Politics


A great deal of the anguish I feel over the BP oil catastrophe lies not only in the ecological damage it has wrought, but in what a missed opportunity this is turning out to be. As I remarked in a previous post on the disaster, this is a prime moment to enact a progressive version of what Naomi Klein calls “the shock doctrine“. The Obama Glee Club has focused on how he’s doing everything he possibly can to stop the link and ensure that clean up proceeds apace. However, this misses the point. Discontent with Obama’s handling of the oil spill revolves not so much with how he’s dealing with the spill itself– though there’s plenty to be discontent with there as well –but with his failure to seize this opportunity.

One of my central reasons for voting for Obama was his profound rhetorical ability. It is my view that we exist at a point in history where it is of crucial importance to shift the reigning commonplaces underlying American politics. For thirty years our airwaves have been filled with neoliberal propoganda, convincing us that the primary function of government is to create an optimal business environment and that the best way to achieve this goal is through the privatization of government functions and through the deregulation of all markets and industries. On the one hand, the thesis runs, the private sector knows best how to run things and government botches everything it puts its hands on. As Reagan famously said, “government is not the solution, it’s the problem.” And indeed, in the late 70s when neoliberalism began to ascend from a wacky fringe position defended by only a few cranks to a hegemonic ideology constituting the common sense of the American public, there was good reason for being suspicious of the government. On the other hand, the argument runs, where business flourishes money will trickle down to average people, improving their standard of living. As the old saying goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats”.

The BP oil disaster is not simply an ecological and economic catastrophe, but is a symptom or a symbol of all the failures of neoliberal ideology. And this is precisely what has been largely missing in Obama’s handling of the issue. What we need right now is not someone who seeks bipartisan legislation, nor someone who works quietly and competently behind the scenes. No, what we need right now is a Lacanian master.

Perhaps the best way to understand Lacan’s discourse of the master is in terms of the moment of kairos in rhetoric. In Greek, kairos means the “right or opportune moment.” The rhetor is the person who is adept at taking advantage of the opportune moment to generate action that leads in the right direction. Situated in terms of Lacan’s discourse of the master depicted above, we see the top portion of the graph pointing from S1 to S2. S1 refers to the master-signifier, whereas S2 refers to the battery or collection of free floating signifiers. The function of the master, the kairotic act of the master, lies in unifying the chaotic and free floating battery of signifiers (S2’s) under a master-signifier that renders them structured and intelligible.

And this has been precisely what is missing in Obama’s presidency so far. If Obama has failed to step up to the plate, this is not because he is dealing with a recalcitrant congress or an obstructive opposition party, but because he has failed to step up to the plate and perform the kairotic act. Here we have an event that is going to have massive economic and ecological impact that will reverberate for years, an event is a direct outcome of deregulation and corporate greed, an event that will, in one way or another effect all Americans, and we have an administration that refuses to quilt this event into a whole series of events that have buffeted both the country and the world. In Difference and Repetition Deleuze speaks of repetition in terms of resonances, echoes, and reflections of the past. In repetition the present actuality somehow is haunted by all sorts of other past events.

It is precisely something like this that is the case with the BP oil catastrophe. The oil catastrophe echoes and resonates not only with past oil catastrophes, but with the financial collapse, the West Virginia mining disaster, the exploitation of American tax payer dollars by contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, the exploitation of American citizens by insurance companies, and on and on. If there were ever a moment to quilt together our economic woes, the impending environmental apocalypse, and rampant corruption among the corporations and government as a result of neoliberal ideology, this is that moment. Obama needs to step up to the plate and take advantage of this moment, performing a Kennedyesque moment not unlike that of persuading the American people to go to the moon.

The point isn’t that Obama will necessarily be successful in all that he asks for, but that asking for it plays an important function in structuring the dialogue and changing popular consensus as to what the function of government is and whether or not corporations truly are the best at running things. Now is the time to ask for big things. While I am aware that he has put more money into funding public transportation, why is he not linking the use of public transportation to patriotism? Here he would have a way of quilting the use of public transportation to the war in the Middle East, the death of soldiers and innocent civilians, massive expenditures on that war, and the environment. And here, also, he could make a call for boosting public transportation in the suburbs, encouraging us to take the bus or a train to work, rather than drive our cars. And while he’s at it, he could address highschool kids, who are much more environmentally minded than the older generations, and encourage them to take the bus to school rather than driving their car. He could work to make this a “cool” or “hip” thing to do for the environment.

