Zizek and the paradoxical position of activism today

Activism today seems caught in a stalemate with itself. While the Battle of Seattle founded a generation of direct-action, anti-organizational chaotic intervention against neo-liberal world government meetings, they’ve failed to gain mass public support. For reasons which have been understood for decades, the media is excellent at not getting messages through which are damaging to corporate power in general, media organizations themselves being private tyrannies. And since liberals are scared to death of any acts which might provoke disorder (they are followers of Burke rather than Rousseau), there is little hope in convincing them through rational argument (although I’ll continue to try). But on the other hand, purely peaceful protests seem increasingly ineffective, and geared towards the personal satisfaction of those involved, rather than social or political transformation. Zizek holds something like this position with regards the 2003 anti-war in iraq rallies:

The massive demonstrations against the US attack on Iraq back in 2003 were exemplary of a strange symbiotic relationship, parasitism even, between power and the anti-war protesters. Their paradoxical outcome was that both sides were satisfied. The protestors saved their beautiful souls – they had made it clear that they did not agree with the government’s policy on Iraq – while those in power could calmly accept it, even profit from it: not only did the protests do nothing to prevent the (already decided upon) attack on Iraq, paradoxically, they even provided additional legitimaization for it, best rendered by none of than George Bush, whose reaction to the mass demonstrations protesting his visit to London was: “You see, this is what we are fighting for: so that what people are doing here – protesting against their government policy – will be possible also in Iraq!”

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Heidegger and Levinas to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”

To the problem of the other how many lines should we devote?
Levinas expounded plenty, Heidegger a dozen strokes but
of phenomenologists most eminent whom to this problem did devote
who’s song doth please us more?

To Levinas the gap between the self and other is a gulf
we cannot ever bridge the distance, so we ever pass in stealth
for others are not merely objects but mysteries of wealth
separation respects us more!

But for Heidegger the presence of the other is not strange
“standing around” is not objective, but circumspection foiled in vain,
for every da-sein is mit-dasein, meeting others is its name!
Communion befits us more!

Now Derrida attacked Herr Levinas for his thesis so serene
that separation from the other was complete and prior and clean
what could Jacque make of a thought that was so ludicrous and mean?
For non-violence is violence even more!

But Derrida’s critique of Levinas clearly misses the point
of Philosophical ideas, ludicrousness them do anoint
for every great line of thinking is truly bonkers at its joint
What should we therefore say?

Perhaps Levinas’ critique of Heidegger is not as clear as day
but in a little joke at Schelling, maybe there it hidden lay
“the vanity of pantheism” what here appears to our dismay?
what might this mean for us?

First we should note that for Herr Levinas: (that) man is infinite
and the gulf between too persons is caused by this and not by depth
which Schelling posits must arise when beings relate from chest to chest
Levinas is a Platonist!

Now quick recall that for Herr Heidegger man’s nature is finite
and yet experience of chaos does exceed the bounds of sight
this is the meaning of our “thrownness” – we cannot contain with all our might
the world, ourselves in which we find

it is therefore quite impossible for da-sein to produce
from out his essential nature all the depths his world doth view
most essential in this excess is other men he thinks he knew
the relation is enacted, it does not precede!

So quite common while it is for Heidegger to be condemned
as a Kantian idealist, the “outside world” which must contend
is essentially connected to dasein, and to hearts of men:
with other men he genuinely dwells!

We must therefore ask what possible advantage might be served
denying a priori openness to others seems perturbed
but phenomenological inquiry needs its precepts for to learn
what could the Levinas be getting at?

We can clearly see that in a sense Herr Levinas was right
philosophical inquiry based on the same can serve the might
of totalitarian assumptions: the volk is one and difference slight
is “being with” therefore fascist?

But if we clearly examine the words we find in Being and Time
which speak of the content of the relation between with other: he is not mine
between authentic and inauthentic my relation is defined
by holding him open towards his possibilities

The ethicality of Heidegger’s mitdasein should not surprise
his interpretation of Kant’s practical critique it doth surmise
others are beings that have themselves as their own end – is this not wise?
does Levinas even disagree?

