radically real

carnal politics

“Animal Fragments”–Editorial for Capitalism Nature Socialism

pobrane (1)Dear All,

Yours truly has written the House Organ editorial for the coming issue of Capitalism Nature Socialism (June). It’s an attempt to reconfigure the relation to animality on the radical left, especially within marxism. God knows how hard that is–the very word “animal” causes irritation–so please read, support, critique, and share it.

If you can’t access the full text (it can be tricky), please contact me. I can make available 50 downloads to those interested (legally). Unfortunately I am not able to publish it here, at least not yet.

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10455752.2014.904562#.U1ER-Pl_sQQ

thank you,
k

In Defense of the Unknown: Biopolitics and Bodying the World at the Limits of Intellection (excerpts)

Shot, courtesy of Kath and Kim, at the Animals and Their People animal studies conference in Warsaw, March 14, 2014.

Thanks a million to the organizers, above all Anna Barcz and Dorota Łagodzka, for having me and for bringing many of the most interesting people in animal studies to Warsaw.

This paper will be (heavily!) reworked into an essay, to be published in an anthology of texts in Finland, edited by Elisa Aaltola.

Interesting fact: bending over a mic forever  20 minutes is hella uncomfortable.

Thanks to all for the awesome hangouts over these last few days. Never enough of times like these…

Ah, pardon my crappy editing: had to paste together two videos, each of which was missing a part of the talk. There are no gaps in the text, though, so it’s still something of a whole. Edit: well, there are gaps now, since I decided to remove an entire part from the video, having come to the inevitable conclusion that, well, it made no sense. Ok, not enough sense.

Big Animal Conference in Warsaw; Capitalism Nature Socialism; and Other Excuses

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Hi all! Sorry about keeping quiet. Just a heads up, there’s an animal studies conference coming up in Warsaw Wednesday to Friday, March 12-14 this week. Yours truly will present a paper there entitled “In Defense of the Unknown: Biopolitics and Bodying the World at the Limits of Intellection.” For a good start, I was late for my bus to Warsaw this morning, had to pay extra for another ticket, got to hit the sack for a bit more, accompanied by the sweet and faithful Nuno, and I’m now four hours behind schedule. Fortunately, I started my way to the event two whole days before it kicks off. It’s like 300 miles away. Should make it in time. Presentation not ready, of course. I’ll try to finish it in time, get it recorded, and put it up here through you tube. Now, as to the name of the conference itself, Animals and their People, beats me.

CNS-LettersI’ve also written my first House Organ essay (“Animal Fragments”) as managing editor for Capitalism Nature Socialism’s June (25/2) issue. I’ll publish it here if I’m allowed. It’s gotten some neat in-house reviews, I’m psyched! Thanks so much to Saed, JS, DC, and Elisa for helping out.

Keep checking back, I’ll get some stuff on here soon.

Downloadable PDFs from RR

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To make reading/printing more comfortable, I will be making downloadable pdfs available with each and every coming post. I will also work backwards as much as is feasible to cook up pdfs for past material. Links to pdf downloads will be pasted under the respective pieces, so please don’t miss them. I could put them ahead of the pieces but, I mean, come on! They look bad enough already. Hope this whole pdf move makes using the blog easier on youse.

Alas, the day awaits. Check back often!

Technoscience in the Flesh–A Case against Reification of Experience

“Technoscience in the Flesh: A Case against Reification of Experience” (paper at ICAS Europe Conference, Karlsruhe, Nov 28-30, 2013) by Kris Forkasiewicz. I went over time, had to skip a few pages of the text, and made too little room for post-presentation questions. That said, I hope the talk was enjoyable for the audience to a degree and that it is therefore worth publishing here. I sure enjoyed giving it. Pardon the poor video/sound quality. OK, enough apologies.

An essay based on the talk will *soon* be published in an anthology of texts on critical animal studies and technoscientific developments. I will publish the essay here first, so come back to check that out if you like the talk.

Recording credits go to JS, thanks!

