Month: February 2011

Conservatives and the Academic Left: Who’s to Blame (with a touch of Latour)

From Judith Warner’s article yesterday in the New York Times, “Fact-Free Science”:

Following the Sokal hoax, many on the academic left experienced some real embarrassment. But the genie was out of the bottle. And as the political zeitgeist shifted, attacking science became a sport of the radical right. “Some standard left arguments, combined with the left-populist distrust of ‘experts’ and ‘professionals’ and assorted high-and-mighty muckety-mucks who think they’re the boss of us, were fashioned by the right into a powerful device for delegitimating scientific research,” Michael Bérubé, a literature professor at Pennsylvania State University, said of this evolution recently in the journal Democracy. He quoted the disillusioned French theorist Bruno Latour, a pioneer of science studies who was horrified by the climate-change-denying machinations of the right: “Entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth . . . while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.”

Clearly, anyone making such claims is without a sense of history: the right in the U.S. is certainly not taking its cues from supposed relativists in the humanities–-if only! (I mean that: who wouldn’t take even the worst sort of cultural relativism over the power relativism of the right wing?) But let’s narrow this to three points:

1. First off, let’s just say the right wing in the U.S. has long had antipathy to anything done in academia. It wasn’t invented yesterday, and certainly you’d really be an idiot to think somehow the left is to blame for the denial of evolution, which was not new even at the time of the John Scopes monkey trial. [Addendum: This is not to critique Bérubé, whose work I admire, but rather the reporting itself.] And the right’s ploy—so reminiscent of the old right wing claims that tobacco doesn’t kill, which meant refusing extra tobacco taxes as late as the mid-1990s—has been to deny the science of climate change in deference to big Coal and big Oil is not surprising.

2. The implication is that any questioning of the role of science in the interplay of knowledge and power is a dangerous relativism playing into the rightwing, which is something only Sokal could argue. First, it denies that post-Popperian phil of science even exists. Secondly, it conflates questioning the use of science for naturalizing societal norms with the facts of science. In other words, should one accept the devious role of psychiatry in the US, say, prior to 1960? (Forced sterilizations? Lobotomies anyone?) Why not? If the reason is that one doesn’t accept the use of supposed science, is one a relativist? If not, so we’re good pre-1960. Okay, is it not possible that occurs now under the banner of science? Isn’t it a good sign of what we used to call critical thinking to analyze concepts and ideas that have pernicious political effects? Or is this because such things happen only in the bad old days, and those doing science studies—including feminists, critical race theorists, among others—are just tools of the right wing?

3. Latour protests too much, mostly because his role within phil of science is not without merit tied to thinking of science as within larger continuum of power and assemblages. Thus he must always claim its some PhD programs teaching others to deny reality: does Latour himself argue there is “unmediated access to truth”? Well, let’s look at the book description from his aptly titled On the Modern Cult of Factish Gods (Duke U.P., 2011):

[Latour] redescribe[s] the Enlightenment idea of universal scientific truth, arguing that there are no facts separable from their fabrication. In this concise work, Latour delves into the “belief in naive belief,” the suggestion that fetishes, objects invested with mythical powers, are fabricated, and that “facts” are not. Mobilizing his work in the anthropology of science, he uses the notion of “factishes” to explore a way of respecting the objectivity of facts and the power of fetishes without forgetting that both are fabricated. While the fetish-worshipper knows perfectly well that fetishes are man-made, the Modern icon-breaker inevitably erects new icons. Yet Moderns sense no contradiction at the core of their work. Latour pursues his critique of critique, or the possibility of mediating between subject and object, or the fabricated and the real, through the notion of “iconoclash,” making productive comparisons between scientific practice and the worship of visual images and religious icons.

Well, what is the difference between arguing “no facts are separable from their fabrication” and those strange teachings of Ph.D. programs (the libel is always undefendable if one leaves out the name of the accused) “still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up…”? One wonders where they would hear such cataclysmic things from … or perhaps there’s a difference between “fabrication” and “making” of which I’m unaware…

CSCP meeting at St. John’s, Memorial University of Newfoundland

The Canadian Society for Continental Philosophy will hold its annual conference from October 6-8, 2011, in St. John’s at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

We invite papers or panels on any theme relevant to the broad concerns of continental philosophy. Please submit complete papers (no more than 4000 words), along with a brief abstract (150 words). If you are submitting a panel proposal, send only a 750-word abstract for each paper. In either case,please prepare your paper for blind review, with personally identifying information appearing only in your submission e-mail. Only attachments readable in Word will be considered.

All submissions (in French or English) must be sent electronically by June 1, 2011, to:

If you are a graduate student, please identify yourself as such in order to be eligible for the graduate student essay prize. The winner will be announced at the annual conference and considered for publication in the following spring issue of Symposium: Canadian Journal of Continental Philosophy.

