The Relevance of the Human in Politics, April 27-28, 2012. University of Dundee
Keynote Speakers: Todd May, Christina Howells, James Williams, and Gerald Moore
The Post Graduate philosophy conferences at the University of Dundee have, over the last four years, explored the resurgence of interest in continental metaphysics. This year’s conference will continue to build on this theme, but in an explicitly political direction and explore the role of the human in the contemporary philosophy of politics. With the renewed interest in humanisms of all sorts, we are seeking to address the problematic of the human in politics: are humanistic political philosophies part of a bygone era? What is the potential place for the human, or a robust humanism, in both the academy and the popular sphere? Are the criticisms of post-phenomenological thinkers still relevant in light of recent philosophical interests and world events? To what extent can ‘post-humanist’ philosophies contribute to political desires?
This year, we will take an explicitly political turn by seeking to explore the importance, or unimportance, of the human in politics. Through an examination of the human, the conference will examine one of the overlooked aspects of the subject and subjectivity, a key concern of previous conferences at Dundee, as well as occurring under the unique historical conditions that have seen political uprisings emerge around the globe across various cultural, political, and religious spectrums.
We invite abstracts of up to 500 words for 20 minute presentations on topics generally related to the contemporary importance (or unimportance) of the human in politics.
Suggested topics include (but are by no means constrained to):
- Humanism and/or anti-humanism in Continental thought: particularly in relation to Badiou, Agamben, Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, Henry, Hardt/Negri, Zizek, Heidegger, de Beauvoir, Malabou, etc.
- 21st Century Humanism
- Humanism and its critics in German Idealism
- Post-human political theory
- Resurgence of interest in Sartre and existentialism
- The role of advanced media in political theory
- Politics and/or economics after ‘The Arab Spring’
- Political theory and the ‘Occupy’ Movements
- Speculative Realism, Object-Oriented-Ontology, and the critique of anthropocentrism
- The conditions of group action
- Neuroscience and political philosophy
- Ontology and Politics
- Feminism and human identity
Abstracts due by 15 February, 2012. Email to Austin Smidt at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
It’s been more than fashionable to label our time as “post-critical”, a designation for the seeming omniscience of the democratic-political order. Ideology, and its bastard son ideology critique, had its hey-day, but we’ve learned the lessons of the past, and now it’s time to move into an always-emerging state of cynical dystopia. It’s obvious that this is not in fact the case, and that people and institutions still speak and act as mouthpieces for ideology: following Zizek, it’s just changed from the classical “they know not what they do” to the modern “they know what they do, but they do it anyway!” This doesn’t mean the end of criticism, it just means that criticism needs to change from the mode of “revealing the secret desires” to the mode of “revealing the secret desires behind the desires already exposed.”
In this vein, it’s quite nice to see examples of subversive critique in the current political climate, especially in relation to the Occupy movement. Zizek, in the LRB blog, had this to say regarding some of the nonsensical criticisms of OWS:
The Wall Street protests are just a beginning, but one has to begin this way, with a formal gesture of rejection which is more important than its positive content, for only such a gesture can open up the space for new content. So we should not be distracted by the question: ‘But what do you want?’ This is the question addressed by male authority to the hysterical woman: ‘All your whining and complaining – do you have any idea what you really want?’ In psychoanalytic terms, the protests are a hysterical outburst that provokes the master, undermining his authority, and the master’s question – ‘But what do you want?’ – disguises its subtext: ‘Answer me in my own terms or shut up!’ So far, the protesters have done well to avoid exposing themselves to the criticism that Lacan levelled at the students of 1968: ‘As revolutionaries, you are hysterics who demand a new master. You will get one.’
Likewise, voyou made a similar claim about the perverse displacement of desire in relation to the always ubiquitous call against protest-led property damage:
Liberals complain about property damage during the various marches and actions, but they’re quick to add that it is not they themselves who are disturbed or offended; rather, they are concerned about the effect this property damage will have on others, particularly the cops who will react violently and the media who will focus on images of destruction to the exclusion of whatever else the demonstration achieved. The liberal’s position here is perverse in the Lacanian sense: it expresses itself not as an actual desire, but as a desire to be the instrument of the desire of some fantasized other. Part of what supports this disavowed desire is that the objection to property damage can present itself as neutral, even expert, strategic advice.
