Syriza as Turning Point?

It took less than 24 hours for the warnings and fear mongering to begin.  This is what happens when you elect a party whose English name means Coalition of the Radical Left– you are lectured by the likes of David Cameron and Angela Merkel about being a de-stabilising force.  Destabilising indeed.  But what are the values of human beings that would not welcome a party that is promising to de-stabilise a system that has raised the unemployment rate to 28%, has cut the elderly off from their pensions and health care, and has raised the suicide rate by 30%? Money-values. Cameron and Merkel fear the destabilization of money flows from Greece back to German and European banks; the destabilization of a “bail out” composed mostly of loans that allow Greece to pay the interest on its debt. So they hope to destabilise the destabilisers before they can have any positive effect and inspire other movements across Southern Europe to repudiate debt and begin the real task of building an alternative democratic life-economy.

If it achieves nothing else, Syriza’s victory  in the Greek election on January 25th, 2015 at least exposes the absolute contempt for democracy and life-value that the maintenance of capitalism  actually requires.   Just as free speech ends where the sacred cows of the ruling class begin, so too democracy extends only so far as rubber stamping debt-servitude and exploitation.  Elect a government that promises to end the subordination of life-requirement satisfaction to money-value and the ruling class begins to organise its forces for a coup.

However, Syriza’s capacity to make a difference is threatened by internal dangers as well. In general, Syriza finds itself facing the double bind that all parties and movements to the left of moribund social democrats face.  On the one hand, they could run on a promise to implement their radically alternative economic model and risk losing out on a chance at power because too many people lack confidence that the alternative model can be realised.  On the other hand, they could focus narrowly on the promise to manage the economic crisis differently, drive a harder bargain with the European Union and its central bank, offer the Greek people immediate relief while leaving the structural problems of capitalism (and not just Greek capitalism) unaddressed, but gain election.  In the end, the later course has been chosen.

Having chosen the narrow road, Syriza must now confront the particular dangers of compromise, of which two very significant ones have already arisen.  First, because they won “only”  one hundred and forty nine of three hundred seats, the party was forced into an alliance with the right-wing nationalist Independent Greeks party in order to govern.   Second, their choice for finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, is a very far from radical left academic who has said publically that Syriza’s program for systematic economic transformation is “not worth the paper it is written on,” and seems exclusively concerned with renegotiating the terms of debt repayment.

That Syriza has chosen an vitriolically nationalist party as an ally of convenience should be of concern to its Greek and international supporters.  In giving the Independent Greeks an effective veto over government policy, Syriza has virtually guaranteed that it will not be able to implement the more structurally transformative demands of its program.  In the most likely scenario, the government will use its mandate to try to renegotiate the terms of its debt repayment, but  unless it decides to leave the Eurozone, which Varoufakis has ruled out, it has little leverage in talks and thus little chance of succeeding if it sticks to the road of negotiation.  Judging on the basis of just these two initial compromises, it is little wonder that critics like  Panagiotis Sotiris were worrying even before the election about the rightward turn of Syriza’s leadership. 

Still, we are only a few days into their mandate.  Let us imagine another set of possibilities.  Millions of Greeks have just voted for the “Coalition of the Radical Left.” They have tasted the poison of capitalism in crisis.  They have experienced their lives and livelihoods attacked and dismantled so that money that could support life-productive enterprise can be shipped to banks to be turned into more money for the bankers.  They are ready for a fight.  Let s assume that the holders of Greek debt are unwilling to make anything more than cosmetic changes to the Greek debt.  What then?

Capitulation is a possibility.  But so too is a fight, a fight that would have to be  mobilised in the streets. I do not mean an afternoon of demonstrations after which everyone goes home, but a disciplined and organized extra-parliamentary movement that can push Syriza to implement its full program– strikes, demonstrations, occupations, teach ins, factory take over, land reclamations, all co-ordinated with the left of the party. All of this would have to be defended on the basis of a different value-system–  the priority of life and life’s development over money accumulation in private hands.   And then this movement  would need to be spread to Spain and Italy and everywhere else the ‘austerity agenda’  is undermining public institutions and their life-serving function.  That includes Canada.

As in the whole history of socialism, the national struggle will either succeed in sparking international mobilization, or it will die in the nation state that tries it first.  Venezuela has survived as long as it has because it spread the movement to Bolivia and Ecuador and (to a lesser extent) Nicaragua and (to a lesser extent still) Brazil, and had an ally in Cuba. The concrete reality of internationalism is political control over national policy; the condition of successfully transforming national institutions is international allies and counter-institutions of credit and finance that free governments from dependence on predatory capitalist banks and international  institutions like the IMF.  The problem, of  course, is that those counter-institutions either do not exist (in Europe) or only in early, embryonic form (in South America).  But unless Syriza plays offence and actively builds a mobilization in the streets of Greece and inspires the streets of Madrid and Rome, it will find itself overwhelmed at the conference table.  But the streets of Madrid and Rome are ready for anti-austerity mobilization, and if they start to move, then Syriza’s election could be the turning point the left has needed for thirty years.