This Call for Papers is also available as a PDF download. Please feel free to print and post.

One More Philosopher-King

Brad Delong adds another reference to my juxtaposition of Robert Putnam’s and Anthony Giddens yesterday:

Benjamin Barber in August 2007:

Benjamin R. Barber – Gaddafi’s Libya: An Ally for America?: But the real drama is not in Sarkozy’s agile grandstanding… or in the protracted negotiations involving… Gaddafi’s gifted son, Saif al-Islam. Rather, the release [of the Bulgarian nurses] points to deep changes in the Libyan regime that began in 2003, when Libya gave up its nuclear program voluntarily, and that continue today with gradual shifts in Libyan governance, its economy and civil society that have been largely ignored by the West. The real architect of the release was Libya’s leader. Written off not long ago as an implacable despot, Gaddafi is a complex and adaptive thinker as well as an efficient, if laid-back, autocrat. Unlike almost any other Arab ruler, he has exhibited an extraordinary capacity to rethink his country’s role in a changed and changing world.

I say this from experience. In several one-on-one conversations over the past year, Gaddafi repeatedly told me that Libya sought a genuine rapprochement with the United States and that the issues of the Benghazi Six — along with the still-outstanding final payment from Libya to families of the Lockerbie, Scotland, bombing victims — would be resolved. And behold: The nurses are free.

In all my public and private conversations with Gaddafi, including a roundtable moderated by David Frost and televised by BBC in March during which Gaddafi responded to unrehearsed questions, Gaddafi acknowledged his history of enmity with the West and did not deny Libya’s erstwhile involvement in terrorism. But he spoke of a new chapter for Libya and backed it up with a commitment to societal change. He insisted that in the Libya that comes after him there would be no new Gaddafi but self-governance. This isn’t mere bluster. Gaddafi has taken grave risks in the name of change: offending the Benghazi clans that engineered the nurses’ arrest; giving up his nuclear program while rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea use theirs to blackmail the West; holding open conversations over the past year with Western intellectuals, not just progressives such as Robert Putnam of Harvard and me but neocon pundit Francis Fukuyama and the tough New Democrat defense expert Joseph N. Nye. Moreover, in seeking to modify the banking industry and economy, he has rattled the existing elite who benefit from the status quo. Surprisingly flexible and pragmatic, Gaddafi was once an ardent socialist who now acknowledges private property and capital as sometimes appropriate elements in developing societies. Once an opponent of representative central government, he is wrestling with the need to delegate substantial authority to competent public officials… he himself surfs the Internet.

Libya under Gaddafi has embarked on a journey that could make it the first Arab state to transition peacefully and without overt Western intervention to a stable, non-autocratic government and, in time, to an indigenous mixed constitution favoring direct democracy locally and efficient government centrally…. Completely off the radar, without spending a dollar or posting a single soldier, the United States has a potential partner in what could become an emerging Arab democracy smack in the middle of Africa’s north coast. This partner possesses vital sulfur-free gas and oil resources, a pristine Mediterranean shoreline, a non-Islamist Muslim population, and intelligence capacities crucial to the war on terrorism. Gaddafi, for example, ardently opposes the al-Qaeda brand of Wahhabist fundamentalism that Saudi Arabia sponsors.

Cynics will disregard all this; but after America’s “realist” experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, this may actually turn out to be a recipe for peace and partnership in the unlikeliest of places.

Yes, “cynics,” or rather, those who don’t shill for Gaddafi or his son (a student of his). (After all, he surfs the internet!)

Here is Barber at the beginning of February:

Qadaffi himself is not detested in the way that Mubarak has been detested and rules by means other than fear. His son Saif, with a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the London School of Economics and two forthcoming books focused on liberalism in the developing world , has pioneered a gradualist approach to civil society in Libya, insisting along the way that he would accept no office that wasn’t subject to popular elections. No dynasty likely there.


I prefer this…

Here’s part of Badiou’s recent (courtesy Verso) “Tunisie, Egypte : quand un vent d’est balaie l’arrogance de l’Occident”:

Shouldn’t we, in all urgency, closely study what has made possible the overthrow through collective action of governments that are oligarchic, corrupt and—possibly, above all—humiliatingly the vassals of Western states?

Yes, we should be the pupils of such movements, and not their stupid teachers. That is because, through the genius of their own inventions, they give life to some political principles that some have been trying for so long to convince us that they are outdated. And especially the principle that Marat never stopped reminding us of: when it comes to freedom, equality, emancipation, we owe everything to popular uprisings.

