Philosophy

6
Jan

China’s Loose Canon

 

china-old
Qing Dynasty painting depicting Confucius presenting Buddha to Laozi

By Shaun Tan

China-US Focus

Many people are familiar with the Western canon, those core works of literature, history, and philosophy that are considered essential to the study of the subject. In the West, students of literature read Shakespeare and Cervantes, students of history read Herodotus and Thucydides, and students of philosophy read Plato and Aristotle. This canon is considered an integral part of Western civilization, and has shaped thinkers, artists, and statesmen for generations.

Yet few outside China know much about the Chinese canon, a canon that is as rich and valuable as its Western counterpart, that has been revered and reviled at different points in Chinese history, and which may be the key to consolidating the Chinese Communist Party’s authority – or destroying it.

In the field of literature, it includes what’s known as “the four great books,” The Water Margin, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Journey to the West, and Dream of the Red Chamber.

The Water Margin features 108 heroes who, renouncing a corrupt and unjust Song Dynasty, form a band of outlaws and live, Robin Hood-style, in a marsh, righting wrongs and defending the weak in accordance with their own (extremely violent) code of honor. It explores the theme of a just insurgency, with the heroes choosing to serve “the will of heaven” over the Song rule of law.

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a historical novel, and follows the breakup of the Han Dynasty into three warring kingdoms. It relates the battles and the intrigues as the three kingdoms vie for supremacy. Its characters show strategic brilliance, nobility, and valor, but also hubris, stupidity, and self-destructive envy, in short, the full spectrum of human nature amidst triumph and disaster.

The Journey to the West is a fantastical account of the monk Tripitaka’s journey to bring Buddhism from India to China, in the company of an anarchic fighting monkey, a lustful pig demon, and a fearsome sand demon, and the adventures they have on the way. The central theme of the comic novel is the tension between temptation and virtue, between passion and discipline, as the heroes strive (or fail) to live up to Buddhist ideals.

The greatest of the four is Dream of the Red Chamber. This novel follows the doomed romance of the protagonist Baoyu with his cousin Daiyu amidst the decline and revival of the illustrious Jia family. Its excellence lies in its execution, in its witty and spirited characters, in its colorful depiction of life inside a great house peopled by relatives and servants and the complex, shifting relations between them. It is a meditation on the meaning of life, as Baoyu is caught between his natural romanticism, the stern Confucianism of his father, and the Buddhist detachment born of suffering and enlightenment. Blurring the lines between reality and illusion, it is a bittersweet tribute to youth and youth’s end.

In the field of history, the Records of the Grand Historian are widely regarded as the greatest classical work of history. Written by Sima Qian, the Records cover over two thousand years of Chinese history. Depicting rulers with all their virtues and vices, it’s the primary means by which we know of many of them today.

The Chinese philosophical canon begins with Confucius. Far from the patron saint of Asian authoritarianism, as he is so often made out to be by opportunistic Asian dictators and clueless Western commentators, Confucius actually counseled balance, reciprocal obligations between ruler and ruled, and integrity in the face of unjust authority.

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Category : China | Intellectuals | Philosophy | Blog
27
Aug

When Cold War philosophy tied rational choice theory to scientific method, it embedded the free-market mindset in US society

By John McCumber

Aeon Magazine

McCumber is professor of Germanic Languages at the University of California, Los Angeles. His latest book is The Philosophy Scare: The Politics of Reason in the Early Cold War (2016).

The chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) was worried. It was May 1954, and UCLA had been independent of Berkeley for just two years. Now its Office of Public Information had learned that the Hearst-owned Los Angeles Examiner was preparing one or more articles on communist infiltration at the university. The news was hardly surprising. UCLA, sometimes called the ‘little Red schoolhouse in Westwood’, was considered to be a prime example of communist infiltration of universities in the United States; an article in The Saturday Evening Post in October 1950 had identified it as providing ‘a case history of what has been done at many schools’.

The chancellor, Raymond B Allen, scheduled an interview with a ‘Mr Carrington’ – apparently Richard A Carrington, the paper’s publisher – and solicited some talking points from Andrew Hamilton of the Information Office. They included the following: ‘Through the cooperation of our police department, our faculty and our student body, we have always defeated such [subversive] attempts. We have done this quietly and without fanfare – but most effectively.’ Whether Allen actually used these words or not, his strategy worked. Scribbled on Hamilton’s talking points, in Allen’s handwriting, are the jubilant words ‘All is OK – will tell you.’

