Thursday, 31 December 2009

repackaging precarity

“Before the invention of the art of printing, a scholar and a beggar seem to have been terms very nearly synonymous. The different governors of the universities before that time appear to have often granted licences to their scholars to beg.”

John Stuart Mill. 1848.
Principles of Political Economy with some of their Applications to Social Philosophy, John Robson, ed., Vols. 2 and 3 of The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965).
From Michael Perelman's Unsettling Economics

"To the university I'll steal, and there I'll steal," to borrow from Pistol at the end of Henry V, as he would surely borrow from us. This is the only possible relationship to the American university today. This may be true of universities everywhere. It may have to be true of the university in general. But certainly, this much is true in the United States: it cannot be denied that the university is a place of refuge, and it cannot be accepted that the university is a place of enlightenment. In the face of these conditions one can only sneak into the university and steal what one can. To abuse its hospitality, to spite its mission, to join its refugee colony, its gypsy encampment, to be in but not of this is the path of the subversive intellectual in the modern university.

The University and the Undercommons: Seven Theses
by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Fever Ray

Derridata is chilling out on Xmas break, but passed on this recommendation for Fever Ray, describing how the music gives one goosebumps and is somewhat reminiscent in places of John Carpenter's scores. Love the imagery in the clips too. I'm hoping this might act as an incentive for Derridata to post again soon. As for me, I've been preoccupied rewriting someone's thesis about the potential impact of human cloning on our future capacity to evolve as a species, given how it may eventually reduce the size of the gene pool. This shouldn't keep me away too much longer though.

As you can see, courtesy of Derridata, Fever Ray ranked as one of The Guardian's top albums of the year. Enjoy!

Sunday, 20 December 2009

How to Destroy the World

So I am sitting at home on my downtime, idly flipping through a range of texts dealing with the contemporary significance of nihilism. What impresses me is the willingness of authors to interpret this defining problem of modernity in relation to science and technology issues, most especially biopolitics. No doubt there will be a flood of other texts for me to read in the form of Christmas gifts, so I probably won't be getting to The Italian Difference for a while yet. I also hope to get better acquainted with Nihil Unbound and even Conor Cunningham's Genealogy of Nihilism. If I had to relate it to my previous post, and other references I've made to nihilism, my interest is in how the same mindset can crosscut every strata of modern societies. So it's really beside the point to just specify problems in the aesthetic realm as generative of the mindset, when it can clearly migrate to the sciences as well (thereby increasing its political significance). It seems to me that too much attention is given to the "creative process" in a manner that fetishsizes personal idiosyncrasies. Here's a litmus test: read this interview with author Thomas Ligotti, then consider his philosophical magnum opus, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. One finds there a pure distillation of nihilism, in the sense that it marks a renouncement of the Enlightenment project of actively working towards the perfectibility of the world.

In other words, nihilism can help foster epistemological relativism wherein all actions are portrayed as equally doomed to failure. Scientists are treated as no different in this respect. This position marks a decline from the well known trope in which the "mad scientist" retreats to an isolated location, such as an island, where they can lose themselves in "pure research", without worrying about being held accountable by public standards of reason. In these scenarios, (e.g. Frankenstein, The Island of Dr Moreau), the horror came from the personal revelation of having profaned a sacred boundary, for which they are in turn punished when their creations run amok. Hence, at the end of the day, they offered the reassurance of a restoration of order, even in the absence of a public sphere. Such morality tales still presumed that modern society (and therefore science) was worth saving- provided that certain kinds of inquiries remained taboo. But in the more nihilistic register of recent works, scientists deliberately set out to strike a Faustian bargain because they know the consequences will be disastrous for humankind as presently conceived. Science therefore paradoxically becomes the means to realise an entirely new order, which need not even involve humans, or minimally, is compatible with Ligotti's prescribed integration of humans into the "natural world" (to the point where we no longer will anything at all):

