Thirteen Observations by Lemony Snicket

This moved me enough to break my blog hiatus. Mr Snicket has artfully articulated what I could not:

Thirteen Observations made by Lemony Snicket while watching Occupy Wall Street from a Discreet Distance

1. If you work hard, and become successful, it does not necessarily mean you are successful because you worked hard, just as if you are tall with long hair it doesn’t mean you would be a midget if you were bald.

2. “Fortune” is a word for having a lot of money and for having a lot of luck, but that does not mean the word has two definitions.

3. Money is like a child—rarely unaccompanied. When it disappears, look to those who were supposed to be keeping an eye on it while you were at the grocery store. You might also look for someone who has a lot of extra children sitting around, with long, suspicious explanations for how they got there.

4. People who say money doesn’t matter are like people who say cake doesn’t matter—it’s probably because they’ve already had a few slices.

5. There may not be a reason to share your cake. It is, after all, yours. You probably baked it yourself, in an oven of your own construction with ingredients you harvested yourself. It may be possible to keep your entire cake while explaining to any nearby hungry people just how reasonable you are.

6. Nobody wants to fall into a safety net, because it means the structure in which they’ve been living is in a state of collapse and they have no choice but to tumble downwards. However, it beats the alternative.

7. Someone feeling wronged is like someone feeling thirsty. Don’t tell them they aren’t. Sit with them and have a drink.

8. Don’t ask yourself if something is fair. Ask someone else—a stranger in the street, for example.

9. People gathering in the streets feeling wronged tend to be loud, as it is difficult to make oneself heard on the other side of an impressive edifice.

10. It is not always the job of people shouting outside impressive buildings to solve problems. It is often the job of the people inside, who have paper, pens, desks, and an impressive view.

11. Historically, a story about people inside impressive buildings ignoring or even taunting people standing outside shouting at them turns out to be a story with an unhappy ending.

12. If you have a large crowd shouting outside your building, there might not be room for a safety net if you’re the one tumbling down when it collapses.

13. 99 percent is a very large percentage. For instance, easily 99 percent of people want a roof over their heads, food on their tables, and the occasional slice of cake for dessert. Surely an arrangement can be made with that niggling 1 percent who disagree.


Devotional Thoughts With Rev. Zizek

Cynical distance is just one way … to blind ourselves to the structural power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them. The Sublime Object of Ideology

Today’s devotional is brought to you by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. The following reading comes from First as Tragedy, Then as Farce:

Our most elementary experience of subjectivity is that of the “richness of my inner life”: this is what I “really am,” in contrast to the symbolic determinations and responsibilities I assume in public life (as father, professor, etc). The first lesson of psychoanalysis here is that this “richness of inner life” is fundamentally fake: it is a screen, a false distance, whose function is, as it were, to save my appearance, to render palpable (accessible to my imaginary narcissism) my true social-symbolic identity. One of the ways to practise the critique of ideology is therefore to invent strategies for unmasking this hypocrisy of the “inner life” and its “sincere” emotions. The experience we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is thus a lie — the truth lies rather outside, in what we do. … “Stories we tell ourselves about ourselves” serve to obfuscate the true ethical dimension of our acts.


Be well.

To Vote or Not to Vote (Part Two)

In Part One of this series, I sketched the outlines of the argument against Christians voting. The goal was to give a defense of principled non-participation, and should not be confused as advocating apathy and/or laziness. Likewise, in this post I won’t address silly, specious arguments for voting, such as ones from civic duty or obligation.

To kick things off, I want to quote Ran Prieur:

A common argument against voting is that it trains you to think that working within the system is the best or only way to make a better world. My answer is: could you set the bar for yourself any lower? That’s like not watching any commercials because then you won’t be able to stop yourself from buying the product. If you don’t think you can vote while keeping a healthy mental distance, now would be an excellent time to learn. Your vote is not a precious flower to be given only to the one you love; it is a cold tactical decision, and collectively, it does make a difference.

Prieur hits on two things I want to highlight. The first is this idea of “healthy mental distance” and “cold tactical decision.” All throughout this essay I am going to continue assuming that politics is corrupt(ing), that power plays are unChristian, that our electoral process is beyond embarrassing. So everything henceforth operates under the assumption that if (big if) we vote, we vote with terrible fear & trembling. We’d be voting with acute self-awareness, reflexivity, humility, and perhaps even with a prayer of forgiveness.

