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If I was a book in a library, then I'd finally be free

Django Unchained and Hegel’s servant

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When I saw Django Unchained a couple days ago, I kept thinking of Hegel’s short essay “Who Thinks Abstractly” and the brief remarks he makes toward the end about how good it is to be the servant of a French nobleman.

…no servant is worse off than one who works for a man of low class and low income; and he is better off the nobler his master is. The common man again thinks more abstractly, he gives himself noble airs vis-à-vis the servant and relates himself to the other man merely as to a servant; he clings to this one predicate. The servant is best off among the French. The nobleman is familiar with his servant, the Frenchman is his friend. When they are alone, the servant does the talking: see Diderot’s Jacques et son maître; the master does nothing but take snuff and see what time it is and lets the servant take care of everything else. The nobleman knows that the servant is not merely a servant, but also knows the latest city news, the girls, and harbors good suggestions; he asks him about these matters, and the servant may say what he knows about these questions. With a French master, the servant may not only do this; he may also broach a subject, have his own opinions and insist on them; and when the master wants something, it is not done with an order but he has to argue and convince the servant of his opinion and add a good word to make sure that this opinion retains the upper hand.

The main characters of the film are English-speaking. Four of them appear as black-white dyads: Django (Jamie Foxx) and Herr Shultz (Christop Waltz), Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). Shultz is a German immigrant and his relationship with Django is entirely amicable. Candie is an American, and he likes to call himself Monsieur despite not knowing how to speak French. His hair-style and aesthetic are influenced by the French presence in the Mississippi region. His apparent head house-slave and him have a cantakerous relationship, but Stephen is extremely assertive with his master. Sometimes Candie demands a show of respect that subdues Stephen, but even then he hesitates to “assume the position”. He is described by one reviewer as “imperious” and I found this apt.

Shultz doesn’t really own Django, but he’s “his man” for the duration he needs him. Their relationship is contractual. Django is assertive, but not belligerent. He is Shultz’s equal de facto, as a “natural” marksman and clever, and de jure (kind of) through his purchased freedom. Shultz doesn’t really tell Django what to do, but he does kind of still run the show.

What’s going on between these competing visions of a the master and slave? It seems that the good-guys are those approximating a libertarian contractual relationship. It’s not “really” slavery, except when it is. Many are probably going to look at the Shulz-Django relationship as more enlightened somehow, but the idea is that if you’re a slave, your best hope is to work with a good boss and mind your own business. Django eventually goes free with his wife, but there is nothing infectious about this freedom, even if Django’s badassery evokes a desire to “be like him”.

Written by Joe

January 19, 2013 at 8:47 pm

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Sometimes the w…

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Sometimes the word ‘exchange’ is substituted for ‘distribution’, but we insist on a distinction. Exchange is a universal principle of economic life but it takes many forms and not all flows of resources should be categorized as exchanges. The payment of tribute to a ruler may be said to bring you his protection in exchange, but this is a misleading representation of an unequal relationship, while welfare payments by a modern state are better seen as transfers financed by taxation—a new form of sharing.

From Chris Hann and Keith Hart’s “Economic Anthropology: history, ethnography, critique”.

Written by Joe

January 15, 2013 at 12:29 pm

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On Becoming God

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Really liked this passage (pages 35-36) out of Ben Morgan’s “On Becoming God: late medieval mysticism and the modern western self.”

The assumptions that inform the texts of Lacan, Irigaray, and [Amy] Hollywood as well as those Lyotard, Zizek, Derrida, and Adorno suggest a world in which changes is not possible because individuals are too marked by the structures they wish to escape. This is a habit of thought that in some circumstances may be useful. It encourages a form of humility, since it suggests that the individual is shaped by powers he or she does not fully control. It consoles too, since it absolves the individual of responsibility, saying that if changes does not happen this is because the structure does not permit it. But the same assumptions could also be an excuse for cynicism, or for a resignation that justifies its inactivity by appealing to powers the individual cannot possibly master, when it is conceivable that contingent, less-dramatic factors, such as the inability of a man in a particular generation to cry or to talk about disappointment, create the conviction that the whole world is out of joint and the subject is necessarily and permanently exiled from fulfillment. The assumptions shared by Lacan, Irigaray, Hollywood, Lyotard, Zizek, Derrida, and Adorno help to reconcile the individual with a particular sort of loneliness and emptiness.

