Is ‘Apartheid’ a proper name? Language, Speech and Violence in the Middle East

Recent conversations have led me to question the use of the term “Apartheid” to describe the situation in Israel and the occupied or unoccupied territories. While I fully believe the use of the term to be “accurate” and “truthful”, this does not mean the use of the term is considerate, strategically effective, or right. Nietzsche’s questioning of the priority of the will to truth is relevant here:

Very early in my life I took the question of the relation of art to truth seriously; even now I stand in hoy dread in the face of this discordance. My first book was devoted to it. The Birth of Tragedy believes in art on the background of another belief – that it s not possible to live with truth, that the “will to truth” is already a symptom of degeneration. (Notebooks XIV, 368)

Nietzsche rightly recognized that truth is not the highest value for life – that we can live “in the truth” (especially in the sense of scientific or philosophical truth), and yet fail to flourish. The Bhagavad-Gita makes a complementary claim – that in acetic practice one should use “Words that do not cause disquiet, [words] truthful, kind and pleasing…” (Bhagavad Gita 17-15).

We should not be surprised that “what one should do”, is different from “what is the case” – this distinction is already part of western philosophy as the “is/ought” distinction – first proposed by David Hume in the 1739 Treatise on Human Nature. But, at the same time, the Socratic dictum: “only the examined life is worth living”, seems to establish Truth as the highest value – should we not all lead Socratic lives?  However, if language is subjective, i.e. has meaning only to subject, doesn’t the difference in interpretation between individuals and groups mean sensitivity to the ways others will interpret writing or speech are relevant considerations for any speaker? In the following short piece, I will discuss the implications this line of reasoning on the use of the term “Apartheid” in the context of Israel, with the help of Derrida’s chapter “The Violence of the Letter” from from the work Of Grammatology. (All citations unless indicated otherwise are from Of Grammatology, translation by Gayatri Spivak, John Hopkins University Press: 1997).

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Quentin Meillassoux’s “After Finitude”

Quentin Meillssoux’s text “After Finitude” is an attempt to break free of the 20th century philosophical paradigm in which being is conceived neither as subject or object, but as the juncture between experience and the experienced. This paradigm, according to Badiou’s introduction, is the stomping ground of both Continental phenomenology, and Analytic linguistic idealism: (from Badiou’s introduction)

“During the twentieth century, the two principal ‘media’ of the
correlation were consciousness and language, the former bearing
phenomenology, the latter the various currents of analytic
philosophy. Francis Wolff has very accurately described
consciousness and language as ‘object-worlds’.7 They are in fact
unique objects insofar as they ‘make the world’. And if these
objects make the world, this is because from their perspective
‘everything is inside’ but at the same time ‘everything is outside
…’ (15)

While I share Meillssoux’s desire to change the question in philosophy rather than come up with better answers, I do not share his distaste for the Kantian turn. Continue reading “Quentin Meillassoux’s “After Finitude””

Howard Adelman visits Toad Lane

[this post also appears at http://themehouseawarenessproject.wordpress.com/]

Last Thursday, Toad Lane‘s weekly pot luck was graced by the presence of renowned scholar and former CCRI summer manager Howard Adelman. Adelman is an interesting character: he is personally responsible for helping found almost every student co-op in Ontario, as well as numerous other co-ops here and around the world.  His insights into the co-operative structure are vast, although sometimes potentially outdated since he changed his research focus away from co-operatives many years ago. Currently his main concern is violence, so he spends most of his time working on how to reduce conflicts in Africa. He’s been instrumental in setting up an Early Warning System (an interview about this can be read here) which led to the arrest of Charles Taylor.

Adelman’s approach very progressive, but unlike the majority of the left it is characterized by not being anti-capitalist. Rather than “smash capitalism”, Adelman emphasizes the sense in which capitalism is a game, is fun, is a system which you can figure out and move in it the right way. (Although I didn’t ask him, his approach might be similar to the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze). He is able to operate “freely” in capitalism by rejecting many everyday truisms which effectively control people, prevent them from using capitalism in their own favour. One of these is the idea that we can’t afford things. Adelman rejects the idea that anyone “doesn’t have money”, and that getting money is simply a matter of figuring out what assets you have, how you can leverage them, and how you can get the stream of income to cover the cost of the debt.

