Thursday, 25 March 2010

Update on Kashgar

Henryk Szadziewski has a good update on the demolition of Kashgar here.

My original thoughts on this are here. Today I can only think of Benjamin: that things go on like this is the catastrophe.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Graeber's Direct Action

Graeber, David (1999) Direct Action: An Ethnography, Oakland: AK Press.

Who can fail to enjoy this fantastic work, especially the first half with the detailed and vivid ethnographic report of the protests in Québec 2003 and the preparations that led up to them? This is ethnography as its best: you actually get the feeling that you know the people who appear in the book. I even caught myself longing for the next appearance of one of the more amusing characters, just as I would if I had been reading a really good novel. The discussions and dialogues are perhaps the best, followed by the wonderful rendition of the atmosphere in Québec during the street protests: the mood of war and repression, streets smoking from tear gas, the comradeship, the police, a few festive vignettes.

And yes, I recommend it to more academically inclined students of the alter-glob movement as well. Even the more theoretical discussions in the second half of the book – which cover direct action, direct democracy, mass media, police brutality, how activists view things like violence or the ”public” and so on – are instructive, even though they don’t shine like the ethnography in the first half. There are some small gems here too, like the description of the police as ”bureaucrats with guns”.

Let me end with a good quote from the walls of Québec: ”The gates of Heaven will be taken by storm”.

Van Creveld

No, I’m not a fan of Martin Van Creveld, but his texts are entertaining. I recently read through his probably most famous book, The Transformation of War, which is from 1991. His thesis is that conventional wars are obsolete and that future wars will be low-intensity conflicts – ”a war of listening devices and of car-bombs”. This is already kind of commonsensical today (Münckler’s The New Wars provides an updated version). Van Creveld also argues that this implies the obsolescence of Clausewitz’ view that war is a rational instrument in the service of political ”interests”, that governments wage war with the help of regular armed forces against the armed forces of other governments, and that these forces are distinct from civilian population. I’ll come back to that when I’ve read Clausewitz.

There are a few points of interest for social theory and the study of social movements and insurgencies here. First, globalization: that this involves a change in the nature of wars is seldom discussed, but here too the power of states is undermined as conventional wars gives way to ”frontierless” low intensity conflict. Secondly, he argues that there can’t be any conflicts without shared rules: at the very least opponents need to agree on what counts as victory (pp 65-94). Thirdly, not only Clausewitz but Weber too is proven wrong: the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence was a historical paranthesis.

Fourthly, the book is useful to show why Karatani is wrong when he thinks that the threat of nuclear doom – or alternatively the actual trauma of third world war – will usher in a Kantian ”perpetual peace”. Here is Karatani from a recent publication: ”Without a world federation there will be war. However, if there is a war there will be a world federation. In either case it will be realized” (Karatani, Seiji o kataru, Tosho Shimbun, 2009:141). Let’s listen to a passage in Van Creveld, which starts in an almost identical fashion but ends with a totally different meassage:
If no nuclear holocaust takes place, then conventional war appears to be in the final stages of abolishing itself: if one does take place, then it will already have abolished itself. This dilemma does not mean that perpetual peace is on its way, much less that organized violence is coming to an end. As war between states exits through one side of history’s revolving door, low-intensity conflict among different organizations will enter through the other. (p224)
Exactly. States may wither away, but wars won’t. Even if a world republic comes into being, wars won’t stop. The nuclear threat may stop states or empires from waging war, but not partisans or guerillas.

Fiftly, like Clausewitz, Van Creveld stresses that war is social intereaction. What’s interesting is that this action follows a peculiar, paradoxical logic which sets it off from many other forms of social action:
In ordinary life, an action that has succeeded once can be expected to succeed twice – provided circumstances remain the same... But this elementary fact – on which are based the whole of science and technology – does not apply to war, football, chess, or any other activity that is governed by strategy. Here, an action that has succeeded once will likely fail when it is tried for a second time. It will fail, not in spite of having succeeded once but because its very success will probably put an intelligent opponent on his guard. (p120)
Well put. It raises important questions, such as: how can be know things without induction? How can we behave intelligently when we can’t generalize from experience? How come experience is important even when we can’t generalize from it?

