Theory


It’s not just me, or rather it’s not just me-reading-Zizek.  These really are strange days.  The Wall Street Journal ran a story the other day about the failure of free markets in an epistemological sense.  The Wall Street Journal!  It’s one thing for them to defend some government intrusion, that is after all the basic premise of neo-liberalism.  But to go this far really strikes me as strange.  Here’s the gem of the article:

But the current market creates the wrong kinds of incentives for doing good research or admitting failure. Novel ideas and findings are rewarded with grants and publication, which lead to academic prestige and career advancement. Researchers have a vested interest in overstating their findings because certainty is more likely than equivocation to achieve all of the above. Thus the probability increases of producing findings that are false. As the medical mathematician John Ioannidis tells Mr. Freedman: “The facts suggest that for many, if not the majority of fields, the majority of published studies are likely to be wrong.”

The problem is that the media tend to validate these findings before they have been properly interpreted, qualified, tested, and either refuted or replicated by other experts. And once a lousy study gets public validation— think of Andrew Wakefield’s claim about autism and vaccination—it can prove almost impossible to invalidate.

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In his famous but falsified engraving of the Boston Massacre, Paul Revere tried to render the “motley rabble” respectable by leaving black faces out of the crowd and putting in entirely too many gentlemen. (Linebaugh et al. 2000, 233)

Sailors and slaves, once necessary parts of the revolutionary coalition, were thus read out of the settlement at revolution’s end.  Of the five workingmen killed in the Boston Massacre of 1770, John Adams had written, “The blood of the martyrs, right or wrong, proved to be the seed of the congregation.”  Yet had Crispus Attucks – slave, sailor and mob leader – survived the fire of British muskets, he would not have been allowed to join the congregation, or new nation, he had helped to create.”  (Linebaugh et al. 2000, 240.)

Linebaugh, Peter and Marcus Rediker.  (2000).  The many headed-hydra: Sailors, slaves, commoners, and the hidden history of the revolutionary Atlantic. Boston: Beacon Press.

Many have been writing about this, but in disparate areas and under different keywords.  Some call it ‘blogging’, some ‘reality TV’, some ‘social networking’ but in the end I see them as all mainfest of the same movement: confessional culture.  We are dumping ourselves into the larger discussions where a few years ago the technology, and arguably the desire to do so, did not exist.  Most criticize this move and yet they embrace it at the very same time.  Yours truly, for example, has always derided Facebook and yet I cannot help but check it for updates and at times to even update my own status.  My derision only grows as I feel more and more naturalized with it.  Hell, this paragraph can stands as a testament to the confessional’s power.

Wendy Brown does a better job of explaining the danger surrounding this movement:

But if the silences in discourses are a site for insurrectionary noise, if they are the corridors we must fill with explosive counter-tales, it also possible to make a fetish of breaking silence.  Even more than a fetish, it is possible that this ostensible tool of emancipation carries its own techniques of subjugation – that it converges with non-emancipatory tendencies in contem-porary culture (for example, the ubiquity of confessional discourse and rampant personalization of political life), that it establishes regulatory norms, coincides with the disciplinary power of confession, in short, feeds the powers we meant to starve. While attempting to avoid a simple reversal of feminist valorizations of breaking silence, it is this dimension of silence and its putative opposite with which this Article is concerned.

In the course of this work, I want to make the case for silence not simply as an aesthetic but a political value, a means of preserving certain practices and dimensions of existence from regulatory power, from normative violence, as well as from the scorching rays of public exposure. I also want to suggest a link between, on the one hand, a certain contemporary tendency concerning the lives of public figures – the confession or extraction of every detail of private and personal life (sexual, familial, therapeutic, financial) and, on the other hand, a certain practice in feminist culture: the compulsive putting into public discourse of heretofore hidden or private experiences – from catalogues of sexual pleasures to litanies of sexual abuses, from chronicles of eating disorders to diaries of homebirths, lesbian mothering, and Gloria Steinam’s inner revolution.  In linking these two phenomena – the privatization of public life via the mechanism of public exposure of private life on the one hand, and the compulsive/compulsory cataloguing of the details of women’s lives on the other – I want to highlight a modality of regulation and depoliticization specific to our age that is not simply confessional but empties private life into the public domain, and thereby also usurps public space with the relatively trivial, rendering the political personal in a fashion that leaves injurious social, political and economic powers unremarked and untouched.  In short, while intended as a practice of freedom (premised on the modernist conceit that the truth shall make us free), these productions of truth not only bear the capacity to chain us to our injurious histories as well as the stations of our small lives but also to instigate the further regulation of those lives, all the while depoliti-cizing their conditions. (1996, 185)

