Ktismatics

23 December 2007

Re-Entering the Bathysphere

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:08 am

It’s another sign that I’ve about reached the end (again!) in writing this blog: events that I’ve found moving, ideas that challenge my assumptions, possibilities for stimulating conversation — I no longer want to write posts about them. I’d rather keep my thoughts entirely private or write them in a book, buffering myself from online exchanges that I’d just as soon evade, even if those exchanges were to provide the sort of emergent enlightenment and camaraderie that the Internet promises and that justify the frustrating dead-ends and misunderstandings that seem so often to get in the way.

Since killing off Ktismatics over two months ago and fusing myself with its spectral afterlife, I’ve tried letting others be the cause of my desire, following trajectories set by other bloggers in whose gravitational fields I had already found myself attracted. These forays have met with some success, inasmuch as I rediscovered a couple of things I’ve known for a long time: I can usually find something that engages me in practically anyone’s agenda, but other people seem to have a harder time engaging in mine. Is it this an accurate evaluation on my part, or just another indicator of my intransigent egotism? Or is my stuff really less interesting than other people’s? I don’t really want to know; I don’t really want to talk about it.

I’ve also wandered more resolutely through the chamber of mirrors suspended between the actual and the simulacrum, between invisibility and the spectacle. Am I the monk or the one who writes the monk’s lines? Am I the torturer or the victim or the not-so-innocent bystander, the director or the audience or the actor? I still don’t know for sure, but I’m pretty sure I’m ready to wind my way back out of the labyrinth. I could write at some length about my recent adventures in blogspace and the self-awarenesses and self-deceptions they’ve induced, but I no longer want to write about it here, simultaneously anticipating and dreading comments, hoping for mutual acceptance and understanding but expecting the opposite, all the while fearing most of all the distinct possibility that what I write will be ignored altogether.

There’s no question that I’ve learned a great deal as an active participant in blogging culture. I also have a sense of completion, that this last round of blogging afterlife has reached its denouement. And I do intend to carry on with writing, preferring to re-enter a self-imposed isolation that I find conducive to writing extended pieces. I want to rethink the Genesis 1 book based on what I’ve learned. There’s also another novel starting to take shape. And of course there’s also the unrealized potential of my psychology practice to torment me.

I do thank all who have read what I’ve had to say and who have engaged in discussions in this space. Feel free to carry on without me, and I will continue to respond to comments and questions here. And I look forward to keeping in touch with my online friends by email. This time, though, I’m committed to resisting the temptation to write more posts. I expect I’ll also stop commenting on other blogs, which is how I ended up inadvertently resurrecting Ktismatics. I’ll try harder to let it rest in peace.

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21 December 2007

Heterocultural Psychology

Filed under: Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 1:46 pm

I’ve been having a hard time picturing my psychology practice, which hasn’t gotten off the ground at all since we’ve been back in the States. I’ve been pestered by the sense that there is no framing context in which my practice might make sense to a potential client. I don’t propose to help people adjust to reality, where “reality” holds no ontological primacy beyond its status as an interrelated set of social constructs that happen to have achieved cultural dominance in this particular place and time. I’m not interested in becoming a purveyor of those psychological benefits that society holds forth as most desirable: happiness, success, self-actualization, balance. As a consequence, I’m not attracted to cognitive-behavior therapy, coaching, pharmacotherapy, psychoanalysis, or any of the other paradigmatic praxes for normalizing the outlier with respect to these desired outcomes.

I probably won’t have too many people seeking out my services. The question is: who would? I’m presuming it’s somebody who’s alienated from mainstream society and its cultural norms, or at least someone who’s aware that culture might be a source of difficulty. There will always be workers who are alienated from business, Christians alienated from church, students alienated from school — but how would they ever find me? It’s unlikely that someone who’s in charge of a mainstream social setting would refer someone to me knowing in advance that I’m not committed to keeping that person “in the fold.”

So I’m thinking: what about expatriates? When we lived abroad we were acutely aware of the mismatch between ourselves and the culture in which we were embedded. At the same time we became more alienated from our home culture. Living in a foreign country makes you aware of the ways in which society shapes your own subjectivity. It’s disconcerting, but it affords an opportunity to gain perspective.

Suppose I make my services available to foreigners who are living in the States. This is a university town that attracts graduate students and faculty members who hail from other countries. Would it just exacerbate the alienation to go for therapy to an American? Maybe, but as I’ve mentioned here before, I used to counsel Vietnam vets even though I was never in the military. I had a sense that I offered something different to the vets as a representative of the mainstream cuture who still valued the differences they carried back with them from the war. Couldn’t I do the same thing with expatriates, representing the Big American Other who isn’t just trying to absorb them into the Borg? Together the client and I would occupy some hybrid heterocultural space where the unconscious influences of both the home culture and the foreign culture can be examined.

* * * *

(UPDATE, 22 DEC.) Maybe, if I have this idea of a heterocultural practice in mind as a framing context, I could gain access to other kinds of social settings. I could draw the analogy between an expatriate and someone in a church who has become aware of the way in which cultures conflict, revealing the self as a nexus of cross-cultural conflict and a subject dominated by social forces beyond one’s control or awareness. Even the cultural ideal of individual agency is largely a cultural byproduct by which the self can be unwittingly manipulated. Some churchgoers become aware of Christianity’s conflict with secular culture; others realize that the secular culture is an extension of Christian culture. Some want out of Christianity, while others want to get deeper in: both are thwarted by conflicts with the church culture.

I keep having the feeling that, just because I’m not a Christian, I shouldn’t be barred access to the Christian culture. I recognize that I’m an outsider to that culture, but I’m also an outsider to war veteran culture, or expatriate culture, or school culture, or corporate culture. In practice I position myself in heteroculture — not acultural or supercultural in some transcendent sense, but also neither an advocate nor an adversary of the cultural forces that affect the client, me, the interaction. The question is whether the pastor of a church would get it, would regard my cultural outsider status as critical to my therapeutic position vis-a-vis the client.

