Monday, May 11, 2009

P.P.S. L. Menand, Sachs

Class ends, class continues. On a strong recommendation based on my interest in Dewey, I picked up Louis Menand’s “Metaphysical Club.” In the introduction, Menand links Holmes, James, Peirce, and Dewey in their “idea about ideas”: “They all believed that ideas are not ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered, but are tools – like forks and knives and microchips – that people devise to cope with the world in which they find themselves. … They believed that ideas do not develop according to some inner logic of their own, but are entirely dependent, like germs, on their human carriers and the environment. … The belief that ideas should never become ideologies – either justifying the status quo, or dictating some transcendent imperative for renouncing it – was the essence of what they taught.”

And one more (from 61): “The lesson Holmes took from the war can be put in a sentence. It is that certitude leads to violence.”


Also caught the Earth Institute’s postdoc fellows presentations last week, in part in interest of what the Institute is all about and to have a chance to hear Jeffrey Sachs in person. On the former, very impressed – important work coming out of there, and they seem quite aware of the complexity, the messiness of what they’re delving into. Encouraging work, though I’m curious why more people weren’t in attendance. Outside of myself, who stumbled on a poster for it, it seemed like an inhouse crowd. Impressed too, with Sachs’ sharpness, pretty stunning handle on a wide range of interdisciplinary things. On the flip side, was less impressed with his communication skills, used to repeatedly and apologetically berate a group of the presenters, again, for what I assumed was a public presentation. Anyhow, I’m hoping this was an aberration and perhaps a second experience – in reading or in public appearance, will offer me a better perspective on the man and the important work that he’s making possible. – N  

P.S. (Latour, thanks)

A few quick words to reiterate my appreciation for the discourse that transpired this semester: the readings and conversations offered focused perspectives at things I have felt strongly about and I’m finding their insights helpful to my approach, as I’m eager to dive into more. Also, it was a lot of fun (in an odd sort of way) too. As one example, for a call for papers, I reworked some of my previous work concerning creativity and incorporated specifically some notions borrowed from Latour into the mix. I’m interested to share Latour in particular with my mother, who’s always worked as a naturalist and environmental studies teacher – I think she’d find his work helpful in supporting her own passionate views. – N  

Creativity has long been seen as something mythical denied to all but a few select individuals. Effectively this notion has disenfranchised people from engagement in their own lives. They ask, “Why should I care?” as it seems their actions are insignificant and of no consequence.

A new definition is required: Creativity is the conscious pause where all our experience, instinct, and imagination dance together to create a novel response to a stimulus. By putting creativity in such terms, rather than having to ascend to some other plane of existence, we can instead look inside ourselves at what’s been there all along. Creativity is therefore not an elite privilege possessed by a few, but a birthright inherent in all.

By acting creatively, engaging in the conscious pause, we take responsibility for and ownership of our actions, and as such invest our care in what we do. Creation creates ownership and ownership engenders care. Reaction, on the other hand, is to be but a link in a chain in a series of events. “Reaction” is “I Care Not,” whereas “Creation” means to put “Care Into.” By pausing, careless apathy is transformed into creative empathy, and each moment is a chance to create possibilities. Thus, there is no such thing as “just” a grilled cheese sandwich. Every action, no matter how seemingly mundane is an opportunity to bring forth our creativity. From this perspective, we are empowered to take ownership of our own thoughts, and look differently upon ourselves and our actions. By putting our care into every moment and interaction, we can transform our world and can’t help but be changed along the way.


Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Cave Men

For this essay, I want to look at a single incident through the lens that the readings and discussion of this class have helped to formulate:

The Incident

Late night on the subway, Leah and I found ourselves the target of a verbal and near physical assault from a 16ish African-American boy accompanied by four or five friends. At first we attempted to ignore them, which seemed to work as they eventually switched cars. However, they quickly returned followed by a white man our age trying to get his just stolen phone back. Once again, the leader picked up hurling threats our way, edging ever closer towards physical confrontation. We still refused to engage him, and then this boy attacked the other man. At this, we jumped up, and they released the man and returned their attention to us. (They shouted at Leah, “What are you going to do Wonder Woman?” Out of nowhere she displayed a kick picked up from Kung Fu movies, perhaps bringing a bit of levity to this increasingly ugly exchange!) Before anything further could happen, the train stopped and they took off. It was over.

Although likely lasting less than two minutes, the incident raises questions that continue to linger and speaks on a personal, in your face level (literally) to the issues we’ve been discussing. I’m not angry at the boys, but I’m overwhelmed by the conditions that make such incidents inevitable. Frank described me as a meaning maker, and I want to use this incident to look at prevailing myths (to borrow Barthes’ usage) that shape our existence. Although we think we crawled out of the realm of myth long ago, in fact it seems we just dressed them up in new clothes – and it’s important to use our readings as a sort of x-ray vision.

Myth of Othering

The creation of a division of we/they, of an “other,” makes it easier to hate and feel justified in doing violence to another. The boys on the train didn’t see us as people like them, but as white and thus a part of the privileged, ruling class responsible for their own circumstances. Whoever we are, whatever we do, however much we might actually be able to connect to these boys in a different situation, none of this matters. With the myth of black/white, of otherness, the opportunity for dialogue, for common ground is denied.

Myth of the Power Elite

While the boys may not use C Wright Mills’s term, they definitely see us as a part of this group – the people who drive history and keep others down. This is very real to these boys and what they experience. (While we might argue our inclusion in this group, here I am at Columbia, with a brother who went to Harvard, I have a seat at tables these boys won’t. I appreciate the analogy Fran Liebowitz proposed, that being white was like being the children of celebrities, it gets us in the door, a door not open to those who don’t look like us.) That such an elite exists and that they possess the power to make decisions over a mass of people are not myths. What is a myth is that the Power Elite’s ascendancy to such a position of authority is natural. Mills writes of the notion that “they are elite because of the kind of individuals they are. The rest of the population is mass, which, according to this conception, sluggishly relaxes into uncomfortable mediocrity.” (13) But as Mills points out, this is wrong, “People with advantages are loath to believe that they just happen to be the people with advantages.”(14) In a recent NYTimes column Bob Herbert describes William F. Buckley, champion of conservative mythology, who he says “took a scurrilous stand in the aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that desegregated the nation’s public schools. Whites, being superior, were well within their rights to discriminate against blacks, according to Buckley. ‘The White community is so entitled,’ he wrote, ‘because, for the time being, it is the advanced race ...’” The perpetuation of these myths justifies treating others as inferior and thus poorly. Understandably, our assailants are raging against that, even as they’re a part of it.  

Myth of the Leisure Class

Part of being the elite includes membership in what Veblen calls the leisure class and having the means for conspicuous consumption. Again, to the boys we represent the upper echelons of this class. I might deny it, yet I work at a private tennis club in Manhattan. Although I came to tennis on cracked courts in a farm town, I know it’s seen as a sport of the privileged (the sight of a luxury car behind the courts at a pro tournament does nothing to dispel this image) – the term “serve,” in fact, comes from the fact that servants used to put the ball into play. Tennis is definitely a means of conspicuous leisure, and looking around at where I work that’s easy to see. I have one student who spends a thousand dollars or more a week on tennis (and routinely shares stories of nights out in Manhattan where he spends five times that much at posh clubs.) It’s an interesting line to walk between worlds. On the other side is our maintenance/janitorial staff who come from a different position altogether. While sketching this essay out in my head at a break at work, I end up talking to Darnell – an African American kid who’s twenty and does various menial jobs around the club – who I find crying in the hallway. It turns out his best friend was shot in the leg and the head and is now in a coma. This friend and a group of guys got in a shouting match with another bunch and it turned to shooting. Even at this intersection, we are worlds apart. And this is the world these boys on the train live in.

Myth of Need

These myths of the leisure class and conspicuous consumption are not just limited to the elite but extend to everyone else, all trying to compete. It’s on great display on a Friday night walk home in Harlem, women are objects to be acquired, (which speaks to Veblen’s theory of the origins of ownership starting with women) and the cars are loudly conspicuous. Caught up in the myth of the leisure class, it’s a contest to collect booty, have the biggest horde, rather than seeing value in taking care of one’s community. It’s harmful. Marcuse terms this the pursuit of false needs – material needs as opposed to ones we truly need for our survival. They are used as a distraction, for “The most effective and enduring form of warfare against liberation is the implanting of material and intellectual needs that perpetuate obsolete forms of the struggle for existence.” And as such stand in the way of our true freedom: “All liberation depends on the consciousness of servitude, and the emergence of this consciousness is always hampered by the predominance of needs and satisfactions which, to a great extent, have become the individual’s own.” (7) Racing to keep up, get the next thing, we don’t take care of what’s needed.