In addition to public transportation, he could call for a radical shift in the trucking industry. In the United States alone trucks travel trillions of miles a year. Now is the time to call for a shift from diesel to natural gas in trucks, or, ideally, some environmentally friendly, biodegradable fuel. It is also the time to call upon congress to give large tax cuts to families that buy hybrid cars and who do things to make their homes more energy efficient.

These are just a few things that come to mind. Once again, the point is not that Obama will get all that we want. We won’t. The point is that things have to be put out there to get anything. As a result of all that’s taken place in recent years, I believe Americans are gradually waking up to the devastation wrought by neoliberalism economically, environmentally, in terms of political instability throughout the world and so on. However, we need a kairotic act that links these things together and that registers them for the big Other as a sort of force field in the symbolic order. Nor can we drag our feet at this time in history. We are not living in times of business as usual where incrementalism and political pragmatism is an acceptable way of proceeding. As the environmental apocalypse continues to intensify we will witness massive economic instability as the result of food shortages and the scarcity of water and fossil fuels, more pandemics unleashed as a result of the world heating up, and political instability and war as a result of the scarcity of these resources. Perhaps Obama will find the courage to engage in such kairotic acts if he is lucky enough to be elected for a second term, but it’s increasingly difficult to see him getting re-elected. There is nothing pragmatic or realistic about proceeding in such a wishy washy manner where winning the support of the electorate is concerned. The damage is largely done in the Gulf, but perhaps something good can nonetheless come of this catastrophe.

Responding to one of Anxiousmodernman’s comments in my post on BP, Circling Squares writes:

Estimates vary but its been reported recently that 27 million Americans are on anti-depressant drugs. (1) That is a heck of a lot of people who are medically numbed; it is pretty difficult to be angry, righteous and politicised when you are taking drugs to stop you from feeling. (2) Besides the direct effect on those specific people, this indicates a far wider tendency, as you said, to individualise blame, to accept failure as one’s own fault and thus, because one is trapped into that circle (there’s no way out, nowhere else to go from there), self-harm and self-medication follow.

There’s more to Circling’s response, so please go read it. There are a few points worth making in response to Circling’s remarks. First, anti-depressants don’t prevent feeling, but rather depression prevents feeling. When, in the grips of depression, everything is bland or gray. Nothing interests, nothing motivates, nothing excites, nor is there much in the way of any affect whatsoever. The depressed person is more or less paralyzed or completely numb. It is thus a mistake, I believe, to suggest– if this is what Circling is implying –that if only we weren’t medicated, if only we embraced our depression, we would be capable of acting. The reverse rather seems to be the case. Moreover, when anti-depressants are at their best, far from turning one into a numb zombie, they actually liberate affect and the capacity to engage with the world. It becomes possible to care or be engaged with the world around us.

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George Lakoff has an interesting post up on Obama’s communication failure with respect to the Gulf Oil Spill. Lakoff writes:

Crises are opportunities. He has consistently missed them. Today was a grand opportunity to pull together the threads — BP and the spill, Massey and the mine disaster, Wall Street and the economic disaster, Anthem BlueCross and health care, the Arizona Immigration Law, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — even Afghanistan. The press threw him fastballs straight down the middle, and he hit dribblers every time.

Quite right. In The Shock Doctrine Naomi Klein analyzes the way in which neo-liberals have used periods of crises to push through a series of economic and legislative reforms. There is no reason that crises of this sort can’t be used to do something similar, but for progressive ends. Yet Obama has done nothing of the sort. No doubt this is because Obama himself appears to endorse neo-liberal economic policies, but all the same.

Lakoff goes on to remark that,

The central idea is Empathy. Democracy is based on empathy, on people caring about one another and acting to the very best of their ability on that care, for their families, their communities, their nation, and the world. Government must also care and act on that care. Government’s job is to protect and empower its citizens.

That idea is what draws together all the threads. The bottom line for corporations (whether BP, Massey, Anthem or Goldman Sachs) is money, not empathy. The bottom line for those who hate (whether homophobes, the Arizona Legislature, or al Qaeda) is domination and oppression, not empathy.

Empathy, and acting on it effectively, is the main business of government.

While I completely agree with Lakoff’s thesis that corporations are profit driven entities and that this is something that needs to be trumpeted again and again, I’m more reluctant about his rhetorical strategy of framing issues in terms of entity. Perhaps I’m a cynical bastard, but I just don’t think people are primarily motivated by empathy but rather by interest. Appeals to charity strike me as very weak. Rather, what needs to be trumpeted is that the profit motive pursued by corporations is directly contrary to the interests of working and middle class people.

