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  2014.06.15  00.44
Beautiful Clarity from the Depths

* sexual chemistry matters
* she is more than meets the eye
* differences will lessen in time with commitment and love
* don't drive her away
* embrace her fully, the good and the bad, or not at all
* she will need my love love, my compliments, my kindness, even when I am feeling down
* everything changes: find a love with faith, loyalty, and fearlessness, and commit.
* no one person will meet all my needs, but affairs will only drive us apart
* kindness, generosity, and love are the basis of a happy childhood; be flexible.
* be wary of the computer
* keep your speech impeccable: speak the truth but stay focused on the big picture
* gratitude is dependent on the mystery of the quotient; know how much you need her; it's OK to need her.


  2011.07.17  01.58
Sociobiological Feminism

In response to: http://meropespeaks.wordpress.com/2011/07/15/slutwalk-rebuttal-paper/

Some thoughts from a man.

“By re-framing sex as a natural communication between consenting adults rather than a shameful and secret act, we begin to discourage the usage of sex as a method of acquiring power.” This is, I think, the most excellent idea from your article.

As mammals, as primates, and as embodied human beings deeply sensitive from birth to the bodies of our families, friends, and strangers, it is important to frame feminist liberation within a framework that recognizes the vast field of the interplay and communication that happens below the level of explicit linguistic symbolism. Why?

Research in evolutionary biology, sociology, and comparative primatology makes clear that certain consistencies exist universally across thousands of human cultures. These consistencies — let me state very clearly — are not universals; they do not mimic explicit linguistic cultural memes. But they can be gestured toward in a general way to include such things as the intrinsic meaning of body shapes (including height, width of hips, and facial ratios) as well as gestures (including standing tall, opening of legs, displaying genitals from the rear or from the front). In these areas, human beings share a great deal, broadly speaking, with the pre-cultural behavior of our primate cousins.

Feminist evolutionary biologists, intelligent sociobiologists, and phenomenologists — among others — have made clear that such cultural consistences do not translate (and musn’t be translated) into essentialistic commentaries on the biological basis of behavior. With every People’s Movement the boundaries between what is and what is not possible are changed. Foucault and his followers were right up to a point: there are an infinite array of cultural renderings if our underlying biological nature.

Men are aroused by female movements and female bodies. This is not only an utterly natural and healthy phenomenon, but also a phenomenon that follows certain stereotyped instinctual patterns. HOWEVER. It is neither ethical nor empirical to make the categorical jump from presenting behavior in gorillas (e.g., display the hindquarters to another member of the troop is directly experienced as an invitation for coitus or else as a expression of submissiveness) straight to an idiotic claim such as “if a women wears a short skirt and swishes her hips as she departs, it means I should follow her to her apartment and rape her.”

The improving equality between men and women, which has been on the move now for hundreds of thousands of years (as evidenced by increasing parity in body size), has a lot to do with culture and language. Mary Wollstonecraft was right when she argued that women, too, were “Rational Men”, in the language of 19th century Europe. Although sexual interaction is at its root a biological and physical experience, is it just as deeply awash in the complex emotional, poetic, and cultural details of our modern human lives.

Consent is obviously a nuanced and mature concept that cannot be acquainted with piss-poor biological justifications sadly still present in some court rooms. Nevertheless, male desire is and will continue for millennia to be instinctually rooted in (but not finally determined by) preferences for certain smells, movement patterns, and geometries.

A compelling confusion arises in this field, however, because male desire is rooted in and bounded by instinct in such a way that the most depraved of men’s behaviors as well as the highest beauty of his erotic nature are both marked by the stereotypes of his primate mammalian heritage. I disagree that,

“As long as it is represented within our culture as at least somewhat acceptable for men to feel entitled to sexual gratification, tactics like coercion, manipulation, and violent force will be employed.”

Instead of this extreme viewpoint, which seems to leave no space for male desire in society and its relationships, I suggest a different way to phrase the issue. An example can clarify. Imagine a man and a women in their consensual love-making and foreplay embracing the man’s love of the woman’s round “ass,” giving room for his near-obsession with its shape and textures so that his desires develop in sublime reciprocity with her own pleasures, stimulating hers and free hers even as his own flies free. How different this is to the leering rapist consuming his victims and projecting on their psyches a willingness to comply with his solipsistic desire. Both men are conditioned by instinct to respond to similar shapes, movements, and smells. But a vast ethical different separates them.

This is the conundrum we must face. When we research men’s violence, we discover (some of) what is it to be male. But from this does not follow that when we speak of Male Nature, we must necessary justify rape! God forbid.

Jackson writes, “The acceptance of social trust shouldn’t be punished; it isn’t naïve thinking.” She is exactly right. Social trust is based on cultural norms for ethical behavior and on personal commitments based on mutual understanding and reciprocal communication. It should be worked for, believed in, and fought for, and it is not naive. It would be naive to mistake the transformative debate and sincere dialogue underway on the path of this ideal with daily interaction with unknown men who may or may not be avowed participants in this cultural exploration of justice and gender harmony. This is why women’s self-defense and situational awareness classes prevent rape and empower women. But these women’s gatherings only complement the “Slutwalk” marches and literature reclaiming “Slut” from its derogatory connotations. The first method empowers women to fight with battle tactics men who are not yet persuaded by the lure of higher ideals. The second is part of a larger conversation between compassionate, self-confident men and compassionate, self-confident women who wish to consummate love, partnership, community, and friendship in a spirit of dignity, joy, and mutual understanding.

And get laid, too.


  2011.03.20  05.05
Why does the u.s. not want Aristide to return to Haiti?

Thanks for asking.

Below I will list four common criticisms aimed at Aristide during the 2001-2004 period as part of the covert operation to remove him from power -- I will critique each of these and then offer some alternative suggestions as to the motivation. But first an introduction.

The Haitian elite (comprised of 184 land-owners, industrial leaders, and former leaders in the security apparatus of the Duvalier dictationships organized into the "Group of 184") called the plan to remove Aristide "option zero." This was a subtle reference to an offer Reagan made to Brezhnev to dismantle all the Soviet arsenal down to "zero" nukes. Reagan's offer was seen by many as an offer meant to be refused, which (once refused) would provide a pretense to build more weapons. ("We tried to negotiate, but they gave us no choice!"). The unelected Group of 184 consistently posed as if they were only asking for legitimate compromises with a quasi-dictatorial (but elected president). Knowing the full weight of the American and French establishments was behind this well-connected group, Aristide repeatedly capitulated to their demands (by February 2004, he had negotiated away his entire cabinet, ran new elections for Senators, and appointed members of the elite to many positions in government). Each time Aristide compromised, the Group of 184 would lodge a new set of complaints and call Aristide divisive and tyrannical for ostracizing the (unelected opposition). It was clear that "option zero" (in parallel to the request that the USSR immediately dismantle its entire arsenal) wanted nothing less than the ouster of Aristide himself: and if he didn't compromise, the establishment would take this insolence as justification enough to oust them himself. If you read public pronouncements from the State and Defense Department at the time, this is exactly the tone that they ultimately took -- as covert ops encircled the Haitian president in Port-au-Prince.

On the international/US side of the opposition to Aristide, organizations involved included: the Organisation of American States, the Inter-American Development Bank, National Endowment for Democracy, and the Republican Party.

Four major claims made by the Group of 184 and by the "International Community" during the time period of 2001 through 2004 are as follows.

1) Aristide payed off gangs to brutalize his political opponents. Not true. In fact, he brokers numerous settlements between gangs, which decreased overall gang violence in Port-au-Prince. It is true that no more than a dozen people were killed in politically motivated gang violence during Aristides 2000-2003 presidency. This should, however, be compared with the many thousands (perhaps 2,000-3,000, I believe) who were brutally murdered by death squads during and following the Feb 2004 coup d'etats.

2) Aristide refused to negotiate with "the opposition." Untrue. Not only was the "opposition" not elected and so simply consisted of a group of very angry businessman with strong ties to the strongmen that ran Haiti in the 70's and 80's, but when confronted with their demands (and knowing that the U.S. backed them through various development and "democracy promotion" organizations), he made a series of concessions during the 2001 - 2004 period, including replacing his cabinet with members of the unelected opposition.

3) Aristide was elected in 2000 in a "discredited" election. Only discredited by an active campaign designed for this purpose. The dispute in the election centered around an understandable decision made by the electoral commission (a group that was not selected by Aristide and which contained a number of key members of the conservative establishment) to cancel run-off elections in something like 7 parliamentary elections in which there were already clear winners. This decision was unconstitutional but when criticized, the representatives refused to quit. Aristide later made them step down and held the run-offs. Another issue in this election is that Aristide won over 90% of the vote in part because the opposition boycotted the election. But. Every poll shows and ever conscious observer of Haitian politics knows that Aristide would win any election in Haiti; his party has won every election since 1991. Aristide offered the opposition again and again to have another election. Of course they refused.

4) Aristide is a power hungry ideologue. Patently false. Aristide won two elections, which was his constitutional allotment. Prior to his 1991 election, he was not active in politics but worked as a priest and ran multiple orphanages. Now he is employed teaching at university in South Africa. He has vowed not to participate directly in politics again, stating that his true vocation is as a teacher and a priest. Prior to the 1991 elections, he had not planned to run, but was nominated by others and convinced to do so when a colleague of his told him that he was the only one who would represent the poor and that such was his cross to bear.

His book, Eyes of the Oppressed, is a simple collection of soulful parables designed to touch the heart and inspire. In it, he explains the mechanisms of dominance that subordinate the Haiti, and pleads with the reader to recognize his simple request. The poor people of Haiti do not wish for power or wealth. They will accept in the place of their current misery simply this: poverty with dignity.

In my opinion, it is the power of this message that makes Aristide dangerous. This is illuminated by the legal case international law attorneys were making on behalf of Haiti that France repay money that it stole by forced treaty. By some accounts, this was the clearest legal case for colonial reparations made to date, due to the paperwork involved in the 1826 deal wherein Haitians "bought" themselves (as slaves) and their land from the French. Perhaps international courts would not have judged against France, but this legal victory for France would have only come at the expense of a public relations disaster.

Human aspirations for freedom would have been inspired the world round.

****See Peter Hallward's book "Damning the Flood" and his article in the New Left Review "Haiti: Option Zero", also "The Agronomist", "Aristide and the Endless Revolution", Randall Robinson's "An Unbroken Agony", Aristide's "Eyes of the Oppressed"


  2011.03.09  02.59
Lost - quick translation for the non-spiritual

I take the major thematic development as a dialectic conflict between two views of reality, the perspective of causality and that of destiny. Systematically deepening rifts into the basic linear timescape of human life serve to severe the viewer from his causal viewpoint and open him to the transdimensional possibility of a meaningful tapestry of destined relationships and events that underly and serve as a foundation or root for the overlay of causal connections that "fill in the dots" of the details of our lives.

In the first season, the basic contour of a causal worldview is brought into identifiable form by the use of flashbacks. The flashbacks explain "how the characters became who they are" and "how they ended up on the Oceana flight." In the following seasons the introduction of Desmond's flashbacks, Locke's insistence that he "is here for a reason" and then the introduction of flashforward effects begin to erode this causal perspective.

The flashforward effect answers different questions then the flashback. Flashes into the future do not explain "why" the present is the way it is but instead give "significance" to the present, even to actions taken in the present for no apparent reasons. Locke's poetic assertions about destiny fit here. Desmond's ability to know the future introduces with a different emotional valiance (more fate, less destiny) a sense that "something greater" than ourselves is in control of certain parts of our future (our deaths in particular)

The next temporal shift that occurs is the rupture that brings half of the cast back in time to the Dharma Initiative while the other half escapes the island. Now the plot develops simultaneously in two separate timespheres. By jumping back and forth, the universal nature of human life trumps the historical mien of its expression while through the gaze of the viewer connections our made that would not otherwise have been apparent (to anyone really living in the regular time-space of the show). As viewers, we are ourselves brought onto the plane of trans-dimentionality.

The next temporal shift (if I recall correctly) happens after the island "moves." Now half of the cast is caught in series of indeterminate time shifts on the island and the other half is the "Oceana Six" post-island.

What is strange is how the future off the island seems to be empty for all involved and how the island seems to "pull" them back toward it, with different reasons for different people. What strikes the viewer is that this future is emotionally "empty" for the survivors. The tension between "everything seems to have worked out" but "nothing feels right" is strong and give us another way of thinking about destiny. Destiny tugs at us through the vehicle of authenticity and the gut feelings that tells us what it is we really want (often against the logic of all appearances).

For the folks on the island, causality, which had been depreciated by various plot mechanisms previously now becomes an interesting but unimportant backdrop for the trans-temporal adventure. Just at the point when it become almost impossible to follow the causual lines of the plot, a viewer either gets completely "lost" and quits or else realizes that there is something more interesting going on than to figure it all out. Because even though the characters are submitted to a ridiculous chaos of purpose, changing alliances, location, and time, they nevertheless continue to grow in their self-understandings and relationships. By the time the atomic bomb goes off a number of characters have professed their love for each other against great odds. I think that Ford's transformation on this point is emblematic. He deals with the pain of his mother's murder-suicide and learns to love!

The final season brings the dialectic (or fruitive conflict) between causality and destiny to a head. Now two realities exist simultaneously, but both are 100% arbitrary to the previous causal plot lines. Two versions of each character are present and yet emotional and relationship parallels play out, illustrating the notion that at a different level from the causal net a fabric of meaningful connections and subtle predeterminations reaches out to nudge us along by our awareness of a certain second sense. Now like Desmond all the characters begin to have the subtle experience of deja-vous. What really matters no longer has any thing to do with the island or with any of the details of the causal level. What matters most now is psychological development and relationships.

As the show draws to its strange climax, everything drops away except for some basic human experiences: Love and friendship remain; as do the internal battles between fear and courage, between hope and despair, and between resentment and forgiveness; and the biggest of these is the conflict between feeling as if the universe is meaningless because no underlying cause can be identified and discovering in these very arbitrary and ridiculous details a rich and meaningful destiny.

And so, in the last scene absolutely nothing is left except those relationships and those psychologies. And the white light, which despite its Christian imagery doesn't need to be overdetermined by it. But that's another story...



  2010.12.20  03.18
A Cavity in the Space of Knowledge

I once wrote:

"This image is different in every age and different between people, but it is similar in that it is a fantasy image that has to be taken as true which arises when we realize that all images of the universe cannot be ultimately proved true, that science, rationality, and even common sense are paths that can only lead us part way to true happiness."

The idea is different than the common one in which spirituality or religion is "just" a bit of wishful thinking that is used because we are not mentally strong enough (usually "rational" enough) to face the truth of the meaninglessness of existence.

Nor is it the existential concept that meaningfulness is blindly chosen in a leap of faith that out of pure mental willfulness bridges the gap between the rational and the irrational.

It is rather this. That while science, rationality, and common sense take us far in life, show us the content of the near universe, shine light into the abyss of the ocean, reveal the mysteries of biochemistry, and lend pinpoint precision to the application of physical forces in mechanics --- that despite all of this in our travels in knowledge and our travels in the universe we still discover the interminable beyond whispering at the edges of being. Despite our progress into areas which were hitherto the province of the gods --- the pharmaceutical conquest of alchemy, the mechanical-Newtonian conquest of space, the maritime conquest of the oceans, etc. --- our lives are not without the experience of deep uncertainty, deep mystery, of wonder, and the all-pervading presence of the unknown.

Still a mighty squall picks up our boat and smashes us into darkness. A film is made to capture the experience, render it intelligible. A team of investigators analyzes the plain crash wreckage down to the last molecule. A girl with cancer survives impossible odds. A cancer researcher decodes the mysteries of a tropical plant. He knows the biochemical pathways of its function and he can make sense of the evolutionary history that brought it into being. But in the moment before the ship capsizes and all goes dark, the ship captain looks deep into his heart as his mind races, knowing that the great mystery of death is upon him and he knows not whereto he will go. The film crew uses CGI to capture the intertwining forces of the waves, but on a rowboat with his son, the computer programmer cries silently, feeling a sense of great awe at the power of life and water and gratitude that his son is alive. The cancer researcher knows his science, but can't help but hold his breath in awe that the elegant and beautiful inner workings of this biochemical ecology that might bring his patient back to life.

Science doesn't erase the mystery, it only bring us to it by way of new paths. It gives us a new language of inquiry into the unknown, but it does not answer the ultimate questions. Why is there anything at all? What is the nature of consciousness? What is the purpose of my life on earth? Even the question of whether there is an order and a telos to the universe goes unanswered. Some scientists see a beauty beyond human imagination and are struck by an inner intelligence in its design. Some see an inherent chaos and meaninglessness in the random or probabilistic bouncing of billiard balls and this brings them to a state of detachment and despair.

The mythologies of our ancestors grappled with the same questions. Is there meaning? Is there purpose? Who am I? What is death?

Imagine there is a unknowable and invisible dark force at work beyond our lives and behind the universe, which is not the god of yore who is knowable by his characteristics. It is not kingly or fatherly, it is not beautiful or benevolent, and yet in a sense it is these things. It is kingly inasmuch as it exerts and unquestionable authority over our lives. It is fatherly, in that through experience and example it teaches us the rules that we must learn to follow as we mature through life's development. It is at times beautiful as it spreads before us an unending tapestry of subtle mystery and elegant wonder. It is at times benevolent as it gives us tremendous gifts and teaches us great lessons, which although comprehensible through the lens of science and rationality nevertheless appear to us as unnecessary strokes of impossible luck.

But in fact like any god-concept, its immediate content --- what it comes across to us as --- is determined by the attitude that we have toward it. "Life is not fair!" "I hate God!" "I have this because I have worked for it!" "What beauty to behold as I stand upon this mountain!" "I might have died and yet still live!" These statements do not so much as call out a God already formed from out of the mists but rather in a more subtle way touch upon the type of experience that has mystified religious writers across the ages. The "god" and "gods" so composed are a polyglot bunch, made of cruelty, grace, selfishness, and beauty. But each jolt of sublimity builds a bridge to its kind. Each surge of wonder, thanksgiving, pride of accomplishment, blind and diffuse anger at the heavens is a moment of deep and reverent experience and growth. These are the ways that we wrestle with the dark forces of the unknown. In all of these moments, we feel a spine-shivering "something else" just beyond our grasp. Not a hoary man on the mountain per se, but a run in with the impossible, the unknown, and the ungraspable.

"Why were we born at all!?" whether uttered in despair or sublime joy is a grappling with the strange and eerie fact that the something that this universe is utterly transcends us, preceding our birth and, perhaps we don't know, carrying on after our own consciousness has abated.

From philosophy we learn to work out the question: "What is the I who sees himself seeing," and are confronted with the --- again --- strange and eerie fact that no matter how vigilantly we commit ourselves to the work of self-reflection we self-reflect as a certain type of being that can only know itself by not-knowing the aspect of itself that in that moment does the knowing. We can grow as in a petry dish an ever-expanding ring of "me," yet with each expansion a bit of the "me" resists and stands aside, within us, to be the me that is the I who is seeing. If self-knowledge were utterly penetrating, if science could know all things, then would this strange off-centered bit of ourselves not eventually yield to our inquiry. Yet endlessly, it resists us.

In common parlance we declare, "I have this because I have worked for it," and outwardly we stake claim for the fruits of our labor. If this were a mere statement of plain fact, I would read nothing more into. It is certainly not a claim that one's ability to enact such accomplishments is itself a gift through which accomplishment is labored; it is more egocentric a conception than this. Yet there is something more in it then plain fact. Such a claim rings true with celebrative pride, and this pride is a chilling and awe-inspiring pride because it sits on the edge between what did in fact happen and what could have failed to occur. We our proud because through our self-directed action a bit of the impossible is made possible. Hence the sublimity and transcendence of pride.

Somewhere, someone, in some context I might not understand, said, "You will see him by his works." Whatever this might have meant to whoever first wrote it, and whatever it might have meant for the many who have read it since, this one line seems to make a deep abiding sense to me with regard to this question of God, of atheism, of mystery, and of knowledge. What "he is" is a secondary construction that we gesture back toward. What is primary for us as human beings is the universal human experience of facing the mysteries --- not every waking moment of our lives --- but when they approach us. When we are near death, or in the presence of great beauty, or when our lives take unexpected turns that we never could have anticipated. At these times an otherness seems in our midst. Not as a spirit or a demon, but a real otherness.

By real otherness I mean the real presence of the unknown and unknowable, which we only know by its effects. Perhaps if the mouse hadn't chewed our alarm clock cord and we hadn't overslept by five minutes, and then therefore we had not been stopped for twenty minutes by the accident on 32nd street, then we would have gotten on that flight that crashed into the Atlantic . . . or we wouldn't have met the woman that we eventually married . . . Even Random Chaos is a name of God.

When God died, it seemed that he was immediately replaced, by a strong human ego --- as in Nietzsche --- or perhaps by the confidence of an scientific industrial modern ethos, or by the calculating skepticism of rationality. But when one truth is undermined by the impedance of a competing theory, sometimes what happens is a bit different. In our case, postmodernism happens. That is, afraid of standing too close to any concept of truth or any confident statement of ultimate good --- for the commons and oftentimes even for ourselves --- we fall into an interminable free fall, a self-reflecting reflection that abstracts again and again away from any powerful statement of the good or the true. We break apart into an endlessly deferring gesture, a infinite redux. Take Judith Butler's brilliant analysis of drag. Drag shows show by their careful wit that like the drag performance, gender is itself the product of a performance, a performance in the specific sense that it is not necessary, is not tied to a biologically determined set of characteristics, colors, sights, and sounds, but that is like every performance contingent, not "true" in a fundamental sense, but unhinged from the "real" person of the performer herself. The question is can we follow this analytical mindset "all the way down," so to speak, as in the old fashioned joke, "Do those legs go all the way up?" In a world of infinite contrast, where by one click of the mouse we can jump from spiritual asceticism to kitsch hermaphrodite pornography, it may seem that along with God died the very notion of not only "truth" but even just a fuzzy center of gravity.

This is precisely why the modern age --- the age following Niezsche's great exhortation to face the death of God --- in order to work out its internal contradiction and finally know itself anew, must grapple not with a positivistic notion of truth, but with what has been called The Real. Existentialism puts it all on the individual --- and meaning emerges by some unmentionable alchemy directly out of human choice --- a leap, an artistic gesture, or a simple choice. But meaning doesn't actually emerge with such single-mindedness. Sometimes it is by our labor and it feels that it belongs only to us. But sometimes it seems to fall out of the sky into our heads. The positivistic ethos of our age says, "When truth cannot be spoken, it must be passed over in silence," but we cannot and do not "pass over" the winds that blow silently over us! These winds stir up in us passions we cannot resist, or literally pick us up like so much debris and cast us to the winds. The man who awakens one day to homosexual urges and feels his heart titillated like never before as the wind passes up his dress and sets him free --- this man may be retrospectively comprehensible to the philosophical gaze of philosophical inquiry, but he is not moved by an explicitly intelligible logic! He is moved by his heart. And if after the fact we can know that gender is more flexible than before, for him his new life path is not a fluidity but a fervor, not a bit of lifeless twine but a highway of his desire and his passion. Words like "destiny" and "path" still find a way into common parlance because we cannot make sense of our lives without a reference to the beyond. If this man is given over to a thorough genetic and physiological study, and certain hormones, gene sequences, and gene transcription factors are retrospectively determined to have causes with strong probability the actions he has taken, he will scoff and say, "but I have chosen this." Yet if it is explained to him with some effort that it was a combination of developmental psychological factors and cultural factors that have coalesced together by some alchemy of the cognitive mind to bring him into this particular self-identity and way of living, he might just as well declare with obstinacy, "These feelings are not the result of the way I am nurtured; I feel in my bones that they are part of my genetic and biological inheritance, and I could not have been any other way!"

And this captures precisely the conundrum of the postmodern scientific mind. When God died, along with him so did truth. Positivistic science gave way to neo-positivistic methodology. The great metaphysical inquiries of past centuries were replaced with the sophistic carryings-on off linguistic philosophy. The great philosopher-scientists of old were replaced by sub-sub-specialists who hide their heads in the annotated sands of encyclopedic anthologies. The great spiritual and philosophical quests of old were pressed into the offices of psychoanalysts, who were replaced by psychiatrists in the labyrinthine halls of research universities. The search for deep spiritual meaning, once stolen from the hallowed cathedrals of Catholic Europe, was passed one to the industrial psychologists of 20th century corporate commercialism . . .

