The founder of ISIS is the founder of ISIS: Or, Contingency exists

Donald Trump’s latest “gaffe” is his claim that Obama is the founder of ISIS. Now even Trump seems to admit — to the extent compatible with his “never back down” policy — that this is a hyperbolic way of saying that Obama’s Mideast policies “caused” ISIS to come into existence. We can easily imagine a leftist making a similar claim about George W. Bush, insofar as there is a very plausible case to be made that ISIS never would have come into being if not for the disastrous and criminal Iraq War.

I would suggest, however, that neither Obama nor Bush “caused” ISIS to exist. In reality, the founder of ISIS is the founder of ISIS. There was no inner necessity growing out of the Iraq invasion of 2003 that leads to the ISIS of 2016. Is it likely that a militant Islamist organization would emerge under the circumstances created by the Iraq War and its aftermath? Absolutely. But there was no necessity that it should take this particular form and pursue these particular goals. The organization and its priorities are the product of its own leaders and membership, who exercised their own agency in circumstances that they did not choose and cannot fully control. The emergence of something like ISIS may have been predictable to some extent, but the existence of the ISIS we actually know is a contingent outcome of historical forces and human decisions.

The very fact that the Iraq War is at the root of the phenomena we’re discussing should actually highlight the role of contingency in this process. One of the greatest critiques of the war is that it was a war of choice, taken up gratuitously and arbitrarily by a particular circle of politicians (Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al.) with the ear of a pliable president and a submissive public. To some extent it was a “natural outgrowth” of the long-standing US policy favoring regime change in Iraq, which is probably why it attracted bipartisan support, but the shitty equilibrium that had persisted for over a decade (Saddam in office, but hemmed in by sanctions and a no-fly zone) could presumably have persisted indefinitely. There was no inner necessity that Saddam should be removed right then.

And indeed, the reference to Trump should further emphasize the role of contingency in politics. Yes, Trump is riding on certain deep trends in American politics, and his success thus far was predictable to some extent — though I suspect that many such predictions are more like lucky guesses. But Trump is a very particular person, with a very particular life trajectory, and the “movement” that has coalesced around him seems to be very, very dependent on Trump the individual. After all, there were over a dozen empty suits who were clearly willing to take up Trump’s “message,” but none of them seemed to pass the laugh test for Trump supporters.

What does all this add up to? Basically, I’m tired of reading too-clever-by-half post-hoc analyses of how everything that happens grows directly out of historical necessity — the “I can’t believe you’re surprised by this” school of political commentary. There has to be some way to acknowledge the contingencies growing out of human agency without collapsing into individualistic moralizing.

Just a little different

This is the second-to-last day of my Australia-New Zealand trip, and the day of my final lecture on the theme of “Neoliberalism’s Demons.” I would like to repeat my thanks to Monique Rooney (of Australian National University) for the initial invitation and the help coordinating my trip, Julian Murphet (of the University of New South Wales), Robyn Horner and David Newheiser (of Australian Catholic University), Catherine Ryan and Bryan Cooke (of the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy), Mike Grimshaw and Cindy Zeiher (of Canterbury University), and Campbell Jones (of Auckland University) for helping me to extend my stay by hosting me at their institutions. All the events have been very lively and well-attended — apparently the audience for weird arguments associating neoliberalism with Satan is bigger than one would have thought!

In many ways, undertaking such a big trip was a stretch for me. I am a homebody by disposition, and it has also taken me a long time to get over a personal history where travel was almost always something for me to endure rather than enjoy. So living out of a suitcase for nearly a month, with no practical “escape route” if I wanted to bail out ahead of time (other than a 24-hour ordeal which would also be hugely expensive), feels like a major life achievement. There are further frontiers — most notably, traveling outside the Western world — but at this point, I don’t think I can claim to be intimidated by travel as such.

One strange thing has been the many small differences. On the surface, Australia and New Zealand are much like the US — above all in the shared language. When visiting Belgium or France, I expected things to be very different and somewhat incomprehensible simply because of the language issue, but I found that it constantly took me by surprise here. I still instinctively watch for cars in the wrong direction, though I have made progress since Canberra (where I may have had some actual brushes with death), and our one driving outing was not exactly an unqualified success. Even stranger, though, was the fact that my incompetence seemingly “reset” every time I moved on to a new city. In Canberra, I had figured out that Australians have “reverse” air conditioners that do heating as well, but when I arrived in Sydney, I was in a near panic because my hotel room only had air conditionining (and hence no heat, in American terminology). And it’s definitely been odd to be continually served an uncanny imitation of “my own” cuisine at half the restaurants, due to the trend of “American food.”