Is not his normative conclusion simply “hospitality”
to not assume you know the other, not to neglect that he is free
not to pin him in a corner with your assumptions and your greed
not to grasp, but let him be

Seems to me these crucial figures the gulf between that seemed so deep
stems not from differences normative, how the other we should treat
but from fears and motivations metaphysical in reach
what ought we then conclude?

We should stop this endless feeling that somehow we must decide
which philosopher we should read and which thinker to deride
for in phenomenology many attempts may yet be tried
so stop the bickering!

Philosophers and thinkers who between them disagree
should not fight with tooth and nail and sword until they all agree
different streams can work in common, content shared in topics see
a better research model!

Colbert – Satire, Sincerity and Congressional Hearings

Recently, my friend and colleague Benjamin Nelson (contributor at talking philosophy) posted Colbert’s recent testimony at a congressional hearing to his facebook with this comment:

“In American politics, satire is indistinguishable from the truth.”

A long debate ensued, mostly about Colbert’s remarks being distinguishable from truth, but without being ungenuine, and the power of satire at revealing without enacting perspectives which ossify if attacked head on, but melt away if presented with humour. However, but I think the dialogue reached a level of thought worth reporting about when Ben made this clarifying statement:

“The point of satire is to give a presentation where the appearance of sincerity is insincere. The assumption that the underlying implicatures being conveyed are sincere is interesting to notice, and in fact I could not make my point without noticing it — however, the underlying psychological explanation is not relevant to whether or not a thing is satire.”

To respond to this, I believe there is a need to more clearly understand what “sincerity” is. According to my computer’s dictionary, there are two senses which are normally not at odds with each other, but which may be at odds in the Colbert incident – and this may express something essential about “satire”, “sincerity” and “respect”

The first meaning given is “free from pretense or deceit”. Now, in a superficial sense, satire is highly pretentious and deceitful. But, because that pretence and deceit is part of what is immediately communicated (Deleuze would call this the content of the form), whether satire is actually free of pretense or deceit seems to be a question not so much about the form of satire, but about the (contingent) respect and purpose in the particular act of satire. I think Colbert’s motivations are pure, and I think that is communicated in the act of satire.

Now, the second meaning of sincerity that I have in front of me is “proceeding from genuine feelings”. And this exactly true of colbert – he really is proceeding from genuine feeling, and this is communicated clearly to the audience. Now, the form of his communication is not straightforward, but it’s not straightforwardness is straightforward – so his actual genuine feelings are immediately communicated although never “simply said”.

The root of “sincere” is apparently the latin “sincerus” meaning “clean, pure”. I think gets right to the root of the issue – there is nothing deceptive about Colbert’s satire – it is not ideological in the slightest. Rather, it is the revealing in plainsight of the ideology which operates as a concealing mechanism precisely when it is assumed or believed in a “straightforward” manner.

Imagine a racist, giving the same exact speech, but “really meaning it” – is that person sincere? On a simple understanding of sincerity (“free from pretence”) – in a sense yes, that person (the racist) is actually saying straightforwardly what he or she believes. But, what he or she believes is in fact, ideology – a concealing framework of stories which mystifies real problems and enables violence. There is nothing “clean and pure” about this ideology – it divides and hurts those who genuinely believe it.

I would say that that speech – the racist one – is actually incapable of being sincere in the deeper sense. Worse, that person is incapable of being sincere. Or go to the end – take Hitler – can Hitler be sincere? In a sense he can say what he really believes, or he can lie. But what he really believes is a lie, and it killed millions of people. This is why we can not be relativists, and expect that differences between people only come from a lack of mutual understanding. In fact, there are differences between people which are a product of objectives lies that people tell themselves – and we work to root out those lies (although this is certainly not the only thing to do) if we are serious about “bringing together people of different opinions”. Sometimes, respect for someone’s opinion is disrespect for their humanity.