The question then becomes: is this framing context that emphasizes the interaction between self and culture, between subjective and intersubjective realities, sufficiently distinctive from the psychosocial space that other kinds of therapists occupy?

18 December 2007

Call Me Paranoid

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 12:03 pm

…but on my morning walk I found myself wondering about the recent incident where some guy walked into two different evangelical institutions here in Colorado, 6o miles and several hours apart, and proceeded to shoot people, killing I think two at each place before dying of gunfire himself. Originally the story went like this: a couple years ago the guy had been kicked out of the first place, a training school for world missionaries, and had borne a grudge ever since. He had sent hate mail and threats to the school. He had written a series of blog entries saying that he hated Christians and hinting that he might be planning to do violence reminiscent of the Columbine High School shooting, which also took place in Colorado, and which left something like twenty people dead. After killing two people at the training school he then headed for an evangelical megachurch, again opening fire, killing two more people. There seemed nothing to connect the shooter to this particular church, until word got out that his victims had been associated with the same organization that runs the missionary school. The shooter was brought down by one of the church’s armed security guards — apparently the church had gone on high alert in response to the killings at the missionary school earlier that day.

As time has passed the details of the story have changed a bit. The shooter didn’t die from wounds inflicted by the security guard; he committed suicide. The guard was a former policewoman who had been dismissed from the force for improprieties. There is no evidence that the shooter threatened the training school in advance. It’s not clear that the shooter was the author of the blog entries that allegedly signalled his murderous intent.

So I wonder…

  • The reports of the shooter’s threatening mail and blogs, subsequently retracted — could this faulty and misleading intelligence have been released as a planned attempt to justify Homeland Security domestic spying? It’s been repeatedly demonstrated that Americans remember the initial headlines rather than the subsequent retractions buried in the back pages, and that they typically believe the original story even after it has been debunked.
  • It’s no secret that the church where the shooter ended his spree, got shot by the guard, and killed himself is the same megachurch whose pastor was dismissed a couple months ago for engaging in homosexual prostitution, the news of which received big play in the American media. Is it conceivable that this church orchestrated the shooting in order to reverse the flow of negative publicity directed not only at the church but at evangelicalism in general?
  • Is it conceivable that the missionary school too participated in the shooting? After all, the killer had trained briefly at the school, presumably because he wanted to extend the evangelical Christian presence into other parts of the world. If he professed to be a Christ-hater and attacked the school, wouldn’t he in effect be helping to promote the missionary agenda, as well as the American-led wars against the anti-Christian enemy in the Middle East?
  • Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has come out of nowhere, surging into a virtual tie with Rudolph Giuliani in national public opinion polls. Hackabee is an evangelical Christian who used to be a Southern Baptist minister. This latest shooting incident could only have helped his campaign.
  • Recently Jonathan Erdman contended on Theos Project that the angsty loner American shooters share with Near East suicide bombers the yearning for immortality, either in the martyr’s afterlife or in the media spotlight. What if this latest Colorado shooter really was a suicide bomber seeking both sorts of immortality? What if, when the guard who had been assigned to kill him failed to finish the job, he had to kill himself? What if he was acting as part of a conspiracy to bolster the flagging presence of evangelical Christianity in American politics, to reinforce public support for domestic surveillance, and to extend the missionary zeal of the American people in support of an ever-expanding war in the Middle East?

Am I paranoid, or what?

17 December 2007

Personal Political Manifesto 2

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 5:57 am

About a week ago I wrote a personal political position statement, based largely on the acknowledgment that governments act in the interests of their own constituencies and that nations act on behalf of national interests. But to what extent should the interests of humanity broadly construed trump these more local interests? It’s always possible to disguise self-interest behind a veil of altruism, but should that realistic acknowledgment serve as the basis for abandoning altruism altogether as the basis for good governance? Awareness of obstacles to the pursuit of justice needn’t become a cynical justification for realpolitik as the way government “ought” to work. I’d rather regard America not as a nation but as a localized manifestation of a more universal commitment to principles like “liberty and justice for all.” The American government would act on our behalf in pursuing policies that are guided by our shared commitment to these universal humanistic principles. The US Constitution was crafted according to these broader principles; the structure of the government and the democratic process don’t hinder this more universalistic outlook.

The American Multitude and their representatives should recommit themselves to humanity over and above personal, local and national interests. In order to prevent rhetorical manipulation and bias, safeguards would have to be installed to make sure that the evaluation of policy based on universal humanistic principles aren’t being coopted. Policy bodies that are structurally buffered from partisan political and economic considerations need to be strengthened, both within the US and internationally. Just as scientific practitioners use agreed-upon procedures to converge on closer and closer approximations to reliable human knowledge and understanding, so too should practitioners of public policy be able to converge on government practices that represent practical implementations of a principled commitment to universal humanism.

So in that light I think I’m prepared to overhaul my personal political position, moving away from pragmatic self-interest and toward principled universalism.

  1. The United States is a national expression of a universal humanistic commitment to “liberty and justice for all.”
  2. As participants in a democracy, Americans should attempt to act in accord with this broader commitment to humanity rather than regarding government as a means of advancing their own self-interests.
  3. Those who work for the government should act on behalf of the American people in pursuit of the nation’s stated commitment to universal humanistic principles, over and above the localized self-interests of their constituents.
  4. Policy advisory bodies within the US government should be buffered as much as possible from political and economic influence, and these bodies’ findings and recommendations should be made available for public scrutiny.
  5. US governmental actions that have repercussions beyond the national borders should be vetted through international policy advisory bodies like the UN and the World Court. Inasmuch as these international tribunals are also not immune from political bias, I’m not certain about the extent to which the US government should agree to cede its decision-making authority to them. However, as a corrective to the historical American tendency to pursuing its self-interests abroad, I think the international bodies’ judgments ought to be the default preference for the American government unless compelling reasons can be brought forward and made public to demonstrate that in a particular situation the international judgment is fatally compromised.

15 December 2007

One Step Closer

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:56 am

One Step Closer

– acrylic by Kenzie Doyle, 2007 (with permission of artist)

13 December 2007

What About Bali?

