toward the servant class and the tenants. After a few plots early on in which it becomes amazingly clear that Lord Grantham has no idea how capitalism works, his concrete role in managing the estate is to put the breaks on the overly “economical” plans hatched by his bourgeois son-in-law and the socialist who marries into the family, to insist there must be some way to ensure the sustainability of the estate without being ruthless in profit-seeking.

Compared to our current system, where the ruling class believes it has “earned” what it has through “merit” and feels a moral obligation to maximize profits at all costs, this system seems positively utopian. The fantasy is similar to that in Mad Men — yes, the postwar ruling class was full of terrible people, but at least they wanted to convince themselves they were making people’s lives better. At least they wanted a space for creativity, or at least sincere sentiment, alongside the profit-motive. And at least they, like the aristocrats in Downton Abbey, give us something beautiful to look at, a play of surfaces that echoes the minimal ideological veneer with which they paper over the brutality of their times.

Why does the Left keep getting defeated?

Beginning in the late 1970s, capitalist elites began a deliberate, carefully planned attack on essentially every institution that provided a material basis for leftist organization and loyalties. That attack was hugely successful, in large part because most of those institutions had largely devolved into self-serving bureaucracies bent on preserving their own privileges with no eye toward a greater struggle.

At the same time, the Soviet Union entered into a crisis of leadership, revealing that it had been unable to reproduce the conditions for its continued political viability in the “native Soviet” generation that had never known a pre-Revolutionary state of affairs. When a member of this generation (Gorbachev) did finally take control after the last halfway plausible candidate from the gerontocracy had died, it began a sequence of political events that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and marked the end of international Communism as a major global force.

Hence within the space of a little over a decade, both the domestic material base for leftist organizing and the external threat motivating some compromise with leftist demands had been rendered effectively moot. This allowed the forces of reaction to accumulate unprecedented military and monetary resources to press their agenda — a trend that only gets worse with each passing year. Even when the capitalist elites were at their weakest, in 2008, they were still able to bounce back and reestablish the trend in their favor, and surely that’s because they had such a huge head start.

In my mind, all of these material factors are much more pertinent than identity politics or rhetorical strategy. Indeed, it seems to me that antagonizing broadly left-wing groups that are organized around particular identities, as many white leftist intellectuals apparently feel duty-bound to do, is the surest way to exacerbate an already terrible situation by alienating groups that are actually able to put “boots on the ground,” if you will.

It’s not about persuasion or arguments, but about trust and loyalty — and if black communities, for instance, don’t trust the white male leftist intellectual elite, then maybe that’s not proof that black people are divisive in their insistence on identity politics, but rather that the white males themselves are the divisive party, squandering what should be a natural alliance on the left in favor of their abstract preference for supposedly more “universal” causes.

I know this may be hard to process, given that white males are trained from birth to regard themselves as the direct embodiment of the universal, untainted by mere particularities. How could we be the divisive ones, given that we are immediate unity itself, the telos to which everyone should aspire? Yet I can’t deny my own experience from the milieu of academic theology: all “identitarian” theologies are in a rich and productive dialogue across groups and with “mainstream” white male theology as well. If a white man is willing to take all of them seriously, they’re more than happy to be in dialogue with him as well (trust me, I’ve tried this and it works). It is strangely the “anti-identitarian” white males, disdainful as they are of the pollution of mere particularity, who are walled off into their own little ghetto, boldly pronouncing their “universal truths” to an audience of basically no one.

And it’s unclear why anyone should give a fuck what the self-appointed white male representatives of leftist universality have to say, given that it was the institutions they built that proved so useless in the face of the neoliberal onslaught. The white-male-first (oh, I’m sorry, class-to-the-rigorous-exclusion-of-any-other-identity-first) strategy has failed, definitively. The left is thrown back onto the part-of-no-part, the unassimilables, the ones the system structurally cannot buy off. Hard as this teaching is for us poor, long-suffering leftist white men, James Cone’s demand that we become “ontologically black” may be more immediately practical than the abstract assertion of a class-first, class-only strategy. For example.

