In discussions of French inflected Marxist political theory I often get the sense that democracy is treated as a dirty word or the contrary of Marxism. The subtext seems to be that somehow neoliberalism and democracy are one and the same thing, or that the concept of democracy is identical to the actually existing system of something like American “democracy”. I find this idea very odd. For me Marxism and communism are synonyms for democracy, and the issues that motivate Marxist activists arise from the fact that our actually existing governmental systems aren’t democratic enough. Equating democracy with American “democracy” is like equating socialism with Stalinist socialism. In both cases we have an utter perversion of the political concept and the precise opposite of what these things are supposed to be. What am I missing?

As more and more information comes to the surface concerning the torture memos, I simply cannot fathom that we are having a discussion as to whether or not torture was effective in producing information and whether the United States has been endangered by releasing the memos. Of course, many of us already knew that this was going on and probably much worse. What is wrong with these people such that they can even situate the question in these terms? These people are sociopaths, yet they have presumed to lecture us about morality for the last thirty years. I really don’t know what to say. Words fail. All I can think of, in bleak despair, is Ethan Coen’s poem “The Drunken Driver Has the Right of Way“,

‘The Drunken Driver Has the Right Of Way’

by Ethan Coen

The loudest have the final say,
The wanton win, the rash hold sway,
The realist’s rules of order say
The drunken driver has the right of way.

The Kubla Khan can butt in line;
The biggest brute can take what’s mine;
When heavyweights break wind, that’s fine;
No matter what a judge might say,
The drunken driver has the right of way.

The guiltiest feel free of guilt;
Who care not, bloom; who worry, wilt;
Plans better laid are rarely built
For forethought seldom wins the day;
The drunken driver has the right of way.

The most attentive and unfailing
Carefulness is unavailing
Wheresoever fools are flailing;
Wisdom there is held at bay;,
The drunken driver has the right of way.

De jure is de facto’s slave;
The most foolhardy beat the brave;
Brass routs restraint; low lies high’s grave;
When conscience leads you, it’s astray;
The drunken driver has the right of way.

It’s only the naivest who’ll
Deny this, that the reckless rule;
When facing an oncoming fool
The practiced and sagacious say
Watch out — one side — look sharp — gang way.

However much you plan and pray,
Alas, alack, tant pis, oy vey,
Now — heretofore — til Judgment Day,
The drunken driver has the right of way.

This is the world we live in.


Special thanks to N.Pepperell for spurring these thoughts, as misguided and inadequate as they are, in our discussion of agency over at Rough Theory.

Recently I’ve been thinking a good deal about the relationship between scene, agency, and act within the field of social theory and political questions. In many respects, these questions have been motivated by worries that have emerged around questions of individuation that I have focused on for the last year or two. The strategic value of Deleuze’s account of individuation is that it overcomes the peril of thinking about entities abstractly by underlining both how entities emerge or come to be in relation to a milieu and how they are characterized by ongoing processual relations to that milieu. However, the danger here is that we end up with a sort of determinism or social and political “physics” where no agency is possible because the agent is simply the actualization of a pre-personal field not of its own making. For Deleuze Ideas or Multiplicities are problems. An Idea is not something that an agent thinkers or conceives, but is rather an ontological category characterized as a field of differential relations and singularities (potentials) that are solved over the course of an actualization. Thus, for example, any particular tree is the result of an Idea or Problem in the sense that it revolves a set of potentials characteristic of both its own genetic constitution in larval state and its unique environment. Similar, for Deleuze, agents are not the agents of their Ideas (multiplicities), but are the patients of our Ideas. We are results of these problematic fields, not the ones directing the course of events.


In an article for the New York Times, Mark Edmundson writes:

Late in life — he was in his 80s, in fact — Sigmund Freud got religion. No, Freud didn’t begin showing up at temple every Saturday, wrapping himself in a prayer shawl and reading from the Torah. To the end of his life, he maintained his stance as an uncompromising atheist, the stance he is best known for down to the present. In “The Future of an Illusion,” he described belief in God as a collective neurosis: he called it “longing for a father.” But in his last completed book, “Moses and Monotheism,” something new emerges. There Freud, without abandoning his atheism, begins to see the Jewish faith that he was born into as a source of cultural progress in the past and of personal inspiration in the present. Close to his own death, Freud starts to recognize the poetry and promise in religion.