This approach, which grasps money as a vector or flow rather than as a static entity which you have or do not have, is incredibly enabling if you are skilled enough to practice it effectively. Adelman did exactly this when CCRI hired him as a summer manager in 1957 – at this point the co-op had paid of its debts, but was running continual deficits – without a new plan CCRI might have failed in only a few more years. Adelman raised CCRI’s debt to GDP ratio from almost nil to over 70%, and in the process acquired many new houses. In short order, the co-op grew from 5 houses to 30. Money was also used to renovate the houses – which were still using ice boxes in 1957!

This state of the co-op: under debted, and under renovated, stuck in the past, is incredibly similar to the situation we find ourselves in today. We have very little debt, but we are unwilling to spend money to increase our revenue stream – instead the logic employed is first we must find ways to increase our revenue stream, and then that money can be used to borrow money. This is simply insane, because it forces one to ignore the increased revenue stream which spending the money itself can bring in. In other words, we are being too conservative.

Adelman actually believes that conservatism is an inherent problem in the co-operative model, and maybe in any genuine democracy: because everyone’s viewpoint must be considered, there is a tendency against change. This is certainly a problem we run into currently: for instance, when my committee recommended that 84 Lowther be converted into a graduate theme house, the board rejected the proposal because it is not an organic, member driven decision – and it would require moving 3 people from 84 Lowther into a different house. However, in order to preserve the benefit of allowing the 3 members to live in the house next year, CCRI is giving up the possibility to attract many graduate students who would live in CCRI through the summer – which could significantly combat our main demon right now – summer vacancy loss. This kind of failure of foresight is depressing. This is where another virtue of Adelman’s approach becomes clear: his incessant positivity. He insists that debating is fun, that life is fun, and that you should get on with it.

I think there is some truth in Adelman’s critique of the sense of difficulty we have about everything. This sense is itself a major obstacle to success – re-inventing CCRI is not hard, we just need to get on with it. Rather than telling people what they should like about the co-op, we need to find out what people like about it, and what they don’t, and spend money to give them more of what they like and less of what they don’t.

Perhaps the most radical (and true) idea that Adelman expressed was that no one moves into co-op because it is a co-op – selling the co-op on cooperative values (i.e. the Rochedale principles) is simply a bad idea. People move into co-op because it’s a desirable place to live, and because it’s a communal living situation – this is what we should emphasize, not the democratic structure. I think he’s right about this – the board tends to criticize other members for not being as involved as them, but this actually a bad idea – we should take people as they are, and if they decide to involve themselves in the democratic structure, that’s great. And, they will do it on their own if they see it as involving their own interests.

Adelman has offered to speak at both CCRI’s 75th anniversary next year, and at the upcoming OSCA conference. I think his presence, his “it’s not so difficult, get on with it” attitude is a breath of fresh air in a stifled system which comes to see everything as an unfathomable disaster.

Photography and Aquisition

When I first “got serious” about photography I fell pray to the aquisition fallacy. Despite already having a perfectly good rangefinder camera, I bought at significant expense a Nikon F70, and then when I wasn’t satisfied with that I upgraded to the fully professional F90x. Considering which lens to buy for my trip to Germany, I perused at length Ken Rockwell’s comprehensive collection of photographic equipment reviews and articles, and decided (on Ken’s recommendation) on the old AF 28-85. I learned as much as I could about different sorts of film, and became a preacher for the virtues of slide film.

Now, this acquisition was not consumerism for consumerism’s sake – I also read at length about photographic technique, especially the photo.net textbook (especially the chapter on light). And I think the photos I took in Germany turned out pretty well. However, when I found a tiny rollei 35 at a Salvation army for 5$ (they thought it was broken), I started to realize that the price of equipment had nothing to do with the quality of photos you could take. Worse, that flexibility of equipment was often a detriment – it’s almost as if too many possibilities for great photos (i.e. from carrying many lenses, or zoom lenses, flashes, filters, etc…) means you can’t concentrate on any particular one. I found that carrying around my rollei in my pocket produced amazing pictures. The camera itself is a big of a pig – a problematic light meter, completely manuel exposure, manuel focus and no rangefinder (you have to guess based on your distance from the subject!). But the reality was I always had it when the light was good, when the subject was intriguing, because it fit effortlessly into my pocket. It taught my that photography is primarily about the subject, not the camera.

