Thursday, August 28, 2014

Ferguson Syllabus for Philosophers

Many of you have probably seen the excellent "Ferguson Syllabus" created by Sociologists for Justice, which has been circulated widely over the last several days and which provides a collection of research articles used to inform the arguments and positions represented in their Statement on Ferguson.  I strongly encourage you to keep circulating that document, and to use Sociologists' for Justice suggested hashtag #socforjustice when you do.

If you work in academia but outside of a Sociology Department, as I do, I suspect you've thought to yourself how helpful it would be if a corresponding syllabus were produced and circulated for your own discipline, as I have.  (Would that it were the case that professional Philosophers could agree on something like a"Statement on Ferguson," but I'm not holding my breath for that!)  Below, I've attempted to BEGIN the construction of a "Ferguson Syllabus" for the discipline of Philosophy.  The list of materials I have here is, of course, non-exhaustive and incomplete, so I welcome any amendments or additions from readers who specialize in Philosophy, Political Theory, Critical Race Studies and the like.

Just leave your suggestions in the comments section to this post, and I will do my best to amend this draft version of a "Ferguson Syllabus for Philosophers" in a timely manner.  I've listed only books here-- no articles-- because an emphasis on primary material is the prevailing custom in the (somewhat limited) area of Philosophy in which I work.  But I've also included a separate list of anthologies that include many, if not most, of the seminal philosophical works in race theory and (broadly speaking) Enlightenment/democratic theory.  As anyone who has ever attempted to construct a "new" syllabus knows, crowdsourcing via social media--or just regular old flesh-and-blood social networks-- is a tremendous help when one finds oneself up against the daunting challenge of teaching new material (or teaching familiar material in new ways). I invite you all to help in this endeavor.

Following the lead of Sociologists for Justice, I will ask that you use the hashtag #philosophersforjustice when you share this syllabus on Facebook, Twitter or other social media.

Primary Readings (Monographs):
Primary Readings (Anthologies/Collections):
The texts above aim to familiarize students with the primary source material sufficient to understand the advent and history of the concept of "race," its development, maturation and mutation since the Enlightenment, its displacement by and yet continuing influence on "theory" (broadly speaking) and theoretically-oriented academic disciplines (like Philosophy) specifically, its critique and reformulation by and/or in the interest of people of color, and its deep and abiding connection with political, social, carceral and institutional power-regimes and empowered groups.

Supplementary Readings:
(The following texts are collected from readers' suggestions  in the comments selection below.  I will continue to update this section as more titles are submitted.)
One last solicitation: I'd like to especially encourage my friends and colleagues in History, Modern Languages and Literatures, Political Science and Economics/Political Economy departments to consider drafting their own versions of a "Ferguson Syllabus," in part because it serves my own interdisciplinary interests but in larger part because it serves academia.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Democracy Must Always Be Severe

"Democracy must always be severe. Without either desire or dread of paradox, we may go even further. Democracy must always be unpopular. It is a religion, and the essence of a religion is that it constrains. Like every other religion, it asks men to do what they cannot do; to think steadily about the important things. Like every other religion, it asks men to consider the dark, fugitive, erratic realities, to ignore the gigantic, glaring and overpowering trivialites. It rests upon the fact that the things which men have in common, such as a soul and a stomach, such as the love of children or the fear of death, are to infinity more important than the things in which they differ, such as a landed estate or an ear for music, the capacity to found an empire or to make a bow. And it has, like any other religion, to deal with the immense primary difficulty that the unimportant things are by far the most graphic and arresting, that millions see how a man founds an empire, and only a few how he faces death, and that a man may make several thousand bows in a year and go on improving in them, while in the art of being born he is only allowed one somewhat private experiment. In politics, in philosophy, in everything, it is sufficiently obvious that the things that are seen are temporal, but the things that are not seen are eternal. And the thing which is most undiscoverable in all human affairs, the thing which is most elusive, most secret, most hopelessly sealed from our sight is, and always must be, the thing which is most common to us all. Every little variety we have we gossip and boast of eagerly; it is upon uniformity that we preserve the silence of terrified conspirators. There are only two things that are absolutely common to all of us, more common than bread or sunlight, death and birth. And it is considered morbid to talk about the one and indecent to talk about the other. It is the nature of man to talk, so to speak, largely and eagerly about every new feather he sticks in his hair, but to conceal like a deformity the fact that he has a head. This is the secret of the permanent austerity of the democratic idea, of its eternal failure and its eternal recurrence, of the fact that it can never be popular and can never be killed. It withers into nothingness in the light of a naked spirituality those special badges and uniforms which we all love so much, since they mark us out as kings or schoolmasters, or gentlemen or philanthropists. It declares with a brutal benignity that all men are brothers just at the very moment that every one feels himself to be the good grandfather of every one else. To our human nature it commonly seems quite a pitiful exchange to cease from being poets or vestrymen, and be put off with being the images of the everlasting. That is the secret, as I say, of the austerity of republicanism, of its continual historic association with the stoical philosophy, of its continual defeat at the hands of heated mobs. It strikes men down from the high places of their human fads and callings, and lays them all level upon a dull plane of the divine."

--G.K. Chesterton, The Fortnight Review, Vol. LXXIV., July to December, 1903.

Friday, August 15, 2014

"Somehow Philosophy Got Left Behind"

There's a really great essay by Eugene Sun Park entitled "Why I Left Academia: Philosophy's Homogeneity Needs Rethinking"  that appeared yesterday on HIPPO Reads.  Stop whatever you're doing and go read it now.