Myth of Democracy and Expectations

Voting gives the appearance of democracy. Yet as Marcuse writes: “Democracy would appear to be the most efficient system of domination.” In fact, “Under the rule of a repressive whole, liberty can be made into a powerful instrument of domination. … Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves.”  (7) Born into captivity of a system that treats people like probabilities from the day they’re born, we can begin to assume it’s natural – that’s just the way it is. I’m not sure that these boys know better, but they do know they’re supposed to have a place in this system and it’s not to be in charge, and it’s not to have a voice. Democracy isn’t extended to them as more than a meaningless token. Barbara Bush’s comments regarding Hurricane Katrina were telling of what the ruling class thought of the rest of the people: And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this--this [she chuckles slightly] is working very well for them.” It’s a myth of expectations, explicated well by Heath Ledger’s “Joker” in “The Dark Knight:” “Nobody panics when the expected people get killed. Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plan is horrifying. If I tell the press that tomorrow a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics. Because it’s all part of the plan.” I think of the shooting of Darnell’s friend, not front page tragedy, just something that happens. 

Myth of the Market

These other myths are propped up by the myth of the free market, which Polanyi describes as being essentially a religion “a crusading passion” (143), sacred and holy (139). The mythology of the market says that it would take care of people, yet Polanyi suggests that this is a “fiction,” a myth, and leaving their fate in the hands of the market “would be tantamount to annihilating them.” (137) And it has indeed destroyed people. For “under the rule of the market the people could not be prevented from starving according to the rules of the game.” (168) The myth of the market also brings to rise Social Darwinism and facilitates the myth of the natural ascendency of the elite, and the othering of the poor to keep them in their place. Obeying the myth of the market, people can be unemployed and destitute, and their constitutional liberties lost all “judged a fair price to pay for the fulfillment of the requirement of sound budgets and sound currencies, these a priori of economic liberalism.” (148) The market destroys people’s cultures (164) and few know this better than people ripped from Africa to serve as slaves under one system and now to be slaves under a more subversive system, a system where humans are reduced to parts, “commodities, as goods produced for sale.” Essentially the human can be less than human.

(I want to note that this separation between people extends to the foods we eat as well. While I travel far to pick up organic this and that, what’s available at the markets in my neighborhood is not conducive to health. I want to tie this into the myth of the market and the loss of aura of food in the culinary arts in the age of mechanical reproduction, but this sidenote will have to suffice for now.)

Myths Keep Us from Talking

Under the sway of these myths, we’re unable to talk to one another. Myths impose meaning on us rather than allowing for us to make meaning ourselves. Therein lies the value in our reading – to provide perspective to see beyond the myths that dominate our field of view – liked being trapped, as Benjamin suggested, in front of the movie screen.

Tearing Down Mythology

The arc of the term suggests that at the core of these myths is Plato’s allegory of the Cave, by which some privileged folks can step out of the cave and attain higher knowledge. It sets up the “out there/in here,” “otherness” duality and has since been a bedrock of Western thought. By following this myth, people see knowledge, power, and creativity as denied to all but a few select individuals, as is the case of Barthes’ myth of “Einstein’s Brain” – being smart is mythical and thus inaccessible. This has effectively disenfranchised people from engagement in their own lives. If your actions are insignificant and of no consequence, why should you care?

In order to establish a truly participatory democracy, Latour sets out to hack down the myth of the cave along with those other myths built upon it that have prevented us from achieving such a thing. He redefines politics: “Just as we have distinguished Science from the sciences, we are going to contrast power politics, inherited from the Cave, with politics, conceived as the progressive composition of the common world.” (18) In this “Progressive composition of the common world,” lies the potential to empower people to realize that they can have a say in matters, and that it makes a difference to become knowledgeable and educated in order to participate. In being able to have true public discourse, this vision approaches what Habermas defines as the public sphere: “a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed. Access is guaranteed to all citizens. A portion of the public sphere comes into being in every conversation in which private individuals assemble to form a public body.” (350) Latour’s conception of democracy turns the world on its head, and puts the possibilities of people’s futures in their own hands. It resembles the path not chosen 2500 years ago when Democritus suggested: “Poverty under a democracy is as much to be preferred above what men of power call prosperity.” Marcuse describes such a state of freedom where “The individual would be free to exert autonomy over a life that would be his own.” (2)

How to Get There?

This new idea of freedom is difficult to imagine, old myths are powerful. It starts with as Dewey suggests, remembering that the State isn’t “Sacred.” (170) In fact, the author of the State is “nothing but singular persons, you, they, me.” (P37) We make the State, it isn’t the mysterious or holy collective – but ALL of us signing off on it. Seen for what it is – not obscured behind the curtains of myth – the State is an invention of people and can thus be dismantled and reinvented by people too.

We reinvent through education. According to Dewey: “Every care would be taken to surround the young with the physical and social conditions which best conduce, as far as freed knowledge extends, to release of personal potentialities.” (200-1) In treating people with care, we can release their possibilities, rather than the probabilities that mark a person’s life from the day they’re born. (200-1) As Marcuse wrote, “it must first enable its slaves to learn and see and think before they know what is going on and what they themselves can do to change it.” (40) The boys on the train know something is wrong, they see it all around them, but without education, what Dewey calls the “signs and symbols” they lack the means to do anything about it in a productive way. Instead, all they can do is lash out, which ultimately feeds back into the myth that they’re less capable and deserve their lot in life.

It is only through communication can change come about and only through education can the means of communication be acquired. As Dewey wrote, “Democracy will come into its own, for democracy is a name for a life of free and enriching communion. It had its seer in Walt Whitman. It will have its consummation when free social inquiry is indissolubly wedded to the art of full and moving communication.” (184) Democracy happens when people can communicate the “common interests” between us all on an equal level. “The man who wears the shoe knows best that it pinches and where it pinches, even if the expert shoemaker is the best judge of how the trouble is to be remedied.” (207) As Frank, Kruschev-like pounded on the table – they need to be able to say in a voice others can hear “My feet hurt!” Armed with signs and symbols, in a progressive discussion as Latour proposed, voices are heard and carry the weight of their experience – no single voice of an elite can trump the rest. It’s important to remember, as Dewey stressed that there are no absolute right answers. As with continually striving for a better state, he wrote, “thinking and beliefs should be experimental, not absolutistic” (202) We need to always subject our ideas to continuous inquiry in order to prevent the myths of the ideas from becoming as harmful as the myths they displace.

Get on the Bus

I like public transit – the train, the bus. I avoid cabs, in part because I’m cheap, but more so because I like the idea of interacting with my community, even in the limited way that this is. This is different than Detroit, where I was more actively involved in the community, yet didn’t engage with the larger population – I got in my car, and safe behind steel and glass I could go to my next destination and be similarly enclosed. Not here – it’s hard to hide. And that’s our world today. If we learn something from how water and air link our planet, today our economy and technology flow like rivers linking us all. We can’t build walls high enough to keep climate change out no more than we can keep the problems of the bottom billion from being our problems. If we didn’t see it that way, the events of 9/11 shattered the myth of isolationism and showed how interconnected the world is. Security and health won’t come from separating, from othering, but through communicating and educating. I’d like to see a world where my children grow up free from fear, and that means other people’s children need to have that same sort of assurance as well. And that includes these boys on the train.

In this, there’s another particularly American myth we need to dispel, that of the rugged individual being more free. It is in fact the reverse, for the collective can bring about the personal liberty we seek, rather than constraining it. As Dewey wrote, “They may think they are clamoring for a purely personal liberty, but what they are doing is to bring into being a greater liberty to share in other associations, so that more of their individual potentialities will be released and their personal experience enriched.” (193-4) He continues, “Organization as a means to an end would reinforce individuality and enable it to be securely itself by enduring it with resources beyond its unaided reach.”(216) We can be more free together.