We are right to be revolted. Just as with politics, our states and those who take advantage of it (political parties, unions and servile intellectuals) prefer management to revolt, they prefer claims, and “orderly transition” to any kind of rupture. What the Egyptian and Tunisian peoples remind us is that the only kind of action that equals a shared feeling about scandalous occupation by state power is mass uprising. And that, in such a case, the only watchword that can federate the disparate groups of the masses is: “you out there, go away”. The extraordinary importance of the revolt in this case, its critical power, is that repeating the watchword by millions of people will show the worth of what will undoubtedly and irreversibly be the first victory: the man thus designated will flee. And no matter what happens afterwards, this triumph of the popular action, illegal by nature, will be forever victorious. That a revolt against state power can be absolutely victorious is a lesson universally available. This victory always indicates the horizon where all collective action, subtracted from the authority of the law, stands out, the horizon that Marx called “the failing of the state”.

Let me juxtapose this with Duane Davis’s recent claim about former radicals in the NDPR in a review of Sloterdijk’s Rage and Time:

There is a legion (or lesion?) of intellectual critics who were once radical thinkers — or considered themselves to be, at any rate — but eventually each one lost faith in the ability to change the world: Jean Baudrillard, Bernard-Henri Lévy, and Sloterdijk do not agree with one another in their provocative socio-political critiques. Unfortunately, all too frequently, they do not bother to agree with themselves in their mass-production of glossy-covered pap.

For some readers, this will appear patently unfair. But much of the impetus behind a whole slew of discussions about “micro-politics” and all those Agambenian readings of Bartleby’s “I prefer not” were premised, as Kristeva claimed at the beginning of her turn of the millennium trilogy on revolt, on the fact that the anesthetized masses were incapable of political change. One can find sentiments like this in Agamben’s Means without End (his discussion of modern capitalism and the docile people), Stiegler’s work to revive French 19th-century republicanism, and even in some of Jean-Luc Nancy’s writings about the end of the sense of world. As I’ve noted here before, these readings tend to conflate the trajectory of a certain world with what is happening in Europe and many of these same thinkers were also lecturing us about the supposed reactionarism of Islam (the revolts of 2005-6 in France really brought out these sentiments in the French)—they should now be modest enough to see that we who value freedom need to be pupils to movements happening at the heart of the supposedly “illiberal” Arab world. Those who have looked to Bartleby’s “I prefer not” as a vision for radical politics—you know, Bartleby does starve to death in the end—have only offered micro-political mirror images of Fukuyama’s twenty-year-old claim about the end of history: the time of great struggles are over and thus one can only transform, say, capitalism from within (this is Catherine Malabou’s claim, for example). Well, against Bartleby’s “I prefer not” political detachment, “you out there, go away” is a far better starting point for political praxis.


Two view of Gadhafi

Robert Putnam details his 2007 meeting with Muammar Gadhafi in the Libyan desert. While Peter Hallward is going one way with the Rousseauian legacy of the general will, Gadhafi has his own, er, reading of that legacy:

Students of Western political philosophy would categorize Col. Gadhafi as a quintessential student of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: He made clear that he deeply distrusted any political group that might stand between individual citizens and the “General Will” as interpreted by the Legislator (i.e., Col. Gadhafi himself). When I argued that freedom of association could enhance democratic stability, he vehemently dismissed the idea. That might be so in the West, he insisted, but in Libya it would simply strengthen tribalism, and he would not stand for disunity.

Throughout, he styled our meeting as a conversation between two profound political thinkers, a trope that approached the absurd when he observed that there were international organizations for many professions nowadays, but none for philosopher-kings. “Why don’t we make that happen?” he proposed with a straight face. I smiled, at a loss for words. Col. Gadhafi was a tyrant and a megalomaniac, not a philosopher-king, but our visit left me convinced that he was not a simple man.

Of course, that same year, Anthony Giddens was offering his own view (h/t Stuart Elden) of a Gadhafi that has not stood up well, has it?

As one-party states go, Libya is not especially repressive. Gadafy seems genuinely popular. Our discussion of human rights centred mostly upon freedom of the press…

Will real progress be possible only when Gadafy leaves the scene? I tend to think the opposite. If he is sincere in wanting change, as I think he is, he could play a role in muting conflict that might otherwise arise as modernisation takes hold. My ideal future for Libya in two or three decades’ time would be a Norway of North Africa: prosperous, egalitarian and forward-looking. Not easy to achieve, but not impossible.


Political Acumen

Step 1: Dictator is a Machiavellian genius who controls his people by carefully pulling the strings on various levers in the body politic. His people are permanently cowed.

Step 2: The people rise up.

Step 3: The dictator is an irredeemable mental case clearly out of touch with what’s going on—his continued rule is to be counted in minutes, if not days…

Such are the mystical foundations of authority.