I've posted a fair bit of material on this blog addressing the racial and gender disparity in professional Philosophy, which remains truly embarrassing, but Park's first-person narrative of his experience is a telling account. After stipulating that Western academia has long been guilty of excluding women and minorities both from the Academy and from the canon, Park (citing Hollinger) concedes that much progress has been made in the last half-century to correct these errors and to broaden the humanities... BUT (Park notes in a transitional sentence that speaks more truth than its syntactical position suggests) "somehow Philosophy got left behind."  Unlike other disciplines in the humanities, Philosophy remains woefully "behind" when it comes to the inclusion of women and minorities not only in its professional representation, but also in "publications, citations and overall disciplinary influence."

Park asked himself, as I suspect all women and/or people of color do at some point in their philosophical careers: why did Philosophy get left behind?  And the answer he discovers, as I suspect all women and/or people of color also discover, is that Philosophy didn't "get" left behind.  It chose to stay behind.

From Park's essay:
The lack of women and minorities in philosophy may be an anomaly in the academy, especially among the humanities, but it is not an accident. Philosophers have made, and continue to make, decisions that impact the demographics of the discipline. Until they acknowledge their own complicity in the problem, philosophers will continue to scratch their heads about the lack of diversity in their field. It’s not that women and minorities are (inexplicably) less interested in the “problems of philosophy”—it’s that women and minorities have not had their fair say in defining what the problems of philosophy are, or what counts as philosophy in the first place.
It's all of our (philosophers') loss that a conscientious and critical thinker like Park left the Academy. As someone who has yet to muster the courage to do so, despite overwhelming evidence that I should, I'm both envious of his resolve and deeply disheartened by its necessity.

Last point, in the interest of full disclosure: one of my areas of expertise is Critical Race Theory and I regularly teach courses in that subject area.  In part due to my training and my interests, but more so due to my location (Memphis, TN), I've been guilty of teaching the philosophy of race almost exclusively within the black/white paradigm, a problem that I've off-handedly acknowledged to my students on many occasions, but never corrected.  To wit, I want to thank Eugene Sun Park for motivating me, via his essay, to make a more concerted effort to address the many and varied "non-Western" influences on Philosophy.

We all can and should do better.

ADDENDUM: I created the image at the top of this post quickly and on-the-fly by combining the symbol for Philosophy (the Greek phi) and the international symbol for male, superimposing both of them in white against a black background mostly for aesthetic reasons.  As I look at it now, though, it seems an even more appropriate image for professional Philosophy: mostly white, mostly male, doubly accentuating whiteness and masculinity where they overlap, and impossible to read except against a background of color.  So, feel free to use my image in the future to represent professional Philosophy.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

American Apartheid

For they know they are not animals. And at the very moment when they discover their humanity, they begin to sharpen their weapons to secure its victory.
--Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

America has always been and remains an apartheid state.  The latter part of that sad but increasingly undeniable fact was made apparent last night in Ferguson, Missouri to a group of peaceful protesters amidst tanks, deafening LRADs, a haze of tear gas and a firestorm of rubber (and real) bullets.  The other tragic fact made apparent in Ferguson last night is that America is only ever a hair's-breadth away from a police state... if we understand by "police" not a regulated body of law-enforcement peacekeepers empowered to serve and protect the citizenry, but rather a heavily-armed, extra-constitutional, militarized cadre of domestic soldiers who provoke and terrorize with impunity.  Much of the time, we are able to forget or ignore these unfortunate truths about contemporary America-- and by "we" I mean our elected officials, our bureaucrats and financiers, and a lot of self-delusionally "post-racial," though really white, people-- but the mean truth of gross inequality, both de facto and de jure, remains ever-present in spite of our disavowals, simmering steadily just below the allegedly free and fair democratic veneer of our polis.

Greg Howard, journalist and parrhesiates, said it about as plainly as it can be said this past Tuesday in his article for Deadspin:  America is not for black people. The truth of "American apartheid" should make us all ashamed, saddened, angry, deeply troubled as moral and political agents.  And, what is more, it should frighten us all.

We can of course, manufacture a nominally significant difference between the contemporary United States and mid- to late-20th century South Africa (the only "official" apartheid state in world history), but to do so these days would require an masters-level facility for intellectual and conceptual contortion.  Statistically, the United States is a racially divided (and divisive) country.  That is about as close to a brute fact as one can say about a nation of 317 million.  Race divides us socially, politically, economically, educationally, religiously, existentially and, perhaps most tragically, it divides us with respect to the likelihood of our falling into carceral custody, of our achieving average life-expectancy and of our generating for ourselves something approximating a minimally decent life.

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on truth commissions and, as a consequence, I consider myself an expert on apartheid. So, let me state unequivocally and for the record: I am thoroughly convinced that to name our current state "American apartheid" is not only long overdue but also descriptively accurate: legally, morally, politically and philosophically.  When black mothers and fathers have good reason to raise their children to fear being assaulted, arrested or killed without provocation, when peacefully-gathered black protesters are forced to hold signs that say "Hands up. Don't shoot." in order to exercise their Constitutional right to free assembly, when black neighborhoods are regularly subject to martial law and only irregularly (if at all) served and protected by police, when the least reported fact in the wake of an unarmed black teenager's shooting by police is that he was unarmed and killed, when the journalists who try to report more are summarily harassed and arrested, and when neither the police, locally elected representatives nor the President feels the need to intervene or explain ... we have entered into an entirely new domain of injustice.