Think Global, Act Local

Dewey emphasized the importance of community remaining “a matter of face-to-face intercourse.” (211) it’s a dialogue between one another at the local level, that leads to a dialogue with those at larger level – keep in mind the global as we act local. In his view, peace on earth is only achievable by understanding “peoples of foreign lands.” (213) Yet to do this, we need to first understand our neighbors, remove the “otherness” about them, which in turn helps us conceive of neighbors more distant. As Maxine Greene wrote: “Is it not the imagination that allows us to encounter the other as disclosed through the image of the other’s face?” Dewey suggested that “Vision is a spectator; hearing is a participator.” (219) If seeing, in this regard, stops at the surface, we need to learn to hear each other, that is truly understand “others,” person by person, day by day, to build a great community.

And so in trying to make sense of the incident on the train, I turn to action – what can I do? It has to start at community, in small ways that have the chance to become big things. For me, this means helping write a newsletter for the Tenants Association where I live to give some sort of voice to the people here. I’m now starting to think about writing on the Bartendaz – a Harlem-based group that does gymnastic-like strength training for kids and adults on playground equipment, and “Peace on the Street” a Karate/Meditation organization in Spanish Harlem also working with youths. These are encouraging means of educating, enabling people with the tools to have a voice, to follow their own curiosity. The “before” stories of the students in these organizations read like the boys on the train and Darnell’s friend – angry, ready to fight, seeing no alternatives. The “after” stories are open to possibilities.

Let’s make a final turn from the physical arts to the cultural arts. Dewey wrote “Artists have always been the real purveyors of news, for it is not the outward happening in itself which is new, but the kindling by it of emotion, perception and appreciation.” His words speak to the idea that artists are pioneers seeing things in ways that we don’t yet, and that they offer voices of continual questioning, essential to building community. Is it true what Adorno said, “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” I don’t think so. We need to make sense of things, and as Charles McGee says, “Any artist that’s worth his salt has to learn to speak the language of the day.” Which means art evolves, stays relevant, and continues to challenge how we see – and that’s what we need, and we can turn to the “Falling Man,” in Delillo’s book. This fictional performance artist is a wakeup call to look up, to look at what’s happening, to not tune it out and shut it away. I think of “Object Orange” in Detroit who painted burnt out houses in Detroit “tiggerific orange” to draw attention to the blight that is the city. After Benjamin, all art is political. And in that way, Delillo’s book and Project Rebirth is an attempt to keep us looking up, to not hide that day, those abandoned buildings away, or dismiss the boys on the train. In showing people as real, as just like us, we have a chance to rid ourselves of othering, see past myths, and join in the conversation. – Nick  

Delillo and Art

Revisited after the last class….

The value of art is perhaps a pause – caught up in the momentum of keeping up with our lives, it’s hard to stop and reflect on why exactly are we doing this anyway? As the Talking Heads sang, “And you may ask yourself – well … how did I get here?” And, “My god!...what have I done?” Without such interruptions, we continue on, failing to question, failing to consider, and it may take something more dramatic (Falling towers) to snap us out of the march we’re on, or we may not at all. Hence, the “falling man” (and real life version of him and his actions. We have to stop and look up, as much as we may not want to. It might make us angry, but it challenges how we see. I think of Object Orange in Detroit, who painted decrepit houses “tiggerific” orange to bring attention to blight, perhaps to beautify them as well. In doing so, we have to look differently at ruins, and like the falling man, or DeLillo’s words on those events, or the stories of Project Rebirth – we don’t want to be reminded, we want it to go away. But there it is, hanging over a crowded street, brightly visible alongside the expressway. Shouting at us – deal with me – how can we as a society let this happen? And perhaps there’s the potential for change in being awakened. – Nick

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Latour and Cell Phones

Brief conversation on cell phone safety triggered thoughts of Latour’s “risk-free” vs. “risky attachments.” Experts say they’re safe (except for other experts who say they aren’t.) But where’s the discussion? What is the actual known data about them, and why do experts say they’re safe. Armed with that sort of information rather than simply “Science Says…” we can make informed decisions. 

Latour Once More

The key for me in our discussion of Latour was that at the core of his argument, Latour is talking about democracy and what it could really mean, and how the myth of the Cave that has dominated Western thought for 2500 years has prevented us from achieving such a thing. Latour’s definition of politics is powerful: “Just as we have distinguished Science from the sciences, we are going to contrast power politics, inherited from the Cave, with politics, conceived as the progressive composition of the common world.” (18)

“The progressive composition of the common world,” means a discussion where all have a voice. That doesn’t mean they all are equal voices in each discussion, just that no single voice can trump all the others. The words of an expert on climate research carry a certain weight on the subject of climate change in a way that someone isolated from that subject would not have. I understand the concern that such discussions would move too slow, take too long. But perhaps we can see that we’ve moved too fast – rushed headlong into things we didn’t understand at the expense of our health and safety. Latour’s asbestos example speaks to this. The miracle material turns out to not be so risk-free after all, and in having a discussion about its messiness from the beginning, perhaps we’d have never gone down that path.

“Progressive composition of the common world,” has the potential to empower people to realize that they can have a say in matters, and that it makes a difference to become knowledgeable, educated – without the possibility of contributing, why bother with the effort? Latour’s is a potentially game changing argument, and I’m rooting for it. (Though I’m still struggling to find a clear distinction between this and Wilson’s consilience, except in terminology, the spirit feels the same.) – Nick

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Latour comments – short form.

In letting go of nature, Latour is setting out to give political ecology stronger footing. The myths of Nature and Science have in his view, long prevent true discussion. He’s not denouncing Science, but in pulling it off its pedestal, he’s restoring it to its role as part of human society, and giving it relevance in the necessary discourse of the health of our species and our planet. The Cave set up a duality that has long set people apart, and he’s attempting to stitch the conversation back together. Nature has always been politics, Science has always been politics, in seeing things as they are, can we work towards what needs to be worked on? 

Latour Comments (long form)

Latour sets out to redefine political ecology as something that “has to let go of nature.” (9) In fact, he cites Nature as the chief obstacle in public discourse. As will be restated throughout, Latour wants the environmental argument to be heard, and to do so, he is stripping it of something that seems fundamental to it, yet is actually a hindrance. Part of this will mean dissociating the sciences from Science. (9) That is go from “brandishing Science” (as in “she blinded me with Science”) to “clinging to the twists and turns of sciences as they are developed.” (10) One is removed from humanity, a mythical Ideal, while the other is real, human, and messy. Latour defines Science “as the politicization of the sciences through epistemology in order to render the ordinary political life impotent through the threat of an incontestable nature.” (10) Science capitalized is derived from Plato’s allegory of the Cave, and it’s this he seeks to get us out of. He addresses “two points of rupture” of the allegory. The first being that in getting out of the cave to find truth, “There exists no possible continuity between the world of human beings and access to truths ‘not made by human hands.’ The allegory of the cave makes it possible to create in one fell swoop a certain idea of Science and a certain idea of the social world that will serve as a foil for science.” And secondly the Scientist goes back to the cave with “incontestable findings that will silence the chatter of the ignorant mob. Once again, there is no continuity between the henceforth irrefutable objective law and the human…” (This brings to mind the shift in research practices to those of a more participatory nature – rather than coming from above with Wisdom, helping people empower themselves.) Scientists can thus go back and forth between worlds like Moses carrying scientific laws “which are not open to question, for the tyranny of ignorance. Without this double interruption there can be no Science, no epistemology, no paralyzed politics, no Western conception of life.” (11) Latour argues that this has to change to redefine public life. There is the fear that if Science is open to messiness, uncertainties that (12) “Science can survive only as long as it distinguishes absolutely and not relatively between things ‘as they are’ and the ‘representation that human beings make of them.’” Latour says, if one suggests “they are dealing rather with a seamless cloth, you will be accused of relativism; you will be told that you are trying to give Science a ‘social explanation’; …” Calls this sophistry – and this connects to Pirsig’s description of Plato’s attack on Sophists in Z&tAoMM. Platonists – the West really – see relativism as a threat. It’s interesting to think of how scientists actually, had called into question perfect truths and certainty for some time. Think of Heisenberg and uncertainty, Godel and incompleteness, and even more recently fractals and the butterfly effect, the world is not “cold and austere” truth and beauty as Bertrand Russell put it – it’s messy, crinkly… Latour says “not smooth.”