My alternative approach, drawing on the phenomenological tradition, does not attempt to reconcile the individual with a necessary isolation but instead offers an account of the ways in which the human potential for communication and fulfillment has been lived to a greater or lesser degree in different historical contexts.

This is pretty rad.

Written by Joe

January 5, 2013 at 8:20 pm

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It’s The Toxic Masculinity (and Individualism), Stupid!

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There have been two trends in the response to recent gun-massacres that deserve more scrutiny than they’re receiving. One is the triumphant assertion by gun-enthusiasts that ‘an armed society is a polite/civil/safe society’, which reasons that either people will be deterred from violence by the fear of citizen  retaliation or we don’t have to worry that any violence will ‘get out of hand’ because dutiful citizens will use their guns to stop it. This is often enough pitched as a response to an imaginary demand to ban all guns, even though there’s more concern with just getting stronger and more consistently enforced controls on gun-access. Then there are those who see the shooters as disturbed individuals that really needed mental healthcare. As far as I can tell they are in good faith trying to counter the individualizing effects of the gun-enthusiasts’ appeal, while also diffusing the anxiety around “more gub’mint regulations”. We wouldn’t need more controls, or at least wouldn’t need to realize the gun-enthusiasts’ worst fear of banning guns, if there was a place these people could go with ‘their problems’. That said, I think most of the time the mental health appeal is coupled with some increased or better enforced controls. What’s the matter with these responses?

Well, I’d like to turn to a penetrating passage from Sunday’s New York Times on ‘the freedom of an armed society.’

Gun rights advocates also argue that guns provide the ultimate insurance of our freedom, in so far as they are the final deterrent against encroaching centralized government, and an executive branch run amok with power. Any suggestion of limiting guns rights is greeted by ominous warnings that this is a move of expansive, would-be despotic government. It has been the means by which gun rights advocates withstand even the most seemingly rational gun control measures. An assault weapons ban, smaller ammunition clips for guns, longer background checks on gun purchases — these are all measures centralized government wants, they claim, in order to exert control over us, and ultimately impose its arbitrary will. I have often suspected, however, that contrary to holding centralized authority in check, broad individual gun ownership gives the powers-that-be exactly what they want.

After all, a population of privately armed citizens is one that is increasingly fragmented, and vulnerable as a result. Private gun ownership invites retreat into extreme individualism — I heard numerous calls for homeschooling in the wake of the Newtown shootings — and nourishes the illusion that I can be my own police, or military, as the case may be. The N.R.A. would have each of us steeled for impending government aggression, but it goes without saying that individually armed citizens are no match for government force. The N.R.A. argues against that interpretation of the Second Amendment that privileges armed militias over individuals, and yet it seems clear that armed militias, at least in theory, would provide a superior check on autocratic government.

As Michel Foucault pointed out in his detailed study of the mechanisms of power, nothing suits power so well as extreme individualism. In fact, he explains, political and corporate interests aim at nothing less than “individualization,” since it is far easier to manipulate a collection of discrete and increasingly independent individuals than a community. Guns undermine just that — community. Their pervasive, open presence would sow apprehension, suspicion, mistrust and fear, all emotions that are corrosive of community and civic cooperation. To that extent, then, guns give license to autocratic government.

