mynameisconflict

A blog on political conflict and the ways we make sense of it

It Takes a Certain Strength to Be a Human Being, Or, the Fragmentation of Meaning in Baltimore

Explaining how something becomes possible does not require that the ‘something’ in question be explained away. Many of the non-violent protestors and would-be spokespersons for the events in Baltimore have not made this distinction.

From the view in New Jersey, there seems to be an acute fragmentation of perception and understanding about the tactics and interpretation of the events in Baltimore. As the Times reported, a young member of the Crips noted that gangs had temporarily unified to protect Black businesses from looting. I mention this only to note that this suggests a level of tactical awareness among some of the protestors inclined to destroy private property. That Chinese and Arab businesses in these communities are also, globally speaking, marginalized, is a point that James Baldwin deals with at length in “Negros Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White.” This points to a contradiction in the tactics in Baltimore.

It is a tactical error among protestors in any situation to segment themselves into color-based blocks. This fact stings with a particular venom in ghettoized Black communities where the Black (male) body is simultaneously a target of police-surveillance. The appearance of the Black male body in the city is inseparable from the appearance of the suspect in the eyes of the police. This occurs at the same moment when Police Chiefs of ghettoized cities across the country deny the importance of race full stop. ‘We only see Blacks in these communities: Blacks are victims and criminals; how can police be racist?’ they ask. Perhaps this is because the police cannot and do not wish to see themselves. For no matter what the force’s racial composition, policing-of-the-ghetto-from-without is a white concept, a white power structure.

What do I mean by whiteness? And how, if I have just said that the colorline cannot be the line that guides mobilization, can we destroy whiteness while uniting in solidarity with all oppressed persons? Simply: whiteness is not a cultural identity the way Blackness in America is one. Whiteness has no history apart from the history of oppressing a group and telling that group, “I am white and you are X.” To the extent that poor working and non-working Americans of European or Arab or Asian descent agree that they are ‘white’ or that they adhere to the markers of whiteness: ownership, cultural oppression of others, sexism, elitism, they reaffirm the reality of whiteness in America. These are the minds that are most destroyed, most pitiful in their bad-faith efforts, for the are the minds of the self-colonizing. On the flip side, all capitalists are white. This point is so obvious that it hardly needs saying.

For there never was a man so white as the President of the United States if he allows a war in his own nation to continue (the very idea of a thing called Presidency is a white idea). There never was a man so white as to participate in the assault of firefighters and medics who are attempting to mitigate the destruction and suffering of other marginals. Notice, I say the firefighters and the medics: it is the direction one applies her energies that determines one’s ‘color.’ Either one is for community or one is for oppression. Color in America is the metaphor of oppression; and do not let yourselves believe that a metaphor cannot draw blood.

The white man is the man who attacks another man. The human being is the man who destroys that which destroys others: human beings may break the windows of a chain department store, or they may put out a community center that is raging in flames. But they do not aim to hurt men simply to make them hurt.

The human being who strikes to equalize power can have no color. This person does not seek to harm, but liberate. The white man strikes at targets indiscriminately with a view to enrich his own power over others, to dominate, to colonize minds. In the process, he colonizes himself.

It should be sufficiently clear by now that anyone can be white with a little hatred; one doesn’t even need money. But it takes a certain kind of strength to be a human being. The police officer who laid down his gun and took off his helmet to join the protestors renounced his whiteness. We need more people to renounce their whiteness in this way, while understanding that a few rallies–or even a few ‘riots’ as they have been called–will not be enough to dismantle the white police.

This leads me to address the confusing role that some of the anarchists in Baltimore have played in interpreting the events. A poster named “ACAB” on anarchist news seems to miss entirely what an anarchist principle of resistance is and what its goals might be. In long and rambling narrative of the night of 25 April, the writer confounds the Baltimore police, the National Guard, and (implication) all capitalist businesses in a conglomerate of “the State.” The author suggests that every aggression against a police offer is also a unified aggression against the failed State.

It is true that whatever idea of a state there is in Baltimore has failed to act as anything other than a surveillance force. But the problem remains that “the State” does not exist. That may be its greatest failure. It is ironic, then, that the main wellspring of action for this anarchist is the synthetic totality of the State. Would she have to think harder about her actions and her tactics if there was no unity to destroy? Has she not made herself an object, a mere battering ram against any target whatever? Indeed, it is more alarming, more agonal, more terrifying, to contemplate that there is no master agent, no co-ordination, no unified intention among those who hold power over us and oppress us. In short, the concept of the State is fantasy of power. It is the very fantasy that enables the idea of the riot, another fantasy of totality.

