Readings: Frederic Gros: A Philosophy of Walking

If there is a book in the history of philosophy that I wish I would have written, it is this book, Frederic Gros’ s A Philosophy of Walking.  It is humble– “a” philosophy of walking, not the philosophy of walking.  It does not claim to lay bear the universal principle of Being as the great but now mostly ignored systems of classical and modern philosophy claimed to have accomplished.  It does not expose the depth contradictions of our social order, the primary task (I would argue)  left to philosophy now that its universe-comprehending efforts have been taken over by natural science.  What it does do is draw attention to the beauty of the mundane-  a minor function of philosophy (and the major function of poetry?) in such a way that unexpected depths are revealed in the very simplicity of the act of walking.  Walking is not treated as metaphor, metonym, or symbol for something grander, but is allowed to reveal the multiple ways in which it is, in its very banality and corporeality, one element of what can make the life of finite embodied beings wonderful.

There is a mystery to the world of ideas.  When one’s mind is intensely focussed on a problem it draws towards itself  the work of previously unknown other minds who give perfect expression to some aspect of the problem one initially thought no one else had ever explored.  Rather than professional jealousy (the response of the careerist, not the philosopher)  the discovery that someone is thinking as you think produces a sense of intellectual communion: an anticipatory knowledge constantly confirmed of what the book is going to say next. Just as an objection formed in my head– but what about urban walking?  is this a philosophy of walking of a philosophy of hiking?  my concerns were allayed, and Gros came around to the proper pleasures of walking in cities. The almost exact doubling of one’s ideas still leaves room– and this is crucial–for work to deepen one’s own thinking and push it in new directions. Ultimately, this space means that there is never any repetition in the field of philosophical ideas, but growth.

A Philosophy of Walking is an elegant book.  Its insights are not extolled over sentences as long as paragraphs and paragraphs as long as chapters, but in deceptively simple observations that the readers’ mind cannot leave hold of once they have been read: “Walking is a part of active melancholia”  (p.151, in commentary upon Gerard de Nerval); “Boredom is immobility of body confronted with emptiness of mind” (in explanation of why walking, though monotonous, cannot be boring); “When you hurry, time is filled to bursting, like a badly arranged drawer in which you have stuffed different things without any attempt at order,” (p. 37, in praise of the slowness of walking).  The text alternates between commentary on famous literary and philosophical walkers and the author’s reflections on what his own walks have taught him.  The commentaries– on Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Rousseau, Thoreau, the Cynics, Gerard de Nerval, Kant, and Ghandi (with shorter discussions of Baudelaire, Benjamin, and Wordsworth) expose the different ways in which walking is essential to philosophical  and poetic creation.  Gros’s reflection on his own peregrinations testify to the simple goodness of being a sentient body in the world.

Considered from the perspective of its philosophical content, three truths are asserted rather than reached through argument.  I call them truths in honour of the richness and depth of experience from which they have been drawn by careful reflection. Some truths are learned not by following arguments but by paying attention to the world, (which is a material system not a logical principle).  The justification for these truths is not logical but experiential–  to confirm them, one must undertake the experience from which it they have been drawn.  If one undertakes the experience but does not derive the same truth, its universality is not thereby refuted.  The absence of acceptance only proves  that one is closed off to what the experience teaches (the truth is in the object waiting to be drawn out).  Before the truth is definitively rejected, one must work harder to open oneself to the object whose truth one resists.  In this struggle to open oneself to that to which one is initially closed consists human learning.

The first truth that Gros’s reflections disclose is that  the slow pace of walking allows us to savour being alive amidst the things of the world.  “Slowness means cleaving perfectly to time, so closely that the seconds fall, one by one, drop by drop like the steady dripping of a tap on stone.  This stretching of time deepens space.  It is one of the secrets of walking:  a slow approach to landscapes that gradually renders them familiar.  Like the regular encounters that deepen friendship.”  (p.37).  Like friendship, the encounter with the world in walking is an end in itself– we do not walk to learn about the world that which the scientist demands (abstractions, general forces, universal laws), but to allow it to reveal itself to us in its endless variety and specificity.  Walking thus returns us, Gros claims, to the “realism” of childhood-  the acceptance of material things as they show themselves to be in their concreteness:  “It is children who are the true realists: they never proceed from generalities.  The adult recognises the general form in a particular example, a representative of the species,  dismisses everything else … The child perceives individuals, personalities.  He sees the unique form … It isn’t a triumph of the imagination, but an unprejudiced, total realism.  And Nature becomes instantly poetic.”  (p.162).  In becoming poetic, the Nature we encounter in walking is beautiful, sufficient in its mere presence, and ourselves, in response, joyful just to be for those few moments. “When we renounce everything,” Gros, quoting Swami Ramdas notes, “everything is given to us, in abundance.  Everything:  meaning the intensity of presence itself.”(p. 9).  At root, what is the good of life other than this being here amongst the things of the world (everything, there is nothing outside of the whole world) and knowing that you are being here?  Everything else is instrumental to some purpose, but beneath the particular purposes there must be goodness in being as such– otherwise, what justification for the struggles to achieve the purposes?