"The perfect manner of existence that I’m imagining would be different than that of most mammals, who feed on one another and suffer fear due to this arrangement, much of it coming at the hands of human beings. We would naturally still have to feed, but we probably would not be the omnivorous gourmands and gourmets that we presently are. Of course, like any animal we would suffer from pain in one form or another—that’s the essence of existence—but there wouldn’t be any reason to take it personally, something that escalates natural pain to the level of nightmare. I know that this kind of world would seem terribly empty to most people—no competition, no art, no entertainment of any kind because both art and entertainment are based on conflict between people, and in my world that kind of conflict wouldn’t exist. There would be no ego-boosting activities such as those which derive from working and acquiring more money than you need, no scientific activity because we wouldn’t be driven to improve the world or possess information unnecessary to living, no religious beliefs because those emerge from desperations and illusions from which we would no longer suffer, no relationships because those are based on difference and in the perfect world we’d all be the same person, as well as being integrated into the natural world. Everything we did would be for practical purposes in order to satisfy our natural needs. We wouldn’t be enlightened beings or sages because those ways of being are predicated on the existence of people who live at a lower epistemological stratum".

Not surprisingly, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race reads at times like The Unabomber Manifesto; the linkage here is the ascetic sensibility that Nietzsche observed with respect to science in general, "Science today has no belief in itself, letalone an ideal above it- and where it survives at all as passion, loving glowing intensity, suffering, it constitutes not the opposite of the ascetic ideal but rather its most recent and refined form" (On the Genealogy of Morals, p124). Asceticism can therefore rationalize misanthropy to the point where humanity is hardly considered worth saving, period (for another example, recall Furedi's reference to climate change science in my previous post). Any scientist holding to this standard makes the world view offered by cultural workers such as Boyd Rice look like very small beer indeed.

Here's a satire then of the kind of scientist who embodies Nietzschean ressentiment. The clip specifically references the threat of "grey goo" oftentimes associated with nanotechnology:

On a more serious note, I take some comfort from efforts to risk manage such new technologies for our collective benefit. But I also pay heed to Michael Sandel's warning in his Reith Lecture, Genetics & Morality, that going too far in this direction will in itself create problems. To remove chance, or "contingency" if one prefers, through excessive human engineering, is likely to diminish a sense of responsibility for those less fortunate than ourselves. A success seen as self-made through bioengineering will therefore produce a meritocracy less chastened by chance, and thus harder and less forgiving. Hence Sandel urges, "So I say rather than bioengineer our children and ourselves to fit the world, let's instead create social and political arrangements more hospitable to the gifts and the limitations of the imperfect human beings that we are".

Furthermore, Sandel in effect offers a corrective to the strands in the Transhumanist Movement that espouse liberation biology (which I classify as a variant of Nietzsche's "active nihilism"). Here's something else they should be paying attention to:

For "evolution" into a different species to occur, however, they would need to be fundamentally redesigning the genetic structure of their children, and then those children would have to mate with similarly redesigned neo-homo sapiens to pass on their new attributes. Are the super-rich capable of such coordination? Isn't it just as likely that they'll all redesign themselves in different, innovative ways, and then discover that they are biologically incompatible and incapable of reproducing? Problem solved....And finally, there's an easy way to avoid this dystopian future in which the descendants of Bill Gates and Lloyd Blankfein are born with immaculate complexions, huge brains, and the ability to run 40 yards in under 4.0 seconds. Tax the hell out of the rich, and use it to pay for healthcare for the rest of us neo-Neanderthals. Problem solved, again.

Sunday, 13 December 2009


Yours truly posted a response over on the Traditionalists blog that expanded on some of the themes I talked about in "Loneliness as a Way of Life". My intention was, notwithstanding some typos in my transcription of Ferarra's text, to highlight traditionalism- and by extension neofolk and martial industrial subcultures- as examples of the neoconservative critique of postmodernism. It's one thing then to put the cart before the horse by arguing they are "fascist", but quite another to specify causation and the broader continuum on which its byproducts coexist. I prefer to speak in terms of things being inseparable from but irreducible to something else. It's for this reason that I'll be quoting a piece on "the new misanthropy" in relation to the thesis of "the new naturalism" (the latter was itself the subject of an earlier post).