Last Train to Mallaig (For Jim)

I think you knew it was a one way ticket.  They don’t tell you when you get on, but we all figure it out sooner or later.  At first, you think you will be there to admire the glen and the loch forever, that there will always be time for one more dram and another pint of heavy and to tell just one more story at the Horseshoe’s long bar. But then…

Ah well. In the end, we leave small traces that are hard to decipher sometimes.  Who we are, it comes down to those etchings we leave in the minds of others.  But there is no translation guide, and everyone is allowed their own interpretation.

On me, you left the mark of your stories.  Not this tale or that, but the unruly spirit of creation with which you spoke worlds into being.  Serious people would get tangled in the web of words you spun and say:  “Is that true?  That cannot possibly be true.”

But let serious people attend to business, which is a bore.  Stories are for we who love life, for we who understand that the truth of the story is the telling, the free ride to somewhere else that feels a little better than where we are, the spark they light in our eyes.   I never saw that spark extinguished in you, because I always listened.

I always listened and I always laughed. Was that irresponsible?  Would a firmer hand have helped?  Maybe friendship is too easy, forgives too much. I don’t know.  But I do know that I would rather be a friend than God. I am not good at judging.

Maybe you did not know how to be helped.  You had a hard life, and were hard in turn.  But you never turned to stone.

There is no app for becoming friends.  Some people, they just vibrate at the same frequency.  But it puts them out of phase with others.  So be it.  Love and friendship, they are not obligations, with some they last, with others they do not.  Breeches, partings, failures– we know they are possible, but they are hard to predict.  Human beings find innumerable ways to do wrong to one another.  No one is innocent.

But if love and friendship end, there has to be a good reason, not just that life has become difficult.  Life is always difficult.  Where there is love it persists through the difficulties.  It finds its way through.

So I persisted as your world contracted. You always made me laugh, and we always loved a drink, and we weren’t very good comrades, we, who’d rather pay for another round before paying our dues.  We never took matters seriously enough, but everyone ended up at our end of the table.

It is easy to stop feeling sad.  You just have to put your mind to work at something else, or raise it up high (like a philosopher) and say:  life and death, it’s just a big swirl and we come in one side and go out the other.  The universe will put our elements to work again in something new.  One must get on because it will be one’s turn to exit soon enough.

So why be sad?  We are all orbiting the same black hole that draws us closer every circuit, and I hear that even laughter cannot escape its gravity.  So we should let our laughter ring through the heavens while we can, and not weep. And that is true.

But missing people is also true. And what we miss, we mourn.  And you deserve someone to feel sad about you. And so I will.



The Ruse of Unreason

The Theatre of the Politically Absurd

Hegel believed that historical developments were guided by an emergent rationality operating behind the backs and beneath the conscious awareness of individual agents.  Slowly, violently sometimes, but inexorably, the world was evolving towards a constitutional society whose institutions confirmed, rather than denied, subjective freedom.

That world has come, that world has gone, and without creating the conditions for the communist society that Marx claimed would fulfill liberalism’ s formalistic promises.  In an age in which one form of social life has proven itself exhausted, but with no systematic alternative proven practically possible, a ruse of unreason seems to have taken over from Hegel’s ruse of reason.

The ruse of unreason operates on two levels, individual and political.  Individually, it means to act without reflection, to respond to every scenario from a script rather than thinking it through with unique attention.  ‘The prophet must be avenged,’ ‘civilization must be protected,’ ‘the nation must remain unified,’ ‘structural causes must be addressed…’  This reduction of individual thought to slogan recitation produces a politics of stasis, and stasis when change is needed is the political expression of the ruse of unreason.  Each new crisis produces exactly the same responses from exactly the same cast of characters with exactly the same result– the stage is prepared for a repeat performance because a globally convincing answer to the question:  “What is to be done?” is missing.

Hegel saw social contradictions as learning opportunities that made novel responses to old challenges possible.  Marx had essentially the same idea.  The capacity to learn is one of the hallmarks of humanity– it allows for real progress in history to be made.  Real progress means that social institutions cease to serve the interest of one class exclusively and instead enable all to cooperate (which is different from mindless agreement).  Cooperation means allowing opposed perspectives to overcome their differences through creative synthesis rather than all-or-nothing destructive struggles.  But that kind of progress presupposes openness to doing things differently when the old ways prove inefficacious.