Peter Kropotkin, that Gentle Bearded Animal

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Peter Kropotkin’s birthday on December 21* (1842) calls for a few words about the man. It is especially so since, though Kropotkin is acclaimed (if not necessarily well-understood) in anarchist circles, he is insufficiently appreciated in context of animalist struggles. Building solidarity between movements, as well as pointing to their common ground in the animality of suffering beings, are both a must. Politicizing the still largely apolitical animal liberation is another. And so a look—one certainly more probing than I can offer here—is warranted at someone whose life and legacy offer valuable lessons to all radical activists and intellectuals.

Peter was born a Russian prince, steeped in privilege not many are ever likely to experience—including, reportedly, 1,200 serfs linked to the family’s properties, 50 house servants, 4 coachmen to attend a dozen horses, three cooks for the masters and two more for the servants, a dozen waiters at the dinner table, and more. Moreover, young Peter grew up in the relative proximity to Tsar Nicholas I, handpicked by him as just “the sort of boy you must bring me,” (whatever that meant) when he attended the Czar’s ball along with his parents. Peter, it seems, was not too happy about that. But he did benefit from his family’s social standing immensely.

Having received extensive tutoring from private teachers on a variety of subjects, a few years later young Kropotkin enrolled—or was enrolled—at the Tsar’s Corps of Pages. This set him on the way towards a career in the upper ranks of the imperial military. As it happened, however, on account of both boredom and frustration with the strictures of his stifling life-setting, as well as in view of his growing anti-authoritarian sentiment, Peter would start acting out and looking for ways to dodge the discipline imposed on him.

An expedition to Siberia, following his promotion from the Corps to the army, offered a chance to do just that. The 50,000-mile trek through one of earth’s harshest regions not only opened up a new vista for Peter to expand his long-developed proclivities for scientific inquiry; it also built up his character, allowing him to appreciate the hardship undergone by the animals—incuding self-governed humans of the Siberian village communities—in rough climate, as well as preparing him for the turmoil he would face for the majority of his days to come.

It was on his trek that Peter also realized the virtue in natural simplicity, noting ” how little man really needs as soon as he comes out of the enchanted circle of conventional civilization.” It was likewise on this official assignment in Siberia, while inadvertently serving the interests of imperialist Russian expansion, that he made the first and decisive discoveries concerning mutual aid as a fundamental natural force organizing animal life. With these insights, systematized in his later years, he would be able to combat the Social-Darwinist myth of the lone, amoral gladiator, promoted by his influential arch-nemesis, Thomas Huxley.

In fact, it was around the cornerstone of mutual aid that Peter’s personal, scientific, and—inevitably—political development would ripen in the years to come. Mutual aid would become the foundation of his anarchist political philosophy, of his standing in the international scientific community, of his steadily growing celebrity, and also of his more ordinary and personal integrity. Without a trace of the megalomania typical of an intellectual great, he was admired not only by his sympathizers, but also by the various liberal and reactionary figures of the day, many of whom he met and acquainted, all the while steadfastly defending his ethical and political convictions.

Now, one could be cynical about this and say Peter was popular with fellow anarchists primarily on account of his having done time, and twice at that. After all, jail time done for a good reason does help bolster one’s credibility and reputation with the anarchists, who hold “propaganda by deed” in high esteem. As for his popularity with the moderate folk, it could be said that Kropotkin was “safe” and “exotic,” and thus good to have around. Both observations are partially true. But quite beyond that, Peter Kropotkin—apparently unlike many other revolutionaries of his day—was by all accounts not only bold but also a decent and, simply put, a nice guy. “So what?,” some will say. It may indeed seem unimportant unless the reader concedes, as I think she should, that not only is the personal political, but the political is always already personal as well. This point is as basic as it is—despite constant and painful reminders—easily overlooked.