What’s interesting and important about the article is not anything about regulating guns (a form of control of and power over individuals). Instead, it’s an indictment of the kind of individualism that underpins ‘an armed society is a polite/civil society’ claims, which is a tunnel-vision that fragments collective power with the spectacular promise of personal firearms. It’s a disempowering story gun enthusiasts are spreading and the flip-side of the ‘ban all guns’ rhetoric that they think they’re opposing. In other word, an armed society isn’t a more polite, civil or necessarily safer society. It’s a police-state.

However, there’re reasons to think that the ‘access to mental healthcare’ is a similarly misleading appeal. As my partner put it (on Facebook) responding to this livejournal posting about recent gun massacres:

This is a really great post and it tails nicely with problems I’ve been having with the discourse. I think gun control is the least useful angle to look at the event from, and I think a lot of people realize that, but the mental-illness angle has been striking me as off the mark as well. Mostly because these shooters don’t usually have an obvious psychological problem before the event, and even if they were suffering under ‘common’ stress & alienation, it’s not clear that they lacked access to support or would have availed themselves of it. It IS a mental health issue, but it goes deeper than ‘spotting’ and ‘helping’ troubled folks, it has to do with the ways our ‘normal’ forms of sociability feed into problems, while simultaneously making it appear that nothing unusual is going on. Because if you’re just pissed cuz you’re RIGHT, then why would you seek help?

Some might contend these were mentally I’ll people though! The issue isn’t whether there’s a ‘mental health’ crisis though, but the etiology of that crisis. There is certainly a need to improve access to ALL kinds of healthcare (I’m an unrepentant socialist here), but my partner and that blog-writer’s point is that calling these shootings ‘a mental health issue’ and framing that in terms of access /takes for granted/ the sick individual. This is not far off from the gun-nut’s reasoning that these types of events, these individuals, are to be expected. Stated so simply as it often had been, it just individualizes the solution in a different way. There are individual factors to be sure, and access to mental healthcare probably would correlate with reduced violence, but that’s a band-aid perspective when the gushing wound is a culture of toxic masculinity and toxic individualism. Lack of access to mental healthcare didn’t produce these shooters, didn’t produce their willingness to act as they did, even if it may have stopped some of them.

Written by Joe

December 17, 2012 at 12:09 pm

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Demanding The Future

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I got Zizek’s newish little book on the various uprisings in 2011, “The Year of Dreaming Dangerously”. I don’t get a chance to read all the books I get through work, because I get paid so little that I have to review two in an hour to make a decent “wage”, and this is exhausting so I only do as much as is necessary to make ends meet. I can hold onto any I want or buy them at a discount, and I may do that with this book.

In the last section “signs from the future” he has this to say about Pascal’s theory of miracles, which is basically that miracles appear for those who know what to look for or how to “make sense” of it.

Many perceptive Marxists have noted how this topic of Pascal’s, far from being a regression to obscurantist theology, points forward toward the Marxist notion of a revolutionary theory whose truth is only discernible from an engaged class position. And are we not today in exactly the same situation with regard to Communism? The times of ‘revealed Communism’ are over: we can no longer pretend (or act as if) the Communist truth is simply here for everyone to see, accessible to neutral rational historical analysis: there is no Communist ‘big Other’, no higher historical necessity or teleology to guide and legitimize our acts. In such a situation, today’s libertins (postmodern historicist skeptics)  thrive, and the only way to counter them — to assert the dimension of the Event (of eternal Truth) in our epoch of contingency — is to practice a kind of Communist absconditus. What defines today’s Communist is the ‘doctrine’ (theory) that enables him [HIM] to discern in (the contemporary version of) a ‘miracle’ — say, an unexpected event like the uprising in Tahrir Square—its communist nature, to read it as a sign from the (Communist) future … And again, this future is not ‘objective’; it will come to be only through the subjective engagement that sustains. (130-31)