Links and Such

1. Stuart Elden discusses the reception of authors based upon their order of translation—he mentions Heidegger, Foucault, and Lefebvre, and the latter was truly badly served in this way. In fact, his reception is analogous to Sloterdijk’s: mentions by other top authors and limited release of smaller works.

2. Muammar el-Gaddafi’s son, Saif Al-Islam Alqadhafi, isn’t just the star of his own baffling TV show: as most of you now know, he earned a Ph.D in Political Theory at the LSE in 2008. Here’s the link to his thesis “THE ROLE OF CIVIL SOCIETY IN THE DEMOCRATISATION OF GLOBAL GOVERNANCE INSTITUTIONS: From ‘Soft Power’ to Collective Decision-Making?” The subtitle is particularly biting right now. Here’s the abstract:

This dissertation analyses the problem of how to create more just and democratic global
governing institutions, exploring the approach of a more formal system of collective
decision-making by the three main actors in global society: governments, civil society and
the business sector. The thesis seeks to make a contribution by presenting for discussion an
addition to the system of international governance that is morally justified and potentially
practicable, referred to as ‘Collective Management’. The thesis focuses on the role of civil
society, analysing arguments for and against a role for civil society that goes beyond ‘soft
power’ to inclusion as voting members in inter-governmental decision-making structures in
the United Nations (UN) system, the Bretton Woods institutions, the World Trade
Organisation (WTO) and other institutions.

The thesis defends the argument that inclusion of elected representatives of non-
governmental organisations (NGOs) in tripartite decision-making structures could
potentially create a more democratic global governing system. This conclusion is supported
by a specially-commissioned survey of leading figures in NGOs and IGO decision-making
structures. The argument is developed in a case study of the WTO.

The thesis explains and adopts three philosophical foundations in support of the argument.
The first is liberal individualism; the thesis argues that there are strong motivations for free
individuals to seek fair terms of cooperation within the necessary constraints of being
members of a global society. Drawing on the works of David Hume, John Rawls and Ned
McClennen, it elaborates significant self-interested and moral motives that prompt
individuals to seek cooperation on fair terms if they expect others to do so. Secondly, it
supports a theory of global justice, rejecting the limits of Rawls’s view of international
justice based on what he calls ‘peoples’ rather than persons. Thirdly, the thesis adopts and
applies David Held’s eight cosmopolitan principles to support the concept and specific
structures of ‘Collective Management’.

No word on the use of Rawls and Held for genocidal practices against one’s own people. (Note well: he’s arguing Rawls’ normative principles don’t go far enough!)

3. This Inside Higher Ed column asks if profs should steer any of their investments toward for-profit universities. For a lot of good reasons: no. (The writer suggests there might be for-profits that are not run like the U. of Phoenix—which cannot be true given the fact that it’s a stockholder driven, not student or research driven, enterprise.) But, if you are hedging your bets on whether your state will simply cause the transfer of all its students to private colleages, as is slowly happening here in CA, then at least your stocks will go up.

(that’s a joke: please don’t invest in these crooked enterprises…)

4.Robert Eaglestone reviews Rancière’s Politics of Literature in the THE:

Jacques Rancière is increasingly highly thought of by anglophone literary critics and theorists. He has a reputation as a radical thinker, both intellectually and politically: he was a collaborator of Louis Althusser and has written influentially on radical education, literature, social history and human rights. However, this collection of selected essays, which range from general papers to more focused works, from talks to an opera programme, does not give a good sense of either his intellectual range or his radicalism. It also looks oddly dated, and so rather belies his ascendant reputation.

5. Here’s a site for trying out your ability to speak with different accents.

6. Here’s the CFP for the Caribbean Philosophical Association:




September 28-30, 2011

Rutgers University, New Brunswick


*Plenary session commemorating 50 years of Frantz Fanon’s passing with Mireille Fanon-Mendès France, Lewis Gordon, Nigel Gibson, Drucilla Cornell, and others TBA

*Boaventura de Sousa Santos on the crisis of the university

*Panel on the crisis of the humanities with Walter D. Mignolo, Nelson Maldonado-Torres, and other participants TBA

*Plenary session awarding the 2011 Frantz Fanon and Nicolás Guillén Prizes:

2011 Frantz Fanon Award winners are: Susan Buck-Morss for Hegel, Haiti, and University History, and Marilyn Nissim-Sabat for Neither Victim nor Survivor: Thinking Toward a New Humanity (attendance confirmed).

2011 Nicolás Guillén Award winner: Junot Díaz (attendance confirmed).

As always, we invite submissions (papers, panels, roundtables) that explore race and racism, gender, colonization and decolonization, sexuality, imperialism, and migration, social and intellectual movements, and related areas, not only in the Caribbean, but globally. We accept proposals in English, French, and Spanish.

Call for papers and 2011 membership form to be released soon.

Presenters are expected to pay conference fees and membership to the association as well.

via .