The second idea in Prieur’s paragraph is this idea of purity, in which non-contamination becomes an idol for the leftist Christian (Note: Prieur is not one, just FYI). This is the same problem the fundamentalists have: if I don’t hang out with thieves & prostitutes & rock ‘n rollers, I won’t be tainted by their sin. The principled non-voter is saying something similar: if I don’t participate in xyz, I won’t be complicit in the system. Now I have, over the years, shifted to more institutional notions of sin & depravity, so I certainly think there’s something to “opting out” as much as possible. The confusion is in thinking it is a) wholly possible, and b) a sort of salvation in its own right. Right now, as I write this, wars are being fought in my name and, worse, in the name of my God. Hear this: not voting does not change this fact. My complicity in that violence is not entirely contingent on whether or not I punched a ballot. Furthermore — and I here I love Prieur’s line about the “precious flower” — the fact that those we vote for are fallen is not itself a reason to abstain. There has to be something more here (and in aggregate, perhaps the arguments in Part One do add up convincingly). In my “anti” arguments I appealed to “symbolic weight” as a reason for abstention. Yet I think it could certainly be argued that I attributed much too much weight to that symbol. Is it really the case that I am now “defiled” for casting a vote, yet reliance on the state in hundreds of other ways is less defiling? On one hand, because I want us to live more attentive, more attuned lives I think we ought to weight more decisions more heavily, avoiding the flippant, thoughtless consumer culture around us. Yet we have to avoid over-burdening things — avoid “false equivalency” — where anything less than total, absolute (I’d argue, impossible) purity is seen as the only option.


To Vote or Not to Vote (Part One)

“I think Jesus would have a really hard time voting in America today.” — Anonymous [still voted anyway]

Though elections were a week ago, I still want to discuss something I’ve thought about on-and-off for the last 25-30 months. In a way, discussing whether Christians should vote seems pretty anachronistic in this day and age. 50 or 60 years ago, suggesting Christians stay out of politics would probably not have been a very controversial position. Today, post- Christian Coalition and Moral Majority, this seems a little less popular. I still haven’t made my mind up on this issue either: like the anonymous friend quoted above, I have in the past been loathe to vote and yet done it anyway (Obama, Nov. ’08). This time around I’m not going to tell you whether I did or didn’t, and let you figure it out from reading my pro/con arguments below.

Certain presuppositions: I’m starting from the viewpoint of Christian anarchism, or “Christarchy” if you’re Greg Boyd, and I’m not willing to defend this at the moment. What this means, in this particular context, is roughly this: given that Christianity is about non-power, about solidarity with the marginalized, about opposing the principalities of this world; given that the state is impositional, hierarchical, primarily concerned with consolidating power, and is itself one of the chief principalities of this world; therefore, there can be no relation between Christian & state than that, fundamentally, of conflict. So the “standard” anarchist position, whether confrontational (e.g. Ellul) or quietist (e.g. Eller), almost always recommends not voting. Let’s consider this first.

The most generalized argument against voting is that doing so gives credence to a corrupt, ridiculous game that we play out every few years. Elections — and the ever-lengthening electoral process — are both fetishized & ritualized in ways I want no part in; this I wouldn’t dispute even if I did ultimately vote. I am unsure how any Christian can justify the lying, slandering, gossiping, backstabbing, and greedyass money-grubbing that are part and parcel of all elections. Opting out of this mudpit is simply conceding defeat, plain and simple (see: Russ Feingold). The thing is, virtually everyone admits to all this. The baffling thing is that believers see all this and still decide to participate (a similar paradox attends capitalism itself). It’s not just the process; the outcome, regardless, offers even bleaker options. It is absolutely guaranteed that whatever politicos gain/hold power, violence will be a key, if unspoken, plank in the party platform. It’s true that our present options in America are especially bleak, but our sordid past provides all sorts of examples of warmongers & imperialists from every party and affiliation.