Latour states the persistence of the allegory of the Cave because “It allows a Constitution that organizes public life into two houses.” (13) Ignorant folk on one, and the outside Idealized world. Thus “the myth of the Cave makes it possible to render all democracy impossible by neutralizing it; that is its only trump card.” So power is given only “those who can move back and forth between the houses.” (14) This speaks to a notion of Power Elite, how people justify their rank in society. Latour’s solution “we need not climb down into it [the cave] to begin with!” (16) This is what is “you are trying to organize civic life with two houses, one of which would have authority and not speak, while the other would have speech but no authority; do you really think this is reasonable?” (17) It’s time to get past the power of this myth. Latour sets up his argument and offers a powerful definition of politics (reminiscent to Wilson’s consilience): “Just as we have distinguished Science from the sciences, we are going to contrast power politics, inherited from the Cave, with politics, conceived as the progressive composition of the common world.” (18) Like Pirsig and Wilson, Latour is out to show the artificiality of dualities and the harm they’ve created. (19) Thus he seeks to show “political ecology has nothing to do, or rather, finally no longer has anything to do with nature, still less with its conservation, protection, or defense.” He speaks of environmental movements seeking to restore a political dimension to nature, but it’s because of the inclusion of “nature” that they can’t succeed: “Under the pretext of protecting nature, the ecology movements have also retained the conception of nature that makes their political struggle hopeless.”

“Thus we cannot characterize political ecology by way of a crisis of nature, but by way of a crisis of objectivity. The risk-free objects, the smooth objects to which we had been accustomed up to now, are giving way to risky attachments, tangled objects. Let us try to characterized the difference between the old objects and the new ones, between matters of fact and what could be called matters of concern.” (22) Furthermore, he defines matters of fact, risk-free objects as clearly defined boundaries, invisible people behind them, risks in separate universe, later consequences of object never impacted initial definition of object. Asbestos is a strong model of a risk-free object. (23)  In contrast to these are risk-free objects, with matters of concern – these are not smooth but messy! They lack clear boundaries, more like rhizomes in their connections to other things, producers are visible, part of their definition from the beginning, they don’t emerge from the sky or the “cave” but are part of world from the beginning, and they are attached to their consequences from the beginning. (24) Therefore, “Political ecology does not shift attention from the human pole to the pole of nature; it shifts from certainty about the production of risk-free objects (with their clear separation between things and people) to uncertainty about the relations whose unintended consequences threaten to disrupt all orderings, all plans, all impacts.” (25) Hence, “An infinitesimal cause can have vast effects; an insignificant actor becomes central…” Things are messy and as the butterfly effect hints little things can cause big things: “a snail can block a dam” “Nothing can line up beings any longer by order of importance.” As well as “the progressive transformation of all matters of fact into disputed states of affair, … which nothing, precisely, can naturalize any longer.” If political ecology persists in sticking to modernist theory, the idea of the cave, then he suggests whenever it encounters “Beings with uncertain, unpredictable connections, it is thus going to doubt itself, believe it has been weakened, despair over its own impotence, be ashamed of its own weakness.” (27) However, Latour argues this is where it needs to be: “It is precisely in its failures, when it deploys matters of concern, with unanticipated forms that make the use of any notion of nature radically impossible, that political ecology is finally doing its own job, finally innovating politically, finally bringing us out of modernism, finally preventing the proliferation of smooth, risk-free matters of fact…” This is essential – having made this shift from the cave, we can finally talk. On (28) Latour points out that nature has been invoked by politics long before the 1960s. It’s always been there – “natural law” “natural order” etc. In fact, “Conceptions of politics and conceptions of nature have always formed a pair as firmly united as the two seats on a seesaw … There has never been any other politics than the politics of nature, and there has never been any other nature than the nature of politics.” Nature and politics have ever been set us false opposites.

Latour does a great bit of lateral thinking in replacing nature with its plural. (29) ie: “the laws of natures” “The plural is decidedly unsuited to the political notion of nature.” For “starting with the myth of the Cave, it has been the unity of nature that produces its entire political benefit, since only this assembling, this ordering, can serve as a direct rival to the other form of assembling, composing, unifying, the entire traditional form that has always been called politics in the singular.” Great debate – never solvable. But his move “Instead of two distinct arenas … political ecology proposes to convoke a single collective whose role is precisely to debate the said hierarchy – and to arrive at an acceptable solution.” Again, similar to the notion of consilience. Remaining under the myth of the Cave, “We are still expecting our salvation to come from a double assembly, only one of those houses is called politics, while the other one simply and modestly declares its determination to define matters of facts; we have no inkling that this hope of salvation is precisely what threatens our public life…” (31) But this new conception of political ecology can put an end “to the domination of the ancient infernal pairing of nature and politics, in order to substitute for it, through countless innovations, many of which remain to be introduced, the public life of a single collective.” (31) This is not a denouncement of scientific work and its importance, but a restoring of it to a human position, so that it can play a useful role, and a role desperately needed, in political ecology. – Nick 

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Bruno Latour (in brief)

Quick thoughts

Recent readings dealing with dualities, splits in our thinking and zipping them back into something whole. Last week in regards to the split of Plato’s cave, referred to Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as dealing with Plato and his fight against sophists. ( This comes up early in Latour’s essay as he sets out to reverse the split that story put into place in Western thought. This also brings to mind EO Wilson’s idea of “consilience” in his book of the same name. He defines the term (an existing word he retooled for his use) as involving the integration of multiple disciplines to establish a “common groundwork of explanation.” Wilson proposes that only when the disciplines come together can the problems that affect the world be appropriately addressed, writing “Only fluency across the boundaries will provide a clear view of the world as it really is, not as seen through the lens of ideologies and religious dogmas or commanded by myopic response to immediate need.”Wilson also warns that “A balanced perspective cannot be acquired by studying disciplines in pieces but through pursuit of the consilience among them.”

In my head, Latour and Wilson are talking the same thing. Latour is bringing down Science from this mythical place and making it unsmooth, messy, rhizomatic, and connected to our experience so that real conversation can happen. Wilson is talking about the danger of specialization (as initially voiced by CP Snow in “The Two Cultures”) that arose from the failure of the Enlightenment where no one knows how to talk to each other. With the idea of Consilience and Latour’s “political ecology,” a common framework is established, a means to have a dialogue and actually tackle issues that both men are passionate about – the health of our species and the health of this planet. All that said, Wilson’s use of “Science” may set Latour off, though I’m less clear what might upset Wilson. Having heard Latour I wondered why he didn’t mention Wilson, so curious to gain a better understanding of the difference in their arguments. ( As someone who’s used Wilson’s work in my own work, I know I’ve gotten flack from social science folks who are angry with him about sociobiology – which personally, I don’t think they understand. Wilson rocks – a delightful, endlessly inquisitive man, as Latour also seems to be. I’d love to hear a conversation between them. Perhaps I’ll have to imagine it.

One more quick thought (longer notes and comments coming in second installment), at dinner tonight Leah was discussing long known health benefits of tai chi, yoga – and how now Science is “proving” them. It pointed out just how prevalent this split is in our culture, that we don’t even know that it’s happening. This prompted a quick discussion of Latour and her conversation with an Indian man in her class who brought up the difference between hard date and testimonials, the qualitative/quantitative split more or less. The beauty of the readings is even when they’re things we already feel we know and definitely believe in, it raises our awareness to what’s happening all around us.

Oh yeah, Latour also brought to mind Michael Pollan who I was fortunate to hear speak this term. His analogy of thinking of being a naturalist as gardening, I think is in line with Latour. It’s acknowledging the human in the natural from the ground up – there is no separate Nature in the romantic, mystical sense. Hence, Pollan is to Latour as farming is to political ecology. As with Wilson and Latour, there’s the same strong passion for ecology, but thinking of ways to do so beyond protecting Nature. All compelling arguments. – Nick  

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Even Quicker Plato/Prometheus

For Plato, knowledge is something out there, something tangible, fixed, to be attained.