The second truth that Gros reveals is that walking, as the most basic coordinated movement of the body, connects us to our finite materiality and the earth– it teaches us what we really are at base– bodies.  Bodies that think, yes, but bodies:  “What dominates in walking, away from ostentation and showing off, is the simple joy of feeling your body in the most primitively natural activity … When you walk, the basso continuo of joy comes from feeling the extent to which your body is made for this movement, the way it finds in each pace the resource for the next.”  (p. 143) This joy of simple movement simultaneously frees the mind from its mundane concerns, the demands that work and life pile upon it, so that thoughts can come.  The real thought, the idea that contains some insight, something previously unthought, in contrast to the explication and the proof, does not come hunched over at one’s desk, but when one is not expecting it, when one is not searching deliberately for it.  Walking untenses the body and opens the mind:  when the mind is open, ideas flood in, uncalled for: “The body’s monotonous duty liberates thought.  While walking, one is not obliged to think, to think this or that or like this or like that.  During that continuous but automatic effort of the body, the mind is placed at one’s disposal.  It is then that thoughts can arise, surface, or take shape.” (p.157).   As with the good of sheer being, the letting arise or take shape of ideas is the presupposition and validation of the hard work of putting them to work in arguments. The impoverished content of much of the philosophy of our age is perhaps a consequence of the fact that philosophers are mostly paid academics– too much time indoors, at desks and conferences, arguing about the same old ideas and not enough moving in space letting ideas for which there are as yet no supporting arguments arise.

The third truth can be understood as a synthesis of the first two.  Walking allows us to encounter the reality of the things of the world and free our own thoughts from the social forces that weigh them down.  It thus constitutes a form of resistance– (Gros calls it “subversion”)  of the competitive, technological, money-driven form of social life coming to dominate the planet. (p. 178).  The simplicity of walking, the fact that the body is ready-made to walk without any need for technological supplementation (not even shoes, if you choose not to wear any), the fact that everyone teaches him or herself to walk without any need for expensive lessons, that it can only be enjoyed at a measured pace (speed walking is a contradiction in terms), and that it is best done alone, makes it paradigmatically free:  it costs nothing and we can undertake a walk anytime we choose.  Reflecting on Ghandi’s use of walking in his campaigns, Gros observes that a determined political march requires dignity, discipline, and courage.  “Walking is the right speed to understand, to feel close.  Apart from that, you depend on yourself alone to advance.  Given that you are up to it, your will alone is in charge, and you await only your own injunction… Gandhi promoted through the marching movement a dimension of firmness and endurance:  to keep going.  That is essential, because walking calls for gentle but continuous effort.” (p.201)  Contrast this steadiness of purpose with the panicked fleeing of a riot in retreat from a police charge:  the rioters succumb to the superior violence of the state; the calm walkers refuse to engage on the level of state violence, and simply keep going, determinedly, towards their objective.

Techno-capitalism is trying to colonise every second of lifetime and every square centimeter of life space.  In the space time it controls, ever-accelerating activity is demanded.  Hence the pace of walking (and the refusal to respond to society’s demands which is sleep, as Jonathan Crary argues in his short masterpiece, 24/7)  is a revolt of the human body and a demand to reclaim life:

“These discoveries and joys can only be given to those who stroll with an open mind … they will come spontaneously to one who, summoned by spring sunshine, joyously abandons his work just to get a little time to himself … Only thus-  with no expectation of a specific profit from the outing, and with all cares and worries firmly left behind in desk drawers– will a stroll become the gratuitous aesthetic moment, that rediscovery of the lightness of  being, the sweetness of a soul reconciled to itself and the world.”(p.166).