Finally, note how much hope he gives the weak. Colonial uprisings were the business of the downtrodden and the weak, he writes, but modern armies have been so singularly ineffective in combatting them. The stronger side may take their cities, but ”nothing is more futile than a string of victories endlessly repeated” (p175). The stronger side will suffer from a drop in morale and it will be accused of unnecessary cruelty whatever it does. In short: fighting the weak is futile business. ”He who loses out to weak loses; he who triumphs over the weak also loses” (ibid). I don’t buy his argument wholeheartedly: it holds only to the extent that the weak are ready to huge sacrifices and probably also only to the extent that the stronger side feels it can afford to lose the war. But given those conditions: yes, the weak can win. All they need is the determination and courage never to give up, no matter how grisly and appalling their losses.

Endurance in the face of the impossible – I recall Badiou’s definition of courage here.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Gender and repetition

Often we remember a book more vividly if we put it away before reaching the end. The reason is probably that we can’t put it away in our minds: we feel that we aren’t finished with it, and hence tend to repeat it in our minds. I’m pretty sure this effect is also the reason why Lacan’s psycho-analytic sessions didn’t have a fixed length of time: by not “finishing” it at a predictable time, he would make sure that the patient kept repeating it to himself or herself.

The power of repetition is tremendous: often it’s enough to recall a thing just once for it to become almost impossible to forget. This explains much. Take gender. People are often confounded by the fact that if gender distinctions are nothing but social constructions, then why are they so stubborn? But this tenacity has nothing to do with gender being rooted in nature. What matters is that gender classifications are repeated daily, numerous times every day – whenever we see or hear another person, whenever we talk, when we dress, when we plan our futures and so on. Each instance may be trivial, but taken together their strength is enormous. A construct is tenacious not because it is basic or central, but because it is often repeated. We are ruled, not by what we consider important, but by what we repeat.

Some implications of this concerning gender:
- Gender classifications are less a matter of explicit ideas and more a matter of how our daily lives are patterned.
- Breaking with these patterns requires great strength, for the pressures we face are daily, practically endless and all-pervasive.
- But this struggle will not be futile. New ways of life can and will take root as they are repeated in turn.

Being bad for stupidity

Deleuze says somewhere that the function of philosophy is to be bad for stupidity. Fine, but how go about with it?

First: what is stupidity? Stupidity happens when you start relying on what you think you know, when you stop thinking. I'm often stupid myself. Stupidity is relative: it depends on the topic, on how tired you feel, if you are in a hurry or not.

Routines tend to produce stupidity, while situations that prevent the reliance on routines (like childhood or travelling) counteract it. There is invariably be something stupid about a so-called intelligent person who stubbornly adheres to a fixed set of premises.

Two observations:

1) Power is good for stupidity (absolute power stupidifies absolutely)

2) Science too is a great producer of stupidity since many people think of what scientists say as, if not certainties, then at least as authoritative.

Let us look at what it is in science that it so objectionable.

Firstly, there is a long tradition in science to try to formulate results in the form of generalizations. Against this it is helpful to remind onself that the exception is more interesting than the rule. Carl Schmitt observes that exceptions usually provoke a livelier and more stimulating discussion than generalizations do. Exceptions are the perfect way to think about generalizations without fetishizing them or getting entangled in illusions about their dignity.

Secondly, science tends to anchor its dignity in what is claimed to be superior scientific methods. This fetishization of method is especially problematic since, unlike the fetishization of results, it tends to be strongly present also among researchers themselves. Here we do well to remind ourselves that method is primarily a tool for blinding oneself to relevant information. What is usually meant by “method” is a practice of putting restrictions on common sense. What I am proposing is something else: the unfettered development of common sense. The only method, ultimately, is to keep one’s eyes open and think.