Who said philosophy isn’t practical?
Over the last few months, I’ve been spending my after-hours walking leisurely through the first four seasons of Mad Men on Netflix streaming. Obviously, like everybody else, I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly, but I’d prefer to refrain from waxing eloquent on its elegant style, its pitch-perfect dialogue, or the show’s most unique feature – the idiosyncratic slow-burn, almost plot-less pace (of which many words could be very well spent, I might add). Instead, I’d like to address the dramatic relationship of Don and Betty Draper.
I’ve made it up to the very beginning of season four, and as far as I see it, the main couple’s dynamic is fairly evenly split: season one focused on Don’s sexual and otherwise deceitful escapades paired with Betty’s noticeable innocence; season two centered around Betty’s growing dissatisfaction with her married life and her penchant for taking it out on the kids; and season three culminated with the entire family’s breaking apart slowly until the exposing of Don’s secret past was able to retroactively validate the snowball of destruction that had destroyed any further possibility of Draper family unity. This phenomenon is best seen in an episode in season three where each of the family members quietly abuses the person one-rung lower on the hierarchy: Don violently grabs Betty’s notebook to write down an address, Betty silently moves Sally out of the way to use her mirror, and Sally goes all De Niro on poor unwitting Bobby. To make the truism stick, I was simply waiting for Bobby to kick the dog!
In season four, Betty has divorced Don and forced him to move out of the house, so it seems an ideal time to carefully measure out their wrongs, to weigh the scales of their injustices. What seems clear to me at this point, however, is that the balance of justice is skewed largely by the weight of the particular infractions. Don has done everything wrong in this series of events: he’s cheated several times, lied about a great number of things, and been an altogether uncaring and hapless parent and husband. But he does it with class. There’s almost an authenticity to his Janus-face. Betty, on the other hand, acts like a stubborn child throughout, whining, complaining, and being altogether bitter about her current station. She’s not being honest about what she really wants (proven by her insistence on staying in Don’s house – she just wants the same unrealistic family ideal, but with a replacement husband).
This reminded of a phenomenon Zizek spoke of in some book or lecture, the origin of which escapes me now. He references the historical fact that post World War II films universally obeyed a sort of moral structuring principle: not only would the Allies be the good guys and the Nazis be the bad guys, but they would be so all the way down. In the big picture, the Allies fought for the right cause: to stop the evil rise of the Third Reich, but in order to make that scenario cinematically plausible, they would need to be portrayed as the kind of people that do the right thing, that is, honest, caring, and basically good to the core. Likewise, the Nazis would need to be understood as the kind of people that do the horribly wrong thing, so we would witness them engage in petty evils like backstabbing, lying, and an altogether vicious nature, rotten to the core. The Manicheanism is obvious, and it betrays the simple ontology in the background of the narrative: a person or a people are a united something. For Zizek, what would have been really interesting, and presumably more analogous to an ambiguous reality, would have been a scenario where the Nazis were the ones who felt a strong kinship with their brothers, held themselves to a high moral standard, and manifested a pleasant nature even while committing known atrocities, whereas the Allies traded in the sort of debauchery and moral callousness normally associated with opposing parties. Yet all the while, from a cinematic point of view, their opposition to the Nazi evil was still unambiguously correct. The Allies aren’t authentically good down to their respective cores, but their basic trajectory is righteous, their principle acts have moral weight. The Nazis, however, feature all the social graces, and this in no way inhibits their becoming monsters. This would have been a story worthy of the label “drama.”