Harshing on Das Man

The two main passages on das Man (the “they”) in the first division of Being and Time (sections 27 and 34-38) present us with a jarring shift in tone. Though Heidegger repeatedly emphasizes that he’s not making any kind of evaluative judgment, it’s hard not to walk away from those passages believing that living in the “they” really, really sucks. A couple of my students emphasized that Heidegger does say that Being-with is an irreducible aspect of Dasein’s Being and even wanted to put a positive spin on it — for instance, isn’t it kind of cool that we can use “idle talk” as a way of expressing our simple desire to hang out with each other? Yet if Heidegger wanted to emphasize the good side of the “they,” he would have had to write these sections very differently.

One could chalk this up to Heidegger’s personal conservatism and distrust of bourgeois mass culture, etc., but I think there may be a reason internal to his project. He says over and over that his goal is not to carry out anything like a philosophical anthropology, but to cut straight to the question of the meaning of Being as such. His path requires him to start in everydayness, and everydayness does give him a lot of interesting and useful ontological clues (which he shows in the awkwardly placed sections in chapter 6 on reality and truth) — so that one might think look at that evidence along with his critiques of scientific reductionism and conclude that he was simply favoring everyday know-how over fancy book-learning. And so he has to highlight the aspects of everydayness that militate against any authentic disclosure of truth and enforce a kind of unreflective utilitarianism coupled with conformism for its own sake.

“Privilege” and the rhetoric of austerity

In an individualistic culture, it can be difficult to get people to recognize structural inequality without making them feel as though they are being accused of personal wrongdoing. Privilege discourse is one of the most widespread methods for bridging that gap. It does this by pointing out the ways that certain people’s everyday experience is not natural, but is undergirded by a social structure that benefits some and hurts others. These goals are laudable, if limited, because making people aware of a problem is of course only the first step. It’s also been pointed out that certain privileged people view privilege discourse as a new form of political correctness, a way of policing their speech — so that they respond to this attempt to break out of the cycle of personal accusation as though it were a personal accusation.

For me, though, the biggest problem is that little word “privilege.” Why should precisely that be the key term? A privilege is something extra — and from a very young age, I knew that when something was referred to as a privilege, I was in danger of losing it. How does that make sense, for instance, with something like being free from fear of police harrassment? Undoubtedly, that is part of my privilege as a white, straight, cis, well-dressed man. But when it is called a “privilege,” my initial thought is that it is something unjustified that should be taken away — i.e., we should all have to be stopped and frisked. Something similar came up in my post about how I had some degree of autonomy and dignity in my work — do we really want to say that that’s a “privilege”? In both cases, aren’t we dealing with something more like a right that’s been denied to a great many people?

There are admittedly some cases where those implications of the term “privilege” very precisely describe the phenomenon in question. No one should be able to assume that their experience is the norm for everyone. No one should be taken more seriously simply because they belong to a particular demographic group. Yet there is no way to limit the term to those cases, and even here, perhaps a meme along the lines of “yet another oblivious white dude” would be more helpful.

More alarming to me, though, is the way that the term “privilege” plays into the rhetoric of austerity. We’ve all seen the dynamic at work, for instance when people talk about how teachers have summers off and a good retirement plan, etc. The response is always to say, “That’s unfair, that should be taken away” — never “my job should be like that too!” Deprivation is taken as the baseline assumption, and anything above that is an unfair imposition. There’s no hope that my situation will get better, and my only source of satisfaction is to tear others down. The language of privilege resonates a bit too closely with this embittered hopelessness, fits in a little too neatly with the ideology of permanent austerity.

And so, privileged though I may be, I propose that we move beyond privilege discourse and find a rhetoric of hope and aspiration to replace this rhetoric of zero-sum despair.