politics

What does it mean to ‘do’ ethics?

As I’ve mentioned before, my job at Chichester is to design a BA in Philosophy and Ethics. In the past I’ve been a TA on ethics modules at Durham. I’ve also taught modules that deal with ethics at Roehampton. ‘Human Rights and Religion’ isn’t an ethics course, but there is a strong ethics component (discussions of otherness, end of life issues, etc.). The same could be said for ‘Religion and Violence’ in which we spent a third of the term effectively discussing whether or not one could ever ethically engage in violent actions.

But I’ve never really stopped to consider the nature of ethics as such. I was unpacking my office the other day and came across Badiou’s Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. I haven’t read Badiou since the beginning of my PhD (2009) and I had forgotten how seductive he could be.

For Badiou, we do not have ‘an’ ethic. There are always ‘ethics’. Or, put another way, we always have an ethic of truths. Ethics are not an end in themselves, but describe a relation to truth. As Peter Hallward summarises in the introduction:

An ethic of truths, then, is designed to cultivate: a sense of discernment (do not confuse the true and the false); courage and endurance (do not betray the true); moderation and restraint (resist the idea of total or ‘substantial’ truth).

Badiou’s analysis of contemporary ethics continues to be compelling, particularly his point about ethics privileging evil over good. He’s more or less restating the difference between positive and negative freedom – too much of our analysis of rights and cultural difference (the two dominant themes of contemporary ethics in Badiou’s mind) focuses on minimising evil rather than maximising good.

In the course of this small book, two things stand out. First, ethics are a process or mode of deliberation, rather than a set of established values. Ethics rooted in natural law, for example, are insufficient for they always reinscribe the ‘state of the situation’. Here, Badiou articulates a view close to the way I want to read Hegel. There is a fundamentally contingent and tenuous process which we can observe and describe, but remains uncontrollable. There is a persistent and disruptive negativity which unsettles any attempt to cease the process.

Second, Badiou argues that ethics must proceed with the aim of being indifferent to difference. This point is at the heart of his dismissal of multiculturalism. Badiou is more less in agreement with one of Zizek’s more controversial points – the critique of identity politics (an excellent rebuttal to Zizek can be found here). In the rush to identify a universal political project, both Badiou and Zizek conflate identity politics and recognition, which only further confuses the issue. Leaving Zizek to the side for the moment, I want to briefly try to redeem part of Badiou’s argument.

Badiou seems to argue that differences are inconsequential. An alternative way of reading his argument would be to claim that differences are either inconsequential or identifications of truths. Take homosexuality – debates focusing on sexual difference/sameness would seem to indulge in the ethics of multiculturalism that Badiou dismisses. There are three ways of reacting to these debates:

  1. There are no such differences – we are all the same (liberal response)
  2. These differences are inconsequential (obvious Badiou reading)
  3. These differences are indicative of truths

If we follow Badiou’s truth procedures, it seems clear that debates about homosexuality indicate something about the nature of love. Indeed, a common complaint about gay political action over the past few years is that it has eclipsed important queer critiques of the nuclear family, monogamy, gender roles and so on. So the identity politics arising from LGBTQ are an ethic of truths of love. Put in a more Badiouian fashion, queer politics expresses something presently inexpressible in the state of the erotic situation.

The same could be said of the post-colonial critiques Badiou dismisses. If these critiques are attempts at gaining recognition, Badiou has a point (though is wanting to be recognised such a terrible goal? I understand Badiou’s frustration with ethics aimed at gaining a place within the existing state of the situation, but it’s easy to lob criticisms at such ethics when you occupy a place of relative privilege). If post-colonial critiques are instead rejections of the political and economic systems motivating and living off of colonial relations (and the resultant relations of dependency and control), then post-colonialism is indicative of truths. Put another way, why does Badiou choose Spivak as the face of post-colonialism rather than someone like Fanon?

Updated:

The problem with this argument is that the truth event of love is not, strictly speaking, political for Badiou. This is one of my long standing critiques of Badiou – I fail to see how any truth is not ultimately political. To reorder or destroy a situation in order to give voice to that which cannot be expressed is always political.

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Son of Man

‘Together we shall lead ourselves, whether it be to glory or destruction.’ – Jesus in Son of Man

I’ve been meaning to start posting again, so when I saw that Catholic Anarchy had a post about the upcoming US release of Son of Man (directed by Mark Dornford-May), it seemed like a good opportunity to start back up.  Father Lloyd Baugh, a Jesuit at the Gregorian, came to Durham this week to screen the film and give a paper comparing it to other Jesus films.  My brief review is going to contain spoilers, in a sense.  I mean, most people know how the story ends, but I’m going to talk about specific sequences contained in the film.