For Aeschylus, Prometheus’ knowledge, in the form of fire is never touchable (you get burned) and always changing – knowledge is a continual process. - Nick 

Prometheus Plato Pirsig quick version…

Let’s think about all of this in terms of education. Plato begins by saying on (208) to “compare the effect of education and that of the lack of it on our nature to an experience like this.” Which is the setup for his cave analogy, which is not really about teaching people skills, understanding, but exposing them to the Good or the True. Contrast this with Prometheus, though perhaps a bit didactic as a teacher, he shows people how to do things, and they run with it. His gift of fire became “for men a teacher in every art, their grand resource.” (24) Thus as Plato’s man was led out of the cave, and from the knowable realm to the intelligible realm (211), and gleamed truth and understanding, Prometheus gives initially “mindless” men “mind and reason” sight, “their every act was without knowledge, till I came.” (34) “All human skill and science was Prometheus’ gift.” Essentially man’s existence is due to Prometheus, particularly since Zeus, “Of wretched humans he took no account, resolved To annihilate them and create another race. This purpose there was no one to oppose but I: I dared. I saved the human race from being ground To dust, from total death.”  (27) Furthermore, “I planted firmly in their hearts blind hopefulness…” (28)

Prometheus’s gift is one to all men, whereas the intelligible realm is only accessible to the few. And it is those few that Plato suggests should lead. “we have bred you to be leaders and kings in the hive, so to speak. You are better and more completely educated than the others, and better able to share in both types of life.”  (214) Education is not possible for all: As he writes, “education is not what some people boastfully declare it to be. They presumably say they can put knowledge into souls that lack it, as if they could put sight into blind eyes.” (212) But this is what Prometheus does – and fire is a symbol of change, of possibility, which is in contrast to Plato’s fixed, permanent Truth. Plato needs a fixed, permanent truth for in Pirsig’s words, this is the first time in the history of the world that there is an ideal of Truth and Knowledge, (338) and “It is still a very fragile thing. It can disappear completely. … Plato damns them [the Sophists] because they threaten mankind’s first beginning grasp of the idea of truth.” “Socrates is not just expounding noble ideas in a vacuum. He is in the middle of a war between those who think truth is absolute and those who think truth is relative. … the Sophists are the enemy.” (337) In his philosophy Plato, enshrined permanence in a new way.” (336) On the other side there was Heraclitus, who “called the Immortal Principle fire and introduced change as part of the Principle.” This is in line with Prometheus, bringer of fire, bringer of change. More from Pirsig, “The difference was that Plato’s Good was a fixed and eternal and unmoving Idea, whereas for the rhetoricians it was not an Idea at all. The Good was not a form of reality. It was reality itself, ever changing, ultimately unknowable in any kind of fixed, rigid way.” (335) And in the end, “Truth won, the Good lost, and that is why today we have so little difficulty accepting the reality of truth and so much difficulty accepting the reality of Quality…” (334) We accept that there’s a truth, something out there that we can attain, rather than the idea that all of this is our inventions, and thus can be reinvented. There’s nothing fixed that says “this is the right way,” only that this is what we’ve been doing, and it seems to work. the dialectic is supposed to take us to greater truths, but in fact it often leads to verifying what’s believed before. This is where Prometheus and fire comes in, bringing change, new thought.

It’s the purpose of education, it’s a gift of life, of freedom. And it allows us to challenge the gods, the power elite. Prometheus imagines a world where cunning wins over strength in the future. And even Zeus is eventually won over by this in his eventually pardoning of Prometheus. Change is possible. – Nick

Prometheus Plato Pirsig Points

Plato begins on (208) to “compare the effect of education and that of the lack of it on our nature to an experience like this.” He then outlines his story of the cave. Essentially humans fettered in place, forced to look only one direction and see shadows projected by people unseen of the people, animals, and objects. This is all they know of reality. It is in my terminology very “flat.” The Matrix clearly borrows heavily from Plato, complete with fetters and virtual reality shadows as substance. Even after being released from bonds and able to turn around, men become puzzled and “believe that the things he saw earlier were more truly real than the ones he was being shown?” (209) How would we know what was real after, and how would we know now? This brings to mind Edwin Abbot’s Flatland (and again I’m thinking about unflattening.) Wherein “A. Square” visits lower dimensions in preparation for a visit from the higher dimensional Sphere. It’s impossible to imagine something outside of our reality, another dimension, at least in anything but the abstract. But through analogy we can. As far as going back to tell others in the cave, he would “go through any sufferings, rather than share their beliefs and live as they do?” Those who claim to “know it” are often considered madman. (210)

Here’s the key of the dialogue, (211) Socrates ties the analogy back to their lives: “The realm revealed through sight should be likened to the prison dwelling, and the light of the fire inside it to the sun’s power. And if you think of the upward journey and the seeing of things above as the upward journey of the soul to the intelligible realm, you won’t mistake my intention…” “in the knowable realm the last thing to be seen is the form of the good, and it is seen only with toil and trouble. Once one has seen it, however, one must infer that it is the cause of all that is correct and beautiful in anything, that in the visible realm it produces both light and its source, and that in the intelligible realm it controls and provides truth and understanding; and that anyone who is to act sensibly in private or public must see it.”

Essentially he’s saying that what we see with our eyes is only a shadow on the wall (the knowable realm), and what’s beyond it is the intelligible realm, and that’s where truth is, and the good…. He’s also making it out to be something fixed and permanent. Pirsig addresses this permanence in Z&tAoMM and how Truth is turned into fixed Ideal, something to be touched, rather than something constantly changing, always invented and rediscovered. (see earlier post for quotes.)

Thus, this knowledge is something some can attain, as “for your own sakes and for that of the rest of the city, we have bred you to be leaders and kings in the hive, so to speak. You are better and more completely educated than the others, and better able to share in both types of life. So each of you in turn must go down to live in the common dwelling place of the other citizens and grow accustomed to seeing in the dark. … So the city will be awake, governed by us and by you; not dreaming like the majority of cities nowadays, governed by men who fight against one another over shadows …” (214)

Having seen the “light” so to speak of knowledge is a great power and comes with great responsibility to return to the caves and guide the people. However, doesn’t seem to indicate trying to educate them and bring them into the light. As he writes, “education is not what some people boastfully declare it to be. They presumably say they can put knowledge into souls that lack it, as if they could put sight into blind eyes.” (212) Thus, “It is our task as founders, then, to compel the best natures to learn what was said before to be the most important thing: namely, to see the good; to ascend that ascent. And when they have ascended and looked sufficiently, we must not allow them to do what they are allowed to do now.” Which is: “To stay there and refuse to go down again to the prisoners in the cave and share their labors and honors, whether the inferior ones or the more excellent ones.” Citizens must “share with each other the benefit they can confer on the community.” (213) A key in here is the “Best” natures. Not that all can attain such things. An early idea of the “Power Elite” and that knowledge is a thing, of substance. need to turn our instrument toward the light, towards the good (the brightest thing there is…) (212)

Ideas of ruling, Cautionary warning just as applicable today “in it alone the truly rich will rule – those who are rich not in gold, but in the wealth the happy must have: namely, a good and rational lie. But if beggars – people hungry for private goods of their own – go into public life, thinking that the good is there for the seizing, then such a city is impossible. For when ruling is something fought over, such civil and domestic war destroys these men and the rest of the city as well.” (214) 214) “surely it is those who are not lovers of ruling who must go do it. Otherwise, the rivaling lovers will fight over it.” And therefore, “the truth of the matter is surely this: a city in which those who are going to rule are least eager to rule is necessarily best and freest from faction, whereas a city with the opposite kind of rulers is governed in the opposite way.” (214)

Aeschylus “Prometheus Bound”

Unlike the story of the Modern Prometheus, Dr. Frankenstein, who stole the power to give life from the gods, which serves as a warning for humans attaining knowledge not meant for them and general fear of technology, in this version of the Prometheus tale, his theft of fire, is a gift of life, of freedom to humanity. And where he’s punished is that it gave people a chance to challenge gods. It’s never totally clear what Prometheus’s motivation is. He steals fire from Hephaestus and acts as champion of human race (20) But why? He says on 34, “all my gifts were guided by goodwill” and pity for mortal men (28). And since he’s a seer, did he know his fate and the anger of Zeus and do it anyway? (24)

(On a side note, I wonder in this passage: “Scorched with the sun’s flaming rays your skin will lose Its bloom of freshness…” (21) Could we think of Prometheus as another race, who’d come up with technology, science, earlier, and then punished? On (33) we learn that the races weep for Prometheus – all over the world… Is Prometheus the African people, the first people? Probably too much of a stretch….)

Prometheus’s gift, fire became “for men a teacher in every art, their grand resource.” (24) On 34 we hear all else that he brought, “At first Mindless, I gave them mind and reason. … In those days they had eyes, but sight was meaningless; Heard sounds, but could not listen; all their length of life They passed like shapes in dreams, confused and purposeless. … lived in holes, like swarms of ants, Or deep in sunless caverns…” Here we have a reference to the Cave and thus to Plato’s dialogue. Men lived in this state of no knowledge. “their every act was without knowledge, till I came.” He says he taught men about the stars, mathematics, writing “the all-remembering skill, mother of many arts” harnessed animals, gave them sailing, medicines, the means to understand prophecy (also, his means were part of his thievery from Zeus), treasures from the earth – bronze, iron, silver, gold – and we must assume the means to work them, Summarized: “All human skill and science was Prometheus’ gift.” Essentially man’s existence is due to Prometheus. Particularly since Zeus, “Of wretched humans he took no account, resolved To annihilate them and create another race. This purpose there was no one to oppose but I: I dared. I saved the human race from being ground To dust, from total death.”  (27) Furthermore, “I planted firmly in their hearts blind hopefulness…” (28) In other stories, this is also attributed to Pandora, who is also seen as a burden created for man.