Thus my desire to resuscitate God and gods as the Real absence that is the unknowable bedrock of mystery. Though we've admitted Nietzsche's "God is dead" thereby jettisoning all faith in earlier myths, we have not truly let go of these myths but instead hold on to them more dearly then ever before, only now we cling like bats to their negative form. If we cannot let go of the fetishistic replacements for the Truth we have lost and genuinely face the darkness that lies before us, a new sense of truth and meaning will not come. A holy act drops into the abyss.

Let go so that you may receive.


  2010.12.14  13.36

December 3rd, 2010

. . . traveling without moving, there was a man at a liquor and snack shop who just talked and talked about his son and his life and he put real effort into getting down to our language level. His son studies German and English at university in the south of Taiwan but he can't afford the 9 million Taiwanese dollars per year to have him study abroad in Europe . . .his son is twenty-nine and he wishes he would find a wife, but his son is waiting because he wants to go abroad so badly and doesn't want anything to hold him back..... I'm twenty-nine, too, and my grandma said something similar to me before I left. My grandparents threw me a goodbye party and my grandma said, "I was half-expecting an August wedding . . . but I guess I'm just old fashioned." She's 81 walking on three prosthetic joints and she knows its only a matter of time before its too late to see me . . . perhaps she'd say . . .become a man. Oh the post-modern economy. I just listened to this RSA Animate version of Barbara Ehrenreit's book about the corporate cult of positive thinking delusions and it makes me wonder how we do hold ourselves together when all the old ways are gone......

December 4rd, 2010

I was at work from 8:30 to 18:00, prepping for and teaching two classes. I met about 40 kids, lost 90% of their names to the winds of time, made them laugh, kept them in order, and tried in little ways to deepen their hold of English. These classes spoke better English than I speak Chinese, but struggled in all those small ways that I understand to focus and concentrate and hold it all together . . . I remember now that I love kids, love making a fool of myself in front of them, love relating to the lonely ones and love putting the over-confident ones in their place. I guess I've been afraid of working with kids professionally as an OT because I have so little experience and there's so much serious pressure at clinics with kids with special needs. I was hired in May of 09 to work a day camp program for kids with psych disturbances and learning disorders (like super hyper, depressed, suicidal, manic) --- and I turn them down because I was frankly scared, scared of that mimesis by which my personality would be re-doubled again and again through the lives of these receptive, innocent children . . . Scared I'd just break down own day and not be able to hold them up.

Its good that I'm here, then. It's low stress. No one's an expert --- accept at their native languages. No one is seriously critiquing my application of developmental psychology or assertiveness training techniques. No one is breathing down my back, wary of the lawyers breathing down theirs. Its all relaxed, positive, optimistic and libertarian in true Chinese style. These kids are getting taught as if by wild scooters on the street, and as on the street what matters most is that you care. You run the red light if no one is coming, but you never close your eyes.


I talked to a South Africa again today. Andre, genius with languages, with such a perfect local Mandarin/Taiwanese combo-accent, soft and sweet like a girls', like his fiancee's in fact, and he's the first real convert I've met, not some prickish Westerner come to prey on the innocence and naivety of the sexy locals, but a man who needs a new country and means it. White South Africans are on the run these days, and whether its deserved or understandable, they feel lost in their own country. It all sounds so reminiscent of our of our own American apartheid and its vestiges. The same wrath, bitterness, vengeance, and pride. Obama's careful good humor and its counterpart in angry socialist rap, but imagine this: America's black population of 13-15% flips places in size with that of America's white population. Suddenly, its 15% of us, 85% percent of them, and the ghosts of the past seem to be taking solid form. And Andre is sweet, and soft, and deeply moral. And Taiwan is safe, and accepts him, and I think, lets him forget.

Kenya wanted to take me. I've read Wretched of the Earth. Those dignified farmers, strong survivors of 150:1000 child mortality rates, could my 95% percentile on paper have kept me alive and productive there amongst them? But I came home, following in the footsteps of my parents, and gave the rationale (like all rationales it came after the fact) that it was most justifiable to stay home and confront the wrongs of one's own country, to join in and build it anew. Living buildings, humble economies, and understanding geopolitics . . . . . Hahaha. But here I am again, and it feels so good again --- so good to embrace a humanity with whom our commonality must be traced back a half million years, when the Asian variant of the proto-human African lineage broke off and built its own world. Nevertheless, you can buy Nature's Gate shampoo here. The East-West divide of philosophy and world sphere has been thoroughly transcended by commercial capitalism.

. . . . .

tonight I drank rice liquor, baijiu, ate a mild hallucinogen called beetle nut (wildly available and legal in taiwan), and topped it with cheap taiwanese beer . . . wild getting to the next level of knowing a guy named Matt... who 1) has motorbiked every square inch of the island, from mountain peak to aboriginal village; 2) has made himself conversational in Chinese Taiwanese and Cantonese by 23 with no university study; 3) has an ebullient host of stories about his exploits and adventures with Taiwanese women which demonstrating his sexy 23-year-old mentality; 4) also speaks Finnish and spent a few hours in a Russian prison when he was 19; 5) and so on.

I think I've gotta get myself a motorcycle and tour this island pronto. I'm also damned excited to discover that, apparently, a Master's Degree will get me a serious ESL gig at university, making perhaps double (or maybe just significantly more than) I'm making currently, maybe even with less work.


Men will always have a drive to copulate wildly and irresponsibly. That's what I think. Its not an essentialization, for it is culture that overdetermines biology, not the other way around. And humans are not gorilla's. Our males and females are closer in size than any other primate (except the Bonobo's?). Equality in physical power and the art and work of raising the babes has crept evermore closer to harmony.... But still there is the body and its powerfulness defining effects. Genes have reproduced themselves through the wide-spread dispersal of semen, without care for familial relationships, confident in the female acquisition of alloparents (male and female) . . . . they have also reproduced themselves through the development of strong family values and through the secret workings of hormones such as ovolactone that stimulate in males the feelings and love and togetherness that override the deeper more reptilian desire to fuck everything in sight . . . . while all the while, the female body, and her magisterial soul steering the ship, has had the closest and longest lasting physical and emotional ties to her offspring, and so has weaved and carved cultures and civilizations --- raising her men to be good men, to love their mothers and and wives alike --- raising her daughters to be wise, prudent, careful and strong --- to guide the human race onward.

In sum, I think that guys are going to have these drives and desires that don't fit the exact mold of feminine desire. Men and women are not only different unique individuals but different individuals inhabiting a different set of biological triggers, commands and in some ways functions. This is why love is a negotiation. It's also why the "war of the sexes" has always been and will continue to be. But despite all the polyandry, polygamy, polyamory, and worst of all loneliness in the world --- men and women have been finding happiness together into old age for the decades of raising children and living their lives . . .for ages now. Love is a part of the species potential. Perhaps maybe its most important part.

December 13, 2010
Zhanghua City, Taiwan
彰化市, 台灣

The last few days have been: hectic, terrifying, disorienting, sickly, and sad. I even stood on the roof of my 17th story building, thinking, not so much about jumping off, but I needed the clarification. I needed the proximity to the possibility to help sort out the fears and regrets from the actual and near at hand.

Its just that going to Taiwan hasn't solved my problem, the slavery of this debt, and the awkwardness of making any authentic choices. I think I'm going to have to go in the "economic hardship" deferment direction, get a job that I can stand, and just wing it like so many other people. Maybe I can swing 3 months of OT per year, maybe.

Just now, at one o'clock in the morning, Philip and I got some tasty french fries from a cute little roadside stand with fried basil and strange little rice balls. It's just a wife and husband, a little table with a canopy awning and a deep fryer. They smile and patiently wade through my mystifyingly bad Mandarin, which clearly they don't speak very well either. Most folks around here speak Taiwanese first and sometimes its like being a Polish farmer speaking English in Mexico City. On the walk home we rant about how much we like this deregulated labor and food market here in Taiwan, where anyone can open up a restaurant with nothing more than a table and some boiling water on the side of the road. It makes me realize why "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps" seems such an antiquated term in contemporary America.

Being a teacher is hard work! And its not just the kids --- I really only have one class that's been difficult to control --- its our Taiwanese co-teachers, the Chinese Language speaking teachers that work alongside us. Sometimes they are team players and very helpful with our transition into this new environment, helpful with getting us to know our students and showing us how what their students expect . . . but sometimes they are not helpful at all and seem to resent us even. I have one CT that I have just not been able to work well with and its wearing me out. So my ratio's like 9:1 good classes to bad. Most of the kids are simply angels. Calm, respectful, sincere, hardworking, the older ones; and the younger ones just cute wonderful balls of energy like kids are.

Apparently its only the smog that's blocking our view of the central mountain range, which arches up from sea level to over 14,000 feet in the span of about 50 miles. Yah. Its like putting the Grand Tetons in the middle of Massachusetts, literally. But the snow capped peaks are invisible from the coast most day of the year. Otherwise, from our 17th story rooftop, where we can stand on a balcony overlooking the world, we could see heaven . . . or so I like to imagine.

Philip and I have bought acoustic guitars, one classical and one standard. I sat down and immediately improvised my first song. I sang that all these years you've been right there but you weren't really there at all, like living with a stranger, with the twist that the song was about myself. Kinda pop-music cheesy? Well, I'm just so glad to have an emotional outlet now. Being able to play music is damned important to me. I understand musical theory to quite an extent, but the original musical language for me was one of the heart . . . Philip plays beautifully, by the way, and I really enjoy playing with him. Listening to Philip and I play guitar reminds Jessie of her x-boyfriend, who O.D.'d on heroine this summer, an addiction he got from methodone pain meds during a many-year battle with ulcerative colitis. Apparently he used to play his guitar --- a classical guitar Jessie found for him at a garage sale --- every waking hour some days.

I had a really funny dream with Phillip in it. He was hanging out with my friend Blake and we were at the house of Blake's old childhood friend's parents . . . so we were all polite friends of friends at a parent's house. But Philip, who in real life is a quintessentially well manners British eater, was just outrageously spilling food everywhere. He even dumped over nearly a whole bottle of whiskey as he bent to pick things up which he had dropped. In the meanwhile, I was playing with their dog, which was also strange. I remember sticking my foot in the dog's mouth. Very funny.


  2010.12.14  13.06
First Weeks: Taiwan

Monday, November 8th, 2010
Kalamazoo, MI
4:23 pm EST

Ben, Jessie, and I sit aboard the V6 Taurus. Two 50 lb suitcases in the trunk, backpacks beside each of us-- that is Jessie and I-- who sit now relaxed for the first time since the frantic rush and haste of packing began 36 hours ago. It is True, this memorable calm, when all that can be done, could be done, and would be done settles like silt, and trades its "might" for the solidity of fact.

Of course, facts are slippery fish. Obstinate, brute, aggressive, real -- all of these things, yes, but not opaque. Facts shimmer, wriggle, flash, change color. When approached, they give way in translucent layers of memory, passion, sins of omission, and confabulations of the rational mind . . .

I find myself misty-eyed in the foggy space between this Kalamazoo memoryscape, whose immediacy lingers on as the miles lengthen, and the unknown land across the sea. Mark Bury says that racing motocross, when you come up a jump the earth behind the jump cannot be seen until after you launch headlong into the sky. For a moment, you are no longer connected to the ground behind, yet the path forward remains unseen...

Memories of Kalamazoo take on a serious air of poignancy. Erik Moisio fixing our toilet bring tears to my eyes. Kjartan Code seems the visceral equivalent of a true brother. Unexpected connections with Sarah Pountain. Kind goats with names and a hurt but holy mother. Many, many old faces of Kalamazoo, fixed in sublime tension, there but gone too soon.

The sun begin to set. Chicago draws nearer, and I fight with the functions on my CASIO watch, its owner's manual the first casualty of constant change in the gears of travel. Up front, Ben and Jessie cover topics such as the flavor of Nesquick and questionable spellings of "effervescent."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Seoul, Korea
10:04 local time

We are relaxed, filled to the brim with tasty "eco-product" Korean food -- my 1st authentic Bulgogi! --- and without pressing responsibilities for the moment, ensconced as we are in the middle of a 6-hour layover. As far as our eyes can see, Korea appears as a hyper-modern 50-terminal (plus) international airport with all the amenities of a 5-star mall plus luxury lounges and pay-for massage available at additional cost. Were I --- as Jesus preaches -- to see with the eyes of a child, then the glitz and comfort of "Korea" would impress me well indeed. A beautiful country this Korea.

Jessie and I squabble over the location of computer use and it is a good thing I am forced to compromise because our current location is very comfortable, quiet, close to bathrooms, and features a 6 foot by 4 foot television screen displaying without sound what appears to be the Korean version of PBS. A few minutes ago, sexy Asiatic dancers dressed as cranes, and now by my best guess a country peasant manufactures coal from straw.

It seems so far that no matter how far from home we are, internet access and tasty food are our most critical "needs." This is good, and perhaps the reason our bickering is cute, a cute bickering white couple bumbling around the 27th terminal of Korea.

We turned in our boarding pass to a lady at the information counter in exchange for a 120V AC plug adapt, and I then played out a brief catastrophizing fantasy -- that I was stuck in Korea without Jessie, unable to speak the language, unable to access my ATM money. The real comedy in this will come when my so-called Chinese skills --and the hubris that accompanies them in Kalamazoo!--- are put to the fire in Taipei and beyond.

Right now, Jessie insists I report for posterity that the tallest man in the airport is what appears to be a Korean basketball player to whose waist Jessie's stature can only just attain.

The Korean language, with which I boast basically no experience apart from stereotyped utterances memorized for Chom Tuk Tae Kwon Do classes nearly 15 years ago --- e.g., "comsamnidad" means thank you -- is a soft and lilting flow of sound quite reminiscent of Japanese, yet punctuated enticingly with the phonemes and characteristically gutteral sounds of Mandarin. I can hardly wait to be immersed (or is it, buried?) in the cacophonous downpour!

One interesting story, and sad, (or perhaps even heartening to the cold-blooded cynic who relished to disdain the empire), came from a young, simple-minded ex-soldier who sat next to us on the plane. This American lived in Chicago, but traveled frequently to the Philippines -- he had come across the globe some eight times in two year. Each time, he begrudgingly submitted to the request of a women he impregnated there while serving on a U.S. base. He most certainly disliked these trips, as well as the whole situation, expressing explicit anger that the woman would not move to America to live with him, and he admitted in fact that he would only visit if the Filippino woman's family purchased his plane tickets. Thank goodness for Jessica's serene demeanor! "I went to school with a hundred boys like that at Tower," she reminded me. With a comfortable dose of self-satisfaction and a dash of horror, I turned away and enjoyed my tour of Western Philosophy, safe in the hands (and pen!) of Nietzsche scholar, Walter Kaufman.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Taipei, Taiwan
20:11 Local Time

Courteney, Spencer, Jessica French, Jacob Libby -- the first three HESS Native English Speakers to arrive on site at 第一大販店 (First Hotel). Courteney is from London, son of a Presbyterian Minister who spent his first years in Zimbabwe until his parents moved to South Africa in 1995. We connect over C.S. Lewis, take wildly different opinions on tofu and Asian stir fry, and generally form a strong fellow travelers' bond. I ask about Mugabe's "land redistribution" policies and Counteney gives a colorful account of whites pushed off their land willy nilly -- luckily years after his parents' relocation.

We count at least five separate and distinct 7-11 convenience stores within a two block radius of the hotel. At one intersection, two can be seen at once. Generally speaking as it turns out, this is a good thing. The store's isles are packed with exotic candies, drinks, and snacks. I purchase a bottle of sweet barley tea, which tastes delicious to me but elicites from Courteney the comment "I will never buy that!"

I am always so pleased to witness -- in myself and of others -- the little everyday epiphanies and changes of heart that travel in a foreign land works out of all-too-accustomed minds. I explain to Courteney my understanding of the Chinese experience of milk and cheese, namely, I say, "The Chinese view is something like: 'you take a cow, and you do what with it? Oh wait... and then let it rot, and then eat it!!??'" -- and what a lovely response I bore witness to! "I will remember this," he replied. "It makes so much sense of how we interpret dog meat and fish balls."

Taipei --downtown Taipei --- looks like Manhattan to me. Tall buildings, busy streets, lights, and colors. It's exciting and beautiful. The only thing there's more of than 7-11's is scooters. I think every person in this city must own 2 scooters and shop at a 7-11 dedicated just to them.

November 13, 2010
Taipei - on the Metro
10:21 AM, local time

J.C. Melissa. Ryan. Goofy Englishmen invade the hospital. Playing pretend we're school children on Bus Tour. Eating out of the po'ty. Forming the original posse. Achieving fluency in British humour. Dinner with the whole cadre. Courtney from London, South Africa, Zimbabwe, son of a minister, hillariously British, warmly African, communicator. Phillip, intellectual of the Julian Lee variety, witty, calm, thoughtful, introspective, loyal. Charlie, kind, rock 'n roller, harmonizer, simple and easy going. Dan, independent, incisive, academic, Japanophile, wildly intimate on the dancefloor. Ben, American Chicagoan, rough, competitive, emotionally reserved, consummate cool, a bit arrogant. Ryan from Portland, master of the aloof stare, the quick glance askance, with connections, couchsurfing sentimentality, the true West Coast personality, perhaps a dealer, cool and confident at the club. Jonathan, nerdy, smart, perhaps rich, who knows how to get his foreign needs met, friendly, helpful, informative. Kara and Jessie, Dave, and others. Teresa, South African mind traveler, searching past and through conflict and hope, brings up Apartheid after two minutes of conversation, saying Mugabe inspiring a generation of new Black Nationalists, whites are scared, the pendulum must swing, but will heads roll? The African male attitude -- so illiberal! -- "This is my land. This is my soil."

November 13, 2010
6:30 PM

I'm deliriously tired. Was chatted up by a very sexy Taiwanese woman on the subway, but I very barely had any idea what she was saying. She wrote a character in my journal/ dictionary and the English word, "Fuck." I think I must have accidentally said "fuck" in Chinese to her. I then proceeded to miss my stop, then get lost walking two city blocks back to my hotel. Really hilarious. Jessie thinks I'm in a grumpy mood, but I can't tell. I can tell, however, that I have less control over my body than I usually have. Jittery. Jittery. Jittery.

Exchanged Facebook messages with Sophia Saunders, an expat I met at the Club, from Toronto. She said she really liked all the guys I came with. Very cool to make such a connection. She's an English teacher, too, and I pulled a shard of glass out of her foot. She says she's OK now.

November 16, 2010
Taipei, Taiwan
7:55 a.m.

No time to write in the blur of days following the weekend of clubbing (positive) and wonder ("negative") -- and while reading Kaufman, the far-reaching power of the Zizek/Lacanian concept of the Real -- what I'm calling the negative sense of God -- rises like a subterranean ridge to shipwreck his critique -- oh this wonder!! --- and to remind me, even though I search the map for salient truth, of the omnipresent invisible at work on and through it all . . . .

Saturday and Sunday, what mattered most was that Jessie and I broke off from the group --- 1st at DanShui, then to sleep early --- then I don't even remember --- and whatever the unknown demons tempting us apart, and whatever the hyper-articulated propositions with which our courageous and tempestuousness minds have given chase -- despite all this --- our friendship and loyalty and the warmth of our togetherness still prove strong. We did laundry, got a phone, ate terrible Indian food, played Sheep at Courteney's hands --- but we were foremost together, and it was strong and sweet.

November 16, 2010
Taipei, Taiwan

Two days in class. One powerful dream. Phillip, Jessie, and I make plans. Full belly of soup. And Hilary Lake says, "Offer your lost leaves as enrichment for the life growing up just below you . . . "

The dream, the second deeply moving dream about Amolia that I've had this year. The first one after I first arrived in Saginaw, the second just two nights ago. The feeling was of a powerful enrapture -- or is it THE enrapture --- outlasting everything that has changed. Aliisa was in past tense, the friend of 2005 fall. Amolia was a symbol, her lips and face aged, her body deflated. Yet nonetheless, there it was, the passion, that vivid living remainder. I awoke with a start -- thinking of Shane Kenney's "The Three Great One's," the young Shane Kenney's profound and inspiring passion. I got online and found Liz Hugget there, vowing to quit drinking, marveling at her lover's care for her and reveling in her first period in years. I shared my dream with Liz, waking up sleeping Jessie (this was 5 am) . . . . The present and the past, my depths and my breadth -- all these contradictions demanding answer: offer my lost leaves as enrichment . . . yes, Hillary, very much yes indeed . . .

My Chinese learning is accelerating. Vocabulary sticks in my head now, sometimes with no repetition. I'm picking up new words every day. It's incredible. By the time a year is up . . . who knows!!!

Zhanghua City is my placement, where I'll be moving to next Thursday with Jessie and Philip, pronounced ZhangHua, it is a smaller city, famous for its Buddha statue (22 m) with all road signs in clear pinyin (a great plus for language acquisition) and poor public transportation (get ready motorbike, here I come!). I'm told the languages are Taiwanese first, Mandarin second, with very few folks able to converse in English --- another great plus !! But best of all is that Philip is coming. Philip carries in him -- somehow! -- the spirit of Julian, the same smile and the same (although comparatively subdued) anxious intellectual mind. A true concept-based intellect, he and I connect in our strengths and weaknesses in the classroom and in our learning styles. And we have decided to get an apartment together, along with Jessie.

Great news for Jessie. She has been offered and has accepted to take a Kindergarten class!! She will prove to be excellent in this area, I am completely confident in this, and I look forward to watching her grow and develop in her confidence. ... and well she has just now arrived back to our hotel room, so for now I will rest my pen . . .

November 30, 2010
00:40 A.M.

Where to start? After the first hurdle -- the Kindy demo -- its been mostly downhill all the way. That was Thursday the 18th . . . Sunday we worked our butts off on the Step Ahead curriculum, but Monday we were confident . . and it went well enough . . . We finished training, packed, I bonded with Preston a bit before he mysteriously quit, spent a lot of time with Philip, Charlie, and Kristo --- and when Thursday came, Jessie and I, along with these three and Jared slept to primordial depths on a slow train south to TaiZhong. Joy! and then a comfortable hotel, meal, many introductions, move in to our new apartment, class observations, and tonight motorbike rides with our new family, beers, sanbeiji chicken, and . . and . . . ! Guitar and sweet Mandarin to the shadow of Buddha. Language, endless language, swallow me! China is my maiden.

Jessie. Kenya. Vast distances. Nani and Uncle Tom. Grandma Libby and Jack and Mary. Susan Ruska, 909 Lane. Ben Hastings . . .Kenya. Radical Islam. Slavoj Zizek. Scriaben. Bjork. Fiat Spider. Strange Arrangement. Dream of so many pinnacles, so many faces I have loved and yet lost. John Hogg. Jacob Berglin. Corinna Verdugo. Lisa Hyet. Laura Garavoglia. Tara Klitchman. Buddy . . . Jesse White-O'briant. Jenn Nunes. Julian Lee. Endless years, pouring gently through me. Tears and anger, struggle and dreams . . . self-reliance, autonomy, tools, emotional stability, knowledge, faith, passion, direction, confidence, action, freedom, humility, strength, kindness, truth, goodness . . . . .


  2010.11.18  15.58
Letter to Family

Hi Everyone,

I conducted my first demonstration english lesson today and received good marks. That's a lot of stress off my worried back because it is one of the final steps in meeting the full criteria and paves the way to my first paycheck and my very own class of Taiwanese children.

The coursework in my ESL (english as second language) teaching certificate is fun and playful (for the kids) but requires relatively in depth planning and full concentration. The kids curriculum in corporates many of the principles that I explored in depth during my master's program as relates to teaching the "whole child" mind and body, that is, aiming our teaching at the child's multiple intelligences. This journey I've embarked upon is more of a next step then I realized it would be. Much more so.

Our expenses here are very low. We've been promised an apartment at a rental rate of approximately US$120 per month. Most meals costs between $2 and $3. We'll be purchasing little 50cc-100cc motor bikes for transportation and are moving to a city called Zhanghua, which is where our school placement is located (search "changhua city, taiwan" on maps.google.com. Health Care is Universalized, government run, and very straightforward, with some sort of graduated income tax and equal care rights and privileges guaranteed to all citizens and foreigners in country on a workers visa one and all.

Jessie and I saw one of her most beloved heroes --- a Russian pianist named Vladimir Ashkenazy --- who was playing with his son Vovka (very special to see) just tonight at the National Music Concert Hall (see accompanying photo).

I have many friends here, especially among the British kids, who I find to be much more careful with their words, much wittier, and much more sincere and honest then the more garrish and over-confident Americans. Everyone's very nice and very intelligent, though, as I should make perfectly clear. Jessie and I are planning to apartment search with a guy named Philip who if I remember correctly is from Manchester (England). He and I think very similarly, both do some car work, and like to talk about "intellectual things."