In international law, apartheid is classified as a "crime against humanity," as that term was prescribed by the Rome Statute and by the United Nations General Assembly.  The technical definition of the crime of apartheid is: "inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them."  By that definition, there has only ever been one historical instance of the crime of apartheid -- South Africa between the years of 1948-1990-- and, because of apartheid's classification as a crime against humanity, there has been extraordinary resistance to ascribing that term to any other state since.  (Former President Jimmy Carter used the word "apartheid" to describe the Palestinian state in 2007 and suffered a vicious international backlash for doing so.) There are, of course, legitimate and complex reasons to insist on what philosophers call a "hard" meaning or sense of the term apartheid, as opposed to a "soft" meaning or sense, not the least among which are (1) "race" and "racial groups" are almost impossible to designate without controversy, (2) "systematic oppression" can be executed de facto without being executed de jure, making it difficult to hold states or heads of states accountable for not-strictly-legal or -political, but rather social, practices, and (3) it is nearly impossible to satisfy the burden of proof when it comes to establishing the intention (i.e., "for the purpose of...") with which inhuman acts are committed.  To wit, "apartheid" has remained so far in history a singularly site-specific crime.

That goes for not only the thing apartheid, but also the word "apartheid," originally an Afrikaans term meaning something like "the essence of being apart" or "apart-hood."   There is no equivalent in any other language for the word "apartheid"; it is an utterly idiomatic term or, as Jacques Derrida once described it, a "unique appellation," not only untranslated but untranslatable.  Of course, what the word "apartheid" really names is as common and as not-new as the New World:  it names racism (political racism, to be more exact), an invention and a product of the European Enlightenment and its concommitant projects of exploitation, expropriation, colonization, subjugation and domination.  But because, today,  we need to disavow the ubiquity and banality of our racism-- especially those of us in the post-racial global North and West, even more especially in the United States-- we desperately hold the word apartheid in reserve like a loaded gun, waved threateningly but never fired, deployed to frighten but never to correct.

As long as we treat the word apartheid as if it were the last word of racism and not as the most appropriate adjective for a still-too-common state of affairs that it is, nations like ours will continue to reconcile, with a theo-political sleight of hand, their dually racist-but-not-"criminally"-racist natures in something like a hypostatic union. And it will remain the case that in these free and democratic United States, a black man will be extrajudically killed every 28 hours by police, security guards or self-appointed vigilantes.

Frantz Fanon's prescience with regard to those he (rightly) called the "wretched of the earth," which I quoted as the epigraph to this post, ought give us pause to think much more carefully and critically about what happened last night in Ferguson.  Humanity was threatened and humanity was, temporarily and provisionally, defended. Whatever happens henceforth in Ferguson will be but one more battle in this protracted war.  As all wars go, the weapons employed will only get more deadly, never less so, and we ought not be surprised to see those whose primary interest is to secure the victory of humanity sharpening theirs. It would be best if we could call off their attackers before anyone else dies.  Short of that, we ought get straight to the work of sharpening.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

The CIA Report Is The Purloined Letter and Obama Is The Prefect: My Break-Up Letter to President Obama

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we did some 
things that were wrong.  We did a whole lot of things 
that were right, but we tortured some folks.
-- President Barack Obama, Press Conference (Aug 1, 2014)

"That is another of your odd notions," said the Prefect, 
who had a fashion of calling everything "odd" that was
beyond his comprehension, and thus lived in an absolute 
legion of "oddities."
-- Edgar Allen Poe, "The Purloined Letter" (1845)

I don't suspect that President Barack Obama reads most of his mail. I am 100% certain that whoever reads his mail would certainly not pass this letter on to him.  That said, I am confident that there are millions of Americans who have, as I've often described my situation to Ideas Man PhD, had their political (and real) hearts broken by President Obama over and over again.  This is my "I quit you" letter to our Commander-in-Chief, who is not up for re-election, of course, but it's gotta be said.

Dear President Obama,

In your press conference last Friday addressing the U.S. Senate's decision to declassify the CIA's "Torture Report," which details so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" approved by the Bush Administration post-9/11, you finally lent state authority to a truth that has been evident for at least a decade: the United States sanctioned and practiced torture as a matter of official anti-terrorism state policy.  That this horrible truth is true should come as a surprise to no one.  We saw the photos from Abu Ghraib released in 2004, we knew about the "torture memos" as early as 2009, we've spent the last dozen years as an electorate officially and unofficially debating the moral permissibility of torture, what "counts" as torture, how we might mitigate and/or disavow our responsibility for torture, even being entertained by the fantastical/fictional playing out of all our ambivalence on the matter.  Torture has been the pink noise of American life since 9/11, producing a sound that could be heard, but is designed such that its power rolls off at higher frequencies, masks aural distractions, soothes and at the same time becomes lost in other noises.

But that sound was always there. You should have heard it long ago.  And unlike the sound of actual torture, it should have been and should have remained deafening to you for every second that you have occupied the Oval Office.  You could have always heard it if you had made the effort to listen, to not be distracted, to not allow yourself to be lulled into sleep by its tranquilizing and insidious diversion.

I voted for you in 2008 and again (more reluctantly) in 2012.  The first time was an easy decision, as I had had my fill of the Bush Administration's love-affair with the security state, its neglect of the poor and working classes, its rampant disregard for the rule of law, its coddling of big business, its war on women, its disavowal of the United Nations and its indefensible ignorance with regard to foreign policy. The second time I voted for you was more difficult and was, in fact, the choice of a lesser evil.  Your first administration did not deliver the promised "change I could believe in."  You balked on women's and LGBTQ rights repeatedly, you did not close Guantanamo Bay (which was your very first Executive Directive when you took office), you not only continued but doubled-down on some of the worst Bush-era war practices (see: drones), and you slid right into the Bush-shaped hole in big business' bed with the pathological ease of an jilted lover.  So, when I heard your unassuming, plain-speak admission last Friday that "we tortured some folks," which (as far as I can tell) you said without any irony whatsoever, you lost me completely.