What seems clear to me at this point is that Don and Betty occupy these latter two structurally uncertain poles. Ignoring Godwin’s Law for a moment, Don takes the role of the central wrong-doer: he’s done every kind substantial and material misdeed of which one can think, yet the grace and seeming authenticity of his demeanor convinces us of a certain goodness to his character – “he doesn’t really mean to hurt anyone after all, I mean, how could he, right?”, we ask with trepidation. His is Arendt’s banality of evil, but privatized and packaged for familial consumption. Meanwhile, Betty’s wrongs are almost incalculable, and not because they are too numerous to mention, but because, individually, they are lacking in any meaning. She is parallel to the Allies in Zizek’s bizarro war film: engaging in various annoying idiosyncrasies and displaying a temperament unfitting for a prospective heroine. She whines and complains about every little thing, desires nothing but the most superficial of pleasures, and is driven by romantic ideals which she is entirely unwilling to admit to herself or others. She’s disdainful, but even so, I would argue that we must root for her. I do not mean that we should root for her personally, as in wishing for the downfall of Don and the realization of her dreams (to follow Zizek, this would only actually ruin her, as happens when the false desires of the Imaginary are fulfilled), but that we should follow the aforementioned logical re-structuring and re-frame the narrative to fit a more ambiguous, and yet centrally moral claim, something I think the creators of Mad Men hint at occasionally (and since all they ever do is hint, I’ll take that as equivalent to heavy-handedness). It’s the re-situating of the ethical coordinates that’s in view here, and great stories become great by forever altering the way we understand the world. If nothing else, understand me to be saying that this is great television, and honestly the greatest form of drama.
From a Guardian article about Zizek’s involvement in another Pervert’s Guide to… film:
To be around him is to be privy to a gregarious, open-ended address on, well, take your pick: Shostakovich, cloud computing, industrial rock band Rammstein, Malian cotton production, Icelandic crime fiction, the 1,200-page opus on Hegel he’s just finished writing, all punctuated by a supply of dirty jokes involving married couples in the former Yugoslavia.
It’s strangely surreal to hear Zizek patch together a bunch of one-liners, anecdotes, and jokes (i.e., his usually tropes) in a setting like OWS. Somehow, they take on a completely different tone. I would like to think that Zizek is embodying a sort of prophetic mode here – not in the naive evangelical sense of predicting the future, but in the actual biblical sense of speaking apocalyptic truth to the times. Zizek has never done well with prescriptive measures or prognostication, so his stance as a “prophet of the times” has sometimes felt a bit hollow. On a soapbox with the (literal) amplification of hundreds of young people, however, and these Zizekisms seem rejuvenated, resurrected, if you will.
Since we at SSA consider ourselves at least on the margins to be a philosophy blog, and since we’re centrally located in the community of those who enjoin themselves to think critically about the social function of religion, I though it necessary to direct the reader to recent commentary on the Egyptian revolution by contemporary philosophers. Here is Zizek on the Arab revolutionary spirit, and here is Badiou on riots and revolution, and just last week Peter Hallward commented on the return of the concept of “the will of the people” here. Lastly, the aforementioned Zizek was on Al-Jazeera with Tariq Ramadan yesterday in rare “all fired up” form. I found his brief comments (or “ravings”, if you will) to be a full endorsement of the generic secular. As Z himself put it: “they’re showing us how to do it.”
As the world upends with the news of Zizek’s sudden demise, I thought I’d at least point to a (mostly) worthwhile effort on Z’s part. In the latest LRB, Zizek finally enters the fray per Wikileaks and secret governments. The essay is a bit, you might say… all over the place. And not always in the classic Zizekian way, as some of the bits on “tact” seem out of place in terms of coherence and not simply linearity. However, the coda of the work gets back on track quite nicely (almost like a season of Dexter). Succinctly, Zizek argues that the political use of tact entails well-meaning lies meant to uphold the social order, and that there are occasions when social good is achieved through the keeping up of appearances. However, certain situations, following Marx’s famous quip about farcical historical reenactment, require the logic of shame:
There are moments – moments of crisis for the hegemonic discourse – when one should take the risk of provoking the disintegration of appearances. Such a moment was described by the young Marx in 1843. In ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law’, he diagnosed the decay of the German ancien regime in the 1830s and 1840s as a farcical repetition of the tragic fall of the French ancien regime. The French regime was tragic ‘as long as it believed and had to believe in its own justification’. The German regime ‘only imagines that it believes in itself and demands that the world imagine the same thing. If it believed in its own essence, would it … seek refuge in hypocrisy and sophism? The modern ancien regime is rather only the comedian of a world order whose true heroes are dead.’ In such a situation, shame is a weapon: ‘The actual pressure must be made more pressing by adding to it consciousness of pressure, the shame must be made more shameful by publicising it.’
A more pressing question: Is Zizek’s controversial descent into social conservatism the farcical repetition of some tragic earlier demise hitherto unrealized? I, for one, hope not.