Well, that's probably all the time I have for this evening.

Stay in touch and I love you all!



  2010.11.17  15.57
Letter to Family

Hello from Taipei,

Here's a note with some photos attached for some of the folks I don't have contact on through Facebook.... I LOVE being in Taiwan. I love speaking Chinese everyday and I'm getting better faster and faster. The country is beautiful, the weather this time of year is perfect --- mid-seventies and slightly rainy most days, but still plenty of sunshine to go around. Now I know its really the language I'm here for. Language and politics --- but the latter being basically inaccessible to me . . . I'll take the former.

As maybe you can tell, I am currently exhausted. Absolutely exhausted. I'm in the middle of an intensive two week ESL training, and the trainers who work for the company that hired me are quite extraordinary, very talented, energetic, and smart. I'm intimidated! After all, I haven't exactly worked as a teacher before . . . So tonight before bed and tomorrow morning I am making a lesson plan according to a very specific rubric and philosophy geared toward a typical day in a Kindergarten class at Hess. We're performing in front of a teacher who will grade our performance. I probably have the right personality, I have the charisma, for example, but --- and no one knows this here --- I have a lot of insecurity when it comes to worked with people... I flinch in my gut when anyone teases anyone, for example!! Ayy. So this job will at first at least be a lot of very hard work, especially emotionally, which is in fact what I expected. It will teach me a lot.

Well off to bed.

I'll be in touch.



  2010.01.31  22.34
Letter to a Friend regarding Haiti

In defense of the comment: "Haiti doesn't need your prayers. It deserves (and needs) your cash."

Dear Friend,

. . . . . considering that my use of the word "cash" was adopted from Bill Clinton's pronouncements. How easy it would be to the make the case that I am simply parroting the words of a man so symbolic of the neoliberal policies deployed by CAFTA and the Inter-American Development against small Caribbean nations. This argument could be further enforced by reference to the fact that I have traveled to Haiti with NGO groups, helping to provide the minimum and unreliable humanitarian cover that allows the neo-colonial relationship to continue. Perhaps the truth is all the more terrible for the fact that in this case the liberal hand does in fact know what the conservative hand is doing.

But now, oh, now I am haunted by my own friends, by the street I lived on, which was near Petionville, by the image of the inspiring radical theatrical dancers of St. Joseph's leaping onto adjacent rooftops as their beautiful building collapsed into the sea of favalas around it (this image comes through personal e-mails). I myself do pray.

But cash, too, is essential. There is no way to wish away the sorrowful dirge of Haitian history. Aristide was elected in 2001 with campaign videos demanding reparations for the legal obfuscations (French armada off the coast) that in the 1820's demanded recompense for the slave wealth stolen when Revolution made slaves men again --- but this money would never replace the avalanche of effects caused by French colonial pillaging, a century of economic embargo, British attacks, U.S. occupation, cruel military dictationships, and the coup d'etats which crushed ('containment') Lavalas in 1992 and 2004.

Yet Aristide's passionate call for "poverty with dignity" must amount to something. I find it slightly bemusing (is it an ego-distortion?) that in one context you would call enlightenment eponymous with the death drive and yet in another would defend prayer against a concrete call for reparations. And this is precisely what my call for cash is. The U.N. must get out and must stop raping Haitian women. The neoliberal profiteers must be stopped from using this disaster as a condition for further structural adjustments. But Haiti needs help from a technological and financial standpoint as well. Unlike African nations, deforestation and soil erosion problems that were well underway in 1804 combine with extreme overpopulation and the nature of island economy to make products -- from cement to rice to toothpaste -- unbearably expensive. Haiti depends on food aid, on its trade with Miami, and with millions of dollars sent home from the diaspora. We should cherish Cuba for being among the first on the ground with teams of 100+ doctors.

And so, the issues that Haitians address are: 1) reparations; 2) immediate need; 3) emigration. The irony is that spirituality is the one thing that Haiti has plenty of. Perhaps Haiti's plight and her courageous endurance is the one export she can offer to a spiritually enervated America? Indeed the tremendous non-stop coverage on the BBC might speak more to Britain's own need for faith then for any real concern for the Haitian people. In the face of such generosity, we must demand that reperations run both ways.

Let this dialogue and my interest in your brilliant mind be an offer of friendship.


PS: Have you read Ken Wilbur. His explication of the difference between the causal and non-dual states of spiritual enlightenment are soundly apropos to our Family Circus discussion. "Causal" refers to the attainment of oneness characteristic of the stereotypical monk lost in thoughts on the top of the mountain, "nondual" to the realization that such oneness is present in all being and all action. According to this perspective, the true angels are walking among us, so to speak. And isn't this why the greatest saints are known for their their enthusiastic willingness to be elbow deep in the muck of human misery?


  2010.01.25  13.51
Buddhism with Zizek?

... in response to http://somethingcompletelydifferent.wordpress.com/2007/11/19/zizeks-western-buddhism-redux/

Set aside the question of whether Plum Village is capitalist in its Essence. Ask rather, what would it take for Plum Village exist in Port-au-Prince, Haiti? This is the revolutionary question: can Buddhist "practice" undermine the Capitalist relations of production that warp and control the social and economic space of our choices -- that ultimately determine where and when Buddhist practice can flourish?

If you love Haiti and you love Buddhism, please read my words!

Joe claims that the Buddhism Zizek critiques is not the real Buddhism. The properly Zizekian response here would be to claim that the division between so-called Western (postmodern) Buddhism and "true" (scriptural) Buddhism is not an aftereffect of Buddhism's cooptation into America and European society but rather is a primordial cut inherent to Buddhism itself. In other words, the postmodern "interpretation" of Buddhism was part of Buddhism from the beginning, one of its intrinsic possibilities. In this case, Western Buddhism expresses what is to the scriptural Buddhists the repressed core of Buddhism proper, its relativistic complicity with the violence of Global Capital. So, for example, Suzuki's commentary on affirmation "not conditioned by a negation" (mirroring Nietzsche's notion of the Yea-sayer as well as Foucault's double circumscription of meaning and truth in philosophical archaeology) strikes a relativistic chord sharply contrasting Zizek celebration of Divine Violence, which depends upon a double negation. For Zizek, such an act must first step out from the coordinates of world-perpetuating activity by a radically negative gesture of non-participation; only by means of this negating gesture of freedom is the space opened for a true act. In what Zizek would call "a properly Hegelian paradox," freedom is the condition for freedom.

But does this not put Plum Village alongside the Shanghai Commune and the Paris Commune in a line of radical communities who have dropped out of society and forged ahead with a new non-Capitalist vision? The answer is clearly "No." No where does Zizek celebrate the apolitical compassion of the sustainable, non-exploitative, and egalitarian Buddhist community. Plum village does not fit alongside the death-defying radicalism of Robespierre or the Red Guard in Zizek's narrative of world transformation for a simple reason: a Plum Village alive and well in the heart of capitalist Europe offers no fundamental challenge to the hegemony of Global Corporate Power. The Paris Commune and Shanghai commune occurred at the epicenter of world-transformative revolutionary violence --- to Zizek they were failed attempts to directly institutionalize the spirit of the revolution. Plum Village is what Zizek would call decaffeinated revolutionary -- the impossible revolutionary without the revolution. If, instead, on the proverbial day after the apocalyptic scene at the end of Fight Club -- after Tyler Durden destroys the computer databases of the main central banks -- yes, then Plum Village would be the site of revolutionary activity (the revolutionization of the revolution) -- and Durden's death would represent his truly Buddhist detachment from commodity fetishism. But without the explosives, the personal transformation does not make it into Zizek's pantheon: while Global Capital still calls the real shots, still controls the economic realities that interpolate and warp our reality and our choices, Plum Village remains an ideological appendage of Capitalism.

My question is therefore a different one. Does a "True Buddhist" really care whether his faith is admitted into Zizek's pantheon? If so, why? Does he inwardly doubt this his path can build the world he envisions in the age of global ecological collapse and continental enslavement? The political dynamics of the modern world demand new questions of the original Buddha. The questions of freedom in the age of global finance cannot but change Siddhartha's path. The modern circumstance begs Buddhism to reveal what is in Buddhism more than Buddhism itself.

And apropos to today: Who will build (and fight for!) a Plum Village in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

(PS: My understanding of Zizek is based on "Tarrying with the Negative", "Parallax View", "Violence", and "In Defense of Lost Causes")


  2009.12.06  23.21
Libertarian Anti-War Message

Dear Senators and Congressmen

I am writing from my home in Kalamazoo urging you resist Obama’s decision to accelerate the war in Afghanistan by refusing to sign any relevant expenditure bills.

Why? First because the United States simply cannot afford further military expenditures in the middle of a deep recession. Second, because this escalation is not the answer to curtailing the cancerous spread of anti-Western terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. Third, because deepening our on-the-ground involvement will only strengthen and harden the anti-American sentiment that already runs deep in this oil-rich and nuclear-ready part of the world.

Economic Analysis.

Unemployment rates are well above 10% in the Michigan and above 30% in Detroit, while the collapse of the mortgage market has taken the foundation of security out from under tens of thousand of families. Oil costs are predicted to rise again to the $125-$150 per barrel level due to increased demand in China and parts of the developing world, while American domestic oil has been in decline for thirty years. Due to the increased spread of market liberalization, American workers continue to compete with growing numbers of skilled workers in India, China, Brazil, Korea, etc. This will require that we raise our children to be efficient, low-cost, and high-tech workers, yet Michigan schools are bankrupt and the MET Loan program cannot justify its funding. At its height the Iraq War cost America $720 million dollars per day, while estimates for defense spending in the Afghanistan theatre hover around $250 millions per day. Since the 1980’s the United States has bankrolled its deficit spending on low interest loans from China and the Gulf States. Many observers now admit a crisis in our balance of payments, with China dependent on U.S. markets and the U.S. economy dependent on continued credit from Asia. But the crisis in the banking industry in Dubai should raise eyebrows. Unless America makes a serious change of course with regard to astronomical deficit spending, she will not survive the storms of a major disruption in the fragile Sino-American economic dynamic. Curtailing defense spending in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere will eventually prove necessary. The sooner we face this reality, the less we will suffer for it. The time has come to bring our troops home, educate our children, and compete in the global economy like the mature adult we say we are.

Realpolitik Analysis.

Barak Obama has listed as his three goals for the escalated war in Afghanistan: 1) Defeat Al-Qaeda; 2) Stabilize Pakistan; & 3) “Break the Taliban’s momentum”. The first and second of these goals cannot be met by an increased military footprint. The third goal is irrelevant to American interests.

Al-Qaeda is a decentralized international organization that has staged attacks from multiple locations in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America. With proper resources, McChrystal can likely eliminate the major players in Al-Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan, but the organization will remain capable of regrouping at other locations. Its metastasis into the Iraq War theatre following the start of military involvement in 2003 demonstrates this clearly. What is needed, instead, is twofold. 1) American policy initiatives must be assessed on their long-range effects on America’s international public image. With over 150,000 U.S., NATO, and mercenary troops on the ground in Afghanistan, we will strengthen Al-Qaeda’s recruitment effort and turn more common people toward political involvement in anti-Western and misogynist Islamicist groups. 2) Quieter and more technologically sophisticated methods that combine old fashioned spy work with satellite, database, and unmanned drone technology will allow us to contain terrorist cells without enraging local populations. Our disgust with the cultural practices of the Pashtun Taliban should not distract us. The negative reception of Obama’s increased use of UAV’s in Pakistan shows just how delicate a balance must be maintained if we are to render al-Qaeda inoperative. Al-Qaeda is not the Taliban.

The goals of curtailing the Taliban’s power and stabilizing Pakistan must be immediately jettisoned. In a country of over twenty different tribal affiliations and smaller sub-tribal rivalries, the Taliban is a Pashtun tribal-political entity that has been able to coordinate some degree of unification in a highly difficult political and geographic terrain. This fact demonstrates clearly the Taliban’s organic associations with common Afghans at the local level. The continued presence of 150 thousand plus troops will be interpreted as foreign occupation and will feed an insurgency that will strength the Taliban and al-Qaeda both. In this scenario, we will have traded a winning defense against a small number of clandestine anti-imperialist jihadists for a losing strategy against the nation’s 30 million guiltless farmers and herdsmen.

The situation in Pakistan is not entirely different. Resentment already suns high in Pakistan over America’s use of the Pakistani military during the 1980’s Afghan War. After supporting the Taliban against the Russians then, the U.S. now requests Pakistani soldiers to do an about turn and fight against them. The truth is that sympathies in the Pakistani army run high for the Taliban and anti-Western Islamicists alike. Just as America’s large-scale engagement on the ground in Iraq strengthened Iranian Islamicism throughout the region, further involvement in Pakistan runs the risk of producing an Islamic Republic in Pakistan.

When then National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski lured the Soviets into a proxy war in 1979, he make a correct calculation that the conflict would end the cold war by economic attrition. While the Soviet economy collapsed, the U.S.-Chinese relationship grew stronger. It was Chinese investment in low-interest U.S. treasure notes that fueled the massive deficit spending that began with Reagan and continued through Clinton and Bush II. Now, after the crash, it is clear how deep the mutual dependency between China and the United States has grown. She depends on our consumer spending to maintain her export-based economic growth. We depend on her low interest loans to maintain that consumer liquidity—and to fight our wars. The balance of payments crisis across the Pacific has led some to call for a second Bretton Woods Accord. Many fear that the levee will soon break. With Brzezinski in mind, we now must ask ourselves. Have we fallen into our own trap?

If so, what will we say to our brave sons and daughters faithfully sacrificing their lives so far away from home? What will we say to the working poor and jobless on the front lines of the economic crisis in Kalamazoo? How will we justify this bankrupt policy to them?


Jacob A. Libby

Jacob received his Masters of Science in Occupational Therapy from WMU and his undergraduate degree in Philosophy from Kalamazoo College. He is a freelance writer, blogger, and community organizer who reads widely and has traveled to East Africa, Haiti, Europe, and China.


  2009.11.25  22.41
truth = truthfulness ?

Sex and Politics:

Woody Allen as an Anti-American?


"Love is the answer - but while you're waiting for the answer, sex raises some pretty good questions."

-Woody Allen


"Let your pride follow your folly" 

- Frederick Nietzsch, Thus Spoke Zarathustra


This June at a picnic gathering of Kalamazoo peaceniks in Milham Park, after cute cookies and tragicomic songs about war and death, I sat down with a very serious Iraqi man.  He explained how his people, raised up in the cultures of Mesopotamia, are fed and husbanded by a rich and ancient soil of cultural history.  Comparatively, he continued, America’s history is short-lived, our sense of place itinerant, and our identities transient.  America is rootless, and what American foreign policy therefore cannot grasp is the rootedness of Arab self-knowing.

Our planet Earth appears not to move, yet it revolves around the sun at 18 miles per second.  Its apparent stillness belies a great abiding power—the essence of momentum.  Take this as a metaphor for the human spirit.  Authentic self-awareness is the foundation of true confidence.  True confidence abides in its own momentum; though powerful, it appears as non-action.  Contrast this to what French psychoanalysist Jacque Lacan calls le passage à l’acte, the hyperactive and impulsive hither-and-dither of the actually powerless.  In this configuration, action and non-action can appear as their opposite.   The glassy calm of the rich businessmen conceals the inherent structural violence of his legal order; the violent gesticulation of the street protester reveals his powerlessness. 

Non-action has never been well-received in America, on the Left or the Right.  Non-action is not what wrested this continent from diamond-studded clutches of European monarchy.  It’s not what saved the fabled Pilgrims during their first hard winter.  America was at its best when we drove the Nazi’s back to heart of Europe.  Our national culture adores its activism.  Conservatives smear anti-violence progressives as soft-bellied liberals.  Pro-war and anti-crime policies win Republican votes.  Liberals celebrate proactive governmental programs and vote in judges-with-agendas.  Reagan and Thatcher strip the New Deal and liberate the market, while our Democrats fight humanitarian wars.  Jon Stuart and Bill O’Reilly, Amy Goodman and Glenn Beck:  each vies for air time in the flashy world of media.  From George Washington’s sword to Malcolm X movement, from Mark Twain’s acid wit to F.D.R.’s activist economics, non-action has had little place in the American mythological panoply.   

But what if, like Lacan’s passage à l’act, America’s violent and desperate pension for change signals a deep homesickness, a jealous nostalgia for a feeling of rootedness we have nearly forgotten? 

Of course, one might ask, “What of terrorist violence?” Is this not the profoundest example of desperate action belying an underlying weakness?  On this score, the famous Czech thinker, Slavoj Zizek, recently urged his audience to understand that the dichotomy between Global Capital and Islamo-fascism is false:  indeed, it was the collapse of the social democratic humanism of twentieth century Arab Nationalism (with capitalism’s knife at its throat) that gave way to a generation of desperate Islamic revolutionaries. 

The false dichotomy is simply history in the case of September 11th attacks.  How did a group of mostly Saudi and Yemeni men secure financing from Gulf State sources and identify ample training ground in Afghanistan?

The al-Saud family in Saudi Arabia has had long standing ties to the West, lucrative ties that allowed the dictatorial Wahhabist clan to rule against all odds for the last century and a half.  This Western support skyrocketed in the 1970’s when secret negotiations at the highest levels traded American engineering skills for easy access to oil and geostrategic partnership.  Since then, the bourgeoning wealth of the Gulf States has begun to eclipse the U.S. economy, with a trillion-plus trading deficit tipped in the Arab favor.  Still, it was imperial mismanagement that funded and put in power the Middle East’s most gruesome dictatorship, whose wealth and power positioned a group of rogue family offshoots to bankroll the worst attacks on America soil since the Civil War.  Cynical?  These hyper-conservative Sunni fundamentalists could never have amassed their power and fortune without collaboration centuries-long collaboration with their imperial masters. 

In Afghanistan also, U.S. involvement has clearly played accessory before the fact in the rise of radical terrorist group bent on the destruction of the Western world.  In 1979, the Carter Administration negotiated an aid deal with anti-Soviet Afghanis in Kabul designed to “increase the probability” that the USSA would engage militarily, and the gambit worked.  A protracted war in this difficult mountain terrain bankrupted America’s Cold War nemesis.  With thirty years hindsight, the irony is doubly disturbing.  Between 1979 and 1988, the Afghanistan central government went from a civilized democracy with a constitution that advocated women’s rights to a failed state brimming with infighting militias and criminal activity.  In the 1990’s this ‘anarchy’ was fertile group for Taliban hijackers.  By 2009, it is clear we have fallen into our own trap.  Like the U.S.S.R. before us, the U.S. economy is being bled dry in part due to our increasing engagement in the quagmire of Afghanistan. 

Indeed, it does appear as if Islamic fundamentalism and Western imperial capitalism are but two sides of the same perverse coin.  And if we combine this concept with the insight that the American impulse toward action follows the logic of the le passage à l’act, then we get the following picture:  the emptiness and shallowness of the American experience motivated us to mold ourselves onto the failed European model of global colonial leader.  Today’s humanitarianism is only a new variant the “White Man’s Burden” of yesterday, while the two-sided violence of U.S. military expenditure—economy collapse and terrorist blowback—is proof of our failure at attaining the neoconservative fantasy of Global Empire.   

Yet I would suggest things are not as bad as they seem.  On the way to the Overman, Nietzsche’s protagonist Zarathustra exhorts himself to “Let my pride follow my folly.”  Humility is the foundation of strength.  Like the Dao that yields in its overcoming, Nietzsche’s mythological image compels confidence in the despair of our unknowing.  After all, it is only the downtrodden who sing “We shall overcome!”  When the activism of Empire has failed us, what we need is a truly creative active, an act of transformative imagination—without which the categories of the past might drown us! 

And that is why this is an essay about Woody Allen.  Because real answers do not come from within the anticipated coordinates.  Without a breath blowing from the unknown, there is no mystery; so, without an unanticipated answer, is there really a question?  Perhaps the fall of American empire will ensure the culmination of European Enlightenment in Arabia.  After all, it was the collapse of European Empire that set the stage for a global flourishing of nationalist democratization.  Our churches tell us “Only drowning men can see Him,” but do they hear themselves speak?  That’s why Woody Allen!  “God is dead.”  Only heretics speak out loud anymore.  The rest of us swallow our words and recite our prayers.  So much the better!  We are finally set for a new redemption. 

The world caught between the intertwined serpentine fangs of two fundamentalisms?  Well, let them eat each other alive.  Watch the true answer come out of the blue. 

Woody Allen’s 2008 film Vicky Cristina Barcelona.  Watch it because, yes, Penelope Cruz, Scarlett Johansson, and Javier Bardem bare all.  What a perfect diversion!  Or perhaps like the 1960’s anthem, “Make Love Not War,” take their lovemaking as a sensual retort to its biological sibling, murder?  Like most of Woody Allen’s masterpieces and flops, the question and the answer can be summed up in one word:  “Sex.”  Is this escapism in essay format?  Before I clarify, come with me.  Take an excursion into this romantic allegory.  Hear a myth for our modern era. 

            Two beautiful American women visit Barcelona for the summer:  the seductive, coy Cristina and her prudent best friend, Vicky.  As they drive through the ancient city fresh off the plane from America, a witty narrator casts the pair as striking opposites:

 “Vicky had no tolerance for pain and no lust for combat; she was grounded and realistic.  Her requirements in a man were seriousness and stability.  She had become engaged to Doug because he was decent and successful, and understood the beauty of commitment.”

 “[Cristina] had reluctantly accepted suffering as an inevitable component of deep passion and was resigned to putting her feelings at risk.  If you asked her what she was gambling her emotions on to win, she would not have been able to say.  She knew what she didn’t want, however, and that was what Vicky valued above all.”

It is clear already that these women represent in allegory America’s intellectual end zones.  They appear as different as two people can be.  In American imagination, Vicky represents conservative America.  She is mistrustful, fearful, ethically conservative, and proud of her commitment to a very specific and well articulated set of values.  Her foreign policy, if she had one, would be based on defense and control.  Her theology would be Christian fundamentalism.  Cristina, on the other hand, represents in the American ideological landscape the so-called postmodern academic.  She is open-minded and inviting, holds no ethical commitments as sacrosanct, and is most articulate in describing what she does not believe.  Her foreign policy would be one of exploration and passivity.  Her theology would be agnosticism. 

Contrastingly as an unexpected third, the sexy and unruly Spaniard, Juan Antonio, comes off strong from the outset.  Fly with him to Obiedo is his request, and with luck, he tells them, they will all make love.  To Kristina his offer of passion and spirit is bold and original.  To Vicky his come on is overblown and cliché.  But his message is resilient to their first impressions, his charm steadily infectious, while his philosophy contrasts strongly to something rigid and stuck the women each hold in common.  Juan Antonio’s offer is simple and honest:

Why not?  Life is short, life is dull, life is full of pain, and this is a chance to do something special.

As the story unfolds, Juan Antonio demonstrates a steadfastness of mind and strength of character that cannot be explained within ideological coordinates.  First, he ever complains nor hesitates.  He accepts the women’s denials as fluidly as he accepts what they offer.  Second, he shares openly the tragedy and joys of his heart.  He tells Kristina of passions and contradictions that lead his love affair with María Elena into deadlock, and his authentic disclosure—nearly—opens her eyes to her own true feelings.  Thirdly, Juan Antonio demonstrates with a deeply touching simplicity that we humans are more than basic animal instinct.  The depth in his intertwining expression of family love, romantic love, and sexual passion draws a sharp contrast to Vicky’s fatalistic individualism. 

Juan Antonio offers both Americans with a choice they didn’t know they had  In the end they do not take it, but a film devotee might, and this could make all the difference. 

In light of Juan Antonio’s beautiful authenticity, Vicky and Kristina’s ideological commitments appear as the shallow pretension that they are.  Kristina’s commitment to knowing only what she doesn’t want blinds her from experiencing the sort of love that wishes to possess something specific and unique, including and up to loving her own hobbies and cherishing her own dreams.  Vicky’s commitment to her traditional marriage, economic stability, and conservative prudence leave her blind to the unruly passions and sexual desires that in the end she cannot deny are part of her soul’s yearning.  In each case, an all-too-aware obsession with identity turns out to be nothing more than the overdramatic shuffling around of a lost soul with little in the way of authentic selfhood.  Kristina’s perfectionism takes the form of an endlessly redoubled “No!”  Vicky’s perfectionism is an over-determined fixation on an untested hypothesis.  Each woman’s ideological commitment is no more than an impotent passage à l’acte proving by disavowal her inability to truly choose. 