We learn that Prometheus stood with Zeus against the Titans, because “they despised cunning; in their pride of strength They foresaw easy victory and rule of might.” But his mother Themis, or Earth “Had many times foretold to me, that not brute strength, Not violence, but cunning must give victory To the rulers of the future.” (27) But then Zeus turned around and ruled with brute strength. For “A new master holds the helm of Olympus; These are new laws indeed By which Zeus tyrannically rules; And the great powers of the past he now destroys.” (25) And “We are ruled by one Whose harsh and sole dominion none may call to account.” (30) “Zeus, ruling by law of his own invention, Provides an example of his proud power over the gods of the past.” (32) “All tasks are burdensome – except to rule the gods, No one is free but Zeus.” (22)

In Zeus’ eventual pardoning of Prometheus (later plays/stories), we see a change, a turn in him from ruling simply out of strength, and using reason, thought, and this serves as analog for the way the Greeks thought of ruling, as different to what had gone before.  

Zen/MM - in connection to Plato

I thought that some of the discussion in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance shed light on Plato's writings and our overall discussion. Some excerpts presented here: 

334-5) Dialectic as usurper. Seeking to contain and control the Good. Re: Plato’s condemnation of the Sophists. … “Plato’s hatred of the rhetoricians was part of a much larger struggle in which the reality of the Good, represented by the dialecticians, were engaged in a huge struggle for the future mind of man. Truth won, the Good lost, and that is why today we have so little difficulty accepting the reality of truth and so much difficulty accepting the reality of Quality, even though there is no more agreement in one area than in the other.”

336) philosophy … enshrined permanence in a new way.” “Heraclitus called the Immortal Principle fire and introduced change as part of the Principle.”

“Parmenides made it clear for the first time that the Immortal Principle, the One, Truth, God, is separate from appearance and from opinion, and the importance of this separation and its effect upon subsequent history cannot be overstated. It’s here that the classic mind, for the first time, took leave of its romantic origins and said, “The Good and the True are not necessarily the same,” and goes its separate ways.” …. Socrates who carried their ideas into full fruition.”

337) up to this point, “there was no such thing as mind and matter, subject and object, form and substance. Those divisions are just dialectical inventions that came later.” Calls these divisions an artistic creation – not things to be discovered….

In Dialogues of Plato “Socrates is not just expounding noble ideas in a vacuum. He is in the middle of a war between those who think truth is absolute and those who think truth is relative. … the Sophists are the enemy.”

338) “Truth. Knowledge. That which is independent of what anyone thinks about it. The ideal that Socrates died for. The ideal that Greece alone possesses for the very first time in the history of the world. It is still a very fragile thing. It can disappear completely. … Plato Damns them [the Sophists] because they threaten mankind’s first beginning grasp of the idea of truth.”

342) halo around heads of Plato and Socrates is gone. He sees that they consistently are doing exactly that which they accuse the Sophists of doing – using emotionally persuasive language for the ulterior purpose of making the weaker argument, the case for the dialectic, appear the stronger….”

“Plato hadn’t tried to destroy arête. He had encapsulated it; made a permanent, fixed idea out of it; had converted it to a rigid, immobile Immortal truth. He made arête the Good, the highest form, the highest Idea of all. It was subordinate only to Truth itself, in a synthesis of all that had gone before.”

>>KEY: “The difference was that Plato’s Good was a fixed and eternal and unmoving Idea, whereas for the rhetoricians it was not an Idea at all. The Good was not a form of reality. It was reality itself, ever changing, ultimately unknowable in any kind of fixed, rigid way.”

343 – the why, Make arête subordinate to Immortal Truth.

“But in his attempt to unite the Good and the True by making the Good the highest idea of all, Plate is nevertheless usurping arete’s place with dialectically determined truth. Once the Good has been contained as a dialectical idea it is no trouble for another philosopher to come along and show by dialectical methods that arête, the Good, can be more advantageously demoted to a lower position within a “true” order of things, more compatible with the inner workings of the dialectic. … it was Aristotle.”  

Links to relevant things

This came up in conversation Monday night in regards to “Project Rebirth.” “After the Deluge” originally a web-comic, now (or soon) to be in print, followed the stories of six people who survived Hurricane Katrina. Thought it was relevant and some of you might be interested:

Also as an extra treat, here’s a link to Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole’s version of “Prometheus Bound”:

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Pappacharissi addresses utopian notions of the internet bringing about true democratization. (379) But for her, it’s a debate between whether “the internet and its surrounding technologies will truly revolutionize the political sphere or whether they will be adapted to the current status quo, especially at a time when the public is demonstrating dormant political activity and developing growing cynicism towards politics.” (379-80) She makes an important distinction between public space and public sphere: “A virtual space enhances discussion; a virtual sphere enhances democracy.” (380) Which do we have? 

In confronting the existence of Habermas’ public sphere, Pappacharissi then asks whether the “internet can recreate a public sphere that perhaps never was, foster several diverse public spheres, or simply become absorbed by commercial culture.” (382) Numerous factors are explored, from who has access (382) and the illusion that it’s accessible and open to all. (383) We get so much information from tv and internet, (383) so as to “supersaturate viewers with political information, and that as a result ‘this tumult creates in viewers a sense of activity rather than genuine civic involvement.” Wisely states, “Access to more information does not necessarily create more informed citizens, or lead to greater political activity….” (384) Do people really come together, or instead splinter off into tribes of like-minded folks as they do offline? And in fact, this might be more the case online as you can avoid your neighbors who might have different ideas than you. Anonymity fosters flaming and “hasty opinions rather than rational and focused discourse.” (385) Commercialization transforms it into entertainment and a means of consumption instead of discourse.

It seems we bring our offline problems to an online world. Technology is neither the problem nor our savior, as Dewey discussed. The real shift has to come in our adeptness at communication and the civic responsibility that springs from education for democracy. Without it, we never address what’s really going on. And I believe Pappacharissi’s article shows this, by outlining technology’s potential and shortcomings. The real change comes in our approach and our values. – Nick 

Habermas - quick history of rise and fall of public sphere

A quick look at history, as seen through Habermas’s story of the emergence and suppression of the public sphere.

There is feudal civilization, where the lords “represent their power ‘before’ the people, instead of for the people.” (351)

At some point, this power structure cannot hold. Perhaps the population is too great, printing press makes information available, ideas of the Enlightenment start to spread – and that longstanding structure collapses.

In its wake, perhaps a true public sphere emerges. (Though we must note it only extends to men of a particular dominant class to begin with.) Habermas defines it thus: “By ‘the public sphere,’ we mean first of all a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed. Access is guaranteed to all citizens. A portion of the public sphere comes into being in every conversation in which private individuals assemble to form a public body.” (350) It came about through debate, and he writes, “The medium of this debate – public discussion – was unique and without historical precedent.” (352) Instrumental in fomenting this debate and thus the public were newspapers, which flourished: “Newspapers changed from mere institutions for the publication of news into bearers and leaders of public opinion – weapons of party politics.” “The press remained an institution of the public itself, effective in the manner of a mediator and intensifier of public discussion, no longer a mere organ for the spreading of news but not yet the medium of a consumer culture.” (353) The media was a medium of communication and education. Allowed for the creation of an informed public.

            But then….