Secondly, non-participation holds enormous symbolic weight. This, in two key ways: politically and theologically. In the former, abstention is a public, visible gesture of the church’s separation from the worldly powers — a distinct people set apart. It’s part of the rejection of nationalism and patriotism (“In Christ there is neither…”); we are not a) citizens of this world, let alone b) of this particular country. As aliens in this land, not voting is a key reminder that this world is not our home — don’t get too attached: to its possession, to its games of power, to its leaders, to its ways of relating to each other. Our approach (and this is just a teaser for another whole essay) ought to be that of missionaries: global missions as paradigm for modes of anarchist being. The error is in thinking that because some government has granted us the legal ability to vote that we then should exercise that option (is/ought fallacy). I mentioned the theological symbolism too. The idea, and I take this to be Eller’s chief reason for not voting, is that it’s akin to a spiritual discipline in which we remind ourselves, as a body, that what the world does is really of no concern to us. Ignore them. “Render unto Caesar” is not simply about taxes: render emotionally and intellectually what is Caesar’s. Stop pretending that true religion is in any way whatsoever dependant on who’s in the White House. It simply does not affect our mission: do good, love mercy, walk humbly with our God; care for the widows, outcasts, poor, downtrodden, the least among us. Your focus is all wrong if you think a 35% tax rate will hinder your chances to live out your faith more than a 25% tax rate will.

[Part Two forthcoming]

Das Kapital

Watch this:

I’ve given myself some homework; maybe some of you want to join in. The goal is to finish Marx’s Capital Volume I (a mere 1k pages) by Christmas, supplementing my effort with a concurrent reading of David Harvey’s A Companion to Marx’s Capital. This blog may or may not turn into a Marxist free-for-all as I attempt to make sense of this difficult book. If you would like to join in, note that Harvey and I are both using the Ben Fowkes translation published by Penguin Classics. I got both books off Amazon for ~$25, which qualifies you for free shipping — although if you have an *.edu e-mail address, you can currently sign up for a free year of Amazon Prime and get shipped costs waived on everything anyway. Also, note that Harvey has been kind enough to put his entire class on Marx up on the Web as video lectures, but I’m basically ignoring them since his Companion is roughly those lectures in book form. I think I’d definitely like some study partners, so e-mail me if you’d like in on this party.

Fiddler in the Subway

Michael Mechanic has an interesting interview up today on Mother Jones with Gene Weingarten: “Secrets of a Two-Time Pulitzer Winner.” Weingarten has a book coming out entitled Fiddler in the Subway, a collection of essays he wrote for The Washington Post and the WaPo magazine. After you read Mechanic’s piece, come back here to read the four Weingarten pieces, all of them excellent:

The aforementioned fiddler/violinist is Joshua Bell, whose concert at Suntory Hall in Tokyo is worth watching/hearing in full (part 1 of 5 is linked). For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.

Are you still hard up for reading material? I’m doing my best here. Last week was great because the NYT treated us to five days of Errol Morris’ fascinating series “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma.” I’ve linked to part one, where we’re introduced to the Dunning-Kruger effect:

“…If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent… When you’re incompetent, the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”

The analogy is to anosognosia, or the disorder where a paralytic can’t/won’t recognize that they’re paralyzed. As if I weren’t already depressed about man’s mental faculties (pace Descartes), we also get this gem from Newsweek‘s Sharon Begley:

One of the strongest, most-repeated findings in the psychology of belief is that once people have been told X, especially if X is shocking, if they are later told, “No, we were wrong about X,” most people still believe X.

God help us; it’s a wonder we can tie our shoes in the morning. By the way, if you’re interested in more of Errol Morris-esque inquiries into “unknown unknowns” (Rumsfeld), I’d highly recommend the book The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb — it is, unlike the faux-revelations of Malcolm Gladwell, a true paradigm-shifting (I use that word deliberately) work. Plus, Taleb will spare you years of agony having to learn the same things via the poker table… trust me, reading is quite preferable to bad beats in Texas hold ’em.

On the Supposed Birth of the Altermodern

Adbusters — the de facto magazine of choice for leftist fundamentalists — has an interesting article by Micah White on the (too oft-heralded) death of postmodernism and the birth of “altermodernism.” I think he gets things half-right, and we’ll start with his conception of postmodernism:

“…[A]n essential precept of postmodern philosophy: Western thought has hitherto divided the world into a series of binary oppositions that privilege one side over the other. The political implications of the lesson were clear: Oppression can be traced back to the way we think, and hope of liberation rests on escaping this binary thinking.

The postmodern project of overcoming binary thought, however, is more difficult than it may appear. First of all, one cannot simply flip the terms and privilege what was once diminished – that would merely replicate the binary in inverse. The issue is not which term is privileged but the false belief that existence can be divided into two distinct, competing parts. Thus the task of the postmodern activist became the blurring and problematizing of distinctions in order to destroy dualist thinking. It was all done in the name of political liberation.”