These are not new ideas, however, combatting them will require a new move.  As discussed above with my own accounting, even though I feel this way I still desire to update my Facebook page. Google will be announcing a new social media tool later this week and I am enthralled for the announcement.  This movement cannot be combatted by simple criticism.  Something more affective is needed.  What is needed is something like the Hello Kitty logo.

I have not done the research necessary to validate the following reading of the logo, but it is consistent with what I know of Japanese culture hence more than plausible.  Japanese women/girls are not silenced as their western counterparts are.  Instead they are often called upon to speak and not empowered to hold their tongues.  The logo, then, is a piece de resistance of that impulse.

Hello Kitty is still caught up some translation problems, most notably the western confession does not seem to be specific to gender norms, see Brown above for reference to its once gendered liberatory potential.  What we should find is an image that can serve as a stand-in for silence.

Brown, Wendy.  (1996).  Constitutions and ‘survivor stories’: In the ‘folds of our own discourse.’  University of Chicago Law School Roundtable, 3

Michael Moore in 2004
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I spend a lot of time thinking about what I am doing on here.  I find myself thinking about it more and more as I approach the re-placement of my body and labors into the academic realm.  Consequently I find (possible) missions statements in everything I read.  Here is the latest:

‘Bio-power’ is Foucault’s arresting term for the processes by which a modern society achieves the ‘subjection of bodies and the control of populations’, as we good citizens submit to all manner of corporate disciplines and rtional-seeming imperatives.  We submit more often than not without recognising that our actions are in fact submissive: Foucault is playing the traditional, demystifying role of the intellectual in alerting us to the full measure of our daily implication in the ‘rapports de force‘, or of power relations, whose pervasiveness he intends to expose. (Sturrock 1998, 63)

Rather, this is a mission statement I decided long ago to reject.  Ursa considers me an optimist (he would never say naive to my face) when I say that I doubt most people need to be informed of the complex power relationships trapping them.  Maybe the specifics or the origins of that power are not known, but ‘consciousness raising’ strikes me as a cop-out.  It is a way for people to feel better about not taking risks.  What does need to be taught are strategies of resistance.  En-couraging measures.  One of the reasons I enjoy working with the high schoolers is because I can show them how to stand up to things.  I can teach them that they have the ability and that adolescent insecurity is founded upon a paradox that chills action.  I am constantly amazed at how savvy the kids can be when it comes to really understanding the forces they feel acting upon them.

Most demystifying intellectuals tend to focus on the wrong things.  This is also my problem when people talk of micro-politics.  Usually they mean ‘talking about shit’.  That’s not micro-politics.  Politics is about resource distribution and micro simply means further distributions but on a scale usually not seen.  Liberating the empty house for squatters is micro-politics.  Seizing a shut down factory until Bank of America restores the credit line is micro-politics.  What then is Michael Moore’s latest film Capitalism: A Love Story?

I feel no compunction to continue the project of categorization for categorization’s sake, but this is an important question.  Moore is really good about putting a human face on micro-politics. The small ruptures in our national myth are everywhere and yet oddly invisible.  Nobody does as good a job showing it as Moore does.  His movies are affecting.  But he even acknowledges his own limitations.  The end of the movie has a black screen with Moore asking people to get involved.  Even he knows his movie actually does no thing to improve conditions, but rather serves as a conduit to encourage others.  From a place of empathy.

And that is the kind of academic I strive to be.  I want to teach about strategies.  Contingencies are important, but people know their locations.  What they do not know is (1) how to do something about it and (2) that they will not be alone when the police start cracking skulls.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]Sturrock, John.  (1998).  The word from Paris. London: Verso Books.