This is interesting to come across after reading Kathi Weeks’ “The Problem With Work”, because she spends a final chapter considering utopianism and rethinking how we engage the future. Specifically, her revival of Ernst Bloch’s theories about how subjective engagement and imagination is integral to revolutionary action. That and her examination of demands and how utopian demands provoke people to think differently WHILE ALSO training them to notice the contours of power and possibility. Zizek later on goes on to offer his own suggestion of what Andre Gorz called “a non-reformist reform”. He calls it “a moderate demand”, one that is both reasonable and yet directly confronts some ideological investment. Selma James did it with Wages for Housework. Kathi Weeks and Peter Frase do it with basic income. I have done it in my personal circles (when I worked in anti-hunger advocacy) when it comes to food-stamps as a universal program. We have to practice this absconditus if we’re to see the connections, which means a renewed attention to our co-existence (as Tim Morton would put it) or maybe what some Zen practitioners I know call haragei.

To that end, Zizek’s privileging of Christianity may be just an artifact of what he’s read, but a children’s movie about signs from the future, Buddhism, making sense of “mandalas”, averting catastrophe prempts his book by a few years. It was called The Last Mimzy. That’s not saying anything about how his and Pascal’s respective theories on miracles bears more than a striking resemblance to popular new-age quantum consciousness theories epitomized by What the Bleep Do We Know? Zizek is no longer a cynic, but an honest hypocrite.

Written by Joe

December 13, 2012 at 1:16 pm

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Why the Hell Are We Making Meth? Musings on Science, Labor and Romance in Breaking Bad.

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In the early third season of Breaking Bad, the main character Walt gets what could be mistaken for a craft microbrewery and a dream come true. It’s actually a “state-of-the-art” meth lab, built for him by his boss, Gus, who owns the laundromat serving as a front upstairs. Well, actually, it’s more that his boss gave someone else money to build it, but I’ll get to that in another post.

The lab means as many things to as many people as there are stars hiding in the deep. The lab is a place for redemptive and even mystical exploration of the natural world. If you play your cards right it can also be for lucrative exploitation of “consenting adults … want[ing] what they want”. Gale is Walt’s new lab-assistant. He’s confident in asserting his libertarianism, but not melodramatic about it like Ayn Rand, and not quite nearly as focused on the pursuit of money. The whole set-up of this lab is at least on one level a promise of unalienated labor, what William Morris writing about “useful work vs. useless toil” called “the hope of pleasure in the work itself”:

…how strange that hope must seem to some of my readers – to most of them! Yet I think that to all living things there is a pleasure in the exercise of their energies, and that even beasts rejoice in being lithe and swift and strong. But a man at work, making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as of his body.

Nonetheless, Gale weds working for rich people, or at least “where the money is”, and “doing science”. This is interesting because Gale nonetheless takes an awkwardly political and in this sense ethical turn when talking shop with Walt at the end of the day. Gale says in a somewhat reactive somewhat resigned tone: “I was doing it the way you are supposed to, pursuing my doctorate at Colorado, on an NSF grant.” This entailed a lot of jumping through hoops, kissing ass and “attending too all the non-chemistry that one finds oneself occupied with – you know that world.” Academic politics are notoriously taxing and so it’s no surprise this should rub a libertarian the wrong way, but it’s not taxing in terms of money so much as affective reserves and social capital. Gale is attracted to “the business” because it offers him that “magical” experience of doing real work, which in the context of science means lab-work. This also seems necessary to convincing Walt. Money alone can’t quite hail him into being as a compliant worker since he decided he wanted out, but the promise of respectability doing highly aestheticized lab-work  gets him to agree to return to cooking.

Think of the industrial porn called “How It’s Made“, which would make Zizek blush. “My God, can you believe they syndicate this smut on the same public broadcasting channel that makes, what do you call it, Sesame Street and other children’s shows?” The bossa-nova musical bed is evocative of romantic comedies.

