Politics


In a response to my recent post on materialism, Fabio Confunctor, of Hyper-Tiling writes:

…what concerns me about political action as different from other actions is that the practice is meant to bring about some change which is not random, but a change ‘in favour of’ the human. The difference between a scientific theory and a political one is that the former can be limited to an epistemological interest of describing the world while the latter (to paraphrase Marx) has the goal to ‘change it’. Where change is not ‘from random configuration of actors 1 to random configurations of actors 2′ but is to change the configuration in order to achieve and maximise a number of desired (by me, the human actor) outcomes.

First, a disclaimer: I am very much working through these issues myself, so I haven’t been able, as of yet, to resolve these questions entirely to my satisfaction. Second, I have recently been drawing a great deal of inspiration from Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Materialism: A Political Ecology of Things who, as a political theorist has thought far more penetratingly on these issues than me, so I think she’s a good place to look when situating a number of these questions. Not only does Bennett’s thought share a close proximity to various strains of OOO, but her work is particularly interesting due to how it weaves together ontological questions with questions of politics and ethics, while calling for a deep reformulation of just what agency is.

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One of the more compelling themes that punctuates Fisher’s Capitalist Realism is the linkage between the rise of certain mental illnesses and post-Fordist capitalist modes of production, identifying it as a key site of the political (at least virtually). Now, for readers familiar with French inflected social theory, this thesis will not, in and of itself, appear new. In An Introduction to Marcel Mauss Levi-Strauss had argued something similar with respect to schizophrenia and psychosis, going so far as to suggest that in certain “primitive societies” this phenomena doesn’t exist. Canguilhem suggested something similar, as did Foucault. But in each of these instances the emphasis was put on the social and discursive production of mental illness. If one adopted these accounts of mental illness, then it became necessary to reject materialist or neurological accounts of mental illness. The story goes that either one adopts the neurological account and is thus subject to an ideological illusion that de-politicizes something that is in fact social (mental illness), or you adopt the social account of mental illness and reject anything having to do with the neurological or psychotropics as ideological mystifications. Fisher’s analysis, by contrast, is far more subtle. As Fisher writes,

The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness. The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its de-politicization. Considering mental illness an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism. First, it reinforces Capital’s drive towards atomistic individualization (you are sick because of your brain chemistry). Second, it provides an enormously lucrative market in which multinational pharmaceutical companies can peddle their pharmaceuticals (we can cure you with our SSRIs). It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation. If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low seratonin. This requires social and political explanation; and the task of repoliticizing mental illness is an urgent one if the left wants to challenge capitalist realism. (37)

In many respects, Fisher’s analysis of affectivity here mirrors Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism. Just as commodity fetishism treats relations that are truly between person’s as if they were relations between or to things (when I buy a diamond I think I’m just relating to that commodity and not enmeshed in a set of social relationships), “affectivity fetishism” could be construed as treating relations that are, in fact, social and political, as relations to mere neurons. The instantiation of certain neuronal structures and relations is here confused with the cause of these instantiations. Here I would express what I take to be Fisher’s point a bit differently by referring to Aristotle’s four causes. The problem with neurological accounts of mental illness is that they confuse what Aristotle referred to as the material and formal cause of a thing with its efficient cause. Depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia are all certain structures of mentality (formal cause) that are embodied in a certain stuff (material cause), but this in and of itself does not account for why these particular embodied structures come to exist as they do (efficient cause).

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Towards the end of Capitalist Realism Fisher puts his finger on the central reason for my reluctance to discuss issues of normativity. In the chapter entitled “There’s no central exchange” Fisher compares contemporary capitalism to the bureaucratic universe depicted so well by Kafka.