A good deal of the antireligious polemic that has recently been abroad in our culture proceeds in the spirit of Freud’s earlier work. In his defense of atheism, “God Is Not Great,” Christopher Hitchens cites Freud as an ally who, he believes, exposed the weak-minded childishness of religion. Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins come out of the same Enlightenment spirit of hostile skepticism to faith that infuses “The Future of an Illusion.” All three contemporary writers want to get rid of religion immediately and with no remainder.

But there’s more to Freud’s take on religion than that. In his last book, written when he was old and ill, suffering badly from cancer of the jaw, Freud offers another perspective on faith. He argues that Judaism helped free humanity from bondage to the immediate empirical world, opening up fresh possibilities for human thought and action. He also suggests that faith in God facilitated a turn toward the life within, helping to make a rich life of introspection possible.

You can read the rest of the article here. I wont say too much about this article, beyond pointing out that it is one of the most creative arguments by omission (the author makes no mention of the account of God and the experience of the sacred as developed in Totem and Taboo, The Future of an Illusion, and Civilization and Its Discontents, and speaks of Freud’s late life “turn”, as if Freud had somehow changed his position on these matters), I’ve ever come across. Note the way the author hints that Freud was undergoing some sort of “death-bed” conversion due to his cancer. The author’s argument is a bit like suggesting that Marx later had a change of heart with respect to capitalism and the bourgeois because he often spoke of the emancipatory potentials of these things. Moreover, he conmpletely ignores the nature of genetic and immanent critique that strives to account for how some phenomena came to be on the basis of immanent devlopment and historical conditions. These sorts of sophistries seem increasingly common… Or perhaps they’ve always been about. It would appear that rightwing media spin has now even entered academia.

Apologies for my lack of responses and postings lately. This last week has seen me doubled over in pain and getting little or no sleep as a result of intense stomach pains. I suspect I’ve developed an ulcer, but my hypochondrial, neurotic mind convinces me that it must be some form of cancer or a rare form of leprosy that only targets the stomach… Or perhaps I’ve contracted one of those aliens from Alien. I suspect this third possibility is the most likely given that I’ve been reading science fiction before bed lately.

At any rate, there have been some truly excellent posts floating about the blogosphere recently. N.Pepperell has written a short, but meaty, post on self-reflexivity, immanence, and theoretical pessimism as a teaser for a project she’ll be developing over the next year. Although she does not mention Badiou, it is interesting to contrast her self-reflexive conception of social transformation with Badiou’s theory of the event which comes from the outside. With his characteristic rigor and beauty, Lars has continued his meditation on the nature of language, unfolding the implications of language for ontology and agency in a heavy dialogue with Deleuze and Guattari among others (here and here). Little John and Ibitsu of Still Water Springs have taken some arrows from my quiver and sent them flying in different and interesting directions (here and here). In the post entitled “Reading”, in particular, he develops far better what I was trying to get at in my post Reading as a Material Event.

All of these interweaving dialogues have left me wondering what philosophy must be, what it must look like, when the mediated and contextual nature of agency is recognized. When one can no longer posit the subject as a ground of transparency and immediate presence, where does one begin without falling into a programmatic dogmatism? How does one begin to ground claims in such a universe? What does an epoche look like when it is no longer the delivery of a pure subject? I have no idea of how to formulate such questions and the alien that has decided to inhabit my stomach makes it difficult to even think about these questions. I certainly don’t wish to assert that philosophy is at an end, though I find myself concerned with what strikes me as dogmatism among a number of structurally influenced thinkers.

Adam Kotsko has written an interesting post about hostility towards high theory over at An und fur sich.