Allen’s victory ultimately did him little good. Unlike other UCLA administrators, he is nowhere commemorated on the Westwood campus, having suddenly left office in 1959, after seven years in his post, just ahead of a football scandal. The fact remains that he was UCLA’s first chancellor, the premier academic Red hunter of the Joseph McCarthy era – and one of the most important US philosophers of the mid-20th century.

This is hard to see today, when philosophy is considered one of academia’s more remote backwaters. But as the country emerged from the Second World War, things were different. John Dewey and other pragmatists were still central figures in US intellectual life, attempting to summon the better angels of American nature in the service, as one of Dewey’s most influential titles had it, of democracy and education’. In this they were continuing one of US philosophy’s oldest traditions, that of educating students and the general public to appreciate their place in a larger order of values. But they had reconceived the nature of that order: where previous generations of US philosophers had understood it as divinely ordained, the pragmatists had come to see it as a social order. This attracted suspicion from conservative religious groups, who kept sharp eyes on philosophy departments on the grounds that they were the only place in the universities where atheism might be taught (Dewey’s associate Max Otto resigned a visiting chair at UCLA after being outed as an atheist by the Examiner). As communism began its postwar spread across eastern Europe, this scrutiny intensified into a nationwide crusade against communism and, as the UCLA campus paper The Daily Bruin put it, ‘anything which might faintly resemble it’.

And that was not the only political pressure on philosophy at the time. Another, more intellectual, came from the philosophical attractiveness of Marxism, which was rapidly winning converts not only in Europe but in Africa and Asia as well. The view that class struggle in Western countries would inevitably lead, via the pseudoscientific ‘iron laws’ of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, to worldwide communist domination was foreign to Marx himself. But it provided a ‘scientific’ veneer for Soviet great-power interests, and people all over the world were accepting it as a coherent explanation for the Depression, the Second World War and ongoing poverty. As the political philosopher S M Amadae has shown in Rationalising Capitalist Democracy (2003), many Western intellectuals at the time did not think that capitalism had anything to compete with this. A new philosophy was needed, one that provided what the nuanced approaches of pragmatism could not: an uncompromising vindication of free markets and contested elections.

The McCarthyite pressure, at first, was the stronger. To fight the witch-hunters, universities needed to do exactly what Allen told the Examiner that UCLA was doing: quickly and quietly identify communists on campus and remove them from teaching positions. There was, however, a problem with this: wasn’t it censorship? And wasn’t censorship what we were supposed to be fighting against?

It was Allen himself who solved this problem when, as president of the University of Washington in 1948-49, he had to fire two communists who had done nothing wrong except join the Communist Party. Joseph Butterworth, whose field was medieval literature, was not considered particularly subversive. But Herbert Phillips was a philosophy professor. He not only taught the work of Karl Marx, but began every course by informing the students that he was a committed Marxist, and inviting them to judge his teaching in light of that fact. This meant that he could not be ‘subverting’ his students – they knew exactly what they were getting. Allen nevertheless came under heavy pressure to fire him.

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Category : Cold War | Intellectuals | Philosophy | US History | Blog
25
Oct

By Robert Ware
Philosophy Dept
University of Calgary

Posted on April 5, 2014
Socialism and Democracy Online / sdonline.org   

Few outside China would think of China as a socialist, or Marxist, society. Inside China the views vary widely, but few would say, without qualifiers, as the Constitution does, that China is socialist. No one – anywhere – now sees China as a model for socialism. Nevertheless, socialism is a strong force in China and Marxism a subject of continuing investigation. Just how significant a role socialism and Marxism play is not easily determined, but the importance of that role and some of its complexity is well worth considering.

Recently I have taught Marxism in Beijing and have had occasion to see some of the strengths and weaknesses of the theory and its application. After some remarks on my experiences there, I will discuss my observations about the nature of Marxism in China in theory and practice. Whatever one says about China’s problems and about how Marxism is discussed there, a large role for studying, developing, and applying Marxism in China remains.