Sure, it'd be very easy to visit the traditionalists blog and follow the links in the comments thread to Lord Bassington Hound's blog, pausing briefly to marvel at how he co-wrote the infamous study of the black metal scene, Lords of Chaos, with Michael "Blood Axis" Moynihan (an explanation of the programmatic biological conception behind Blood Axis can be found here), only to then worry at the extent to which he appears to trivialise the historical legacy of fascism by treating it as a fashion statement. Provocative as such artistic transgressions may be, they really pale into insignificance in light of the broader public assent associated with the "new naturalism" and "new misanthropy" alike (to be sure, Moynihan has logically gravitated toward Mr Linkola, but as yet there is little evidence of the latter's ideas gaining much purchase outside of his native Norway. Of course, this could change in the future with additional English translations, along with more general societal pessimism about human progress).

I already had an intuitive understanding of the biological ramifications of traditionalism after the reaction on another blog to my earlier post "Colin Wilson neofascist". The man described my post as "shite" for daring to denigrate his hero, and looking around that blog I found much evidence of the traditionalism in question: the misanthropic hatred of a "mass", psychological solutions for social problems predicated on principles of the innate superiority of gifted individuals, the search for a "perennial philosophy" based in Nature. I stopped to chuckle at the design of the blog, which prominently featured a naked, muscular man, with some sort of ornate staff in his right hand. His head resembled the sun (an image of Nature's perennial wisdom, forever burning brightly).

I've regretted ever since that I didn't bookmark that site as I'm sure it would have kept me entertained for years. Anyway, what of this "new misanthropy" then? Furedi offers a succinct appraisal:

"If anything, today's neo-Malthusian thinking is far more dismal and misanthropic than the original thing. For all his intellectual pessimism and lack of imagination, Thomas Malthus believed in humanity far more than his contemporary followers do. He argued, in his book On The Principle of Population, that although 'our future prospects respecting the mitigation of the evils arising from the principle of population may not be so bright as we could wish…they are far from being entirely disheartening, and by no means preclude that gradual and progressive improvement in human society, which before the late wild speculations on this subject, was the object of rational expectation' (10). Malthus' reservations about the human potential were influenced by a hostility to the optimistic humanism of his intellectual opponents, including Condorcet and Godwin. Nevertheless, despite his pessimistic account of population growth, he said 'it is hoped that the general result of the inquiry is not such as not to make us give up the improvement of human society in despair' (11).

Over the past two centuries, Malthus' followers often disparaged people who came from the 'wrong classes' or the 'wrong races' - but despite their prejudices they affirmed the special status of the human species. In some instances, such as the eugenic movement, rabid prejudice against so-called racial inferiors combined with a belief in human progress (12). Today's neo-Malthusians share the old prejudices, but in addition they harbour a powerful sense of loathing against the human species itself."

Furedi situates his discussion with reference to the "human impact" decried by certain segments of the contemporary environmental movement. Indeed, if you substitute "environment" for "religious calling" in my Ferrara quotation, then you can see that Furedi is pretty much saying the same thing about the- well, basically speaking- conservative character of the conservation movement. If the traditionalist music scene has any real collective sense of surviving in the hostile conditions of the interregnum, we can only guess what form their consecrating action might take in response. I'm just hoping that these perspectives never attain critical mass, or we will be living in truly dismal times.

Another part of the problem of course, which I touched on briefly in my "Heathen Harvests" post, is the sense of living in a post-socialist world. Among traditionalists, this seems to have coalesced into a world view which is presumptively asocial, at least outside of the sense of trust (or "social capital") to be gained from membership in their subcultural networks (sometimes in addition to the intimacy [sic] with strangers familiar from the more traditional bastions of the masculine, bohemian demimonde: i.e. the pub, the brothel, and the racetrack). I understand these networks then as compensating for the intensification of individual experience associated with being a freelance cultural worker (or "artist" if you prefer), who by definition subsists without the collegiality found in other workplaces, where membership of a union remains an option. As per "Heathen Harvests", consider Boyd Rice as an example. He didn't receive any remuneration for the design consultancy work he did on a Tiki Bar. Given the informal nature of the contract, Rice resolved not to pursue official legal arbitration. Instead, he and some associates simply showed up in the middle of the night and dismantled the bar. After that, Boyd could return to his support networks on the avant garde scene, which presuppose the recognition of individual charisma, and have at various times been a mixture of Satanic Nazism and Ragnar Redbeard's [sic] social Darwinism ("Might Is Right!").