The BP oil disaster will very likely have a tremendous impact on the economy. This is a no brainer, of course, with respect to the Gulf economy, much of which is dependent on the fishing industry. But it’s difficult to see how the collapse of that economy won’t also impact the American economy as a whole. Moreover, corporations and neo-liberal de-regulation have, since the 70s, caused the stagnation of wages for working and middle class people, increased joblessness, and created a major wealth gap between the top 5% and the rest of us. This is something people need to understand.

Obama has missed a major opportunity to reverse some of these dynamics and to pump up regulation, actually fund regulators so they can do their jobs, and fund green technologies and renewable, eco-friendly resources. This should have been a major opportunity to push significant tax cuts for those who buy hybrid cars, increased regulations energy efficiency in the trucking and shipping industry (the former travels over a trillion miles a year in America alone), and to push for green energy sources. Why has Obama, who is so intelligent and rhetorically gifted, missed these opportunities? My cynical heart tells me that he’s completely aware of this opportunity but isn’t interested in seizing it because he too is owned by the corporations. In the wake of the SCOTUS decision allowing corporations to spend unlimited money advocating for particular politicians, this seems to follow as a matter of course.

Based on a recommendation by a student that was prompted while teaching Harman’s Prince of Networks, my bedtime reading has recently consisted of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies. Although I’m not very far into the book, so far I am very much enjoying it. Like Braudel and the Annales School historians, Diamond is extremely attentive to the role played by nonhuman objects in collectives. In many respects, Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel reads like a much quicker and livelier version of Braudel’s Capitalism & Civilization. Diamond, I think, presents us with what 1/3 of an object-oriented analysis would look like in social and political thought. Speaking of the encounter between Pizarro and Atahuallpa, Daimond writes:

How did Pizarro come to be at Cajamarca? Why didn’t Atahuallpa instead try to conquer Spain? Pizarro came to Cajamarka by means of European maritime technology, which built the ships that took him across the Atlantic from Spain to Panama, and then in the Pacific from Panama to Peru. Lacking such technology, Atahuallpa did not expand overseas out of South America.

In addition to the ships themselves, Pizarro’s presence depended on the centralized political organization that enabled Spain to finance, build, staff, and equip the ships. The Inca Empire also had a centralized political organization, but that actually worked to its disadvantage, because Pizarro seized the Inca chain of command intact by capturing Atahuallpa. Since the Inca bureaucracy was so strongly identified with its god-like absolute monarch, it disintegrated after Atahuallpa’s death. Maritime technology coupled with political organization was similarly essential for European expansions to other continents, as well as for expansion of many other peoples.

A related factor bringing Spaniards to Peru was the existence of writing. Spain possessed it, while the Inca Empire did not. Information could be spread far more widely, more accurately, and in more detail by writing than it could be transmitted by mouth. That information, coming back to Spain from Columbus’s voyages and from Cortes’s conquest of Mexico, sent Spaniards pouring into the New World. Letters and pamphlets supplied both the motivation and the necessary detailed sailing directions. The first published report of Pizarro’s exploits, by his companion Captian Cristobal de Mena, was printed in Seville in April 15 1534, a mere nine months after Atahuallpa’s execution. It became a best-seller, was rapidly translated into other European language, and sent a further stream of Spanish colonists to tighten Pizarro’s grip on Peru. (78 – 79)

Daimond works not with the concept of society, which is a concept restricted to people and their beliefs, but rather with what Latour calls collectives. Collectives are entanglements of objects. They can be entanglements composed entirely of nonhuman objects as in the case of an eco-system, or they can be entanglements that also contain humans as well as nonhuman objects. However, they can never be composed of humans alone. In his analysis of the encounter between Spain and South America, Daimond not only discusses human actors such as Atahuallpa, but also institutions like forms of political organization, and nonhuman actors such as germs, clubs, forms of armor, maritime technologies, writing, pamphlets, letters, horses, and so on. All of these entities are full blown actors in Diamond’s account that are generative of certain forms of association or certain social relations.

Indeed, when Diamond begins discussing food production in Europe, he notes the manner in which the domestication of plants and animal led to markedly different forms of human relation:

All those are direct ways in which plant and animal domestication led to denser human populations by yielding more food than did the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. A more indirect way involved the consequences of the sedentary lifestyle enforced by food production. People of many hunter-gatherer societies move frequently in search of wild foods, but farmers must remain near their fields and orchards. The resulting fixed abode contributes to denser human populations by permitting a shortened birth interval. A hunter-gather mother who is shifting camp can carry only one child, along with her few possessions. She cannot afford to bear her next child until the previous toddler can walk fast enough to keep up with the tribe and not hold it back. In practice, nomadic hunter-gatherers space their children about four years apart by means of lactational amenorrhea, sexual abstinence, infanticide, and abortion. By contrast, sedentary people, unconstrained by problems of carrying young children on treks, can bear and raise as many children as they can feed. The birth interval for many farm peoples is around two years, half that of hunter-gatherers. That higher birthrate of food producers, together with their ability to feed more people per acre, lets them achieve much higher population densities than hunter-gatherers.