Oh, how these women represent America.  As they climb back onto the west-bound plane in Madrid, one can hear echoes of Nietzsche’s Last Man.  Here his atheist prophet, Zarathustra, diagnoses the endpoint of modern society’s current trajectory:

“A little poison now and then: that makes for pleasant dreams.  And much poison at the end, for a pleasant death.  They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health.  ‘We have discovered happiness,’ say the Last Men, and they blink.”

This might remind you of Radiohead’s description on OK Computer of “a job that slowly kills you, bruises that won’t heal . . . I’ll take a handshake with carbon monoxide”—except in Nietzsche ultimately uplifting narrative, this dead end is but a warning on the way to the Overman.   Thank godlessness, then, for Juan Antonio. 

Somehow alike to the Iraqi man I met at the cheeky potluck of Cold War era dreamers, Juan Antonio’s father, Julio, is a poet lost in another time.  He speaks no English and publishes none of his work, angered as he is that despite all of civilization’s supposed fruits, “people still don’t know how to love.”  While Julio lingers like the ghost of an idyllic past, able only to silently witness the decay of the post-modern mind, Vicky and Kristina, each in her own distinctively American way, look toward an unattainable future perfection.  Will they ever shatter their crystal balls, or at least crack them open a little to let the sunshine in? 

Alas, only Juan Antonio embraces the paradoxes and imperfections of his present moment, accepts them with gratitude and grace, and in their midst finds joy.  While Vicky and Cristina show us the worst of ourselves, Juan Antonio raises the bar for America.  For all of us dreamers and schemers in the West, he gives us a glimpse of a personality type that depends not on short term games of espionage and high finance—but one instead slow-built on the wisdom of ages. 

Here we are, tentacles stretched to the ends of global empire.  Our economy held in the balance of a barrel of oil.  How many of us are lost in anxiety, dread, and terror?  Our life energy is spent on Brzezinski’s Grand Chessboard, on the Hollywood space of global power brokerage!  Will the eye atop the pyramid seal our destiny?  Can the anti-war movement effect universal peace?  What is it all for?  Wars for oil.  Wars against war?  Wars again cancer.  Wars against death itself. 

Hush now.  Listen.  Imagine Woody Allen himself standing at the podium before a special session of the United Nations.  He stands atop the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  Christian, Muslims, Jews, and Atheists stand in a cheering multitude around him as he blasphemously declares a new revelation:

In the words of Juan Antonio, “We’re alive.  Isn’t that meaning enough?  I affirm life despite everything.”


  2009.11.17  15.10
Decolonize Afghanistan Now!

Beyond Troop Withdrawal:

American Hubris and the Decolonization of Afghanistan

A crisis occurs sometimes lasting for decades. This exceptional duration means that incurable structural contradictions have revealed themselves and that despite this the political forces which are struggling to conserve and defend the existing structure itself are making every effort to cure them within certain limits and to overcome them. These incessant and persistent efforts (since no social formation will concede that it has been superseded) form the terrain of the conjunctural, and it is upon this terrain that the opposition organizes.

—Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

“But offering that reassuring if somewhat contradictory signal — that by adding troops he can speed the United States toward an exit — is just the first of a set of tricky messages Mr. Obama will have to deliver as he rolls out his strategy publicly.”

—David E. Sanger, New York Times, November 25, 2009

Oftquoted “The Graveyard of Empires,” the dry, landlocked region of Afghanistan is nestled amidst the easternmost fingers of the Himalayan ranges. West of the Indian power spheres, east of Persia and the Gulf States, and bordered on the north by the Czarist and Soviet empires, the country has for centuries found itself the hinterland of great empires. In the 18th and 19th centuries, neither British East India nor Russia under the Czar could finally engulf the mountainous enclaves into their power matrix. In the 20th century, neither Soviet nor U.S. interests managed to organize the Pashtun tribes into a satellite of empire. Like Tibet, Bhutan, and Nepal, local independence in Afghanistan seems to function like geographical destiny. Only at great expense and with highly asymmetrical force has the region been subdued. Indeed, it was in these mountains that the powerful Greek armies of Alexander the Great were halted in their conquest of Asia.

It was with this history in mind that in 1979 then National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski orchestrated a border dispute in northern Afghanistan designed to pull the Soviets into an unwinnable war designed to ultimately bleed the empire to death. Thus began the bloody ten-year Afghani War that birthed the U.S.-funded Mujahadeen militias, radicalized an entire generation of children, and fertilized the interpenetration of the Pakistani military with this militant brand of radical Islamicism. By the war’s end in 1987, the collapse of the Soviet Economy was imminent. Brzezinski’s famous celebrative retort during an interview recorded in 1998 is shocking to post-9-11 ears. “What is most important to the history of the world?” He asked, “Some stirred-up Muslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?" Now eight years after the New York bombings, we must approach a second impending irony. Will current U.S. aims in Afghanistan disprove the region’s old title as “Graveyard of Empires?”

In the aftermath of the first two Great World Wars heads of the elite families watched from the capitals of a newly unified Europe as the sun set on the great colonies of Empire. With Japan under U.S. control, Germany divided, and the Allied powers decimated, only the Soviet Union and the United States remained to vie for colonial mastery in Asia. On the American side, new technologies of dominance were harnessed: neoliberal economic authority centralized in the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the soft power ideology of democratic freedom posed against the supposedly statist structure of the Communist idea, the rise of a decentralized and globally omnipresent military industrial complex crowned by secret military intelligence. A decade after the start of Brzezinki’s Afghan War, the Berlin Wall fell and the world celebrated the triumph of capitalism and the end of history. While merchant airliners carried high tech products between East Asia and the Silicon Valley, Lenin’s great dream breathed its last cynical breaths in the same valleys where Alexander’s great army once faced final defeat. It was called a “Pax Americana.”

The wave of Arab, African, and Latin American nationalist movements—symbolized in the West by the global movements of 1968—seemed to climax with the defeat of the U.S. to Vietnamese insurgency. 1972 marks Nixon’s famous Beijing talks. In the Middle East, the 1970’s brought strategic negotiations securing pro-U.S. rule in Saudi Arabia. Pakistan and Turkey remained loyal while nationalist aspirations in India and Egypt waned. Israel grew stronger—both regionally and in the halls of U.S. Congress—while the Soviet Union began to count its remaining days. Now, twenty years after the fall of Communism, the U.S. financial system today is in meltdown, China’s economic powerhouse is on the ascent, and movements of resistance are breaking through the white sprawling hegemony of U.S. imperial power. Woodrow Wilson’s Latin American backyard organizes an independent and multipolar system of trade running parallel to the neoliberal net. The balance of payments between the U.S. and its Asian lenders threatens to destabilize the global financial system beyond recent trajectories. Despite continuingly successful containment of resistance in strategic areas of South America, Pro-American allegiance in the Egyptian-Saudi-Israeli corridor, a collaborationist Europe, and pragmatic diplomatic relations with India and China, Pax Americana now smells of fantasy and hubris.

But it is in the Middle East where we find the most resoundingly symbolic defeats. Resistant strands of Islamic anti-imperialism defy the shadow of Gertrude Bell and Lawrence of Arabia. The Saudi oil deals of the 1970’s and the Afghani war of the 1980’s have combined with ironic zest to produce a generation of anti-American mujahadeen fighters funded by hyper-wealthy Gulf State financiers. The Iran-Iraq war of the 1980’s and the wars against Iraq have had the opposite of their intended effect. These strategic military investments failed to enhance longstanding alliances with pro-Western nationalists and conservative Islamist despots. Disloyal Saudi cousins, populist Shi’ite Iraqi movements, and the revolutionary spiritualist doctrines of clerical Iranians today find common ground in an increasingly successful philosophical and geostrategic resistance to the spread of Western Capital and the Protestant ideology of individualism and free markets.

To understand the dynamism of American power and the increasing resistance of determined Islamic World, review these key episodes of Arab-Western relations in more detail:

1. Nineteenth century France and Britain rule Egypt and Arabia by proxy, dictatorial families are empowered and corrupted by European dollars, Wahabbist Islam and opportunistic nationalism begin to dominate regional politics. The Ottoman Caliphate—the spiritual and political center of the Islamic World—falls to divisive European policy and the rise of the pro-western, nationalism of the Young Turks. Though Turkey always remains loyal and eventual joins the NATO alliance, it is Wahabbist wealth in Saudi Arabia and Yemen that bankrolls Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qae’da movement.

2. In 1953, with covert military intelligence support British and Western petroleum interests brutally impose martial law under the rule of the Shah in Iran. In 1979 millions take to the streets in Tehran and throughout Iran. A spiritual and intellectual revolution overtakes the cynical violence of imperial rule, not without casualties. Iran defends its vociferous independence to this day.

3. In July of 1952, British supremacy in Egypt falls to Nasser’s Free Officer’s Movement; four years later Egypt takes control of the Suez Canal. In subsequent years, Egyptian politics drifts toward collaborationism, but the memory of Nasser and his vitriolic defense of Palestine are not soon forgotten.

4. In the 1970’s, strategic U.S.-Saudi negotiations trade U.S. military-engineering skills for geostrategic and oil company access. The next thirty years see the astronomical rise of strategic maritime wealth in the Persian Gulf nations, which has begun to eclipse U.S. power. A multi-trillion dollar debt is now owed by the U.S. to this new center of global power. Against U.S. wishes, the nation of Qatar oversees the operation of perhaps the world’s most free thinking and innovative media company, al-Jazeera.

5. The 1948 UN charter recognizing the sovereignty of the Israeli state finally satisfies the Jewish community’s longing for a safe haven from racist European violence. After a forceful show of military acumen, America trades its initial skepticism for fervent military and economic support. It must be remembered that this Cold War constellation replaced one in which Britain vied for control over its colonial Palestinian Mandate while the Soviet Union supported Israel as if in answer to the Russian Pogroms. Sixty years later, it is clear that Zionist imperialism, Jewish desperation for self-defense, and the cynical and anti-Semitic use of Jewish Identity by Western elites have played complementary roles in the genocidal dismemberment of Palestinian life, culture, and economy. Nevertheless, the 2006 election of Hamas demonstrates the indefatigable persistence of Palestinian identity and resistance.

Against this complex backdrop of Euro-American dominance, Islamic resistance, and the waning of American power in the 21st century, we can identify three grand failures of Western neocolonial strategy in the Middle East this decade:

The first failure, in the past tense, was al-Qae’da’s successful debunking of the myth of U.S. impregnability. On this point we must understand that since the organization’s founding in 1988 its goal has explicitly been to “implode the system” by a strategy of “shock and outrage” that would incite the West into breaking apart by its own internal contradictions. With hindsight we can fit recent events into this broad strategy. The success of the attack on New York was in its subtle effect. Namely, by parodying the West’s long held fears of an ‘Islam of the Sword,’ it has excited the desperate and fearful violence embodied in Carter’s doctrine of strategic military dominance, Reagan & Bush’s fantasy of a global New World Order, as well as the ‘counterinsurgency strategy’ of our spinelessly liberal neocolonial technocrats. In doing so, it tricked us into economic and geostrategic suicide. The collapse of our hyper-leveraged financial sector is only the symptomatic destiny caused by an ancient insecurity and its façade of overblown bravado.

The second failure, in the present tense, is the upsurge of populist Shi’te identity amidst the anarchy of post-invasion Iraq, a nascent liberty completely at odds with the apocalyptic vision of a Capitalist utopia actualizing the free market values of a supposed ‘end of history.’ Remember the original neoconservative grand strategy that Bush II set out to enact? First Iraq would receive American soldiers with flowers as a cruel dictator swung on the gallows. Next the backward Islamicists ruling Iran would capitulate as a wave of market freedoms coursed through the Biblical lands. Indeed, it is a democratizing shift that despite increasing Israeli defiance has strengthened Hamas, Hezbollah, and the spirit of the Iranian Revolution throughout the Islamic World. The Shi’a victory in the 2005 Iraqi elections, Hezbollah’s strategic defeat of the Israeli Defense Forces in June of 2006, Hamas’s victory in Palestinian elections, Iran’s continued development of nuclear technology, and President Ahmadinejad’s vocal and vitriolic criticisms of U.S. and Israeli policy—these events have united with growing confidence a strategic resistance to Western economic and political values based upon the spiritual philosophies of the Islamic Revolution and its intellectual predecessors. This Islamic resistance finds its roots in the progressive and intellectually independent city of 1960’s-era Najaf and the anti-imperial movement of 1940’s and 1950’s Egypt, not to mention anti-colonial movements globally, and it bridges the divide between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam. It is a movement that envisions a spirited self-confidence built upon spiritual gnosis, community cohesion, and moral values. It propounds an assertive rejection of Capitalism’s sinister logic whereby free market policies alienate individuals from their communities and man from his innermost voice of reasoned morality. Indeed, this “failure” of neoconservative policy may well have its silver lining.

The third failure exists primarily in the future tense. Last fall, Barak Obama gave us his ‘tough guy’ campaign promise to fight the ‘good war by comparison.’ Now his second bloody surge is in the works. If Afghanistan’s history is any indication, this continued expenditure in Central Asia will draw the U.S. further into quagmire, will bring al-Qae’da’s original project closer to fruition, and will consummate the ironic hubris of Brzezinsky’s Cold War cunning. Indeed, in many ways the United States is in the same situation the Soviets faced in the 1980’s. The might of U.S. dominance is now utterly codependent with Middle Eastern oil and Chinese labor, our domestic infrastructure is decaying, our economy imploding. In this context, the military-industrial strength of our embattled empire could easily cease to match our self-image as visionary global master. Eight years after September 11th and twenty years after the Afghan War, it is clear that the U.S. military, now mired in an escalating conflict, has fallen into its own trap.

Philosophically, the Western narrative has been the story of an independent and individualist Protestant people throwing down tyranny and imposing a global order of ‘market freedoms.’ In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this ideology contributed to the development of a disciplined scientific method in industry and a constitutional democratic individualism in the public sphere; however, in time these philosophic values morphed into their opposites. Western Empire has become a global monopolistic trust of technocratic, corporatist, and financial elites no longer beholden to the liberty of the individual human being and no longer committed to the rational skepticism of the true scientist. Without the restraints of morality and truth, the fantasy of a globally supreme personal liberty has spread unchecked.

If Bush II had captured and killed Osama bin Laden in a primitive but sincere gesture of embittered revenge, perhaps the world would have forgiven us our wrath, but subsequent developments prove the lie to this liberal myth. Continued war in Afghanistan cannot be separated from the West’s broader historical commitments. The West has played Israel against Egypt, Saudi Arabia against Iraq, Iraq against Iran, Pakistan against India, Pakistan against Afghanistan, and Afghanistan against Russia. Mired in a utopian ideology of complete technocratic and scientific mastery, Western Empire as of yet remains unaware that it has already run aground against the reality of its inherent impossibility. In the words of Antonio Gramsci, it is this internal contradiction—that between the Western self-image as global leader and the structural reality of our incapacity for global rule—that forms the “terrain of the conjunctural, and it is upon this terrain,” he adds, “that the opposition organizes.” Progressive America and the Libertarian Right must join voices to make clear that Western dominance in the Arab world is an untenable fantasy. It is a fantasy not only for the working class soldiers who volunteer their lives to its cause but additionally to the global elite who are sheltered from its more immediate effects.

What this suggests is that the future of our “American way of life” cannot depend on better military strategy, more skillful economic management, or more charismatic diplomatic leadership. It suggests that the supposed alternative of humanitarianism aid and economic investment is no more than a liberal variant of imperial ideology, the ‘White Man’s Burden’ of our modern age festooned by Ford Foundation public service announcements and the latest pharmacological products. We are no more outfitted to play social worker for the world than we are to act as its global police force. Better then to return to more honest categories. Just as a war of revenge would have been a more righteous and forgivable treason than the cynical Machiavellianism of Empire, any humanitarianism on the part of the Left should be called what it is: the guilty penitence of a decayed and retreating colonialism.

When Ayatollah Khomeini spoke out against the materialism, greed, and shallowness of Western culture, this was not proof that ‘They hate us for our freedom.’ Indeed, what the intellectual and spiritual revelations of the Islamic Revolution ought to teach us can be found in the core chapters of our own sacred text. True spiritual strength begins with humility in the face of the unknowable and love in the face of enmity. This is why the weakness of Western Empire is in fact our greatest strength and the blessing of our age. We have an opportunity unique since 1491. It is encapsulated by this famous and enigmatic verse from our Christian Bible:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.


  2009.09.24  16.03
riverbound train

He wept in sobs and silence
     knees on soft soil
  forgiving mud with breathing grasses
swaying to the rhythm of the wind
tears gurgling with the river,
    over tiny stones and pebbles,
          gurgling like circulating blood,
   containing echoes of heartbeat,
quieted now and smooth, flowing
    river water from eternity
        under hovering
clouds who share their shadows
and reflection to
     the water below...
"Oh Water, I see you've taken me
in reflection as you've taken these clouds.
Please take me up now, up and away with you;
let me woft on to the horizon
in your eye-wet pools!"
He wept in sobs and silence
    knees on soft mud, rocking
   with the grasses, to the breathe
    of the wind, tears gurgling like
heartbeat to the rhythm of
 little waves over stones drifting
   away under wofting clouds,
  riverbank to riverbank, heart
    a sparkling deep pool, aching
  down unto forever.
If I could try to pour the words
  for you as they are for me!
 Cool and tall in a glass cup
perspirating on the edges, jiggling
in my lap and in my hand, here,
row 8 window seat on Greyhound
bus 6539 en route to Jackson,
Mississippi, New Orleans behind,
all this in the mirage of my cup,

but not only that:
    her red dress
      spooled around her in
     tufts and waves like rolling
    through attics and front lawns
     in a town of seamstresses and
       frontiersmen, ripped where it
    don't matter -- strong where it
     counts, and above this a
   firm smile, with grim
  concerns and plentiful, detailed
   and stories and dreams. These
wild storygatherers --these Gemini --
winding up yarns unwound
gathering plentitudes and multitudes
   into mysterious listening ears,
   cavernous loving bellies,
   eyes and smiles that lose
    themselves in you and in
 the world, good strong feet and
 hands gripping handholds on rope
  ladders swinging about
   mast poles on shrimp boats
 and pirateships: dreamers
    huge and gathering, filled
with multitudes, using mirrors
  to swallow oceans of life,
baskets to carry children, books
 to stowe away strange passengers
in the night, oh these friendly souls!
Hemmingway rings in my ears
and Whitman drips down my glass
While Amelia drinks me still...

     Oh River -- carry me home
     Oh River -- carry me on.
     River, River!
     Pick Me Up and Put Me on Board!


  2009.09.24  03.13
Leader Unbecome Them

Leader Unbecomes Them

(Two voices in the wood

One silent and one spoken.

Earth shattered by its leaders— Overdreamt ideologues!

Two voices in the wood,

One screaming, one unbroken.

Give answer and give pause

To the dreamer.)

* * * * * * * *

Tears wept of pavement.

Eyes ripped of scars.

Child stripped, now bare momentum.

shhhh... there!

F'ya sits, a charred and sunburnt frog . . .

While elsewhere, croons a man:

“How dare you spit at me!

Dreamer! Venomous dreamer, lie-weaver,

your clever tongue drips melon red.

I grasp you like scissors.

Tomato slug climb you! Tsunami wall blind you!

Your idols rot my teeth.

May the rising oceans chase you like demons.

Futurists, your debt is to us, to the present.

Your portfolios will shiver.

You are Alaskan real estate tucked under glaciers.

You are Hawaiian airstrips swimming with sharks."

. . . But behind her swirls dust-red,

before her withers kale.

F'ya's green eyes blink grey her

lids each sit on their throne.

Seven seeds lie in her hand,

A nest of baby birds,

Each seed she croons softly,

Mouth gaping for wet tears.

Yet: "Dreamer.

Indeed, dreamer, peel me.

Whisper, sin-joy me, embrace me.

Your flag is my destiny.

Soap-in rivers full to ease my brooding absence.

Clever-up toy-bundles who all around enwrap me.

Open faucets like atomic rays.

Cleave doorways like palace gates.

Slap and pound my morning face.

Give me dreams. Then give me awake.

Don’t deny me!

You were once the easy enemy I depended on."

. . . Still her grey eyes pupil white

Blank as coming dawn.

Black-red lips crackle thither, whisper:

"All is now gone.

so that all is not gone

Render me mute

for that is my song.

Dreamless begs the question.

Taken is the charge.

Given is no mention.

Silence is the cause."

"Dreamer, don't mock me!

I still prefer my doubt.

Dreamer, sit still. I am a professional

I eat your dreams like sweetcakes.

Every tasty morsel.

Cut, dissect, and cite you.

Embrace you to deprive you.

Seize you to despise you...

When you were gone one day, I found myself abandoned,

And I resorted to retreat.

I forgot your villainy and challenged the conceit,

That your vile ways would wander away.

And leave me misty-eyed."

F'ya's stare did not give way.

Her nothing came to one last reply.

Empty. Still. Unborn being.

It pressed upon the Dreamer,

who, fed on sycophantic men,

now heard no pledge allegiance,

received no desperate plee.

Dreams without their tools:

useless ideology.

Men without enslavement.

Death a martyr's soar.

Leader unbecomes them.

The wind a voiceless roar.


  2009.09.07  22.42
Litribune Submission Two

Lifeless Life, Deathless Death:

the Paradox of Living

A review of Vladimír Michálek’s film Autumn Spring


 If men are not afraid to die

It is no avail to threaten them with death.


My aged grandfather, deaf and bellicose, wearing only a hospital gown, glares out from hollow eyes, skin stretched tight against the protruding skeletal form (which I cannot say is quite “his”), and states:  “I have not lived since the operation.”

The “operation” requires no further questions.  The old surgical scar runs vertically down from his neck to his abdomen, where it splits like a forked tongue just below his belly button and reaches toward his thighs.  Abdominal aortic aneurysm repair, status post eight years. 

But the AAA is not his current admission diagnosis.  This time it’s an infected toe, MRSA, a particularly noxious form of staphylococcus bacteria, and grandpa has convinced the nurses and the doctors to continue the saline footbath that has been his daily self-administered treatment for the last two years. 

While the nurse practitioner explains in medicalese that grandpa’s kidney labs show minimal tolerance for the radioactive die of a CT scan and require a med adjustment, grandpa interrupts to make sure his daily Epsom salt treatment will go forward.  When the nurse assures him that it will, he relaxes his posture and smiles contemptuously. 

I thank the nurse for this minor concession and reflect on his statement: “I have not lived since the operation.”  Surely, despite his utter deafness and the staph infection raging in his blood, he is utterly alive.  So what does he mean? 

For grandpa and grandma, the fight for survival began with the placement of a pacemaker ten years ago and has continued year after year with constant medical surveillance and frequent emergency room admissions.  Thousands of dollars spent on nutritional supplements, death scares drawing family members into all-night cross-country car trips, falls, drugs interactions, surgeries, constant pain, obsessive fear. 

As the years pass by, it becomes increasingly clear that what the medical establishment has available for purchase is not exactly “life.”  Grandpa had not always been this way.  I remember a family anecdote of a time when he was third man from the top at Chrysler.  The year was 1970.  Engineers on the line in the factory in Warren, Michigan announced they couldn’t make room for the big 426 hemi racing engine grandpa wanted put in the Plymouth Baracude.  In a fit of testosterone rage, grandpa picked up an acetylene torch and skillfully sliced the ‘Cuda’s engine bay wide open, saying, “Put the engine there.  It will fit.  From now on, we engineer the body around the engine.”  (Wikipedia gives credit for this E-body design to John Eric Herlitz:  the E-body was a “shorter, wider version” with an engine bay “larger than that of the previous A-body”).

How does a self-made Chrysler car man find himself in a shell of a body, dependent on the goodwill of liberal medical institutions, and reduced to fending off of social security?  Believe it or not, I think a profound insight into this question can be found in a cute Czech film whose kitschy aesthetic belies its underlying spiritual and psychological wisdom. 

According to the New York Times 2003 review of Autumn Spring, the main protagonist, Fanda (Vlastimil Brodský) is “keeping the reaper at bay with mischievous exuberance.”  Unwilling to face his impending death, Fanda regresses to childlike games.  With help from his best friend Eda, he steals kisses from unsuspecting young women, poses as an illustrious real estate prospective, and spends the family nest egg on frivolous, fun adventures—all of which infuriate his wife, Emilie.  While Fanda chases after childhood dreams and escapes into adolescent fantasies, Emilie plans the details of her death, funeral, and the transfer of their small estate with meticulous and obsessive intent:  each penny is counted, the burial plot carefully selected, and the funerals envisioned with unctuous portent.  If Fanda’s capriciousness is a phantasmal escape to a “youth of thousand summers” then his wife’s neurotic prudence performs its perfect opposite:  a fearful compulsion fixed upon death’s impending truth. 

