Month: August 2009

The Secret Government

A lot of my recent work has been in the area of sovereignty, in particular critiquing the focus on state figures (the president, etc.) that Schmitt’s decisionism leads to. But the story of modernity is the movement of sovereignty and sovereign decisions out of the oval offices and so on–that’s what national sovereignty has meant with the rise of those “executive agencies” working outside the law in order to protect it. Schmitt’s decisionism deflects the focus from where it needs to be, or least it tends to in the readings of him. In other words, it’s this form of sovereignty that Benjamin means when he talks about the “state of exception” in his Theses on History, and perhaps we might side with Benjamin as I read him, since he was taking on Schmitt. Strangely, in the legacy of that battle, the force seems to be on the side of Schmitt in academia, no matter how much Benjamin is brought out as this strange oracle to cite in texts that otherwise have nothing to do with him.

Anyway… all of that is to note Chris Hayes’ good piece in The Nation on the need for a new Church commission, but more importantly, what’s inherent is the danger that this sovereignty always poses in latter day states that hold themselves democratic.

The Church Committee came at a time when the public was in the midst of a wrenching (and necessary) loss of innocence. But in our age, secret government crimes and plots are almost a cliché. Polling shows trust in government has returned roughly to its mid-’70s nadir. The danger now isn’t naïveté but cynicism–that we just come to accept that the government will commit crimes in our name under the cover of secrecy and that such activities are more or less business as usual, about which nothing can be done. But something can be done. Something must be done. And Congress should do it.

But won’t.

On the road…

And in deference to Graham… I’ll be working through cds on the road in Scotland of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall… It was one Dad and I could agree on, easily. I am really hopeful for a good, seventy-year-old Scottish voice for the reader.

but for now, Dad wanted to hear Hounds of the Baskervilles. Don’t ask me. But I had forgotten how much (a) Doyle loved cocaine, and (b) what a defender of scientific method he was. Not that I’m saying that (a) and (b) are linked in any way…

Loneliness, Age, and the Life of Crime

“Tokyo police will try to rein in a wave of shoplifting by lonely elderly people by involving them in community service, a police spokesman said on Thursday.”  

Loneliness is apparently a self-reported factor in 25% of the thefts–and that’s self-reported. I can only wonder what the situation is like in the US where there is far less social normalization to pay attention to one’s parents. Now (a) there’s a lot worse things people do in the name of loneliness, (b) Perhaps the real number, thinking about it again, is much lower–who wouldn’t let grandma go if this was the stated reason? It’s better than “I like the bling”…(c) I will refuse to reference the great Seinfeld episode on this (“Come’on Jerry, we all do this!”), which yes, I have thus referenced, (d) Perhaps my travels with father here in Scotland can now be put on the side of avoiding crime.

On Sarcasm…

Rovati does mention this, which I take issue with:

When sarcasm becomes the systematic shortcut for analysis, I doubt that philosophy remains (as Negri writes in the opening of his pamphlet) ‘that critical activity that allows one to grasp one’s time and orientate oneself in it’

I wish I had a better, more sarcastic rejoinder to this. But bullshit. Sarcasm is wonderful–it often cuts to the core of something, devastates it, and leaves the scene before one has barely noticed. It’s the court joker to presumptions of philosophical sovereignty. There’s a lot written recently (Cindy Willet’s great book on this comes to mind) on politics and humor, and I think there’s a generation of people that think “snark” and “sarcasm” are inherently bad, rude even. Oh Onion and Daily Show–what would the Bush years have been like without you? This is often turned against various bloggers by mainstream editorialists in the states.  As if we have a philosophical or political of code of conduct that we all agreed to … and as if Nietzsche never picked up a pen and said, “truth is a woman.” Ok, not the best example. But if truth is a woman (and I, of course, dear reader, mean this in the fully post-Derrida’s Spurs sense), then sarcasm is the wonderful transvestite who reminds you that truth doesn’t always come in the mode of normalized codes of conduct… and then doesn’t just do the “critique” (since it’s not just Butlerian parody) but also has a living, breathing life beyond that…