The supreme genius of Kafka was to have explored the negative atheology proper to Capital: the centre is missing, but we cannot stop searching for it or positing it. It is not that there is nothing there– it is that what is there is not capable of exercising responsibility. (65)

What we have here is a sort of “transcendental illusion” that emerges when mereological relations are crossed in such a way that it seems as if we’re dealing with one object when, in fact, we’re dealing with quite a different object. Fisher deftly illustrates a similar point with respect to bureaucracy. Like Kafka’s famous Castle or Law, you never directly encounter the castle or the law. Rather, we only ever encounter spokespersons or surrogates of the castle or the law. Many of us will be familiar with this is the case of bureaucracy. Suppose you’ve just been promoted and that this promotion was a very public affair, announced before all the staff and faculty at the bi-annual beginning of the semester meeting (our version of this event here at Collin is called “All College Day”). Perhaps you’ve been appointed Provost of your campus or Dean of Student Affairs. Whatever.

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As I read Fisher’s (aka of K-Punk fame ) brilliant Capitalist Realism, I find myself wondering just what constitutes radical theory. And the conclusion that I come to is that radical theory is not so much a body of political propositions as it is a repudiation of actualism of that being and the actual are identical to one another. Radical theory is any theory that treats being as in excess of what I have called “local manifestation“. Wherever being is treated as identical to local manifestation we have thought serving as a handmaiden of the State. It is only where local manifestation is treated as fissured by an excess where the possibility of the new, only where the actuality of local manifestation is actively sought to be fissured– a question so vital to Fisher’s analysis of hedonic melancholia –that something like radical theory is possible. Here it matters little whether the thinker makes determinate political prescriptions. Rather what matters is that demonstration of the contingency of the actual, that it could, in principle, be otherwise, that is important. And in this respect, Fisher punches a hole in the real and speaks truth. The aim of theory is not to provide the answer but to rigorously establish the possibility. Read this book.

This warms my heart. I wrote about this strategy of protest against hate groups a long while back. It’s nice to see similar strategies being used against homophobic hate groups such as Phelps. Read the rest here. The point here is to enter into a non-dialectical relation with the side you’re opposing, defusing their message altogether and turning it into mere noise. Rhetorically, of course, this is exactly how these signs functioning, revealing the idiocy of the oppositions positions and how they fall outside the realm of the political altogether (as in the case of the “I’m Tired!” sign). Rather than treating the other side’s position as a serious position, it is reduced to the absurd and silly. Well done.

I started to write this post in response to Paul Ennis’ recent remarks about correlationism and the ethico-politico place of animals, but it quickly turned into a diary of its own so I’ll post it here. Ennis writes:

One argument was that anti-correlationism has a deflationary effect on the special status usually assigned to humans by continental thinkers such as Hegel and Heidegger. The anti-correltionist stance shows that such a status is a fabrication or at least not as evident as usually portrayed. This is one way to open up the critical animal debate.

Rather than restricting the question of the ethico-politico implications of non-correlationist thought to questions of the ethical and political status of animals, I’d like to situate the question (I don’t have any answers here, so all this is exploratory) within the framework of the ethico-politico status of nonhumans in general. Here the issue isn’t one of excluding the human, but of asking how the domain of value might be extended beyond the human, without humans being at the center, or all questions of value pertaining to nonhumans being questions about the relationship of humans to nonhumans. In other words, the litmus test of whether or not something fits the bill of a non-correlationationist ethico-politico theory revolves around whether that domain of value would continue to be a domain of value even if humans cease to exist. That seems to be a pretty tall order or very difficult to think, though Lingis has certain proposed on such ethical system that meets this litmus test in his book The Imperative.

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From AP:

WASHINGTON—Speaking for the millions of principled American liberals who believe in the government’s fundamental ability to best address the republic’s ills, left-wing favorite Howard Dean took the podium today in Washington to announce a “freeze” of support for the Obama Administration and its policy agenda.

Howard Dean at today’s event, speaking on behalf of liberals everywhere:

“By cutting all discretionary support for the Obama Administration over the next three years, liberals in America will save up to 250 billion hours of wasted time and energy on mid-term campaigning and voting in 2010 alone. Not to mention the millions of dollars we can save withholding campaign contributions. I know this all sounds radical, even crazy, but I don’t see liberals as having much of a choice. If we continue to let the president think he has our support, there’s no telling which atrocities he may perpetrate to win over independents. It must stop here.”