Son of Man is unique as far as Jesus films go (to my knowledge).  Jesus is black.  He is presented as an unambiguously political figure, but still performs miracles (so he’s not just a political figure).  The film chooses to merge biblical stories with African rituals.  Instead of the baptism of Christ, we see him go through an African ritual undergone by young men who are coming of age.  Basically, Son of Man is a Jesus film from the perspective of liberation theology presented in a fictionalized South African context.

The film’s merit is found in its representation of the Gospel stories.  That is, as a film, it is decent, but not spectacular.  It might have been confusing at points for those not familiar with these stories.  Occasionally the acting is a little forced.  The scene where Jesus calls the disciples contains freeze frames: we see the disciple or disciples, the frame freezes, turns sepia, and the disciple’s name appear in red.  The whole thing felt a bit Tarentino.  One redeeming element of the sequence, however, is the way it enabled the film to present female disciples: the traditional name is shown and we see the letters change to feminize the name (I think Phillip becomes Phillipa, Andrew becomes Andie, etc.).

These moments of aesthetic faltering, amazingly, don’t detract from the force of the movie.  The film opens with the temptation of Jesus in the desert, but then goes back to the Annunciation.  News casts show a war between the ruling party and an insurgency in the fictional region of South Africa, Judea.  The scene cuts to Mary hiding running from insurgent soldiers.  She hides in a classroom amongst the bodies of dead children.  It’s there that Gabriel comes to her.

Throughout the film, familiar stories are reinterpreted in the South African context:

– the Massacre of the Innocents is depicted as insurgent soldiers take the butts of their guns and bludgeon children to death (though this time Jesus refuses to flee)

– Jesus goes into the mines to call the disciples

– Judas is a former child soldier

– Jesus saves a prostitute who has been doused in gasoline.

– During the last supper, Jesus and the disciples share a communal pot, but say nothing to one another.  As the pot passes from one disciple to another, the scene is cut with still frames of murdered children.

– The Garden of Gethsemane becomes a little area off the side of the road.

The most interesting points, in my opinion, are found in three scenes:

(1) Jesus tells the disciples that they are going to bring change by organizing the people, but says they must proceed without violence.  He puts a bag on the table and the disciples place their guns in the bag.

(2) There is an amazing scene which plays off the story of Jesus healing the man who is lowered through the roof of a building.  The amazing part isn’t the miracle, though.  It is the speech that precedes the miracle.  Jesus pretty much gives a liberation theologians critique of imperialism, decrying trade zones, the deployment of aid, the corruption of government officials… I don’t remember the exact points made, but the scene is powerful.

(3) Finally, and most interesting, we have the death and resurrection (not really a scene, but rather a good chunk of the last third or so of the film).  Jesus is captured, taken to a shed and beaten to death.  They dump his body in the back of a truck, drive him into the desert, and bury him in a shallow grave.  The Centurion returns to the city and finds Mary at a political rally.  He tells her that they have killed Jesus and takes her to the grave.  She digs up the body and they take him back to the city.  There is a fantastic shot of the pieta, refigured as Mary sitting on a plastic chair in the back of a beat up truck (I tried to find a picture, but there doesn’t seem to be one available – personally, I think they should have used the image on posters for the film).  Mary ties Jesus’ dead body to the cross and people begin to gather and sing.  Soldiers order the rally to disperse and fire shots into Jesus’ body.  Some people flee, but Mary and the disciples resume their singing in defiance of the military.  We then see the empty grave of Jesus, followed by a shot of Jesus and the angels walking through the desert, presumably back to the city.

I find this presentation of Jesus’ death particularly interesting because the power of the resurrection isn’t presented as Jesus coming back to life (at least initially).  Rather it is found in the community that rises up after his death.  The tomb is empty because Mary, and then the disciples, refuse to accept Jesus’ death.  Resurrection and Pentecost are in a sense collapsed into a moment of action whereby a community is formed.  It all sounds a bit like Zizek, doesn’t it? (not to suggest that Zizek is the only one who says these kinds of things… he’s just the one I read)  Of course this is just my take on it.

There are lots of other interesting aspects of the film, most importantly the role of women, that deserve attention.  Hopefully, with the US release of the film, these other aspects will receive the attention they deserve.

Strike!