Working principle(s) # 5: creative!’experimental, fallible, collective  Thrift supports his view of NRT as ‘a machine for multi- plying questions’ by insisting that ‘the world should be added to not subtracted from’ (Thrift, 2005, p. 474). Creativ- ity, experimentation, fallible (modest theory) and collectivity should all be enfolded into the conduct of ArT practice. This creativity can be found in James’s assertion that; Any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, simplifying; saving labour; is true for just so much, true in so far forth, true instrumentally (James, 1981, p. 30). This resonates with the messengers of Serres which bring ‘rapprochement and rapport between categories’ (Bingham and Thrift, 2000, p. 285) and of the ‘movement thoughts’ of Deleuze and Guattari. In NRT there is a call for modest method and theory in so much as limits, and trial and error experiments are recognised. This is embedded in pragmatism, particularly its fallibihsm which was pioneered by Peirce. Doubt is placed at the heart of knowledge, yet it does not disable it, rather, it energises it – ‘where the modernist intellectuals saw doubt as debilitating, Peirce saw it as liberating’ (Dig- gins, 1995, p. 190). Bernstein (1991) terms pragmatism as a tradition of ‘engaged fallibilistic pluralism’ (which means), ‘taking our own fallibility seriously – resolving that however much we are committed to our own styles of thinking, we are willing to listen to others without denying or suppressing the otherness of the other’ (p. 336). Pluralism within prag- matist thought means not only assuming that existence is plural in nature but also that theoretical engagement with it should come in plural forms which are ‘interpretive, ten- tative, always subject to correction’ (ibid, p. 327). This entails replacing established adversarial styles of academic argument with ‘a model of dialogical encounter’ in which one ‘begins with the assumption that the other has some- thing to say to us and to contribute to our understanding. [ ] This requires imagination, sensitivity and perfecting of hermeneutical skills’ (ibid). It is not assumed that this pro- cess will resolve disagreement, but rather that it will pro- duce a mutual reciprocal understanding, which includes understanding of disagreements. This fallibilistic element of pragmatism anticipates Thrift’s notion of NRT as ‘mod- est’, ‘affirmative and therefore collective expression’ which does not seek to play the ‘macho’ stance ‘boy’s game’ of building and defending theoretical ground at the expense of others (Thrift, 2004a, p. 83). Linked to fallibihsm is Peirce’s metaphor of knowledge as a cable, in which the ‘mul- titude and variety’ of ideas and theories are woven intimately together, thus making it collective and ongoing. (Jones 2008)

I am going to take exception to Jones’ conclusion about the stance of the artist.  Rather, I am going to accuse Jones of conflating the artist and the problem-solver.  The artist is part of a project that is concerned with bearing witness and moving from experience to experience.  The problem solver, however, is concerned with being an advocate.  Being a quality advocate involves – or at the least should involve – a dialectic where questions are asked.  The goal however, is never to question but to answer.  The questions are merely a method of obtaining a more accurate (academics) or lasting (judiciary) answer.  In either case though the concern is to obtain the ‘last’ answer.  Problem solvers are not concerned with an endless process of discovery.

I will return to this as lately I have been consumed by the notion of ‘last’ and what it means to my life, my labor path and others.  This new preoccupation is after rereading Chaloupka 1992 where he disclosed a twist to the ‘last’ problem: the search for knowledge is an individual’s attempt to have dying words worth remembering.  Supposedly, we search for knowledge so we can utter some great axiom thus creating our immortality.  An example of this is Shit My Dad Says.  That site is easily the funniest thing on the interwbs these days, and what is really amazing is how much of it rings true.  Shrinking the world into sound bites is therefore not only useful but ultimately a search for our own immortality.  This mechanistic view of dialectics and even debate is turning into a focus of mine.

I am not yet sure if I buy such a cynical reading of the quest for knowledge.  However, like Nietzsche, such a cynical read has infected my other readings and endeavors.

Chaloupka, William.  (1992).  Knowing nukes. Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press.

Jones, Owain.  (2008).  Stepping from the wreckage: Geography, pragmatism and anti-representational theory.  Geoforum, 39, 1600-1612.

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On the bus into to downtown this morning I was reading from the Chaloupka book and I came across what I consider to be the kernel of the book: a description of his prescribed politics and a brief theorization of why it works.