So far I’m fine with this, and he rightly pulls out the political & ethical bent of deconstruction instead of just characterizing it as literary navel-gazing. But I think things fall apart when he starts to spell out how/why postmodernism & deconstruction failed us:

“…[B]y the time the project of deconstructing distinctions was widespread in academia and had filtered down to society at large, oppression lay not in the maintenance of dualism but in the opposite: increasing hybridization. That is the irony of contemporary philosophy: what we take to be a tool of resistance, the application of cutting-edge theory to our contemporary moment, turns out to be a hammer of our oppression. And by rejecting binary thought outright, we were not challenging the status quo … we were helping it along.”


The Paradox of Capitalist Realism

“…The politics of Western powers, and of the American government in particular, are utterly destitute of ingenuity…”

So says Alain Badiou, in an interview I stumbled upon since my last post. As an interesting complement to that discussion, I read through Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? and he coincidentally discussed some of the very same issues. He led me to Badiou with this extended quote that explains the chief paradox in question here:

We live in a contradiction: a brutal state of affairs, profoundly inegalitarian– where all existence is evaluated in terms of money alone – is presented to us as ideal. To justify their conservatism, the partisans of the established order cannot really call it ideal or wonderful. So instead, they have decided to say that all the rest is horrible. Sure, they say, we may not live in a condition of perfect Goodness. But we’re lucky that we don’t live in a condition of Evil. Our democracy is not perfect. But it’s better than the bloody dictatorships. Capitalism is unjust. But it’s not criminal like Stalinism. We let millions of Africans die of AIDS, but we don’t make racist nationalist declarations like Milosevic. We kill Iraqis with our airplanes, but we don’t cut their throats with machetes like they do in Rwanda, etc.

The result, Fisher says, is “on the one hand, an official culture in which capitalist enterprises are presented as socially responsible and caring, and, on the other, a widespread awareness that companies are actually corrupt, ruthless, etc.” As I argued previously, this paradox evidences an abject lack of imagination — Fisher discusses how free market capitalism has penetrated our very unconscious — and a profoundly conservative spirit, a total fear of change. So Americans end up having these really absurd public discussions (spectacles, really) in which, for example, it is widely acknowledged that the US healthcare system is deeply broken (inefficient and expensive) and yet absolutely no desire to do anything about it. Even if universal single-payer healthcare had demonstrably failed in every other nation, you would think the so-called patriots on the Right would have enough confidence in “American ingenuity” to believe that we could get it right.

Fisher more eloquently re-states that old “dare to dream” cliche:

…Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable [i.e. neo-conservative free-market capitalism] to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed impossible seem attainable. It is worth recalling that what is currently called realistic was itself once ‘impossible’…

In the same interview quoted initially, Alain Badiou has a beautiful little paragraph that sums up some of my feelings on this:

My philosophy desires affirmation. I want to fight for; I want to know what I have for the Good and to put it to work. I refuse to be content with the “least evil.” It is very fashionable right now to be modest, not to think big. Grandeur is considered a metaphysical evil. Me, I am for grandeur, I am for heroism. I am for the affirmation of the thought and the deed.

Italics mine in both quotes; Badiou quote taken from this excellent Cabinet interview.


An Idiotarian Without Imagination

Little Green Footballs named Glenn Beck their Idiotarian-of-the-Year for 2009, which is a fitting, if obvious, selection. It made me wonder about the Idiotarian-of-the-Decade. My nemesis, G. Walker Bush, is perhaps a too-easy candidate. I’ve ultimately decided that such a ignominious award should go to Francis Fukuyama.

Fukuyama is best known for “The End of History,” a 1989 paper based on a lecture that eventually became a full-length book. 20 years after the fact, I’m calling Fukuyama out because the 2000’s saw the clearest implementation of policy based on Fukuyama’s theories, and, simultaneously, the total refutation of these same moronic theories.

Big events in 1989 inspired small ideas in Fukuyama’s head. As you recall, these were the times when the Berlin Wall fell, when the USSR broke up, when the Cold War ostensibly ended. For Fukuyama, these events represented the total triumph of liberal democracy and free market capitalism. Politically speaking, mankind was now at the end of our ideological evolution having successfully reached our “final form of government.” Like all good Modernists, Fukuyama craved a “homogenous state” characterized by “easy access to VCRs and stereos.” It’s very revealing that he considers consumerism to be a hallmark of an advanced society, and not, for example, easy access to healthcare or employment.