Latte Labour has been running a great series on the convergence (personal for him, political for the rest of us) of Marxism and Christianity. Much of the content concerns itself with classic Marxist criticism of religious discourse:
I think that Marx’s account of alienated religion is correct, and backed by a mountain of empirical evidence. People do invest God with human properties (this, note, is the precisely the opposite of the move made by the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation); people do, moreover, look to some future afterlife for a happiness denied them here and now. God, for many, is a bloke (always a bloke) who behaves pretty much like a passive-aggressive petty dictator and who designed and made the world in much the same sense that Clive Sinclair designed and built the C5. Like the Thatcherite entrepreneur, this deity also has a beard (as Keith Flett will be delighted to learn). He is like us, only bigger. And he will make everything OK in heaven, so bear your poor pay and sexist boss with good grace.
But what really caught my attention were the comments regarding the implicit Marxist criticism of the New Atheists. Essentially, the movement from the Feuerbachian critique of religion as theologized anthropology to Marx’s social criticism is a move these particular atheists have yet to make:
But, as Jesus might have said were he formed by reading Eagleton rather than Ezekiel, alas also for you New Atheists! This smug crowd are nothing more than the Feuerbachians of our own age, without the nuance. Precisely like Feuerbach they attend to the criticism of religious consciousness at the expense of the criticism of political oppression and economic exploitation. Turning the Marxian explanatory order on its head, they see religious illusion as primarily the cause of these evils, not as an effect of them. Religion, claimed Richard Dawkins shortly after 9/11, strapped the explosives to the bombers. In so doing, he occluded a clear understanding of the social conditions which give rise to fundamentalism, and stands subject to Marx’s critique.
Absolutely excellent analysis, and placed historically in a way I haven’t considered before.
However, the coda of this particular post featured something my Protestant inclinations found unfortunate: what Robert Sokolowski calls the “Christian Distinction”:
if God gives rise to material, extended, temporal things, indeed to space and time themselves, then God cannot herself be one of these things. Or so argues a long tradition of religious thinkers including Maimonides and Aquinas. There is a problem, though. We can only speak and think, and for that matter worship, using concepts developed in our exploration of the material world. It is inevitable that our talk about God is somewhat unsuited to the task – we say God is strong, but we do not mean he can tug a truck, she has no body. “We can know that God exists”, writes Aquinas, “but not what he is”. This conceptual evasiveness is inevitable, but – so this tradition thinks – there is a danger in not taking these second-hand images of the divine with a healthy pinch of salt.
Now, of course I’m not going to say absolute and exhaustive knowledge of anything is available to the human mind (let alone concerning deities), but the Barthian (including Ebeling’s theological theory of language) point still remains: God’s self-revelation in the history and person of Christ is the tool which enables us to speak correctly of God as a person with a history. True, if we had a God like that of Aristotle or Plato, analogical language would be strained and a Christian distinction would be necessary, but the actual Christian distinction (the fact of incarnation and death) is what enables us to, against Aquinas, know what he is. The questions becomes, not is this God subject to critique? (a sort of theological diplomatic immunity), but instead is this particular God found guilty? It is my belief that, considered correctly, the logic of incarnation-death-resurrection-community escapes the marxist critique not through category distinction, but through actually coming to terms with the critique (I see this as a fundamentally Protestant distinction, but perhaps thats unfair). The consequence of this “distinction” manifests itself in the subsequent quote from Catholic philosopher-theologian Denys Turner:
All, as it were, demand that we should love in divine darkness, in a world deprived of any ultimate meaning which is at our disposal, for either, as in Marx, there is no such transcendent meaning, or as in the mystic, there is, but it is not at our disposal.
According to the Christian distinction, there is always an as-of-yet unheard or unknown absolute, forever removed from human knowledge. I can’t help but think this position is fundamentally antithetical to the marxist position (as opposed to the “family resemblance” assumed above). In Zizekian terms, the marxist analysis follows the feminine logic of Incompleteness (there is no transcendent meaning), while the latter (the mystic) follows the masculine logic of the constitutive exception, as the fallback position of the Wholly Other situates all claims to knowledge while refraining from suffering the same fate itself. I find this to be a major impediment towards developing any kind of theological materialism worthy of founding a new form of political thought. In short, don’t do that.
Speaking of Marx, here’s an amusing interview recently conducted with His Beardedness at what one can only assume is a centrally located Seattle coffee shop.