The young Hegel argued that philosophy is needed to overcome fixed opposition– its role is thus revolutionary, to expedite a new synthesis when historical conditions proved one is necessary.  If he is correct, then philosophy is needed today.  The ruse of reason would ensure that somehow the arguments needed to move our world past its defining problems– neo-colonial violence, terrorist forms of resistance, unsustainable exploitation of natural resources and human labour– would be heard and heeded.

The ruse of unreason is a repetition-compulsion disorder expressed in a global incapacity to move beyond the failed forms of social, political, and economic life.  Instead of creative synthesis, every side holds fast to its one-sided truth and insists that the problem lies on the other side.  In their struggle to destroy each other they only end up undermining the values they claim to protect.  Everyone suffers except the police, who end up as the heroes of liberal democracy.

Ironic, but not funny.

Is That a Dog I Hear Barking?

No.  There is no question here of cynical disengagement from the world.  One hopes for a different outcome after each outrage, the unleashing of some kind of movement capable of creating the conditions for understanding the social conditions of peace, multicultural vitality, and individually meaningful forms of life.  But they do not appear.  Only more scripted responses (which is not a condemnation of the individuals involved as lacking intellect or creativity, but simply a recognition that there is nothing new to say, because the problems remain the same, and convincing solutions are lacking). Alternatives exist on paper, but nowhere in effective political reality.  And no one knows how to produce the missing political efficacity, so they simply repeat what they said the last time …

… and the repetition disorder sets in.  One groups defends (the drone strike, the shooting, the hostage taking); the opposed group condemns the same, and system critics outside the zones of institutional power and direct combat try to provide the nuanced analysis and historical perspective necessary to understand the structural causes of terrible events.  But– and this is another manifestation of the ruse of unreason– no sooner is one aspect of the truth disclosed by one set of system critics than another set points out the one-sidedness of the first.  Again however, no synthesis of criticism is achieved, but the potential whole disintegrates before it can form into irreconcilable camps that forget who the real enemies and what the real goals of social criticism should be.

The end result (which is just the beginning of the next act of the same drama) is that the instituted powers recite their platitudes, link arms at the front of the march, and swear by ‘liberty’ while all the while continuing to extirpate it in the name of security.  At the same time– and here again the ruse of unreason rules– the legitimate demand from the colonised targets of this state violence that the right to life of everyone be respected is backed up by deranged assaults on chocolate and laughter.   Such self-undermining politics can only have one effect– more closely binding potential allies to hardened ideological conceptions of “Western values” that legitimate intensified authoritarianism and military violence.





Moon, January 2nd, 2015 (For Herb)

Finally, tonight there is a chill in the air.  Some coolness in January feels right.  To the east, a nearly full moon rises, back-lighting the tree across the street.  Though helpless in its winter inertia, its limbs, like worked old hands, stretch skyward, defiant, strong.  In between its gnarled fingers the landing lights of a jet appear.  It banks to begin its final approach to Detroit.  The world is silent; the party is over.  Behind the night, the unrelenting gloom of Southern Ontario winter hides.  But the moon makes the grey beautiful.

Of all the things  I imagine the dead will miss, it is these simple, unexpected, undeserved, unpriced moments.  Yes:  work, struggle, success,  triumph, victory are good, but they exact a cost– failure, the vanquished, the losers.  Through them, life is enabled, but not enjoyed.  But the moon- crescent or full– is there every 28 days, and craggy old trees, and spring shoots, and the sparkle in the eye of your beloved, the wave of a friend, home– wherever and whatever that means– a favourite street, the smell of the dinner we cook for each other, the song that won’t let you not dance, all these things just seize us and make us glad, just for being there, nothing else.

All these things say:  “Life is good, and should last.”  But everyone knows, life is not (all) good, and does not last.  With each birth, a unique perspective on the order of things is born,  an intrinsically valuable centre of social self-consciousness comes into being, a thinking body that feels and acts in ways never to be repeated in the whole future of the universe.  There is no balance sheet of being– each birth an absolute gain, each death an absolute loss of a unique world within the world.   The coming to be of the new does not compensate for the ceasing to be of the old.  Persons cannot be substituted for one another, despite what our stupid culture tries to make us believe.  It fears mourning and grief because they put us in touch with the unreplaceable, when it requires that everything be replaced, endlessly.

It thus teaches people to say: “He lives on in memory.”  We know:  That is not true.  Memory is the past, the over and done with; life is the present and future; the-we-do-not-know-what-yet.

Past life, therefore, can only live on in what it continues to inspire in the present and the future.  It is therefore right for the still living to live.  One feels:  “He is dead, the world should stop.”  But the world does not stop, and nor should it.  Because if the lost life was good, it enabled and enriched other life still living .  Its goodness, therefore, continues in the lives it nourished.  If the world stopped, it would be a betrayal of those whose goodness keeps the world going.  Life would really be in vain, if there were no future.

