Friday, March 11, 2011

On Humanizing

Until every person renounces rape as a means of achieving dominance, sexual gratification, or any other end, our species has not yet humanized. The trouble with “posthumanism” and other titles for philosophical movements that—rightly—ask us to incorporate a sense of the world as an ethical space prior to and inclusive of “the human” is that these titles act, wrongly, as though we already lived in humanist societies. As though “the human” already existed, in any coherent conceptual-material fashion. Instead, in the often self-satisfied, but not wholly inaccurate, sense in which political scientists in the U.S. and other “democracies” speak of countries in the global South as “democratizing,” undergoing a process that involves a fundamental shift in norms for possible behavior, we must begin to address human state-culture matrices as embroiled in still-turbulent, uncertain processes of humanization. Just as we have not yet been modern, have not yet been Hegelian, and have not yet been many of the things that a theoretical avant-garde would like, at any given moment, to advance us beyond, we have not yet been human. That is to say, as a species recognizably divided into overlapping state-culture matrices, we have not yet consciously developed into anything more than what we have always been.

The fundamental tenet of humanism has long been that the human was special, and that tenor of thought is often—again, rightly—criticized. Humanism is accused, from various quarters, of doing away with an ultimate being or god that would secure value and meaning, and fraudulently substituting “the human” in its place, as though we as a species (or even as any group within that species, with any real consistency over time) displayed the sorts of attributes that would satisfy even weak ethical or epistemological requirements for “grounding” status. That is to say, the charge that humanism has exceeded its mandate from the very start, in trying to ground a worldview in stories about human beings as they supposedly are, is entirely correct. The human of humanism does not exist. But does she not yet exist? This is the open question. The posthumanist would like to do away with an anthropocentric view of the world, and her rationale for that is compelling. But we cannot so readily step outside the pods of anthro that we are, even if we can demonstrate persuasively that we ought to. Rather, an enabling negotiation of our limitations must start by understanding anthropocentrism differently.

Anthropocentrism, we should come to admit, will—whether we will or no—project a human being into the future. Our responsibility must be to negotiate what that human being will be. Such negotiation, motivated by and responsive to the ethical concerns expressed by posthumanists, feminists, critical theorists, and all other goodwilled interlocutors themselves responsive to the fringe where reality presences out from the real, is the beginning of humanization. I have suggested here that humanization may start with a global refusal of rape as an option, a refusal that can itself only come from acknowledging the psychic spaces in which rape has been up to that very moment of refusal an option. There are many other places from which to begin. Humanization is the ethical negotiation of constraint, and it is a process in which—unlike democratization—we are all helplessly swept up, all the time. It remains to us to recognize this, and to take up our responsibility to it.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Glenn Beck: Progressive Number One

Glenn Beck is, without a doubt, one of the greatest progressives in America.

His cheerful disregard for the Constitution, his deep indifference to the core values this country holds dear, his ready use of the tools of Hitlerite fascism: all these make him one of the greatest threats faced by patriotic, conservative Americans today.

Did you know that it was Adolf Hitler's chief of propaganda who first came up with the slogan, "The Fusion of Entertainment and Enlightenment"? Or that the Nazis in Germany, just like Glenn Beck, told the people that they were Christians and warned about the evils of non-Christians?

Like the Nazis and other totalitarians throughout history, Glenn Beck is a dyed-in-the-wool progressive--pretending to be a conservative! If you love America, and want to conserve this country's great heritage, expose Glenn Beck for what he is: one of the filthiest, lyingest, cheatingest progressives of them all.

Stand up for yourself--and for your country--today! Preserve our values by giving progressives like Glenn Beck the cold shoulder. We don't need him, and we don't need Nazi propaganda.

in reference to: Glenn Beck Program (view on Google Sidewiki)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A somewhat acrid response to someone else's interesting blog, which I couldn't post because it exceeded length restrictions and am thus posting here

Hi, Mike.

I just ran across your blog (, and I feel you have interesting things to say. In certain ways, I think your reading here participates in the spirit in which Lacan or Laplanche reads Freud: you work through the Schreber history in somewhat the manner of analysis, in the sense that you are asking it to say what it resists saying and has to resist saying because it is talking about what can't be adequately discussed, the unconscious. So, that's my genuinely positive response.

My genuinely negative response regards your framing of the reading and your (mis)translation of the German.