 

 

 

 

 

Capitalism Against Democracy

By fortuitous coincidence, I happened to be reading Paul Virilio’s The Future of the Instant just as the breathless rush to judge the meaning and implications of Syriza’ agreement with the Eurozone consumed the left bank of the Internet.  Virilio makes a most salient point about the patience that historical understanding requires:  “we now have a better sense of the disastrous importance, for the human environment, of this information bomb that disintegrates all natural magnitudes, the very scale of all natural reality, whether geographic, cultural, historical.” (p. 78).  Unceasing streams of data flowing from every point on  earth demand instant response, whereas actual understanding of historically significant events requires that judgement be held in abeyance until the actual implications of particular decisions reveal themselves.  The web generates the illusion of omniscience, but no finite intellect is omniscient, and the whole truth of an event is never fully disclosed in the immediacy of its present.

The Syriza information bomb was detonated by Richard Seymour when he claimed, within hours of Greece’s agreement with its creditors, that Syriza’s capitulation was a “world historic defeat for the left.”

So it is important to be clear: if Syriza supports and implements this deal, it is over.  It will not recover.  It may exist as a party, but as a force of the radical left it will be all but redundant.  It may as well be a centrist, austerian coalition.  A left that goes along with this will be committing suicide.  And finally, don’t put your faith in the idea that maybe if Syriza hangs in there, does what it’s told, eventually, after a while, Podemos will come, maybe some other radical left formations will come, and the balance of power will tilt. Even if that was how the European institutions work – and they have proven they aren’t susceptible to that kind of pressure – this outcome will seriously undercut the chances for the European radical left.  Be clear that we are looking a world-historic defeat in the eye.
This outcome is certainly possible, but it is not inevitable.  Even if it were, Seymour does not answer the most important question raised by his position:  if European institutions are not susceptible to pressure of even multiple far left formations, then  how can it be the case that Syriza’s capitulation is a world historical defeat?  If Syriza plus Podemos plus other left movements cannot tilt the balance of power, then Syriza in particular, and the left in general, it would seem, was already defeated.   If not Syriza and Podemos and other far left groups winning power, then what real alternative would Seymour recommend? If there were an appetite for vanguardist revolution in Greece, or Europe generally, it seems reasonable to believe that it would have been satisfied by now.
Seymour’s criticisms drew a swift reaction from Leo Panitch.   Writing from Athens, Panitch argued that Seymour failed to give appropriate weight to the force of immediate circumstances:  the very real threat of the collapse of the Greek banking system, and the failure of workers in northern Europe to mobilise in support of their Greek brothers and sisters.  With no cards left to play, Syriza struck a deal which, according to Panitch, staves off an even more severe crisis and thus (perhaps)  saves the government to fight another day.
It will not be a “world historic” victory, for those who like such language, since it will still involve tying the revival of the Greek economy to the fate of what remains a very much capitalist Europe, but this would not mean that the Syriza government would exclude itself from the continuing struggle to challenge and change that. On the other hand, if Tsipras walks away today accepting the same conditionalities as before to debt restructuring, and without any guaranteed investment funds on top of this, then it will indeed be interesting to see where Lenin will take us once he is let out of his tomb, and sees that he faces yet again the sad fact that a break in the weakest link could not break the stronger links of the labour movements in Central and Northern Europe to both domestic and global capitalism.
While Panitch’s long-standing contribution to radical political economy earns his perspective the utmost respect, I cannot agree with this assessment.
To read the text of the agreement that Tsirpas signed, it is difficult, even on the most liberal application of the principle of charity, to understand Panitch’s interpretation.  Syriza has committed not only to wholesale privatization of vital public services like electricity distribution, increases in consumption tax increases, cuts to pension programs and social spending of all sorts, weakening job security, and mass layoffs of public sector employees. No:  after agreeing to all that and potentially more to come, it did not even secure agreement that they will get the money they are counting on to bail out the banks.  The transfer of funds is still conditional on the Greek parliament proving to Europe that they will make good on the promises made in the agreement:
Immediately, and only subsequent to legal implementation of the first four above-mentioned measures as well as endorsement of all the commitments included in this document by the Greek Parliament, verified by the Institutions and the Eurogroup, may a decision to mandate the Institutions to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) be taken. This decision would be taken subject to national procedures having been completed and if the preconditions of Article 13 of the ESM Treaty are met on the basis of the assessment referred to in Article 13.1.
In order to form the basis for a successful conclusion of the MoU, the Greek offer of reform measures needs to be seriously strengthened to take into account the strongly deteriorated economic and fiscal position of the country during the last year. The Greek government needs to formally commit to strengthening their proposals in a number of areas identified by the Institutions, with a satisfactory clear timetable for legislation and implementation, including structural benchmarks, milestones and quantitative benchmarks, to have clarity on the direction of policies over the medium-run.
In other words, this agreement comes at the cost of surrendering Greek economic policy completely, making Greece in effect a vassal-state of the European Central Bank.
It is difficult indeed to see anyway in which Syriza can regain any political momentum after this deal.
