Zizek turns on the treatment of animals

Zizek gave a talk on Nov 12 2010 and the Birkbeck Institute, which you can listen to here. The following passage is around the one hour and ten minute mark. Zizek is famous for calling vegetarians “degenerates” on youtube. But he seems to be changing his view, after reading Derrida’s “L’animal donc que je suis” (The Animal that therefore I am):

My next example is Animal rights. I mean I am not becoming a Pete Singer, don’t be afraid of that. But nonetheless, I read recently this book by Derrida, and it has a nice point. Namely, to what extent our everyday life is based on this fetishist disavowal: “Je sais bien mais quand meme” (I know well, but anyway). We know what we are doing to animals, and I don’t even like these stories of laboratories because these are the exception. Because everyday, you know how chicken are grown, you know how pigs are grown. It’s a nightmare, but how do we survive? We know it, but we act as if we do not know. And Derrida has here a wonderful description in his book, “This Animal that I am”, of this kind of primordial scene when a wounded animal looks at you – this is the primordial gaze of the other. And here he makes a wonderful stab at Levinas – Levinas explicitly excludes animals from the gaze of the other. And here I’m a little bit sentimental in the sense that I remember years ago I saw a photo of a cat, immediately after this cat was submitted to some unpleasant experiment. This experiment was under the pretext of testing how a living organism, how much pressure and hits can it endure. It’s not immediately clear to me how this would help people. This cat was put in a centrifuge and it turned like crazy. What you then see was a cat with broken limbs, and most shocking to me most of its hair was gone. But it was still alive and just looking into the camera. And here I would like to ask the Hegelian question – what did the cat see in us. What kind of a monster. Not what the cat is for us, but what we were for the cat at this point. This monstrosity is something to think about. So again, another ignored violence.

I’ve always considered Zizek a serious, if flamboyant, thinker. This has been challenged recently when I’ve been made to realize how hurtful are some of the jokes he often tells, specifically jokes about Rape. (The joke appears on a blog post here, but a warning, there is no context or discussion). I hope this encounter with Derrida encourages him to renew and deepen the subjectively ethical side of his thinking, which is often sacrificed at the expense of brilliant institutional analysis.

C.B. Macpherson on Labour

C.B. Macpherson is an important figure in Canadian political thought. Reading his Massey Lectures, I came across this interesting analysis of labour “capacity” versus “ability”, which is related to, but not the same as, Marx’s distinction between “labour” and “labour power”:

If you take the powers of a man to be simply the strength and skill which he possesses, then when he sells the use of that strength and skill to another at its market price there is no net transfer of any of his powers to another: he gets no less than he gives.

But if you take the powers of man to be not just the strength and skill which he possesses, but his ability to use that strength and skill to produce something, the case is altogether different. For then his powers must include not only his capacity to labour (that is, his strength and skill) but also his ability to labour, his ability to use his strength and skill. I do not see how any narrower a definition of the powers of a man is consistent with his essential human quality. The power of a horse or machine may be defined as the amount of work it can do whether it is set to work or not. But a human being, to be human, must be able to use his strength and skill for purposes he has consciously formed. So the powers of a man must include his being able to put his strength and skill to work. His powers must therefore include access to something to work on, access to the land or materials or other capital without which his capacity to labour cannot become active labour and so cannot produce anything or do anything to his purpose. A man’s powers, in short, must include access to what I have called the means of labour.

If a man’s powers must include access to the means of labour, then his powers are diminished when he has less than free access to the means of labour. If he has no access, his powers are reduced to zero and he ceases to live, unless he is rescued by some dispensation form outside the competitive market. If he can get some access but cannot get it for nothing, then his powers are reduced by the amount of them he has to hand over to get the necessary access. This is exactly the situation most men are in, and necessarily so, in the capitalist market society. They must, in the nature of the system, permit a net transfer of part of their powers to those who own the means of labour.

….That such a transfer is a necessary characteristic of any capitalist market society si commonly overlooked. It is obscured by the more obvious fact about capitalism, that it has been enormously more productive than any previous system, and so has been able to afford a higher material standard for everybody than could any previous system….at least for all except the lowest one-quarter or so who are at or below the poverty line.