This first time they’re working together strikes me as compelling, plainly erudite though unpretentious as I ever understood Shakespeare to be (at least in his own time). I took note of and pleasure in the Gale’s recitation of Walt Whitman’s poem “When I heard the learn’d astronomer”. However, then I recoiled at the thought that this might be criticized as talking over the heads of lower-class (uneducated) viewers. I thought about this — “yeah, maybe sometimes they teach it in public school, but it isn’t really iconic in popular culture. If people know anything about Walt Whitman it’s usually that he was gay, a romantic poet, and superlatively into himself in a way I find hard to argue with.” — and then related it to my partner. She was nonplussed,” Oh, I didn’t know they were talking about Walt Whitman, but I have seen that poem on the [public] bus”.

This poem and the general invocation of Whitman tie together several threads of romance I’ve tried to touch on in this review of what’s just a 7-minute portion of the show. The romance of science as labor most authentically pursued in the lab or field or apparently the market, which means withdrawing from the feudal relations of the university or the classically liberal relations of the welfare state. The problem with this is one Corey Robin has taken up in terms of neoliberalism as the return of feudal relations (or something like them) within the private dominion of business.  There’s the erotically charged chemists’ bromance . There’s also the romance of craft production and in this I see another curious reflection on work, which I’d like to make my final point.

When Walt is reviewing Gale’s resume, he lingers almost drooling over the fact that Gale has some expertise in “x-ray crystallography’. “I could talk for hours about that, but…” and he stops himself to interrogate Gale about a complicated but elegant arrangement of glass-ware and tubes, through which is being processed a brown liquid.

It turns out to be the nerdiest coffee-maker you’ve ever seen and Gale explains how it’s set up to yield what he wants. He pours Walt a cup (a quintessential office-jerk task). He struggles to articulate just how amazing the coffee is, but manages to roll his eyes and say it’s the best.  Then before cutting to the bossa nova montage I embedded above, he asks “why the hell are we making meth?” and it seems we’ve come full-circle from Ph.D. barista.

Written by Joe

December 9, 2012 at 4:14 am

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They Never Drank Water, But Whiskey By Pints

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This is an interesting story for thinking about “who makes the news?” and how (as some French marxist put it) real problems are engaged in imaginary ways. It is about a sorority-party where everyone dressed up as “mexicans” and at some point this photo was taken, eventually finding its way around campus and on the internet.


This media response seems to shut down not only the idea that mexicans are lazy substance-abusers (let’s affirm this), but also the class-taint of being associated with certain kinds of work or being in a position to beg for work. The majority of the article is about shock, offense and renunciation – tropes of sensationalistic journalism – but what could be wrong with that when the subject is so clear? Many people pipe up, as it were, about how clear it is to them that the girls are referring to student drug culture in contrast to the precarity and menial nature of the work immigrants. The racist element doesn’t go away seen this way, but demands a larger set of relations to make sense of it while also recognizing the otherwise apologetically racist “the kernal of truth” in a non-racist, non-classist way.

I’m reminded of The Pogues’ great song about railroad builders in the 19th Century “Navigator”, a population that included many Irish and otherwise migrant workers. Shane MacGowan sings “they never drank water, but whiskey by pints, and the shanty-towns rang with their songs and their fights”. Don’t remember him getting called out as racist or classist, but that’s because the whole song is about how shitty their lives were made by “the bold entrepreneurs”.

I have no illusions that these girls meant something critical of the drug-war or the precarious situation of life as an immigrant worker, but it still seems “there”. That’s because student drug-culture IS tied to the drug-war across ALL of North America is tied to NAFTA and the re-organization of work across the continent, which is also tied to the class-aspirations I’m sure many of these girls have as members of a sorority at a “good” State university. Only in the end do we hear about any of these connections when Ariel Coronel mentions the drug-war. However, she figuratively throws her arms up in the air with “this is wrong on so many levels” right before the article ends. Sometimes the exposure of exploitation and sterotyped character-flaws causes a bit of schadenfreude in people, which should be negated to some extent, but I think being critical of these displays requires that we interrogate rather than shutter them.

Written by Joe

December 6, 2012 at 10:23 am

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