For those who identify with white power, the riot (from about 1935 in the US) is a term that attempts to totalize differentiated actors (with different personal interests, aims, and outlooks) into a single object, a single-minded Other unified by a lack of individuality. The alternative is to posit that the revolutionary riot is predetermined in its outcome, which is basically to posit another fantasy of external control over oneself. To fantasize that one abandon one’s self to the riot displays an acute tendency of the self-colonized mind.

But I have already gone on too long to begin to discuss how problematic is the mindless interchanging of ‘protestors’ with ‘rioters.’

Now, a concluding word. The tactical impulse displayed by those gang members who have organized to protect children and local businesses have it half right. (If only those people had to courage to admit to one another that they were human beings and not gang Crips or Bloods!) We need protection from domination and there is no better way to do that than from the standpoint of community. The alternative is police domination imposed from without, of white oppression, of our invisibility apart from our brief appearance on the streets and in the courts as mere objects-of-governance.

Upon close inspection, all will find that the money that changes hands in Chinese bodegas and Black bodegas does not itself change color. To be against capital is to be against all capital. To be against whiteness is to be against those who seek to dominate, to own, to oppress, to harm for harm’s sake. The idea of arbitrary color-unity has wrought more destruction in this country than any other precisely because it has enabled capital to keep oppressed groups isolated from one another. And we supply the labor in their stores and in policing our own minds.

We must develop our community in solidarity with all of the oppressed in all of their various situations. This is our only hope. All: renounce your whiteness, and renounce your hatred.

The Politics of Breathing Black

This image of LeBron James wearing an “I can’t breathe” tee shirt at a Cav’s warmup cropped up in my inbox this afternoon:

Image courtesy of sports.nationalpost.com

The message on the shirt refers to Eric Garner’s last words before he died from neck-compression resulting from police force in Staten Island this summer. A quick search revealed that many protesters and protest-supporters are wearing something similar. Many of the most visible wearers are black male professional athletes including Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, and Johnson Bademosi. This particular photo seems to be on trend because of President Obama’s endorsement in People Magazine of athletes like James taking a stance on current political issues. While Obama said that he felt LeBron “did the right thing” in wearing the shirt publicly, the President said he hoped to see more engagement from athletes on a broader scope of issues. Obama did not endorse the larger wave of protests and organization surrounding the police’s killing of unarmed citizens Eric Garner and Michael Brown, he only reaffirmed the influential role that such athletes can play in drawing attention to contemporary issues.

In the midst of my insta-research on the Garner tee shirts, two things came up that disturbed me, even though they definitely don’t shock me.

The first thing I saw was that Catherine Crump, an Illinois woman, is attempting to trademark the phrase. The Washington Post reported that Crump’s application for trademark listed “commercial purposes.” Crump has no relationship with Garner, who died in July of 2014, and has not contacted the family in New York. So, take a look at these image of Bademosi’s DIY shirt and the numerous optics of protestors carrying these words on signs and their bodies again:

Imagine courtesy of pix11.com

image courtesy of the burningplatform.com


If the trademark application is granted, a phrase that has transformed into a rally-call against police brutality will become entangled at the nexus of public speech and private license. Not just tee shirts produced by Crump but the very inscription of resistance in speech and letters against police violence will become recoded as the private property of an individual. I haven’t done enough research in the matter yet but I can only hope that the application is denied or withdrawn.

Without going too far afield in what I hope will be a brief post, I was struck by how well Garner’s death and Crump’s trademark application typify a tendency in American political life to publicize risk and privatize gain. How dissimilar are Crump’s actions and the generations of marketing and co-optation that surround the legacy of civil rights leaders and the protest movements of the 60’s more generally? (Seriously: I once saw a commercial for an investment planning service supplicate to the risk-taking, world-shaping hippie-generation, splicing images of color-saturated pastoral images (think: Woodstock) with a portfolio.] Crump may be a stark example, but it doesn’t strike me that it’s an outlier in our cultural lexicon.