Toronto’s man-made flatness

A common complaint about Toronto concerns its flatness – there are large swathes of it with no obvious geographical traits at all. A city fo Euclidean ideality may be great for cycling (if it were not for the traffic, the lack of safe bike lanes, and the awful paving), but it also gives the impression of living in an under designed video game – hey, Grand Theft Auto has better hiking than this place! Well surprise surprise, – the flatness of Toronto is not entirely natural:

Crawford Street passes through Trinity Bellwoods Park over a graceful triple-span concrete bridge which still exists, but is now buried beneath the street. The bridge once crossed a ravine carved by Garrison Creek as it flowed from north of St. Clair Avenue into Lake Ontario near Fort York. Crawford Street was first extended over the ravine on a wooden bridge in 1884. In 1914 and 1915, R.C. Harris, Commissioner of Works, had the old bridge replaced with one made of concrete. (A visionary, Harris was responsible for the Bloor Street Viaduct, 1918.) The bridge’s spans, railings, and lampposts captured Harris’s flair for dramatic public architecture. Both Garrison Creek and the Crawford Street Bridge now lie hidden beneath this park. By the 1880s, the creek was so polluted that it was gradually channelled underground into a brick sewer, built through here in 1885. Portions of the ravine were then filled in, here with earth from subway excavation in the 1960s. The bridge was buried up to its sidewalks and roadbed, and its railing and lampposts were removed. In 2004, the original sidewalks and roadbed were entirely rebuilt, but the remainder of the bridge rests intact beneath the surface.

The Crawford street bridge fill is not a exceptional project – Vancouverites might be surprised to learn that Main Street once travelled over a substantial bridge between the Downtown Eastside and East Van (in the days when False Creek was more than twice its current size). But, unlike the false creek fill project, the filling of the Garrison creek serves no useful purpose other than to prevent people from having to wrestle with a bit of nature. And – it’s buried this lovely bridge!

Oh Toronto, why do you hate hills and pretty things so much?

de Sousa on Emotional Truth

Ronald de Sousa‘s “Emotional Truth” seeks to expand the realm of truth from its restriction to belief and belief-like states to include emotions and emotional states. On DeSousa’s view, an emotion can be “true”, or “false”, but not in the sense of being “flat-out” true or false, rather in some matter of degree. To use one of DeSousa’s favorite distinctions: whereas the truth of beliefs or belief-like states is “digital” (something is either true or not true), he contends that the truth of emotional states is analogue. Analogue truth is the realm of “more or less”; we feel that something is true not (generally) with certainty, but with degrees of confidence. Aside from the analogue/digital difference, emotional truth differs from the truth of beliefs in that its satisfaction conditions are not semantic, but evaluative:

Emotional truth, then, refers not to semantic satisfaction, but to success. I follow widespread practice in saying that fear’s assessment of p or t as dangerous consist in some sort of evaluation of p or t. Success is tied to the correctness of that evaluation.

We might also remark that emotional truth is less “cognitive” than epistemic truth – the truth of an emotion is not simply “in my head”, but in my engagement with the world  (“Success” refers to transformations which really happen to me, resulting from the play of the relation between the emotional states I bring to the world and how the world fulfills them or fails to fulfill what they intend).

The claim I wish to make here is to argue that “emotional truth” in DeSousa’s analysis is taking up the same theoretical space as Heidegger fills with the notion of truth as “unconcealing” or “revealing” – as the wider circle which grounds and makes possible traditional truth as correctness or correspondence:

To say that a statement is true means that it discovers the beings in themselves. It asserts, it shows, it lets beings “be seen” (apophansis) in their discoveredness. The being true (truth) of the statement must be understood as discovering. Thus, truth by no means has the structure of an agreement between knowing and the object in the sense of a corresponding of one being (subject) to another (object). (Being and Time, German pagination 218-19)

According to Heidegger, truth as disclosedness, (alithea, literally un-covering-up) is the basis for our modern understanding of truth as “the agreement between things objectively present” (225). Despite many reader’s perceptions that Heidegger is “against” traditional theories of truth, his framework actually allows for both to co-exist. The negative emotion towards traditional truth has a real motivation, however – from the fact that this conceals the originary nature of truth, and obscures the question of the meaning of being in general. Since correspondance truth buries over the nature of truth in general, we come to understand truth as agreement between objectively present innerworldly things, and therefore to assume that Being itself is simply objective presence (225).

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Why are slaughterhouses morally repulsive?

Hypothesis: Throughout history, various taboos and social practices have surrounded the use of animals for food, and these taboos have in general the purpose of protecting humans from coming to enjoy the torture and killing of emotional beings, while they continue to torture and kill emotional beings.