However, the fact that they signed this deal in the first place indicates something of importance about their bargaining position going in to the talks.  The courage that a majority of Greeks showed by voting no in the July 5th referendum was a direct challenge to the power of its Eurozone partners.  However, when a nation of eleven million people, without formal support from any other quarter, takes on an international coalition of three hundred million, it could only ever have been a bluff.  Bluffs can work, but only if the other party does not pay to see your cards.  The Eurozone could afford to pay to see Greece’s cards.  Once their bluff was  called, there were no politically real options left but to accept Europe’s terms, given how the process had unfolded up to this point.
Let us therefore be clear:  the real enemy and the real problem is the Eurozone governments and the European Central Bank, who have clearly set out to destroy Syriza as a potential challenger to the power of money-value, and as a warning to others (Podemos)  not to follow suit.  If this claim is true (and what evidence could falsify it?), then what others owe Syriza is support– critical support, yes, but support nonetheless.
In a follow up piece to his original (obviously rushed) intervention, Panitch and Sam Gindin make roughly this point:
Syriza’s unique capacity on the international left to build the type of party capable of both mobilizing against neoliberalism and entering the state to try to actually do something about this has always hinged on the way it sought to find room for manoeuvre within a European Union which has neoliberalism in its DNA, going back all the way to the Treaty of Rome let alone the Economic and Monetary Union thirty years later. Anyone who at all seriously followed developments in Greece over the past five years should have known that the leadership of the party would only go as far as the Europeans would let it, and that the balance of power inside the party made the Left Platform faction’s strategy for Grexit an effective non-starter. Those on the revolutionary left who hoped that after Syriza’s election this leadership would get swept away by a massive popular upsurge for Grexit in face of the limits and contradictions of a Syriza government were, as usual, dreaming in technicolor.
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While it is true that technicolor dreams rarely come true, it is also true that anyone who is committed to a future in which the life-destroying norms of capitalism have been finally overcome must allow themselves to dream at least in black and white.  Otherwise, it is impossible to ever get beyond what capitalist normality dictates.
I am a philosopher and not an economist, but if there is a promise of debt relief that even the International Monetary Fund acknowledges is necessary in the agreement that Greece just signed, I did not see it.  Unless there is significant debt relief, then the measures just agreed to– which amount to nothing more than taking on more debt to pay existing debt– will only exacerbate the crisis.  Might that intensifying crisis produce a revolutionary break?  Perhaps, but there is no evidence to this point that a politically significant number of Greeks want socialist revolution.  They want a solution to the murderous austerity imposed upon them.  If they turn now turn on Syriza as the cause of austerity (rather than on the Eurozone and finance capital), a much darker future might be in store for Greece.
In a recent interview with The New Statesman, ex-Finance Minister  Yanis Varoufakis returns to an article he first wrote in 2013, and which explains Syriza’s reticence to choose the Grexit strategy.  (To be fair, Varoufakis also noted that he did set up a team to study a measured way of exiting the Euro, but those who favoured it could never win a majority to their side).  Varoufakis was afraid that a Greek exit from the Euro could have a cascade effect that would plunge Europe into a deep recession and strengthen neo-fascist forces:
A Greek or a Portuguese or an Italian exit from the Eurozone would soon lead to a fragmentation of European capitalism, yielding a seriously recessionary surplus region east of the Rhine and north of the Alps, while the rest of Europe is would be in the grip of vicious stagflation. Who do you think would benefit from this development? A progressive left, that will rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of Europe’s public institutions? Or the Golden Dawn Nazis, the assorted neofascists, the xenophobes and the spivs? I have absolutely no doubt as to which of the two will do best from a disintegration of the Eurozone.
Perhaps Varoufakis exaggerated the threat.  Nevertheless, if even left critics of Syriza like Seymour seem to rest their arguments on the weakness of the left, then it is not sheer cowardice or over-caution to worry about the potentially disastrous implications of forcing through anti-Euro policies without well-laid alternative plans in place.
The looming spectre of the Golden Dawn is another reason why the left has no choice but to (critically) support Syriza.  Its election was not a world-historic victory of the left; its signing on to this agreement need not be a world-historic defeat.  The Greek people retain their freedom of action.  They are not bound for all time by this agreement if they decide not to be.  But that decision has to be made in light of a social alternative whose first steps can be taken right now.  The difficulties standing in the way of even small concrete alternatives are formidable.  With no alternative source of funds to  the European Central Bank and the IMF, and without the natural resources of Venezuela and other Latin American countries which enabled them to  support small but real movements away from capitalist markets in the provision of life-necessities (at least until the price of oil fell) Greeks are in a profoundly difficult situation.
Whether it is a world historical defeat  for the left will depend upon whether they can mobilise effectively in the short term to protect public institutions and assets (as potential sources of funds for reinvestment in  need-satisfying economic activity) and in the longer term on their ability to mobilise effective (and not just rhetorical)  solidarity.  This solidarity must take two key political forms:  1) elected governments of broadly representative parties to the left of now fully complicit social democratic parties willing to challenge the hegemony of  the forces of austerity in Europe, and 2) a reactivated labour movement willing to organize behind demands for an economy that understands value in terms of  life-needs satisfied and life-capacities enabled.
 