But that’s just sort of small change–or maybe it’s the Beebus to the Butthead of what I saw next. Apparently there’s a cop from Indiana named Jason Barthel who’s selling these clever shirts:

Officer Jason Barthel’s witty response to the “I can’t breathe” tee shirt. Image courtesy of chicagoist.com

Barthel’s Facebook shop apparently clarified the slogan on the shirt by reiterating that “breathing easy” was meant to engender trust in police officers. Side-stepping the fact that most of us who can read weren’t born yesterday, I started to ponder Barthel’s message. What was it that Eric Garner shouldn’t have been doing when Officer Daniel Panteleo suspected him of selling loose cigarettes? What should unarmed persons–even if suspected of a crime–do to remind police that in between an officer’s suspicion and a citizen’s violent death that there are these things called the fourth and fifth amendments? What is it exactly that LeBron and Johnson and Kobe should be doing so they can prove they’re not breaking the law? And then I got it: they should stop being Black males. The horizon between being Black and male and being criminal has become so indeterminate that we can neither fully disentangle nor simply reduce one category to the other.

Ours is one hell of a schizophrenic society: one-half colorblind, one half racialized. Just two of the most prominent examples of unarmed victims of police violence demonstrate that American male Blackness is inseparable from what is seen as criminal in our society. And criminality, while (empirically) including different categories of political other–being poor, ghettoized (in inner cities or Appalachian ruins), under-educated, and under-employed, is marked by nothing in our discourse more so than color.

If indeed the right to a fair trial, or the right to be nonviolently arrested and chard at the very least, are rights under attack, I suggest we abandon quaint notions of progressive reform, piecemeal integration, and generational uplift and exchange them for ideas that can help us make sense of where we actually are, not where the linear story of “postracial” America suggests we live.

I had this idea once that the most failed aspect of the modern American state was the propensity to link the inclusion of Black citizens to polity by way of the (very low) floor of the courtroom and the institutions of the criminal justice system. Liberals in the early decades of the 20th century may have needed to rally behind due process as the most robust and most likely path to ending white mob violence and law-enforcement lynchings, it was “a different world.”

But surely the strong relationship between the criminal law and Black citizenship needs to be weakened, overturned, and surpassed not defended as “progress”… right?

An Existenial American in… Kiev: A repost

An interesting comment I found from an American comrade who went to Kiev during the 2014 Revolution. I will not tell you what to think, but only ask that you do:

1. Putin has used rhetoric of fascist nationalists in an attempt to discredit the Revolution and the government. This author presumably does not share the propagandistic notions of the Kremlin and yet said author claims this is a right wing dominated political milieu as of 3.1.2014. Might there exist some complexities in the phenomenon Ukrainian nationalism that are not coextensive with fascism?

2. What are the values and the limits of individualistic, seemingly non-syndicalist/non-realist interpretation of social action?

3. Do presumptions of existential loneliness preclude political formation and associations beyond affective kinship? (IE must anarchistic motives always accompany a syndicalist component)

4. Is horizontal really horizontal association if domination is reproduced? Isn’t this a failure to perceive other dimensions of power?

I visited the maidan for the first time yesterday. Again today. It is a bad place; psychically assaulting. To act as myself would be to invite physical violence from any of the masked/armed/armored men that are everywhere so I adopt the passing role I perform most often. Their eyes search for deviance and their mouths bark orders I can’t understand. I know them. Police, diffused.

To be there is to be confronted by something terrible. All nodes in the network of domination are present and cofunctioning more perfectly than I experience them in daily life. Daily life is just any block away from where the immense barricades create inside/outside.

Inside nearly all horizontality is gone. Gone is the mutal aid in service of revolution. Not that I’m upset at this except for missing the chance to make a sandwich as feminist action. Horizontality on its own is meaningless, or, maybe we are learning all the time at our work places w/o bosses, on the streets of Kiev, and from images of post-riot broom blocs organized from #Twitter that horizontality is actually hostile to us unless certain conditions are present that are consciously arranged. Left to spontaneity, horizontality may tend to reproduce domination this time in a horizontal mode.

It has been replaced by the beginnings of the differentiation of “the opposition ” into distinct sects. With revolution won, and The Police nowhere (but the necessity of policing burning behind the eyes of every masked man), they are faced with the obligation to continue their civil war by political means. Huge banners are everywhere with faces of politicians and names of parties/cliques/crews. Masked men no longer fight The Police but instead are balanced precariously on makeshift ladders tying up more line from which to hang banners, every suitable surface already fully saturated. I think it doesn’t take Clauswitz/Foucault for them to recognize their present maneuvers for war = politics = war. It only took the lived experience of preparing/fighting/winning war and a few cusory thoughts to what is to come.