The New York Times review ends with the quip, “What better way to rage against the dying of the light than to play these delicious games of let’s pretend?” but this take on the film’s message misses the mark by ignoring Emilie’s symbolic importance.  Rather than offer the “better alternative” to his wife’s despair, Fanda’s free spirit is an escapist idiocy more death-obsessed than her explicit fixation itself.  Both cover up an unresolved nihilistic fatalism.  Neither cherish the paradox that life triumphs in death, and death mixes life with mystery and grace.  As George Bernard Shaw put it:  “Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.” 

And that is precisely the lesson that both obsessive Emilie and escapist Fanda must learn to save their marriage—and their very lives.  When we admit the great mystery of death into our lives, this does not put death at our doorstep; but when we choose to live in spite of death, we need not spite the seriousness of our destiny.  Indeed, it is in the tension between the eternity of our presence moment and the surety of our impending mortality that the grace and gift of living is born.  Thus in the end does Emilie learn something of Fanda’s defiant verve, Fanda a piece of Emilie’s attunement to mortality. 

There is an ancient saying central to the philosophy of Chinese Medicine that “anything taken to its extreme becomes its opposite.”  The Ayruvedic tradition adds that “that which is subtle is most powerful.”  What do these statements mean?  Allow me a quick political digression.  Scholars on the political Right remind us how Marx’s hopeful critique of 19th century industrial capitalism morphed into the Stalinist purges.  Scholars on the political Left caution us that unrestrained free market capitalism in the mode of 20th century neoliberalism has morphed into monopolistic corporate socialism.  Most people on the planet—from 1950’s era Syrian Ba’athists to 1980’s era Reaganite conservatives—envision a Third Way between these extremes, the political dogma of each side bespeaking only a preferred directionality of policy change.  Political momentum tends toward balance; the art of statecraft is a science of the subtle. 

Nowhere is this wisdom of balance truer than in our relation to death.  Like Emilie’s methodical preparatory rituals, the medical industry’s battles against cancer, heart disease (and death itself) morph into their opposite.  Their manic search to prolong life produces a sort of life that is no longer living.  What is preserved is what the Ancient Greeks called zoe—the mere presence of biological aliveness, while bios—the way of living under scrutiny in Plato’s philosophy of the good life—is left behind.  When we approach death as an enemy to overcome, we lead a lifestyle of survival.  Our lives loose their grandeur, and we are robbed of death’s heroism.

Terri Schiavo is illustrative here.  The battle against death in its more extreme applications reproduces a kind of “Frankensteinian” undead state:  not animal, but not human; not dead, but not living.  In the conservative imagination, pro-life bleeds quickly into this chaotic place.  Organismal life is abstracted from human life.  The closer to an inert state a thing is, the better it can represent abstract life.  For the abortion opponent, a young mother’s quality of life is traded for the lifeless stand-in of life in-itself. 

Now, to be clear, I am not advocating a Luddite critique of technology writ large—remember how in the Left Behind series Christians who disappear in the apocalyptic rapture leave behind not only their unsaved contemporaries but also their pacemakers and prostheses—this is, rather, a proactive call for an attitude of graciousness and thanksgiving.  Mechanical augmentation of life’s ticking clock cannot cure the battle against disease and bodily malfunction!  The true opposite of death is not abstract aliveness but a spirit of joyful living.  This is why I cannot be accused of advocating (or threatening) “death panels.”  Joy is a personal and individual liberation. 

And let us distinguish this position from a simple case of youthful arrogance.  When we artificially extend life to the neglect of the cultivation of laugher and gratitude, we act without wisdom.  But also, in contrast to Fanda’s childish conceit of invincibility, true joy acts in the midst of death, not despite of it but graciously because of its inner paradox.  Here, Fanda’s childishness runs parallel to the pro-choice politically expediency that denies the objectively nascent life of the fetus.  To truly live, we must accept the reality of death.  Not a single women I know who has undergone an abortion has not sooner or later mourned the death of her child, though this sorrow rarely led to regret.  One might say we must not live fearful of watchful Death’s footsteps coming nearer, but live rather with our own eyes turned mirthfully upon Death’s enchanted march.  The real dichotomy we face is not that between life and death—for both of these are guaranteed by biology—rather our choice is between acceptance and resentment, between celebration and retaliation, between love and fear.

In the fight for healthcare reform or in the battle for a cure for breast cancer let us be good losers and good winners both.  For death will take us one way or the other.  And the question lingering in the end will not be how did we or didn’t we die, but rather, simply and profoundly, how did we live.

In an obligatory footnote, I must reveal that Autumn Spring was Vlastimil Brodský’s last and ninetieth film—the final apogee of a distinguished career.  He committed suicide at the age of eighty-one years shortly after completion of the film.  Was his death tragic or heroic?


  2009.09.07  22.34
Letters to a Philosopher

Hi Chris,

Have you seen Notre Musique by Godard?  Et vous avez recommande la film La Femme Nikita, n'est pas?  So . . . . Queer Theory for development as a professional philosopher?  Hmmm... I love my Queer friends, but I don't know if I'm interested. . . .   Oh but what I love I have for these New Left revolutionaries.  Democracy Now!'s Amy Goodman.  And deep spiritual knowledge.  Such beautiful things in this world.  What is the greatest possibility for my life?  I would be so happy if you would help me with my paper.  Do you read Hannah Arendt?  I regret not following my heart to study political science at "K".  I had sick reasons for pursuing psychology.  Philosophy was the natural compromise of a divided heart, but also the perfect discipline for me at the time. 

Giorgio Agamben is the fellow that developed first the concept of homo sacer that Zizek employs in regard to the Kantian Sublime, the Holocaust guaranteeing the need for a God.  (Isn't that the implication gestating in the first arguments for God:  namely, if the concept of God is a concept of perfection, and perfection insists on both Its existence and the necessity that I be able to know It, then this concept current in mind must Be this knowledge.)  Except Zizek's devotion is to Atheism.  Have you read Agamben?

I would love for your help in organizing my writing on Honneth and Zizek and Children of Men.  I would like it to stand alone not as a response to Honnoth, but happily with Honneth as one of its foundation blocks.  I would like it to sit on Merleau-Ponty's the Visible and the Invisible, basic tracings of Lacan, and more still . . . . . perhaps even silly romance comedies! 

When you took your sabbatical, what did you write?  What did you study?  And the German Enlightenment readings you explored this summer with Pippin.  I want to know all the details.  In the differences between Hegel and Nietzsche, what can we discover?

Thanks for the wine and the company. 




Thanks for your warm comments.  Yes Agamben teaches at the European Graduate School and in Paris at the International School of Philosophy, I think its called....  I was thinking of buying some of his books. 

I like that you bring up the Lacanian "too soon or too late" concept.  "Too late" like the future retrospective nostalgia for what would have been ---- this concept should connect up with Zizek's definition of neurosis, the constant flight from engagement with the uncertainty and mystery of our lives.  At least the neurotic's self-humiliation still recoils from the "too soon."  What would the other side of the too soon be?  "Too soon" like an awkward interjection of the too-bold braggart or the dogmatic self-conviction of the worst ideologue?  But isn't this one more of those false dichotomies?  For the choice is not between vain perversion and cowardly self-defeat!  The true contrast is both of these against object a and it's proper embrace.  And is this not again the feminine matheme:  to embrace in this moment without regret or delusion the Not-All that is truly, materially available.  (the masculine alternative being the false choice between the Cartesian field of empirical knowledge and its exception, subjective perception as the impossible site of truth's inscription).  To be comfortable in the paradox of the Kantian Sublime, the Truth "in its becoming", to look the abyss in the eye.  object a.

In other words, FAITH.  Taken this way, Theo's surrender is a divine act of political love. 

Your comments are very helpful too me!!  Thank you.

PS:  Ah!  But how to inspire such love!!




That's a BIG question?  Short answer is:  I think that good faith acceptance of object petit a is a nice way to put it.  The long answer would reason through why it is not "simply" this! 

Once the basic logical construction of the "mathemes of sexuation" is grasped conceptually, lots of cultural artifacts "click" into its array.  This is a powerful conceptual tool which allows broad application. 

When I read Zizek, I keep in mind that he states clearly that he is a proponent of the feminine logic.  Multiple articles in the New Left Review by Zizek propose clearly that we should seek the coordinates of political action from amidst the contradictions of the modern economic-structural-political(-whatever!) landscape.  In this connection he quotes the famous Lenin remark that a climbing expedition must sometimes turn downhill as an advancement forward toward the ultimate goal of reaching the peak.  The lesson is constant renewal.  In chess one must not get carried away with broad tactics; all tactics must be renewed with each new shuffling of the pieces.  Yes?

In Vicky Cristina Barcelona this is also the case.  The females characters offer an "American" duality of postmodern malaise (Zizek calls this "the return of the sophists") versus ethical-ideological dogmatism.   The first (Cristina) is trapped in a narcissism of "No!", the second (Vicky) by the vanity of a over-determined positive "Yes!"  The allegation is that the American intellectual landscape catches us in this dualistic trap:  we either neurotically run from total engagement by never taking a stand or we (pervertedly) wrap ourselves in the ideological clothes of the emperor.  Religion:  we either run from any-and-all ultimate spiritual/ethical answers (skepticism, agnosticism, post-modern ethical relativism), or else we demand our Christian or Islamic fundamentalism with incessant in-your-face televangelism and pseudo-science. Like Zizek's Lenin, the way out of this impasse is provided in Vicky Cristian Barcelona with the character of the Spanish lover, who represents the European Left with its intimate ties to post-colonial African and Near Eastern revolutionary thought/action.  Juan Antonio says, "I affirm life despite everthing" and "Life is short, life is dull, life is full of pain, and this is chance do to something special." 

Why does this correspond to the feminine logic? 

In the language of the Lacanism mathemes, the answer is thus:  that we take a stand, a finite and complete stand for ourselves, but in doing so we recognize that the selfhood of our authentic self-truth requires a subjectivity of the Not-All.  This is the necessary subjectivity of a decentered European self-consciousness that requires a Hegelianism fitting of post-war, post-decolonization Christendom.  The Modernist (read: colonial, patriarchal, white supremicist) Hegelism was of a subjectivity self-identitical to ultimate Truth whose own fallibility serves as the site of exception/negation through which ultimate Truth is rendered: Befindlichkeit.  So much postmodernism has become nothing but a cheap reversal, cowardly escape from engagement, a runaway spiral of infinite viewpoints, a dizzying perspectile vertigo which remains totalizing and surreal.  The modern and the postmodern match the two poles of the masculine logic and feed on each other in a circuitous dependency:  doubt parasitizes upon the notion of an ultimate truth; dogmatism parasitizes on doubt.  There exists that which is true in all cases, and the exception upon which this truth stands. 

This is a defense of the decentered self, decentered in time and space.  Rough Music by Tariq Ali makes the case that if England does hear in the casualties of terror and a failed Iraq War the "rough music" (think Schoenberg) of post-coloniality and doesn't humble itself to its new stature as a medium size economic in a multipolar world, then it sows the seeds of its demise.  That's the decentering of nationality in the space of global relationships and the temporality of a changing world dynamic. 

But a personal example.   In Spring 2008 while I was chewing on Zizek a Border's bookshop employee and I were talking politics because I was looking for Noami Klein's The Shock Doctrine, a blistering tour de force connecting Abu Ghraib, Milton Friedman, neoliberal economic liberalism, Hurricane Katrina, and the Iraq War.  In the face of such topics, this person was understandably thrown down a well of despair.  I was inspired to provide the following reply:

"You ask of what significance are your choices!  How can you effect the violence in Gaza and Jerusalem.  In the face of a such a disciplined and wealthy elite of war profiteers and Manichean demagogues, how are you anything but an insignificant grain of sand in a vast oceanic hurricane.  In response I ask you this:  You have expressed a deep concern for the fate of Palestine.  Imagine for a second two version of yourself.  In the first you decide to meet the issue face on, join the International Solidarity Movement, pack your bags, sell your car, and buy a one-way ticket to Jerusalem.  For two years you live and work with Israeli, Palestinian, and international peaceworkers in Gaza.  You learn Arabic, develop a deeper understanding of the history and culture of the Levant.  Using art and speech you participate in public demonstrates of peaceful alternative to the cycle of violence.  That's the first version of yourself.  In the second version, you decide that you are powerless, you never make the phone call, you never take the risk of life and limb, you never even find out whether you would be accepted to the organization.  You pose the question as to the significance of your life choices?  I ask you the gulf that separates these two potential versions of yourself.  Your choices are significant as who you are and who you could have been!  When time and age leave you an old man ruminating on your past, what will you have chosen to become?"

That is why accepting object petit a --- your very own longing --- is not "simply" the best.  It is the ultimate dilemma and possibility of our short human lives.  To take action is to risk failure, it is to take a leap into the unknown.  We are neither all-knowing nor helplessly naive.  Faith, not the shelter of truth or the retreat of skepticism, is our only authentic choice.  And that is why Zizek shouts "atheist, atheist atheist!!"  Because only the confident man is truly humble; only a authentically finite mind can grasp the true spiritual revelation of grace.

Any questions?



Hi Chris,

How are you doing?  Have you taken a look at my paper by any chance?

Questions and answers.  Calling Hegel a colonial, patriarchal white supremacist might be more off the cuff than I would prefer in my communications.  But the idea is specific.  No 18th century European thought in exactly what we would today call a multicultural perspective.  The gulf that separates Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel --- global, non-racial, ecological --- and the theories of race and biology of mid-19th century Europe is vast.  Even our habit of calling mid-19th century Europe "the mid-19th century" is indicative of this monolithic worldview.  For me the designation "colonial, patriarchal, white supremacist" is descriptive of an episteme, a war-based/agricultural empire view consistent with Islamic, Mongolian, and Christian zietgeist of the last millennium---perhaps since the Hittite horseman kickstarted the spread of warrior-maurader culture on the shores of the Black sea four thousand years ago.  The self-reflection demanded by a Western reading of Edward Said indicates the thorough gap between the histories of Islamic and Christian self-understanding even in the 20th century.  I tried to read one of Erich Fromm's first books a few weeks ago and I had to quit because of this monolithic attitude ---- the 3rd person narrative and its naive assumptions.  So, you're an expert though.  I remember that newspaper article in which Hegel exhorted his readers not to treat human beings as abstractions.  I can see the the universal applicability of the most basic Hegelism ideas.  Yes, even Marxian thought jumps on the bandwagon of the division Kissinger clarifies in the modern age between the West and the 3rd world--- that one is rational and the other irrational.  Hegel was quite explicit about these things as I read in two books:  Randall Robinson's The Debt:  What America Owes to Blacks and Charles Mills' The Racial Contract.

In my reading of Zizek and the little that I've read of Lacan, the mathematical logic seems to subsume much of the intellectual history of America and Europe.  So much energy has been spend chasing after proofs of God, defenses of dogmatic empiricist theories, theoretizations on the perfect government.  Etcetera.  But Thomas Kuhn's disruption of basic scientific ideology might mark the watershed of a cultural-wide recognition of Nietzsche's premonition "God is Dead."  Kuhn's non-commensurate trajectories of the development of different epoch's Normal Science fit with the feminine logic.  So does Schiller's concept of play, the creative juices in the interstices of his era's great debates (I think: I haven't read Schiller for 10 years!).  So definitely does Nietzsche's tale of creative individualism.  Why?  For the same reason that Nietzsche can celebrate contradictory life paths.  Because he sees and respects the beautiful of each honest expression of humankind.  There is no correct Normal Science, for each paradigm Science pursues a new set of interests.  The protection of the biosphere will not forgo Newtonian physics "entirely" but its application with be so entirely different from the mechanical laws of industrialization that it will be jettisonned as such.  Each paradigm's truth has no exception but is ultimately, humbly Not-All. 

The masculine logic can't grasp Kuhn's theory.  How can one paradigm be uncomparable to another?l  It responds with a dogmatic recoil towards its pet truth or else it is disembodied in confusion, doubt, and self-loathing.  This is the duality of Western thought that few saints have penetrated.  The feminine logic embraces noncommensurate difference!  There's no exception, but its nevertheless NOT-ALL!

"There fore the sage knows himself but makes no show,
Has self-respect but is not arrogant.
He lets go of that and chooses this."

Sociobiology, I think, gives an insight into the feminine-logical turn of intellectual western thought, I think.  In Sarah Hrdy's Mother Nature she defends sociobiology against its postmodern critics, against a long history of arguments against science itself that are rooted in a reaction to biological determinist theories of race and sex.  Such bad science does not defame the scientific method itself!  It demands a coherent use of rational thought applied to the big questions of our age!  The 21st century's embrace of sociobiology represents a psychologically healthy middle ground between racist science and its guilt-ridden detractors. 

You wrote:  "The universal or structural condition of action is that one cannot not act and the meaning of one’s acts are “up for grabs” in the Big Other, hence the causality of fate that will be visited upon the Beautiful Soul.  So, you relate the Beautiful Soul’s initial posture — I possess the universal (I am moral) with modernism, and the skepticism about there being a universal with pm, right?  This would be the two poles of the male matheme, right?"

Yes.  Postmodernism is a flight from truth.  Modernism is the defiant refusal of multiple perspectives.  Postmodernism was the so-called liberal attempt to avoid the bigotry of our intellectual forefathers.  Modernism may once have been naive but today is reactionary return to disproven rationale.  Postmodernism is a flight.  Modernism is an obsession.  That's the basic application.  But's all just too too broad. It sounds ridiculous to me.  I think that Zizek's method is to demonstrate that from 18th century opera onward examples of the feminine logic intrude upon the master narrative of supremacist dominion.  Obviously my association between Lao-Tsu and Lacan should clarify my position here.  And of course Zizek sees the origins of this feminine revolution in Kant's depiction of the Sublime finite nature of human striving.  This is the return to the self.  Merleau-Ponty finds a non-dual concept of object-subject relations because he accepts the primacy of our embodiment.  This isn't abstract!  You must first love yourselve before you can another!  You must feed yourself before you can donate your energies to another!  There must be a stable atomic structure before biochemistry can arise!  This is what Ken Wilbur calls the holarchic structure of all being.  Have we descended into Metaphysics?  Perhaps we have only risen to it, in the most Kantian sense.  Let's not take ourselves too seriously here!  Or anywhere.

"Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh."  Indeed, life does not cease to be serious when people laugh anymore than it ceases to be funny when people die." 

Could you explain why you think Hegel is not an apologist for empire?  And you've been reading Lacan for years and Zizek for three:  How are you beginning to understand the feminine and masculine antinomies?  And you know Hegel and Kant so much better than I do; the Kantian sublime: how does it relate to all of this? 

Oh and faith.  Well that's simply the alternative to fear and escape. 




Hi Chris,

Can you tell me more about Pippin and his different books.  I have Modernism as Idealism but I didn't read it yet!  

I actually did read that syllabus when I was waiting for you the other day.  Doesn't Zizek basically subsume the differences between these mathemes under a larger Hegelian rubric in Tarrying with the Negative?  In what ways do you think the difference between the masculine and the feminine is contrived?  Do you consider the difference inapplicable to life in general? 
To me its as simple as the difference between feeling caught between too soon and too late and living gracefully in the present moment.  Why people seem to need such elaborate formulations of things is hard to tell --- perhaps as hard to tell as why people like you and I are drawn to decode them.  But does saying that the so-called incommensurate differences between the Iroquoi and Quantum Physical referents for water are vulnerable to the interrogational powers of language apply here?  What we are talking about is precisely not based on such absolutes as whether or not we know whether or not the absolute thing on the other side of the referent is the same.  Postmodernism says its totally linguistically determined; Empiricism that its obvious that Water X can't be H20. 

Why argue?  The point of "not-all" might be just this:  I'll tackle the problems of our age and place; I'll choose the values that are right for me.  I'll engage in the praxis that's right for this time and place.  I don't know about Hegel, but certainly Nietzsche and Zizek would understand the importance of a person's individual path.  No depth of onto-linguistic cultural horizons or pervasiveness of intersubjectively motivated reciprical self-reflection efface the uniqueness of each of our experiences.  No permiability of my self-understanding to you can erase the null point of my subjectivity.  Your "getting it" does not obviate the necessary of my choice.  The Not-All-With-No-Exception means the finite nature of my subjectivity, finitude being the root of transcendence. 

After reading Zizek I've preferred the labels "spiritual athiest" and "libertarian socialist."  I felt a paradoxical label caught the Kantian moment so well!  If I take on a stereotypical label my uniqueness is lost in the titular meanings of some stupid abtract impossibility; but if I refuse all labels then my individuality is defined in total negativity --- do I prefer the self-loathing nothing left behind by this anti-positivism?  No.  Only in the paradox can I clearly suggest positive content while offering Melville's wry and mysterious smile:  "I prefer not." 

Your transcendence doesn't transcend me, but that's why we're friends, after all!  That's another point that Zizek makes: our conversation's dynamism exists in the tension between my assumption of understanding and my assumption of not yet knowing.  I know too soon and too late, you might say.  How else could I have a now!   The dynamism of now is very special.  Perhaps the feminine matheme could be thought of as an emergent property of the mathematical logic . . . . The embrace of contradiction.  Which might be something akin to your embrace of the common ground between Hegel and Nietzsche, Modernism and Postmodernism.

Does that make any sense?   Do I make any sense, Chris.



Hi Chris,

Thanks for that last comment about making non-sense!  That remind me to ease my mind!  No I definitely don't think the feminine Not-all-with-no-exception is a simple reduction from a Habermasian interplay of dialogue and values as anchorpoints and a rogue personal question of arbitrary decision making.  In fact examples that populate Zizek's writing include personal and cultural-wide examples.  I think this article is a good example:


The thing is that this concept works at lots of levels.  We'll figure it out more and more.  The switch from "ceci n'est pas une pipe" to the image of the pipe that must be the pipe be it what the pipe actually is cannot be a phantom from the Real beyond our understand!  So Water X is water insomuch as its "water to me" until it is revealed to be some strange apparition.  Then "what this water really is is not water."  But then its time to wash up in the evening, and only the most autistic of scientists would be so fixated as not to shrug off the day's experience and say to himself, "Well if it looks like water, smells like water, tastes like water . . . must be . . ."   It is like the dialectic of form and matter, the dialectic of H20 and Water X.  The masculine moment and feminine moment each take their turn.  The feminine might line up with the Hegelian immersion.  The masculine with the Hegelian negation. 

But if there is one characteristic to the obsession, violent, codependent, fearful mess of a psychic state that the United States is stuck in its our inability to accept our own fates, to comprise with our actual potentials.  We are afraid of death and madly fight it in the hospital and on Capital Hill rant and rave about how a change can fix it all.  Are you kidding me?!  "Death comes, that's how I'm living," is a responsible hip hop lyric.  So let's pay a decent price for oil to Iran and Venezuela.  If it means fewer Walmart purchases and biking to work!  But no, that would be an anathema to the America Way of Life.  How sacrosanct!  Piss. 

This is a contemporary question.  We need a dose of the feminine.  Even feminism does.  If we crack the atoms deeper and deeper down inside the clay material of my drinking mug, will it still be a mug?  Not if we incite fission and perfect endless free energy independence!  But guess what?  That's a neurotic pipedream.  My mug holds that what that my ancestors have pulled up from the well and carried from the stream since time immemorial.  The rub is that postmodernism is just an anti-positivist variant of the Modernist fantasy.  What we need is a new spirit for a finite Earth and a celebration of the graceful beauty of the life and death of our organismal ecosystemic tribal embodiment.  A spirit of wisdom, patience, acceptance, and celebration.

See what I'm getting at?



  2009.01.13  20.52
The Awakening of Universal Motherhood

We must first recognize that love is the nucleus of life . . . Today, instead of looking outward from the inside, we are trying to look inward from the outside. In this way, we will not be able to see anything clearly. -Ammachi


  2009.01.13  20.46
Explosion of Dream

her mystery x the site of my
                  fantasy inscription
Her shifting $ the breakdown
              of my fantasy-known
I am left devoured, knowing only
     my deepest dreams
                      served up on a plate.
I am finding myself duped
            I pretend not to believe, but I 
                                              really believe.
I pretend not to desire, but desire's
          shame sits unkempt and resilience
                           bespeaking its unperturbed shadow!
In the darkness lies the hope.
Don't give me God or their is no epiphany!
Take God away from me because you can't!
Leave me and give me myself back
My fantasy sits like a strange bird on my shoulder--
      fly away bird.
Then I will find you.