I argue here that the significance of Marxism in China can be compared to that of democracy in the west, especially in North America. In both settings, the relevant practices are dysfunctional in significant ways, but both Marxism and democracy give a rationale and a tissue of support – and, consequently, a locus of struggle – for efforts to improve life for the majority. Their actual influence can be depressingly weak, but both are worthy of investigation, for political as well as intellectual reasons. I will consider some questions about the kinds of socialism and Marxism that prevail in China, but also, importantly, what topics are rejected or simply ignored.

Visits, courses, and socialists

Teaching Marxism in China is fascinating, although the same can probably be said for teaching most other subjects there, primarily because of China’s great development and energy, as well as its complexity and chaos. My observations here come largely from recent visits to China, including three weeks in the fall of 2007 (accompanied by my wife, Dr. Diana Hodson), a month at Renmin University in Beijing in July 2010, and two months at Peking University (again with my wife) in September-November 2011. I have also learned much from many helpful correspondents and subsequent contacts, both inside China and out.

In 2007, I visited five academic institutions in Beijing and Shanghai, lecturing on analytical Marxism and libertarian socialism and discussing Marxism and democratic theory, in China and abroad. (I was revisiting universities, where I had taught analytical philosophy in 1984-85 [Fudan University in Shanghai] and 1986-87 [Peking University and the Institute of Philosophy in Beijing]. In the 1980s, I also lectured on analytical Marxism at a variety of universities and institutes throughout the country.) I also participated in a conference in 2007, at a Communist Party university in Shanghai, celebrating the 140th anniversary of Marx’s Capital with over a hundred economists, mostly Chinese, and a few theorists from other disciplines. In 2010, I taught a summer course at Renmin University of China (RUC) in Beijing and served as a commentator at a conference at the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau (CCTB) celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Grundrisse.1

At Peking University in the fall of 2011, I taught a small undergraduate philosophy course on analytical Marxism and a graduate philosophy seminar on Marxism and radical politics. G.A. Cohen’s philosophically acute and influential studies were the central texts for the seminar. We looked at new approaches to historical materialism, the core of Marxist studies in China, and at equality and freedom, which are generally not discussed as Marxist topics.

The first reading assignment I gave for my summer course in 2010 on analytical Marxism at RUC2 was Albert Einstein’s “Why I am a Socialist” and two introductions to analytical Marxism. The first short writing assignment was to answer the question “Why I am a socialist,” or alternatively “Why I am not a socialist.”3 From the start, I had a good opportunity to learn about young people’s views in contemporary China through this small group of university students in Beijing. Of the thirty students, twenty gave reasons for why they were socialists and ten gave reasons for why they were not. In the twenty, I include one who became socialist later, after reading the Communist Manifesto (I assume again) in English. I also include two who said they were not socialists because they were communists.

Given what I had heard previously in China, I was surprised that two-thirds of my students were socialist, but of course I could not conclude anything in general about young people from that exercise. Certainly, that the course was on Marxism would be a factor, although there were students in the course who were there for the credits, out of curiosity, and for the opportunity to develop their English. After the assignment was handed in, we talked about what young people in universities and in the country generally think about socialism. Before telling them the results, I asked them to guess the division of the class in the exercise. There was a fair amount of variation about the class and greater variation for figures about the views of other groups. Afterwards, I learned, through quizzing many friends and contacts, that there is little idea of how many people, young or old, are socialists.

I know of no good studies of the number of Chinese who are socialists, but it is also difficult to know what a good study would be. Much depends on how the question is asked and what the meaning of socialism is in the relevant context. The same is true for understanding what significance to give to the 2009 Rasmussen poll that ‘found’ that one third of US young people under 30 believe that socialism is superior to capitalism. What do the people polled think socialism is? In the case of the Chinese, young people would naturally think of Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong thought or socialism with Chinese characteristics.

The reasons that people give, however, tell something about what they mean when they think of socialism. Quite a few of my students explained their allegiance in terms of their beliefs about human nature. Several said that they were socialists because it is human nature to be altruistic or collectivist, and a similar number were not socialists because, they said, people are self-interested by nature. Of course, this was a good topic for discussion in the class on a topic that is usually given short shrift in Chinese Marxist studies.

Many students were socialists because of parents or grandparents who were members of the Communist Party or had fought in Korea or the War of Liberation. And there were a variety of personal reasons, including moral reasons. An interesting rhetorical question was: if not a socialist, what would you be? The suggestion was that capitalism is not a viable alternative. The dominant question is what kind of socialism should there be.