I think you're smart to choose "ein Treib oder Treibanteil die also normal vorhergesehene Entwicklung nicht mitmacht und infolge dieser Entwicklungshemmung in einem infantileren Stadium verbleibt" as a key passage, but your translation doesn't work. Almost across the board.

1. 'vorhergesehen' is quite adequately translated as 'anticipated,' and though 'expected' would be plausible, there's no intrinsic reason for substituting it. (I don't anyhow agree that the difference there is as significant as you suggest, but my point here is just that it's a basically arbitrary substitution you're arguing for--reflecting, not prompting, your reading.) The German adjective 'vorhergesehene' is *not* "literally having seen ahead" (which, if you wanted it as a single adjective, would be a neologism like 'vorhergesehenhabende,' which to my knowledge no one uses, it being less awkward to say 'diejenige die vorhergesehen haben [or hatten]': "those who [had] anticipated). 'Anticipated' is an excellent translation in the original. Or, if you must, 'foreseen' or even 'forecasted,' though these would make the phrase unnecessarily awkward.

2. More seriously, 'mitmachen' almost invariably connotes participation in a process involving more elements than just that which 'macht mit' ('does with'). While I agree that 'accompany the rest' is an infelicitous translation, since it quite loosely adds words that aren't needed to get the point across, your redaction of it incorrectly denies the sense of a collective that haunts 'mitmachen,' and, what's worse, pointlessly focuses on an 'its' that is entirely made up, 'erfunden'!

This is to say, I think you're right in taking issue with the initial translation, and I think that the reading you want to do overall is interesting. I also think it's irresponsible that you make out as though a rereading of the German supports your position--you borrow an authority from a 'return to the original,' but forget that this authority carries with it an obligation to fidelity.

Here's an imperfect, but more faithful, translation of the passage you make so much of: 'that a drive or partial drive doesn't participate in normally anticipated development and, as a result of this developmental inhibition, remains in an infantile stage/state/position' (I prefer 'state,' personally, but Freud would probably be happier with 'stage,' and it fits better with the emphasis on the 'Phase' that starts off the passage.) Note that 'Entwicklungshemmung,' if we stick with the standardized 'inhibition' for 'Hemmung' in Freud's work, can only be as I have it above, or else 'inhibition of development.' An 'its' is not properly present in the original, which would have to read 'Hemmung an seiner Entwicklung' to make 'its,' and your argument about translation, make sense.

3. Finally, I think your desire to get 'cultivation' in there somehow is misguided. From a translator's perspective, unless context suggests that a word is doing different kinds of work when used two or three times in a row, it's best to stick with one translation. There's nothing to indicate that Freud goes from meaning 'development' when he writes 'Entwicklung' to suddenly meaning 'cultivation' (which has a range of translations in German--'Entwicklung' *not* usually among them, though it is possible) when he writes 'Entwicklungshemmung.' Obviously, what's at stake here is a matter of interpretation, but to translate a word two different ways when it appears twice in a sentence usually requires strong evidence that it is doing different kinds of work.

Although I think your deeper thesis is interesting, that it has something for it, I'd strongly encourage you to do some more serious work tracing it out in terms of Freud's own resistances, rather than by claiming to have more directly accessed his (conscious) intent. If you end up doing such a project, I'd be interested to read it. Also, I realize I've written rather sharply; I'm sorry not to feel able to apologize for this. While we all offer inapt translations here and there, yours feels simply disingenuous--almost entirely indifferent to the valences of the original. In which case, why translate?!



Monday, October 26, 2009

In Reaction against a Now-obsolete National Review Piece

At last I can leave a response to these fools at the NR, who seem at first not to know what they're unhappy about, but just that they're unhappy. They seem, that is, as mindlessly in rebellion, even when their side is winning--and their side, the side of the obscenely wealthy, is always winning--as any set of high-school freshmen who've collectively made it through about three pages of Sartre or Camus.

There are, of course, real difficulties with the U.S. modes of publicity, and it's a pity (though hardly a surprise) that the NR chooses in this article, as usual, to ignore the structural problems in order to castigate the "tyrannical reign of elite secularism." Seriously, does Lopez even know what those words mean? Does she at least know what secularism means? It's not a threat to religion--or, somehow, it managed not to be during the U.S.'s first couple hundred years of existence--but rather only to the small minority who want to live in a theocracy: a Christian United States like the Ayatollah's Iran.