I have noticed a phenomenon that seems to be particularly intense at CTS, but I’m sure happens elsewhere. This is the phenomenon of being impatient with scholarship and theoretical work that does not appear to have an immediate practical application or to be immediately communicable to “common people.” Today this did not come up in class, since we were talking about a very topical book of Judith Butler’s (Precarious Life), but when discussing the idea of how an identitarian “we” very often ends up excluding some of those that it by all rights should include, this issue came to mind.

It seems to me that various types of activist movements, identitarian or not, and also religious movements tend to marginalize or exclude their more “intellectual” members. Hence when we get the impatient question, “But how does this play to the people on the streets/in the pews?,” it may represent a certain defensiveness among people who are seeking to be intellectuals who are faithful to the movements with which they identify. In rhetorically identifying with the “common person” — which the speaker, who is in this case enrolled in an advanced degree program, simply no longer is, whether they want to admit it or not — the speaker can make a double assertion:

1. The common people are right to be suspicious of some intellectual work, which really is useless at best or counterproductive at worst.
2. I, however, do not do that kind of intellectual work and am very suspicious of it myself.

This identification and distancing, then, can be a means of expiating a certain type of guilt for enjoying “useless” intellectual pursuits for their own sake. It is difficult for me to imagine that anyone would enter a PhD program without enjoying intellectual work for its own sake, even if the primary goal is, for instance, to document a neglected aspect of one’s cultural heritage or history, or to develop specific programs to help people, etc., etc. Even if one really is a “movement intellectual” in sincere solidarity with an activist or religious group, one is still an intellectual, which is always going to include at least some minimal slippage between one’s intellectual pursuits and the immediate needs (strategic of propagandistic) of the movement. One may take theological stances that one’s church body takes as disruptive of the training of ministers, or one may ask questions about sexuality that are experienced as attacking the unity of one’s identitarian movement — in any case, one’s identification is not complete. Even if that must necessarily be true for every member of a movement, it is much more of a “public” issue for the intellectual, whose role makes it much less easy to hide misgivings than is the case for a “private individual” in the rank and file.

I confess that I’m increasingly guilty of this. In the realm of political theory I increasingly find myself feeling that high theory seldom leads to any genuine action, and is often remote from the living struggles of its day. As such, it finds itself in a sort of performative contradiction. At the level of its content it espouses a radical agenda of change, yet the form of its discourse and the way it is addressed to other academics ends up withdrawing it from the social sphere and allowing the very things it claims to struggle against to persist. The academy can be thought as a way of containing more public forms of engagement and cutting them off in advance.

With regard to theology my suspicion is that high theology is often a rationalization of much more basic religious phenomena. Here the situation is not unlike the Heidegger affair. Heidegger comes up with all sorts of nuanced and sophisticated grounds to explain the world-historical significance of the Nazi party, but at the end of the day the Nazi party is a very stupid, very vulgar, very ugly social phenomenon that possesses none of the saving power he suggests at the level of its concrete practice. Heidegger ends up supporting the very thing promoting the forgetfullness of being he decries. The theologian ends up supporting, in action, the very things they decry by virtue of how religious politics objectively functions.

At any rate, I’m continuously being told that I don’t recognize the diversity of religious belief so I cited some statistics:

Here in the states 59% of Protestants voted for Bush, 52% of Catholics voted Bush, and 78% of Evangelicals/Born-Agains voted for Bush. 64% of people that attended church more than once a week voted Bush, as did 58% of those that attend church weekly.


These are numbers that can’t simply be brushed aside or ignored, and I think they underline why Adam’s allusion to this variety of religious believers is a disingenious argument to make. The numbers for Catholics and Protestants are heartening as they’re almost split down the middle. Consequently, for me the interesting question would be one of how to push those numbers in the other direction. Is high theology going to do this? I don’t see how any of you, however, can reasonably deny that as it stands now there’s a strong coalition between conservatives and religion in the United States.

You can imagine the response from Adam:

Show me an atheist Mother Theresa and we’ll talk. Show me that doctrinaire atheism promotes anything other than stupid pride and other than that just totally going along with the capitalist system, and we’ll talk. Until then, just fucking shut the fuck up.