Case A: ancient past: the killing of animals was not pretty, but was first order obviously required for surival. Prayers to the dead animals, respect for their life, not over exploiting, no needless suffering created etc…

Case B: middle-ages, pre-modern: the killing of animals was strictly ritualized. To some extent their raising was probably required for community survival, and in some cases perhaps because explicitly luxury. The killing was not draconian, but happened according to a strict process which recognized the brutality of killing the animal was a state of exception – one must not let the killing of the animal translate into a lack of concern for the animal at other times because this might lead to moral degradation. Taboo against mindless slaughter and abuse of animals justified from the perspective of protecting the taboo against molesting and murdering people – because everybody who spends time with them knows animals have emotions.

Case C: present: mechanization has created black churches to torture and suffering. The new ritual is to ignore and to distance oneself from the violence. Either by deciding to consider animals radically non-morally considerable (i.e. not having emotion, feeling – even if this is against the evidence). Or, by not looking, choosing not to think about it. Or by believing in progress and standards (happy meat), or by some form of veganism or vegetarianism (this is an “active form” of not looking).

Alternative case: serial killer: Look at those who do frolic and relish in the torture and killing of emotional creatures – every serial killer account begins with the killing (sometimes accidental) of an animal, and the continual process upwards towards larger and larger animals, until one begins killing humans.

Implications: The practice of veganism must be recognized as two sided. On the one hand, it is merely another method for an individual to cope with the contradictions implicit in exempting certain emotional beings at certain times to any consideration. On the other, it can be a call to resolve the contradiction rather than continuing to preserve it in various forms. Up till now, the ways of containing the contradiction have succeeded only in,(and only to some extent), preserving the taboo against murder and torture of other humans. These methods should be replaced with the radical idea which could resolve the contradiction: animals should not be produced for exploitation and use except where necessary for human survival.

What if Freedom and Freewill had nothing to do with each other?

Imagine if in some deep sense life were determined. Now, somehow avoid the immediate rejoinder that, “this means I am not typing this, because presupposed in every activity and every description of activity, including me describing the activity of believing to be determined, spontaneous will is presumed”. Instead, assume that what we mean by “spontaneous will” that we experience (we do, after all, experience ourselves as free) is simply an explanation of how it feels to be free, not proof that our will is radically free, i.e. somehow self-engendered rather than a result of natural processes.

Does this mean, “freedom doesn’t exist”? Or, does it mean that the assumption that freedom was the self-engendering spontaneous creative spark of the will, rather than a description of a certain form of the will’s activity. If there is an experience of freedom, then certainly it could be simulated – you could be wired up such that you experienced a set of actions as the result of your own will but n fact you were being controlled. This doesn’t mean “freedom doesn’t exist”, it just means it is primarily a moral political idea rather than a metaphysical one. Are people really “behind” their actions – perhaps in some sense not. But do people experience themselves as the cause of their actions –  yes! And this experience is not neutral – it points towards democratic political structures which respect this human need for free creative work.

It might be perfectly coherent to believe that humans are computers, and at the same time call for deeper, more meaningful forms of political engagement and an end to alienated labour. Certainly, it is no less coherent than to believe humans are computers and call for anything at all – because the potential nature of man as determined does not contradict any more with the desire for the potentially “false” feeling of free creation than with the desire for any other feeling – feelings need not be “true” to be desirable.

And is this not, in a sense, the lesson of Hegel? That real freedom is not freedom of the will, but the becoming adequate of social life to the nature of humans as desiring to be free – to engage in free creative activity, to have their own plans and carry them out. Freedom is the power to carry out the proper life of man as free. Radical freedom is the metaphysical correlate – that at any moment we can fail to be adequate to our nature by engaging in bad faith, i.e. by acting as if we did not have a choice, when in fact we did although that choice perhaps did not allow for the fulfilment of freedom as a self-creating life process.

Politics of 70s Prog Rock

Last night Josh, Dave and I watched two rock music documentaries: “Classic Albums: Dark Side of the Moon”, and Rush’s “Beyond the Lighted Stage”. I was astonished at the different ways the two bands reacted to their own success, and how this manifested a different politics.