Neither art nor science can cure us of the sadness of death.  But sadness over the loss of someone good is good.  So why should we seek a cure for that which is good?  Could there be a worse person than someone’s whose death was mourned by nobody?

There is no consoling the loss of that which is not recoverable.  But the moon will rise next month, and jets will land on runways and reunite lovers, and there will be people to see them, and be glad.



Against the Politics of Punishment

The main challenge faced by any social philosophy or theory that tries to uncover structural causes of oppression and violence is that they complicate the grounds upon which individual blame for particular oppressive or violent acts can be legitimately assigned.  If class exploitation is a necessary structural feature of a capitalist economy, can the boss be blamed as an individual for laying off employees?  It would appear not, if the Marxist analysis of  market competition is correct.  By like reasoning, if we live in a sexist rape culture, as many feminists maintain and  abundant evidence supports, to what extent can individual men, who have been raised since infancy surrounded by images of women as sexually subservient to men’s desires, be held accountable for sexist attitudes and violence against women?  If it really is the structure that causes the behaviour, then it would seem that the structure, and not the individual, must be held accountable.

The problem with this sort of structuralist functionalism  is obvious:  structures do not act and they cannot be held accountable in the immediate aftermath of a damaging assault.  Being held accountable means having to answer for your actions, and structures do not act, and they cannot answer.  Only individuals (or groups of individuals) can act, and only individuals (or groups of individuals) can be held accountable for their actions.

While it is true that only individuals and groups can be held accountable, it is equally true that individuals do not act in a vacuum; they become the people they are in definite familial and social contexts.  Notwithstanding the achievement of formally equal rights between men and women, the dominant constructions of masculinity and femininity remain contaminated by the association of masculinity with dominance and femininity by subservience.  Those constructions in turn deform the relationships between actual men and women.  As Nancy Hartsock argued, the consequence of the way men are raised in patriarchal society is that they construct their sense of self “in opposition to unity with the mother”  which then “sets a hostile and combative dualism at the heart of both the community men construct and the masculinist worldview by means of which they understand their lives.”(“The Feminist Standpoint,”  Feminism and Methodology, p. 169).  If that analysis is correct, then individual men are born into social relationships over which, as infants, they have no control, and assimilate, before they are capable of critical consciousness, destructive forms of masculinist self-understanding.

The search for social causes for individual action thus seems to run into a contradiction between theoretical truth and practical justice.  Understanding the social causes of action undermines the legitimacy of punishing individuals for the harm they cause to others, but failing to punish individuals for the harms that their actions causes leaves them unaccountable for events that issue from decisions they have made.  The victim is re-victimised the victim as she must listen to the perpetrator employ a discourse meant to further understanding be misapplied as an excuse.  It does the victim of crime no good to inform her she was, in fact, the victim of social structures and not an individual criminal.  The particular person has been the victim of the actions of another particular person, and justice seems to demand punishment.

This response is understandable, both psychologically (the victim desires that the perpetrator pay) and sociologically (social stability seems to depend upon punishment as a disincentive to crime and violence).  However, if the society that is being reproduced is itself, in its depth structures, the cause of individual violence, then system critics cannot support its reproduction, but must demand that it be changed.  If society is exploitative and oppressive, then it does no social good to simply punish the individual without working to change the structures and dynamics that damaged those individuals in the first place.  Everyone knows that prisons do not solve the problem of crime.

At the same time, individuals are not mechanical products of circumstances.  Although individuals develop within social structures and symbolic cultural codes, they are not inert registers of those external forces, but thinking, reflective agents who interpret and respond to context in distinct ways.  Not every man who grows up in a sexist culture is overtly sexist.  Every man’s attitudes may be marked in subtly sexist ways, such that even the best of men display traces of the culture in which they grew up, but when these traces are pointed out and men made to publically account for them, they can work to overcome them.  In other words, people come to bear responsibility for their actions the more they become aware of the forces acting on them.  People whose behaviour helps to reproduce  sexist or racist structures, or who harm others through criminal acts, need to be held accountable for their actions, but in a way that enables them to understand (and then work to change)  the social forces acting upon them.   Punishment rarely accomplishes this end.

By “punishment” I mean the infliction of negative sanctions on an individual with the intention of making the person suffer for the for his actions. Punishment assumes that agency is absolute; that actions originate in the mind of the actor ex nihilo, with no external causes whatsoever. Individuals are assumed to be uniquely responsible for their actions, and thus whatever harm they suffer in punishment for those actions is justified.

In contrast, being held accountable in ways that promote self and social transformation holds both individual and the social structures within which people develop and act responsible.   The perpetuation of oppressive systems through individual activity is not an abstract moral failure on the part of those individuals, it is a sign of social failure as well.  There is responsibility here, but it is shared between the individual as a socially self-conscious agent and society as a network of institutionally mediated social interactions which produces the individuals who act within it.   The goal in making people answerable for their actions is not to harm them,  but to increase their capacity for a form of self-determined action that takes into account, in the very conception of the goal, the interests of other people.