Read the rest of this breaking story here.

UPDATE: Further details of this important developing story can be found here.

Okay, I admit that I’m prone to dark pessimism and apocalyptic thought, but with today’s Supreme Court decision I can’t help but feeling that we’re witnessing the beginning plot points of some dark, dystopian cyber-punk novel coming to life. In effect, the Supreme Court has now granted corporations the freedom to use unlimited money to support and oppose candidates and legislation of their choice. Tell me I’m over-reacting here. With this decision it is now going to become exceedingly difficult for individuals and small activist groups to get any representation whatsoever as they simply do not have the economic means to compete with these forces.

But the situation is worse than this. Many, I’m sure, will grant that Obama has been a tremendous disappointment in this first year of his presidency. On just about every issue he has advocated center-right policies that disproportionately benefit large moneyed interests. Many are feeling as if he was a Trojan horse, but I’m not sure this is entirely the case. The issue seems to be less about Obama the person and whatever ideology he advocates (who knows what that might be at this point), but about certain constitutive structural issues organizing Washington. Reflecting on the failure of Hillary Clinton’s attempts at health care reform during the 90s, this administration and congress, I suspect, have felt as if they’ve had to walk on egg shells and make crap deals with the private sector lest they unleash the dogs of war in the form of ad campaigns that destroy any legislation whatsoever they attempt to pass. This is a good deal of what happened under Clinton’s watch with the notorious anti-healthcare ads.

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Well folks, it looks like it’s time to throw in the towel on the possibility of anything like democracy in the United States.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Corporations can spend freely to support or oppose candidates for president and Congress, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday, a landmark decision denounced by President Barack Obama for giving special interests more power.

The only way I can keep myself from crying is to recall this clip from The Simpsons.

The Washington Post has an interesting interview with Susan Jacoby over the Brit Hume flap up and whether or not Christians are victimized by atheists in the United States. From the first part of the interview:

Q: Is there widespread media bias against Christianity? Against evangelicals such as Brit Hume and Sarah Palin? Against public figures who speak openly and directly about their faith? Against people who believe as you do?

Of course proselytizing is a form of religious liberty permitted by our secular Constitution. That doesn’t mean Americans have to like it–whether proselytizing arrives at the dinner hour when a Jehovah’s Witness rings the doorbell or courtesy of a television network that, among its other charming attributes, is a staunch supporter of right-wing religion. And there is no merit to Brit Hume’s claim that he is being criticized by his colleagues in the media, as well as many religious and secular leaders, because he urged Tiger Woods to convert from Buddhism to Christianity. This is yet another example of the Christian right claiming that it is victimized when, in fact, it exerts great and disproportionate power in American society. When was the last time you heard a Jewish network commentator exhorting an adulterous Christian politician to convert to Judaism–and claiming that Judaism is the morally superior religion? Hume said what he said because Christianity, despite America’s growing religious pluralism (including an increase in the number of Americans who reject all religion), still occupies a privileged position in the United States. He said what he said because he could get away with it. At least on FOX.

Read the rest here.

Sometimes I get the sense that the fundamentalists and more rightwing variants of Christianity view any dissension or calls for equality as forms of oppression with respect to their belief. Any disagreement seems to get labeled with the charge of “bigotry”. This is something that I’ve even encountered among a number of left-wing believers. It’s difficult to see how disagreement with a belief and what it claims, however, can be characterized as bigotry. If that were the case, all public debate over beliefs or propositional attitudes would be off limits. Moreover, the suggestion that somehow Christians are the victims of bigotry from atheists, secularists, and members of other religions smacks of the white heterosexual male being the victim of reverse racism, reverse sexism, or heterophobia. It’s difficult to see how one can be the object of oppression when they enjoy hegemonic power in the United States.

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