Filed under: Culture — ktismatics @ 6:36 am

USA DUA, Indonesia (Reuters) – The European Union threatened on Thursday to boycott U.S. talks among top greenhouse gas emitting nations, accusing Washington of blocking goals for fighting climate change at U.N. talks in Bali. The December 3-14 Bali talks are split over the guidelines for starting two years of formal negotiations on a deal to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, a U.N. pact capping greenhouse gas emissions of all industrial nations except the United States until 2012. Washington, long at odds with many of its Western allies on climate policies, has called a meeting of 17 of the world’s top emitters, including China, Russia and India, in Hawaii late next month to discuss long-term cuts. President George W. Bush intends the Honolulu meeting to be part of a series of talks to feed into the U.N. process. Washington hosted a similar meeting in September, which attracted few top officials and achieved little. The EU wants Bali’s final text to agree a non-binding goal of cuts in emissions of 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 for industrial economies as a “roadmap” for the talks. The United States, Japan, Canada and Australia are opposed, saying any figures would prejudge the outcome.

“Those who are suggesting that you can magically find agreement on a metric when you are just starting negotiations, that in itself is a blocking element,” said James Connaughton, Chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “We will lead, we will continue to lead. But leadership also requires others to fall in line and follow,” Connaughton said. U.S. climate policy is to invest heavily in new technologies such as hydrogen and “clean coal,” without Kyoto-style caps.

The range of 25-40 percent cuts for rich nations was given in studies by the U.N. Climate Panel this year, which blamed mankind for stoking warming and urged quick action to avert ever more floods, droughts, melting glaciers and rising seas. Kyoto binds 37 industrialized nations to cut emissions by an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2008-12. Poorer nations, led by China and India, are exempt from curbs. Washington pulled out in 2001, saying Kyoto would harm the U.S. economy and wrongly excluded goals for developing countries.

* * * *

Global warming exemplifies the limits of American isolationism. America minding its own business is the main source of the problem, resulting not from national political action but from the distributed acts of the Multitude. The right thing to do seems obvious: the US signs the international agreements, then establish some sort of process whereby the targeted emission reductions can be achieved. But I can think of no precedent for the US government interfering in the domestic economy like that. Enforcing adherence to Kyoto and subsequent treaties wouldn’t just call on voluntary lifestyle changes percolating throughout the multitude at the individual, household and corporate level. These changes would be mandated, with punishments meted out to violators. When other than during wartime has the US government actively interfered in a way intended to slow down consumption and to shift production in specific ways that might not increase the GNP?

There aren’t enough economic incentives to hand around to energy companies that would make it profitable for them to shift rapidly and massively away from fossil fuel. Penalties for fuel emissions would have to be drastic and stringently enforced. Case in point: since the Iraq incursion began the price of gasoline at the pump has more than doubled in America, in effect amounting to a huge tax levied on the American consumer the proceeds of which are handed over to oil companies. But despite the big price bump consumption has not gone down.

The libertarian position is roughly this: Let’s say the scientists are right — global temperatures are going up because of emissions, the ice caps are melting, widespread flooding is likely to occur in coastal plains, that massive shifts in populations and agriculture will need to take place. So what? There’s money to be made: a new coastline means new shorefront housing to be built, when farming becomes unviable in one part of the world it will become profitable somewhere else, an ice-free Arctic opens new oil drilling fields, when the oil runs out the energy companies can shift to other energy sources and jack up prices some more.

Reducing American complicity in global warming cannot rely on spontaneous adjustments of the marketplace. Some sort of global idealism would have to motivate the US government to mandate reduced consumption. The federal government would have to act on principle against the economic interests of the Multitude. And to enforce such an act would require the government to act in a more invasive way, taking direct centralized control of economic forces. I don’t think either American business or the Multitude would stand for it. And though I’d rather have Al Gore appointees sitting at the multilateral global warming table, I don’t know what he would have done that’s different from Bush’s inaction.

12 December 2007

Realities as Political Agents

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 4:28 am

In yesterday’s post I tried to assemble a personal political statement about how I believe American government ought to work. I proposed that the American democratic culture supports the liberal idea of the individual as agent and the Multitude as the sum of individual agents. I acknowledged that there is also a collective tradition of the American People as a collective agent, manifesting itself especially in the urge to promulgate “the American way” and to overcome resistance both at home and abroad.

This sort of analysis distinguishes between individual and collective agents operating within the political sphere. Immanent forces can assemble themselves into subjectivities, which are individuated intentional centers of thoughts and feelings and beliefs and will, and intersubjectivities, which are collective intentional centers of norms and ideologies and power. But agents don’t have to be so personal, or even interpersonal. Immanent forces can assemble themselves into realities: collections of phenomena mapped onto coherent explanations of what they mean. Realities can be appropriated or occupied by individuals or groups or whole societies, but realities aren’t centered in these personal/interpersonal entitites. Realities are themselves agents, assigning meaning to individuals and collectives.

Some people I know believed that Iraq posed an imminent threat to Israel and the Unites States, that Saddam had WMDs and the means of delivering them, that he was in cahoots with Osama Bin Laden, that Iraqis would rejoice in Saddam’s removal and the installation of democracy. Other people believed that Iraq presented an opportunity for America to appropriate a reliable supply of oil and cheap labor, driving a wedge into a potentially powerful unified Middle East that posed an immanent threat to American economic dominance. It could be argued that these two alternative perspectives constituted intentional constructions of particular societal agents, constructions which were then intentionally propagated throughout the Multitude in an effort to promote these societal agents’ agendas. But these alternative perspectives wouldn’t have any chance of finding a home in the minds of individual personal agents if these perspectives didn’t make sense. “Making sense” isn’t just a subjective feeling; it’s a way that objects and events and people can be assembled into a coherent picture or story or set of propositions. It is a reality.