The barricades are ominous. They would be beautiful if not for the cause of their creators, so, instead they are terrifying. Manned by armed/armored/masked men, still.

The volume of fascist graffiti is disturbing.

The graffiti is: Swastika and sloganeering. But also crew names – the fascists formed armed/armored crews during the revolution – heralding their presence.

But what really gets me are the circle-A’s (sprayed, I’m told, by antisocial youths more often than by “real” anarchists…) that have been détourn as iron crosses. The first time I saw one I think that it is a circle-A over the iron cross. I am slightly amused and recognize myself – we’ve all censored racist or fascist graffiti before, no? But the second time I see this it is somehow totally plain to me that it is a fascist reappropriation of space.

I’m crushed. This realization is as jarring as the terrifying moment I’m roughly pulled by my arm into orderedness by a masked/armed/armored man after I didn’t understand his orders in Ukrainian to walk where he says I should walk and not where I am walking. I only realize the issue is where I’m walking after I’m thinking I’m being attacked. Comrades are still hospitalized here from assaults by mobs of men like him. And for less than walking out of bounds.

The US State Dept. issued a travel advisory for Kiev before I arrived but I have still never felt scared of my American-ness despite people telling me I am brave for being here in the same breath as telling me Americans aren’t safe here – I need to be careful. They reify threats by making warnings. Maybe on purpose. Here, I am seen by all for a part of who I am – a spoiled westerner.

Ukrainians, especially young and pretty women, are isolated from the west, bodily, by visa denials. Officially, you can apply for a tourist visa for USA or EU but because of “stereotypes of mail order brides and that all Ukrainian women are prostitutes in the west” they are all denied. This is told to me by a 20-something ex-anarchist ex-hardcore punk rocker ex-straight edge ex-vegan still-wild woman I had the pleasure to meet serendipitously.

Reality here: Dropping out of anarchy and into a state run subpar university education-in-progress is her ticket to student visa status in the west and a chance at self-actualization she could never have here no matter the subcultural identifiers or strugglismo under taken. She told me about her experiences in antifascist black bloc actions and how she is glad for those experiences and all those ex-subcultures because they opened her eyes to possibilities she could have never known otherwise. Possibilities being one of 50 anarchists (quantity has a quality all its own and this quality is a big reason why anarchists have been made marginal in maidan) stuck without theoretical tools (social war theory hasn’t reached Ukraine and the academy is fucking us again here because comrades even tried to read Foucault but admitted to me they didn’t understand just like I can’t but at least I can read KKA or Murder of Crows or illustrated beginners guides – they don’t have those here…) could never give her.

In summation: Don’t believe any source trying to spin this as anything other than a nationalist/conservative, bourgeois capitalist revolution won by fascist youth. It is actualized nightmare. If I thought this revolution would change anything, as most everyone (non-comrade) I’ve spoken to thinks it will, I’d be scared for the people here. As it is, I think I know everything will continue as it was – the interesting questions: What will become of the disillusionment in the months to come? After elections? After EU integration?

I am deeply affected by what I’ve experienced and the people I have met – comrades, common joes and janes, and critical ex-comrades alike. This experience has called into question everything I’ve thought and done up until this point, anti-politically speaking. Most assumptions I’ve made and actions I’ve taken just don’t hold up to what I’ve learned here. Some sadness or guilt or regret at this realization but mostly I feel the joy that comes with breaking through limits.

Something I have felt from the second I arrived but that I haven’t written about here and that has contributed to this shaking-down and reassessment are my privileges here. Material conditions here are grim to say the least. Provocative feminist action is making sandwiches. In a new context I’m a new person with new thoughts on old, formerly decided, subjects. I leave with more questions than I came with but I leave with some answers, too.

Before I say this, I acknowledge I have been guilty of this thing I’m about to attempt to start a dialogue about and that in some ways I’m guilty of it RIGHT NOW having arrived here to participate in the situation and forge connections, but I need to say this. I strive to say this in a comradely way and in coming from a place of solidarity and recognition of myself.

