On a train, heading south

Having spent an excellent few days on and around the margins of Dublin, I find myself on a train to Mallow for my third visit to TAPSS (theory and philosophy summer school). It’s become a bit of a tradition, a habit, to attend this event. And I do love this place. The green, the hills, the damp cold – it’s all so Canadian!

The theme this year is “understanding and explaining”. I like in these things to write a reflection on the theme before the week starts, something I can go back to at the end of the week to see how (and if?) my thinking is changed by the week’s events. Understanding would tend to mean human understanding – interpretation, narrative description, perhaps putting yourself in another’s shoes. Explaining would mean something more akin to naturalistic explanation – causal frameworks and the like. I think the everyday tendency would be to identify explaining with practical things, and with science, whereas hermeneutics is good for literature and philosophy but of only ancillary help to those trying to do something about things. Of course, I would right away challenge this division and claim a kind of unity of understanding and explaining in which they are both structurally oriented towards duty bound action. Accordingly, I put down this little reflection:

What is the unity of understanding and explaining? Not only that explaining is a form of understanding, but more radically that both explaining and understanding are forms of action, which means they are a decision which closes the demand that appears before us, the demand which solicits us to be adequate to the situation in which we find ourselves. In this demand there is no highest value, only the values which we decide upon. But neither are they purely relativistic, because they exist in front of us as demands which we can accept and take up or deny and push aside or stand against. Moreover, values never stand on their own, but always in relation to particular histories, contexts, socio-emotional contagion, and political lines which dissuade us from acting purely independently for fear of the regular irrelevance of the lone actor. The universal in understanding and explanation is the moment of openness and honesty, sometimes called “rigour”, in which the theorist holds him or herself in the strife between earth and world, or rather in the tuft of the chiasm between concept and content where the world pins itself to itself from thought to positive construction. Properly open in that place which we might call the hole of particularity, that which is not in the least particular are clearly visible for those devoted to looking rather than merely fulfilling their own anticipations. This cleanness of sight is the the lucidity of every revolutionary thought, every kind word, every resolute insight, and every measure of genuine justice. Its abandonment is the inertial, the ossified, the pathological, and the narcism which always tempts and stands against redemption because it sees only that the past is lost.

In recognition that the point of these events is to challenge your own understanding (rather than the more immature scholastic tendency of forcing others to challenge their understandings by listening to what you have to say), I want to recognize that this week might be a time to throw into question my moralistic interpretation of reality. Perhaps there is something problematically theological about subsuming everything under praxis? After all, the Greeks did distinguish between poesis and phronesis – only the second is praxis whereas the first is structured by worldly plans. Sure, we can always say that phronesis is conditioned by a pre-decision which judges the appropriateness of the praxis, but is this a serious philosophical hypothesis, confirmable by analysis of through experience, or is it a hack job, a declaration by fiat?

EDIT: Some Photos


Travel and Principles

I’m not vegan when I travel. It would be easy for me to say this is for practical reasons, “it simply isn’t reasonable, the food isn’t available, it’s too hard”. But that isn’t actually my reason – rather, I think that principles, like not consuming animal products, can only be comprehended and stood for in specific cultural-historical contexts. Or rather, while because they are principles and are completely abstractable from any context, if we are serious about instituting them we need to pay attention to the relative amenability of different contexts to those principles. And maybe the principle that I stand for in one place doesn’t translate to another, isn’t the priority. But that isn’t the only reason- it’s also because I think the point of travelling is to experience the place that you are in, and the food is part of that. Eating a “vintage cheddar ploughmans” from a 24 hr cafe at heathrow is part of the experience of transferring through a modern London airport, a part that would be missed if I carried my own vegan rations with me. It’s part of modern britain – an intense emphasis on packaged yet relatively fresh food with mostly whole ingredients, and which hearkens back to traditional styles. This sandwich actually says a lot about what Britain is today, how it thinks of itself, and how it is negotiating the current social activisty critiques of capitalism. (And thereby, how capitalism can sustain itself in the face of the local food movement, showing why those movements are not revolutionary but however can have positive effects).