What strikes me as particularly heinous about posts like this--and mags like the NR in general--is that the fundamentalism seems insincere. It's a bait-and-switch. As in: "Ooh, look, fundamentalist poor and rural people--we're all about Christianity and the liberals are opposed to it! We quote Joshua, and they don't even know about the *real* meaning of giving voice to the voiceless! So vote for our people, and more importantly, buy our products. And, by all means, don't take it into your heads that all poor people have an experience of oppression in *this* world in common, and that there's an awful lot of religious justification for taking that seriously and doing something about it! Instead, just remember that you and us are the real Christians; we're on the same side against this whole batch of godless Commies!"

Insane, and devastatingly effective as a mechanism for continuing to oppress the poor. Effective why? Because Lopez and her ilk rely on the genuine belief and openness of many deeply religious people who are looking for allies in a climate they perceive as hostile to their specifically religious interests. There are, in the United States today, real and difficult epistemological issues--issues about ways of knowing and reasons for believing--that produce real and difficult political tensions. It is a terrible thing that Lopez, the NR, and an entire army of cynical wealthy people play on goodhearted people's faith and trust in order to make sure those tensions *won't* be resolved.

After all, as long as everyone's thinking about religious tensions in "us and them" terms, no one's asking why the same wealthy people keep staying wealthy and the same poor people keep staying poor and the putative Christians of the right-wing propaganda machine (and of the so-called left as well, mind you) aren't doing a blessed thing to change that. If Lopez should be correct that we are "in an era of vague feelings" in which reason cannot live--and I believe she may be--she and the National Review bear much of the responsibility for that fact. What's awful is that she no doubt knows this. What's still more awful is that a good portion of her readership may not.

in reference to: Rage Against Obama’s Propaganda Machine by Kathryn Jean Lopez on National Review Online (view on Google Sidewiki)

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Childhood Memories and Scream Memories

Actually, that's all I wanted to say. But a little context. In class, students were presenting to one another two-page segments of Freud's essay of a similar name--asking questions and writing the categories that emerged up on the board.

In a section on the forgetting of proper names, the person writing on the board distinguished between "Screem Memories" and "Forgetting Names." Having written "Screem" first, he hesitated over and revised himself several times on the question of whether "forgetting" had one 't' or two: rubbing out two chalked 't's with his finger, he replaced them with two new ones, tidier than the first two and not intertwined. A clearly defined 't' and 't' alongside one another inside "Forgetting." No one said anything about "Screem," though I myself noticed and saw others noticing it as well. There was a curious pleasure to it, and I hesitated to interrupt what I told myself was the flow of the presentation: the pleasure of the "Screem."

Realizing in a later moment of discussion his error, this same student rushed to amend the original--to the amusement of all but the student at that moment speaking, who did not himself notice what had occurred. He appeared perplexed, this latter person, when the class burst into hilarity at the first person's manner of correcting the mistake: "Scream." This, at last, had satisfied the promise of the initial error; yes, they were "scream memories," these screen memories, and we all knew it. All but the student still earnestly pursuing his line of thought, who seemed relieved when I returned us to his statements, to a distinction of Freud's that he was clarifying: between the (I knew it!) forget-remember of paramnesia and the (Surprise!) remember-forget of the screen memory.

As I write now, however, something has felt unallowable--impermissible--about the 't's themselves, scattered about here without accompaniment. They repulse me; I feel physically disgusted by them. They may have only a troubled place inside of "forgetting," but alone they are intolerable.

Where was the transference?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Ethically Importunate Being

I remember being a freshman in high school, singing with the then-new Bad Religion album (Stranger than Fiction), and thinking, "Fuck yeah! 'Even though you try not to be, we are of the same plague,' indeed!" Well, not the 'indeed' bit, but all the rest. And then a few years later, a decade I guess, really working through--emotionally--the idea of humanity-as-plague, -as-virus. It made sense. It still makes sense, as a possibility.

And then a year or two after that, sitting at my computer while my then-lover slept in our hotel room in San Francisco, typing up a manifesto. I'd come to the conclusion--never mind how I got there; the point is that I believed wholeheartedly I was right--that the most ethical thing I could do would be to commit suicide after doing my absolute best to persuade as many others as possible to do the same. I envisioned (not that I thought I'd have such persuasive power--the point is that the most ethical thing I could see to do would be to try) all of humanity executing a self-chosen, orderly retreat from existence.

Not killing one another or tricking people or anything like that: just carefully and conscientiously cleaning up after ourselves and quietly, undramatically, collectively but singly ending our being as individuals and as species.