Comrades have told me, with some amusement, of all the requests for interviews from counter-media projects back home. You know who you are and I won’t name projects/people here for many good reasons chief among them that this is not a calling-out but a call for reflection and dialogue. Some of you know me as an acquaintance and teammate; we’re not close but we have shared moments that felt to me like really living. I value all of your projects and feel richer for them. This isn’t just about these great projects, but this is also about commenters here and otherwhere. And about attempts at analysis formulated by friends and crews around dinners and on walks. And about mediation by the media and how this affects us as it effects a false understanding of struggles and how our analysis suffers for it.

Some of the questions asked in these requests for interviews have struck me as naive, having experienced the things I have here. The questions are premised on points of departure from distortions created by the western media according to their role in the creation of reality and reaffirmation of control narratives. Questions of analysis are posed from these points of departure fabricated by the media and so the media has a direct, heavy (if invisible hand) in shaping our analysis.

Then there is the politicization that comes with this distance and mediation. A process of reduction that makes us only see what we want; we project what suits us onto these far off struggles. This behavior of ours doesn’t serve us. Why do we do this? I don’t have answers. I’m bleary eyed so I’ll leave it here but I’d like to have dialogue on this happen. Here isn’t the right place. Maybe the counter-media projects that all know each other and share many affinities can discuss this in an appropriate context and do better?

Submitted by a— in kiev on Sun, 02/23/2014 – 16:58

The role of rationality in Kant vs. Hegel’s conception of teleology

Kant’s essay “Idea for a universal history with a cosmopolitan purpose” appears in his Political Writings, published by Cambridge in its blue-book political philosophy series. The short piece animates many of the abstract, pure concepts explored in Kan’ts second critique, The Critique of Practical Reason. 

The short essay’s focus is on the progress of history and the role that history plays in developing rational consciousness. Kant begins by saying the history is the process that gives accounts to phenomena, no matter how deeply concealed their causes may be. The project of history and of understanding man in history, then, is one that takes the individual rational being and explores man on a large scale to see the direction or deep cause in the world. 

When Kant uses the individual rational subject, he is not merely multiplying this or that particular rational man by however-many-millions in a state or culture. He makes this clear when he draws the analogy between Man and Mankind to weather and the overall climate. However, soon after, the concept of natural teleology is posited in a proposition that remains unfolded and actually compresses the distinction between man and mankind that Kant lays out.

…All the natural capacities of a create are destined sooner or later to be developed completely an din conformity with their end…

and in explanation of the natural movement to fulfill our capacities, Kant states that without a natural teleology, we are left aimless. We (mankind) are left aimless without this natural order because it is the only framework that provides a necessary relationship between man’s rationality and mankind becoming increasingly more rational.

In man (as the only rational creature on earth), those natural capacities which are directed towards the use of his reason are such that they could be fully developed only in a species, but not the individual.

Rationality is taken as the endpoint in Kant’s teleology, which is why he must rely on a natural system of self-determination. Relying on a system of nature amounts to an admission that there is no active role for rationality to realize itself. 

Enlightenment is passed from one generation to the next, he argues. Knowledge and rationality are only necessary if they are natural in this sense, and the culmination of rational thinking in the world is tantamount to an accumulation of formal structures of logic developing in mankind to its highest point.

This apex is also occluded from our vision, each rational finite being as well as rational man, the species. Hegel’s teleology is helpful in illuminating Kant’s after the fact, since it can be seen as a corrective agent. 

For Hegel, there is a definitive endpoint in mankind’s use of reason, which is the self-conscious reflection between the self and the object that overcomes an imagined difference between the two. Movement of mankind’s self-consciousness is the movement and agent of progress in history toward this end. Hence, natural teleology is not a necessary proposition for him as it is for Kant (whose dubious reliance is reluctant, at best). The end-goal of self-conscious of the absolute is necessarily a social action, since man can only become self-conscious through seeing another. Whereas in Kant, the universality of “mankind” can only serve as a postulate following from a reductive principle of reason that assumes rationality is purely possible. 

 

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When I was an undergrad, I took a class in the English Department called “Issues and problems in literature: Vitalism.” It was one of the more challenging courses I took, and one of the most fascinating. While the material was not explicitly concerned with American poetry and literature, we spent a considerable amount of time […]

Notes on Emerson’s component parts of nature

From, “Nature: Essays and Addresses,” (Harvard Library, 1934)

In a series of blog entries, I intend to spend time unraveling Emerson’s concept of nature and its relation to the self. It is my hope that I will confirm my hunch about Emerson as a vitalist romantic. And in a broader sense, I am keen to discover the narrative legacy Emerson’s representation of nature-self unity that still finds expression in American culture today. In a nutshell, Emerson is one of those interesting cross-over figures who is both literature and political though. It is my argument that political thought is just as formative in creating American notions of identity and myth. What that means, I will let his texts and my more nuanced arguments articulate for themselves.