The individual agent can create a unique way of making sense of things, but more often the individual appropriates a meaning that’s already been pre-assembled. It’s conceivable that the individual consciously selects one particular way of making sense from among the others. But I think it’s more accurate to say that one particular reality resonates most strongly with the individual. This resonance occurs at the unconscious level, where the raw materials of a whole array of virtual realities — representations of things and events and people, trajectories of power and love and violence, ideas and beliefs — are waiting, loosely arrayed, to be assembled into a coherent whole. When a particular way of making sense of the Iraq situation makes itself known to an individual subject, it may resonate with the loosely-structured subjective array in such a way as to actualize one of the virtual realities that co-existed in nascent form in the subject’s unconscious. This particular reality offers the subject a way of formulating the subject’s unformulated experiences. Why does this particular reality take up residence in this particular subject’s consciousness? Probably because it’s more easily incorporated into that subject’s meta-reality — the array of interrelated realities that has already taken up residence in that subject’s head.

There may be an infinite number of ways to make sense of Iraq. Only a very small subset of the imaginable alternatives take up active residence in the minds of individual subjects. This means that individuals can be assigned to a small number of categories. These categories can be construed as interpersonal agents, convergences of subsets of the chaotic Multitude into a few organized and competing subsets of the People. But the categories can also be regarded as alternative political realities. Once a reality takes up residence in an individual subject’s head, that subject becomes incorporated into that reality, much as an individual English-speaker becomes incorporated into the Anglophone reality. Once a person becomes embedded in a particular political reality, it’s hard for that person to think about things in some other way, just as it’s difficult for an English-speaker to think in French. It’s very difficult for someone who occupies one political reality to “talk sense” to someone who occupies a different reality. That’s because realities aren’t just collections of raw phenomena disconnected from collections of ideas: the phenomena and ideas are assembled together, fused into interlocking strands of meaning. It’s hard to pluck any one strand without setting up sympathetic vibrations in the whole fabric. As an impersonal agent, a reality resists disaggregation and disassembly.

Politically, America may be characterized as a Multitude of individual agents assembled into a relatively few alternative versions of the collective People. But America may also be characterized as a multitude of individual events and objects and people assembled into a relatively few alternative political realities. To alter the landscape of political realities, a few strategies can be envisioned. Unbundle the realities into their individual components and subject each component to logical and empirical scrutiny. Consciously rebundle the components from the bottom up into a different configuration. Imagine other alternative realities that haven’t yet been widely actualized and see if they resonate with the virtual assemblies in individuals’ heads.

11 December 2007

A Very Tentative Political Manifesto

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:13 am

Challenged by what I’ve been reading, spurred on by discussion and provocation and personal abuse, stimulated by three cups of coffee and an early morning walk through deep snow, I offer the preliminary and tentative personal political position of an individual American. It’s a sort of liberal isolationism that looks a lot like Hardt & Negri’s Empire but without the globalization. (UPDATE 1, 11:15 am — added one more “resolved” clause)

Inasmuch as:

  1. The American government rarely acts against American economic self-interests in world affairs, regardless of the publicly stated rationales for its actions.
  2. The American public can be persuaded that the government is acting in their best interests even when it’s not. Example: Iraq has WMDs and capabilities for delivering them, therefore it’s in our best interests to launch a pre-emptive strike.
  3. The American public can be persuaded that the government is motivated by consensual ideological commitment even when it’s not. Example: it is our sacred duty as the beacon of democracy and freedom to liberate the Iraqi people.
  4. The structure of the American republic is most compatible with a libertarian protection of individual rights of “the Multitude.”
  5. The American republic is flexible enough to accommodate more collective expressions of “the People.” Example: constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage.
  6. The democratic process in America is structurally free and open.
  7. The two-party system and the winner-take-all operation of government virtually assures that the parties will converge on a central position, severely curtailing choices available to voters.
  8. There is virtually no class consciousness in America, so calls for working-class solidarity have only very narrow appeal.
  9. The American governmental structure is very stable and receives strong popular support, with hardly anyone calling for any fundamental overhaul or revolution.

Therefore be it resolved that:

  1. The present republican and democratic structure of American government needn’t be toppled from within.
  2. The ideals underlying the republic –“liberty and justice for all” — should be upheld, keeping in check the populist and potentially fascistic expressions of the People as well as the special interests of the economically privileged.
  3. Because the democratic expression of sheer self-interest would, by virtue of demographics, shift power away from the rich, the Multitude should be especially vigilant against governmental attempts to invoke either the People or the national Ideals as justification for public policy.
  4. Barriers to entry or immigration into the US based on financial resources, promise of employment, ability to speak English, etc. should be eliminated.
  5. Americans should be encouraged to extend their libertarian instincts to foreign affairs, respecting other nations’ efforts at self-determination even if the resulting governments don’t look anything like our own.
  6. Organized efforts at “counter-detailing” government propaganda with fact-based analyses of policy issues and the exposure of hidden motives behind the propaganda should be undertaken.
  7. The potential value of forming a third party shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

Okay, I’m ready to be talked out of it now. And I have no idea how any of it can actually be accomplished.

9 December 2007

Amin on Empire

Filed under: Culture — ktismatics @ 8:50 pm

I think this is going to do it for me on reviews of Hardt & Negri’s Empire. This time up: an essay by Marxist political theorist Samir Amin, as recommended by Chabert — the link is HERE.

Amin, like the other far-left critics I’ve read, doesn’t much care for H&N’s ideas. Amin too objects to their contention that Empire is already global, discounting the nationalism behind America’s global economic and military ambitions. He refers to the imperialistic triad of the US, Europe and Japan, which together dominate the rest of the world more through the expansion of capital than through conquest of territories. I’m not clear how Amin’s view differs significantly from H&N’s in this sense of an American-centered Empire penetrating local economies throughout the world, other than a difference as to how far this penetration has already taken place.

More importantly, Amin disagrees that the Left’s agenda should and must be achieved from inside the Empire. The US, which dominates the triad, is in many ways unique historically and culturally. American workers have virtually no class awareness, Amin contends; individualistic liberalism has always permeated American culture, making it a rocky ground for leftist-communistic inclinations to take root. The long history of American democracy is undeniable and Amin contends that democracy must be part of all future progress in achieving economic equality. However, Americans are nearly apolitical, participating in state affairs only at the ballot box. Economics dominates American life, and so its government is primarily an arm of the marketplace. Americans aren’t reluctant to acknowledge their intention to protect the resource-intensive American lifestyle, securing their own economic interests at the expense of other nations and ensuring their dominance through massive military strength. By submitting to the American-dominated Empire, other nations would be acting against their own self-interests.