I've seen this kind of thing happen firsthand, so I know Boyd Rice is not just an isolated case. I'll never forget the folks who had completed album artwork for small labels, who suffered the same fate. I remember another incident when some people I knew had just finished their set in a small electronic music festival, and the guy running the gig fronted them: "ok then, let's see what I owe you". He just rooted around in his wallet, and produced a small handful of crumpled notes, "thanks guys", leaving the band to distribute among themselves the appearance fee he had spontaneously calculated on the spot. So when you experience this kind of precarity on a regular basis, it's very easy to overcompensate by channelling ressentiment into a misanthropic "outsider" worldview, in tandem with more "esoteric" sources of personal or communitarian validation. This can mean "turning inward", and it follows that the guys I knew in the aforementioned group worshipped Colin Wilson, while another was the self-proclaimed anarchist who featured in my post "The Quiet Men".

Still not convinced? Just check out this guy for another local example. It seems like he's spent a lot of time beavering away for small publishers, and is obviously resentful of the advent of "mass" blogging. Never mind that, judging by what I see on his website, it is hard to fathom his personal sense of superiority that the majority of humanity is comprised of what he disparagingly refers to as "sheeple". Note too that his Misanthrope Magazine fittingly published a fatuous interview with none other than Boyd Rice in the inaugural issue.

I suspect the same holds true to some extent for the "scenius" [sic] of the so-called "England's Hidden Reverse", where "chaos magic" and other traditionalist conventions are much in evidence. Anyway, I haven't said so much here about the specifics of Furedi's argument, as I think it's already pretty obvious how it links to the thesis of "the new naturalism": i.e. the degradation of humanity, with few prospects for redemption. I've spent more time talking about the musical subcultures. However, I can extrapolate from Furedi's following statement some implicit linkages, "More recently, apocalyptic ideas once rooted in magic and theology have been recast as allegedly scientific statements about human destructiveness and irresponsibility". No doubt "apocalyptic [neo] folk" musicians such as Ian Read from Fire + Ice or David Tibet from Current 93 would claim some personal acquaintance with these ideas in their original context, even though the former is willing to make a minor concession, when asked if he is still against the modern world, "I am a traditionalist, but I am very happy with the fact there is a modern stomatology for instance".

I couldn't resist closing this out by posting a David E Williams song. Williams follows the conventions pretty closely. I understand that, in addition to his musical activities, he's the proprietor of an occult bookstore. His misanthropic proclivities have garnered some acclaim on the underground scene. Notice in the clip how they find expression through his disdain for "mass" tourism, which he crudely equates to femininity and the sociality of primates.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

"It's a good day to die, when you know the reasons why"

JAY: First of all, let's just start with President Obama's stated reason for sending these troops to Afghanistan. Do you think this is the reason for sending thirty more thousand troops? Al-Qaeda?

WILKERSON: I think you have to examine the decision that he made in all of its dimensions. You didn't mention that I also teach. You didn't need to. What I teach is presidential national security decision-making—"fateful decisions", I call them, decisions to send young men and young women to die for state purposes.

JAY: I thought there was a moment there when President Obama came out and looked at the audience and saw he's talking about kids. I'm not sure that was the best place to make this speech, a room full of 22-year-olds.

WILKERSON: Yeah. There were some good aspects to it and some bad aspects to it. But it did, I think, mean he had to give a somber, sober, and sane speech that had lacked rhetorical flourish. He does not have the bona fides for speaking with rhetorical flourishes. I applaud him for recognizing that. Some have criticized the speech for being too realistic, too practical, too low-key. It's exactly what he needed to give. I've talked to that audience two, three in the last two years, staff, faculty, and cadets.

JAY: At West Point.

WILKERSON: At West Point. And it's been a sobering affair for me. They are concerned about where they're going. They're not happy in some respects about where they're going. This is not the conventional wisdom. They're not at all happy about where they're going [inaudible]

JAY: Yeah, there weren't a lot of hurrah-hurrahs going on there last night.