 

Democracy Against Capitalism

The development of a body of philosophical work, in my experience, is not a linear progression from insight to insight but a constantly circling back and going further/deeper into a set of problems.  Hence, in the course of my own philosophical development I have found my thinking drawn back to certain books that continue to help make sense of structural problems as they manifest themselves in changing contexts.  One on those books is Ellen Meiksins Wood’s Democracy Against Capitalism. 2015 is its twentieth anniversary.  Far from being dated, it is essential reading for anyone trying to understand the current conflict between Greece and the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.  Despite its unsurpassed insights into the limits that capitalism poses for democratic self-governance, Wood’s book, I feel, has never received the attention that it its due.

When it was published, it significantly advanced the state of Marxist political philosophy, replacing the unenlightening blanket rejection of “bourgeois democracy” with an historically rich and philosophically astute critique of liberalism.  Against received wisdom in both Marxist and liberal camps, Wood demonstrated the undemocratic origins of liberal democracy.  Drawing out the hitherto overlooked sophistication of Marx’s own critique of liberal democracy, Wood revealed that the essence of liberalism was a formal distinction between public and private realms, a distinction which allows the social forces generated in the ‘private’ economic sphere to undermine the democratic decisions made in the formally ‘public’ sphere.   The briliiance of the argument– and what should have made it more widely discussed in liberal circles- is that Wood substantiates her claims not through rote citation of Marx, but from an historical comparison between the practice of Athenian democracy and the pains English and American liberals took (following their respective revolutions) to normalise the identification of democracy with voting, and then  only on those issues which had no bearing on socio-economic life.  “In Athens, there was no …clear distinction between ‘state’ and ‘civil society,’ no distinct and autonomous ‘economy.’ … Political and economic powers and rights, in other words, were not as easily separated in Athens as in the US, where property was already achieving a purely ‘economic’ definition, detached from juridical privilege or political power, and where the ‘economy’ was acquiring a life of its own.  Large segments of human experience and activity, and many varieties of oppression and indignity, were left untouched by political equality.” (p. 224).  Political equality and voting rights might be necessary conditions of free social life, but they are by no means sufficient.  The current crisis in Greece illustrates clearly why not.

That which so alarmed European and global finance capitalists about the Greek referendum is that it forced open the normally closed  circuits of money-capital to democratic power.  Under normal circumstances, as Wood notes, economic forces are treated as if they were powers independent of human social activity to which that activity must conform in order to be rational.  “Freedom”  including democratic freedom, is thus identified with its opposite– compliance to external and unchallengeable forces.

To understand my point, consider any of a number of official response to the Greek referendum.  They all end up sounding the same alarm: the Greeks have defied the power of “markets” and will now suffer even worse consequences than had they complied with finance capital’s demands.  Here is one example amongst many that could have been chosen.  Simon Smith, an analyst at FxPro concludes:  “If Europe isn’t prepared to relax the terms it was offering Greece just last weekend, and there’s no indication it will, Greece will have to start printing its own currency so . On the other hand, if Europe compromises and agrees to write off some of Greece’s huge debt, the credibility of the currency will suffer. “Whatever the outcome of the next few days, there is no way that the eurozone or the single currency can come out stronger as a result.”  The point to pay attention to is the hidden framework within which Smith’s “no way” comment is made.  He assumes, not only as given (as is the case) the ways in which financial markets  operate today, but also that they are obligatory for all time and unchangeable by collective social decision.  It may well be the case that tomorrow a revived drachma will be weak or the Euro will decline, but that is not equivalent to the implication (which Smith wants us to draw)  that Greek society will be weaker, over the long term if it rejects the demands of its creditors. 