I don’t shoot the rollei much anymore. Dave bought me an Olympus Stylus Epic, which does pretty much what the rollei does except in an automatic camera. I don’t shoot that much either – it doesn’t have the magic of the rollei, and it just doesn’t seem to make sense to shoot print film anymore. Up until very recently, I shot for the most part on Canon point and shoot digital cameras. These are great – they don’t get in the way, have great colour and image stabalization. But mostly they just take pictures, like these ones, and these, pictures of your friends, pictures of trains, and from trains.

Very recently, however, I picked up a Nikon D50 – I decided to get back into “SLR Photography”. What is SLR photography, after all? It certainly isn’t “good photography” – there are just as many horrid pictures taken with SLR cameras as other sorts. Maybe it is photography which is particularly influenced by the extra capability which SLR cameras sometimes have. For instance, many of the photos I took recently at the ROM could not have been taken on anything but an SLR camera. For instance, look at this picture:

Taken at F 1.4, the photo has a creamy softness to it which you simply couldn’t achieve without the kind of lenses available (almost) only for SLR cameras. Sure, you can get lenses this fast for certain expensive rangefinders, but you shouldn’t because the depth of field at F1.4 is so shallow that a rangefinder is not really have precise enough focus to take advantage of a lens like this. So, there are good photos you can only take with an SLR – but there are also good photos you can only take with small cameras, i.e. any photo which you could take when you wouldn’t be carrying around a big camera.

So: big cameras are good, small cameras are good – but aren’t big and small cameras just more equipment to acquire? What is fallacious about acquisition if all this different equipment is all so great? I think the answer is that the “fallacy” is not purchasing the equipment, but assuming that it’s the equipment which will do the work for you.

I don’t think that the acquisition fallacy is even specific to photography, rather, it’s just the basic structure of the elusive object of desire in capitalism as manifested in the purchase of photography equipment. The promise of the price-tagged object motivates our purchase – makes us willing to trade our own time and energy (money) for a thing which promises to fulfill us. Of course, nothing we buy can, on its own, through its inner power, fulfill us. We become fulfilled only through our own active engagement with the world. This engagement involves things we buy, but it is never made by those things.

So, today, when I acquired a new lens (the Nikon 70-210mm F4 (constant) AF), have I fallen pray to the acquisition fallacy? On the one hand perhaps yes – this is a lens I’ve been lusting after ever since I first began reading Ken Rockwell’s nikon lens reviews (read the review here to see why). On the other hand, only time will tell – if I’m able to use the lens to take great photos in Europe this May, then its purchase will certainly be justified.

“Individuals”, Climate and Political Change

Individuals are the problem. Individuals are easy to compartmentalize and disenfranchise, to the point where eating organic food looks like a radical political choice. Action on climate change needs to be radical, collective, and inclusive. Unfortunately at present, all organized resistance groups I’ve encountered value what is immediately experienceable over the highly abstract – i.e. poverty, victims of war, marginalized groups. Since the mainstream individual is neither empowered nor oppressed in contemporary society, there is little room for a mainstream opposition to climate change – it always degrades to arguing about statistics and numbers.

But, the statistics and numbers refer to something real, something far more frightening and dangerous than any of the political violence the left focuses on. Zizek captures this paradox when he claims that the green movement’s focus on our experience of nature, the lived-world, is precisely the problem – and that rather we need a new scientific, mathematical concept of nature which doesn’t resort to easy simplifications like nature/culture or natural/human, but rather grasps the totality in terms of math and probabilities and thinks within formuli as to how to best secure a future for the human race.

What the left have right, however, is that the current political system does not allow for the kind of input which could be taken seriously by power elites. On the other hand, simple populism is no answer because if you poll citizens on climate change issues perhaps the majority of them get as much or more of their information from the corrupt (this is explicit – it’s called advertising) mainstream media as through reputable scientific journals. Blogs like burycoal and youtube channels like “Climate change crock of the week” do some good to counteract this mainstream disinformation, but not enough to force real climate action to the centre of public-relations based party platforms.

So, we really do need political change – how radical, we don’t get to know in advance. Climate change will change the world – either it will become a much more violent and more fascist place where the existing false front of democracy is eroded away through an enabling act (i.e. “suspension”), or, real democratic struggles will succeed in producing a real citizenry which is not continually co-opted by power forces. We have a choice about which one happens – not as individuals, but as potential members of a citizenry which could become adequate to the multi-faceted challenges that face the human race today.