With even cursory contact, it is obvious that there are millions of socialists in China. There were twenty in my class, and if two thirds of the adult population were socialists, China would have about 500 million socialists. That surely wildly overestimates the numbers, even for a country with a constitution that proclaims its socialism. For a more plausible estimate, consider first that the Communist Party of China has about 80 million members. There is certainly a lot of opportunism and cynicism amongst them, but on the basis of my private queries of many members, I cannot imagine that more than a quarter of them would actually reject socialism, even in their hearts.4 That leaves at least 60 million socialists in the Party.

Then there are surely several million socialists outside the Party. Many people are principled Maoists – some who see positive aspects of the Cultural Revolution – for example those involved with the Utopian Bookstore in Beijing, which has a wide variety of socialist and anarchist books in translation, where lectures are given, and with a widely followed Chinese website – until early 2012 when it was closed down after the detention of Bo Xilai. Bo, the former mayor of the megacity, Chongqing, is thought to have had millions of socialist followers because of popular social policies with Maoist trappings. These days there are also many “Marxologists” and other socialist theorists who do not want to be Party members. Some committed Marxists reject membership for principled reasons. Some socialists prefer not to undergo the strictures and discipline of the Party. Many lack the enthusiasm and happily go on with their own private lives. I would add another 10 million socialists outside the Party.

Thus, my very rough guess is that there are at least 70 million socialists in China. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who observes the intellectual scene in universities, institutes, and the media. Socialism is a known ideology that many take seriously and many more are curious about. (I also heard of many who scoffed at fellow students studying Marxism and socialism.5 There is a lively diversity of opinion.)

This is not to deny that there is also strong interest in capitalism and ideas of neoliberalism in some circles, although there are ways in which such interests are against the grain, historically and politically. Economic decisions might favor private ownership and individual entrepreneurs, but rarely would they be justified on the basis of capitalist ideology or neoliberal theory. Occasionally, ideas are drawn from western “capitalist” thinkers, but almost always in support of socialism with Chinese characteristics.

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Category : China | Marxism | Philosophy | Blog
8
Apr

Youth rebellion in the ‘banlieues’ of Paris

Contemporary Politics and the Crisis of the Negative

Interview by Filippo Del Lucchese and Jason Smith

FILIPPO DEL LUCCHESE and JASON SMITH: We would like to begin by asking you to clarify the relation between philosophy and politics. What do you mean when you speak, for example, of a militant philosophy?

ALAIN BADIOU: Since its beginnings, philosophy’s relationship to the political has been fundamental. It’s not something invented by modernity. Plato’s central work is called The Republic, and it is entirely devoted to questions of the city or polis. This link has remained fundamental throughout the history of philosophy. But I think there are two basic ways of structuring this relationship.

The first way assigns philosophy the responsibility for finding a foundation for the political. Philosophy is called upon to reconstruct the political on the basis of this foundation. This current argues that it is possible to locate, for every politics, an ethical norm and that philosophy should first have the task of reconstructing or naming this norm and then of judging the relation between this norm and the multiplicity of political practices. In this sense, then, what opens the relation between philosophy and politics is the idea of a foundation as well as an ethical conception of the political. But there is a second orientation that is completely different. This current maintains that in a certain sense politics is primary and that the political exists without, before, and differently from philosophy. The political would be what I call a condition of philosophy. In this case, the relation between philosophy and politics would be, in a certain sense, retroactive. That is, it would be a relation in which philosophy would situate itself within political conflicts in order to clarify them. Today, in the extremely obscure situation that is the general system of contemporary politics, philosophy can attempt to clarify the situation without having any pretense to creating it. Philosophy has as its condition and horizon the concrete situation of different political practices, and it will try, within these conditions, to find instruments of clarification, legitimation, and so on. This current takes seriously the idea that politics is itself an autonomy of thought, that it is a collective practice with an intelligence all its own.

It is quite clear that today the question is particularly difficult because we are no longer in a situation in which there is a clear distinction between two opposed political orientations—as was the case in the twentieth century. Not everyone agreed on what the exact nature of these opposed politics was, but everyone agreed there was an opposition between a classical democratic bourgeois politics and another, revolutionary, option. Among the revolutionaries, we debated spiritedly and even violently what, exactly, the true way was but not the existence itself of this global opposition. Today there is no agreement concerning the existence of a fundamental opposition of this sort, and as a result the link between philosophy and politics has become more complex and more obscure. But, fundamentally, it’s the same task. Philosophy tries to clarify what I call the multiple situation of concrete politics and to legitimate the choices made in this space.