This morning I watched Eisenstein’s Strike!. I found some of the initial montage to be absolutely brilliant and I loved the shot of the factory in the puddle. Russian films from this era are great because you never have to guess who the evil capitalists are (though nothing quite tops the classic Soviet propaganda cartoons). Here are a few additional random thoughts I had while watching the film.:

– It’s interesting that after the strike begins, Eisenstein cuts to scenes of animals, as if to note that with the cessation of exploitation, the natural order has returned.
– Even more interesting is the following scene where the children recreate the actions of the strike. Like their fathers, the children load a goat into a wheelbarrow and push the animal down a hill (earlier the workers had done the same with the administrators at the factory). Already the coming generation has ritualised the action, performing the sacrifice of a ‘scapegoat.’ I don’t know that Eisenstein intended this reading, but it works as an excellent critique of the relationship between revolutionaries and the proceeding generations which, in their ritualisation, establish new exploitative hierarchies in their seeming repetition of the actions of their fathers. Ritual doesn’t have to equal ideology, but that doesn’t many rituals don’t fall victim to this tendency.
– Continuing with the use of animals (again, not necessarily reflecting the intentions of Eisenstein), I thought the parallel images of the cow being slaughtered and the proletariat being massacred worked on a number of levels: 1) to the bourgeoisie, the workers are disposable; 2) they are also regarded as mere animals (this point parallels the argument made by Lewis Gordon, interpreting Fanon, in my post about Latin American theory: namely that the struggle for the oppressed is often not to be regarded as equal, but first to be regarded as other); 3) there is a cycle of exploitation. It is third point that I find interesting, and perhaps less obvious. The people slaughtering the cow seem to be workers, just like those in the factory. The bourgeoisie ignites a chain of exploitation, beginning with the working class and infecting all social and biological (or perhaps ecological is a better term) relations. The working class then exploits ‘nature’ in its struggle to survive. This point works in two directions: the working class, in desperation, engages in unsustainable husbandry practices in order to merely survive, or in hopes of rising to the ranks of the petty bourgeoisie. From the other direction, this highlights the political significance of husbandry practices: the cultivation of sustainable practices in the political economy of food is an important aspect of empowering the working class. I guess now we just need to enlist Jamie Oliver and Michael Pollan in starting the revolution…

Žižek vs Milbank

Yesterday I attended a debate between Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank, held at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London. Though brief (no mean feat… neither Žižek nor Milbank are known for their brevity), the exchange was energetic and provocative without straying into the kind of pre-established roles, i.e. Marxist, materialist, atheist (granted this is how Žižek describes himself, but he doesn’t fit the expected mold) vs cheap fideist or fundamentalist. Both Žižek and Milbank displayed the breadth of their reading, the former citing Tertullian and Claudel, the latter referencing figures including Badiou and Meillassoux.

The discussion was motivated by the recent publication of The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? The conversation successfully dodged the danger of lectures prompted by publications: namely, rehearsing the book to the point where it’s no longer necessary to read it. Instead, both Žižek and Milbank highlighted important points of agreement before beginning a lively analysis of their differences.

Žižek began by suggesting that there are two dominant modes of theology: (1) the purely historical; (2) popular engaged projects. The first is characterised by a naïve notion of history; its advocates chafe at the suggestion that they represent a particular agenda. The second is just banal. These first two categories are accompanied by the favoured practices within academic circles: (1) New age theology; (2) Jewish post-modernism. The first is a kind of vaguely Buddhist holism. The second tends to argue that God doesn’t exist, but there is a voice calling to us from the void, but nothing can be said about this voice. Žižek finds that he and Milbank are equally opposed to these positions which are all characterised by a neutering of the ability to make direct metaphysical statements.

From there Žižek offered some preliminary points for conversation. First he suggest that there needs to be a rehabilitation of Tertullian. Prior to Christianity, Žižek argues, the world was dominated by a kind of common sense wisdom. Christianity is a radical cut that suggests that the truth may be at odds with common sense. In this sense, Duns Scotus, not Aquinas, is the father of modern science. The darkness of the Middle Ages ruins the pre-existing common sense, but Aquinas remains too Aristotlean. Second, he advanced his reading of Job. In short, Job is the first critique of ideology. At the end of the book, when God appears to Job, his speech is not rehearsing divine greatness, but is God’s expression of the overwhelming chaos of creation (a great divine wtf). Third, he suggested that what dies on the cross is the idea of a transcendent, benevolent figure who takes care of everything. Fourth, in the resurrection, God returns only as the Holy Ghost or the community of believers. Therefore God is the Comrade Christ and the Holy Ghost is the emancipatory community.