  2009.01.13  20.39
Letter to a Philosopher (again!)

Hi Chris,

That's what the feminine formula is, Chris.  In the final pages of Parallax View, Zizek celebrates Hardt and Negri's post-New World Order book Empire.  Below I've taken a quotation from that book's critique in the New Left Review, by Gopal Balakrishnan in 2000.  As you read it, think about the feminine antinomy, and think about it in the following way.  The masculine antinomy follows the logical structure of 1) a truth claim that refers to all the coordinates within the set of all the things that exist in the whole entire universe; which presumes 2) the exception that proves the rule, the minority whose existence Stalin extirpated when he wrote "the delegates resolved by a large majority that their resolution is to count as unanimous"; the exception is always a minimal thing, though it may be as minimal as the nothingness left behind to the substanceless subject of the postmodern epoch or the inhuman "humanity" of the replicants' self-awareness---that "place between the two deaths." 

The feminine antimony, on the other hand, follows the structure of the non-all.  But what does that mean?  It is Hardt and Negri's optimistic embrace of the conditions of the modern era as the very means and the very site of resistence that so inspires Zizek.  But to preface, let me elaborate.  In an online article on www.lacan.com, Zizek says that "hysteria" should not be conceived as "purely" a projection of patriarchal categories upon an object-other; nor also should it be conceived as "purely" a gesture of negative resistence, an indecipherable statement that voicelessly states its silent "No!" of protest against the aggression of the patriarchal order.  Indeed, the dichotomy presented in this antagonism presents/reveals the coordinates of the masculine antimony:  the DSM gives substance to woman in the sense that Lacan wrote "C'est n'est pas une femme," giving substance to her as that which is not "really" her, while the feminist position identifies the "real" subjectivity of woman qua subject as the voiceless remainder of the phallic law, as the nothingness left over by poststructural analysis's deconstructive, demystifying performative act--- which, then, corresponds to Lacan's definition of subject as "that which is not an object": in the masculine logic, the subject is that which elides the grasp of the objectification of the other and yet, paradoxically, is its very site of inscription. 

That which in me eludes your grasp is precisely the me to whom you give your friendship, notwithstanding that you give substance to me as your friend only to a certain extent, and our friendship lies in this overlapping (between my subjecthood as the object-cause of your desire [objet a] and as the nothingness [$] of subjectivity itself).  Just as our friendship lies in this overlapping (not in our overdetermining of the other's substance as a friend-thing; nor in our reduction to pure subjectivity as that which elides the grasp of the knowing of our friend), the feminine formulation of the Non-All lies between these two positions, in parallax with them:  the feminine formula of the Non-All begins and ends within the given as an open field of uncertainty and contention. 

This is why the Theo character in Children of Men is so effective:  he stays in the moment and works with the cards that he is dealt.  As Blackalicious song says, "Let go.  Do what's in front of you.  Then, let go.  Then do what's in front of you." (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jRw3HRXU_4s ---- this is really really worth listening to).  Within the feminine logic, the Big Other (whether it is Global Capital, Feminist theory, or the 1940's-era patriarchy---the primordial father, the joisseur) is inhabitated, embodied, embraced, and taken at once at face value yet with an "internal" or simultaneous distance or detachment, which is the minimal gap between the subject and herself.  This embodiment does not leap to either extreme--- it is not total self-annihilation and subjugation in the quasi-Foucaultian sense of every bit of substance of an episteme conceived as directly correlative to power nor is it nor is it pure identification with the subjugated subject, the continually elided "voice of the voiceless." 

Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God comes to mind strongly in this connection because when I first read the book, I was taken by the inspiring contradiction between the protagonist's pathetic imprisment as a black women in the racist and sexist south.  Yet even while she goes through all the motions of the options that are again and again foisted upon her by outside, this sincere movement is accompanied by a concommittant disengagment which lends her character a riveting dignity.  Thus the parallax shift takes us beyond the retreat to the extremes of certain knowledge and certain failure and puts us right into the bowls of the unknown.  This is why Zizek says that ironically it is the humanist who in our contemporary epoch has a true experience of faith: the true spiritualist finds God in a godless world, and laughs along with the divine in a lighthearted faith that sits comfortable with the great mystery:  that we can never ultimately know.  Now, read this excerpt for the book review in the New Left Review: 

"Comparable totalizations from the Left have been few and far between; diagnoses of the present more uniformly bleak. At best, the alternative to surrender or self-delusion has seemed to be a combative but clear-eyed pessimism, orienting the mind for a Long March against the new scheme of things. In this landscape, the appearance of Empire represents a spectacular break. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri defiantly overturn the verdict that the last two decades have been a time of punitive defeats for the Left. After years of living in French exile, Negri is now serving out the sentence he received in Italy in the early eighties, during the crack down on the Far Left, writing as an inmate of the Roman prison system that once held Gramsci under fascism. But the work he and Hardt have written owes very little to the precedent of the Prison Notebooks. Few messages could be further from that harsh strategic reckoning than the argument of Empire. Its burden is that, appearances to the contrary, we live in a springtime of peoples, a world overflowing with insurgent energies. In a period where others merely cast about for silver linings, Hardt and Negri announce a golden age."  (http://www.newleftreview.org/?view=2275)

This is a helpful essay, too:  http://www.lacan.com/zizwoman.htm

When we see each other and I have a pen and paper at hand, remind me to make the connection to Mandala Symbolism via Nietzsche's artistic self-creative will.  The Quaternity and the Unity do not of course cancel each other in a paradox, but conjoin in a parallax of liberating self-creation.  Liberation as an active and creative embrace of the given coordinates of my being. 

This is why in the Tarrying with the Negative, the final section is titled Loop of Enjoyment.  Why should the Hegelian cycle be conceives as from negation to negation, why not from immersion to immersion, from sublimation (to desublimation) to sublimation?  If we have any faith, that is.

The feminine is the spirit of optimism.



  2008.12.24  23.48
Humboldt in streaks and stains

Oh… The pain.  The release. The heart-wrenching beauty.  Passion.  Desire.  Life force.  Oh how dearly I ache and how sweetly my eyes turn their corners up in tearful shouts of celebration.  Oh Tara Krout Klitchman, thank you for these journeys you have ushered me on.  Amma!  Amma!  Amma!  I didn’t really know until just today what Tara did for me that summer of 2005.  The women I have never been able to say “no” to.  And this trip too---these 8 beautiful, heart-expanding, soul-edifying, and self-awakening days!  David Star.  Aryon Bosma.  John Lubotsky.  Stephani Meyers.  Oh how I can I elucidate the web of good tidings?  Humboldt.  Emergency Communities.  Sarah Molenaar and Turtle Soup.  Buddy Nahan.  Bonnie Zaplintny.  Zach Banton.  Peggy Espinel.  Jesse White-O’briant.  Gilliam Ream.  Rachel Frey.  John Hogue.   Peter of the land of trees and fog and rainbows.  Pepe.  Ginger.  Little Cedar.  Oh these names!  Oh joyous shouts.  I spoke Chinese on Stockton Street.  Found Zizek at City Lights.  Kissed Tara’s forehead in the shadow of the morning.  Redwood trees and Howard Roark dwarfing me each in turn, then each in turn demanding that I rise . . . up like the dawn . . . that dawn which will come . . .  As it has always come . . .


  2008.12.07  17.42
Letter to a Philosopher

Hi Chris,
Thanks for your reply.  I was inspired to write a few more words of exposition to more generously contextualize how the quote from Ammachi harkens me beyond duality . . .
Try this:  Think of the move from "looking inward from the outside" to "looking outward from the inside" as from the masculine to the feminine Lacanian sexuality antinomy; wherein, the masculine is a universal (all) and its exception and feminine is the not-all and the (non-existent) beyond.  Or think of the moment in Lacan, again, where the subject surrenders in shame to the passion-laden reality of his own Gaze (realizing "from the outside" as it were that he had always been living the outside from the inside).  Remember that it is the subject of desire (not the subject of self-mediation, he who "sees himself seeing") who is confronted in/by this shame.  Zizek characterizes Heidegger's work as demonstrating the feminine antinomy; which makes good sense in this connection.  Ammachi refers to an "Awakening of Universal Motherhood", while various Eastern traditions (QiGong, for example) critique the Western scientific worldview for its Yang imbalance.  Of course Honneth is attempting to drop the inside/outside talk altogether, but he fails to do so.  The very formulation of reification versus recognition recapitules this.  His attempt to identify recognition is what I mean by "looking inward from the outside" --- that is to say not in the mode of immersion in the flesh of seeing/seen but in the mode of externalizing/positing/projecting the presupposition (the predicating "of the" subject --- with a parallax hanging in the double entendre "of the").  In the active (yang) move of identification, the Cartesian split is enacted.  The pre-predicative ground in its essence cannot be identified.  This is why Zizek uses the term "anamorphosis" --- "the internal" can only be gestured at, can only be seen askance, incurred from an oblique angle.  What do I mean by incured?  To see the "outside from the inside" is to loose oneself in ectasis.  How does one loose themselves in Being-in-the-World?  This is rather the wrong question.  The truth is the truth hiding between the lines of Zen Koan or in the paradoxes of the Dao.   
"The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, on sees the manifestations . . . .
What's funny is that Zizek makes fun of new age spirituality even though he is beholden to it in so many ways.  Maybe its precisely that cover-up he's signaling when he rubs his nose?


  2008.12.03  18.10
Part One

Recognition, Rupture, and Rebirth in the Capitalist Ideology

"Once I began to experience my own pain and the inevitable rage that accompanied it, I began to change.  I was less anxious.  I had more compassion for other people's pain.  And, for the first time in my conscious memory, I felt fully alive.  I knew who I was and where I had been, and I felt in tune with the beating of my own heart.  All of my senses opened up, and I began to make peace with the world."

-Harville Hendrix, Ph.D.


      Perhaps no single literary moment better captures the soul-affirming ethos of American individualism than Howard Roark’s anticlimactic confrontation with the architectural critic and writer, Ellsworth Toohey, in Ayn Rand’s (in)famous masterpiece, The Fountainhead.  In this scene, the walking embodiment of “collectivist ethics”—Toohey—crashes against the certain shore of his greatest adversary, the Objectivism of a human spirit pitted against no Big Other, founded upon a dignified solitude with a momentum built to outlast comparison, competition, and the small-minded jealousies of the collective. 

      “Mr Roark, we're alone here. Why don't you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us.”

      “But I don't think of you.”  (389)

      The “virtue of selfishness” cast as an empirically founded metaphysics of the human psyche—based upon its foundational role in humanity’s self-definition—stands here in its greatest strength.  A sympathetic reader shares Roark’s effortless and unselfconscious triumph: before the blunt carelessness of Roark’s solitude, Toohey for the first time confronts a true reflection of his own innermost nature, his manipulation of the fortunes of others as medium for his own self-development.   Thus the objective essence of human nature—the central core of man’s being as a psychological egoist—is revealed in its necessary wisdom:  either accept its predominance, or suffer the consequence of a life purpose fractured by the myriad demands of the undifferentiated human masses.

      It is perhaps best to introduce Honneth’s argument for the primacy of recognition against this modernist, capitalist backdrop.  The central claim Honneth locates within the thought of Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Dewey, and Lukacs---that a form of care, existential engagement, holistic meaningfulness, spontaneous recognition, affective sympathy, antecedent identification precedes the development of normal human relations and the development of human knowledge—stands in contrast to the psychological character of Howard Roark.  While Objectivism celebrates a life characterized by focus upon a single defining feature, Honneth’s locates “a highly one-sided praxis” as the repetitious route through which is enacted the obviation of the most basic primordial ability upon which our sociality itself is built—affective recognition of another human life.  The antisocial and sociopathetic ramifications/dimensions of the Roark character contrast with his celebration as America’s defender of individualism.  In the following quotation, Rand makes clear the connection between his singular focus and (the repressed content of) the reduction of human contemporaries to faceless beings

Roark spoke quietly.  He was the only man in the room who felt certain of his own words.  He felt also that he had no hope.  The twelve faces before him had a variety of countenances, but there was something, neither color nor feature, upon all of them, as a common denominator, something that dissolved their expressions, so that they were no faces any longer but only empty ovals of flesh.  He was addressing everyone.   He was addressing no one.  He felt no answers, not even the echo of his own words striking against the membrane of an eardrum.  His words were falling down a well, hitting stone salients on their way, and each salient refused to stop them, threw them farther, tossed them from one another, set them to seek a bottom that did not exist. (166)

      The awkward brute parallels between the two texts stick out amidst the complexities of argumentation:  Objectivism and reification; individualistic solitude and existential alienation; singular life-pursuit and one-sided praxis; celebration and critique of capitalist modernism.  We will return to this comparison later—considering another, more pathological similarity—but let us now short circuit this analysis back to the meat Honneth’s text, Reification: A new look at an old idea.  Honneth begins with an exegesis of Lukacs’s concept of reification, which emerges in the context of a Marxian elaboration of the alienating result of routine human absorption in the logic of capitalist society—the reification of the human subject in subjective experience—and then moves forward through the existential/phenomenological claims of Heidegger, Dewey, and others to locate an anchor of human certainty against which to contrast the loss of value as such.  His empirical argument provides the tools needed to sustain a strong call for the maintenance of human empathy and intersubjective affinities in the pursuit of a modern account of ethics, and the concerns of Butler, Geuss, and Lear attempt to grapple with complications that such an argument would require.  What these theorists miss in their critiques is to note the utter absence of a commentary as to under what conditions recognition might reassert itself from out of the midst of reified social relations.  Explorations of the works of Merleau-Ponty, Jacques Lacan, and Slavoj Zizek help to strengthen Honneth’s account of reification by elaborating its effect in terms of the annihilation of the contingent substance of the thinking subject, the subject of reifying practice—they also set the groundwork for understanding the eruption of radical otherness from out of the midst of ossified field of object-relations constituent of reified habitude.   


      In his masterwork, The Parallax View, Slavoj Zizek’s commentary on Marx’s Capital begins with the “passage from money to capital”:  wherein the first moment the inherent use-value of a commodity is traded for money in order to acquire a new commodity; wherein the second moment is the switch to the independent circulation of capital by means of which “constantly renewed movement” capital takes on (fills in) the form of contingent commodities to reproduce itself—plus a surplus-value—in an ever-broadening transcendent sweep in which the essence of capital retroactively posits itself as its presupposition (and then some) ad infinitum.  The transcendent sweep of Capital qua Big Other plays an important role in the formation of the modern Subject, its “pure substanceless subjectivity” of the proletariat parasitized by a pseudo-divine Capital.  Is this not precisely the matter in Roark’s claim: “I don't intend to build in order to have clients. I intend to have clients in order to build” (Rand, 26)?  For Zizek, this structure is a true fiction (an “unconscious fantasy”)—“the only way to formulate the truth of capital is to present this fiction of its ‘immaculate’ self-generating movement”—but as such “capital’s speculative self-generating dance has a limit, and it brings about the conditions of its own collapse”—the Real cannot be indefinitely deferred (Zizek, 58-60).  This lattermost conclusion is more radical; we will come back to it shortly.  In the meantime, let us now go into the Honneth text. 

      Honneth’s exposition of Lukacs’s position follows a similar pathway from 1) normal human interaction; 2) to human adoption of a capitalist logic; 3) to reification of human perception through immersion in the routine capitalist praxis; 4) to generalization of a reifying attitude throughout the contours of human experience.  Honneth maintains from Lukacs system of thought the tripartite application of reification to the fields of relatedness to other people, to one’s self (self-reification), and also to the natural world (not as an Other as such but as a field of libidinal investment for other people in general).  He differs from Lukacs in two primary ways.  First he proposes a different—less specified—social context for the occurrence of reification; instead of the leveling force of the logic of capitalism which subsequently generalizes across all areas of human life, Honneth suggests that a “one-sided praxis” carried out in a lasting, repetitive, and routine manner will slowly efface recognition through a kind of forgetfulness that elides (indefinitely defers?) recognition’s categorical primacy.  Secondly he draws upon Heidegger’s notion of care—a primordial meaningful openness to the world—and Dewey’s notion of engaged involvement to develop his concept of recognition, a type of authenticity that differs sharply from the Lukacs use of the Marxian notion of a labor-value subsequently effaced by the dialectic of capital. 

      Honneth works out this concept of recognition at two levels of meaning, what he calls its categorical and the temporal/genetic meanings.  This distinction—and what it suggests by omission—is critical to understanding the limitations and contradictions of Honneth’s theory.  The categorical meaning of recognition is that of its ontological primacy, a notion well developed in Heidegger’s Being and Time, namely that there exists a holistic Being-in-the-World, a primordial meaningfulness extending through the totality our Being-there, a thrownness in a active and engaged context, which is ontologically prior, which is the fundamental foundation, which is the natural core and starting place upon which any empirical, objective, scientific, and methodically derived notions of truth and reality are secondarily formed.  This level of meaning accounts for the non-ethical characteristic of recognition.  Recognition cannot have a moral valiance; on the contrary, it forms the basis for the very possibility of cognitive-ethical discrimination as such.  The second meaning of recognition is its temporal-genetic meaning, and for explanation Honneth peruses various developmental psychological theories to discern in the biographical-history of the human life an original state of empathetic attunement to the other, an affective openness which is the very medium and potential of our entrance into the social and linguistic institutions of the human lifeworld.  As Merleau-Ponty muses, “speech does indeed have to enter the child as silence—break through to him through silence and as silence” (263). 

      Zizek’s analysis of “minimal difference” across the chiasm of the parallax in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s two versions of Tender is the Night gives a helpful analogy to dissect the interface between these dimensions of recognition.  The first version of Tender takes the following thematic course:  1) exposition of the glamorous love life of a psychotherapist and his love affair with his client, a schizophrenic childhood survivor of incest; 2) jump back to the traumatic origins of their relationship; and 3) return to the normal time of their present relationship and its demise.  For the second version Fitzgerald re-sequenced the story to follow the “actual” chronology of the story, beginning with the flashback portion of the couple’s betrothal and then moving through the linear rise and fall of the relationship.  For Zizek, the mystery of this doubling—why did Fitzgerald feel the need to toy this way?—is found in the parallax at the very heart of the psychoanalytic experience:

On the one hand, there is the brutal empirical realism of the parental seduction: the ultimate cause of later traumas and pathologies is that children were in face seduced and abused by adults; on the other hand, there is the (in)famous reduction of the seduction scene to the patient’s fantasy. . . . while “seduction” cannot be reduced simply to the subject’s fantasy, while it does refer to a traumatic encounter with the Other’s “enigmatic message,” bearing witness to the Other’s unconscious, it cannot be reduced to an event in the reality of the actual interaction between child and his or her adults either.   Seduction is rather a kind of transcendental structure, the minimal a priori formal constellation . . . and we are never dealing here with simple “facts,” but always with facts located in the space of indeterminacy between “too soon” and “too late.” (20)

To translate the analogy for its impact of the Honneth reading, the transcendental aspect of the ontogenetic nature of recognition exists in the simultaneity—in opposition but not contradiction—of the empirical “fact” of our pre-cognitive childhood attunement to emotions, non-verbal communication, and intersubjectivity itself vis-à-vis the retroactive remembrance (or forgetfulness) of recognition as an ontological/categorical/structural necessity of our present moment being in the world.  Taken in this way, the empirical and ontological dimensions of recognition are but two sides of the mobeus strip of our strange human embodiment.  What Honneth’s account lacks is this identity itself—the minimal of the difference between the two meanings—what Zizek calls the “umbilical” connection across the gap, or the gap itself.  And it is this bit of flesh that is precisely what we must find to inject Honneth’s insights into the real world domain of transformative action.

      Raymond Geuss’s clear exposition of his reading and critique of Honneth helps to clarify these different levels of meaning in the relationship between the pre-epistemic phenomena of recognition (ontological) and the cognitively encoded praxis of the social structure (empirical).  Taking the lead from Dewey, Geuss’s primary concern (in his own work and in this critique) is the need for a “non-moralizing” critical social theory, which would replace the Manichean “good versus evil” logic of moral arguments proper, which according to Geuss Dewey attributes as the cultural products of power’s defense of “inegalitarian social structures.”  As such, Geuss treats Honneth’s argument for the primacy of recognition as an (ultimately failed) attempt at formulating such a critical theory.  He accepts Honneth’s clear division between a cognitive level of functioning and a prior level of recognition by situating Honneth’s work within Dewey’s concept of the Western tradition of “intellectualism,” in which the human capacity for reason is the definitive feature which guides and constrains our actions, and in relation to whose telos our desires, wants, and impulses receive human form.  Seen in this light, Honneth’s capitulation of phenomenology’s attempt to foreground the primordial affective background of human Being-in-the-World à la Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and others poses a strong ontological argument against the malaise identified by another tradition: the critical social theory of Marx’s alienation, Schiller’s fragmentation, and Durkheim’s anomie.  But for Geuss, this attempt fails:  the philosophical anthropology of the human dialectic between reason and pathos cannot solve the modern moral dilemma because the root level of human engagement cannot be assumed to be “positive.”  As Heidegger pointed out, ‘to love, to hate, or to be indifferent, detached, neutral, and so on are all ways of being ‘care-fully’ engaged.”  Thus, Geuss’s fundamentally anti-Kantian (and inherently Kantian) search for a non-moralistic alternative to the caprice of power’s myriad rational moralities finds in Honneth’s ontological/logical/structural explanation of reification no practical ramification potentially transformative of the human lifeworld; Honneth’s conception of the ethical elaboration of recognition’s ontological primacy in the societal norms—its sublimation into the ethical form or its “filling out” of that form—cannot ground a positive stance toward change.  In this way, Geuss points to a significant—perhaps the significant lacuna in Honneth’s argument: the problem is not specifically that recognition cannot be proven as positive rather than negative and it needs to be positive, but more generally how does coming into analytical awareness of the nature of reification affect any sort of dissolving of its ossified form?  In my view, Honneth does not stir this potential; he does not inspire.

      In a similar way, Judith Butler’s exploration and critique of Honneth’s text also confuses multiple levels of the meaning of primordial recognition that is set against the identification of reification as the fundamental social anomie of the modern age.  Whereas Geuss sought to apply Honneth’s strong claim—the ontological primacy of recognition—directly to a pseudo-ethical “non-moralistic” social critical theory (of change) and by this violation of the rank order fell into misunderstanding and lost the transformative power latent in Honneth’s exposition— Butler’s analysis grapples with what she sees as contradictions between the empirical level of reconciliation as studied in the pre-cognitively affective moment of infancy and the categorical meaning of reconciliation as the latent ground or the very potentiality of social, cognitive, and ethical praxis of adult life. 

      Firstly, like Geuss, Butler contrasts Honneth’s various characterizations of recognition—empathetic reciprocity, affective involvement, interrelatedness, care, affirmation of another’s existence, participation—to the various negative and positive modes of affectivity in which humans engage; and as with Geuss this rank order mistake is not an error of content—Butler is not mistaken to identify that Honneth does not explain how the aggression, possessiveness, and violence of an infant’s various desires (or our authetic modes of affective engagement) square with the priority of recognition.  Her mistake is rather different. 

If a normative value is to be derived from involvement, it is not because involvement presupposes a normative structure of genuine praxis, but because we are beings who have to struggle with both love and aggression in our flawed and commendable efforts to care for other human beings.  Thus, in my view, modes of involvement bear different moral meanings for us; they are bound by no single pregiven structure, relationship, or bond, much less a normative one, and that is why we are under a responsibility to negotiate among such involvements as best we can.  It is not a matter of returning to what we “really” know or undoing our deviation from the norm, but of struggling with a set of ethical demands on the basis of myriad affective responses that, prior to their expression in action, have no particular moral valiance. (104)

While Geuss cannot find in Honneth’s account of recognition a non-moralistic anchor for a global social critical theory, Butler bypasses the contradictory and indeterminate passionate core of human subjectivity en route to the moral quandary of cognitive-ethical life proper.  This is why she goes on to ask:

Why do we imagine that the primary structures of the social begin with the child?  With what social relations does the child begin?  What social relations make possible the emergence of the child, and what relations are in place, waiting for the child, when it emerges into the world? (108)

But as Honneth’s dependence on phenomenology should make clear, what primordial level of affective engagement refers to is the very fact of socialization itself; recognition is not the positive content that Honneth employs to render it accessible—recognition “is not” the empirical fact of an infant’s psychology and it is that it “is not” the intellectual theory of its categorical place in Heideggerian theory—nor it is, to go further, the properly ethical application of such a theory in the implementation of a moral system, a “struggle for recognition” or an attempt to expand its exercise.  Butler further clarifies her position (and error) on this point when she suggests that empiricism itself cannot be placed logically prior to (inductively as the reason for) its schematic “place” secondary to original affectivity.  How precisely could we actively “place” the our very potentiality as social creatures into any scientific methodology? 