The interpretation – the “spin,” to use the Reagan-era term – I want to consider goes like this.  Not presuming to enter into the realm of force-counterforce (and all the other economies of force surrounding military and nuclear matters), the “lifestyle” argument simply intervenes. this intervention produces consequences that are more ironic than representational, more disruptive than analytic.  The lifestyle position works by rubbing against a nuclearist discourse that has tried hard to exclude challenges to its logic.  In its partial, deconstructive mode, that opposition has worked, putting its own “dumbness,” its forced inarticulateness, against the forced coherence of foreign policy discourse.  Arrayed against a thoroughly coded way of speaking, the opposition stripped its own utterances down to a naked minimum – not escaping code (how could anyone presume that?), but forcing the dominant discourse to handle the weight of the codes and substitutions all by itself.

My reading works, then, on language-and-politics turf captured by Foucault.  I am postulating a specific kind of intervention – one that politicizes by noting how language works, wihtout forfeiting the next political response.  Foucault claims this odd and important double move with a distinctive two-part challenge to power.  Starting with the crisis of representation and character of language that sets that crisis off – shifting and turning away from either the self who uses it or the phenomenon it tries to capture – Foucault moved on to a description of rules and the ways those rules constitute a generally unrecognized realm of power in contemporary society.  The two moves resonate, one exacerbating the other until legitimacy is drawn into the whirl of contested territory.  Foucault’s conception of language is what funds the possibility of political response, making it possible that such response is neither an arbitrary imposition, as has been charged, nor a promise of meaning and representation that cannot be fulfilled.  Instead, the political response finds its form exactly at the point where old models of language break down. (94).

The reduction of this intevention Chalouka advocates is to move from persuasion into a realm of Affect.  Leaving aside the debate about who first theorizes affect, Foucault, Spinoza, etc…, I will simply say that I find Affect compelling.  Sometimes.  How Affect works to mobilize mass audiences seems lacking, not only in theory but also in historical examples.  I may learn to value recycling because my mother or friends do it, and those learnings replicate outwards until they collide with someone whose mother or friends did not recycle.  The better example is something I lived through this morning.  I rode the bus.  I never rode a bus until  I moved to the east coast a few years ago and now I am a fan.  Even though I am now a convert I know that if I were to return to Texas I would not ride the bus.  Economics would prevail.  Affect is thus limited as a tool for change.  Why then did I learn to ride the bus.  Economics had some role in it, but so too did seeing people, many people, especially people I looked up to, riding the bus.

I do not feel up to the task of measuring Chaloupka’s claim that Affect removes the communication from the same grid that houses the crisis of representation (that task can wait and will require some long nights of academic sleep-deprivation, see this guy.)  That seems to be the critical portion of Affect’s value.  However, this argument does seem, on first glance, to be cheating:  “if the crisis of representation did not exist then we would not communicate in ways that replicate that crisis.  All we need to do is wish it away.”  Sure.  I’ll get right on that.

At the moment I am in the downtown Panera trying to drink some tea, my preferred caffeine delivery vehicle, that is way too hot.  The man next to me has long wiry gray hair pulled into a ponytail. He has a backpack and a camouflage jacket on.  He strikes me as either homeless or someone practicing the lifestyle politics Chaloupka discusses.  Except this man has a laptop and is looking at what seems to be Russian mail-order brides.  He then switched over to Google Finance and looked at a particular chart, manipulating the graphs and then made a phone call where I heard him order someone to buy.  How does this man intersect with Chaloupka?  He is clearly living a less-than-ordinary life.  My ability to categorize that life, however, is the crisis of representation at work no matter how ‘cool’ I may find him for being less-than-ordinary.  And he is cool: stock broker answering a call at 6:50 AM, looking at Russian mail-order brides and looking like Ian, Tom Robbins’ character, in High Fidelity.  He may seem resistant to his friends or people on the street, but his computer work betrays his actual greasing of the system.

Chaloupka, William.  (1992).  Knowing Nukes.

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In competitive policy debate we have an argument called E-Prime, that we ought not use “to be” and its conjugations because the verb implies a solid static meaning when such rigidity is rarely accurate.  The famous example is, “The runner is a woman,” when discussing some of the former Olympic champions that were revealed to be cheating and/or hermaphroditic.