Milbank then presented his perspective on their agreements. First, he described how they both reject the general aura of agnosticism or post-modern indeterminacy. The kind of religious discussion that emerges from this indeterminacy is politically impotent (in the end I think this comes down to their mutual loathing of Hobbes). So radical politics demands the kind of direct, metaphysical statements that both Žižek and he produce, and they are therefore joined in opposition to the modern, liberal politics that stems from post-modern indeterminacy. He also suggested that a similar rejection of agnosticism characterises speculative realism. This opposition amounts to a rejection of Kant on the one hand, and the demand that knowledge aspires to the infinite on the other. In this context, the polite indifference of liberalism doesn’t make sense. Furthermore, philosophy’s abandonment of metaphysics is linked to the rise of religious fundamentalism. Second, he stated that any serious atheism must take the form of materialism (here he stated to shift into points of contention). The metaphysical questions that face materialism, however, sound strikingly theological, i.e. the relation between the originary nothing and the actuality of events. Referencing Deleuze, Badiou, and Laruelle, he suggested that the monism that would seem to logically flow from materialism never escapes this dualism. He also submitted that Badiou’s materialism collapses into idealism and Laruelle’s rationality collapses into mysticism. When materialism confronts the key questions of subjectivity, reason, and materialism it is better to go theological and admit a plenitudinous transcendence. Third, the religious factor in German idealism is closer to materialism than Kantian agnosticism. Fourth, there is an opposition between paradox and dialectics. He wants a both/and: regarding the death of Christ, this means ‘This man is God’ is also ‘God is this man.’ Only Christianity is capable of maintaining this kind of paradox. Finally, he differs from Žižek in that he doesn’t see the cross as the end of paganism, but its fulfillment. In this sense, Milbank claims to be less of a Christian supremacist than Žižek (a point Žižek conceded). He concluded by saying Žižek isn’t an atheist he’s a Protestant. He thinks the God could have a rival in other ‘lesser gods.’ Milbank sees these other gods (or at least the practices surrounding them) as participating in the truth of the one true God.

At this point the moderator tried to get them to address how the nature of this debate differs from the debates between Christians and the atheists like Dawkins. This provided relatively unsuccessful as Žižek wanted to respond to Milbank (though they returned to the subject of Dawkins later).

Žižek agreed that he advocates a break from Kantian agnosticism, though he departs Kant through Hegel. He then turned to his alternative reading of the gospel: we are abandoned by God, and in that we are drawn into the life of God through identification with the dereliction of Christ on the cross. With Christ, Father and Son both are gone and only the Holy Spirit remains. Finally, he sought to define his particular form of materialism as an abstract materialism that acknowledges the incompleteness of reality. The thing in itself is incomplete (this returns to his departure from Kant through Hegel). The task confronting contemporary materialism is thinking this incompleteness. From this perspective, Milbank is too materialist so he needs God.

He then turned back to the question of Dawkins. His main critique is that he, and those like him, fails to explain consciousness, always retreating to metaphor. They fail to be consequential materialists.

He concluded by posing a question to Milbank about the passages in scripture where Christ speaks of hating your father and mother (Lk 14:26) or bringing the sword (Mt 10:34-36). Žižek suggested that the predominate readings are: (1) they are mistranslations; (2) they are not meant literally. In opposition to these, he suggests that the Holy Spirit, the community of believers, is not a form of organic hierarchy. In hating your father and mother you destroy fixed social hierarchies.

Milbank responded by claiming that Žižek is perpetuating Rousseau’s parody of Augustine, in which Rousseau pushes liberalism to its extremes. Milbank claims that Christ is not abolishing the organic but building on it. He also described Christian hopes as invalidating feeble hope (Rousseau) and utopianism (some kind of blueprint). Rousseau, according to Milbank, is nothin compared to Bk 19 of City of God.

At this point the moderator opened up questions from the floor. The first person asked if Paul should be blamed for ruining the truth of Christianity by enabling its Romanisation. Žižek and Milbank both seemed to find this question a bit befuddling. Milbank named Paul the father of radicalism, highlighting the way he built a kind of benign globalism whereby communities in Rome, Corinth, etc. communicated on matters of religion and trade, superceding existing patterns of trade and communication ruled by the state. Žižek described Paul as Christianity’s Leninist moment. Without Paul Christianity would have not been an interesting sect.

Marcus Pound then asked about Žižek’s Protestant tendencies verse potential Catholic alternatives. This tendency is especially highlighted by Žižek’s fascination with transgression, demonstrated by his interpretation of the previously mentioned scriptural passages. Žižek responded by saying that the question was limited by the confines of liberal individualism. His reading of the passage sees the Holy Spirit as inaugurating a kind of radical communitarianism. Milbank critiqued Žižek’s depiction of hierarchical social relations, especially within the family, arguing that the family is an organic location of education. At this point Philip Blond accused of Žižek of really being just a liberal and claimed that Žižek is unable to account for a plurality of wills, and therefore reduces everything to his will. Žižek seemed to find the line of questioning somewhat confusing and returned to his earlier point about the passages he referenced. He kept demanding a reading that does not water down the words of Christ, but no one responded.