Take sociology. Many believe that sociology can only have scientific value if it is divorced from common sense, that it is only interesting if it shows common sense to be wrong. But is sociology itself really that different from common sense? What if sociology is only an unfolding or sophistication of processes already at work in common sense? Thinking is not a scientific prerogative. In everyday life, we all tend to rely on given, taken-for-granted beliefs to some extent, especially if we are too caught up in routines. But we also think, every one of us, every minute. Thinking means not to rely on what is given. It means to experiment with the given. Whenever we try to understand anything, we think.

If we look at the two propositions above – that exceptions are more interesting than generalizations and that methods are straightjackets – we will find that they are rooted in ordinary thinking. Only a person out of his senses would rely on a single method if she or he were really trying to find out something that was important to him or her in ordinary life. Neither would that person accept what a neighbor or colleague told him or her without trying to come up with exceptions – at least not if the subject interested him or her. Just listen to a discussion between two fans of some sport or hobby. They already know all the rules of logic used in science, everything about induction and deduction, about what counts as evidence and how to find it, and about how crucial it is to search for exceptions and anomalies. Common sense doesn’t just consist in taken-for-granted beliefs. It also consists of this everyday ability to think, of “common thinking”.

Scientific method is not the addition of a new and superior tool to common thinking. Rather, methods come into being by isolating one or the other of the ordinary ways we go about creating knowledge in order to be able to apply it systematically. This is why what the researcher searches for is always something beyond the reach of any one method. The “truth” he or she is searching for is never identical with the result of any one method.

If philosophy is to be bad for stupidity, then it can’t consist in a series of beliefs or propositions. Philosophy must be measured by its effects: good philosophy is good for thinking.

Philosophy is trust in thinking, in your ability to think yourself past the limitations of method. It is love and curiosity, and confidence in your own strength.

It is the freedom of thought: freedom from fear and from the shackles of dignity.

What did Deleuze try to do? Something very hard, yet extremely pleasurable: to let himself think; to forget all about dignity while he was thinking.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Take Jun'ichiro

Here are some artworks by Take Junichiro:

Wonderful detail... I'd like to call them vortex paintings. You're being sucked in, drawn in - but at the same time there is a strong sense of movement. You don't have the time to let your eyes wander leisurely, since you're flying.
These and many other works can be found on his hp (

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Vilk's caricatures

About a year after the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy in Denmark in 2006 the Swedish artist Lars Vilks published a drawing depicting Muhammad as a dog. This led to a death threat and a heated debate about artistic freedom and free speech.

The arrest a week ago of a woman who allegedly plotted to murder him has led to a renewed flurry of newspaper articles. Lars Linder, for instance, writes (in Swedish here) about the "necessity of defending the right to be stupid". In his view, what Vilks did was regrettable and artistically trite, but his right to do what he did, no matter how stupid, must be defended. Unavoidably, he quotes Voltaire.

Almost everyone (with an refreshing exception here, also in Swedish) seem to think of rights as a purely juridical problem - as if everyone had the right to do anything that's not illegal. Surprisingly few are ready to state in public that things that are right can be illegal and vice versa. To understand why, one needs to look at social dynamics. Laws are necessarily crude and inflexible, while moral norms are formed in ongoing social interactions which make them supple and sensitive to context. If we try to lead our lives merely according to standards of juridical correctness we will end up as stupid robots.

I have a legal right to blow cigarette smoke in the face of a person who hates cigarette smoke. Suppose that person gets hysterical and starts yelling at me, perhaps even looks ready to slap me. What should onlookers do? Enter the fray on my side to a man, cigarette in hand, so that we can all blow smoke in the person's face together, in solidarity, to defend our rights?