A separate consequence of a settled existence is that it permits one to store food surpluses, since storage would be pointless if one didn’t remain nearby to guard the stored food. While some nomadic hunter-gathers may occasionally bag more food than they can consume in a few days, such a bonanza is of little use to them because they cannot protect it. But stored food is essential for feeding non-food-producing specialists, and certainly for supporting whole towns of them. Hence nomadic hunter-gatherer societies have few or no such full-time specialists, who instead first appear in sedentary societies.

Two types of such specialists are kings and bureaucrats. Hunter-gatherer societies tend to be relatively egalitarian, to lack full-time bureaucrats and hereditary chiefs, and to have small-scale political organization at the level of the band of tribe. That’s because all able-bodied hunter-gatherers are obliged to devote much of their time to acquiring food. In contrast, once food can be stockpiled, a political elite can gain control of food produced by others, assert the right of taxation, escape the need to feed itself, and engage full-time in political activities. Hence moderate-sized agricultural societies are often organized in chiefdoms, and kingdoms are confined to large agricultural societies. Those complex political units are much better able to mount a sustained war of conquest than in an egalitarian band of hunters. (89 – 90)

I quote these passages at length because they are so foreign to most of what we find in dominant strains of continental cultural, social, and political theory. Daimond’s history is a history of collectives that is as much a history of the role played by nonhuman objects as human actants in the genesis of associations between humans and nonhumans in these collectives. Ask yourself honestly, do you really see anything remotely like a discussion of these sorts of agencies in the social and political thought of the Frankfurt School, Zizek, Ranciere, Balibar, Laclau, Derrida, or Badiou? Stepping outside the continental tradition, do you find it in Rawls or Habermas? What about Luhmann? No, we find nothing remotely close to the discussion of these issues. Rather, to encounter a discussion of the role of these sorts of actors we need to turn to Latour and the ANT theorists, Marx, Deleuze and Guattari and their under-developed analysis of machinic assemblages, and thinkers like McLuhan, Castelles, Haraway, DeLanda, Hayles, Bogost, Ong, Kittler, and so on.

What are we missing as a result of ignoring these nonhuman actors, and to what degree are our questions of political theory and action poorly formed and premised on a complete misrecognition of why collective formations are as they are? Indeed, to what degree do we entirely miss issues that are political because we have restricted the domain of the political to the human and the subject? To a great degree, I would say. However, as I said at the beginning of this post, something like Diamond’s analysis only constitutes 1/3 of what an OOO analysis would look like in social and political thought. Diamond is to be commended for paying keen attention to the role played by nonhuman actants in collectives that contain humans, but we must also recall that for OOO signs and language are objects as well. The semiotic is not to be abandoned. What is to be abandoned is the thesis of the linguistic idealists to the effect that language and signs constitute entities. Rather, we must think the manner in which the semiotic is entangled with non-semiotic actants. And finally, we need to make room for the manner in which objects are always withdrawn or in excess of any of their manifestations or sensuous presentations. A fullblown OOO analysis would contain all three of these dimensions in its thinking of collectives and entanglements.

Expanding a bit on my last post, I recall that my initial impression of Harman’s Tool-Being was that it was a strange Badiouianism. This is certainly an odd claim to make as Badiou is nowhere a key reference in Graham’s work, nor does he deploy concepts like multiplicity, event, truth-procedure, or set in his ontology. So given such profound differences between these two thinkers, what could have led me to discern such a profound proximity between the two of them? Simply put, both Harman and Badiou are profound anti-relationists and subtractive thinkers. Badiou’s multiplicities are militantly anti-relational and, moreover, everything in his thought revolves around what can be subtracted from situations: events and truth-procedures. Likewise, while we find nothing like events or truth-procedures as Badiou understands them, Harman’s objects are nonetheless subtracted from all relation by virtue of the fact that they are radically withdrawn.

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Over at Networkologies Chris has graciously responded to my post last night here and here. I very much appreciate Vitale’s clarifications and apologies. I take charges of object-oriented ontology being in league with neo-liberal ideology and capitalism very seriously. When OOO first started to make a strong appearance in the blogosphere, it was not unusual to hear it charged with being somehow an apologetics for neoliberal ideology. I don’t think these are innocent charges or mere misunderstandings, but are, for anyone who understands what capitalism has done to this world, extremely grave charges.