I was reminded, while watching your press conference this past Friday, of Edgar Allen Poe's famous short-story "The Purloined Letter," in which a Prefect enlists the aid of Detective Dupin to help him locate a salacious letter, allegedly stolen by Minister D, implicating an unnamed female.  As I'm sure you are aware, it turns out that the thief, Minister D, hid the letter in plain sight in his residence, a fact that Dupin discovers after deducing that Minister D would have surely anticipated that the Prefect would expect him to hide it cleverly and, thus, that the Prefect would have never looked to find the letter right under his nose.  Since you are a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School, I'll spare you the many important (and, in this case, all too relevant) philosophical/psychoanalytic interpretations of Poe's story and get straight to the metaphorical point.

The CIA Torture Report is the purloined letter.  And you are the Prefect.

I'm leaving aside for the moment the incredible bad taste of your "folksy" reference to the countless and unnamed poor, unfortunate souls who were tortured at the hands of U.S. state-sanctioned agents. Instead, I just want to call you out on your unpardonable and indefensibly culpable pretension of ignorance. I've written a great deal about torture on this blog before, in almost every case in the service of debunking the lies that the U.S. has told and continues to tell about its complicity in that absolutely inexcusable practice over the last thirteen years, but never have I found myself so utterly disgusted by such a willing and willingly naive reluctance on the part of a Head of State to pretend that a gross wrong-- in fact, by definition, a gross violation of human rights-- has been committed with the full knowledge and sanction of his State.

Shame on you, President Obama.  Shame on us all.

The Prefect in Poe's story, as you know, tries to figure Dupin's acuity and discernment as an "oddity," revealing instead (as he inadvertently does) that Dupin has accomplished nothing more extraordinary than to see what has always and ever been right there before him. None of us, least of all you, President Obama, live amidst a legion of oddities. To think so is to demonstrate your own blindness, not the cleverness of your evaders.

Leigh M. Johnson

(This post also cross-posted at NewAPPSblog)

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Join, or Die: Neoliberalism, Epistemontology, Social Harmony and the (Invisible) Invisible Hand

There's been a good bit conversation recently about the merits and demerits of "public philosophy" and, as someone who considers herself committed to public philosophy (whatever that is). I'm always happy to stumble across a piece of remarkably insightful philosophical work in the public realm.  Case in point:  Robin James (Philosophy, UNC-Charlotte) posted a really fascinating and original short-essay on the Cyborgology blog a couple of days ago entitled "An attempt at a precise & substantive definition of 'neoliberalism,' plus some thoughts on algorithms." There, she primarily aims to distinguish the sense in which we use the term "neoliberalism" to indicate an ideology from its use as a historical indicator, and she does so by employing some extremely helpful insights about algorithms, data analysis, the mathematics of music, harmony, and how we understand consonance and dissonance.  I'm deeply sympathetic with James' underlying motivation for this piece, namely, her concern that our use of the term "neoliberalism" (or its corresponding descriptor "neoliberal") has become so ubiquitous that it is in danger of being evacuated of "precise and substantive" meaning altogether.  I'm sympathetic, first, as a philosopher, for whom precise and substantive definitions are as essential as hammers and nails are to a carpenter. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I'm sympathetic with James' effort because as Jacques Derrida once said "the more confused the concept, the more it lends itself to opportunistic appropriation."  Especially in the last decade or so, "neoliberalism" is perhaps the sine qua non term that has been, by both the Left and the Right, opportunistically appropriated.

James' definition of neoliberalism's ideological position ("everything in the universe works like a deregulated, competitive, financialized, capitalist market") ends up relying heavily on her distinction of neoliberalism as a particular type of ideology, i.e., one "in which epistemology and ontology collapse into one another, an epistemontology." In sum, James conjectures that neoliberal epistemontology purports to know what it knows (objects, beings, states of affairs, persons, the world) vis-a-vis "the general field of reference of economic anaylsis." It presumes, first, that everything that can be known is known best on the model of market-logic. But, as James (and Foucault) note, the coherency of that epistemological presumption includes (and often veils) another, almost indistinguishable, ontological presumption: namely, that everything that is is a market. Of course, such "epistemontologies" end up being massive feedback loops, philosophically speaking; they produce and reproduce the very phenomena that they claim to be simply discovering and analyzing. (Fwiw, I think there are some strains of psychoanalytic theory that suffer the same fate.) The fact that neoliberalism, as an ideology, is first and foremost an epistemontology of this sort provides James a way of explaining why most of the historical manifestations of it (she includes "big data, post-identity politics, globalization, creative destruction, resilience, sustainability, privatization, biopolitics, relational aesthetics") are consistently understood through algorithms. Neoliberals, believing that all that is is a market, are ever in search of better predictive mathematical formulas for understanding how the agents of that market will freely and rationally determine their interests and direct the market... and/yet/but, by virtue of those same algorithmic analyses, neoliberals also end up manipulating the market, its agents, and whatever remains of what we take to be the "freedom" involved in "free choice."

One of the most interesting parts of James' essay, to my mind, is her (excellent, but all too brief!) explanation of the prominence neoliberal ideology affords to algorithms. Neoliberal economic analyses, to quote James, "find the signal in the noise" of phenomena and human behavior by combining two sets of ideological commitments: (1) a commitment to particular epsitemontological presumptions (the world/reality is a market, agents in the world are intentionally rational, agents' behaviors are systematic/non-random/predictable and, thus, can be known/understood) and (2) a commitment to algorithmic analysis, constant mathematical modeling, which is itself necessitated by the presumptions of (1). James teases out the implications with a musical metaphor: one way to understand harmony is as a consequence of "phase convergence" (when wave forms with different frequencies fall into sync); if we understand individuals as distinct wave forms with different frequencies, as neoliberalism does, then we can allow for the possibility of "social harmony" without needing to collapse the distinct wave forms into one another or erase their difference in frequency. Metaphorically, neoliberalism can understand social harmony as something that "naturally" occurs in phases-- asynchronous things will, over time, fall in and out of sync with each other-- without sacrificing neoliberalism's commitment to the idiosyncratic, free, rational intentionality of individual agents. Thus, "achieving" social harmony, if that is a legitimate project at all, ought not be a project of regulating individuals so that they operate more in sync with one another, but rather staying out of their way. (Don't tread on me!) Of course, the great irony evident in neoliberals' ubiquitous efforts at data-collection-- their constant, relentless and mostly covert encroachment into our "private" lives-- is that such efforts are justified on the basis of safeguarding our individual freedom to engage in the market according to our own interests, as those interests are freely determined by us.