In the wake of the Jyllands-Posten caricatures, several European newspapers made a point of publishing the caricatures to manifest support for the freedom of expression. By that logic, if I provoke a person to anger by insulting him, onlookers should start insulting him as well to defend my freedom of expression.

Please note that I’m not saying caricatures are wrong. A nasty caricature is a legitimate way for me to express my anger if I’m upset with a certain politician, institution or political system. But in these cases my anger precedes the caricature. I’m attacking something because of what I feel to be a legitimate cause. I am using the caricature as a weapon in an already ongoing struggle. Which is of course fine. Nothing wrong with that. But Vilks was not upset with Islam - or at least so I want to believe. The question then is: is it right for me to publish a nasty and insulting caricature without that anger, out of the blue, against a group of people who have never done me any harm whatsoever, just in order to prove some principle such as my ”right of expression”?

Vilks may of course have been upset with something else - the political correctness of Swedish critics who failed to defend the freedom of expression of Jyllands-Posten perhaps. The structure we get would then be the following: A says you shouldn't provoke B, and C then provokes B solely for the purpose of trying to provoke A. The problem is that if you think that this is solely a quarrel between A and C, then you've forgotten that B is in fact human and not an instrument you can use as you please.

On the one hand there are laws and jurisprudence, on the other there are norms and social dynamics.

Here's a travesty of guess whom:

I don't share your anger, but I'm ready to die for your right to vent it.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Answering the question “What is freedom?” with four quotations

A few years back I and a few of my colleagues tried to figure out what Bush Jr. could have meant when he said that freedom wasn’t the United States’ gift to Iraq but God’s gift to humanity. None of us could come up with a good answer, so we started to recall other quotes on freedom just for the fun of it. One of us quoted Janis Joplin: “Freedom’s just another word for having nothing to lose”. I agreed, recalling Laurie Anderson’s: “I got all I ever wanted. Now I can’t give it up. It’s a trap”. Immediately, another joined in by quoting Dylan’s "Ballad in Plain D":
My friends from the prison, they ask onto me
How good, how good does it feel to be free?
And I answer them most mysteriously
Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?
Here I wish I had filled in with the following fine quote from John Cage's Indeterminacies, but I missed the opportunity:
Artists talk a lot about freedom. So, recalling the expression “free as a bird”, Morton Feldman went to a park one day and spent some time watching our feathered friends. When he came back, he said “You know? They’re not free: they’re fighting over bits of food.”
As can be seen in these quotes, the only thing that seems more or less certain about freedom is that it’s not necessarily much of a gift.

The quotes also show something else, which I think touches on something fundamental with what we call freedom. It shows, I think, that apart from the dominant, lets call it “Nietzschean” view of freedom as power or ability, there is also a minor but nevertheless important alternative concept of freedom, which perhaps we could call Taoist.

It’s a common opinion that freedom increases with might, that to be free, we need to have the means, the resources, the power to realize the goals we set to ourselves. There is much to support this view. Sure, you’re not free if you have to fight over food, just as you’re not free to move if you can’t get a visa or pay for your ticket. It’s also a view which is useful in preventing rosy idealizations of freedom: to demand freedom may sound prettier than to demand power. To counter such idealizations, it’s good to remind oneself that freedom is not merely a negative absence of obstacles but often also depends on access to power.

However, as Laurie and Janis remind us, power and freedom are not really synonyms. In fact, their quotations show us a way of thinking about freedom which sees it as a radical form of absence of means. Freedom doesn’t come only from collecting and accumulating things, but also from losing them. Means can turn into fetters. As both Marx and Weber show, modern capitalism is born out of a reversal of means and ends, with our supposed servants – money, technology and bureaucratic rationality – subjecting us to the absurd demands of its accumulation, its necessities and its imperatives. It’s not just a problem of modernity. It has much to do with the ebb and flow of energy: the heavy tools we acquire when we feel strong often turn out to be too heavy for us to lift later when we feel weak. The problem with thinking about freedom as premised on access to means is that such freedom, paradoxically, is possible only through our making ourselves dependent. The freer we make ourselves, the more dependent we become on the presumed means.