…[I]t is now possible, as it was not possible…to conceive of a system in which high productivity does not require the transfer of powers from non-owners. Not only is it possible to conceive of such a system; it has been conceived, and is being attempted, in the socialist third of the world. Whether or not this alternative system can be made to work as it is intended to, we have to reckon with the fact that it is in full spate, and that it is attractive to the imagination of the newly-independent underdeveloped countries as well. It is one of history’s mean tricks that the enormous advances in productivity that were made by capitalism, and could not have been made in any other way, can now possibly be taken over by those who have rejected capitalism. But history is no respecter of the past.

From The Real World of Democracy by C.B. Macpherson, the 1961 Massey Lectures. Quote taken from pages 43 to 45 of the  16th reprinting (1987), published by CBC publications in Toronto.

Media Control and Reporting on the Haitian Election

Just compare this obvious case of how the Haitian election is covered in Canada, compared to the UK. This is from the CBC’s story:

Violent protests filled the streets of Port-au-PrinceThursday as Haiti’s electoral council said ballots in the country’s disputed presidential election will be recounted.

Supporters of the government-backed candidate Jude Célestin clashed with supporters of Michel Martelly, a popular musician also known as Sweet Micky, who was eliminated in the presidential race.

Read more: http://www.cbc.ca/world/story/2010/12/09/haiti-election-recount.html#ixzz17gGI4quh

Compare that to what you can read on the Guardina’s website:

Supporters of Jean Henry Céant, the leading Faux-Lavalas candidate with supposedly 8.18% of the vote, and nine other candidates, who have banded with Céant in an informal front, have also held large demonstrations in recent days calling for the election’s annulment, the CEP’s replacement and Préval’s resignation.

“The UN and the international community will never accept that a legitimate Haitian president leaves under pressure from the street,” responded UN Mission to Stabilise Haiti (MINUSTAH) chief Edmond Mulet on 3 December. “It would be a coup.” Ironically, Mulet leads an occupation force that entered Haiti following the February 2004 coup – backed by Washington, Paris and Ottawa and involving “pressure from the street” – against “a legitimate Haitian president” Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Over the past six years, MINUSTAH has killed dozens of Haitians militating for Aristide’s return. He remains exiled in South Africa, and his Lavalas Family party, Haiti’s largest, has been barred from all post coup elections.


Read real news. That doesn’t always mean the Guardian, but it does always mean not relying exclusively on the media in your own state. To read across editorial biases, you have to read multiple perspectives from regions where investors have different interests.


How should we understand ‘violence’ in a cyberworld?

It is easy to stress the differences between societies in which significant proportions of the public support violent insurrection against the state, and societies where the mainstream supports police brutality and the largest attack on civil rights in Canadian history because they saw a police car burning on TV. But, perhaps this way of conceptualizing violence – as people beaten with sticks, windows smashing, and cars burning, conceals a new way in which people are willing to support attacks on powerful social institutions.

What I’m talking about is the cyberwar against and in defence of wikileaks. A lot if going on here – above the cyberlevel there are the withdrawal of services to wikileaks by Amazon, paypal and mastercard. These services have in turn been attacked by hackers, slowing down or even crashing their websites. Personally I would have supported a boycott against firms which act concientiously to marginalize wikileaks, but these direct cyber attacks probably have a much greater effect, and if they are supported by the general public, might suggest what kind of broad based support for informational attacks against power structures exists in our current day.

I don’t hardly even have to mention the many attacks on the wikileaks servers themselves, presumably made both by loyalist hackers and employees of embarrassed governments – perhaps with some cooperation, I don’t know. Also, websites which merely publish or report on wikileaks’ leaked cables have been attacked by hackers, including the website of the swedish government. Again, these are all interesting phenomena in themselves, but what’s more interesting to me is how people stand in solidarity with wikileaks, and to some extent the hackers, against those forces which would shut information down.

Should we take this opportunity to radically re-conceive how we think of insurrectionist violence? Many activists who support diversity-of-tactics stress that violence against property should not be confused with violence against persons – that the police commit violence against persons, and the black bloc only attacks property – and these are not the same things. The problem with this argument is that while it may be convincing at a meeting of differently minded dissidents, it does not work with the general public’s intuitive sense of violence. However, the general public appears much more likely to see the difference between physical attacks on people’s persons and cyber attacks on capitalist and state institutions. No individual person appears to be harmed in a cyberwar, although I’m sure we will soon be seeing television advertisements portraying the lowly Mastercard employees who lost their jobs and are waiting in unemployment lines because Mastercard was attacked by hackers.

Continue reading “How should we understand ‘violence’ in a cyberworld?”