WILKERSON: A lot of the staff and faculty there are not happy about what they're seeing happening in both Iraq and Afghanistan or generally with their armed forces. Now, let's face it. The land forces have been at this now for seven, eight, going on nine years, if we count Afghanistan exclusively. They're about broken. The bill for repairing my army, your army, America's army, its probably upwards of $100 billion right now, just to replace the equipment—the airplanes, helicopters, and so forth—that we've destroyed or gravely damaged in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a different military right now. I daresay that it probably couldn't fight a conventional war, because we've got artillerymen being infantryman, we've got MPs being infantrymen. We've got different kinds of enemy out there, and when you spend this much time after that enemy, you change your ethos, you change your training, you change the way you feel about conflict. It's a very different military right now.

"Obama's choice" pure politics

Lawrence Wilkerson: Obama's campaign rhetoric and his generals put him in a corner on Afghanistan

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Wednesday, 2 December 2009

"We are our own worst enemies"

High time then for some John Mowitt:

Marx himself, wily Moor that he was, provides important if unwitting insight
when in elaborating the related distinction between productive and
unproductive labor he writes: “A schoolmaster who instructs others is not a
productive worker. But a schoolmaster who works for wages in an institution
along with others, using his own labor to increase the mon ey of the entrepreneur who owns the knowledge-mongering institution, is a productive worker.”
And then the “phrase that pays”: “But for the most part, work of this sort has scarcely reached the stage of being subsumed even formally under capital and belongs essentially to a transitional stage” (Capital 1044). As a reiteration of a parallel he earlier draws between professors and masters within the context of guild production (1029), the later formulation invites one to consider both whether with the advent of the global society of control, school teaching in fact remains lost in transition somewhere between the pre-formal, the formal and the real subsumption of labor, but also to what extent and with what significance does education factor, and factor decisively in Marx’s thinking about the becoming real, of formal subsumption. As both matters may be further agitated in the ensuing discussion I’ll not develop them further except to assert, in the interest of effecting a transition of my own, that from where I sit the transition is over.

The university is a “knowledge-mongering institution” and school teaching is now productive labor, which is precisely why syndicalism has asserted itself with urgency, if not success, in every corner of the educational field, but also, more ominously why the drumbeat of “deliverables” has become tortuously loud.

An academic speculative bubble?

I hope to resume normal blogging later this week. But until that time, Derridata, further to the previous post, I decided in the later part of this post to reproduce part of our previous email exchange, which originally focused on this.

What's interesting to us is the ongoing ways in which these financial discourses frame the attempts of certain philosophers to account (!) for "the economics of attention" related to their work. I find this particularly interesting insofar as it uses political economy to critique the "object fetishism" of Speculative Realism (scroll down to Bryan K's comment in the previous link and you'll get more ideas on where this could go in the future). Harman is apparently someone given to remarking how the "stock" of other philosopher's is losing value, when as you remarked before, the abstracting of equivalences implied by such comments hides the work of making equivalent.

I can see other noxious effects of this way of thinking. Caricaturing critics as "grey vampires" amounts to little more than the logic of "possessive individualism": more people read the blog being criticised than the one written by the critic, so ergo,the former is somehow automatically inherently superior to the latter. But if the former has done nothing to really establish that the basis of its appeal is democratic populism, any appeal becomes limited by its anchoring in either personal idiosyncrasies, rhetoric, ignorance of viable alternatives, or even, dare I say it, successful niche marketing (my next post hopes to elaborate on this point). This becomes most obvious when attempts are made to rebuff critics who argue it is objectionable that monopolies on the attention space are undemocratic, because they reduce the plurality of the blogosphere. I side with neither of these positions. Some abstract ideal of pluralism in and of itself is not necessarily desirable. No, it is the capacity to speak on behalf of an ethical constituency ordered by particular structuring principles that really counts.