This kind of reflection should move from a particular towards a general truth, so I’ll have at it with this one: taking for granted that the purpose of politics is to apply a prescription which holds universally onto particular reals, we are irresponsible and not in fact faithful to our own principles if we do not carefully take heed of the way principles are in fact interlacing with the social fabric at different places and different times. Chomsky to some extent rejects this, and says we pay too close attention to the prevailing mood and ignore that the same radical acts are possible regardless of this feeling of a zeitgeist. But while that might be true for exceptional actions, he also says that education is a pre-requisite for direct action, and that means we can’t avoid being sensitive to prevailing conditions, to general social attitudes insofar as these are what you intervene into when you do education work. Education, unlike direct action, is fostered by engagement and non-confrontation (whereas genuine political moments are confrontations, and occur when the time for negotiating is over). So, for these reasons, I think there is a serious argument for suspending one’s own principles, and even one’s own practices, if it is for the sake of deepening one’s understanding of the way principles are twined into societies, because these forms of research can notice the place where the hypocricy is weakest, the right place of intervention where education and action have the best chance of success.

Travelling is departure without arrival

I’m travelling. 


My feeling towards this can be expressed by way of a story: last night I was hanging out with my friend Jo and among other things I had to decide when I should arrive at the airport. Jo pointed out that there is a certain logic to arriving earlier – even earlier than you think is necessary, and not for practical or precautionary purposes. Rather, because as soon as you arrive at the airport you are travelling – your trip begins the moment you walk through the doors of the terminal. I can confirm this in my experience – that while the long and overcrowded bus ride seems to have nothing to do with the trip (although it reminds me of other uncomfortable early morning TTC trips where I squeeze onto a crowded bus with far too much luggage), arriving at the airport grants a sense not of having arrived, but of having departed. And trips are about departures, not arrivals – there is in truth no arrival when travelling; arrival occurs when one returns home. 


That said, I don’t particularly like travelling. Many things can go wrong – and this provokes anxiety. You have to carry all these things with you wherever you go (although I must say this time I’ve done a much better job of packing lightly than in the past), you often don’t have luxuries/neccesities like a cellular phone, you know relatively few people in the place where you are, everything is strange, and you have to deal with foreign border agents who will be upset when they realize I plan to sleep in their airport rather than spend hundreds of dollars for a few hours in a hotel. 


But this dislike, this is actually something I should overcome. And it’s not that I don’t like anything about travelling – I love the people you meet, the getting use to new forms of life, and exercise in counter-factual analysis which being in a new place permits – precisely because of the discomfort, a hermeneutic becomes possible. If I accomplish something on this trip, aside from the specific tasks of teaching and research I have planned (or in some cases, have still to plan), it should be to become a traveller – which means to become accepting of the kind of time, the kind of moment the traveller lives in. Which is, as much as I don’t like to focus on this, a time of transience, of between, of interstitiality – a time when being’s fold onto itself is explicitly thematized in a set of everyday experiences, and when how things are can always be recognized in the dialectic of necessity and contingency, universality and particularity. The practical implications of this are a blurring of rules for the traveller, a mixing of expectations because the traveller cannot be asked to perfectly already comprehend the way things are going on in the place where they are a traveller. The traveller is therefore the one who is not in the least autonomous, nor socially reliant in an established and well understood way. 


Of course, the traveller can always fall back into a fixed, inertial form of being – the moneyed traveller (who solves all his or her problems with cash), the cantiki traveller (who makes friendships only with other travellers and blurs his or her experience of the new local through a hedge of booze), or the family of tourists who are concerned with their own experience only, and move through the world as if it were their private museum. But these kinds of travel are lame – the one you want to be in is the wild traveller, the one who bends to the contours of the situation, the one who is not him or herself so much that s/he misses what is going on. 


Everything an adventure, every moment a test in flux. No waiting for the arrival – I have departed; the trip is begun. 

Where the action is

Nearing my departure to Ireland, France and the middle east, I find myself a little sad that my trip prevents any time for a visit to Quebec. The current student strike there, which is in its tenth week, does appear to be a real political situation – and one in my home country nonetheless. Everything occupy did wrong, this student strike appears to be doing correctly – they have a clear prescription, a relatively clear leadership, and their disruptive civil actions go on day after day rather than exploding in disconnected “days of action”. They have created and sustained a conflict against the austerity movement which stands for a substantial notion of freedom, and by standing on the principle of ‘no tuition hikes’, they also stand for the whole movement against austerity. By focussing on one demand and creating a confrontation they clarify the situation, whereas Occupy insisted on (and continues to insist) that every marginalized group’s demand be considered equal in action as well as in principle. Clarification is essential because politics is an exercise in simplification: the complex world is real but can’t be acted in – the trick is to simplify it in the right way.