I think this portion of the debate was the most interesting. For one, it is kind of ironic to see Žižek shaking his fist, calling for someone to take Jesus seriously, accusing of Milbank of liberalising the gospel. In the exchange, though, I think they both missed the overlap between their positions. Žižek sees the passage calling for us to hate our mother and father as the inauguration of the critique of the ideology of the family. Althusser would name this ideology as fundamental; indeed, if ideology is the reproduction of the conditions of production, the modern nuclear family, radically atomised by the suburbanisation of the working class and the petty bourgeoisie is key to the perpetuation of the prevalent modes of production and exchange. So I find, Žižek’s reading very interesting: we see Christ prophesying the coming of the Holy Spirit, whereby this foundational ideology is critiqued as we are called into subjectivity, the faithful community, united behind the sword that strikes at structures of oppression. This idea is all good and revolutionary. The irony is that Žižek sees the church as the form of this new social relationship. There is no Greek or Jew, male or female, not because these differences evaporate but because they are inconsequential in the new forms of hierarchy governing social (economic and political) relations. Milbank’s counterargument, that the family is an organic location of education and support, is true, but incomplete. Firstly, it is undeniable that the family has been the location of oppression. Second, this family is not annihilated, but mutated in the new forms of relationality advocated by Žižek. Žižek offered as an example, the kind of relations that emerge in a political movement generated by the political will of a community.

Milbank then returned to the Dawkins discussion, suggesting that it is merely an attempt to make science an ideology because all other secular ideologies have collapsed.

The talk concluded with a question about the anthropocentric nature of the discussion. The questioner wondered how the debate might be expanded. Žižek and Milbank had more or less congruent responses. Žižek said that ecology in all its forms its anthropocentric, if at times unknowingly so. Milbank said the balance must be found in understanding the human as a rational animal: animal in its rationality and rational in its animality. To privilege either side amounts to destruction of the environment.

To be perfectly honest, I found the exchange refreshing. I find myself closer to Žižek than Milbank, but the discussion seemed to be a general discussion more than people yelling past each other. I was impressed with the questions, which were all genuine questions, a rarity at such events (especially with such polarising speakers). I was surprised that only one person questioned the premise that Christianity has anything to offer. I was also surprised that Žižek seemed to come under the heaviest criticism.

Regardless of what one thinks of the two, I think it is clearly admirable that they had a focused, constructive debate that managed to avoid devolving into the rhetorical flourishes and cheap dismissals that tend to characterise such meetings.

Oh yeah, and Richard Ayoade was there.

The Latin American Turn

I haven’t posted for quite some time, so a brief update:
– I’ve been working on my film paper and have found the comments shared on this blog very helpful. So thanks for all the suggestions.
– Two things people should check out: Michael Burns’ blog has recently featured an enlightening discussion of Logics of Worlds and academic bullying (though the two are not related…); and Adam Kotsko is on a mission to problematise popular religious positions on homosexuality and abortion. I’m not sure I agree with everything he says, but his exchange with his commentators is quite provoking.

Last week I had the good fortune of attending a daylong conference at Birkbeck entitled ‘The Latin American Turn: On the Unfinished Project of Decolonisation.’ The following is a summary of the papers and my thoughts regarding the themes that were addressed.

The papers focused on current Latin American political theories and praxis and their relations to European thought. The speakers challenged the current nature of this relationship on two fronts: (1) European thought (even post-colonial theory) tends to operate in European categories perpetuating a Eurocentrism that subordinates non-European thought to the canon of European theory; (2) Latin American thought must be receptive to European thought, but must resist being determined by it. This latter point was excellently summed up by Enrique Dussel when he said, ‘We need Badiou, but not Badiou.’ I’ll summarise each of the papers and then end with my thoughts about the themes of the day. Two preliminary notes: I’ve reproduced the majority of my notes in all their scattered and fragmentary glory in hopes that they will be helpful to as many people as possible; I missed the last paper because the conference was running 45-50 minutes behind schedule and I didn’t want to miss my hus home.

Enrique Dussel

Dussel started the day off by giving a keynote consisting mainly of themes from his Twenty Theses on Politics. He sought to theorise the transition from a revolutionary politics (often restricted by its negative posture) and leftist political praxis. Latin America is intriguing in this regard as the Argentinean and Bolivian governments offer potential examples of such a praxis (Dussel and everyone else speaking seemed to Bolivia seems much more promising). He formulated this transition in the form of the question ‘how do we exercise power rather than just criticize it?’ Power is often reduced to domination. This characterises the work of Hobbes, Locke, Weber, Habermas, and Foucault. Indeed for Weber, power is defined as legitimised domination.

Dussel argues that rethinking power is to strike at the being of politics. He defines politics as a field relating to other fields (social, economic, cultural, etc.). His paper thus focused on understanding the relationship between politics and power.