A fully engaged activist and scientist, Peter was also courageous and sincere enough to really leave behind the privilege and the family fortune, born of exploitation, with which he had grown up. In doing so, he was thrown all the way into a wholly different life, a life quite unlike that of many other radicals who would keep one foot firmly planted in the world of aristocratic and bourgeois privilege (I’ll refrain from name-calling here). Financial troubles, while fairly rare, were a recurrent concern for Peter and his wife. But not only would Kropotkin have no part in the undeserved riches of his family; he did not aspire to amassing a wealth of his own or to securing a permanent position so many would seek today in think tanks, university offices, or through collusion with business. He didn’t seem to care much for the level of personal comfort the bourgeois of the time so prized, and by not making that choice into any kind of ostentatious act of rejection, he Peter came across as unselfconscious in his stance. He was busy with matters he deemed far more important—mutual aid in politics, science, and his own life—and thus he truly walked the talk.

Soon after his return from Siberia and “break with all things Tsarist,” Peter settled in St. Petersburg, enrolled at university. More importantly, though, he became involved with an anarchist organization known as the Tchaykóvsky Circle, distributing pamphlets and meeting with peasants, educating them about cooperation and solidarity as naturally occurring in a self-governed community and, relatedly, about the oppressive nature of state government. That they also provided medical help and technical instruction to the villagers did not help their case much in the eyes of the regime. The authorities, rubbed just the wrong way, would have none of that, and, not long after Kropotkin undertook his St. Petersburgian efforts at activism, he was arrested by secret police in a crackdown on the anarchists. Subsequently, he landed at the Peter and Paul prison, a facility with a reputation compared to that of the Bastille.

Owing to an intricate scheme organized to free him, Peter managed to flee his captors, but not before his health deteriorated with two and a half years spent behind bars. He wouldn’t be arrested for the next two decades. After fleeing Russia, he settled in England, then Switzerland (where he happily married another Russian refugee, Sophie Ananiev), then, when the Swiss government expelled him under pressure from Alexander III, went back to England and soon landed in Nice, France.  It was in France that, in 1882, he would find himself locked away at the French Clairvaux prison along with a few dozens of other anarchists. Even though he had no real ties to the the anarchist movement, mere membership in the International Workingmen’s Association, illegal in the country, earned him a five-year sentence. This time, however, Peter emerged as a tougher man with a reputation in scientific and anarchist circles already firmly established. He was offered a deal but declined and decided to remain imprisoned in solidarity with the other inmates. He would spend some of his jail time writing for Encyclopedia Brittanica. Since the international pressure to release Kropotkin was mounting and there was no way to have him harmed and get away with it, the authorities wanted to get rid of him. He was soon freed and immediately returned to England.

In the turbulent years to come, Peter would be seen twice touring the US and Canada on an intense lecture circuit, writing extensively on all of his broad topics of interest, and finally settling down back in Russia following the February 1917 revolution, only to see his hopes for an anarchist Russia shatter against a wall of Leninist centralization and discipline that soon overtook the country. Soon after, engaged to the very end in the life of the village community in which he came to live out his final days, the gentle bearded animal known to the human world as Peter Kropotkin died. As noted in Lee Alan Dugatkin’s The Prince of Evolution, Peter’s path made him highly admired in Oscar Wilde’s eyes as “that beautiful white Christ which seems to be coming out of Russia… [one] of the most perfect lives I have come across in my own experience.” But what of the nonhuman world, a world wherein all things we think of as specifically human are embedded and whence they stem?

Kropotkin was one of the great naturalists of his day, a sensibility that developed in him in congruence not only with his scientific interests but through lived experience, especially during his Siberian days. It’s no wonder he didn’t quite grasp the full consequences of Darwinian insights into the animal origins of “man.” Darwin himself didn’t fully grasp them, and neither has anyone since his time, either in philosophy or in science. These are ways of engaging the world framed with distinct limitations. Philosophy is to some degree always slave to the concept, its major locus of loyalty. In turn, science, and the scientific method more specifically, inevitably objectify and freeze reality and experience in their interrelatedness, exploiting their regularities for laws through abstraction.