In short – Pink Floyd was damaged by its success. Fame and riches drove the band apart, and the great work they did after Dark Side was largely about that trauma and the possibility of empathy. In their own words – a major theme from Breathe on was “is it possible for humanity to be human”. Rush, on the other hand, took their success in stride and spent 20 years progressing, constantly moving onto new themes and new musical styles. Rush has never exhibited a sustained interest in empathy in their music – unsurprising considering their allegiance to Randian libertarianism. Their classic song Anthem makes this clear:

Live for yourself — there’s no one else
More worth living for
Begging hands and bleeding hearts will only cry out for more

Well, I know they’ve always told you
Selfishness was wrong
Yes it was for me, not you, I came to write this song

Compare this to some classic Floyd lyrics (from “Echoes”):

Strangers passing in the street
By chance two separate glances meet
And I am you and what i see is me
And do i take you by the hand
And lead you through the land
And help me understand the best i can

A closer comparison can be made, in fact, by contrasting these Floyd lyrics with a passage from Rush’s song “Entre Nous” (“Between Us”)

We are secrets to each other
Each one’s life a novel
No-one else has read.
Even joined in bonds of love,
We’re linked to one another
By such slender threads.

The conception of otherness expressed in Rush’s music finds itself centered on the lack of possibility of coming into communication, or getting ahold on, another. Ironically, it’s a bit Levinasian – although the Randian turn was not something I would normally associate with ethics of the face.

Personally, I prefer Floyd’s emphasis on empathy to Rush’s individualistic drive, which translates into hatred of cooperation, cultural sensitivity, and the poor. Floyd’s query: can humanity be humane” is all the more relevant in a world where the species is threatened with nuclear or ecological destruction.

Wifi in Schools and the Dangers of non-ionizing radiation: crazed anti-science parents, or a Cold War failure of Normal Science?

The CBC has run stories on parents groups who are concerned about the possible health effects of WIFI in elementary schools. Individual reports of increased heart rate and headaches, from parents and from the children themselves, are are concerning – but intuitively one wishes to trust Health Canada who dismiss the complaints as subjective. The peer reviewed literature, according to Health Canada, overwhelmingly confirms that the thermal effects of WIFI are negligible, and that no causal relation has been found between those thermal effects and any health problems.

The fact that scientists remain opposed to a scientific consensus is not a reason to distrust the consensus – if this were true, the presence of a single reputable climate denier in the peer reviewed literature would be a reason to refrain from belief in global warming. However, there are two reasons why the wifi case is different from climate denial. First: the precautionary principle runs in the opposite direction – whereas a slight doubt that human Co2 output will threaten the survival of the species is not a good reason to take action to stop Co2 emissions, a significant doubt that wifi causes health problems in children is not a good reason to take cheap and easy action to limit children’s exposure to wifi. Second, there is a structural bias behind Health Canada’s appraisal of the research into the effects of small levels of microwave radiation. This surprising claim comes from a study by Leo P. Inglis, surveyed here by Magda Havas, surveying the literature on microwave radiation’s health effects:

In the U.S., the thermal effects are generally believed to be the only ones of significance; other contentions are usually dismissed as lacking a provable basis.  In the USSR, non-thermal effects are considered the most significant and are overwhelmingly the ones most studied.

This indicates a structural difference between scientific assumptions in US and USSR have swayed the directions of research, determined which studies got funding, what students took interest in, etc… This claim undercuts Health Canada’s statements which concern only the thermal effects of microwave radiation – if non thermal effects exist, Health Canada is not even looking for them.

Significant differences in the direction of scientific research between closed off communities are expected by constructivists like Kuhn, who believes that the basic assumptions of a scientific community are determined by the appearance of fruitfulness in future research rather than through normal scientific inquiry itself. In the past I have taken interest in Scientific research done under the Nazi regime, and research done in secrecy for the US military during the cold war. Such research programs demonstrate the power of dollars over freedom – how a research program, even when the researchers are cut off from their peers – can make tremendous strides if given a set of goals and unlimited resources. This gulf between Soviet and American research is an example of the opposite, and much less controversial hypothesis: that a lack of democracy is harmful for scientific research. The lack of proper collaboration between American and Soviet researchers into the effects of microwave radiation allowed Soviet research to ignore the importance of thermal effects, whereas the converse allowed US scientists and regulators to ignore the importance of non-thermal effects.