Power is first characterised by force (a will), but this will is not the will to power, but a will to life. This understanding of political power is characterised by three determinations:

(1) A will to life (a vitalist position): The first determination of the ontology of politics, it is material in content, but not material in the sense of physical. This will is a general will; that is, it is the will of a community, not of individuals.
(2) The capacity for union: unity is a moment of practical reason. There is a consensus that attaches a united (general) will to a goal.
(3) Feasibility: contra the Frankfurt school, instrumental reason is crucial to politics.

Dussel offers this ontology of politics as a positive conception which might perpetuate revolutionary ideas without succumbing to a purely negative position. Here he sited the Zapatista’s reluctance to formulate or participate in political institutions. This reluctance forces them to only offer negative critiques without offer a positive political vision capable of advancing a/ the community. If one thus remains negative, the movement is a social movement, not political.

Communities are potentia (taken from Spinoza). They are power in itself, without determination. Through political praxis the power of the community becomes an institution. This institution must be characterised by obediential power (connected this to the speeches of Eva Morales). In short, the community holds sovereignty and authority. Institutions do not hold power, but exercise it on behalf of the community. When institutions become convinced that they hold power, they are fetishising power. In this moment, authority believes its own will becomes foundational for the exercising of power and politics becomes domination. This moment is constitutive for modern understandings of power, from Hobbes to Lenin. The people become obedient to power rather than vice versa.

From Carl Schmitt to Machiavelli to Laclau, theorists have focused on praxis to the exclusion of institutions. Contra Foucault and Freud, institutions are not inherently oppressive. Similarly discipline does not equal oppression. There are moments when institutions meet the needs of the people.

Dussel divides political institutions into three types:

(1) Material: economics, technology, security, ecology. They must organise the reproduction of the community.
(2) Legitimising: democratic means of validating institutions, enabling the community to exercise its will to live.
(3) Institutions of feasibility: I was a little unclear on this last one

Politics is thus divided into three levels:

(1) Praxis
(2) Institutions
(3) Political principles

Dussel notes that there is resistance in contemporary theory to political principles. He argues that this level should include at least three positions:

(1) Material affirmation of life
(2) Validity principle (not sure about what he meant here)
(3) Feasibility principle

From here Dussel shifted to a discussion of law drawing especially on the Christian theological tradition. Agamben demonstrates, in his commentary on Romans, how law becomes a metaphor for order. Dussel argues that the law is not the basis for action. The law can by unjust. The justification for action is faith, not the law (connected to St. Paul).

He then discussed the plebes as a future people, creating a populace of the future. The problem of liberation is not the order, but developing a critical consensus against the order. This future populace will also develop a law, but in the meantime the justification for action is faith.

He ended by arguing that the end of the state is a logical postulate, a regulative idea, but impossible. During Q&A, he argued that in order to sustain the moment of liberation it is necessary to grow the people’s consciousness of their ability to be an actor in history.

Ramón Grosfoguel

Grosfoguel sought to address differences between post-colonial studies (PCS) and coloniality/modernity (C/M) studies. I spent most of the paper wondering what the hell coloniality was. Maldonado-Torres later defined the preliminary difference as this: post-colonial studies focuses on the consequences of a period of history termed colonialism; coloniality focuses on the networks of power that defined that period and continue to operate even though the historical period of traditional colonialism has ended. Grosfoguel made it clear that he did not see the two camps as diametrically opposed, but equally stressed that there are important differences that need to be highlighted. The differences are:

(1) Genealogical: PCS tends to start its discussion of colonialism in the 18th and 19th centuries. C/M starts 300 years earlier in 1492. This year marks the formulation of global capitalism and modernity. This 300 year period is sometime marginalised in PCS and impacts the understanding of the relationship between modernity and colonisation. C/M strives to understand the Renaissance as part of modernity. For this position, modernity is inherently colonial. C/M’s focus on this relationship between modernity and coloniality allows it to push for the de-colonisation of knowledge and being. In this sense, C/M is transmodern (a term adopted from Dussel) rather than post-modern. The latter, with its modern determinations remains colonial.

(2) Epistemological: C/M argues that Occidentalism is the condition for Orientalism. In addition to the ethnic hierarchy and global division of labour that came with colonialism, there is an epistemological hierarchy which produces an epistemic racism that undergirds the racism that is constitutive for productive exploitation. This epistemic racism is entangled with epistemic sexism, forming a complex global class division often ignored by classical Marxism. This ignoring is symptomatic of Eurocentric fundamentalism. Other fundamentalism are varieties of this originating fundamentalism. From Christian fundamentalism to Islamic fundamentalisms to nationalistic fundamentalisms, they all arise from the binaries established by Eurocentric fundamentalism. C/M’s transmodernity thus seeks to complete the work of de-colonisation by de-colonising knowledge, but how can we go about this task if we only read Lacan, Foucault, and Derrida? C/M calls for an expanded cartography of power. The figures of European theory are not ignored, but viewed from the perspective of a new geography. We must de-colonise political economy.