I can explain what I mean by noting the significance of Harman's reference to Nietzsche's legacy to justify his own philosophical enterprise (just Google "grey vampires"). By this reckoning, Nietzsche's true significance lies with his willingness to risk mistakes, to confound orthodoxies. So, even though he made many mistakes, he ultimately cleared a pathway for other thinkers. Putting to one side the dubiousness of comparing himself to Nietzsche in terms of distinction and abilities, Harman's reasoning really goes awry by not contextualising Nietzsche with respect to the university. Nietzsche resigned his academic post aged 24, so he spent the balance of his life as a thinker outside the walls of the university. That his work has since been able to serve a pedagogical function attests to the structuring principle of the university: its capacity to horizontally redistribute any risks or rewards associated with the breaking of established forms. It is the kind of democratisation, for example, that Raymond Williams wished to operationalise in his conception of "a common culture". If I understand his argument correctly, the same might be said about Steve Fuller's arguments in The Governance of Science, which hold that the "right to be wrong" needs to be institutionalised. Thus it's clearly political and dependent on the establishment of a constitution. There is no point then in simply valorising the "flexibility" of certain thinkers to move in and out of the institution for its own [precarious] sake, in the manner of the blogger I criticised in my "Melissa Gregg" post- who, not coincidentally, is also one of Harman's staunchest supporters.

While I endorse the opening up of academic discourse to a more public conception of extended peer review, I'm also suspicious when this presumes the initial bypassing of peer review in the university itself. My hypothesis is that there is usually an inverse relationship between the most prominent theoretical voices in the blogosphere, and the attention they receive in the university. Anyone with institutional access could test this by doing a comparative search on library databases of authors and then try out Technorati and other blogsearch tools. I suspect that very junior faculty are disproportionately represented in the blogosphere, when compared with institutional measures of, in addition to their publication records, winning of internal and external grants, PhD supervision, and esteem measures. But I say this not to damn the blogosphere tout court, only to suggest that it is undesirable when it fails to give the university its proper due as a social technology. To use economic terms again, this is a debt that must be acknowledged, even if it can never be fully repaid (for what constitution could ever govern the blogosphere?).

To be sure, when academic peer review goes wrong, it can be as nasty as anything you'll find in the blogosphere, (producing the phenomenon known as scholarshit):

...but I still acknowledge the debt, as I know I wouldn't be editing or blogging if I'd never gone to university.

Another interesting find of late offers some confirmation of my predictions in my earlier "carbon chauvinism" posts regarding the future of Speculative Realism. Yup, there are some attempts at damage control already because SR is being brought into alignment with questions of animal rights. You can get some sense of the basis for the objections here, and then try exploring that blog further to see how things are shaping up. Be sure to read Anthony Paul Smith's comment on The Inhumanities too.

"Public schooling is the antithesis of democracy": war on kids

Derridata, I have to reproduce your latest email here, hope you don't mind. But we've been exchanging so much stuff in email I can't always keep track of it all, as I still know blogger's functionality better than gmail's. We've had some really indepth dialogues in our emails, as well as just touching on other stuff worth checking out. They're so meaty they'd have made great blog content! Seeing not much was posted on Acheron last month, thought I'd add this (which I think complements the earlier Ivan Illich post too):

Saw this documentary on Colbert Nation and had to check it out. Features Henry Giroux AND video footage of that incredible "armed police invade high school" that featured on Russ Kick's Memory Hole in 2003. I still remember the chilling line accompanying the security photos: "Uncommented upon in news accounts is the presence of this military man".

Check the quote below from Woodrow Wilson. The following would be the most appropriate title for a blog dedicated to exposing business culture- On Being Hateful of Business Schools:

I think War on Kids also draws on John Taylor Gatto's book, The Underground History of American Education: An Intimate Investigation into the Problem of Modern Schooling (New York: Oxford Village Press, 2001). It is a profoundly important, unnerving book, which I recommend most highly. It can be ordered or read for free online from
Gatto's Website:

Check this quote from p74 of Bruce E Levine's excellent book Commmonsense Rebellion: Debunking Psychiatry, Confronting Society (New York: Continuum Publishing Group, 2001).
President Woodrow Wilson would echo these sentiments in a speech to businessmen: We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forego the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks. Writes Gatto: "Another major architect of standardized testing, H.H. Goddard, said in his book Human Efficiency (1920) that government schooling was about 'the perfect organization of the hive.'" While President of Harvard from 1933 to 1953, James Bryant Conant wrote that the change to a forced, rigid, potential-destroying educational system had been demanded by "certain industrialists and the innovative who were altering the nature of the industrial process."