What I don’t want for Christmas

I like Christmas – as someone who grew up secular-Christian within a dominantly white and protestant society, it’s always been the dominant holiday of the year. And it’s a good holiday for largely the same reasons its predecessor, Saturnalia, was a good pagan holiday – it revolves around food, drink, the exchange of gifts, meaningful rituals, time with family and friends, and time removed from the normal calendar which enables a kind of reflection absent during the rest of the year. Christmas isn’t just “Christmas” – it’s “Christmas Time”.

Continue reading “What I don’t want for Christmas”

Julian Assange on Crowd Sourcing, Values and Journalism

This morning I was watching a panel discussion from the Logan Symposium at UC Berkley, (in six parts, find part 1 here). The panel is interesting in general, especially because it includes both Assange’s activist position, and more traditional journalistic opinions. But what stood out for me were Assange’s comments on why Cablegate was being pursued differently than the War Logs or Afghan Diaries. Specifically, whereas those leaks were published all at once, as a dump of source material on the internet, CableGate is being released slowly and with privileged access to specific press institutions. Here’s why:

Our initial idea, which never got… our initial idea was “look at all those people editing wikipedia”. Look at all the junk they are working on. Certainly if you give them a fresh classified document on the human rights atrocities in Fallujah, that the rest of the world has not seen before, you know it’s a secret document. Certainly all those people working on articles in art history, maths, and so on, and all those bloggers who are busy pontificating on the human rights disasters… who are complaining they can only respond to the NY times because they don’t have sources of their own. Surely those people will step forward, given fresh source material, and do something. No, it’s all bullshit. All bullshit. In fact, people write about things in general, if it’s not part of their career, because they want to display their values to their peers who are already in the same group. Actually they don’t give a fuck about the material, that’s the reality. So we understood from very early on that we would have to at least give summaries of the material we were releasing. At least summaries to get people to pick it up, to get them to dig deeper. And if we didn’t have a summery to put the thing in context, it would just fall into the gutter. And in cases where the material is more complex especially military material which has lots of acronyms. It’s not enough to do a summery. You have to do an article, or liaise with other journalists on an exclusive or semi exclusive basis, to get them to extract it into semi understandable human readable form.

But unlike other organizations we always release the full source material at the same time. Everything we do is like science, it is checkable, because the material that informed our conclusions is there. Just like scientific papers based on experimental data must make that data available to other scientists and to the public if they want their papers to be published. So our philosophy is raw source material must be made available so conclusions can be checkable.

We are an activist organization. The method is transparency, the goal is justice, part of the method is journalist. Our end goal is to achieve justice, and our sources goals, usually, is also to achieve justice. So when they give us material what we promise is not just that we’ll protect them, but that we’ll get maximum impact from the material.

This passage is interesting for a number of reasons. First because it diagnoses the need for print, or at least paid journalism in the age of the high internet – yes people will do things for free, but they won’t necessarily do the difficult work. And the work they will do tends to be because it is in conformity with existing values, thus subject to confirmation bias.

Secondly, it is interesting because it stresses the difference between raw and interpreted material – of couse all material is always interpreted, but if you don’t have the skills to read something (i.e. something which doesn’t make sense outside of context, or something which uses acronyms you don’t understand), then it won’t mean much to you, and you won’t be able to say anything meaningful about it- moreover, you won’t want to say anything meaningful about it; you’ll want to move onto the next thing. This means it is perfectly possible for evidence of crimes to be out there in the open, on the War Logs servers for instance, and yet no one will say anything about it because no one who would want to say anything about it has both the time to read through it, and the skill to know what they are reading.

Third, it’s interesting because it is plain about its bias, goals, allegiances and method. It’s actually elsewhere in the talk where Assange explains that the primary allegiance of wikileaks is not to its readers (or, as in the case of capitalist media, its investors), but its sources. But here those allegiances are brought into the larger context of the goals and methods of the organization: the goal is justice, the method is transparency. And, moreover, the value is effectivity; their aim is to use the material they have to maximize the amount of justice they can effect on the world. I think this is basically the right way to go about things – be transparent about your values and goals, rather than pretending not to have any. The journalistic ideal of neutrality, of “unbiased reporting” is a blatantly absurd – everyone has goals; if you were “unbiased”, technically speaking, you would be clinically depressed and unable to get out of bed in the morning because you wouldn’t feel any reason to live.

I’d be interested in hearing the opinions of others on the wikileaks journalistic project, and the implications of the claims made above on citizen, crowd-sourced journalism.