What is most important in terms of addressing the causes of harm and violence is thus not punishment, but accountability.  There must be consequences for harming others, but those consequences need not involve harming the perpetrator in turn.  Contrary to Plato, punishment is never good for the one punished, because it typically only makes him angrier further alienates him from society.  Punishing individuals  doubles the harm without exposing the social dimension of the causes of the actions for which they are punished.   It thus leaves one half of the problem unaddressed.

I raise these issues in the context of the debate surrounding what to do with the Dalhousie dentistry students who started the misogynist Facebook group.  Many students and faculty are calling for their expulsion, and for understandable reasons.  All student, faculty, and administrative conduct must be governed by the principle that the classroom is a space in which everyone feels secure-  fear is the enemy of learning.  If it is the case that the women who were named in the Facebook posts can no longer feel secure in the midst of classmates who objectified them in ways equal parts puerile and threatening, then the administrative response must ensure that their fears are removed.

But does removing the fear require removing the members of the group through expulsion?   Perhaps not.  A recent post by some members of the Dalhousie faculty, without ruling out expulsion, (or mentioning it by name) argues for  “an integrated approach to the problem of sexualized violence on our campuses – an approach that (i) responds to the specific harms caused by incidents that have recently been reported that reflect a pervasive culture of misogyny and disrespect for women and sexual minorities and (ii) addresses the underlying systemic causes.”  The faculty statement grasps the complexity of the (specific and general)  problem, and implies a dialectical understanding of the relationship of the kind I sketched above between perpetrators and victims as individuals and as members of a society that is still structured by sexist practices and representations of women.

A complete solution to this particular issue needs to involve the perpetrators in a process through which they come to understand the harm their “private” Facebook group caused.  Quite often in cases of sexist abuse in which no one is directly and physically harmed, the perpetrators respond to criticism and the threat of sanctions with the generic response that they were “only joking,” and often they mean it.  Punishment satisfies the desire for revenge, but it does not generate a learning process through which the perpetrator gains insight into the reasons why the behaviour was unacceptable.  It thus misses an opportunity to turn someone from being a perpetuator of sexist stereotypes into an opponent of them.

Two years ago I was involved in an analogous situation at the University of Windsor.  The issue here involved an announcement for a student St. Patrick’s Day Party advising attendees that “rape juice” (a nickname for a vodka-based drink) would be served.  The announcement was brought to the attention of the senior administration, other faculty, students, and the human rights office.  The young man who posted the offending comment, along with many of his friends (including women)  responded to the storm that ensued with the argument that the comment needed to be interpreted in context.  They maintained that everyone for whom the post was intended would understand that the comment was made in jest, that there was no intent to incite actual rapes.  While a few people called for the student’s expulsion, which would have punished the individual but left a deeper exploration of the core issues unaddressed, a more productive strategy was pursued.  The human rights office arranged a meeting with the student who posted the offending message at which the underlying issues were discussed:  the impossibility of communicating humorous intentions in uncontrolled on-line environments and the reasons why the extreme violence rape involves renders it an unfit subject for joking.   In sum, the approach to the problem was not to punish or lecture from above, but to engage in a sharp but respectful argument through which the person himself came to see the problem with his actions.

One might object that such a response places undue, even authoritarian, limits on humor; that humorous intent changes the meaning of words such that statements that would be harmful or disrespectful if meant literally are not (or ought not to be) if meant in jest.  I believe that this point is true as a general epistemological claim about language use and meaning, but it does not apply in the Dalhousie (or any analogous cases) in which the ‘joke’ involves the targeting of specific, named others for sexual (or other forms of) violence.  While the members of the group may have thought they were being funny amongst themselves, they were in fact naming potential victims who were not part of the conversation and could not (even if they wanted to)  ‘play along.’   Lines of good taste can be crossed amongst good friends when everyone knows the aim is playful, but threatening violence (even if not seriously intended to be put into practice) behind the backs of the targets is a different situation entirely.

At the same time, it is important to point out that odious as the comments were, no actual violence was perpetrated.  Hence, the way is open to enlighten rather than punish through expulsion, to ensure that these students do not become a real threat to their female classmates by ensuring that they change themselves, with whatever institutional support and monitoring and enforced public explanation and proof of change is necessary.  The goal should be to use institutional power to create a desire within the perpetrators  to change themselves and prove to their classmates, and the wider community whose trust they will have to earn as dentists, that they have changed.  Such an approach to wrongdoing politicises rather than demonizes, but also insists that individuals acknowledge, understand, and explain the problem with their behaviour.  Changing one person or a small group does not change the world, but it does change a small part of the world, and turns vectors for the perpetuation of sexism into vectors that challenge it.