Never mind that what an uncritical surrender to algorithmic analyses actually does-- little by little, Google search by Google search, Facebook like by Facebook like, Amazon purchase by Amazon purchase-- is eventually come to determine not only our interests, but also our "freely, intentionally rational" selections among them.

To the extent that there's anything really missing in James' argument-- and, to be fair, hers is a very short piece that does not pretend to offer a full analysis-- I think it's an under-emphasis on another presumption of neoliberal epistemontology: the market (which we ought remember, for neoliberals, is all that is the case) is ever guided by an Invisible Hand.  James' focus on algorithms and mathematical modeling is immensely valuable for understanding many of the epistemological commitments and strategies of neoliberal epistemontology, but I'd just like to unpack the implications of the ontological (or, really, onto-theological) commitments of the neoliberal "reality-as-market" worldview briefly here.

Perhaps the single most important proposition in modern capitalist economic theory, inherited from Adam Smith, is that competitive markets do a good job of allocating resources, that such markets channel individuals' self-interest toward the collective good as if directed by an "invisible hand."  (I won't detail the manner in which such a proposition qualifies as "onto-theological" here, partly because there simply isn't room to do so, but mostly because I think it is self-evident.) There is, of course, a long and varied history of philosophical and/or religious commitments to the world-as-purposive or the world-as-Good or the world-as-intelligently-designed.  Despite their differences in detail, and despite their sometimes outright antagonisms, what they share in common is a certain, fundamentally ontological, inflection that posits all that is the case as aiming-to-be or destined-to-be orderly, rational, if not also just and morally good.

One of the problems with neoliberalism's particular ("invisible hand") iteration of onto-theological prejudice-- and this is something that James' account of the neoliberal "algorithmic modelling" fetish made more clear to me-- is that it effectively blinds itself to the manner in which it not only does, but must, conflate the Hand-that-Guides with the hand(s)-that-are-guided.  When synchronicity or harmony is absent, when dissonance is resonant, when the aleatory interrupts or real human freedom (s'il y en a) insists-- that is to say, when the Invisible Hand is not only non-apparent but also non-existent-- neoliberalism's epistemonto(theo)logical commitments force neoliberals to, quite literally, phish or cut bait.  And what is phishing, after all, but the manufacturing of an Invisible Hand?

What are drones, for that matter?

So, perhaps (but not really) pace James, I'm not convinced that neoliberalism is as passive with regard to "social harmony" as her analysis might suggest.  (For the record, I don't think she meant to suggest that neoliberalism is passive and I'm confident that she doesn't think that.)  Neoliberals aren't simply playing around with predictive algorithms and waiting for a harmonic or synchronous phase convergence--that is NOT James' thesis, for the record-- but rather, I suspect, neoliberals' epistemontological commitments put them squarely in the seat of the remote-operator of a drone we might call "Invisible Hand."  And, not to put too fine a point on it, but the "Invisible Hand" drone is a deadly effective weapon that basically works like this: defund or deregulate, make sure things don't work, wait for people to get angry, then privatize.  That's the formula Noam Chomsky detailed in his brilliant essay "The State-Corporate Complex: A Threat To Freedom and Survival", in which he also sagely reminded us that the only occurrence of the phrase "invisible hand" in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations appears in a passage that critiques what we now call neoliberalism.

To wit, all this has inclined me to think that the customary use of the Gadsden flag ("Don't tread on me!") to represent neoliberalism is perhaps not as appropriate as opting instead for the Franklin woodcut ("Join, or Die") that I used at the top of this post.  "Join, or Die" seems to be far more indicative of the neoliberal imperative, shouted into the panopticon of our modern world and echoed off every wall by banks, political parties, corporations, families, nation-states, social groups and social media. I think it's consistent with James' Foucaultian-inspired insights to say that the post-9/11 neoliberal project determines even more than what Foucault conjectured contemporary notions of nation-state "sovereignty" determine.  The sovereign nation-state determined "[who] to make live and [who] to let die," but neoliberal entities-- hardly ever nation-states anymore-- determine who to make live and who to make die.  Because "living" is utterly unrecognizable except as an algorithmic variable by big neoliberal data, there is no "living" that is not "joining."

And there is no not-joining without dying.

Friday, July 11, 2014

AMERICA! F*CK YEAH!... or, Dinesh D'Souza and the Chocolate Factory

It is indeed difficult to imagine the world without America, which is what the one-sheet movie poster for Dinesh D'Souza's America dares us to imagine. After all, America is every bit as much a symbol, an aspiration and an idea as it is a nation-state. However, it is not difficult to imagine the world without D'Souza's "America" or its cinematic rendering, a film that is part costume drama, part morality tale, part manifesto, too much revisionist history and a whole lot of  downright D'Souzian fantasy.  Those already suspect of D'Souza's worldview (not to mention his political cronyism and/or personal moral fortitude) will likely view this movie, if they view it at all, as right-wing propaganda, at which they will snort before promptly dismissing it. Those inclined more favorably toward D'Souza's worldview, on the other hand, are likely to crank up the Team America theme song ("America! F*ck Yeah!"), wave a flag and pat each other on the back for their patriotism, happy to have at last been able to steal one free breath in the suffocating liberal environment that they call Obamastan.  I saw the film last night in a theater filled with the latter group--I surmise as much from the audience's enthusiastic applause when the credits rolled--and after I righted my head from the "wait, whaa?" side-cocked position in which it had been stuck for the last 103 minutes, I genuinely didn't know how to react.  Should I be offended? disgusted? disheartened? afraid?