Smith thus excludes the possibility (of which human history is the living proof) of fundamental social change– change in the ruling value system and the purposes of major social institutions.   He cannot imagine that the Greek crisis could be the begining of transformational changes in the advanced capitalist West, changes which reconnect economies to their real purpose: the production of life-capital:  “the life wealth that produces more life wealth without loss and with cumulative gain.”  Life capital is not a fictitious or a utopian idea–  it is the food you eat, the water you drink (processed for safety) the education you have enjoyed, the health care that is available for you when you need it, the roof over your head.  If you live in a society in which these life-goods are not available, then you live in a society that is failing, regardless of what financial markets “think.”  Greek society is failing, precisely because governments before Syriza have obeyed the dictates of financial capital to convert their shared life-resources into money-capital for bankers to appropriate for themselves. Even mainstream business papers now recognise that the loans being given to Greece are part of a shell game in which money is advanced to pay back money that is owed–  Greek society starves, goes deeper into debt, and the banks receive back only that money they have already leant.  Money is certainly not being extended to the Greek people so that they can survive (the crisis has created a massive public health crisis that is killing people. (see Stuckler and Basu, The Body Economic, pp. 77-96).

By voting “no,” not only have Greeks magnificently refused to give into blackmail and intimidation, they have also exposed the fundamentally undemocratic character of capitalist society and the traditional parties, including social democratic parties, that support it. (If anyone needed more proof than Tony Blair that social democracy is fully incorporated into the capitalist mainstream, Francois Hollande and German Finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble are it).  What was so alarming about the referendum was that it gave Greeks an explicit say in the macro-economic policy their government would pursue.  Of course, part of the strategy here is brinksmanship of a thoroughly ordinary sort– Tsirpas trying to give himself some leverage in future talks.  But principles matter in politics– and the principle instantiated by the referendum is dangerous to the ruling financial oligarchy and orthodoxy:  if democracy is a formally legitimate political system, indeed, the one that capitalism is naturally supposed to lead to, and citizens begin to democratically reject cornerstone elements of capitalist society, capitalism will not be able to legitimate itself by its traditional means–  that it is the only democratic society.  The contradiction between capitalism and democracy will be exposed again, and the capitalists will have to choose to re-impose their will by force (as they have never been shy to do, when pushed)  or they will have to yield: in the short term, substantive concessions to Greece, and in the longer term, an opening into which more systematic transformational projects in democratic economic organization in the shared life-interest can be set up.

The no vote clearly does not solve all of Greece’s problems.  Nor can they be solved simply by reciting slogans about worker’s control.  While it is indeed time, as John Milios and Dimitris P. Sotiropoulos argued back in March, is for Syriza to mobilise the Greek people, not just against the bankers, but for concrete steps towards mobilising Greek labour to rebuild Greek society, not so that the surplus can be pumped out of the country as money-capital for the financial oligarchy to consume, but to satisfy the life-requirements of Greek citizens.  But in taking this step caution is required:  nothing will spell doom for Syriza more quickly than failed  experiments in socialising key sectors of the economy.  That is what must be done, but it must be done with care and intelligence, and it will require international solidarity to succeed.  That solidarity may be taking shape.  In May, Podemos and its allies swept the municipal elections in Spain and are poised to win parliamentary elections in the fall.  Should that occur, and the powerful social movements unleashed by resistance to authoritarian austerity in Spain keep a Podemos government pushing to the left, a period of serious challenge, not only to neo-liberal orthodoxy, but to capitalist misrule might really be emerging.

 

 

Epic Working Class Poem

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Home is the place where, when you have to go there,

They have to take you in.

Robert Frost, “The Death of the Hired Man.”

I

Earth,

with the money extracted

and sent down South,

is just this blistered mass,

prime matter heaped beside railway tracks,

far from discriminating eyes.

2015-06-30 06.05.39

 

But does that prevent

me, with broader tastes,

from suggesting (and not in jest),

that it is not waste,

but sculpture made by hands

that had no intention,

as they drilled and blasted,

crushed and roasted,

separated and poured,

colluded with the random geometry

of cooling and tumbling,

to produce something

that I am compelled to admire

here,

on this road,

that is quite literally,

the end of the line?

IMG_3618

II

Grown

in the North.

Beards and bear piss blueberries,

rhubarb and Blezzard Valley potatoes;

these thin acidic soils

will not suffice,

I fear,

to attract network attention.