DEL LUCCHESE and SMITH: So you see your own philosophical interventions as taking place within this new situation that you describe as “more complex and more obscure” than the classical confrontation between two opposed political orientations?

BADIOU: Definitely. As a result, I see my philosophy as an inheritor of the great contestatory movements of the sixties. In fact, my philosophy emerged out of these movements. It is a philosophy of commitment, of engagement, with a certain fidelity to Sartre, if you like, or to Marxism.

What counts is that the intellectual is engaged in politics and commits to or takes the side of the people and the workers. I move in that tradition. My philosophy tries to keep alive, as best it can (it is not always easy), the idea that there is a real alternative to the dominant politics and that we are not obliged to rally around the consensus that ultimately consists in the unity of global capitalism and the representative, democratic state. I would say, then, that I work under the condition of the situation of political actuality, with the goal of keeping alive, philosophically, the idea of the possibility or opening of a politics I would call a politics of emancipation—but that could also be called a radical or revolutionary politics, terms that today are debatable but that represent all the same a possibility other than the dominant one.

DEL LUCCHESE and SMITH: You mention Sartre in this context where the name Althusser might have been expected. What is your relation to the Althusserian tradition?

BADIOU: The Althusserian tradition is extremely important, and I’ve devoted several texts to Althusser. If I mention Sartre it is simply because my philosophical youth was Sartrean before my encounter with Althusser. I think the Althusserian current was a particularly important one because it gave a new life and force to the link between philosophy and politics and in a less idealist mode—that is, a relation that no longer passed through the form of consciousness. In Sartre, of course, we still find the classical model of the intellectual understood primarily in terms of consciousness—an intellectual must make contact with the struggle and the workers’ organizations, be they the unions or the communist parties. Althusser’s greatness is found in the fact that he proposed a new schema in which the relation between philosophy and politics no longer passed through the psychology of the form of consciousness as it still did with Sartre. Althusser begins with the conviction that philosophy intervenes in the intellectual space of politics. When he proposes the formula “philosophy is the organization of class struggle in theory,” what does he mean? That class struggle exists and that philosophy certainly didn’t invent it. It exists and cuts across intellectual choices. Within the struggle between these choices, philosophy has a special role. It is to intervene and therefore to name, norm, classify, and finally choose in the field of intellectual or theoretical class struggle. Sartre and Althusser are very different, even opposed. But you can reconcile them on one point, namely, that philosophy is nothing if it is not linked to political commitment.

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Category : Intellectuals | Marxism | Organizing | Philosophy | Blog
3
Oct

On the 100th anniversary of the birth of the famed novelist, our reporter searches the north African nation for signs of his legacy

  • By Joshua Hammer
  • Smithsonian magazine, October 2013,

The Hotel El-Djazair, formerly known as the Hotel Saint-George, is an oasis of calm in the tense city of Algiers. A labyrinth of paved pathways winds through beds of hibiscus, cactuses and roses, shaded by palm and banana trees. In the lobby, bellhops in white tunics and red fezzes escort guests past Persian carpets and walls inlaid with mosaics. Beneath the opulence, violence lurks. During the week I was there, diplomats descended on the El-Djazair to repatriate the bodies of dozens of hostages killed in a shootout at a Sahara natural-gas plant between Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Algerian Army.

Violence was in the air as well in January 1956, when the celebrated writer Albert Camus checked into the Hotel Saint-George. The struggle against French colonialism was escalating, with civilians becoming the primary victims. Camus was a pied-noir—a term meaning “black foot,” perhaps derived from the coal-stained feet of Mediterranean sailors, or the black boots of French soldiers, and used to refer to the one million colonists of European origin living in Algeria during French rule. He had returned after 14 years in France to try to stop his homeland from sliding deeper into war. It was a perilous mission. Right-wing French settlers plotted to assassinate him. Algerian revolutionaries watched over him without his knowledge.

The Casablanca-style intrigue—freedom fighters, spies and an exotic North African setting—seemed appropriate. Camus, after all, was often thought of as a literary Humphrey Bogart—dashing, irresistible to women, a coolly heroic figure in a dangerous world.