Private, commercial interests take hold. The newspapers are subverted by consumer culture. Big private interests outweigh what the larger public wants. The public sphere is retreating. We see the rise of what Mills calls the BIG 3: “With the interweaving of the public and private realm, not only do the political authorities assume certain functions in the sphere of commodity exchange and social labor, but conversely social powers now assume political functions. This leads to a kind of ‘refeudalization’ of the public sphere.” (354)

But this time around, the feudal state is more subtly organized. For, “… at the same time the large organizations must assure themselves of at least plebiscitary support from the mass of the population through an apparent display of openness.” (354) It’s a matter of “public relations” shaping public perceptions and creating the illusion of participatory democracy and freedom. Thus that brief twinkle of a true public sphere, however mythical it might actually have been, is snuffed before it has much chance to shine. Things are back to where they were, but the forms of control are more insidious. And maybe that’s how they’d have to be. It would seem, at a certain scale, the public simply can’t be oppressed – at least directly. People will revolt, form undergrounds, resist at all costs. But if that oppression is cloaked in the guise of freedom and the public is given other things to take their minds off of it, the forms of control can hold. This isn’t to suggest conspiratorial manipulation, just that that’s the sort of choices we’ve made or failed to make, or have had made for us. In the face of disaster, unbridled oppression, the people will rise. But how do we rise in the face of comfort? It’s a matter of civic responsibility, a core of education for democracy. And we have a long ways to go. – Nick 

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Community and Habermas

(This was originally a note sent to this week's monday night group concerning our conversation.) 

For me, I find that the times when I’ve felt most connected to community as being exciting and empowering. (Hence the reason I often follow up our conversations with a note of this sort.) Whether the period Habermas describes is mythical or not, and how few people it actually extended to or not, I wonder what it might have felt like. The excitement that perhaps permeated the air – people thinking, yes, we’re a part of this, and we can steer where we’re all going. I wonder then about Amy’s time with the campaign and if that feeling, that yeah, we can make a difference existed and how we can manifest that realization of empowerment.

Thinking of Nigel’s role in his community, I think of my past role in Detroit and the web-magazine I ran (which I know I mention a lot.) In looking on that time from the lens of our discussion (and I felt this way at the time) the web-mag offered a means to connect people in the community to one another and to physical events happening in their community. They could be in the know, if they chose to do so, and thus could participate based on that knowledge, again, if they chose to do so. I can say for myself, if I hadn’t done the legwork to compile information in one place for a public, I wouldn’t have had any idea what was going on right around me either. So it served me, and I know it served others. And I see the role of such offerings, and the media in general, as education – a way to gather people around a common table. To such an end, it succeeded (and I hope continues to do so.) Where I always felt disappointed was that more people didn’t help in the efforts to grow it, extend it, strengthen it, make it an even more vital presence in the community. Again, it’s the same people who help clean up and put chairs away when the party’s over.

So to that end, I think Amy’s right on: it’s that civic responsibility that needs to be imbued in people – ala Dewey’s democracy through education. If people see their responsibility for one another, they may take action from the start, rather than waiting for the crisis. (And I think, when it is crisis time, almost all people do take action – so fundamentally, we can’t say people just don’t care about others. They just don’t think about others, or that their actions matter beforehand.) - Nick 

P.S. A related link concerning the advent of hyperlocal websites:

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Chair – Throne

I think we can think of the chair as definitely tying into Veblen’s theory of the leisure class. The following is excerpted from something I wrote some time ago, but I think is relevant to this discussion:

The idea of the chair or the throne has been equated with status from the Egyptian pharaohs to the European kings to today’s chairmen of the board.  Advanced social status means you get to be the one sitting while others scurry around. … The ruler sat on his throne while the workers toiled in his fields. … The gods of ancient myth sat the most upright and in the highest thrones. 

Being able to sit – and sit in a comfy chair (I inherited an aeron, which is apparently a big deal) is a show of how much leisure we can afford. At some points in history rulers are carried around in their chairs. Now we have cars with chauffeurs – servants that are great displays of wealth. To sit while others must stand is divine… - Nick 

Diamonds are a girl’s best friend. (Veblen)

Veblen writes, “the earliest form of ownership is an ownership of the women by the able-bodied men of the community.” (15) We see this ownership present today in the diamond engagement ring. It is on one hand a show of ownership, this woman is off limits, belongs to someone. Once upon a time, it would have come with an exchange of a herd of cattle or some tremendous dowry. It’s clearly also a display of conspicuous consumption – the bigger, the more the man is worth. It “should” cost the man so many months’ salary to pay for it.

“If you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it” – Beyonce

We know the myth perpetuated by the DeBeers family in South Africa, artificially created a market for diamonds. The diamond is a perfect symbol of leisure consumption. It’s of no use (at least as a stone on a ring) and it’s not actually all that rare. But by constructing a myth of its value, diamonds became a way for men to show off their wealth vicariously, and to be of good manners, good blood, have to literally buy into this, and take ownership of the ring. That isn’t to suggest, as Veblen does, that useless things can’t have other uses. In this case, the symbolism of commitment – literally engagement, but such a show of symbolism need not be achieved by a diamond, for anything agreed to by both parties as having importance should suffice. The diamond ring is however, primarily a way to show off wealth, to claim ownership of the wearer. The man is saying, I have so much, I can bejewel my property or as Veblen writes, “possession of the honorific booty” (18) and women’s “usefulness as trophies.” (16)

“That girl is feeling Trapped by that ring on her finger” – Johnny Clegg

For the women, the ring is a sense of pride, something to be showed off, and oohed and ahhed at by their friends. It’s an affiliation, perhaps of love, but certainly of connection to wealth. The connection between the engagement ring and ownership has bothered for some time in the abstract. Veblen’s ideas compound my existing feelings, as the idea of the ring is not quite so much in the abstract at this point in time. – Nick  

Thorstein Veblen: The Theory of the Leisure Class”

Veblen’s work struck me hard from the first note, and he just kept building on that, example after example. I may depart a bit from summation and instead spin off this into mythologies ala Barthes somewhat. (At least that’s what I’m thinking…)

It seems to me, Veblen sets up a split, a path taken by humanity as far back as humanity could be called humanity. Whether chosen or not, what ruled the day emerged from this predatory notion, how wealth and leisure were deemed most valuable and everything of productive value – not so much. From this lens, Veblen shows how the ordering of modern society, around wealth, leisure, conspicuous consumption has come to be. It really turns things on their head – when we think of noblemen and honor, and then he conflates them with predatory behavior. It’s wonderful and horrifying all at once. On 26 he writes, “it is gain obtained by the honorable method of seizure and conversion. These occupations are of the nature of predatory, not productive, employment.” “honorable = seizure and conversion.” It’s like backwards day, and that’s what our world is.

I want to contrast this path taken with a quick parable I found in the Translator's Introduction to The Art of War:

 According to an old story, a lord of ancient China once asked his physician, a member of a family of healers, which of them was the most skilled in the art. The physician, whose reputation was such that his name became synonymous with medical science in China, replied, "My eldest brother sees the spirit of sickness and removes it before it takes shape, so his name does not get out of the house.”

 "My elder brother cures sickness when it is still extremely minute, so his name does not get out of the neighborhood.”

 “As for me, I puncture veins, prescribe potions, and massage skin, so from time to time my name gets out and is heard among the lords."

   The healing arts and the martial arts may be a world apart in ordinary usage, but they are parallel in several senses: in recognizing, as the story says, that the less needed the better; in the sense that both involve strategy in dealing with disharmony; and in the sense that in both knowledge of the problem is key to the solution. (found here: )

Rather than seeing value in taking care of our community, it’s in having the biggest horde, the most beautiful wife – it’s collecting booty, and having others work for you. If we want to look at the Chinese example more literally, we see it reflected in the medical profession today: specialized surgeons get big bucks and are cloaked in status, whereas means of prevention are given little attention.

 How can we take another path? First off, I think awareness of this. Pulling the wool of our eyes and say this is not how things have to be, and this is not “natural”, it didn’t emerge from our environment, but it emerged from people taking – predatory quite literally. Can it be taken back? In time, through education and diligence and action. A change in values to something more like the parable and less like Veblen’s powerful and bleak view of who we are. – Nick 

Mythologies of the Republican Party (Barthes)

Thinking on the spectacle of Wrestling and the mythology behind it, how we buy into something obviously contrived. Perhaps harmless in wrestling, the spectacle that is politics today (and perhaps always) is not so innocuous. I think of my girlfriend’s mother, and having spent the past week with her, noted that we tend to think along similar lines on most things about care for our community, our planet. However, politically, we are on opposite ends. That is we vote different – but for the most part our feeling on issues are in synch. Where’s the separation – it’s in the mythology, as I think presented particularly well by the Republican party, a compelling story that they’ve pitched that makes me people ignore all the things they actually care about, and instead by sucked in by something that’s not even sort of true. Not unlike the reality of wrestling. George Lakoff offers a strong article on such things here:

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Barthes Comments

Myth Today 

Trying to unravel the complexity of Barthes’s language, a mythology in itself, finally read it backwards, and was able to pull out a few more ideas. Still plenty to grasp in this, but feel I’m making progress. 