First things first: D'Souza's film amounts to little more than an almost two-hour long and very well-produced negative campaign ad. D'Souza doesn't back any specific potential Presidential candidates in America (though Sen. Rand Paul gets a hefty amount of screen-time), but he does devote a significant part of the film to a fairly vicious and thoroughly-duplicitous preemptive strike against (likely Democratic Presidential candidate) Hillary Clinton.  If D'Souza were a PAC, he'd almost certainly be guilty of running afoul (again) of the Federal Election Campaign Act with this film. As it is, he's mostly guilty of running a little too close to Sergei Eisenstein.

After sleeping on it for a night, I woke up today thinking that D'Souza's film, more so than being merely propagandist and revisionist (which it most certainly and deeply disturbingly is), was also vaguely reminiscent of the Roald Dahl children's story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  The protagonist in Dahl's novel is the boy Charlie, of course, but the most interesting character is and has always been the mysterious and eccentric chocolatier Willy Wonka.  Now, to be fair, there is more than a little bit of Charlie in Dinesh D'Souza, and to the extent that is true, it is as difficult to object to D'Souza's fantastical indulgences and hyperbolic glorifications of America as it is to object to a child's belief in Santa Claus. Dahl's Charlie, impoverished and hungry but good-hearted, longed above all for a glimpse inside the Shangri-la that was Wonka's chocolate factory, and Charlie believed with equal parts idealism and desperation that (in Dahl's words) "there was one thing that the grown-ups also knew, and it was this: that however small the chance might be of striking lucky, the chance is there.  The chance had to be there."  D'Souza, an immigrant who against all odds got his Golden Ticket to America and who existentially confirmed that, yes, in fact, the chance IS there, is undoubtedly one of the very best people to tell the story of America's promise.

Alas, if only D'Souza had told the whole story, told the story right (and not Right), told the story of American exceptionalism qualified by the always and ever against-all-odds exception that he is, and not figured himself as the rule that he so desperately wants himself and his adopted country to be.  If only he hadn't so obviously cherry-picked his interviewees (Chomsky, Zinn, Alinksky et al) as targets and then also cherry-picked  their utterly non-representative detractors as anecdotal stories. If only he hadn't invested so much energy and passion in divesting the disenfranchised of their efforts at combating disenfranchisement.  If only he hadn't used his 103 minutes of beautifully-produced film to effectively delegitimatize the entire history of progressive American race, gender and class initiatives, debunking them without either any demonstration of first understanding them or their historical/cultural context.  If only D'Souza had just stuck to being Dahl's "Charlie," the down-and-out kid who got lucky.  If only he wasn't, as I suspect he is, more Veruca Salt or Violet Beauregarde or Mike Teavee than he is Charlie.

In fact, I suspect, given his ideological and financial influence at this point, D'Souza is far more akin to Willy Wonka than any of the starry-eyed children longing for a Wonka's golden ticket in Dahl's story.  Self-sequestered in his self-made, self-absolving, ridiculously profitable and quietly fantastical Chocolate Factory, Dahl's Willy Wonka existed in a manufactured world of sugar and sweetness that was maintained only by virtue of a healthy infusion of paranoia, neurosis and distorted reality. Dahl really was a genius at making our otherwise-unreflective allegiance to childhood fantasies questionable, if not also wholly objectionable, and that genius is no more evident than in his rendering of the character of Willy Wonka.  One of my favorite lines from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has always been, purely for its cringe-inducing candor and probity, this one by Wonka:
Whipped cream isn't whipped cream at all if it hasn't been whipped with whips, just like poached eggs isn't poached eggs unless it's been stolen in the dead of the night.
Read the above line as a child: it's funny. Read it as an adult: it's downright terrifying. The conflation of "whipped" and whipped, of "poached" and poached-- a difference so easy to elide, so subtle, so slight, so attenuated and yet so extraordinarily, profoundly and critically important-- constitutes the difference that makes a difference.  (Not least of all to the Oompa-loompas, amirite?!) For what it's worth, that difference is the long and short of what America misses, if not also intentionally conceals.  D'Souza is to "America" what Willy Wonka is to his Chocolate Factory: so thoroughly convinced of the sweetness of its productions that he's been blinded to the whipping and poaching that that production requires.

And that delusion of D'Souza/Wonka is what you get in America. Here's hoping you have the stomach to stand it, because it's really enough to give you a very-"American" version of diabetes.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

On Trigger Warnings, Codes of Conduct and Self-Policing in Philosophy

The blogosphere has been all abuzz with commentary on the merits and demerits of “trigger warnings” (henceforth, TWs) of late, which has sparked an interesting conversation not only about what sorts of norms we ought to strive for in the Academy but also how we can or ought police those norms. With regard to TWs specifically, the debate seems to be over how much accommodation should be afforded to individual students’ personal (sometimes traumatic) experiences and, correspondingly, how to weigh that accommodation vis-à-vis professorial interest in and responsibility for maintaining the academic integrity of course-content. As is the case with many other issues of this kind, disputants are largely divided along philosophical/ideological lines: those who tend to prioritize individual responsibility and accountability (e.g., Jack Halberstam) on the one side and, on the other side, those who advocate a more cooperative/communal sense of self-care (e.g., Angus Johnston). Two quick disclaimers before we get into things, though: (1) I'll concede that I've just employed grossly-generalized characterizations of the two sides, and (2) those generalizations are also non-comprehensive, as they leave out an important third category of disputants (see Natalie Cecire's recent contribution) in the TW controversy, namely, those who are helpfully and productively engaging in meta-critique, who recognize the limitations of both dominant “positions” in this conversation and who are interested in articulating how those positions are both mutually-implicating and mutually-contaminating.