Camus is regarded as a giant of French literature, but it was his North African birthplace that most shaped his life and his art. In a 1936 essay, composed during a bout of homesickness in Prague, he wrote of pining for “my own town on the shores of the Mediterranean…the summer evenings that I love so much, so gentle in the green light and full of young and beautiful women.” Camus set his two most famous works, the novels The Stranger and The Plague, in Algeria, and his perception of existence, a joyful sensuality combined with a recognition of man’s loneliness in an indifferent universe, was formed here.

In 1957, Anders Österling, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, acknowledged the importance of Camus’ Algerian upbringing when he presented him with the Nobel Prize in Literature, a towering achievement, won when he was only 43. Österling attributed Camus’ view of the world in part to a “Mediterranean fatalism whose origin is the certainty that the sunny splendor of the world is only a fugitive moment bound to be blotted out by the shades.”

Camus is “the single reason people outside Algeria know about this country,” says Yazid Ait Mahieddine, a documentary filmmaker and Camus expert in Algiers, as we sit beneath a photograph of the writer in the El- Djazair bar, alongside images of other celebrities who have passed through here, from Dwight Eisenhower to Simone de Beauvoir. “He is our only ambassador.”

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Category : Culture | Intellectuals | Middle East | Philosophy | Terror and Violence | Blog
27
Sep

 

Legal Orientalism: China, the US and Modern Law

By Teemu Ruskola

Reviewed By Dinesh Sharma
Asia Times

Sept 27, 2013 – What is international law and who owns it? Why has China become the symbol of a lawless nation after the Cold War? Why is the US seen as the law-enforcer-in-chief while China as the law-breaker? Historically, how is it that the US is invariably seen as the chief exporter of law to the emerging BRICS economies by the international business and legal community?

In an era of globalization, we are all asking these questions. Teemu Ruskola, Professor of Law at Emory University, reveals in Legal Orientalism: China, the United States, and Modern Law that this association of China with lawlessness has a long historical trail. He defines "Legal Orientalism" as consisting of political and cultural narratives about the law, which invariably associate the law with Western institutions (the European Union, the United States) and lawlessness with the non-Western societies (Asia, Africa and the rest). Analyzing the history and global impact of these cultural narratives, Ruskola demonstrates how legal Orientalism continues to shape the law and politics in remarkable ways – in China, in the US, and globally.

Ruskola claims that China has a history of corporation law by reinterpreting Confucian family law as a kind of corporate law. He asserts that the rise of extraterritorial jurisdiction in the nineteenth-century by the US into Asia-Pacific region was a form of legal imperialism. He traces its culmination in the establishment of a "US Court for China," an all-but-lawless tribunal where the constitution held no sway. The present-day reforms of Chinese law, Ruskola claims, are a kind of self-Orientalism. These and other fascinating exegeses help the reader understand the history and consequences of legal Orientalism, and to envision a new conception of global justice.

When I asked Ruskola why he relied on Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism to interpret international law, he said, "The literary scholar Edward Said used the term ‘Orientalism’ to describe the way in which Europe has historically defined itself against Oriental ‘Others’ – so while Europeans are free individuals, Orientals are enslaved masses; the West is dynamic, the East stagnant; etc. I use the term ‘legal Orientalism’ to refer to the narratives we tell about what is and isn’t law, and who has it and who doesn’t."

China, he argued, historically has been seen as the home of Oriental despotism and, thus recently, it has been seen as the chief human-rights violator.

 

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Category : China | Hegemony | Philosophy | Blog
20
Sep

Peter Sloterdijk, photo credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By Adam Kirsch

The New Republic | July 19. 2013

Peter Sloterdijk has been one of Germany’s best-known philosophers for 30 years, ever since the publication of his Critique of Cynical Reason in 1983—a thousand-page treatise that became a best-seller. Since then Sloterdijk has been at the forefront of European intellectual life, contributing to public debates over genetic engineering and economics and hosting a long-running discussion program on television, all while publishing a steady stream of ambitious philosophical works.