And why no shortcuts? For me, one of Zizek’s best analyses is in the Parallax View. I don’t have it in front of me, but he has this great paragraph on Heidegger’s reading of Fug, which he spends forever on in the Introduction to Metaphysics, as a translation for the Greek dikê. He spends forever on the etymology, on how it means both way and harmony and so on… But as Zizek points out, it’s also the root of the word “fuck.” And so he concludes—and here’s a great shortcut to Zizek’s whole reading of Heidegger as wanting to cut out any notion of desire from ontology—why didn’t Heidegger just write about the “great fuck of being”? (I’m ruining the line.) Or better, the “poetic harmonizing engaged by the thinker in the face of the great fuck of being?”

Now that’s a great fuckin’ shortcut.

Response to Negri on Italian philosophy

Pier Rovati has a response to Negri’s pamphlet on Italian philosophy…

In spite of appearances, Antonio Negri’s obscure pamphlet ‘The Italian Difference’ does not really lend itself to a polemical discussion. It must be taken for what it is, a coup de théâtre dictated—as the author himself confesses—by a rather ingenuous moment of hubris. At the end of the day, it is a sparata, as we say in Italian. Such a blast would intend to strike at the entirety of Italian contemporary thought (and with particular violence against so-called ‘weak thought’) in its capacity as a philosophy of the master; at the same time, it positively exempts from this treatment three names—the old Gramsci, and the new Mario Tronti, the workerist, and Luisa Muraro, the feminist—in their capacity as, it would seem, philosophies that creatively resists the master by means of difference. Everything else is a desert.

True. But the next part (in itals) is best. One often seems a similar rhetoric in Agamben, which might explain why he and Negri are often writing at each other:

If there are no doubts about Gramsci, the two other names are—even for an Italian—quite unexpected. I wonder what those concerned by this bizarre ordering think about it (and then I ask myself: What status does he who arranges them arrogate to himself? Is he like the fourth man officiating at a football match?). …

This is a good point for anyone writing: the presumption to name the first, best, etc., of philosophy often comes with the notion (implicit or explicit) about how wonderful you are for being the first to recognize the first or the best. Not that one should always avoid this kind of rhetoric or can (obviously, we all have thoughts on various “firsts” and “bests”), but when it comes to infect one’s writing, then in the end you’re only writing your self-glorification as philosophy’s sovereign, always passing final judgement on the first and best, even though that presumption carries with it the idea that somehow you’ve read all of the archive of philosophy to say without a doubt that you haven’t missed some other writing that indeed would have been first or better on a particular topic. But I digress….

The next important point, though, turns to Vattimo’s so-called “weak thinking.” Now, I am not at all a Vattimo apologist and his work never had much influence on me. But every once in a while you’ll read an article from someone like Negri who thinks they’re making a brilliant suggestion that “weak thought” is just weakness or something. Why, that’s brilliant! As if Vattimo didn’t purposely take up the term with a certain irony, to oppose it to various philosophies that were too masterful, too hubristic. In fact, he wrote a lot on just this topic. Why, it’s even in the archive….

As for Negri’s intended targets, they revolve around the old motif, often used in reactionary terms, of the ‘poverty’ of Italian philosophy. I just want to say something about weak thought (‘the vilest point’ of the twentieth-century decline, as Negri delicately describes it), considering the fact that, at the beginning of the 1980s, I was its promoter together with Gianni Vattimo. Weak thought was an episode in the Italian philosophical debate that aroused considerable alarm in academia and whose effects (which also had significant international echoes) have yet to die out. These effects, which in part intersected with those of deconstruction, should induce some caution even in the worst-disposed of critics. I mean that, were he to exercise such caution, Negri would realize that what is at stake here is an issue of power [potere] that concerns the so-called metaphysical violence of philosophy, its administration of truth, and the elements of micro-government that follow from it, beginning with the real privileges that exist in the institutional circles of research.