It’s interesting that Adam believes there haven’t been any atheist benefactors of mankind. It’s even more interesting that he so readily accepts the stories about Mother Teresa and doesn’t look into her own relationship with capitalism (i.e., the way she was perhaps making the condition of the lepers worse due to a religious mission). But the most astonishing claim is the idea that atheists are somehow alone in going along with the capitalist system. If anything, religion in the United States seems to systematically function as one of the central promotors of capitalism. In the end, however, I think Adam’s call to shut up says it all and reveals his true nature. This is the whole problem.

UPDATE: Apparently I’ve been banned from the Weblog and An und fur sich for my remarks. It is good to see Christlike behavior alive and well. I think a not so careful examination of Adam’s mode of speaking to others reveals the true nature of how he feels about discussion concerning religious belief. He’s completely open to such discussion so long as no one disagrees or criticizes the religious. It’s interesting how this company immediately resorts to invectives and attacks the moment they feel questioned. Who knows what else they might do (they certainly did some unkind things to Rich Pulasky over at the Weblog). In his response to this post he refers to me as a doctrinaire, fundamentalist atheist. I wonder if Adam understands that I, and most other atheists, would never speak up about their atheism at all if it weren’t for folk like Adam brutalizing our positions and religious zealots enacting legislation in the United States. We’d much rather discuss ways of solving political problems, social problems, engage in philosophy and science, and discuss an interesting novel or film. At any rate, Adam’s banning performatively re-enacts the history of the church with regard to dialogue. I’m just glad he doesn’t have the institutional power to burn me at the stake or torture me like Galileo.

At long last we now have a source that gives us genuine, reliable, and unbiased knowledge! I present to you the Conservapedia.

Finally a reference source that cuts through all the bs! Take, for instance, this courageous observation about global warming:

The theory is widely accepted within the scientific community despite a lack of any conclusive evidence, though that is not to say there is no evidence at all.[1][2] On February 2, 2007, an internatonal panel of hundreds of scientists and representatives of 113 governments issued a report concluding:

The observed widespread warming of the atmosphere and ocean, together with ice-mass loss, support the conclusion that it is extremely unlikely that global climate change of the past 50 years can be explained without external forcing, and very likely that is not due to known natural causes alone.”[3]

It should be noted that these scientists are motivated by a need for grant money in their field of climatology. Therefore, their work can not be considered unbiased, though no more than any scientist in any other field .[4]. Also, these scientists are mostly liberal athiests, untroubled by the hubris that man can destroy the Earth which God gave him.[5]

I encourage all of you to make use of this terrific resource in your own research. It is of vital importance that we overcome reality’s leftwing bias. And finally, a source free of hubris that brings God back into science.

Some of you might recall the enthusiasm I expressed over the victory of the democratic party in November. Indeed, for me these days the entire goal is to find a way to be a bit optimistic and affirmative in a world of critical and political theory that strikes me as having become fashionably pessimistic and self-indulgent. As in all things, optimism is quickly diminished when confronting the corruption of party politics. Nancy Pelosi has decided to bar labor representatives from meeting with freshman representatives to discuss the economic direction of the country, thereby giving the middle finger to labor in the United States. I think this is a lethal error, and that moves such as this account for the rising tide of religious fundamentalism in the United States. It is not by mistake that the same demographic that once made up the labor movements of the past is today aligned with the religious right. The rise of Christian fundamentalism can be plotted against the attack on labor movements in the United States, starting in the early seventies. In the face of globalization and perpetual layoffs, and a lack of political representation, the only option seems to be one of becoming Stoic and turning towards God. No wonder we are inhabited by such apocalyptic visions. It’s as if the United States has become Heideggerian, believing that “only a god can save us now”.

For years I have heard the same argument over and over again: “The democratic party may not be the best, but there’s no alternative. If you vote otherwise, then they will lose and things will be even worse than they are now.” This line of reasoning is an example of a forced vel of alienation– “your money or your life!” –and insures that nothing changes or is ever done. Concerted efforts need to be made to organize and create genuine alternatives to this status quo, and the spectre of this argument or line of reasoning needs to be demolished.

The party of values indeed. It’s nice to see American patriotism at work. See the segment here.