The idea of Multitude is central to H&N’s vision of a better future: a congeries of individual agents shooting trajectories of energy into the world. By eliminating restraints on freedom of movement, along with assuring a worldwide minimum wage, an upgraded Empire can release a vast reservoir of creative force that will lift workers’ economic status and generate an explosion of creativity in the world. Amin says that here H&N completely subscribe to the liberal ideal of the free individual as the agent of change in the world. For most of the world individuals are pretty much powerless to resist the nationalistic hegemony and intrusive power of the American empire. Amin proposes agency resides with a variety of democratic, leftist hegemonic states that aren’t modeled on America but rather are compatible with local “political cultures.”

In essence, Amin writes off America altogether. Its democracy is essentially rightist; it wants to dominate the world militarily and to hoard the lion’s share of resources. To uphold the liberal ideal of individual agency for those who stand outside the American empire is to serve as an advocate not for a global Empire that will emerge from the Multitude but for American world conquest. America isn’t the portal for the emergence of global progress of the left’s economic agenda; it is the enemy that can’t be rehabilitated but that must be actively combated. So what do you do if you happen to have the (mis)fortune of being an American living in America? Apparently you have three options: go along with the liberal status quo, pursue a radical disruptive course that will probably bring you into conflict with the authorities, or leave.

7 December 2007

Original Sin Reinterpreted

Filed under: Genesis 1, Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:20 pm

Here’s a brief interruption in the Empire series… Awhile back I mentioned that I was launching a series of posts at Open Source Theology exploring what would happen to the rest of the Bible if the creation narratives from Genesis 1-3 were simply deleted. I’m getting close to the end of this project, which will be sort of a relief: other than my friend Sam, hardly anyone has engaged in discussion other than to tell me that my whole project is ill-conceived. Today I wrote a piece about original sin, which might be of interest both to the Christians and to the Lacanians who happen to show up here.

Nothing in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve suggests that Adam’s sin somehow infected all of his descendants. They were banned from the Garden and its Tree of Life, which would have granted them immortality, but in the Genesis creation narratives mortality is the natural human condition. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul goes so far as to say that the natural, mortal human body has a kind of “glory” to it.

Nothing in God’s curses on Adam and Eve suggest that he’ll cause them or their progeny to be more prone to sin than would naturally be the case. In the very next chapter Yahweh poses this question to Cain: “If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up?” or perhaps “will you not be accepted?” (Gen 4:7) By this question isn’t Yahweh saying that it’s possible for Cain, son of Adam, to do well? To the best of my knowledge, nowhere else in the Old Testament is there any suggestion that Adam’s sin was passed on to his descendants. Jewish theology has no concept of original sin. I’m not sure to what extent the early Christians believed in original sin. Augustine formulated the doctrine of original sin that came to dominate Christian thought from the Middle Ages on. The Protestant reformers also subscribed to Augustine’s formulation. What about in the New Testament? Again as far as I can tell, Romans 5 is the only NT text to suggest the idea that Adam’s original sin caused the sinfulness of his descendants. Here’s the one verse that’s hard to account for:

For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many were made righteous (Romans 5:19).

That sure sounds like original sin to me. Is there a straight reading of this verse that doesn’t turn into the historic Christian doctrine of original sin, whereby everyone inherits a sinful nature from Adam? Here’s a stab at it…

In Romans as elsewhere Paul addresses what is arguably his main theme: justification by faith. It is in this context that Paul talks about the law. Not only are people incapable of following the law — the law itself has no power to bring justification. Even worse and paradoxically so, the law makes one aware of one’s sinfulness rather than removing that awareness.

Paul summarizes his justification-by-faith argument in the first eleven verses of Romans 5, at which point he moves into an extended comparison between Adam and Christ. Therefore, Paul begins verse 12, signaling that the analogy is going to be relevant to his larger justification-by-faith argument — Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin… This “one man” isn’t named here, but he is two verses later: it’s Adam. But how can Paul say that Adam sinned if it’s through law that we become aware of our sinfulness? Paul highlights this dilemma in verse 13: for until the Law sin was in the world; but sin is not imputed when there is no law.

Clearly, though, sin was imputed to “the one man,” to Adam. For his sin Adam was condemned to death, and death reigned from Adam to Moses (v. 14) — in other words, death reigned during the entire pre-Law era. It would seem, then, that Adam must have acted in the context of some sort of law, even if it wasn’t THE Mosaic Law.

Later in Romans Paul outlines the intrinsic link between law and sin. The law doesn’t just create an awareness of having already broken the law; it actually stimulates the desire to break the law:

What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “YOU SHALL NOT COVET.” But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. (Romans 7:7-8)

So, Adam is in the Garden and God tells him not to eat from one particular tree. This is God’s only rule as far as we’re told, but it’s enough to produce the very desire it prohibits. The fruit looks tasty, it will make me wise — I’m having a bite! Man was created good and the law was good; it was the interaction of human nature with the law that went badly. Paul says that it always goes badly.

Let’s say that Adam and Eve really did acquire the knowledge they sought in the Garden. In fact, Yahweh says they did in Genesis 2:22: Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil. It’s possible that the desire to be like the lawgiver is the motivation behind lots of sins, maybe even all sin. When God says “Don’t eat from that tree” He also means “Only I am allowed to eat from that tree.” The person who’s told not to eat admires the lawgiver, wants to become like the lawgiver, wants therefore to do precisely what the lawgiver told him or her NOT to do. It’s a sad story really.

This knowledge of good and evil can be expressed in the form of laws: you should do this, you shouldn’t do that. No other animal besides man is possessed of such knowledge. Babies aren’t born with this knowledge, but they begin learning it in infancy, and once they learn it they can never unlearn it. This knowledge, says Paul, is a mixed blessing: knowing the good produces both an awareness of having already done wrong and a desire to continue doing wrong. Human nature is good, and the law is good, but human knowledge of law establishes the preconditions from which sin invariably emerges.