So, while the Bio-Initiative report is rejected by Health Canada as not being in conformity with the scientific consensus, it might not be rejected by Health Moscow. For example, whereas in 2008 and 2009 Health Canada continued to hold that there was no evidence that cell phone use could have any health effects, the Russian Naitonal Committee on non-ionizing ratiation protection made this statement about risks posed to children’s health by cell phone radiation (similar to WIFI, but much stronger)

Potential risk for the children’s health is very high:
─ the absorption of the electromagnetic energy in a child’s head is considerably higher than that in
the head of an adult (children’s brain has higher conductivity, smaller size, thin skull bones,
smaller distance from the antenna etc.);
─ children’s organism has more sensitivity to the EMF, than the adult’s;
─ children’s brain has higher sensitivity to the accumulation of the adverse effects under
conditions of chronic exposure to the EMF;
─ EMF affects the formation of the process of the higher nervous activity;
─ today’s children will spend essentially longer time using mobile phones, than today’s adults will.

Health Canada continues to hold that the risks from cell phone use do not include any of the risks advised by Russian, British, German, Belgian, Israeli, and Indian health agencies.

The basic question boils down to this: is it up to skeptics to prove that electronic devices are unsafe, or is it up to corporations trying to expand their markets by creating new needs to prove they are safe? If you ask Health Canada – the onus is on scientists to prove that a risk can be statistically proven, i.e. people must already have been hurt by the product. In other words – should the precautionary principle be applied to new electronic devices as it is to new medicine?

When Elites Threaten the Future: Peter the Great, Democracy and Climate Change

In late 17th century Imperial Russia, Peter the Great sought to modernize his country – adapt the modern ways of the west, and put down the old backwards which held his country in the dark ages. A major force for backwardness in his kingdom were the Boyars. The Boyars were the highest rank of the ancient feudal aristocracies in Russia – dating back to the 10th century. They grew their beards long, liked their streets narrow and were opposed to the adoption of Western ways and new technology.

From Russian Project

Peter’s solution was to establish the Table of Ranks. The Table of Ranks disconnected the titles of the Aristocracy from the land they possessed and from their lineage – it was now tied directly to services they performed for the Empire. Instituting mandatory civil service for the Aristocracy was beneficial in two ways – first, the nobles were highly occupied trying to one-up each other to increase their rank, so as to be less able to organize their common forces and threaten the authority of the monarch. And second, it provided Peter with an army of bureaucrats organized in hierarchical institutions which he set himself atop, which could organize and carry out the westernizing reforms that would bring Russia into the modern European world. As a side benefit, it inculcated the idea of meritocracy into the Russian noble mindset.

As an event in the course of history, Peter’s move to subjugate the Aristocracy to the monarch’s power and vision is not at all an uncommon. Ivan the Terrible had instituted a similar reform – but instead of creating mandatory service, he simply slaughtered the high ranking Boyars and replaced them with lower standing peasants, who would therefore be loyal directly to him. The democratic reforms in the United Kingdom were an example of the opposite event – the Aristocracy forming a united front against the monarch and demanding democratic reforms which empowered them against the absolute power of the king. And it could be argued, and I in fact would argue, that in the case of the rise of democracy – it was the Aristocracy demanding democratic reforms who were the modernizing, liberating force.

However, today, the Aristocracy is not a modernizing, liberating force. In western countries it has organized itself into a structure which privileges short term private gain over long term public gain, or even long term survival. By rationally pursuing their self-interest, corporate executives destroy the world for their children and grandchildren. They prefer to maintain their traditions than allow the world to survive – they are as backward as Peter’s Boyars, but more powerful, and more organized. Business lobby funded public relations campaigns condemning global warming as a liberal scam has weakened the ability of politicians to take the decisive action necessary. Business funded public relations campaigns such as this one promoting oil sands development are business as usual for a structure which allows people to move up through the ranks only by doing all they can to destroy the world for short term profit.

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