In the introduction to Nature, Emerson notes that there is very little that man’s art can change in nature, saying

Nature, in the common sense, refers to essences unchanged by man; space, the air, the river, the leaf. Art is applied to the mixture of his will with the same things, as in a house, a canal, a statue, a picture. But his operations taken together are so insignificant, a little chipping, baking parching, and washing that in an impression so grand as that of the world on the human mind, they do not vary the result.

Necessary but insignificant. It is not through transformative work that man transforms himself. Emerson’s position on the boundless quantity of nature allows man to work to see oneself everywhere in nature but also as an inconsequential force against it. By “against it” I mean that Emerson underestimates the real destructive capacity that man has in nature. I also mean to suggest that Emerson is not actually dealing with nature tout court, but nature mediated from the perspective of intellect and aesthetics.

There is support for this reading. Later (in “Discipline,” a small section in Nature), Emerson says that all of nature is a mediation, and during this discourse as in earlier ones, language and communication are subsumed under the category of nature. So, it seems that nature is perhaps mistaken for artifice and that is why is it unlimited, infinitely wise, and a mediate force between man and unity. In fact, I would argue that the “nature” Emerson refers to is an aestheticized representation of nature infused with poetic and intellectual meaning, and from this standpoint, it is easy to imagine nature as a mediating force, instead of the object of mediation that man only reaches through intellectual capacities.

Becoming America: the Paradox of Emerson’s Romanticism

American scholar and the ossification of man; instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm, it is not the avoidance of life or people, but full interaction with it, while remaining oneself, in solitude of the mind, where man becomes himself. “Drudgery, calamity, exasperation, want, are instructors in eloquence and wisdom.” Full engagement in everyday life and problems is the counterbalance of thought.

Emerson does not ignore or deny history. He uses and cites great men and actions from it. Although he also says that there are as many great men in his day than in ancient times in one essay, in his address on the American Scholar he taunts their puny nature.

The great man is not to be found in the halls of learning, or in church, insinuates Emerson. And if he does tread those places he does not dwell there: they did not make him become a man and a thinking man. He has been made out of his own efforts, and he is his own god. His is a religion of self. Becoming is a central category for Emerson’s thought; but it is also a self made possible by location. Not in Europe, not in Boston, but in the woods. The woods of America. Without the notion of progress, his hyper-individualism paves the way for nihilism. Emerson’s man has a complex relationship with America. Its institutions and its leaders are fools, while he will not revoke reverence for the founders who fashioned a continent from nothing. It would seem that the land determines the great American man. He makes himself out of the earth. He fashions himself in proportion to the vital landscape and rugged outlook that promises him greatness. But, from what a distance this man stands from actual nature. Perhaps there is a pond, a mountainside, a roaring tide. These are places in his mind more so than on his humble porch. Emerson’s nature reveals itself through prose depicting a stylized Romantic landscape. It has been hewn out of the violent and deathly hazards into a wild, but not quite savage, work of art.

Representations of the self and of the land are symbiotic in the sense that Emerson’s “becoming” is founded on an artifice of naturalism that has its origins in civilization. In fact, I am interested in arguing that the central paradox of Emerson’s thought lies in the tension between essence and history, vitalism and nihilism, nation and self, nature and society. All of these words are spun out of the same essential non-logical (as opposed to illogical) quest for universal experience of self outside of time. To borrow from Heidegger’s Letter on “humanism,” Emerson is emblematic of man who lives in the direct realm of experience, and therefore lives ahistorically. And yet, his desire to transcend the literal and the logical confines of history and its legacy of the Enlightenment marks the impulse of American Reconstruction in pursuit of finding itself. 

On the plane of solitude

Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles

The self is an ocean and we are lost in it without direction. If left to my own devices, what can I know to say? In the age of sociability, I am nearly friendless and incoherent. In my days of solitude I can hardly think that I have mastered the meaning and the force of another argument. There is much, maybe too much, hesitation. And I can speak but cannot add anything to the conversation.