Kropotkin was a man of his time, a man of 19th-century science, philosophy, and, perhaps inevitably, prejudice. Thus, he retained an antipathy towards using scientifically unverifiable categories such as “love,” at least as explanatory devices. He put objectivism undialectically ahead of lived experience, but, even though he didn’t seem to think for a minute about how to reconcile the two, somehow he ended up feeling quite a bit for the others in the world, perhaps thus attesting to the correctness of his observation that mutual aid (or compassion, empathy, or love, I would add) is a wholly natural phenomenon. It was the search for the purported natural origins of mutual aid that made Peter fairly well-tuned to nonhuman animal sentience and intelligence, both of which he took seriously as a scientist. In looking carefully at the minutiae of animal life, Kropotkin was quite the ethologist. He wrote voluminously and enthusiastically about sociality in the communities of the fallow-deer, eagles, ants (his own favorite example), horses, crabs, pelicans, or primates. This has to be seen as an admirable shift in perspective from a view, preferred by Huxley and dominant at the time, of other animals as “mechanically engineered living machines.” It did leave much to be desired, though.

For one, Kropotkin ordered his observations in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution into a seeming hierarchy with the civilized human at the top—a standard anthropo- and Eurocentrist move, one undertaken (it is safe to assume) for much more than tactical reasons. There were distinct conceptual and ethical limitations to what he could conclude observing the normalcy of mutual aid in other species and our own, and building on that. Although mutual aid was found to be present across species, indeed almost universally, Kropotkin thought it predominantly an intraspecies phenomenon. Thus, he was not consistently pushed toward a questioning of the human exploitation and extermination of other creatures: an unprecedented situation that mutual aid may not be very useful in explicating or objecting to; a situation that will nonetheless require a heretofore unseen scope of not-necessarily-mutual aid to be overcome But in embracing nonhuman animal life so thoroughly in his thinking, Peter was already way ahead of the blunt speciesist dogma of many of his contemporaries, as well as the self-serving, regressive reductionism of many ecological thinkers of our own day.

To be fair, Kropotkin was not entirely indifferent towards the fate of other animals in human hands. It is telling, given his own prison experience, that he would speak of crabs held captive at the Brighton Aquarium as “prisoners.” Dugatkin recounts Peter’s visit to the aquarium where he was

transfixed on a crab that had flipped over on its shell, and become immobilized. To Kropotkin’s utter delight, “Its comrades came to the rescue, and for one hour’s time I watched how they endeavoured to help their fellow-prisoner. They came two at once, pushed their friend from beneath, and after strenuous efforts succeeded in lifting it upright; but then the iron bar would prevent them from achieving the work of rescue, and the crab would again heavily fall upon its back… After many attempts… one of the helpers would go in the depth of the tank and bring two other crabs, which would begin with fresh forces the same pushing and lifting of their helpless comrade.” (Dugatkin 2011)

Iron bars here, iron bars there. Are they any different? Iron is iron, a cage is a cage, a prison’s a prison.

Reminiscing on his travels through Siberia in a journal, Kropotkin wrote of a “two thousand mile journey in a row-boat, changing rowers at each village, every twenty miles or so.” He wrote further of “fifty thousand miles in carts, on board steamers, in boats, but chiefly on horseback.” Dugatkin praises Peter’s fortitude, and rightly so. The question, however, is this: As we envision the fortitudinous Kropotkin finally merging with the vast Siberian horizon, are we able also to notice the steaming nostrils of the exhausted horse on whose back he swiftly moves? Was he moved to liberate the imprisoned crustaceans? Not that we know of. It seems like he didn’t pay nearly enough attention, though he had the eyes and the heart to see. Now it is up to us to open ours.

*Most sources state that Peter was born on December 9. If I take his birthday to be December 21, the publication of this note becomes a little less overdue, so I’m sticking with it. Essay originally published on Dec 26, 2013. Simultaneously posted at criticalanimalstudies.org

References and Further Reading

Cahm, Caroline. 1989. Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism 1871-1886. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dugatkin, Lee Alan. 2011. The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics. CreateSpace Independent publishing platform. Kindle edition.

Kropotkin, Peter. 2008. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. Forgotten Books.

Woodcock, George and Ivan Avakumovic. 1971. Anarchist Prince: Biographical Study of Peter Kropotkin. Schocken Books Inc.

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Nelson Mandela: Heritage against Oppression?