      Against this, we should follow Honneth who allows recognition to exist in the simultaneity of its multiple levels of meaning such that the deductive and inductive relationships between empiricism and phenomenology form the two sides of a parallax.  The correspondence between these opposing faces is then the minimum of their difference: but how to entreat ourselves to feel this?  Butler herself begins to point the way toward the answer to this question, but in order to understand how, one final addendum needs to made of Butler’s critique of Honneth, and again it revolves around another—though more ambiguous—instantiation of the same typological error of conflating various meanings of recognition.  Until we correct this error, we will fails to see how her explorations of psychoanalysis, child development, and attachment theory help to make sense of the parallax of recognition’s productive potential. 

      These insights can be further developed through a jaunt through Merleau-Ponty and Lacan’s philosophies of being and a Zizekian interpretation of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men.  This way, we will see that unwritten puzzle of Honneth’s analysis is not: how can the inherent positive content of primordial recognition get up and shouts itself into the fabric of the societal sphere.  On the contrary, the puzzle is precisely the opposite:  how does any positive conception of recognition already lose sight of its intended object?  If reification is the loss of recognition, then it is the loss of the original loss; that is why reification is really the prototypical positivity—the meme of a positivist empiricism born in the interfolds of its inherent nothingness—taken to its extreme.  

On the turning away 
From the pale and downtrodden 
And the words they say 
Which we wont understand 
Don’t accept that what’s happening 
Is just a case of others suffering 
Or youll find that youre joining in 
The turning away 
Its a sin that somehow 
Light is changing to shadow 
And casting its shroud 
Over all we have known 
Unaware how the ranks have grown 
Driven on by a heart of stone 
We could find that were all alone 
In the dream of the proud 
On the wings of the night 
As the daytime is stirring 
Where the speechless unite 
In a silent accord 
Using words you will find are strange 
And mesmerized as they light the flame 
Feel the new wind of change 
On the wings of the night 
No more turning away 
From the weak and the weary 
No more turning away 
From the coldness inside 
Just a world that we all must share 
Its not enough just to stand and stare 
Is it only a dream that therell be 
No more turning away? 

- Pink Floyd 


      We will encounter the paradox of the dissolution of reification soon enough, but first we should run our anchor aground against some real life examples of what reification might be.  The myriad examples given through the Honneth text as to what precisely should and should not count as reification include everything from the shoah to the commodification of desire.  My selections are based on the following:  the fundamental orientation of reification is the denial/repression/ deferment of some unspecified openness whose lack has been closed off with positive content, a certain stuckness-in-itself, a choking of what otherwise could be. 

      Between the years of 1976 and 1982 approximately 30,000 people were killed or disappeared in what the military junta called “The National Reorganization Process.”  Read carefully the following account

The Argentine junta excelled at striking just the right balance between public and private horror, carrying out enough of its terror in the open that everyone knew what was going on, but simultaneously keeping enough secret that it could always be denied. . . . After that, the junta’s killings went underground, but they were always present.  Disappearances, officially denied, were very public spectacles enlisting the silent complicity of entire neighborhoods . . . The public character of terror did not stop with the initial capture.  Once in custody, prisoners in Argentine were taken to one of the more than three hundred torture camps across the country.  Many of them were located in densely populated residential areas; one of the most notorious was in a former athletic club on a busy street in Buenos Aires, another in a schoolhouse in central Bahia Blanca and yet another in the wing of a working hospital.  At these torture centers, military vehicles sped in and out at odd hours, screams could be heard through the badly insulted walls and strange, body-shaped parcels were spotted being carried in and out, all silently registered by the nearby residents. . . . . All Argentines were in some way enlisted as witnesses to the erasure of their fellow citizens, yet most people claimed not to know what was going on.  There is a phrase Argentines use to describe the paradox of wide-eyed knowing and eyes-closed terror that was the dominant state of mind in those years:  “We did not know what nobody could deny.”  (110-111, my emphasis)

A second example, paraphrased from by Zizek in The Parallax View: 

In her Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt describes the self-reflexive twist the Nazi executioners accomplished in order to be able to endure the horrific acts they performed:  most of them were not simply evil, they were well aware that they were doing things which brought humiliation, suffering, and death to their victims; the way they dealt with it was to accomplish the “Himmler trick,” so that, “instead o saying: What horrible things I did to people!, the murderers would be able to say:  What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!”  In this way, they were able to turn the logic of resisting temptation around:  the temptation to be resisted was the temptation to succumb to the very elementary pity and sympathy in the presence of human sufferings, and their “ethical” effort was directed toward the task of resisting this temptation not to murder, torture, and humiliate. (67)

In a third example, Robert MacNamara reflects on his World War II experience working to improve “efficiency” and “proportionality” as a logistic statistician, quoted from the film, The Fog of War

LeMay was focused on only one thing: target destruction.  Most Air Force Generals can tell you how many planes they had, how many tons of bombs they dropped, or whatever the hell it was.  But, he was the only person that I knew in the senior command of the Air Force who focused solely on the loss of his crews per unit of target destruction.

I was on the island of Guam in his command in March of 1945.  In that single night, we burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo: men, women, and children.  Well, I was part of a mechanism that in a sense recommended it.  I analyzed bombing operations, and how to make them more efficient, i.e., not more efficient in the sense of killing more but more efficient in weakening the adversary.  I wrote one report analyzing the efficiency of the B-29 operations.  The B-29 could get above the fighter aircraft and above the air defense, so the loss rate would be much less.  The problem was the accuracy was also much less

Now I don't want to suggest that it was my report that led to, I'll call it, the firebombing.  It isn't that I'm trying to absolve myself of blame.  I don't want to suggest that it was I who put in LeMay's mind that his operations were totally inefficient and had to be drastically changed.  But, anyhow, that's what he did.  He took the B-29s down to 5,000 feet and he decided to bomb with firebombs. 

I participated in the interrogation of the B-29 bomber crews that came back that night.  A room full of crewmen and intelligence interrogators.  A captain got up, a young captain said: "Goddammit, I'd like to know who the son of a bitch was that took this magnificent airplane, designed to bomb from 23,000 feet and he took it down to 5,000 feet and I lost my wingman.  He was shot and killed.  LeMay spoke in monosyllables.  I never heard him say more than two words in sequence.  It was basically "Yes," "No," "Yup," or "The hell with it." That was all he said.  And LeMay was totally intolerant of criticism.  He never engaged in discussion with anybody.  He stood up.  "Why are we here? Why are we here? You lost your wingman; it hurts me as much as it does you.  I sent him there.  And I've been there, I know what it is.  But, you lost one wingman, and we destroyed Tokyo." (Fog of War, my emphasis)

“We did not know what nobody could deny.”  “How heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!”  “It isn’t that I’m trying to absolve myself of blame.”  What is fundamentally characteristic of these examples is not the lack of some positive content of human recognition—some vacuum left in the wake of an annihilated compassion—but the presence of a false positive, the intrusion of a smear, a stain, a blot that stands for its opposite.  This perhaps gets to the heart of David Gilmour’s ironical intent in the line from “On the Turning Away,” “Don’t accept that what’s happening is just a case of the others suffering”:  wherein the positive “suffering” stands in as the positive content that masks itself in a double-reversal, like the man who hides behind a mask of his own face, presenting the facile reverse psychology of “Anything but that!” 


  2008.12.03  18.09
Part Two

      An excellent example of reification as the “loss of the loss” can be found in Susan Bordo’s second wave feminist critique of postmodernism.  In The Male Body, Bordo insightfully explores how tacit cultural norms of masculinity such as the perennial non-flaccid penis, the conflation of strength with violence, and sex as sexual performance dwell as embodied reality in men’s experience of themselves, their bodies, and their potentials.  In Unbearable Weight, Bordo explore similar Foucaultian themes—the slender body aesthetic, the physiological incubator essentialization of pregnant embodiment—but in the text’s final chapters takes a further, more radical step in her deconstruction of women’s embodiment within—what I will call—reifying social practices.  The explicitly defined embodiment of women and men as creatural wombs or endlessly erect and ready phalluses leaves an obvious and lucid duality between an authentic and contrived level of human experience—confronted precisely when our failure to achieve produces the limit of the signification.  Here, what is lost with the positivist projection explicit content is the very unspoken and unknown nothingness that it retains:  the “real” women or man of sensual embodiment that erupts in the negativity of emotional anguish or celebrative angst, a undifferentiated and creative influx of desire that returns us again to the loss.  Bordo radical next step consists of characterizing postmodernism’s ideal of pliable, multiplicitous, transformative freedom itself as the positive content that blots out the inherent “substanceless subjectivity” of its own innermost potential.  Here nothingness wears the mask of nothingness and it is the very impossibility of pure abstract freedom that finds its limit in freedom’s authentic core.  For Bordo, Madonna is the cultural icon par excellence for this ideal of pure freedom; she is the pop-cultural embodiment of postmodernism’s language of manifold potentialities, multiple locations, and kaleidoscopic identities, which reproduces, “on the level of discourse and interpretation, the same conditions that postmodern bodies enact on the level of cultural practice:  a construction of life as plastic possibility and weightless choice, undetermined by history, social location, or even individual biography” (251).  In this way, Madonna represents the parallax between Material Girl and Immaculate Conception—between the Virgin Mary of Christian theology and Mary Magdalene of Bethlehem:

None of this “materiality”---that is, the obsessive body-praxis that regulates and disciplines Madonna’s life and the lives of the young (and no so young) women who emulate her---makes its way into the representation of Madonna as postmodern heroine.  In the terms of this representation (in both its popular and scholarly instantiations) Madonna is “in control of her image, not trapped by it”; the proof lies in her ironic and chameleon-like approach to the construction of her identity, her ability to “slip in and out of character at will,” to defy definition, to keep them guessing.  In this coding of things, as in the fantasies of the polysurgical addict (and, as I argue elsewhere in this volume, the eating-disordered woman), control and power, words that are invoked over and over in discussions of Madonna, have become equivalent to self-creating.  Madonna’s new body has no material history; it conceals its continual struggle to maintain itself, it does not reveal its pain.  (Significantly, Madonna’s “self-expose,” the documentary Truth or Dare, does not include any scenes of Madonna’s daily workouts.) It is merely another creative transformation of an ever-elusive subjectivity.  “More Dazzling and Determined Not to Step Changing,” as Cosmopolitan describes Madonna:  “Whether in looks or career, this multitalented dazzler will never be trapped in any mold!” The plasticity of Madonna’s subjectivity is emphasized again and again in the popular press, particularly by Madonna herself.  It is how she tells the story of her “power” in the industry:  “In pop music, generally, people have on image.  You get pigeonholed.  I’m lucky enough to be able to change and still be accepted . . . play a part, change character, looks, attitudes.”   (272)

In a mocking ironic twist, the loss of the loss is performed by the insertion and embodiment of the positive content of subjectivity as such.  The repressed element—workout sessions, pain—is only hinted at by Bordo; Madonna leaves it unspoken: the pathological act of insemination behind the Material Girl’s Virgin Birth is that certain repressed falseness of truth’s fiction.  But to regain the loss is not to replace the positive content of freedom with its positivist opposite, the facticity of the material body.  It is rather something much more radical.   


      Butler covers similar ground in her essay, Gender Trouble.  For Butler, human experience and identity are prefigured through the conditioned limits of a hegemonic cultural discourse.  Following Foucault, Butler conceives of these limits as incorporated into the subject’s acts, gestures, and desires through the performance of a coherent structure of gendered acts.  This “inscription” of normative acts upon the body’s surface, so to speak, manufactures the illusion of an internal self—a soul—which is identified as a coherent unity lying behind the performance.  The importance of this explanation can be seen in Butler’s discussion of the subversive power of dressing in drag.  In the following quotation, this emancipatory potential is clear: 

The performance of drag plays upon the distinction between the anatomy of the performer and the gender that is being performed.  But we are actually in the presence of three contingent dimensions of significant corporeality:  anatomical sex, gender identity, and gender performance.  If the anatomy of the performer is already distinct from the gender of the performer, and both of those are distinct from the gender of the performance, then the performance suggests a dissonance not only between sex and performance, but sex and gender, and gender and performance.  As much as drag creates a unified picture of “woman” (what its critics often oppose), it also reveals the distinctness of those aspects of gendered experience which are falsely naturalized as a unity through the regulatory fiction of heterosexual coherence.  In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself—as well as its contingency.  Indeed, part of the pleasure, the giddiness of the performance is in the recognition of a radical contingency in the relation between sex and gender in the face of cultural configurations of causal unities that are regularly assumed to be natural and necessary.  In the place of the law of heterosexual coherence, we see sex and gender denaturalized by means of a performance which avows their distinctness and dramatizes the cultural mechanism of their fabricated unity. (42)

The gender-parody of drag thusly bends the interfolds of the “loss of the loss” back onto itself—mirroring the nothingness behind an essentialized gender in the glass of the performance’s nothingness as (performance); and recovering the nothingness “behind” biological sex in the further interplay of the subject’s radical self-annihilation.  Now we are already beyond reification, and on our way to understanding the radical underbelly of Honneth’s gesture to the phenomenological tradition.  The “self-annihilation” of parody follows the logic of good humor.  The cathartic power of Roberto Benigni’s La Vita è Bella, in which Benigni’s character is a father who is able to subvert the cruel totalitarian structure of a Nazi concentration camp and and thereby save his young son from the true ramifications of their victimhood through a powerful and dignifying use of humor.  As Zizek writes:

The comedy is the very opposite of shame:  shame endeavors to maintain the veil, while comedy relies on the gesture of unveiling . . . when, instead of a hidden terrifying secret, we encounter the same things behind the veil as in front of it, this very lack of difference between the two elements confronts us with the “pure” difference that separates an element from itself.  And is this not the ultimately definition of the divinity—God, too, has to wear a mask of himself? . . . In this precise sense, “God” names the supreme contradiction:  God—the absolute unrepresentable Beyond—has to appear as such.  (109)

      Of course, Butler’s concept of performativity and her gratitude for the transformative power of satire do not fall within the field of a tension between the authentic object of phenomenology and the reification of a single-minded social praxis:  for Butler the signification go all the way down.  This explains her skepticism regarding Honneth’s conceptualization of an authentic root of human experience as a space filled out by positive content—care, affective engagement, reciprocity, taking up another’s position, etc.  But it also leads to an ungenerous reading of Honneth’s formulation of recognition, a reading that ultimately draws attention away from her own powerful insights apropos of attachment theory and infant development.  As elaborated above, Butler conflates recognition’s meaning as a pre-epistemic category of the human embodiment with its ramifications as an ideal to be actualized in mature adult life—recognition’s ethical dimension that lies latent in Honneth very gesture.  By this logic, Butler’s presents a conflict between recognition as a “social a priori” and as an “empirically induced or facilitated mode of relationality.”  Her argument begins with a hyper-complex articulation of the requirements of recognition, fully filling the term out with positive content:

We seem to have these options:  we are recognitional if we are able to adopt the other’s point of view.  I gather that this is not the same as making the other’s point of view the same as my own; I do no “adopt” it in that sense.  And it must be possible to disagree with another and also to be able to “adopt his or her point of view” in the course of that disagreement.  So it seems to mean only, as Honneth has suggested, “understanding another’s reasons for action.”  Raymond Geuss has suggested that it means that “I cam compelled to take into account your desire. (111)

Butler proceeds by sharply contrasting insights from psychoanalysis and child psychology against this moral-ethical dimension of recognition’s meaning.  In early infancy, a child experiences a state of inchoate, chaotic desires—the subject “in bits and pieces” as Lacan put it—and it is only out of the midst of this nebulous mesh that ego-identity concretizes itself, and it is only on the basis of the stabilization of identity that a child can in later stages come to a mature stance of taking another’s position.  As Butler writes:

There are modes of mimetic involvement on the part of the child, ways of responding to smiles and touch, to laughter and to distress on the part of caregivers, and these primary impressions are part of what form the affective conditions of experience itself.  In fact, the very possibility of an “I” who understands his or her own motor capacity and articulations as his or her own is a later accomplishment . . . If that “I” is doubtless already formed through a mimeticism that precedes and inaugurates subject formation, then clearly that mimeticism is not the same as “adopting the perspective of the other.” (112)

But if we take Honneth’s gesture toward the phenomenology tradition as a way into understanding recognition as a fundamental openness to being—not as a positive ethical-cognitive content or even qualitatively described human experience but instead as the very nothingness of the loss which underlies the assertion of the positive content of reification, then the theories that Butler draws may provide something quite different from sharp contrast and contradiction.  Butler describes “primary modes of transitivity in which, for instance, the infant echoes the sounds that she or he receives, sustains a certain transitive relationship to surrounding voices” and cites the post-Lacanian theorist Mikkel Borsh-Jakobsen’s claim that “identification precedes the formation of the subject, and so that mimetic echo of the other . . . instigates the “I” who maintains, quite unconsciously, the trace of the Other at the basis of itself.”  Butler sums up her argument with the declaration:

The kinds of moral deliberations that adults conduct when they seek to understand the reasons why others act as they do are not analogous to what happens at the early stages of attachment, identification, and responsiveness.  Indeed, it seems not quite right to ask an infant to be fully responsive to alterity.  Nor does it seem quite right to find the incipient structure of morality in an infant’s efforts to secure its basic needs. (114)

But when the rational logic of the Nazi regime can only be asserted through the self-deception of the Himmler Trick, when statistical calculations and duty cast back the firebombing of millions into some residual existential pang, when we no longer know what we paradoxically cannot deny, when our freedom ossifies an empty ideal—then perhaps the time is ripe for regression to the “undifferentiated transitive receptivity” of an our original infantile experience.  And remember that this follows the structure of the parallax.  The flashback interlude in Fitzgerald’s two-edition novel was simultaneously the protagonist’s biographical beginning and his latent dreamscape.  Its divinity lay somewhere in the gap between the two—or rather, it was the gap, the very nothingness of its self-annihilation.  To laugh, as in parody or satire, to step back from formulations, to ease up, to smile, to listen, to return to the primal rhythms of our mutual togetherness—perhaps this is what we mean by nothingness.  At any rate, the ontological reality of recognition cannot be actively employed by a structuralist ethics.  Its emergence is rather something very different. 

      Although Honneth’s original guiding concern in the exploration of the concept of reification was the experience of the shoah and the impossible gap maintained by Nazi soldiers between their inherent human potential—socialized as soldiers, husbands, father, etc.—and the bleak insanity achieved in the pursuance of their roles in the clockworks of the Nazi project, he makes clear that the moral or ethical valiance of an act is a secondary element to the primordial “ontological mistake” wherein a contemplative, detached, quantifying, and emotionless attitude casts human life in a net of thing-like identifications as resources, objects, means, profit opportunities—as mere terms for egocentric calculations—which, furthermore, through their routine repetition and subsequent generalization are thereby adopted or internalized as a sort of “second nature” that—significantly—“reaches far too deep into our habits and modes of behavior . . . to be able to be simple reversed by making a corresponding cognitive correction” (25).  This is the ambivalence that Butler exploited.  Is it enough to simply identify a logically/structurally necessary level of recognition and to demonstrate an original human openness to being in the descriptive science of infant psychology?  Is it enough to theorize accurately the cruel “turning away” from basic human recognition?  The one unspoken commonality all of our authors share is simple.  One latent desire left strangely unarticulated (estranged) behind the verbiage of their theory:  What does it take to assert the return of the loss? 

      The strong question is not how it is that a primary level of recognition can actively reassert its positive content—this is why the reality of infantile aggression does not subvert Honneth’s basic premise.  The question is far more radical and prospective:  When and how does the moment arise when a person awakens from the matrix of ossified, reified, depersonalized relations?  How and when does a rebirth of humanizing consciousness erupt from the closed system of its pregnant latency?  Under what circumstances does the network of single-minded instrumentalism enacted through a reification of the subject break down and come undone?  When does the very being in the nothingness of an annihilated subject—caught in empty mediation of a reifying rational system—flip over and reveal its squirming undifferentiated plentitude, its overabundance of life?  This is why the cathartic experience captured in Harville Hendrix’s introductory quote is critical here.  This is not to propose an empty circulation and a simple duality:  The desublimated Thing does not simply re-assimilate into the Law of Old through an identical secondary sublimation:  a rupture must occur, a radical break that will change everything.  The turning over reveals our creatural belly; it is a fundamentally feminine act:  the opening up of one’s soft innermost core.  This is far from the proto-fascist tyranny of non-violence “at any cost”; it is rather a break down of all cost assessment as such.   Anything taken to its extreme becomes its opposite and that which is subtle is most powerful.  Any ethical argument for the proper sublimation of unkempt aggressiveness must itself first be founded upon the primary human capacity of worldly and a creaturely openness.  Otherwise it is no more than an assertion of another rational-ethical system of thought, potent with a latent potential for reification—crisp with an exoskeleton of proto-fascist potential. 

      This is why Honneth himself has to be carefully dealt with.  What Ayn Rand and Honneth may both share is a tendency to sacrifice their insights to the dogmatism of totalizing rational completeness.  At least we must be cautious with any theory that attempts to pinpoint with positive descriptive content the core of our being.  So, for example, apropos of the preceding discussion, one contrarian example Butler employed might be duly noted:

If it is possible to be passionately detached—as it is, for instance, when one breaks off a relation and resolves to go about one’s life without the offending person at issue—and if it is possible to “want to be use” (that is, to be an instrument for another’s pleasure, and to enjoy one’s instrumentality for that purpose), then it seems that we cannot rigorously separate the instrumental from the engaged. (107)

We could add to these examples the violent love of the brothers in A River Runs Through It (1992) when brothers Normon and Paul explode in a fury of fists over a complex entanglement of desires—jealousy, admiration, sympathy, anger.  We might also suggest the prototypical violence of love exhibited in the fight between Enkidu and Gilgamesh who find everlasting friendship tumbling in a (to modern ears) homoerotic display of power, mutual recognition, and homicidal intend—in their fight “dancing the dance of life that hover close to death” (53).  This is why—as Honneth makes clear—the issue of recognition and reification refers to a different sphere of human experience from, as Butler so eloquently describes, the moral struggle “with a set of ethical demands on the basis of myriad affective responses that, prior to their expression in action, have no particular moral valiance” (104). 

      In this way we can easily see the basic problem in Jonathan Lear’s uptake on Honneth’s argument.  Lear’s article, “The Slippery Middle,” plays off the apparent ambiguity of recognition as an apparently benevolent skill set.  Firstly, he questions the place of infantile aggression—Winnicott’s exploration of neonatal hate—within the genetic case of recognition.  Second, he distinguishes “recognition-as-sine-qua-non for any development at all” (recognition1) from recognition as a paradigm for healthy human development (recognition2)—in terms of which formulation a cruel narcissist could achieve on the basis of recognition1 (the minimal conditions for developing as a social animal) the ability to use affectively flat but instrumentally precise recognition skills such as to be “deployed in the service of treating people as means to their ends” (135). Thus, the presence of recognition1 at the ontogenetic origins of human development would not necessarily imply the actualization of recognition2 in its full adult maturity. 

      Whatever Honneth’s mistakes in the presentation of the priority of recognition—surely he misleads readers as to the power of the phenomenological tradition by the graceless way that he gestures at a pre-ontological realm of receptivity—a generous hermeneutic (one with a deep understanding of the insights of the phenomenological tradition) would not so grossly misinterpret what it means to ground the possibility of moral action: recognition does not provide the positive content for moral choice, as if waiting dormant for a future spontaneous readymade entrance into adult life; to the contrary, recognition opens up the very possibility of entering into engagement with the existential moral dilemma of human life, while reification is precisely the dogmatic turning away from the very fluidity and uncertainty of this process.  Lear writes:

If we are motivated to look away from our own aggressive tendencies and conflicts, theory—whether it be philosophy or social critique or psychology—can be unwittingly complicit by encouraging us to think that the real problem lies not with us, but with the current social function. (140)

But it is precisely this looking away that we are associating with reification.  The Nazi ideology was not one of overt and purely negative destructiveness; on the contrary, the constructive process of nation-building which catapulted Hitler into stardom as Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year” (1933) was the morally positive site for the fixation of German libidinal energies.  Likewise, the self-righteous narrative of America as purveyor of revolutionary freedom underlies our nation’s continued fixation on the process of nation-building in Iraq.  Like the deaths of over one million Iraqi’s, the repressed history of fear and revolt that underlies America’s patriotic textbook history of conquest (captured obliquely through the Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s brilliant—and hilarious—comedic animated sketch in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11) is the stuck element that must be obverted before any moral reconciliation can occur.  Like the textbook Modernism, it seems that Lear recapitulates the pop-Piagetian linear narrative of a child who moves sequentially from irrationality to rationality; whereas, it is precisely an excess of rationality which renders the pathological purely evil, as with the clearly lucid sociopath who shamelessly describes his deeds.  The primary characteristic which separates the egotist from the sociopath is that the egotist is generally open to his own libidinal excesses (which he embraces with a child’s incipient embarrassment); whereas, the sociopath has disassociated from even his own desire (and thus consequence itself):  it is precisely his lack of shame that makes him a monster.  As we will see, shame itself can announce the return of the loss, that dissolution into receptive quaking openness.    