There is a feeling that most everything has already been said. Emerson says of the American artist that matching the inclinations and temperaments of the landscape will meet us halfway to greatness.

But I am torn with envy of those who do not speak with interlopers. There are no teachers for the minds of the future other than the future, and those who adhere to eternal principles. To see the shape and contour of truth, of absolute truth, a person can find a form for it, somehow.

For all his roving self reliance, there is a presupposed community to rage against, or to forget. In the end, this is only an anecdotal band aid. But self-reliance is the language of America, whether it is just or fitting, it is the lexicon of our work and of the land and of ourselves. It demands that we become great minds and maintain as much of a strong, authentic body against the flabby mediocrity of the outside world as we can. It demands a cabin far away situated on the mountainside of a Romantic painted landscape. In reading self reliance we are looking at the insinuation of stars and fury and sweeping winds. But can we know them? Is our blessing to be a land replete with great men, or a continent of striving, tripping, starving neighborhoods that never met? In keeping with the dream of self-reliance, are we not keeping with another, earlier, perhaps sturdier but not stronger, America?Image

A few quick thoughts on Machiavelli

Imagine there are two choices regarding Machiavelli and the tension between the Prince and the Discourses: a. Machiavelli is setting up a teleological narrative of rulership and ruled. The purpose of the principality creates the necessary historical and social conditions for a republican government. or b, the principality is a response to human nature, that men are swine and they must be controlled by any means necessary.

I answered today that both are correct, and here is why: there is no such thing as human nature. At least not for Machiavelli. And this is a point that I agree with. The formulation for the argument of Machiavelli being a proto materialist as well as a realist is the following:

Human beings have no original nature, but rather, their behavior is determined from social relations that define their political reality. In order for the conditions of social reality to change, Italy must undergo unification. The ruler must necessarily be on the side of the populace, or at the very least he must not let the populace hate him. From this point, Italy may reach the social preconditions for a republican government, based on the consciousness or the necessity against (all) leaders and for the general will. The tension between centralization and democratic republicanism is a clear one. Machiavelli is the first thinker to show that the conditions of man’s inner reality and theorizations for what social organization in Italy might be, stem from the real material and social constraints of his time.

Machiavelli, too, articulates a tract for the unification of Italy at the very moment it is least realistic–as Althusser would say, at the furthest limit of the imaginary, Machiavelli imagines the actual.

Let me explain how Machiavelli is a pragmatist and a theorist: It is the case, in Machiavelli’s Italy, that all areas surrounding it had undergone or were undergoing unification. The exception is Germany. The preface and the final chapter of the Prince make it clear that the unification of Italy into a unified state is necessary if Italy and its diminutive cities were to avoid destruction. Let alone military humiliation, factionalization of national interests subordinated to the Roman Catholic Church.

Nationalization, Machiavelli supposes is a historical necessity, not a nicety for convenience’s sake. The pages of the Prince outline how a prince might acquire a new principality without making mention of his “master plea” until the very end. The emotive outcry for an Italian unifier comes from a complex voice. It is Machiavelli the citizen, not the theorist, who projects his own voice into and maybe over the people of Italy. From where is he speaking? How do we know that this prince and this unified state will be successful or even habitable?

Now, this is where I get to the second part of my argument. There is a teleological role of history and government at play within and between the Prince and the Discourses that is fully realized in the second work on republics. Machiavelli says it plainly enough in the beginning of the discourses in his discussion of Rome and of cities, generally. Where factions and the masses might not be able to come to a consensus on the rules and policies in a city, a single founder is certainly capable of doing that. Machiavelli states that after the ruler dies (or, can I suggest, is killed) the population is in a position to maintain and expand the state.

On the topic of “expansion” one of my colleagues had an interesting thought: he said that the expansion of ever more categories is progress, intellectually. It is the expansion of the imagined possible. And I thought that this was a tremendously interesting way to articulate what is happening between the dynamics of two different moments in Machiavelli’s thought.

Therefore, it is not enough to claim that “in one situation, Machiavelli outlines what will happen in X state as a republic where in Y state he will outline how a prince may come to acquire a new territory. No, one must make sense of the changing circumstances in “human nature” as well as in government as a response to changing social relations.