It’s easy to be critical of the current anti-capitalist movements for their lack of direction and lack of organization. But a year ago they did not even exist. As the struggles mature, analysis and leadership and key confrontations must emerge, it must become obvious who stands on which side of Right, who stands for freedom, and who remains the utopian who says things can go on indefinitely as they are. At the same time, the revolutionary positions must not become intertial, ossified, and so many little tyrannies themselves. The strength of a conservative revolutionary movement, one which sacrifices the plurality of demands for the clarity of a single clarion call, must give way to the weakness of a progressive one, one which doesn’t merely critique the failure of the existing system to provide what it promises, but demands much more from the idea of justice and liberty than is even conceivable to the defenders of the status quo.   at the moment when a new world can be imagined by more than a few, just as the fluidity of progression must be instituted and conserved by structures and values which can take root in systems and in the social fabric of the places in the world as they undo and remake themselves.

The hunger strike against divisive resistance

It is nothing new or surprising to say that since Oslo Palestinians have been as divided as ever on both the goal of what peace would count as an acceptable victory, and what kind of resistance should be employed to reach that goal. Normal Finkelstein’s simple solution of mass popular non-violent resistance to bring about a two-state solution is simply an untenable recommendation because it falls flatly on most ears. A real political line is not one devised as a rational response to the objective situation, but one born out of motivations inherent in the situation which can bring together the class that stands in for the universal so it expresses the right direction – this requires not only an understanding of tactics and ends but of goals as felt motivations and strategies as influencing not only the enemy, but also the people standing up against.

The emergence of the hunger strike in the Palestinian struggle signals a change in the conflict in favour of the Palestinians – despite their division into factions and on serious questions of a settlement and the role of religion they can all stand and support the heros of the resistance. But this is not the change – collective Palestinian support for the resistance may have been an aspect of the 2nd intifada, but that intifada was plagued by the lack of a realistic end-game and ignored the importance of international opinion which will always shift to Israel’s side during a period of “terrorist” attacks. The hunger strike allows the celebration of the heros of the resistance not as violent maniacs, however, but as peaceful martyrs, resisting the brutal conditions in the Israeli jails.

This struggle is more clearly universal than the use of political violence because anyone can understand that torture of someone inside a jail is wrong, and because there are international laws about the treatment of political prisoners which normal people will see should apply to Palestinian prisoners. It is easy to explain to someone why Palestinian resistance fighters should be treated as prisoners of war – you only need to talk about the conflict in the North of Ireland and understand how that came to a close for someone to understand why it is important to recognize that a rebel group has fought in a war so that this war can end, and that continuing to treat political fighters as criminals fails to recognize them as a group, and does nothing but propagate the continuation of what you cannot deny that they see as a war.

Because the demands of the hunger strikers can be supported by BDS, it is possible for international activists to support them, and by this way bring the international struggle against Israel into line with the Palestinian struggle – this is an opportunity for bridge building, and for internationals to have a better understanding of the situation and of what is important to Palestinians.

The use of Hunger strikes by the Palestinians is starting to have an effect on international media. For example, the word “hunger strikers” was trending today on google news, and CNN has run a story today about the “1500” (the number is actually closer to 3500) hunger strikers starting today. This is not normal – in the recent past hunger strike stories did not make CNN until many days in.

There are several things you can do as an international activist to support the Palestinian hunger strikers. Today (ok, it is a bit late), you can fast in solidarity with the prisoners – this is what I am doing today. Also, if you are in Toronto, you could consider attending this event at Beit Zatoun tonight. Most importantly what you can do is try to learn about what is happening, and try to explain it to people who are interested.

Fanon, Palestine and the Psychology of Liberation

I am presenting a paper with the above title tomorrow at Strategies of Critique, a conference by the Social and Political Thought program at York University. It is happening in Accolade East 007, and I am on the panel which is happening between 2:30 and 4. I am a bit anxious about how it will go, it is my first attempt to do anything academic on a Palestinian topic. Anyway, if you are interested, here is the introduction/abstract:

In my presentation I am concerned with the question of the social psychology of liberation in a protracted colonial conflict. The situation I am discussing is the Palestinian refugee camp, probably the strongest institution of resistance against the normalization of the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the territory which came under control of the state of Israel in 1948.  First I will discuss how out of the situation of the camp we can see the manifestation of an idea and a way of liberation that is consistent with the way of anti-colonial liberation advocated by Fanon in Wretched of the Earth. Secondly I will discuss the forces that, especially since the end of the second intifada, are acting to undermine this way of liberation and replace it with the idea of statehood and western freedom in the minds of the people in the camp. Third, I will try to represent and to reflect on this tension, this stuckness that you find in the camp when their idea of liberation is not only under attack, but is recognized by themselves to be no longer possible – there is a kind of deep trauma here which we should not easily pass over.  Finally, I will conclude with some thoughts about what any international immediately sees as a “third way” solution – the international non-violent BDS campaign, fails to appear as salient within this tension between resistance and compromise, and what this means to internationals, to non-Palestinians who want to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian cause –  can Fanon help us to act in a way that is honest and is really solidarity work and not part of the imposition of Western values onto the Palestinian struggle.