IMG_3584

 

Unless,

in my long absence,

by grace of global warming blessing,

the sins of frost-bite winds

have been redeemed

with produce more exotic,

for your weekend farmer’s market,

just one more token of a type

now found everywhere,

and locally!

IMG_3604

 III

City,

perpetually off-balance,

wobbling atop granite pullulations

that seem alive,

although they aren’t.

Stubbornly, they refuse to hide

their still blackened surface from tourists,

otherwise impressed.

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They used to say:

“It looks just like the moon!”

[“Really, lady, have you been to the fuckin’ moon?”].

Buzz Aldrin has and he,

il miglio fabbro,

saw and said it best:

“Desolation. Magnificent desolation.”

 

Not everything beautiful, you see,

needs to be green and pretty,

and no one should be ashamed,

of how they had to make their living.

IMG_3602

 

IV

Work

you never had to live

is easy to romanticise.

The too-young dead might disagree,

if they could speak.

But only the living can tell stories

of heroic union battles

not to be repeated anytime soon.

2015-05-09 00.40.52

 

Somewhere,

a dusty archive proves

this place once had some fight.

But today all you hear

from the old timer in Rudy’s,

coming in for a coffee,

and almost the best burger in the city,

is defeat:

“Hey Petey, where the hell is everyone?

I just drove past Little Stobie

and there was hardly a goddamn person on the line.”

IMG_3609

V

Cold,

there is something clarifying about it

that you have to breathe to understand,

something that maybe unhinges a man,

and makes him think

that his monstrous trapper’s hat,

face of fox and tail of wolf

[I shit you not]

would intimidate the twelve year olds,

and ensure victory

for his son’s side.

IMG_3619

 

But no one traps a loon,

whose perfect melancholy

is never sung,

until he’s sure that work is over,

and the sky’s quiescent purple

has settled us on the dock,

to pour the rye and ginger,

and drink

a toast to each of us,

to the cliches we once were,

and loved.

IMG_3595

VI

It is summer now.

And the night is warm.

And no one needs to rush.

IMG_3637

 

Sudbury-Windsor, May-July, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bring the Noise

In his superb  24/7, Jonathan Crary argues that blogging signifies the end of politics:  “The phenomenon of blogging is one example– among many– of the triumph of a one-way model of auto-chattering in which the possibility of ever having to wait and listen to someone else has been eliminated.  Blogging, no matter what its intentions, is thus one of the many announcements of the end of politics.”(p.124)  If blogging is reduced to its most narcissistic possibility-  immediate reporting on one’s state of mind, mere opining without reflection or filtering through a grid of principled argument-  then Crary is correct.  Politics is back and forth argument, not monologue, and if all blogging stems from dismissive ignorance of the reality of counter-argument, then it is anti-political.

At the same time, one must be careful not to confuse a platform with the substance the platform makes it possible to disseminate.  All writing runs the risk of being closed monologue, and nothing exemplifies the danger of “auto-chatter” better than much academic journal writing (especially in philosophy).  The medium need not be the message.  Authorial intention and content matter.

I begin with this quotation as a preamble to a reflection on my own work on this blog over the past year.  Since I first read Crary’s argument two years ago I have been sensitive to the double-bind I often find myself in here.  One of the reasons that I started Interventions and Evocations was to provide a forum for the philosophical discussion of politically and culturally significant contemporary events.  The timelines of peer review and academic publication preclude the incisive, immediate commentary that the best journalism provides, but even the best journalism tends to exclude the excavation of depth principles that socially relevant philosophy brings to light.  The danger is always that the desire to comment quickly (in order to be relevant)  undermines the time for reflection that philosophy demands.  (Perhaps one of the reasons philosophy is in crisis today is because it cannot operate at the speed the contemporary world requires).

There is no way out of this double bind.  Philosophy needs to be involved in on-going conversations, and philosophical thoughts also need time to gestate.  In the first year of writing this blog I think I fell victim to the temptation to write too early. Over the next three years I think I have become more sensitive to the need to let the thoughts form at their own pace, without having to delay comment so long that the urgency generated by the problem or event has dissipated.