Some key ideas “Myth is a type of speech.” (109) thus myth is a system of communication, it’s a message. It’s not an object, concept or idea – it’s a mode of signification, a form, therefore anything can be transformed into myth “provided it is conveyed by a discourse.” Barthes writes, because “the universe is infinitely fertile in suggestions. Every object in the world can pass from a closed, silent existence to an oral state, open to appropriation by society, for there is no law, whether natural or not, which forbids talking about things.” Myths aren’t eternal (110) as they are attached to human history “which converts reality into speech…”

Following from Saussure, Barthes writes, “Myth is a semiological system.” (111) Defines Semiology – as science of forms – studies significations apart from their content, and postulates “a relation between two terms, a signifier and a signified.” (112) Rose example: roses (signifier); passion (signified); passionified roses (sign), in Saussure’s terms: “signifier = concept, signified = acoustic (mental) image; the relation between concept and image is the sign (the word, for instance) which is a concrete entity.” (113)  Mythology is thus “a second order semiological system.” (114) And this is key“Myth is a peculiar system, in that it is constructed from a semiological chain which existed before it: it is a second-order semiological system. That which is a sign (namely the associative total of a concept and an image) in the first system, becomes a mere signifier in the second. We must here recall that the materials of mythical speech (the language itself, photography, painting, posters, rituals, objects, etc.), however different at the start, are reduced to a pure signifying function as soon as they are caught by myth” (114) Myth is staggered in relation to the linguistic system it is built, it’s a metalanguage which one speaks about the first. (115) In language plane, Signifier = meaning; signified = concept; sign. In mythological plan: Signifier = form; signified = concept; sing=signification. (117) Key phrase: “Myth has a double function – it points out and it notifies, it makes us understand something and it imposes it on us.”

The point of all of this terminology is here (117) “signifier of myth presents itself in an ambiguous way: it is at the same time meaning and form, full on one side and empty on the other.” “As meaning, the signifier already postulates a reading… there is richness in it … history. … taken hold of by myth – “empty, parasitical form. The meaning is already complete, it postulates a kind of knowledge, a past, a memory, a comparative order of facts, ideas, decisions.” “When it becomes form, the meaning leaves its contingencies behind; it empties itself, it becomes impoverished, history evaporates, only the letter remains. There is here a paradoxical permutation in the reading operations, an abnormal regression from meaning to form, from the linguistic sign to the mythical signifier.” He continues on (118) “form does not suppress meaning, it only impoverishes it, it puts it at a distance, it holds it at one’s disposal. … the meaning loses its value, but keeps its life, from which the form of the myth will draw its nourishment. The meaning will be for the form like an instantaneous reserve of history, a tamed richness.” And finally on (119) the “fundamental character of the mythical concept is to be appropriated….”

For me, this connects to ideas of postmodernism, and appropriation leads to ideas of sampling. We borrow from the past (made that much more possible by means of mechanical reproduction) and use things that have recognizable meaning as part of our new mythologies. The appropriation retains some part of the signs original meaning, but only just, it’s drained of its richness, and remains as an icon. This is why Barthes suggests that “myth prefers to work with poor, incomplete images, where the meaning is already relieved of its fat, and ready for a signification, such as caricatures, pastiches, symbols, etc. Finally, the motivation is chosen among other possible ones…” (127) Che comes to mean some hipster cool idea of revolution, of out of the box, just like Apple computers, and we buy into the myth without looking into the meaning it originally was infused with. Along these lines Barthes writes: “myth is speech stolen and restored.” “only speech which is restored is no longer quite that which was stolen: when it was brought back, it was not put exactly in its place. It is this brief act of larceny, this moment taken for a surreptitious faking, which gives mythical speech its benumbed look.” (125) Che stolen, looks like Che, may even sound like Che, but is no longer quite Che. This has been the basis of ads featuring Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, Fred Astaire dancing – the likeness is there, but meaning is gone.

Barthes defines connection between myth and meaning as a “relation of deformation.” (122) And continues: “this distortion is possible only because the form of the myth is already constituted by a linguistic meaning. In a simple system like the language, the signified cannot distort anything at all because the signifier, being empty, arbitrary, offers no resistance to it. but here, everything is different: the signifier has, so to speak, two aspects: one full, which is the meaning (history…) one empty, which is the form….” Calls myth a “double system” (123) Offers analogy of turnstile, alternating between signifier and form, a language object and metalanguage, a purely signifying and a purely imagining consciousness.” Continues with window pane example – can look beyond glass or focus on it, “glass is at once present and empty” thus “landscape unreal and full” “The same thing occurs in the mythical signifier: its form is empty but present, its meaning absent but full.” (123-4)

Final notes, in language sign is arbitrary, however, “mythical signification on the other hand, is never arbitrary: it is always in part motivated, and unavoidably contains some analogy.”  (126) “Motivation is necessary to the very duplicity of myth: myth plays on the analogy between meaning and form, there is not myth without motivated form.” “Myth is a pure ideographic system, where the forms are still motivated by the concept which they represent while not yet, by a long way, covering the sum of its possibilities for representation.” (127) Returning to sampling, we can take things that once have meaning, and give them whatever meaning – or really non-meaning – more image, that we choose. This leads to his mythologies that make up the book.

In the “World of Wrestling” for instance, he opens with “Wrestling is not a sport, it’s a spectacle” (15) This speaks to a removal from reality, where “What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself.” (18) Wrestling is not competition or sport, but it offers theater, and “what wrestling is above all meant to portray is a purely moral concept: that of justice. The idea of ‘paying’ is essential to wrestling…” (21) and it “…. Unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible.” (25) This makes me think of superheroes, of black and white morality in their 4-color costumes.

The Blue Blood Cruise is the height of absurdity. Kings pretending to live like commoners for a day. It thus points out how lacking our own lives are. This is the apex of advertising, demonstrate need by artifice, and how our lives are less without it. The Face of Garbo “is an idea” – mask rather than human.

In The Nautilus and the Drunken Boat, Barthes gets us to think of the ship as an enclosure, as habitat before transport (66) that is self-sufficient, and has an “egg-like fullness.” (65) With no occupant, ship becomes an eye. He contrasts this with Rimbaud’s drunken boat: The “boat which says “I” and, freed from its concavity, can make man proceed from a psycho-analysis of the cave to a genuine poetics of exploration.”

The Brain of Einstein has become myth. Barthes talks about it becoming height of thinking machine and also magical at the same time. And “Through the mythology of Einstein, the world blissfully regained the image of knowledge reduced to formula. Paradoxically, the more the genius of the man was materialized under the guise of the brain, the more the product of his inventiveness came to acquire a magical dimension, and gave a new incarnation to the old esoteric image of a science entirely contained in a few letters. There is a single secret to the world, and this secret is held in one word; the universe is a safe of which humanity seeks the combination: Einstein almost found it, this is the myth of Einstein.” (69) Calls him “at once magician and machine.”

A little more on Striptease (covered in earlier post): How most prominent display of sexuality becomes desexualized “at the very moment when she is stripped naked.” (84) Disguise and dance all distance her from sexuality, as this becomes business. All the accoutrements of the striptease become illusion, mythology, still retaining some meaning, but only just.

Striptease and Ageism

In my Metropolis essay, I touched upon the idea of how bodies become objects, sex becomes a part of mechanized society. I wrote: 

Our bodies aren’t a safe haven from mechanization either. As time and landscape go, bodies become objects – a sum of our parts and functions. This is demonstrated in the erotic gyrations of the mechanical Maria. Her movements and objectification are hypnotic to men who fall under the spell of the machine.

A string of events sent me to revisit this idea in more detail. First it was a conversation on a 60 year old woman having plastic surgery, just to “freshen up” her face a bit, that sort of thing. Shortly thereafter, saw a photo in an exhibition of a wonderfully wrinkled old man, and was thinking of the layers of history contained in those wrinkles, and how they could be seen as a kind of beauty. Yet our culture is seduced by a reduction to objects – that beauty is a youthful perfection – only achieved by products and manipulation. This ageism warps our vision, and we fail to appreciate who we are. I see this reflected in Barthes’s “Striptease” – where he talks of the diamond G-string, a symbol of objectification, connecting the woman to the mineral world, “the (precious) stone being here the irrefutable symbol of the absolute object, that which serves no purpose.” Barthes concludes by saying this is how the striptease becomes nationalized. Sexuality is removed, objectification is put forth. – N