[The next two papers were given by Carolina Sanin and Marcia Martins de Rosa. Sanin’s paper was interesting, but focused less on theory and more on literary embodiments of theory. De Rosa spoke about her various experience, but, to be honest, I found it difficult to follow.]

Nelson Maldonado-Torres

Maldonado-Torres stated two goals: 1) a tentative genealogy of de-coloniality; 2) exploring the basic problems that de-coloniality seeks to address.

His genealogy consisted of three moments:

(1) First wave (late 18th, first half of the 19th century in the forming United States and Latin America): this moment in the US was ultra-racist in that it was characterised by ethnic divisions amongst white Europeans. There were discussion about whether the Spanish or Italians were less white than the French or British. In Latin America, the diversity of indigenous peoples made for a more racially mixed context. In light of this racial situation, the often overlooked Hatian revolution is especially significant. The Hatians had to critically develop a new understanding that overthrew European understandings of humanity. Hatian intellectuals developed these theories in the 19th century. The first wave thus refers to this period of questioning European categories of being. This dating denies neither the existence of colonial projects nor anti-colonial movements prior to this period. Indeed de-colonisation began at the first moment of colonisation. Rather this dating indicates that this resistance did not become formal until the 19th century.

(2) Second wave: this period comes after the Pan-African Conference, the end of World War II, and the decolonisation of India. It is marked by a period of fascism in Europe. Fascism is domestic colonialism. No longer is it possible to view European colonisers as bringers of civilisation. The paradigm of progress and Enlightenment has begun to colonise itself, rendering European intentions much more suspicious. This amounts to the demystification of Europe. Thus, while the first wave is marked by the affirmation of Europe (an affirmation varying in intensity), the second wave becomes more radical in its disenchantment with European Enlightenement.

(3) Post-coloniality?: Maldonado-Torres sought to indicate the tenuous nature of this characterisation by including the question mark. This period is marked by the global mobilisation of indigenous movements. From this indigenous perspective, however, coloniality still exists. It is post-coloniality only from the perspective of colonial powers who argue their colonial operations have ceased. Coloniality studies argues that there is no post-colonialism.

As time was running out, Maldonado-Torres was only able to provide a brief outline of the basic problems of coloniality studies:

(1) Philosophical anthropology
(2) Ethics and politics (and their relation)
(3) Epistemology

While all three are interrelated, the third must be the condition for the thinking of the other two.

Oscar Guardiola-Rivera

The organiser of the conference, Guardiola-Rivera gave an intriguing paper, though for some reason I only took minimal notes. He noted that contemporary discussion is marked by the fact that the US is the next Latin American country and the collapse of global-capitalism’s self-healing capacities, if not global capitalism itself. He argued that liberation has little to do with affect; it is an objective, essential praxis. He also stated that we have reached the end of vanguard theory. I found his contrasting of Kantian predicative with messianic time especially interesting. He argued that a liberating political praxis is not restorative, but messianic. In doing so, he drew on Che Guevara as embodying messianic praxis.

Eduardo Mendieta

Mendieta argued that the project of de-colonisation is also a project of de-secularisation. The latter occurs in the form of dispersing the modern myth of secularity. Mendieta calls this the theological enlightenment of the Enlightenment (a tendency he finds in Marx’s political theology).

Modernity sought to secularise politics, but in doing so theologised the market. In order to do this work, what Mendieta calls secularisation as a project (I was a little unclear on this point), the economy must re-politicised. The economy is always a consequence of political decision. Dussel’s re-founding of politics similarly calls for the de-fetishisation of the market.

Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin represent a negative or critical political theology, rejecting the founding of the political in a positive way.

Mendieta calls for a critical political theology that is both political and theological. It is political in its referencing of the political economy of theology especially in popular religiosity. It is the formulation of a critical political economy through theological discourse.

Religion is not a black box but a creative means of a community formulating a way of life.

Lewis R. Gordon

Gordon argued that the colonised find themselves in an unreasonable relation to reason. Reason dictates that the opposition to reason’s policing of experiences is unreasonable. Gordon terms this epistemic dependency: a state of receiving the theories by which we interpret out experiences. Communities are blocked from being the source of their onw theories of their own experiences.

The challenging of this state follows three thematics:

(1) Philosophical anthropology
(2) Freedom and theories of transformation
(3) Metacritique of reason

Gordon offered two specifications to these thematics: reason is a broader category than rationality; liberty and freedom are not the same thing.

He drew on Fanon to argue that racism creates a category below the self/other dialectic. From this perspective, one is fighting just to be regarded as an other.

He then shifted to argue that the market is governed by the tradition of doxa more than episteme. He also stated that we downplay the role of human agency in the market. We discuss the ‘market’ going up or down rather than the human actions that cause economic changes.