The Metaphysics of Paper (and Pen): Branching Out From Paul Auster


“What kind of a stationary owner was this, I wondered, who expounded to his customers on the metaphysics of paper, who saw himself as serving an essential role in the myriad affairs of humanity.”(Paul Auster, Oracle Night).

The blank page, indeterminate, yet also a frame of fixed dimensions, a field of possibility and a constraint, an invitation both and at the same time to the freedom of the imagination and the discipline of the understanding.   But also:  the hand.  Working in pen and ink affirms the unity of body and mind.  But also, the mystery of consciousness and meaning.   Neural circuit to nerve impulse to hand movement to ink on page; then, reflected light to nerve impulse to neural circuit.  Yes. But also:  idea to desire to writing; then, reading, to interpreting, to responding.


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But at first, the blank page and the unformed thought.  Where to begin?  Always in the wrong place:  “I begin by painting a series of mistakes.”  (Robert Motherwell).  I begin by philosophising a series of mistakes.  The paper bears witness to the erroneous beginning.  The wrong word, the wrong phrasing, the fallacious inference there for everyone to see, scratched out, still present.

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In classical philosophy from Plato on, the real existence of the negative is denied.  Evil, ignorance– mistakes– have no substantial reality.  Evil is not a real force in the order of things, simply the absence of Good.  Ignorance is not the product of some special mental faculty, just absence of knowledge.

The metaphysics of paper:  a field on which the substantial reality of the negative, the mistake, the false (true) start is permanently inscribed, never to be hidden, erased, deleted.  It endures, beneath or below the revision.

Which means:  the good (the proper thought, the sound argument, the convincing speech) takes time.  The argument does not arrive fully formed.   Working through the mistakes is the condition of its being.  The body of work of the mind appears clean to the reader, but no work is clean.  The paper and ink are the chaotic materiality of the thought that becomes the finished piece.  Consciousness might be a stream (William James), but thinking is an unpredictable strobe, off for the longest time, then a flash, a sudden realization given shape as a desperate note in the margin,  an illegible superscript in between lines– testimony to the randomness of insight that becomes coherent structure.

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The history of errors that the paper faithfully records contains the real lesson for anyone driven by the imperative of intellectual creation.  The truth is not in the finished product but in the uncertainties that never go away and must constantly be surmounted.  Thinking is working them out, over, through, and then again.  The result is a (perhaps) pleasing veneer into which the effort has disappeared.  The paper on which it was first worked out, a material history of the coming to be of the thoughts it expresses, structures, communicates.

There is a difference between archiving on the one hand and storage capacity on the other.  Yes, computers have “memory” and the internet (so it is said)  never forgets.  But it is still scraps of paper, the first draft, the printed version, the marginal note, the book, the things it takes effort and discrimination to “save,” that attract me.

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A cloud cannot bear weight; it is libraries I trust: paper, ink, bindings, spines; the unexpected find while breathing in the dust and smell of the history of thinking; the fact that it occupies real space into which I and others can enter and share, and , most of all, that it requires human minders, for paper, like truth, is fragile and needs care.

On The Dark

Not that dark, not the dark into which our lives must pass, not the dark of ignorance, of the torture chamber, of the killer cop uniform, no, the dark, the dark from whence each of us came, the nihilo without which there is no creatio, yesthat dark, “the fecund dark in which we create” (Cocteau), the dark in which we imagine, disrobe, caress one another, fuck; the dark of the moonless sky that lets the paradoxical dark of the stars appear- magical lights that do not illuminate but still tell us where we are; not the dark of a black hole from which nothing escapes, but the dark of the unformed imagination from which all human things come, the primordial dark, the dark that was upon the waters before it was commanded that there be light; the space between the words, the rest between the notes,  the silence that allows for speech; the dark of the vacuum into which particles pop into existence for no reason, the productive emptiness of mind into which thoughts come (from that same void?  why not?); Master Niall of Preston and not Meister Eckhart is right (“Nature throws us into darkness”– the scintlilla animae unites when what understanding requires is distance); the dark that comes first and abides as the future into which being is projected, the conditio sine qua non open to any possibility, prime matter, formlessness receptive to the forms we choose to give to the world, our world, rotating in the dark, the dark that allows gravity to act and our feet to stay planted to the earth, thus the dark of life, the dark which allows refreshing sleep, the dark of winter preparing spring renewal, that dark, yes, that dark, the dark of cool evenings that dry the sweat of our brows, the dark of the water that does not reflect our face, the dark that absorbs us so that we do not become self-absorbed, the dark of tarrying in an experience without classifying it, the dark that resists the light-speed exchange of information in the name of free thinking, the emptiness of not being full of oneself, that dark which people are afraid of because they cannot be alone with themselves.  This dark.