Fukuyama is not as well-known in the mainstream as, say, Milton Friedman (or Thomas Friedman for that matter), but he had a profound influence on neo-conservative ideology. If we are literally living at the end of history, if everything from here on out are merely trifling footnotes, what do we make of those who are resisting this history? How do we handle the “various provinces of human civilization” who need to be “brought up to the level of its most advanced outposts?” You wouldn’t be far off if you guessed perpetual war to secure perpetual peace in order that free economies might ineluctably spread to every corner of the globe. In Fukuyama’s old-fashioned metanarrative, those with the wrong ideology are literally backward-looking people, old-fashioned savages stuck in another age. You can justify all sorts of brutal behavior in the name of Progress. Hence the reason, in part, that nuking the shit out of the Japanese was legitimate: for Fukuyama, the nukes literally bombed ideology (not simply, or even primarily, people) so as to permanently erase fascist ideology from their culture. (more…)

Anti-Statism, Relativism, Prosperity Gospel, etc.

So I took a trip to Myanmar this week. I’ll blog about it later. In the meantime I have a bunch of tabs of stuff I’ve been meaning to share and I’ll have to just dump them w/o much comment because they’re slowing down Firefox.

  • The Atlantic: “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?” by Hanna Rosin. Short answer is No, it didn’t… but the name-it-n-claim-it prosperity gospel probably contributed a little at least.
  • “Who’s Afraid of Relativism?” by Carl Raschke – summary & review of the first two chapters from Merold Westphal’s book Whose Community? Which Interpretation? Raschke is expectedly excellent:

The term “relativism” nowadays is routinely and indiscriminately used as a handy synonym for “postmodernism” by Christian and cultural mossbacks in the same way that “deconstruction” is taken as the first thesaurus entry for nihilistic devastation of the entire legacy of Western culture.  Pondering the “relativity” of the symbolic order – Einstein’s special and general theories notwithstanding – is generally regarded in these same circles as akin to taking a puff of Ouachita Gold and then inhaling.  That is, it is the first tragic slip on the slipper of the slippery slope to reprobation and incurable insanity.

  • The A.V. Club is trying to sum up the past decade. One of their lists is “The Best TV Series of the ’00s” wherein Arrested Development is somehow not #1 and NBC’s The Office bribed someone to earn an entry. I remain unimpressed by Judd Apatow’s TV work (I did like most of Funny People though, fwiw).
  • They’ve also got a big 50-entry list of “The Best Music of the Decade” which I will say is not the worst list I’ve ever read. Arcade Fire got robbed, of course, losing out to Outkast and (FFS!) Kanye; “this is an outrage” “how dare they” et cetera. No My Morning Jacket at all. Zilch. Actually, with all due respect to Win Butler & Jeff Tweedy, I may have to give my vote to “Best Album of the Decade” to Mr. Lamontagne for “Trouble.”

Terry Eagleton on Waking the Dead

Speaking of Walter Benjamin, the eminent Terry Eagleton has an article in New Statesman entitled “Waking the Dead” about Benjamin and history.

What Benjamin meant was that how we act in the present can change the meaning of the past. The past may not literally exist (any more than the future does), but it lives on in its consequences, which are a vital part of it… In one sense, we know more about the French Revolution or the Stalinist reign of terror than those who were involved in them, because we know what they led to. With the privilege of hindsight, we can inscribe these events in a broader narrative, making more sense of them than Robespierre or Trotsky were ever able to do. The price of this superior knowledge is impotence. There is no way we can use this knowledge to undo past catastrophes. We are like men and women frantically waving at history from a long way off, powerless to intervene in its crises and convulsions.


The Scandalous Art of Paul Fryer

Twenty years after Andres Serrano debuted Piss Christ to shocked believers worldwide, Christendom is again up in arms over another work of art. Fundamentalist antipathy toward the arts is well-documented, and artists like Serrano and Damien Hirst have ensured that this feud isn’t likely to die soon. British artist Paul Fryer, a churchgoing Christian himself, has joined the fray with three new pieces.

The first two are variations of the same piece, Pieta:

Unlike traditional pietas, such as Michelangelo’s, this Jesus is not cradled by the Virgin Mary, but by an electric chair. The work is displayed in a French cathedral whose Monsignor explains the work thusly: “[The goal is] to make us aware once more that someone being nailed to a cross is a scandal. Usually, we no longer feel any real emotions in the face of something truly scandalous, the crucifixion.” The piece challenges us to see modern methods of capital punishment as equally bizarre and barbaric as ancient Roman methods. Fryer seems to be expressing incredulity at state-sanctioned murder in the 21st century, asking us to be just as uncomfortable with a convicted felon in the electric chair as we are with Christ in it.