Like I said, it doesn't really matter how I came to the conclusion; I believed this would be best and set out to write my manifesto. (Deluded? Sure, why not? But delusion's always only a determination made after the fact, based on what's-agreed-to-have-been.)

I would say that what happened next was that I couldn't go forward. That would be the way of saying it that makes sense for us, that fits one story (i.e., species-survival, coded at the genetic level, opted for my individual survival at that moment). But that's not what happened, or what felt like happened.

I didn't change my mind, decide I had been wrong. And I also didn't feel impotent, unable to act. But I also didn't want to go through with the whole thing, even though I still thought it would be right to. Yes, it still seemed to me best to commit suicide and encourage as many others as I could to do the same. But, in the fact (in der Tat [act], as the Germans say), I didn't want to. I chose, as I experienced it then, being.

Should we exist? I don't know. I disagree entirely however that this is a moot, or an irrelevant question. On the contrary, I think it's one of the most crucial questions we can possibly ask. Not because so much hinges on the answer (though it does on the asking of it, and on the struggling with the answers we elaborate for ourselves), but because we can't not ask the question. It's in our very structure as linguistic beings (on which, more some other time).

We need, on some level, to choose our own being, to choose that which has been laid down for us as the ground for our choices about it. And we need also to consciously experience as *ours* the choice against our own being. I'd like to lay out the whole system that would ground more persuasively what I'm saying, but that will take a book, and I'm not on that one yet. So, for now, just this:

We are the evolving intersection of these two choices, for and against our being, in a million different moments. It is ours to negotiate, to feel, the ways in which they, these choices, will have been who we were.

Monday, February 2, 2009

An Introductory Fragment

Reading Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca's The New Rhetoric, I was recalled to an evening with friends at the Salle Pleyel by the following line: "The great orator, the one with a hold on his listeners, seems animated by the very mind of his audience" (24). We were seated behind the orchestra, and this made the performance in some way unaccountably beautiful. I had never before this seen a conductor actually conducting, having always previously sat or stood, depending on my finances, in front of the orchestra, a member of what I imagined to be the primary audience. The line I read tonight clarified something for me, and the surplus beauty of that evening in Paris ceased to be unaccountable.

The conductor is a rhetor, her audience the orchestra itself; she persuades this collection of distinct subjectivities, who have been practicing to be persuaded in just this way, to function as--to be--one body, even in silence. It is for this reason that he faces them, and largely ignores their audience, though this is a ruse of sorts, designed to convince the orchestra still more of their unity, of the all-encompassing vibrancy of their unity as one subject, and the relative unimportance of their audience.

She is convincing them, like Kierkegaard's Abraham in Fear and Trembling, to place themselves as the subjective higher than the ethical, which is to say, to find themselves as a unified subject above adherence to the desires of their others, the audience on whose behalf and at whose material behest they exist as a unity.

In this double movement, of course and however, the orchestra executes precisely the will of their absolute--becomes ethical relative to their audience, which desires to witness an improbably unified subjectivity glorying in its submission to wordless transcendence of the ethical, a unity indifferent to the demands or existence of its others.

For those of us who constitute such an audience, this is a satisfying reassurance of the possibility--the reality and even primacy, since it occurs in indifference to our presence--of psychic unity in wordless transcendence, of a return to the extrasymbolic womb (both more symbolic, symbolically hypercharged, and beyond the domain of the symbolic). What matters in this unity is its indifference to the ethical, its absolute permissibility of being. And where better might this be found than in the domain of music, which as Kierkegaard argues (in the Either portion of Either/Or) is the proper location of the erotic?

The tragedy of the orchestra for its audience is that it is a fantasy, that the subject-permissibility it embodies has been a ruse. Music is not, after all, the erotic--the extrasymbolic real of beings-in-relation--but only the sexual, or at worst the pornographic. It is only another language, after all, though spoken ever so fluidly.

The orchestra's real appeal, however, is that it has worked, not only as an illusion of the primary unity of the subject in wordless transcendence but also as its invocation. The masterfully conducted symphony has been a seance with the spirit of absolute permissibility, departed with our accession into the symbolic order that makes unity thinkable and, in being thinkable, impermissible. This, however, is only visible from behind the orchestra, whose spirit has animated the conductor whose audience it is. The seance has been conducted within the conductor.

But this, too, reaches its conclusion, and the men and women in black and white, and the encores of the orchestra's audience, echo together as the cries of a child who cannot help but be human. Which is to say, cannot help but be impermissible.