      As in Marx, whose subject sits at the crux of its exploitation before the transcendent cycling of Capital as such, for Lukacs the subject of reification exists at the point of its own loss—its absorption—in the methodical cognitive routines of capitalism’s calculating logic.  Is this deconstruction of the self’s substantial qualities into the “substanceless subject” of the movement of a transcendent dialectic not the same reduction as the Cartesian subject who knows naught but that he knows his knowing?  In Jacques Lacan’s formulation, the formation of the subject as the “active annihilation”—the self-mediation of “I see myself seeing” (that “throws the subject toward the transforming historical action, and, around this point, orders the configured modes of active self-consciousness through its metamorphoses in history”)—is born from the split (“primal separation”) within the subject when the gaze of the other takes him up as a visible object (within the scoptic field).  While “from the first moment that this gaze appears, the subject tries to adapt himself to it, he becomes that punctiform object, that point of vanishing being with which the subject confuses his own failure” (226)—that is, the failure to fully assimilate into the objectifying logic of the Gaze (the adoption of the Law of the Father, the castration of the phallus) his own enduring, inapprehensible remainder, namely my own Gaze itself, i.e., the objet a:  “It is here that I propose that the interest the subject takes in his own split is bound up with that which determines it—namely, a privileged object, which has emerged from some primal separation, from some self-mutilation induced by the very approach of the real . . .” (225).  Thus, in the folding in onto oneself through the Other’s Gaze is formed a two-part parallax of selfhood:  the punctiform vanishing point of one’s retreating ontological being before the objectifying force of the all-consuming Gaze and one’s very failure at self-annihilation itself—between the annihilation of the subject in the eternal mediation of its self-enfolded see myself seeing ($) and the nothingness whose shadow is precisely that obtrusive and unkempt remainder (la petite objet a).  Merleau-Ponty’s notes at the end of his unfinished work, The Visible and the Invisible, which Lacan references in the preceding commentary—describe this same phenomenon, this failure, this “privileged object” awoken by the “very approach of the real.”  In the following excerpt, Merleau-Ponty explores intercorporeal interplay between the seer and the visible and notes how out of the concentric folds of being flies a strange little creature—who to reality remains out of step and yet its innermost part:

“The seer is of the visible (is of it), is in the longation of the signs of the visible body, in dotted lines (visible for another)—to tell the truth even for the other is it properly speaking visible as a seer?—No in the sense that it is always a little behind what the other sees—to tell the truth neither behind, nor in front, nor where the other looks. 

It is always a little further than the spot I look at, the other looks at, that the seer I am is—Posed on the visible, like a bird, clinging to the visible, not in it.  And yet in chiasm with it— (261, my emphasis)

      In order to understand the use of such abstract formulations for a theory of reification, we must make note—as both Lacan and Merleau-Ponty make note—that this interplay and its remainder is not solely a flesh of knowledge or vision, but also of our very bodily affectivity and desire.  As such, Merleau-Ponty identifies the chiasmatic structure again in the interplay between the touched and the touching of one’s hands clasped together

The flesh of my fingers = each of them is phenomenal finger and objective finger, outside and inside of the finger in reciprocity, in chiasm, activity and passivity coupled . . . Local self of the finger: its space is felt-feeling . . .” (261) 

Likewise Lacan emphasizes the predominance of shame and non-visual modes of intersubjectivity (e.g., the sound of rustling leaves at an intruders approach) in Sartre’s discussions of the Gaze, stating that it is “not a seen gaze, but a gaze imagined by me in the field of the Other” which is thoroughly interpenetrated by desire.  This formulation runs parallel to what the Mirror stage demonstrates, that every object has an anthropomorphic or “egomorphic” character that is the externalization of the inner incoherence of perception and desire that attempts stabilization through identification.  The privileged objet a, the whittled down but ever-irrepressible remainder (the polite but ever-disobedient excess), is that glut of shame, that inescapable presence of “something more” which will not collapse into visibility (its positive content) as a self-effacing “see myself seeing”, that awkward twitch that has to be ignored:

At the moment when he has presented himself in the action of looking through a keyhole.  A gaze surprises him in the function of voyeur, disturbs him, overwhelms him and reduces him to a feeling of shame.  The gaze in question is certainly the presence of other as such.  But does this mean that originally it is in the relationship of subject to subject, in the function of the existence of others as looking at me, that we apprehend what the gaze really is?  Is it not clear that the gaze intervenes here only in as much as it is not the annihilating subject, correlative of the world of objectivity, who feels himself surprised [startled, shamed], but the subject sustaining himself in a function of desire? . . . It is not precisely because desire is established here in the domain of seeing that we can make it vanish?  (227)

Let us recall Zarathustra exhortation, “Let my pride follow my folly” and its precise moment:  after he came to the comic realization that the only man to comprehend his message was the dead circus performer.  Stepping across threshold from the restroom and to the bustling café, my hand checks my pants zipper.  More important than making objet a vanish—it is clear that it won’t!—is the ability to laugh in its face.  Lacan attests to the deep-seated human need to maintain a stable ego-identity when he says: 

Of all the objects in which the subject may recognize his dependence in the register of desire, the gaze is specified as unapprehensible.  That is why it is, more than any other object, misunderstood, and it is perhaps for this reason, too, that the subject manages, fortunately, to symbolize his own vanishing and punctiform bar in the illusion of the consciousness of seeing oneself seeing oneself, in which the gaze is elided. (226)

But when our ego-identification with the Law of the Big Other beyond stability to stagnation—in hyper-allegiance to the National Socialist Party, The National Reorganization Process, the Good Old US of A, or masculinity itself—then we must happily admit to ourselves that there is a time to drop the ball, to fall down, and to laugh.  It is in just such a passive act of non-action that our primal openness to the world can erupt its strange remainder.  Like the yogi who accomplishes her greatest spiritual feat by telling “inappropriate” jokes (wherein comedic divinity erupts in the interstitial space between the “as is” and “as if” of the appropriate/inappropriate split), what if MacNamara for a moment cast his dignity aside and mocked his own cruelty?  It is precisely in his all-too-dignified persona that he be-lies the lie of his non-dignity—the nothingness that clings like a strange bird to the taught wire of his reified being.  That is the gain in the return to the loss.  As Zizek writes: 

First I sacrifice all I have for the Cause-Thing which is more to me than my life; what I then get in exchange for this sacrifice is the loss of this Cause-Thing itself.” (80)

      For me, there is no more sublime cinematographic moment than that at the apogee of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, when at the very peak of thematic tension, when the fragile unnamed infant is in the arms of the character most consumed by a singular libidinal identification (Theo says “You don’t even know what you’re doing,” and Luke replies “No, look around you.  It’s the Uprising!”), a sudden and unexpected release gives way to a profound and perfect stillness.  Is this not the same moment as when Moses with all of Pharoah’s armies at his back parts the waves and walks calmly across the ocean bed?  Or in the Bhagavad-Gita when Arjen finally gives himself over to the great chaotic patricidal war that has divided his family and it is this paradoxical moment that he finds path of compassion offered by Krshna?  Is it not the same phenomena that Paulo Coelho’s portrays in The Alchemist wherein it is precisely when Santiago finally gives up his search that he finally finds what he has so long sought?  Perhaps this is why conversion must first take the form of a challenge: for it is the sacrificial gesture that gives rise to its sublime result—the paradox of the Beatitudes: that the meek with inherit the Earth.  And is not the pathetic figure of the Muselman—the Jew too weak to be put to work and so sent directly to the gas chamber or laboratory—is not she the the most damnable, shameful remainder of our modern Capitalist myth:

Consequently, is not the paradox of the Muselmann that this figure is simultaneously life at its zero-level, a total reduction to life, and a name for the pure excess as such, excess deprived of its “normal” base? . . . When we are confronted with a Muselmann, we precisely cannot discern in his face the trace of the abyss of the Other in his or her vunerability, addressing us with the infinite call of our responsibility—what we get is a kind of blank wall, a lack of depth.  Maybe the Muselmann is thus the zero-level neighbor, the neighbor with whom no empathic relationship is possible.  At this point, however, we again confront the key dilemma:  what if it is precisely in the guise of the “faceless” face of a Muselmann that we encounter the Other’s call at its purest and most radical?  What if, facing a Muselmann, we are made aware of our responsibility toward the Other at its most traumatic?  In short, what about bringing together Levinas’s face and the topic of the “neighbor” in its strict Freudo-Lacanian sense, as the monstrous, impenetrable thing that is the Nebenmensch, the Thing that hystericizes and provokes me?  What if the neighbor’s face stands neither for my imaginary double/semblant nor for the purely symbolic abstract “partner in communication,” but for the Other in his of her dimension of the Real?  (Zizek, 112)

The Gaze is ultimately a field of my own desire, which when lost, when folded in upon itself in the mediation of objectivity, leaves behind its excess in the remainder of my irrepressible subjectivity.  The shaming of the irrevocable reality of the Muselmann, like the intrusion of the a spectral eye into the mind of a clandestine voyeur, returns the subject back from his fantasmatic deferral/repression/denial in the positive projection of the objective field, returns him back from the mediating of abstract consciousness and introduces him (baptizes him?) in the self-conscience-ness of shame.  In this reversal, the loss of the loss is split and unraveled. Pre-epistemic being-with surrounds me in wake of awkward mortification.

      In the psychic calculus of Cuarón’s near-future science fiction universe, it is the revolutionary Fishes who are the furthest removed from the latent meaningfulness of the infant.  Is it not unsurprising, then, to note that their rational program to incite “The Uprising” hides this latent meaningfulness behind a mask of itself?  It is the Fishes who initiate Kee’s escape into Britain in the name of a rendez-vous with the enigmatic Human Project, but this presentation of the baby’s value is a moralistic and positivistic “use of” which blots out most repressively its underlying mirror opposite, the irrepressible life force that finally escapes the mechanics of power in the film’s finale.  The life-sucking hypocrisy of the revolutionary group is satirized by their aqueous animal name and symbolized by the barn scene (superficially an image of hearty earthiness), wherein Kee’s unveiling is juxtaposed against the milking machine and its attached cows.  The machines are designed to suck four teats so that each cow has four of its eight teats removed to fit the machine.  Kee demands, “Why not make machines that such eight titties, eh?”  This single-minded focus and its birth into positivity qua the loss folded into its own loss can be read in the following exchange, in which the rebel leader, Luke, having looked into the baby’s face struggles to maintain his ideological composure (pulling off his own version of the Himmler Trick):

Luke:  I was carrying the baby up the stairs—I started crying.  I’d forgotten how beautiful they are! . . . [burst of gun fire; Luke shooting] . . . Julian was wrong.  She thought it could be peaceful.  But how can it be peaceful when they try to take away your dignity?! . . .[Theo attempts to leave the room with the baby and Kee] Stop right there! [pointing gun] We need the baby—we need him!!

Theo:  It’s a girl, Luke

Luke:  A girl?  I had a sister . . .  [Theo, Kee, and baby leave room, Luke turns and shoots at them as they depart]

Is this not precisely the struggle within reification, which in its double enfolding contains recognition in the nothingness of its unraveling.  Here, authenticity exists in the ellipses that follow Luke’s cathartic moments.  This is the radical meaning of recognition.

      Theo’s role as caretaker to the pregnant Kee and her infant—in contrast to the mask of reification separating Luke from his own unraveling—is made possible by his external position, his lack of indoctrination, his obstinate and dark humor, and his very resignation to the value of life itself.  Theo is drawn into game by no more than the promise of monetary compensatory—or as he teases, sex: “You were the activist; I thought I was just trying to get laid.”  Then even this libidinal attachment is cut with Julian’s death.  Meanwhile, Theo’s quick, banal wit— “You have something on your teeth”; “Your breath stinks”—gives him the comedic distance necessary to recuperate strength, and it is interesting that he regresses into fatalism only when Jasper is there like a Master to bring him back to life with a joke: “You know what?” he tells Jasper, “It was too late before the infertility thing happened for fuck’s sake.”  Let us not forget in this connection that Theo’s own child died in the Flu Epidemic of 2008.  Theo’s fatalism and his humor are of the same substance:   “Why don’t you come and live with us?” Jasper asks; Theo replies, “Then I wouldn’t have anything to look forward to.”  Interestingly (and not without foreshadowing), when this sardonic wit turns on the power structure it comes across boldly like drag:

Nigel:  That thing in Madrid was such a blow to Art.

Theo:    Not to mention to people.

The minimal difference Theo asserts in not taking himself—or anything—seriously is most apparent when exemplified by the blatant contrast in his externality to the Fishes’ ideology.  It is only he who is stupid enough to suggest apropos of the infant’s existence:  “You should make it public.  Whatever your political opinions are, it doesn’t matter.” 

      The difference between the aristocratic world of Nigel’s inner sanctum and the radical hypocrisy of the Fishes’ at-any-cost mean-ends analysis, on the other hand, can be seen as the difference between Howard Roark and Ellsworth Toohey.  Whereas Toohey and Luke belong to a world of explicit justification whose violence emerges as a kind of continually elided Freudian slip, Roark and Nigel celebrate their power in perfect identification with subjectivity as such:  like Bordo’s postmodern subject they live an immaculate existence in a world detached from their own materiality.  Roark is a rogue, forever misunderstood in his solitude; Nigel lives in a state of real cynicism (think “real abstraction”) in which even the meaning of Pink Floyd’s “Pig on the Wing” is absorbed into the abstract of “art for art’s sake” (a certain play on the Cartesian thought thought) and in which his lone companion is his autistic son—incidentally, one of Honneth’s illustrations as to reification’s unique personality.  Like Roark, Nigel has this to say to in the face of Theo’s nausea:

Theo:  You kill me.  In one hundred years there won’t be one sad fuck to look at any of this.  What keeps you going?

Nigel:  You know what it is, Theo?  I just don’t think about it.

      In contrast to these extremes, Theo’s position is the paradox of Sid’s embodiment in the system, perhaps its desirous remainder (Theo’s objet a to Sid’s $):  the code words “You fascist pig” are thus uttered from a position of self-sacrifice to a position of empty power.  Sid does no more than play his part while Theo exploits (by entering into) this inherent gap within.  This is where Theo’s surplus of luckiness fits into the Lacanian puzzle:  dogs and cats are mysteriously attracted to him; he wins unnecessarily as a gambler.  And thus the pregnant Kee “escapes” into the refugee camp—Kee, who considered Quietus, the commercially available suicide drug, before her baby kicked and she said to herself, “It is alive.  And me, too, I am alive!”—Kee who has the humor to joke that she was a virgin but who (of course) is not a virgin.  And then her baby is born; that which is beyond all control erupts. 

      The laughter of children, featured in the film’s opening and closing credits, bookending the narrative within the more encompassing reality of its primordial importance, takes the same position as the ambient sound of Argentina’s torture victims.  As Miriam—midwife who was among the first to witness the infertility—says, “As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in—very odd what happens in a world without children’s voices.”  Just as the Latin American victims “Did not know what they could not deny,” capitalism and its revolutionary opposite both took on reifying forms that manifested in reality the abstraction of their projected aims:  on one hand, Nigel’s art for art’s sake, the very emptiness of Capital’s subjectification of the self, its “Thou Shalt Enjoy” (as Lacan quips elsewhere); on the other hand, the materialist abstraction of sacrifice in the name of life.  In contrast to these dis-ruptions, the unnamed child’s emergence marks the full force gale of confrontation with the Real, of the divinity that lies in the interstitial space of Merleau-Ponty’s flesh.  A split in the field of conflict, ideology, and frantic libidinal attachment creates from out of this field of logical possibility the irrational, unkempt, and impolite assertion of impossibility: the overflow from the proverbial cup.  In the end, rocking in fog and waves, and dying, Theo relinquishes everything.  But through his sacrifice:  a break, a rupture that changes everything.  The fighter jets fly overhead to put down The Uprising, but Theo’s lost son is reborn.  This is the rebirth of desire itself. 



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    Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. (1964). The Visible and the Invisible.  Northwestern University Press: Evanston, Illinois. 

    The Fog of War: Eleven lessons from the life of Robert S. MacNamara.  (2003) directed by Errol Morris.  Sony Pictures.

    Pink Floyd.  (1987) Momentary Lapse of Reason. “On the Turning Away.” Columbia Records.

    Rand, Ayn.  (1952).  The Fountainhead.  Signet: New York City.

    Zizek, Slavoj. (1996).  The Parallax View.  MIT Press: Cambridge.


  2008.11.01  22.53
Yearning & Learning

Remember?  Chris and I spoke about Palestine in front of Rocketstar --- in 2005.  Hamas was elected to leadership.  A dark cloud of violence brooded on the near horizon.  I spoke of democratic authenticity.  He spoke so poetically of the "life world."  He apologized for being simple and gallantly stood up for the simple core of our basic humanity.  To tend the vineyards and the olive trees.  To marry a woman and watch your babies grow.  We came to loggerheads. 

I just lost a girl.  I had harbored resentments over politics, over Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman.  I let these resentment pollute my love and a shroud was cast like a net over our freedom together.  Soon Laura was on guard, holding her tongue to avoid my judgment, then closing down emotionally.

In the aftermath, the lessons. 

The world is filled with frustrations, violence, horror.  Human error and malice outdo much of the good will that stands in the darkness.  Oh, but this war of good and evil, I finally understand, I finally understand so deeply, it is fought in the only way it can be fought.  The hearts of all men, all women, strike out against the world.  Close to their breasts hang the gods and tokens of their courage and hope.  The nothingness sits at the root of their being.  Our prodigious evil and our prodigious good sprout out of us like strange gargoyles and unknown demons.  Oh, we simple creatures are everywhere the same.  Though we may dream for peace in the solitude of our hearts, the Great Chaos does not follow our command.  So put aside for a second this question of right action and falsehood.  None could be but for the unkempt and imperfect gift of our very being.  

How can I look upon any creature in the world and not see the raw dignity of its struggle?  How can I take sides or foreswear in righteous defiance the mistakes and misdeeds of humanity?

There is no ignoble act. 

If the phenomenology of perception identified the primacy of embodiment over epistemology, then this is its primacy over the ethical.  No right, no ideology, no idea, no method, no principle—no small object thought by humble man—can stand above the fundamental gift of life itself.  As the Medieval scholars argued that evil made free choice possible, as Kant saw a contingent intellect ever-reaching for the transcendent thing.  As the book of Urantia clarifies, God’s existence can only be known through the gift of our limited personal experience.  This the primacy of our basic humanity over the ethical. 

I understand now that I must return home now, to tend my own flock, to care for my gardens, to value the humanity of those I love above all else.  In the end we return to the Shire.  The shire of our own hearts.  The heartland of our own values.  The watershed of our personal truths.  The cavities of our individual existential yearnings. 

This quaking nothingness at the birth of all being.

And so . . . Thank you, oh Lord, for this raw severance and the sweet fulfillment which it dissolved.  Thank you that I traveled to the deep core of my fullest fantasies, breathed confidence into my maddest desires, broadened and widened the grand roads of my innermost citadel. 

Oh, Dear Lord, tear down every ossified mortar of my being!   Let the worms and demons and monsters of my soul run through the streets and fly through the Autumn trees!  Oh sickness, death, decay, atrophy, degeneration!  Bring me forever again and again to the brink of despair.  Let me sit on the threshold between life and death.  Give me unto the precipice.  Let me stand at lowest tide and feel the mighty ocean growling and growing with feverish love! 

The blood of Christ spilled for me.  His footsteps breaking the path before me.  The exquisite Godhood erupting in wave after wave, breaking and reaching and rushing and breathing.  I take in the blood and body in the sun and waves.  I breathe his Grace in the stale city air.  I find his heartsong in the striving of my mind.  Everywhere is full of Love.  Of open potential, freedom, and givenness.  There is a sunbeam bursting from my heart while starlight is teeming amidst the objects of my sight. 

Break me open endlessly again.  Erase the last moment and explode the monument I have built.  Breathe and pulse and writhe and swoon in the tireless oscillations of this inner now.  Do not hope.  Do not pray.  Do not trust, force, manipulate, scheme or blame. 

Instead.  Faith.  In the dignity and nobility of my heart.  Praise.  For the gift of all being.  Embrace.  For this is my life!


  2008.10.06  03.05
Ralph Nader On Finance and Fascism

". . . the first step is to slow down Congress. Once this bill is passed—and it’s a blanket bill. It’s only four pages, Amy, four pages of a $700 billion blank check, transferring congressional authority wholesale, and I think unconstitutionally, to the White House, King George IV at work again. Once it passes, then the chance for comprehensive regulation and all the other changes to make Wall Street accountable, instead of allow Wall Street to create a corporate state or what Franklin Delano Roosevelt called fascism, which is government controlled by private economic power, represented by people like Henry Paulson—once this happens, it’s not going to be reversible."

9-25-08, Interview with Amy Goodman & Arun Gupta



  2008.10.06  03.04
A New 1st: Dedicated US Federal Troops on American Soil.

". . . this new mission marks the first time an active unit has been given a dedicated assignment to NorthCom, a joint command established in 2002 to provide command and control for federal homeland defense efforts and coordinate defense support of civil authorities. . . . "

" . . . The 1st of the 3rd is still scheduled to deploy to either Iraq or Afghanistan in early 2010, which means the soldiers will have been home a minimum of 20 months by the time they ship out . . . "

". . . They may be called upon to help with civil unrest and crowd control or to deal with potentially horrific scenarios such as massive poisoning and chaos in response to a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high-yield explosive, or CBRNE, attack."



  2008.10.06  03.03
Do Free Trade & Democracy Go Hand in Hand?

Peter Thiel, President of Clarium Capital Management, interview on the Hoover Institute's Common Knowledge, July 28, 2004

We're not investing in China at all. I mean, we think that it's still a very corrupt political regime and that it's basically going to be a game of where the insiders are going to make out like bandits and the outsiders are going to do very well to get their money back. But I think Craig's larger point is well taken, which is they have a powerfully growing economy. However, I would not be so sanguine about decoupling that from the political issue because THERE WAS A COMMUNIST MODEL THAT FAILED AND A CAPITALIST MODEL THAT SUCCEEDED. BUT THERE WAS ALSO A FASCIST MODEL, WHICH FAILED ONLY BECAUSE OF WOLRD WAR II. The economies of the fascist countries in the 1930s were actually doing quite well.


  2008.10.06  03.03
from New Left Review, May of 2006, Robin Blackburn

What I should have been reading a year ago:

"With direct access to sub-prime mortgages, the banks and hedge funds could thus bundle together and divide up the debt into ten tranches, each of which represents a claim over the underlying securities but with the lowest tranche representing the first tenth to default, the next tranche the second poorest-paying, and so on up to the top tenth. Borrowers who can only negotiate a sub-prime mortgage have either poor collateral or poor income prospects, or both, and so are required to pay over the odds. Of course the bottom tranche—designated the equity—has very weak prospects but can still be sold cheaply to someone as a bargain. The top tranches, and even many of the medium ones, will be far more secure yet will pay a good return. (Here, in contradistinction to Arrighi and Pollin’s categories, we have an instance of financial profits generated by a function internal to finance itself.) As the chief executive of a mortgage broker explains: ‘Sub-prime mortgages are the ideal sector for the investment banks, as their wider margins provide a strong protected cash-flow, and the risk history has been favourable. If the investment bank packages the securities bonds for sale, including the deeply subordinated risk tranches, it can, in effect, lock in a guaranteed return with little or no capital exposure.’ [11] For such reasons Morgan Stanley purchased Advantage Home Loans, Merrill Lynch bought Mortgages plc and Lehman Brothers acquired Southern Pacific Mortgages and Preferred Mortgages. European banks’ like abm–Amro have developed an interest in micro-credit in Africa, which links them to the world of sub-prime lenders: financial techniques allow them to reap exceptional rates of return from repackaging the debts of the very poor. [12] While Western governments boast of forgiving African debt, Western banks get their hooks into loans to the poor."


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