 As someone who almost exclusively teaches courses in moral and political philosophy—that is to say, someone whose bread and butter is trigger-prone course material—I find myself genuinely torn about my own position on TWs. I include something like a TW on all of my syllabi as a part of my “Dr. J's Rules” syllabus-supplement... but my TW is very broad and generic, and it is aimed more at establishing a discursive ethos for the classroom than it is at “warning” students that some of the course-content may trigger psychological distress. (You can read my version here. It’s Rule #7.) Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I’d have to admit that I find myself dispositionally disinclined to “coddle” students as a rule, which sometimes results in my mistaking legitimate accommodation for over-accommodation. I don’t think I’m alone in that attitude. For better or worse, I think it’s a generational prejudice, but that's a topic for another day.  My interest here is not to weigh in on TWs specifically, but rather to say something about the manner in which the controversy over mandating TWs—making them an official or unofficial rule, an “ought,” that is to say, giving them normative heft or leverage—reflects a broader trend in academia (and, more problematically, in my discipline of Philosophy) that I find worrisome.

Let me just air the dirty laundry here at the start: professional philosophers are perhaps the sine qua non case when it comes to Groups Desperately In Need of Corrective Disciplining.  And, so far at least, we've been downright awful at policing ourselves.

At present, the professional organization for philosophers (the American Philosophical Association) is considering whether or not to devise and implement an official Code of Conduct for its constituents. The APA decided to do so for a number of very good reasons, not the least of which is three consecutive years of increasingly terrible behavior by and increasingly embarrassing press coverage of professional philosophers, but more directly in response to a petition (initiated by Drs. Eleonore Stump and Helen De Cruz and co-signed by 673 supporters) for some statement of ethical norms APA members might expect to govern our collective. Despite my genuine sympathy with this initiative, I’ve been critical of implementing an APA Code of Conduct for a number of reasons.  In fact, my colleague Dr. Ed Kazarian and I co-authored a piece on the newAPPS blog a few months ago entitled “Please Do NOT Revise Your Tone,” articulating some of our concerns with codifying what are in effect professional/cultural norms and, more to the point, our objection to enforcing codified cultural norms.  Our worry, as we explained on newAPPS, is that there are many good reasons to believe that Codes of Conduct for professional behavior are likely to legitimate and reinforce, rather than govern or correct, the behavior-patterns of those with the most influence and power in our discipline/profession.  Inasmuch as the behavior-patterns in Philosophy (as in academia more broadly) most in need of correction tend to reflect structural and systemic  problems—racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism and ableism most generally and, more specifically, also a number of historically-sedimented ideological prejudices about what and who counts as “real” scholarship and scholars—it is hard to see how a Code of Conduct could be an effective remedy.  Codes of Conduct aim to regulate the behaviors of individual agents within communities, on the basis of norms determined (in the ideal) by that community.  What they do not do, and cannot do, is regulate the norms by which communities determine their codes of behavior, nor to they regulate how the "determiners" of those determinations are determined.

There's the rub, really.  Especially in professional Philosophy—one of the Whitest and most Male-dominated academic disciplines in U.S. higher education, woefully backward in terms of inclusion, belligerently resistant to change, internally at war with itself, small and elite enough to be particularly susceptible to oligarchism and yet, at the same time, thoroughly persuaded of its own indispensable merit—there is good reason to be suspect of its efforts at self-policing.

For those of us who still count ourselves (however problematically) among the advocates of classical liberalism, of the fundamental principles of limited government, of democracy and of the rule of law, the separation of powers is perhaps the preeminent Virtue.  It comes down to this, really: those who make the law ought not also be invested with the power to enforce the law, even less so with the power to interpret the law.  Regular readers of this blog no doubt already know that I count myself among the advocates of classical liberalism, but let the record reflect that I also count myself among its many critics, who are painfully cognizant of the ways in which a reductive commitment to neutrality, impartiality and meritocracy deafens one to the sorts of critical (and critically important) voices that never seem to even get a seat at the table. (See my comment on Eric Schleisser's smart and excellent post "On a Code of Conduct in Philosophy" on his consistently smart and excellent blog Digressions&Impressions.) For both of those reasons, I mistrust "self-policing" and for both of those (pro- and anti-classical liberalism) reasons, I'm deeply concerned by academia's (and Philosophy's) confidence that it can effectively self-police.

I'm much more comfortable saying that I oppose the APA's current initiative to institute a Code of Conduct for professional philosophers than I am saying that I oppose mandating trigger warnings on course syllabi, but I don't think my concerns with respect to the two are unrelated.  The sorts of cultural norms that, when challenged, make calls for self-policing necessary are the same norms than make the call for self-policing inadvisable, in my view.  That is to say, if the "self" that self-polices is the same "self" that is being policed, I'm not sure that we can reasonably expect that policing to amount to much more than: Move along, now.  There's nothing to see here.