This criticism seemed to come primarily from those deeply influenced by Zizek who advocate what I view to be an extremely idiosyncratic form of Marxism. And if I refer to this Marxism as idiosyncratic, then this is because economics is entirely absent in his thought (despite his protestations to the contrary in The Parallax View), because any meditation on technology or class is absent from his thought, because any discussion of resources and their role is absent, and because everything is reduced to the level of the signifier and an entirely idealist conception of the real (“the real is an effect of the symbolic”). Part of what happens here, I think, is a transcription of Latour’s views about Marxist thought (he rejects it), onto what onticology is up to. Here I think Latour is just plain wrong and that Marx is a lot closer to Annales School models of analysis that so deeply influenced ANT than Latour is willing to suggest.

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Can the Obama administration get any more depressing? First we get “health care reform” without even a public option for price control. Now he’s calling for oil drilling, turning back on his campaign promises once again. It seems that there isn’t a single progressive position that he isn’t willing to bargain away to the plutocracy that rules the country. Too depressing for words.

Okay, I wanted to write a wizbang post on this issue and probably will in the future when my thoughts settle a bit more, but in the tradition of Nate who has sadly been rather absent lately due to his paternal bliss, I have to ask, what in the hell is up with French continental philosophy’s obsession with the subject. Now please understand, when I ask this question I’m not asking it seriously. I know that the question of the subject has somehow come to be seen as the crucial and burning question of how change is possible. But to be quite honest, after going through all my Lacanian, Zizekian, and Badiouian escapades, I have to confess that I’m left scratching my head as to how the question contributes anything to producing change beyond providing a sort of pep rally for demoralized leftists living in a neoliberal world.

What sort of theory produces theoretical change? When I reflect on this question the answer seems to be cartographic theory or that form of theory that either provides the tools to or that actually do map collective assemblages. Here I have in mind work like that of Foucault, Marx in Capital, Latour, various feminist thinkers, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello. The point is that it’s very difficult to do anything if you don’t have a map of how things are put together, and it’s very difficult to strategize action without knowing the basins of attraction that tend to pull human bodies into particular patterns. It’s difficult to see what the category of the subject really contributes to any of this. And indeed, it seems that preoccupation with the subject actively draws attention away from such work.

For the last few weeks I’ve been heavily engaged with the writing of articles and grading, so I haven’t had much time for reading blogs or writing posts. It was thus with a bit of guilt that I am just now coming across Nate’s post on object-oriented ontology, written back at the beginning of March. Nate writes:

In English there are two essential types of words: 1) words that have to do with objects (nouns) and 2) words that have to do with actions (verbs). And, just as Aristotle claimed of onoma and rhema, any structure that weaves these two types of words together is where discourse takes place. But another way of reading this “weaving together” would be to say that in discourse, or logos, we discover that essentially “objects act.”

In a recent discussion I had with my dissertation director, we came to the conclusion that this phrase (“objects act”) is the only way to describe the show on the History Channel entitled, Life After People. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it is roughly 40 minutes of watching buildings, landmarks, and cities crumble back into the earth. But what is fascinating about the show is its reliance upon the human gaze. For the only reason that this show is fascinating to its human viewers is because of the amount of significance we have given to each of the objects we watch deteriorate. Without significance there is no difference between the Statue of Liberty falling into the ocean and the face of a cliff. Significance is the recognition of the gaze, and without it we are left with the fact that “objects act”.

I find that I have very mixed feelings about Nate’s post. On the one hand, at the core of my onticology is the thesis that objects are powers of acting, and thus are better thought as verbs and perhaps events, than nouns. When Spinoza asks, in book 3 of the Ethics, what can a body do?, I want to take this question seriously and treat bodies as doings. Thus, when I distinguish between the virtual proper being of an object (an object’s substantiality) and its local manifestation, I am drawing a distinction between powers or capacities of an object to act and acts of an object. My thesis is that a local manifestation of an object are acts or “doings” of an object and that these acts or doings of an object are not possible without powers or capacities of an object (it’s virtual proper being).

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An interesting article on why its a no brainer that academics are “liberal” in The Chronicle here. I always find it intriguing that conservatives that denounce liberal academia seem to believe that this political persuasion precedes the research of academics, biasing it, rather than seeing that it arises from this exact research and the historical, anthropological, and sociological awareness it engenders.

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