Adam and Eve learned good and evil, and they could never forget it, never again escape both the self-awareness of sin and the desire to sin that’s stimulated by knowing the law. The first parents almost surely conveyed this knowledge to their children. Do this; don’t do that — it’s hard to imagine being a parent without laying down the law. Still, there must have been a particular time when humans moved beyond the instinctive stimulus-response, action-reaction style of non-sentient animals. In so doing, in teaching law to their children, parents transmit the preconditions that, says Paul, invariably generate sin in their children.

Okay, back to the problem verse: For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners… This interpretation could work, couldn’t it? Adam and Eve learned good and evil, which can be expressed as law. Knowing law creates awareness of having broken law and stimulates desire to break law some more. Once this knowledge enters human awareness it never goes away. And it’s exactly the kind of knowledge that parents almost immediately impart to their children. Paradoxically, by laying down the law to their children, parents become the conduits of sinfulness to their children. There’s no biological inheritance of a sinful nature; it’s just the way things invariably go when humans acquire the knowledge of good and evil.

Here’s how Romans 5 wraps up:

For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:19-21)

Paul finishes the parallel between Adam and Jesus by giving his readers a foretaste of the Law-sin connection he elaborates in chapter 7. Adam and his descendants experienced this fateful connection on a small scale; the Jews under THE Law got a full dose. Christ breaks the Law-sin connection that began with Adam and intensified via Moses.

6 December 2007

Leninino on National Global Empire

Filed under: Culture — ktismatics @ 10:57 am

Continuing my review of critiques of Hardt & Negri’s Empire, today, again through courtesy of Traxus, there’s THIS POST from the archives of Lenin’s Tomb. Leninino’s (not the “real” Lenin, hence the diminutive) essay addresses the broader issue of nationalism in the global economy, which is only one aspect of H&N’s book. H&N contend that, whereas the USA is the center of Empire’s hegemony and power, the globalization of Empire through international trade and the free movement of capital and labor across boundaries is effacing the importance of separate nations.

Leninino notes that the “state” isn’t a self-explanatory concept. In Weberian liberal terms the state is a mechanism for protecting a particular geographic territory and its people, whereas for Marx the state is a force for securing the ends of the bourgeoisie. In this latter formulation the modern state isn’t merely a means of overcoming obstacles to free trade within and between territories: it serves to reinforce the obstacles separating bourgeoisie from proletariat; it functions as the instrument of an unacknowledged ideology.

Leninino acknowledges the empirical fact that economic activity has become increasingly global, with greater multinational investment in infrastructure, reductions in tariffs and other trade barriers, etc. This isn’t a new trend, L observes — geographical extension has always been part of modern capitalism. But most of this multinational activity still takes place between nations, and especially among those few nations that dominate world capitalism. He cites evidence that firms’ international investments generate lower profit margins than do their domestic investments. Nations also continue to restrict the in-migration of low-wage labor. Whether new state policies serve to release or to restrict trade across national boundaries, they are actions taken at the national level.

“I think it is useful to dispense with the term ‘globalization’,” L. concludes. “Given what has been said, it can be seen as an obfuscatory device with little real referent.” Globalization is a “fiction,” an “ideological construct” that attempts to unify a variety of independent and multidirectional trends. “If [one person] said that globalization was making the poor worse off, while someone else said that it enabled one to communicate with many people of different faiths and backgrounds, they would not be disagreeing because they are speaking of different things.” The former is speaking from the perspective of Marx’s definition of state; the latter, from the liberal definition.

I’m not sure of the implications here. Leninino acknowledges that the economy has been extending itself internationally for a long time. As L. presents it, Marx’s definition of state can be decoupled from nation and its geographic and ethnic connotations, such that the state’s bourgeois empowerment apparatus could go multinational or global without significantly changing its function. Arguing that national interests still dominate multinational exchange seems to support Weber’s liberal definition of state as a mechanism for protecting local interests. Is that the idea: that globalization is a liberal deception intended to seduce people into believing that something like global communism is emerging from multinational capitalism? If so, then why would Marxists want to deny the acknowledged movement toward a horizon dominated by a global bourgeois state? Maybe it’s because a strictly national bourgeois state is easier to topple. Let’s say that Empire is only an American-centered movement that comprises only a handful of nations working in loose collaboration to dominate other nations and the working class. If so, then by thwarting America and its collaborators Empire can be toppled. It’s not a total world hegemony; it’s just a very powerful locality with plenty of external space surrounding it, plenty of opportunities to resist from outside the Empire.

5 December 2007

Juridical Concept of Empire

Filed under: Culture — ktismatics @ 9:18 am

In the discussion of Hardt & Negri’s Empire on the preceding post, Traxus accused me of being caught in a polarity. Are societal institutions the self-organizing emergent product of uncoordinated vectors of potential expressing themselves throughout the society? Or are they the top-down imposition of restrictions and directions on this emergent expression of diffuse human potential? Okay fine, I’ll read Hardt & Negri for awhile and see what they have to say for themselves — how they resolve the polarization through the juridical concept of Empire.

“The concept comes down to us through a long, primarily European tradition, which goes back at least to ancient Rome, whereby the juridico-political figure of Empire was closely linked to the Christian origins of European civilizations. There the concept of Empire united juridical categories and universal ethical values, making them work together as an organic whole. This union has continuously functioned within the concept, whatever the vicissitudes of the history of Empire. Every juridical system is in some way a crystallization of a specific set of values, because ethics is part of the materiality of every juridical foundation, but Empire… pushes the coincidence and universality of the ethical and the juridical to the extreme… From the beginning, then, Empire sets in motion an ethico-political dynamic that lies at the heart of the juridical concept. This juridical concept involves two fundamental tendencies: first, the notion of a right that is affirmed in the construction of a new order that envelops the entire space of what it considers civilization, a boundless, universal space; and second, a notion of right that encompasses all time within its ethical foundation… In other words, Empire presents its order as permanent, eternal, and necessary.”