On the other hand, if we insist instead that the fundamentally structural/systemic errors, which continue to generate, regenerate and reproduce academia's blind-spots and which make its BAU operations more and more distasteful, aren't really a matter for more and better police--or, as I think Robin James et al have rightly noted, a matter for determinations by what I call the "Neoliberal Triple-A" (adjusters, accountants and actuaries)-- then maybe, just maybe, we can start to wean ourselves from the European Enlightenment teat enough to actually start being progressive, instead of just being liberal.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 28: A Song That Reminds You of Your Boyfriend/Girlfriend (if you don't have one, make one up)

The official prompt for today asks for "a song that reminds you of your boyfriend/girlfriend" but also hilariously includes the parenthetical stipulation "(if you don't have one, make one up)".  Let's all just take a second to guffaw out loud at that one.

I don't currently have a boyfriend or girlfriend, but I've had both many times and for various durations in the past, which (curiously enough) doesn't make it any harder or easier to imagine the right song selection for today.  My guess is that today's prompt would be equally difficult for the committed and the uncommitted.  That is to say, if you have a boyfriend/girlfriend, then you're obligated to choose a song that reminds you of him or her as they actually are, warts and all, which could make for a very delicate selection.  And if you don't have a girlfriend/boyfriend, then you're likely inclined to choose a song that might remind you of some perfect person to whom you imagine yourself committed, but who is probably impossible to realize in a real person, as fantasies always are, making your selection either moot or childishly naive. So, the best that I am able, I'm going to try to walk the tightrope of that divide with my choice today.

Full disclosure: I chose this song for Day 5 ("A Song That Reminds You of Someone") in the first round of the 30 Day Song Challenge that I did in 2011.  You can read my whole account of that story here, but the long and short of it is that I said this song reminds me of the way my father is reminded of my mother.  I won't recount the whole thing again; I'll just say that I don't think this is the most traditionally "romantic" or ideal or fantastical song to capture whatever it is that love feels (or ought to feel) like, but I do think it's real, and really poignant, and really honest, and a whole host of other things that, for better or worse, I'd hope reminded me of the person I loved n real life.

My song pick for today is Billy Joel's "She's Always A Woman," performed live here:

Never before in the three years that I've been doing the 30 Day Song Challenge have I reprinted the lyrics to one of my song selections in their entirety... but for today, I will, and I will have nothing else to add.

She can kill with a smile / She can wound with her eyes 
She can ruin your faith with her casual lies 
And she only reveals what she wants you to see 
She hides like a child / but she's always a woman to me 

She can lead you to love / She can take you or leave you 
She can ask for the truth / But she'll never believe you
And she'll take what you give her as long as it's free 
Yeah, she steals like a thief / but she's always a woman to me 

Oh, she takes care of herself 
She can wait if she wants / She's ahead of her time 
Oh, and she never gives out / And she never gives in 
She just changes her mind 

She will promise you more than the Garden of Eden 
Then she'll carelessly cut you and laugh while you're bleedin' 
But she'll bring out the best and the worst you can be 
Blame it all on yourself  'cause she's always a woman to me 

Oh, she takes care of herself 
She can wait if she wants / She's ahead of her time 
Oh, and she never gives out / And she never gives in 
She just changes her mind 

She is frequently kind / And she's suddenly cruel 
She can do as she pleases / She's nobody's fool 
But she can't be convicted / She's earned her degree 
And the most she will do Is throw shadows at you 
But she's always a woman to me

Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.

Friday, June 27, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 27: A Song You Make Fun Of

I'm just going to go ahead and concede that I am also guilty of all the things I make fun of in this post.

My pick for today is the song that everyone loves to ridicule while also acting ridiculous.  I don't know if there is an official organization for professional wedding/reunion/conference DJ's-- if not, there should be, 'cause y'all have nothing to lose but your chains, yo!-- but if there is such an organization, I am 100% confident that one of its by-laws must include a requirement that all members play that funky music at every event.  And I'm not talking about any old funky music, of course.  I'm talking about THAT funky music.

You know what I'm talking about, white boy.

If you've ever been to a wedding, a reunion, a conference reception, a dance party-- hell, if you've ever stuck around to hear a dive-bar band play past midnight-- you have most certainly heard the one-hit wonder by the (otherwise faded-into-obscurity) American funk-rock band Wild Cherry, "Play That Funky Music."  Among its many, even if highly questionable, virtues is that "Play That Funky Music" was released near the tail-end of the Disco Era in 1976 and (at least according to Wikipedia) represents one of the last impassioned cries by bell-bottomed, tassel-vested, funk-loving people that we DO NOT LET DISCO DIE.  The 80's came and went, of course, and in the course of that decade disco took a pretty mean beating by punk and hard rock and new wave... but disco didn't die.  Thankfully.  That's due in large part to the feisty resilience of disco's constitutive parts-- funk, soul, Latin and psychadelic music--  none of which have ever laid down for nobody, but more so due to the fact that disco is and has always been about dancing, about night life and club life, not to mention also about sin and sex and drugs and loving to love you, baby.

It's hard not to make fun of "Play That Funky Music" when you hear it, even as you wallow in the pleasure of it like a pig in shit.  Just go ahead and try not to dig this shit:

I'm not gonna even pretend that it isn't the case that one of the things I love most about this song is that, when played live, it somehow convinces every single white boy, regardless of how little rhythm or groove he has, to lay down and boogie when he hears this song.  C'mon really, is there anything more satisfying to make fun of than a white boy who isn't funky, but who is FEELING IT and, what is more, who is being called to feel it in the very lyrics of the song?!  There's something adorably pathetic about that whole spectacle, kind of like the audition rounds on American Idol, that just makes you point and laugh and at the same time say "awww, poor baby, you go on and GO with your bad self."

So, in the future, just when it hits you, when somebody turns around and says play that funky music, white boy!, remember that you can ridicule all you want, we all do it... just as long as you also lay down and boogie and play that funky music so disco never dies.

Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.