He concluded by discussing how the intellectual has become colonised by the market, becoming a commodity. When this happens, the methodological becomes confused with the ontological.

Question and Answer

Guardiola-Rivera re-emphasised the distinction between prediction (Kant) and anticipation (Che).

Mendieta discussed the selling of commodities as selling little nuggets of time, which amounts to a domestication of time. The market thus becomes an ontologisation of the future anterior. He also stated that neo-liberalism and Protestantism go and in hand. He concluded by defining theology as a critical reflection on praxis nurtured by popular religiosity.

Concluding Thoughts

All in all, I thought the conference was a strong showing of interesting thought that is easily missed by PhD students wading through their volumes of Derrida, Deleuze, or Lacan. I did think it was interesting that more than half of the people attending a conference highlighting the elision of Latin American thought in European theory seemed to be Latin American. There were a few points that I thought that slipped through the discussion.

(1) A lack of any interaction with what is often termed analytic philosophy: there was some discussion of coloniality operating in epistemological categories, but these remarks were generally still focussed on continental philosophy. This missed opportunity is particularly regrettable, in my opinion, because I suspect aspects of Latin American thought would challenge the analytic/continental divide, both resonating with and provoking current European efforts to deconstruct this all too often rigid border.

(2) While Dussel acknowledged the difficulty of addressing the will of the people, he didn’t address how the difficulty might be overcome. If a community’s will is united in the oppression of another community, how do we invalidate that will? The recent events in California surrounding Proposition 8 seem like a timely example. Badiou’s theory of the subject seems to offer one possible solution to this dilemma, but I’m not sure if I find it satisfactory.

(3) I’m always left confused about what I’m supposed to do regarding coloniality theory. I can’t adopt the perspective of oppressed or indigenous people without reducing their experiences through my imitation. If I allow Latin American theory to challenge my European or North Atlantic perspective, I still evaluate these experiences from that same perspective. I find the problem of addressing the European hegemony of theory an interesting one, I’m just not sure of the goal. I assume it’s not Latin American domination of theory (or the domination of any other group). So the end goal must be a democratic exchange of ideas. I’m still left wondering from what position one evaluates this exchange.

Sorry this post is so long, but I hope those interested in this field find the summaries papers helpful.

Althusser, Badiou, and the Critique of Political Economy

At the recent ‘Idea of Communism’ conference at Birkbeck in London, Badiou reiterated his position regarding political economy.  If I understood him correctly, Badiou was arguing that the answer to capitalism is political not economic.  One cannot move from economics to politics (I’m pretty sure that’s a direct quote).

 

I find this position troubling.  After all, Marx wrote on political economy, right?  It also troubles my more economically minded friends, who see a necessary economic element in the challenge to capitalism.

 

Though I won’t go so far as agreeing with Badiou’s argument, I came across a passage in Althusser which rendered his position clearer (for me at least).  It comes from his essay ‘On Marx and Freud,’ which can be found in his Writings on Psychoanalysis.

 

Althusser is here discussing the process of abandoning bourgeois or petty-bourgeois positions in favour of proletarian ones:

 

‘In the “displacement” that has him occupying proletarian class theoretical positions, Marx discovers that despite all the merits of its authors, political economy as it exists is not fundamentally a science but a theoretical formation of bourgeois ideology, playing its role in the ideological class struggle.  He discovers that it is not only the detail of existing political economy that is to be criticized but that the very idea, the project, and thus the existence of political economy – which can be thought of as an independent and autonomous discipline only on the condition of disguising class relations and the class struggle that it is its ideological mission to conceal – deserve to be called into question and doubt. Marx’s theoretical revolution thus arrives at the conclusion that there is no political economy… and that it is all the more emphatically the case that there is no Marxist political economy.  That does not mean there is nothing; rather, it means that Marx rejects the object that political economy was alleged to be with an entirely different reality that becomes intelligible through entirely different principles, those of historical materialism, in which class struggle becomes determinant for understanding so-called economic phenomena’ (113).

 

Allegiance to Marx is much more of a concern for Althusser than for Badiou, but this passage seems to indicate a potential source for Badiou’s understanding.  The accuracy of Althusser’s reading and the efficacy of Marx’s argument, of course, are an entirely different matter.

 

I wonder if Althusser’s statement could be reworded like this: the ideological role of political economy is to complicate the terrain of resistance by claiming that it is a network of political and economic relations that determine class relations.  In contrast, Marx is arguing that class relations are political (this fits with Engel’s definition of political power as ‘merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another’).  So without denying the reality of economic relations, one can state that these relations are simply a weapon in the arsenal of oppression of one class by another.  I think this formulation then raises a larger question: if class oppression is not reducible to economics (both in its means and its goals) what are the motivations of these tyrannies?