H&N contend that this universal merger of law and ethics persisted through the Middle Ages, but that the Renaissance inaugurated the “triumph of secularism” which split law and ethics apart. So in the political came the concept of universal rights, whereas in the ethical arose “utopias of ‘perpetual peace.'” When I think about localized ethical utopias I picture the early American religious communities, trying to establish outposts of heaven in the wilderness. But these communities engaged one another in society and in commerce. There were fundamental agreements on universals that enabled them to establish federations across communities. In America at least the divide between the political and the ethical didn’t really hold. Each utopian community was a merger of both principles, and the federation across communities was built on (relatively) universal agreement on both principals among the diverse mini-utopias.

I don’t see H&N acknowledging that the medieval Western ethic also split between the old Catholicism, which was more a tribally syncretistic variant of Christianity, and the new Protestantism, which like the Renaissance was an attempt to return to a past classical age of Christianity. Protestantism extended the universal ethos of Christian fellowship, making possible the formation of societies and economies that unite total strangers from different cultures. At the same time Protestantism re-emphasized the juridical and ethical ideal of the Christian “constitution;” i.e., the Bible, and especially the New Testament, and even more especially the universalizing ideal of Paul. The New Testament ideal isn’t only enforced by the powers of Empire, as was the case with the Roman law or the Jewish law of the Old Testament; rather, it’s intended to guide the individual exercise of freedom in a way that permeates the society at every level. It’s a Foucaultian internalization of power, transforming from within the expression of potential energy. The form of secularization that came to dominate Western Empire arose specifically within those societies that adopted the Protestant variant of Christianity. This new “re-formation” of the Empire didn’t even need Italy, the original locus of the Renaissance and Negri’s home country.

3 December 2007

Bull on Empire

Filed under: Culture — ktismatics @ 7:31 pm

In discussion on the Immanent Marxist Utopia post I expressed the wish that someone would point me toward a Marxist critique of Hardt and Negri’s Empire. Traxus (American Stranger) sent me links to not one but four such reviews. Here’s my understanding of the first one, written by Malcolm Bull — here’s the link.

Bull says that, in a world where capitalism is everywhere, it’s hard to tell the difference between the neo-Marxists and the neoliberals. To energize the potential of the emerging worker multitude Hardt & Negri call for free movement of labor across national boundaries and a worldwide minimum wage. Bull says that libertarians likewise support both of these positions; I’d say that he’s right about free movement of labor but not about minimum wage, which in a libertarian world would be established, like everything else, by the unfettered marketplace. Bull says that minimum wage is part of the dismantling of welfare, but that’s not so: minimum wage is a barrier to hiring low-cost workers, which would increase unemployment. “Just because the ‘anarchists’ espouse bits of the Neoliberal agenda that even George W. Bush has not yet got to does not mean they are pursuing Neoliberal ends,” Bull acknowledges; he doubts that these means will achieve the Left’s desired ends.

Following Spinoza, Hardt and Negri want to release workers’ potentia — the strength and force of creative activity — from the state’s potestas — authority or sovereignty. Not only should potestas serve potentia; potestas emerges from potentia, even as for Spinoza God’s sovereignty is a natural outgrowth of his ability to create worlds.This, says Bull, isn’t a rationale for a Marxist revolution but for a Jeffersonian-republican one. He quotes H&N: “The creative forces of the multitude that sustain Empire are also capable of autonomously constructing a counter-Empire, an alternative political organisation of global flows and exchange.” By invoking the ideals of both “positive liberty” (freedom to fulfill one’s potentia) and “negative liberty” (freedom from authority) in service of a global collective surge of creative work, H&N propose to use a key neoliberal tool in dismantling the hegemonic capitalist empire and building a self-governing workers’ world order.

Bull says that H&N offer a manifesto of natural-born power unconstrained by how that power should be exercised. The potestas of government isn’t a restraint on or a channeling of the exercise of power but rather its aggregation. Where, asks Bull, does the concept of duty come into the picture? This unchecked expression of power can lead just as easily to tyranny as to democracy, as Spinoza acknowledged. There are no “natural” rights to protect individuals and groups against tyranny, says Spinoza: such rights can be conferred and enforced only by the state. H&N don’t accept this countervailing force exerted from outside the potentia. Says Bull: “The conflict at the centre of the movement against global capitalism is the tension between its libertarian stance and the demand for global justice.” Do H&N subscribe to a sort of pantheistic belief in the intrinsic goodness of potentia? Spinoza does, I think, which is why an emergent potestas would be effective in expressing the collective will to goodness and justice. Certainly Nietzsche would be more skeptical about it, though far from clear that he’d want to restrain the potentia.

Bull acknowledges truth in Hannah Arendt’s contention that the compassionate urge to impose restraints on freedom does tend toward totalitarianism. “All those do-gooders are more dangerous than they look,” he says. “The ideological alternative to Neoliberalism is, as Neoliberals never tire of saying, some form of totalitarianism. But that can only be a reason for people to start thinking about what new forms of totalitarianism might be possible, and, indeed, desirable.” The minimalist global regulation envisioned by neolibs isn’t going to cut it. “Unlimited risks need total controls and, as Hardt and Negri point out, ‘totalitarianism consists not simply in totalising the effects of social life and subordinating them to a global disciplinary norm’ but also in ‘the organic foundation and unified source of society and the state’.” But, says Bull, H&N “have no interest in the control of risk — a world of unlimited risk is a world of unlimited constituent power.” This is inadequate, says Bull. “Total social control” is what’s needed, a socially benevalent totalitarian protection that “involves a degree of microregulation with which individuals have to co-operate.” This totalizing force assures inclusion of the powerless in the creative society, guaranteeing work and welfare to all.