The patience that philosophy requires is also served by having, at this point in my career, a body of work to draw upon and a set of principles which I think have been sufficiently tested in the crucible of peer reviewed academic publication and argument.  The intellectual value  of having access to a platform that allows for philosophical intervention into events as they happen is that those principles can be applied to current problems and their efficacy tested in living environments, after having proven their cogency in the more rigorous (but also more abstract) context of academic journals.  I see the blog as medium for a dialectic between commentary and philosophical argument and not just narcissistic reporting on what I happen to think.  Plus, the platform allows for critical response (one more reason why it need not be, as Crary charges, anti-political auto-chatter).  It is true that I have the power to not post responses, but it is impossible to become a philosopher without learning how to accept criticism of one’s principles and arguments.  All critics of the positions that I articulate here can therefore rest assured that their comments will posted, no matter how serious their disagreement with my perspective.

In sum, as I begin the fifth year of maintaining this site, I hope that it has done more than contribute to the cacophony of vanity that bedevils our culture (especially on-line culture).   At the same time, these posts are, for better or worse, my arguments.  I make no attempt to cloak them in the phantom objectivity of “One” or the contrived universality of “We.”  I have always hated the convention in social science (one fortunately not yet adopted by philosophy) of pretending that it is not “I” that takes a position.  All argument should be in the first person-  It is  “I”, not “one,” or “we”  that believes, asserts, contends, argues, etc.  Each mind is a unique perspective on the world, as Leibniz wrote:  “And much as the same town is viewed from different sides looks altogether different, and is, as it were, perspectively multiplied, it similarly happens that, through the infinite multitude of simple substances, there are, as it were, just as many different universes, which, however, are only the perspectives of a single one according to the different points of view of each monad.”  (Monadology, section 57).  There is one universe and multiple perspectives on it.  if we are ever to produce the harmony between perspectives that Leibniz believes already existed by divine choice, then we must share these perspectives with each other, not as auto-chattering monads, but politically and philosophically engaged social subjects, giving ground where proven wrong but courageous in defence of our position when it has proven right.

As I did with the first three years of posts, I have collected this years posts together in Thinkings 4. It can be downloaded by clicking on the link or from the right side-menu under the Heading Essays.  Thinkings 1, Thinkings 2, and Thinkings 3 can be downloaded in the same way.

 

 

Windsoria/Windstoria

 

If one wanted to argue that the mere telling of stories does not change the world, I would not disagree.  However, telling stories can change the self that tells them– by telling our own stories we objectify ourselves in such a way that we can see nuance, complexity, strength, failure, and beauty that we might not have known existed.  I think this is particularly true for those marginalised by class, by race, by ethnicity, gender, and anything else that the powerful can turn into a mark of Cain to justify not listening to what people have to say.  Too often the oppressed internalise the shunning and fear to which they are subjected and start to think they have nothing to say that is worth saying.  But in their stories not only their own truth emerges, but truths of our world, and truth is always worth speaking, and it must, eventually, be heard.

The stories collected and posted here were written for Windsoria/Windstoria, a night of storytelling and interactive map mapping held as part of Mayworks Windsor 2015 and hosted by Artcite.  They were written by Mireille Coral’s adult education class in response to my invitation.  Below is Mireille’s introduction to the collection.  The stories themselves can be found by clicking here, or the Windsoria/Windstoria link in the right-hand menu under the heading Essays.

 

Introduction, by Mireille Coral

Grade 12 students at St. Michael’s Adult High School were invited to participate in the Windsoria/Windstoria project. These are their stories. First, though, they had questions: “What should we write about?” “Who would be interested in our stories?” and “Are our stories worth telling?”

The stories in this collection are the end result of a process of introspection, sharing, writing – and telling. It was in the telling of these stories that a bond was formed. As one woman put it later, reflecting on the process, “When I heard my classmates’ stories, I felt closer to them. I felt we had become friends.” One young man described the experience this way: “I was just going to make up a story about ghosts or vampires. That didn’t work, so I decided to look at the broken part of my heart. It was scary, but I found my story there.”

These stories share some personal experiences of growing up, leaving home, coming to a new place, working, finding one’s way in the world. They demonstrate the power of naming your experience, putting it in words, telling your story. They also demonstrate, as one woman later told me, that everyone’s story is worth telling.

Mireille Coral

Grade 12 teacher, St. Michael’s School

Welcome

Welcome to my site.   My aim in creating it is to establish a forum for the philosophical discussion of contemporary social, economic, political, and cultural dynamics, as well as to provide a platform for the dissemination of occasional essays and creative forms of exploring ideas and experiences.   New content will be added regularly, so please check in often and contribute to the discussion by leaving comments and suggesting links.

Note:  The header photograph is a detail from the interior of the breathtaking, living, collective, unintentional public sculpture which is (soon to be was)  Packard Plant in Detroit.