This argument is not particularly persuasive and is used mainly when there is not a sophisticated negative strategy available.  However, as I age I am come more and more to believe in a variant of the argument.  I tend to dismiss declarative statements as statements of fact and instead see them more as wish-fulfillment.  This is easily seen when people talk among themselves.  I cannot help but cringe a little when someone says, “I have a high threshold for pain” or the classic “Homey don’t play that.”  Homey does play it and wishes he didn’t, hence his enthusiasm for the distancing move.

So when I encounter Che’s famous statement about the revolutionary being “guided by great feelings of love” I have to snort-laugh a little.  Che wants the revolutionary to be guided by love.  Revolutionaries want to be guided by love.  In my experience though, they are not.  Meeting many of the activists that partook in the Battle for St. Paul I believed that many of them were rather disaffected artsy kids that were angry for whatever reason.  This is not to say that those kids are impartial to the sufferings they rallied in support of, but to attribute that concern as the guiding principle is wish fulfillment.  Che’s declaration also serves the classic us/them trope of rhetoric.  If ‘we’ are the ones guided by love then ‘they’ are by definition not guided by love.  Regardless of accuracy this move is moralizing and hence more affective.

Elbaum (89) gives another example of this happening.  When discussing why 1960s radicals were drawn to the communist regimes despite the human rights abuses Elbaum says the evidence of abuses were not considered credible because the sources dismissing the abuses were also the strongest critics of US imperialism.  Much scholarly research is still concerned with the power/failures of persuasion (and evidence) and why people continue to believe something in the face of clear evidence (I contend this is the question central to Marx’ opus).  To me the answer seems obvious: persuasion only works on the choir, affect is what matters most.  The continued neglect of this is an act of wish fulfillment: scholars wish it weren’t so, they wish people could be persuaded.

The failure of debate is probably best treated by popular pundits than by academics.  Arianna Huffington’s most recent book (Right is Wrong) is about this very breakdown in society.  The August recess and the town halls aptly demonstrate this lack as people were vocal about Obama being the next Hitler.  Barney Frank dismissed one of his constituents aptly and appropriately when he said arguing with her would be like debating a kitchen table.  Sadly Frank was only partly correct: debating with anyone and not just her.  I suspect most of us in this community are either atheists or not moved by religious appeals, but there is a certain genius to the “What Would Jesus Do?” slogan.  If Obama had couched reform as the right thing to do instead of being about containing costs (a proposition open for debate, obfuscation and fear tactics) then we would be seeing a very different public dialogue right now.  Obama has a good story.  He defeated Hillary and McCain on the back of that story.  But that story has since disappeared and now he is President Wonk.  Even The Shrub understood this.

With this approach to persuasion one then has to ask, one being fond of theory and nuance, “what then of theory and nuance?”  After all, why do distinctions matter if the crowd merely follows the cool kid?  This question also comes into the easy criticism of my theory: what constitutes “cool” and how does it exist beyond the grid of intelligibility?  Clearly, coolness is not exogenous and independent of rhetoric.  Being able to talk about theory, after all, is cool to come people.  I will own this blindspot as this balancing act I am not yet able to account for.  Ultimately though, my question is about how to organize and recruit.

Theory and those discussions are important, but only after someone has been recruited into the choir.  Until then we, as organizers, ought to be concerned with being model  people (not necessarily the same thing as role models).  We need to be people our targets want to be, want to be around, and accepted by.  Once that level of affection is achieved then the theory is important.  So, trying to explain why capitalism is predatory and it is not just a problem of predatory lenders is important but only affection is achieved.  This model leaves many ambiguities and does not help close many of the difficulties of the organizers, after all, when has affection been achieved?  Is this person more receptive and hence more affected by an ability to cite authors?  In short, what motivates this person? The traditional persuasion model is still applicable, but how applicable?  My answer is to listen, not to what she says she wants but how she describes others.  The magic is in the audience’s observations not the audience’s pronouncements.

Elbaum, Max.  (2002).  Revolution in the air: Sixties radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che. London: Verso Books.

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