All this is put very nicely by Ogawa Kyohe in his defense of what he calls "No money life". So here's a fifth quote:
"No Money Life" doesn't mean poverty, but rather freedom.
Free means that you don't need money.
I used to think a lot about freedom in high school. Those days I thought that freedom was an illusion.
But as as things diminish your freedom increases.
You may object that lack of money makes you unfree. You are of course right. But the freedom implied when you say ”unfree” is the freedom of having, not the freedom of not having.
I dislike the freedom of having.Since you ”have”, you want more.
Surely, that is power rather than freedom. (Ogawa Kyohe, Mo Money Life)
How do we make sense of the freedom Janis and Laurie and Kyohe talk about - the freedom that arises when we no longer have anything to lose? The freedom that stems from losing may sound as an unworldly freedom, an ascetic, spiritual freedom along the lines of Buddhist liberation from desire. This is not necessarily wrong. But it risks making us feel that such freedom is of very little concern to those who want to stay in this world and live here. However, Buddhism – especially in Mahayana schools that deny the dichotomy of nirvana and samsara – is very much a religion for the living, for living here and now, actually for living all the fuller for the lack of attachments. To find a way to conceptualize the freedom of loss, we can also turn to Taoism. Chaung-tzu describes this freedom not in negative but in positive terms as the ability to “ride the six elements”, meaning that freedom depends on nothing but what naturally offers itself and makes itself available. Such freedom is absolute, not relative – i.e. not dependent on any particular conditions. The free person is infinitely mobile, untied by identity, never dependent on anything but what is freely available. What is always freely available: the air, the water, the waste, knowledge, words. It is the world of the commons, the world of no-man’s-land.

Try imagining Bill Gates standing by the sea shore and throwing his money into the waves. Not giving it to charity. Just down into the waves. The Situationists knew that this too was a kind of freedom: ”People who destroy commodities show their human superiority over commodities” (“The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy”). In some sense, destruction is liberation. Possessions grant you freedom but only on condition that you sacrifice them. Freedom is to liberate things. Money is freedom, but only to the extent that it is released back to the sea, to no-man’s-land. Think also of Der Verschollene – Kafka’s as well as the old guy riding away on the ox – who must be thought of as happy.

There’s a very practical, politically useful flipside to this freedom of not having which makes it easier to understand. It is expressed by a Spanish colonial administrator in the Philippines: “Nothing is more difficult than to conquer a people who have no needs” (quoted in Jim Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed, 2009:165). Even today one finds conquerors who are equally eloquent. Here is a police intendent in Chhattisgarh interviewed by Arundhati Roy (in a fine article on the Naxalite/Maoist rebellion in India):
See Ma’am, frankly speaking this problem can’t be solved by us police or military. The problem with these tribals is they don’t understand greed. Unless they become greedy, there’s no hope for us. I have told my boss, remove the force and instead put a TV in every home. Everything will be automatically sorted out. (quoted in Roy, "Walking with the Comrades", Outlook India, 29 March, 2010)
The more needs people have, the easier they are to subjugate. Unfortunately, this insight hasn’t been lost on elites, who often pacify opponents by giving them something to lose. Conversely, the worst thing they could do, if they want the conflict to end, is to use their superiority to deprive their opponents of things to lose. This may sound self-evident, yet again and again we see states and governments bent to trying to break their opponents by impoverishing them, by smashing their cities, homes and roads, by killing their families, laying their economies in ruins, by depriving them of hope in anything but continued fight or continued opposition. By doing so they encourage people to make use of their freedom. The freedom you gain by being deprived of things, the freedom of not-having, is not necessarily a quietist freedom to withdraw or escape. It is also, just as often, a freedom to fight.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Caillois and Eliade

I finished reading Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane today. An unpleasant book. I have an aversion to intellectual crudeness of this kind, with all his generalizations about “religious man” vs. “non-religious man”. I'm also a bit repelled by his hatred of modernity. I get the feeling that he is driven less by curiosity and more by disgust at secular modernity and that his sole aim is to shoot down that bird.