I think Negri is well aware that there is a front of struggle within philosophy, related to the very way in which the scientificity of concepts is understood and knowledge as power [potere] is used. Negri’s sharp mind cannot overlook this Foucauldian inspiration of weak thought, unless he does so deliberately. As a matter of fact, his very strong thought could obviously fall into the critical horizon of weak thought itself.

I’m sorry to say this to a friend like Negri, but his pamphlet on the Italian difference is full of superficialities, that is, hurried verdicts which, as if wielding a machete, take the place of the reflection required by critical discourse. 

Democratic ontologies…

I’m a bit tired after flying over to Scotland, so take the below in that vein. I wanted to say I was heading to a conference, but then I remembered someone had a post up calling it star fucking, which means I must be totally off my game when I got to those things. I am looking forward to the objects conference though. 

Another great LS post on democratic ontology. I love the if that begins this…

If the object-oriented ontologist is committed to a thesis as strange as the idea that a phoneme is an object or that Norway is an object, then this is because the criteria for being an object is not whether or not an entity is physical, but whether or not it makes differences…. That which exists is that which is capable of producing differences. But if this is the case, then it follows that we should practice an egalitarianism of difference, thereby arriving at a flat ontology. If to exist is to be capable of making differences, then whatever makes a difference is. This egalitarianism or ontological difference is not the thesis that all beings equally make differences, that they are all equally important (a normative judgment), that all differences are desirable or valuable (another normative judgment), but simply that regardless of the degree to which something makes a difference, if a difference is made then that thing is

I like this because it gets rid of the typical rejoinder, which conflates flat ontology with flat-headed normative claims: “but aren’t you saying the tick or the dart board or the dog is the same as the suffering child?” But I wonder to what degree here this difference is quantitative or qualitative. The word “degree” above suggests that we can wash this out with some good old mathesis, and I’m not sure. That is, I measure some X difference (Harry Potter the fictional character makes Y children smile, and quanta of energy Z is measurable in such and such a way) and thus I have an object. And in so much as this object is … is as different, that is, as making a difference, then I can have a flat ontology, which incidentally has the great upshot of getting out the dead-end of the countless types of realism in analytic philosophy (I remember once getting asked about whether speculative realism fit into some ten different categories). But why not “qualitative”–and I just use that term to raise the question, since I’m not imaginative now. In other words, I’ve been thinking this through someone like J-L Nancy, whose work on sense and realism is really good…and quite “flat.” (Now I’m starting to worry that Tom Friedman metaphors are coming in.) And so I would want to hear more about if one could have what we could call a substantive democratic equality while also noting that when something makes a difference, it also matters, and thus we return to the question of sense…

Creating a common destiny…

For a while I thought Italian philosophy would be the new French. Sure, there’s Meillassoux and Badiou, but Continental philosophy was running out of people with accents, and the Italians were doing great work on nihilism before Brassier made it cool. Alas, Negri tells me this morning that …

When one says ‘philosophy’, one means that critical activity which allows one to grasp one’s time and orientate oneself within it, creating a common destiny and witnessing the world for this purpose. If one defines it in this way, after Giovanni Gentile and perhaps a bit Benedetto Croce, there hasn’t been any philosophy in Italy in the twentieth century.   

…which is one of his typical ways of phrasing things: if you mean by liberation x, y, and z, well, no one has ever thought of it yet. (Though as the person pointing this out, well, I’m the one doing true liberation.) He does identify here three thinkers always worth reading (Antonio Gramsci, Mario Tronti and Luisa Muraro). And if you mean by philosophy “creating a common destiny…” then really, who is doing philosophy? I really wish they had taught that in graduate school…

Incidentally, however much I love reading Negri’s provocations, this has always been what has been wrong with certain post-structuralist readings of him. Multitudes for me always meant what Dante meant by it in De Monarchia, and so let me say that if philosophy is creating the conditions for a common destiny, then I’d … prefer not.