The Fake Neutrality of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions

A key problem with North American palestinian activism is a presumption of neutrality with respect to Palestinian politics which fails to acknowledge that activism is, whether it likes to think so or not, taking sides on complex internal Palestinian issues. While the three demands can be arrived at by consensus, there are two key problems that remain: how should these demands be pursued, and what is the legitimacy of armed struggle in pursuit of these demands? In a sense Finkelstein is more honest about his support for the Palestinians than BDS because he takes a side on internal Palestinian issues – he sides with the Palestinian Authority in its statehood bid (even though he at the same time calls them crooks), and he does so with eyes open – with a proper understanding of what this means for the refugees and what this means for Israel. In other words, he is honest about who he disagrees with. On the other hand, the BDS movement does not acknowledge that it very much disagrees with the PA in its presumption that it has the right to negotiate away the rights of the refugees and the rights of the Palestinians to sovereignty over the entire West Bank and Gaza. If you think that the statehood bid is the best way to bring peace, then you shouldn’t support BDS because the basic idea of the statehood bid is to give up the right of return. No matter what the Palestinian government says, this is the way that set of priorities leads. And it is not neutral to disagree with the Palestinian government, even if you can claim that you are still neutral because even the PA will say on TV that the right of return is not negotiable.

However, a big problem that appears once you realize this is that it is not simple to know what side, what direction in Palestinian politics you should support – as non-Palestinian one is perhaps not in the moral position to decide, and if one does not speak Arabic one is almost certainly not in the epistemic position to decide what direction is best. If Palestinians themselves can’t decide, why should we think that Western activists can decide?

But this leaves us with an aporia – on the one hand we can’t decide, but on the other we can’t not decide because any involvement takes a side in its activity even if not in thought, in consequence. So we either have to decide because we can’t avoid it, or we have to avoid deciding even though we can’t. This is a choice not really between deciding and not deciding, however, but between honesty and dishonesty. Honesty is not perfect comprehension, but willingness to engage and pursue with an openness to the possibility of being on the wrong path. However, in order to pursue at all, one must be on a path, on a line, which one can never answer for. But this is a false demand – one can’t be asked to answer for that which one couldn’t have known. Answerability only applies to what could have been done – english common law contains the idea of responsibility for what you could have known, but not what you couldn’t have known.

So the answer to the aporia is that there isn’t really an aporia, there is only a failure to desire to know and pursue that desire to the fruition of its requirement from the responsibility accrued by the action of participating in solidarity work. However, the answer to the aporia is that the answer is your own work, you have to work to try to understand what it is that you are doing, otherwise you can legitimately be accused of willed ignorance.

So it is not enough to support BDS, it is not enough to read Omar Bhargouti and put up posters about the “Global March to Jerusalem” and complain that the Israelis shot his cousin Mustafa in the head with a tear gas canister. Because they didn’t. And by the way, it’s called Land Day.


EDIT: As I realize is not clear from above, I support BDS. But I don’t use BDS as an excuse to lend uncritical support to those Palestinian politiciens who embrace the BDS movement or claim to speak as its representatives. I think BDS is a key tactic to aid the Palestinians in their struggle against Zionism, but it should be focussed on de-legitimizing the Zionist project amongst the citizens of Israel’s major supporters (i.e. Canada and USA). I do think it is a real problem that the BDS list of civil society organizations doesn’t seem to have been updated since 2007.  I think BDS should take its lead from the actual mass political movements which are emerging in the Occupied Territories and in the Palestinian diaspora, not only a few intellectuals like Ali Abunimah and Omar Bhargouhti. In otherwords, BDS should make more contacts with Palestinian political society, not only a very thin declaration endorsed by a million civil society organizations. And, as for those organizations, the fact is any Palestinian pretty much would endorse these three demands and this is why the BDS demands are good, not because of the “civil society” support which may be made up or real, I don’t think it matters either way.