The Critique of Cynical Reason appeared in English many years ago, but it is only recently that Sloterdijk has begun to emerge on the American horizon. Bubbles, the first volume in a trilogy called Spheres, his magnum opus, appeared here in 2011. Now it is followed by You Must Change Your Life, another wide-ranging and challenging book. Along with Rage and Time, which appeared in English in 2010, these volumes make it possible to begin to come to grips with Sloterdijk as a stirring and eclectic thinker, who addresses himself boldly to the most important problems of our age. Above all, he is concerned with metaphysics—or, rather, with what to do with the empty space that is left over when metaphysics disappears—along with religion, faith in revolution, and the other grand sources of meaning that long gave shape and direction to human lives.

Sloterdijk was born in 1947, making him just the right age to participate in the student movement of the 1960s. By the early 1980s, when he wrote Critique of Cynical Reason, the idealism and the world-changing energy of that movement had long since dwindled into splinter-group violence, on the one hand, and accommodation to the realities of capitalism and the Cold War, on the other. In that cultural moment, Sloterdijk’s diagnosis of “cynicism” was very timely. “The dissolution of the student movement,” he wrote, “must interest us because it represents a complex metamorphosis of hope into realism, of revolt into a clever melancholy.”

Despite its parodic Kantian title, Sloterdijk’s Critique is not a work of theoretical abstraction; it is a highly personal confession of this generational world-weariness. As a philosopher, Sloterdijk is especially struck by the way he and his peers were able to master the most emancipatory and radical philosophical language, but utterly unable to apply its insights to their own lives and their own political situations. Coming after Critical Theory, whose post-Marxist diagnoses of social ills are a key reference point and antagonist for Sloterdijk, younger thinkers have found themselves brilliant at diagnosis and helpless at cure. “Because everything has become problematic, everything is also somehow a matter of indifference,” Sloterdijk observes. The result is cynicism, which he defines in a splendid paradox as “enlightened false consciousness”: “It has learned its lessons in enlightenment, but it has not, and probably was not able to, put them into practice.”

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Category : Hegemony | Philosophy | Blog
17
Aug

Gigi Roggero: The Production of Living Knowledge: The Crisis of the University and the Transformation of Labor in Europe and North America

Translated by Enda Brophy,
Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 2011.
194pp., $69.50 HB.
ISBN 9781439905739

Reviewed by Dave Mesing
Marx & Philosophy Review of Books

July 26, 2013 – After the death of neoliberal politics, Gigi Roggero argues, contemporary capitalism finds itself in a state of crisis in which the possibility exists for an autonomous organization of labor against capitalist command. When put this way, Roggero’s argument sounds too utopian for a context in which academic laborers face increasing precariousness, anxiety and pressure, at the same time as a decrease in compensation, influence and control. However, Roggero’s opening salvo that neoliberalism is finished is not a naïve profession of faith in the prospects for the struggle against capital; he is critically attuned to the possibilities and limits of the contemporary conjuncture. In positing the death of neoliberalism at the outset of his study, Roggero does not mean that specific instances of neoliberal politics or its effects no longer exist. Instead, he argues that a fundamental point of analysis necessary for an accurate understanding of the current political situation in both Europe and North America is that neoliberalism is no longer able to constitute itself as a coherent system.

Roggero refers to this situation as a double crisis: both the global economy and the western university are in trouble. For Roggero, crisis is no longer a stage in an economic cycle, but rather the contemporary form of capitalist accumulation, and the university is undergoing a similar crisis which he claims is intimately connected to the economic crisis. This is because Roggero takes his point of departure from the fact that ‘it is impossible to understand the transformations of the university if they are not connected to the transformations of labor and production.’ (3) In order to explore the commonalities between the crisis in capitalism and the crisis in the university, Roggero reads the conflicts within the university in terms of class struggle, power relations and production. He argues that the production and management of knowledge is central to contemporary relations of production, but notes that this thesis does not mean that there is an alternative between intellectual and manual labor, or that manual labor is disappearing.

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Category : Marxism | Philosophy | Technology | Blog
20
May

For Benjamin, religion was a vessel that contained within its authoritarian history and structures the spark of liberation

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin: "The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule" Photograph: EPA

By Peter Thompson

The Guardian, UK April, 22, 2013

Quoting Hegel, Walter Benjamin reminds us that before all philosophy comes the struggle for material existence: "Secure at first food and clothing, and the kingdom of God will come to you of itself – Hegel, 1807", or as Brecht – Benjamin’s greatest and closest friend – put it "first bread, then morality". But this precisely did not mean that abstraction, speculation and thought per se had to be rejected in favour of an entirely mechanistic historical materialism. What sets all of the thinkers in this series apart from many of their more orthodox Marxist contemporaries is precisely their concern with those issues which cannot be measured, tested and decided upon but which remain undecided and undecidable.