The best part of the trip hasn’t been the destination — though I have seen some truly awesome natural wonders — but the people I’ve met. Everyone has been extremely friendly and generous, making me feel welcome in this foreign land. I don’t know whether I’ll have any occasion to come back to this part of the world, but if I do, I will look forward to seeing all the many new friends I’ve made here.

Special Issue of Religions

I have a new article out in a special edition of Religions edited by Michael Thate and Douglas Davies, on the theme Religion and the Individual: Belief, Practice, and Identity. My article, ‘It’s Not the Money but the Love of Money That Is the Root of All Evil’: Social Subjection, Machinic Enslavement and the Limits of Anglican Social Theology reads some recent attempts to articulate a distinctively Anglican/Church of England Social Theology through Lazzarato’s discussion of the role of Christianity in shaping capitalist subjectivities. The issue as a whole looks great, and the journal is open access so all the articles are free to read or download.

two end-of-summer reading sessions

Summer is ending – time to cram in big ideas!

Join InterCcECT for a session on Lacan’s Seminar X: Anxiety, with special guest Chris Breu, Thursday 11 August, 5pm, at Volumes Bookcafe, 1414 N Milwaukee Ave.  Contact interccect at gmail for the readings (chapters 1-6).

Join the V21 Collective for a session on scale in contemporary literary and aesthetic theory, Thursday 18 August, 3pm, DePaul Richardson Library Rosati Room.  Reading excerpts from Kant, Franco Moretti, Mark McGurl, Julie Orlemanski, all available by request to v21collective at gmail.

A critique of The Kingdom and the Glory

Tomorrow, I will be giving a masterclass (PDF flyer) at the University of Auckland, where we will be discussing my Crisis and Critique article (PDF) as well as a paper I gave at a conference earlier this year at Loyola University Chicago, entitled “Agamben and the Problem of Evil” (PDF). I have been reluctant to post the latter, as I was pondering turning it into a proper article, but since it is being distributed for the masterclass, I might as well make it available. It gives an overview of The Kingdom and the Glory‘s argument and its place in Agamben’s project, then critiques it from the point of view of the problem of evil. In many ways, it reflects and expands upon my critique of K&G in The Prince of This World (preorder link), so perhaps you can consider it an indirect preview.

On doing your homework

What bothers me most about the Zizek trans article is the sheer laziness. I do think there’s a point buried in there that’s worth considering (the gender binary doesn’t “work” for anyone — though that’s a point that’s not unique to Zizek). But if you want to join a debate, especially on a topic where people are inclined to distrust you, you need to earn your place, you need to prove to people that you have something worthwhile to add. And part of that would consist in, for example, citing literally ONE actual trans theorist instead of vaguely gesturing toward "the kind of thing" you've picked up through osmosis. Then you might actually not make dumb mistakes like treating "cross-dressing" as the most relevant form of trans experience, etc. (Yes, he cites Butler — but she is hardly the cutting edge of trans theory at this point, and it's yet another example of him trying to ride on work that he did decades ago.)

As always with Zizek's political columns, they've "got people talking" — but only about Zizek himself, not about the ostensible issue at hand. With this article, he has ensured that no actual trans person or trans ally will listen to what he's saying, and so the only material effect of his argument would be to reassure people who are dismissive of trans issues.

Zizek is of course responsible for the way he has chosen to write, but publication requires the go-ahead of an editor. Why was Zizek comissioned to write on trans issues, an area where he has no expertise? Why wasn't this article edited for clarity and focus? Do the clicks that result from Zizek's notoreity outweigh any concerns for the editor's responsibility, not just to the readers, but to help authors present themselves in the best possible way? Given how routinely these kinds of sloppily written columns, filled with "anti-PC" digs that undermine their own point, appear in left-wing publications, I am tempted to ask the editors that immortal question: "What is it that you'd say you do here?”

A chronological list of Agamben’s publications, with reflections thereon

When I was working on my conclusion for the edited volume Agamben’s Philosophical Lineage, which I have entitled “Agamben as a Reader of Agamben,” I had frequent reference to the order of publication of Agamben’s works, which sometimes surprised me as an English-language reader. I naively assumed that the order of publication in English would more or less track with the Italian, but the time lags have been much more varied than one might think. I also realize that I sometimes conflated my own personal experience of stumbling across certain works with the time they must have been released (I just assumed the Seminary Co-Op would always be up to date, and I wasn’t always right). I’m just going to list the bibliography in order “below the fold” and then add some remarks.

Read the rest of this entry »

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