Love, Hate, Literature

The world needs mothers so that hope can be sustained even when history testifies to its groundlessness.  Who but a mother could say, after her son was beheaded by ISIS militants in Syria, what Paula Kassig said:  “Our hearts are battered, but they will mend. The world is broken, but it will be healed in the end. And good will prevail.” [No doubt there are other mothers, whose names we are never told, who say the same thing, looking at the broken body of their sons, killed by a weapon they never saw, in the name of a crime no one ever proved they committed, in the name of ‘our’ security].  Mothers, whoever they are and wherever they live, need these hopes so that their love does not destroy them when their children are killed or die too young.

The world needs fathers too, to demand justice and hope that death produces positive change.  In the wake of the decision of the grand jury not to charge the officer responsible for the death of his son, Michael Brown Sr. argued that  “I do not want my son’s death to be in vain. I want it to lead to incredible change, positive change. Change that makes the St. Louis region better for everyone.” [Think here too of the father from Gaza, who lost his three daughters in the 2009 invasion, who tried to sublimate his loss into peace, to no avail].  Everyone knows–mothers and fathers too–  that a new wound will be opened as another heals, one heart will be rent asunder as another one mends, another black youth will be killed by police as the memory of a previous killing fades, another drone strike will re-ignite an anger that might otherwise have cooled, and good, while it might make inroads here or there, cannot prevail absolutely.

Everyone knows this truth just by virtue of being alive for a few years.  We know that we cannot justify history form the standpoint of an imagined future in which all suffering has been redeemed.  Unjust death cannot be redeemed because nothing can bring it back to life.  One life saved cannot transform the badness of another life destroyed; the dead cannot inhabit the bodies of the living and consent retroactively to their having been made a sacrifice along the road to the final triumph of the good.  Can any universe be good in which the living and blameless must be destroyed, chopped into pieces, in order for it to triumph?  We must insist that the good come into being as a pure positivity and all at once, without requiring the destruction by evil means of anyone that already exists.

That seems to be what an ethical politics would require, but it is impossible.  The good cannot prevail absolutely because “the rotten acts  that human beings commit against each other are not just aberrations– they are an essential part of who we are.”(Man in the Dark, Paul Auster, p.46)  Auster’s character understands that beneath the structural causes of violence lie more primal fears, protean ignorance, an unlimited capacity for inconsistency and hypocrisy, cowardice, desire, and laziness that no ideology or systematic change is capable of erasing without trace.  History bears witness to the myriad ways in which we can set ourselves at odds with one another.  In personal or political life, conflicts are easy to begin, difficult to control, and easy to begin again, even when all parties have claimed to have learned their lesson.

Hope and despair cannot be separated from each other.  Each disaster rekindles the  hope that it will be the last one.  But it never is.  As hurricanes develop over the Atlantic each fall, so cycles of violence repeat themselves, even though we know, in principle, how to prevent them.  Perhaps we fail because we rely too much on the social scientific hope that once we have addressed the external causes, the internal dispositions will atrophy and disappear.

Perhaps here we can locate a political function of literature– not didactic instruction on the politically correct line, not the construction of boring utopias, but excavation and laying bare of that in us which does not disappear with toppled institutions and systems, that which stands in the way of the realization of the good.  Uncovering  and provoking confrontation with the rottenness that lies deep within the human heart would at least undermine the self-serving belief that we can change the world without changing ourselves.  To the extent that literature has a political task it is perhaps this:  the construction of characters and narratives that evoke in us an understanding that the ambivalences, fears, and desires that are the inner causes of  “the rotten acts” people commit exist in everyone, and not just “the enemy.”  Perhaps through this confrontation we will learn to stop making exceptions in our own case, a practice which, if universalized, (and it is) entails that the inner causes of violence are never comprehensively addressed, and the outer changes our struggles achieve come to naught.

A possible principle for a political aesthetics:   The beautiful is that which evokes the feeling of pain violence causes in such a way that we recognise ourselves in both the perpetrator and the victim.   Finding beauty in the literary construction of violence is possible because literature is a series of experiments in possible modes of being in which horrendous acts can be explored without being committed to the crushing objectivity that history demands.  Here we can explore the implications of action on the basis of maxims derived from the worst within ourselves without having to actually harm anyone.  Literature does not offer proofs,  (any art so unambiguous as to be capable of proving something would not be art, or art worth tarrying with, in any case).  Rather, the aim is to provoke a struggle with ourselves to acknowledge our capacity for rottenness, in the multiple forms this rottenness can take, and to remind us that when attention is diverted from the vulnerable bodies of others, harm ensues.




Life. Ground.



A Philosophical Sky

does not quibble over mere adjectives.

Let me just remark, then, on the purity of its blue,

Without trying to get too fine, about which shade or hue.