Curiously, Bull ends his essay by contending that, no matter what sort worker revolution arises, it will have to involve the United States. He says that, while H&N frame their argument in American terms, they ignore the importance of America the place. Says Bull:

“But theirs is the America of potentia not of potestas. They miss the point that even if the multitude could create its own Americas, it would be stronger under the sovereignty of the existing one – not just materially better off, but better able to bring about its social and political objectives. The international Left’s few successes of the past fifty years – decolonisation, anti-racism, the women’s movement, cultural anti-authoritarianism – have all had proper (and often official) backing from within the United States. The United States is no utopia, but a utopian politics now has to be routed through it… The totalitarian regimes of the 20th century got a bad name less because of their monopolistic control of everyday life than on account of their stifling insistence on a maxim of shared values, and their draconian punishments for nonconformity. They were, in Durkheimian terms, attempts to create total communities rather than total societies. The US offers a model for a different type of totalitarianism. Within a total society – a world of universal anomie populated by the hybridised subjects of mutual recognition – monopolistic microregulation need not be concerned with conformity. Of course, a global United States is not a total society, but total society is rapidly becoming more imaginable than the state of nature from which political theorising has traditionally started.”

I can’t tell what Bull’s point is here. Is he suggesting that the present version of the US could be maneuvered toward a “total society” that would retain the positive and negative freedoms of H&N while imposing a mechanism of justice and protection that it currently lacks? The last sentence seems to bely that hope: “But in a total society, it is not the social that needs a contract but the individual – an anti-social contract that creates individual spaces in a world totally regulated by meaningless mutuality.” Is he saying that an incipient American total society is the source of this meaningless mutuality that dominates the world, or that its full realization would make possible the release of individual agents who derive meaning from their participation in the American total society?

This is long. If (hopefully) discussion ensues I’ll try to formulate my own responses to Bull and to H&N.

The United States Says…

Filed under: Culture — ktismatics @ 5:30 am

CARACAS (Reuters) – President Hugo Chavez crashed to an unprecedented vote defeat on Monday [note: the vote was 51% to 49%]. Celebrations immediately erupted throughout Caracas. Many said Venezuela had narrowly escaped the imposition of authoritarian rule. “The reform would have made some frightening changes in our country,” said an ecstatic Astrid Badell, 18, pulling a plastic green whistle from her mouth to talk.

The self-styled revolutionary [question: is it less arrogant to be an “other-styled” revolutionary?] and close ally of Cuba conceded defeat but said he would “continue in the battle to build socialism.” Chavez also said the reform proposals remained “alive,” suggesting he might try to push them through later on. “This is not a defeat. This is another ‘for now,”‘ Chavez said, repeating a famous quote when as a red-bereted paratrooper he acknowledged his coup attempt had failed [note: Chavez was later elected president, receiving the largest electoral majority in 40 years]. He did not appear despondent at his presidential palace [question: is the White House a presidential palace?], where he told supporters not to be sad and wished all Venezuelans a “merry Christmas.”

Students, rights and business groups, opposition parties, the Roman Catholic Church, former political allies and even [!] his usually loyal ex-wife all lined up against Chavez ahead of the referendum vote. They accused him of pushing the constitutional reforms to set up a dictatorship.

The United States [question: who’s he?] says Chavez is a dangerous influence in Latin America, using Venezuela’s oil wealth to win allies and undermine democracy. A fiery speaker, Chavez has called President George W. Bush “the devil” and “Mr. Danger,” says capitalism is “evil” and dismisses his critics at home as traitors. It was a major victory for Venezuela’s fragmented opposition, which had failed to beat Chavez in almost yearly votes or oust him in a brief coup in 2002 [question: so a “brief” coup doesn’t really count as an attempt to overthrow the elected government?]. The victory could embolden opposition leaders to try to block Chavez’s plans [question: is the US part of the opposition?].

Chavez still wields enormous power and his supporters dominate Congress, the courts and election authorities. Soldiers bark his slogan “homeland, socialism or death” when they snap their salutes.

[Question: has Reuter’s been acquired by The Onion? Or by “the United States”?]

2 December 2007

To Boldly Go

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 5:05 pm

Dominic at Poetix wrote a post about Star Trek, where he observes that every episode constitutes an excuse for Kirk and the Enterprise crew to violate the Federation’s Prime Directive, which prohibits them from interfering in local affairs on the planets they visit. I wrote a comment on Poetix, which I’m dragging back over here. Those of you who are familiar with my obsessions will recognize the plot…

Imagine a first contact story. As usual, the planet’s inhabitants are humanoid but possessed of a primitive culture. They are language-users, but their communication is very concrete, concerned exclusively with food, shelter, predators, etc. Again as usual, the Enterprise’s away team Violates the Prime Directive. They make friends with the natives, are invited to enjoy a meal and to spend the night. It’s early morning, and Kirk and the chief are shooting the shit around the campfire. The rosy fingers of dawn start stretching themselves across the horizon.

“Look,” says Kirk: “light.”

“He Mojo,” says the chief; “he drive chariot of fire across sky.”

“Right,” Kirk replies, “but I’m talking more abstractly here.” He points to the campfire: “Light.” He points to the volcano glowing redly in the distance: “Light.” He whips out his phaser and torches a nearby bush: “Light.”

Slowly the rosy fingers of enlightenment spread across the chief’s furrowed brow. Suddenly he jumps to his feet: “Light!” he bellows, waking up the whole tribe.

For six days Kirk talks with the chief about this local sector of the galaxy: light and darkness, earth and sky and seas, sun and moons and stars, plants and animals. On the sixth morning Kirk is awakened by a young and lovely maiden crawling under his fur blankets. They begin to snuggle…

“I am honored to sacrifice myself to the god who comes from the sky,” she confesses to him when they wake up the next morning.

What the heck? Hurriedly Kirk tugs on his overly-tight uniform and steps out of the tent; the chief, pleased, awaits. “What’s all this?” Kirk asks the chief.

“We have offered you our finest young virgin, and tomorrow we will throw her into the volcano for you.”

“Don’t think I’m not grateful,” Kirk demurs, “but don’t you see? I am not a god. You, your headmen, that fine young maiden in my tent, you – are – no – different – from – me. I’ve just been around the galaxy a bit more is all.”

Astounded, the chief exclaims: “the god Kirk has created us in his image!” Thus was born the Legend of the Six Days, when the god Kirk created the heavens and the earth.

Anybody ever seen that episode?

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