I would also like to point out how very much I thought about Lenin while reading the Prince. In further support for my nascent thesis, here is a quick line from Michael Hardt on Lenin and state power: “the state, Lenin counters, is always an instrument of oppression, and it stands in the way of the revolutionary goal to create a new, fuller democracy,” (x). (From Michael Hardt Presents).  Thomas Jefferson). 

It’s been a while

I am re-reading Plato’s the Gorgias. I want to write a little on the power of social relations and appearance in the Platonic dialogues and perhaps unpack more of Socrates’ critique of the public figure.

It’s a common attack, when an interlocutor is losing in a Platonic dialogue, to say that Socrates has been steering the conversation in such a way as to justify his own original position and expose the contradictions in another’s argument. The cause for the interlocutor’s concessions on this front are often of a social nature, concerned with saving face and avoiding humiliation.  For example:

POLUS: Honestly, Socrates! Do even you really believe what you are now saying about rhetoric? Or do you imagine–just because Gorgias was embarrassed not to go on and agree with you that the rhetoric expert know what things are just, beautiful and good, and said that if he didn’t know it to start with, he himself would teach him, and then from this agreement some inconsistency perhaps found its way into what he was saying–which is what you love, when it’s you who’ve led people on into that kind of questioning–since who do you imagine is going to deny that he knows what things are just himself and that he can teach them to others? It is real boorishness to direct the conversation into those channels.

This comes just as Gorgias has admitted that knowledge of what rhetoric is about or gives knowledge of is given and learned immediately, or experientially by the person who is learning from he who is teaching. More explicitly, the clear and self-evident end of rhetoric is the end of power. This end is known when the student can utilize speech for his own ends. Then, Gorgias had just conceded, that rhetoric should not be used unjustly, which was a contradiction to the statement that it could be anything but the illumination of the just.

Polus jumps into the conversation. With typical verbosity, he defends the self-evident truths of rhetoric. These self-evident truths of rhetoric are of a sharply socially contingent character. Notice that Polus races to aid the pride of Gorgias by admitting what should be taken for granted in most other conversations. Polus deploys another common sense measure against Socrates, highlighting that no rhetoritician knows the just, beautiful and good apart from the (implicit) end of power.

Why does Polus jump to the fear of Gorigias’ humiliation? Georgias himself noted that he went on in the dialogue out of a social compulsion not to be embarrassed in front of the Athenians, not because he was interested in rhetoric that produced knowledge. This is the breaking point for Socrates’ critique of the social nature of ruling and teaching those who will rule.

Socrates orchestrates these frustrating scenes that cause a speaker to undermine his own position in a way that will expose his pretensions of social control as actually constituting social flattery and subservience to the audience. The early interjection from Polus and Socrates’ manipulation of social convention are echoed later in the dialogue, when Callicles concedes that power is predicated on the thing that he hates, which is convention and flattery.

At the heart of Socrates’ social manipulation is to teach the lessons of rhetoric that Gorgias and, more importantly, Callicles, cannot know: rhetoric that is knowledge producing and immanently instructive.

Earlier in the dialogue, Georgias concedes that the knowledge of what he taught was self-evident. In his argument, teaching rhetoric without knowledge isn’t bona fide rhetoric, and the great rhetoritician conflates philosophy with rhetoric when he says that he teaches men what they can advise on. Socrates merely points out that men cannot advise on the building of walls and dockyards when they have no knowledge of walls and dockyards, but only of words. Taken out of its figurative context, Socrates is arguing that the powerful man who does not examine what the good life is cannot advise the city on how it should be best configured.

Skill of persuasion is a meaningful enterprise. No one can claim more victories or hardships from it than Plato’s Socrates. But it must be a persuasion toward producing knowledge and not merely power. As we find out in the beginning of the Gorgias there is no false and no true knowledge. And if there is no false and no true knowledge, only true knowledge, then that skill of persuasion used in Gorgias’ rhetoric for knowledge-that-is-power cannot be knowledge, since it does not know itself. Therefore, all persuasion that is not rooted in self-examination and contradiction is not only the antithesis of philosophy (which Gorgias fancies himself a practitioner) but also of statecraft and justice.

Unfortunately, this conclusion, which is Plato’s ultimate compulsion to the reader and the leaders he wishes to educate, is hostile toward, if not antithetical to, state power that is oriented toward the heroic figure rather than the public man. When I finish the dialogue, I will write more on Socrates’ argument that he is the sole genuine practitioner of politics.

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