As Benjamin puts it in his On the Concept of History: "The class struggle, which always remains in view for a historian schooled in Marx, is a struggle for the rough and material things, without which there is nothing fine and spiritual. Nevertheless these latter are present in the class struggle as something other than mere booty, which falls to the victor. They are present as confidence, as courage, as humour, as cunning, as steadfastness in this struggle, and they reach far back into the mists of time. They will, ever and anon, call every victory which has ever been won by the rulers into question. Just as flowers turn their heads towards the sun, so too does that which has been turned, by virtue of a secret kind of heliotropism, towards the sun which is dawning in the sky of history. To this most inconspicuous of all transformations the historical materialist must pay heed."

On this reading, history escapes a linear or teleological path around a fixed point and becomes a mixture of points at which possibilities are either realised or rejected but never disappear completely. Again, this continues the theme that Marx took up in his 1844 letter to Ruge, which I have quoted before, about the realisation of a long-held human dream. Benjamin calls this "messianic time" in which historical possibility is resurrected over and over again in order to inform our choices at specific historical junctures. For this reason his historical materialism called upon the services of theology, which, however, had to be kept well-hidden from public view even though it was often pulling the strings. To those who criticise communism and Marxism as "merely" a new form of religious belief, Benjamin’s position – as with Ernst Bloch, whom I shall look at next week – was that religion was actually a vessel that contained within its authoritarian history and structures the spark of liberation which could only be fully realised through historical materialist transformation. In that sense religion is "merely" an old form of a future and as yet unrealisable dream.

Until this unrealisable future becomes realisable its traces have to be read into the symbolic forms of human expression in various different historical epochs. To return to Adorno’s take on history in Negative Dialectics, Benjamin’s position is that we find the solution to the apparent non-identity of the material and the transcendental within the symbolic. We can see here quite clearly another point of contact between Marx and Freud where transcendental thoughts exist not as something separate from material reality but as something both produced by and also affecting and influencing that material reality. In Marx this is the interpenetrating relationship between base and superstructure, to put it at its simplest, and in Freud it exists in the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious realms. In Freud the symbolic plays the role of expression of that which is unknown to us but which we secretly know; namely, the unconscious. In Marx this symbolic expression is present in ideology, which, far from being a straightforward linear relationship between base and superstructure is constantly in flux and which can be captured and changed by the attempted realisations of human possibility. Ideas change as society changes but ideas also create social change.

For Benjamin the role of the symbolic in art thus takes on a transitional historical role. His work on the Baroque, for example, posits it as the turning point between medieval religiosity and renaissance secularisation and the Trauerspiel (Mourning-Play) of that period, with its obsession with violence and death, reflects the growing yet still largely unconscious realisation that there is no happy end in heaven and that – as Bloch puts it – death becomes the harshest of all anti-utopias. Art and culture in his era though, in the era of what he hoped was the transition from capitalism to socialism, had to grasp the dual possibilities of technology so that it could be harnessed not to master nature but to master the relationship between humanity and nature.

This means that art had to take on a political role in increasing the awareness of what was at long last the real human potential for the realisation of the old dreams. It could go either way though; down the Adornian route from the slingshot to the megaton bomb or onwards and upwards to the sunlit uplands of social liberation. Art and technology therefore become interlinked and politicised, predominantly in film. The "aura" of traditional art may have been destroyed by modernity but the future "aura" of liberated humanity as a living work of art had to take its place. If fascism represented the aestheticisation of politics then the fight against fascism had to involve the politicisation of aesthetics and the active creation of the aura of potential.

This is why Benjamin states that "the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realise that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against fascism." In other words, all class society is a permanent state of emergency in which the rulers are always under threat. Fascism is thus not some sort of breakdown of tradition but a continuation of traditional class rule by other means. Overcoming it thus requires not just anti-fascist attitudes but also a destruction of its roots in class oppression. Or, as Horkheimer put it in 1939: "If you don’t want to talk about capitalism then you had better keep quiet about fascism." 

Category : Capitalism | Fascism | Philosophy | Blog