I'm more fond of Caillois’ book Man and the Sacred. Caillois seems genuinely interested in exploring the experience of the sacred and as a result his book becomes intellectually engaging and stimulating. To Caillois the sacred is fascinating and intoxicating but at the same time dangerous. It belongs with phenomena such as love and ecstasy. To Eliade, the sacred is something that needs to be defended against revolution, a church rather than a dance. Maybe the difference can be explained, in part, by the difference in context: Caillois works in a French tradition and is influenced by Mauss and the surrealists. Eliade writes in German and is under the spell of the Weberian thematics of Entzauberung. The tones of the respective works are polar opposites: Cailliois writes if addressing an intellectual equal, Eliade as if he already knew all about the subject.

Eliade is obviously attracted to Heidegger. Take the discussion of dwelling. So many echoes of Heidegger. Today, he writes, we see a desacralization of the human dwelling (Eliade 1957:50). But to genuinely dwell means to create a world, to repeat the world of the gods, to make it a sacred space. “The house is not an object, a 'machine to live in’; it is the universe that man constructs for himself by imitating the paradigmatic creation of the gods, the cosmogony” (ibid 56f). Oh dear Eliade, you call forth so many memories of Heidegger - the temple in Paestum, the foundation that is also the creation of a world... Really, I'm getting quite nostalgic here. It warms my heart. You even link holiness to the city. But what about the poor people outside it? What about the nomads and beggars. You don't even mention them. You prefer to glorify the master - the household father, the king, God. After all, he is the one who founds and builds the dwelling, the city, or cosmos. But please tell me, what are we then to make of cities that sanctify not their centers, but their margins? Cities that are more like Kyoto than Angkor and that, precisely out of religious sensitivity, disperse their most sacred sites in the mountains, in border regions or along rivers? Amazingly, there is almost nothing in your book that is helpful in order to understand the holiness of margins, of wandering, of statelessness and of homelessness - an idea of holiness that is opposite to yours. There is only a single sentence. "Those who have chosen the Quest, the road that leads to the Center, must abandon any kind of family and social situation, any ‘nest’, and devote themselves wholly to 'walking’” (ibid 184). Here the center is no longer that of the city; it's a center that decenters the latter - that says: "That building over there is not Mount Meru. Don't be deceived by worldly centers". This is a quite good sentence. I admit that. Quite good. But how atypical of you!

For the rest we are fed with blunt generalizations such as: “For profane experience... space is homogeneous and neutral” (ibid 22). Really? Oh Eliade, you are quite devious, but I see through your trick. First you denounce the secularized world as dreary and homogeneous. If I then object with the obvious fact that there is a variety of secular experiences – struggle, love, friendship, Debordian dérives... –  in which space doesn't at all appear homogeneous, then I know that you have already prepared an ambush a couple of pages ahead, where you will be ready with your usual spare argument (but it's getting a bit worn out by now) and you will tell me: Yes, but those experiences that you mention are nothing but faint shadows of the original experience of the sacred, so even you who tell yourself that you are so liberated and secular are actually still parasitizing on religion! Oh, how triumphant you sound: “To whatever degree he may have desacralized the world, the man who has made his choice in favor of a profane life never succeeds in completely doing away with religious behavior” (ibid 23, cf similar passages on pp 204-213). There, finally, is your rebuttal of Weber’s thesis of the disenchantment of the world: it is a surface phenomenon. Religion will always persist, whether we are aware of it or not...

I can hear you laugh here. Well, you laugh as much as you please. I prefer reading Caillois.


Caillois, Roger (2001 [1939]) Man and the Sacred, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Eliade, Mircea (1959 [1957]) The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, Orlando: Harcourt Inc.
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