In any case, it did not come to be described,

but to say: “Don’t call it sleep,

Call it what it is:

Death, and Resurrection.”


The sheltering soil is deep,

safe from the relentless wind,

that returns surface prettiness

to earth’s more essential purpose.


Kneeling in that shit-brown mud,

fetid and worm-worn,

I feel myself

a thousand years from now.


This “I,” this sore back,

this self-conscious flesh

digging into its origin and destination,

Can it say it is happy?


“I” and the thought of me will die,

the soil will endure.

That is no comfort, you say.

Perhaps it is not.


But it is true.









Ordinary Inhumanity

Agape in Theory, not in Official Practice

Arnold Abbott handed out four plates of food to homeless people in a South Florida park. Then police stopped the 90-year-old from serving up another bite.

“An officer said, ‘Drop that plate right now — like I had a weapon,'” Abbott said.

The officer was enforcing a law passed in Ft. Lauderdale against feeding the homeless.

“Just because of media attention we don’t stop enforcing the law. We enforce the laws here in Fort Lauderdale,” said Mayor Jack Seiler.”

A working definition of Totalitarianism:  The promulgation and enforcing of laws conceived of in opposition to the requirements of the embodied human being, and the justification of the consequent suffering as good for the victim who suffers.

His Worship continues: “I’m not satisfied with having a cycle of homeless in the city of Fort Lauderdale,” Seiler said. “Providing them with a meal and keeping them in that cycle on the street is not productive.”

A working definition of productivity:  To be useful as an exploited body to capitalist industry.

Hence, Totalitarian Productivism= a unified body of violently enforced social policy and law which restricts legitimate human activity to those forms of exertion that produce money for private accumulation by the owners of capital.

You can serve, or you can starve, the mayor is saying,  giving voice to the real secret of capitalist society, while thinking he is an independent thinker uttering a profound moral truth.

Starting From the Body, An Opening Towards Freedom

One imagines the well-fed men of Fort Lauderdale, standing on the steps of a well-financed church, cigars protruding from their over-tanned orange faces,  basking in another warm Sunday afternoon, congratulating the mayor for his tough-mindedness.

Perhaps they even listened to a sermon on how the Gospels are to guide Christian life by disclosing some abstract duty towards God.  But there are no abstract duties to God (What exactly do people think could be owed an omnipotence)?  The relevant duties are  concrete, and owed to each other, on earth:

“For I was  hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you entertained me, I was unclothed and you clothed me, I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you visited me.  Then the just will answer:  Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you? … The King will answer them, “I tell you truly, in so far as you did it to one of these my brothers, even to the least of them, you did it to me.” (Matthew, 25:35-41)

Attend first to the needs of the human body– that is the starting point of all ethics and law.  Pastor or atheist, the starting point is the same:  the action you can take now to alleviate the suffering of the deprived flesh.  There is no revolution worth pursuing without attentiveness to the evil of suffering deprivation of the necessary and to the goodness of being full of what we need

Imagine now the homeless person, reaching for a plate of food only to have it smacked away by the police.  When I try to put myself in his place I do not feel hungry, but a profound loneliness,  an emptiness at the intentional destruction of caring contact with another human being, and for no reason other than to uphold the law because it has been decreed that hunger that you cannot pay to satisfy is illegal.  What else can the starving man conclude when armed force intervenes to prevent him from eating than that his existence does not matter? And what is worse for a being conscious of his own existence– conscious of his own mattering– than to feel that mattering negated by those who are supposed to uphold the law, a force which, one presumes, ought to protect people.

The law either serves this fundamental goal or it must be abolished in favour of a new law:  “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27).  That is, the law exists to satisfy the requirements of good human life; good human life is not a function of satisfying the law, come what may for our own existence.  A law which makes eating illegal has become unhinged from the human purposes of law and annexed to the Totalitarian Productivism that determines life space and time everywhere.  When it becomes a crime to feed the poor because it has become a crime to be poor because the poor have become manufactured in such numbers as to become both a nuisance and a threat to  the rich we have reached a civilizational turning point.   But while the values we need to criticise are ever present, (whether one assigns a material or a religious foundation is not important)  the organizational forms needed to make them realities are lacking.

And the consequences:  piles of unfed and unclothed bodies, thousands interred in squalid migrant camps along the periphery of Europe (can anyone in Europe really ignore the historical analogy staring everyone in the face-  racially demonized others ‘concentrated’  behind barbed wire and blamed for their misery?); uncared for sick, expelled from hospitals even where these are supposed to be a publically funded good; the aged lying ill and alone, unvisited, uncared for, but as yet undead, and crying out, but the earphones on everyone’s head drown their feeble voice; and for the lucky, the working ones, they get to enjoy the cell by cell destruction of their stressed, working bodies stretched across the abyss of a pensionless future with no net to catch them when they fall.

But the law is upheld.