Repost from today’Images essay for LibNow!:

40 years and a day after the murder of Fred Hampton, another figure in black liberation–one of world stature and fame–dies. Nelson Mandela, 95, known as one-time anti-apartheid revolutionary, President of the African National Congress (1991-1997), and President of South Africa (1994-1999), passed away on December 5.

Even though both Mandela and Hampton were at one time or another deemed terrorists by the authoritarian establishments that oppressed them and their people, they are–and in all likelihood will be–remembered differently, and by different audiences. In fact, the contrast in popular reception of Mandela and Hampton is as striking as their ultimate fates.

Hampton was shot multiple times in the middle of the night, unable to wake up having been dosed with barbiturates by an FBI infiltrator (read: traitor). Not everyone gets this kind of treatment.

With Fred, though, there was no other way for the US government. He would have never peaceably stepped down from the struggle for liberation, and not only from an explicitly racist system–partial liberation culminating in the superficial peace of liberal democracy–but from capitalism itself. Not that racism was, or is, a surface phenomenon. But capitalism, Hampton was right to point out, manipulates racism as a tool of exploitation. Say that enough times in the right place and odds are that a bullet will be waiting for you.

After all, can you imagine Hampton receiving a Nobel Peace Prize? Mandela got his in 1993. At his death, Mandela had been nothing short of a celebrity for roughly twenty years. This is not the time to discuss the details of Mandela’s achievements and faults. There’s nothing wrong per se with being praised, either; and there is no question that Nelson Mandela deserves the praise and gratitude of freedom-fighters everywhere for his immense personal sacrifice, including his survival of a 27-year prison sentence. That will not be forgotten. But looking at the whole picture, especially when praise is lavished on the man from all around and as a matter of course–that requires a degree of irreverence.

It is doubtful, in fact, whether the acclaim Mandela enjoyed after the apartheid had collapsed had much to do with what he had done as a radical before 1994. Rather, it seems to stem from what he did not do afterwards.

Mandela shared his historical greatness with numerous other political figures ascendant in the late-20th century, including Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia and Lech Wałęsa in Poland. They were all products of the same historical moment–a moment at which capitalist cronies declared the onset of a post-ideological era–with capitalism disappearing into an ever-present but never seen background of daily life. Vis-a-vis overtly authoritarian–and thus visible–regimes, Mandela and the others had been effective political activists. Against capitalism, which, in its newfound ubiquity, ever-so-subtly merged into the natural order of things, they stood no chance.

They capitulated, sometimes like they wanted to, sometimes–as with Mandela, lacking sufficiently radical support–like they had to, and got they rewarded for it. Yes, it was only when Mandela capitulated before the neoliberal project that an unending round of applause from the establishment began. He became honored only after the dust raised by their antisystemic activity had settled. It was only then that–like the others from the late-20th century bunch–he could assume presidency and otherwise consummate his good fortune by attending balls, congresses, conducting lectures, accepting awards, and being accompanied by notables. For better or worse, countless other revolutionaries never got to survive long enough for that to happen to them.

The powerful know better than anyone else that legitimization is the quintessential category of political life and legitimacy a fundamental characteristic of political power. It’s Politics 101. And there’s short of nothing better to legitimate current oppression than a big name–with a reputation hard-won in the struggle for freedom–holding hands with power. Stalin knew this when he used and abused Lenin; and capital owners know this when they do the same with Nelson Mandela. Anyone who cares about his heritage ought to see to it that he is saved from them.

Though some seem to have forgotten, the struggle of today is not about reputation, though reputation may serve to further their ends. It is not about looking good in the media, though that too might be helpful. It is about liberation, and so it cannot and will not be led by corporate-like nonprofits with fancy offices, bureaucracies, and piles of resources that advance their own interest. And it cannot be led by safe high-theory elite career academics willing to change their resume and interests depending on who they are speaking to. And it sure as hell won’t be led by the philanthropists, the bankers, or any government plan. It must and will be led by those who–whether at a community gathering, out in the street, or in the dark of the underground–are willing to risk their own legitimacy, life, and personal as well as professional allegiances to fight for justice and liberation for all.

by KF

(suggestions by ANII)

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Black Panther Leader Fred Hampton Assassinated by Chicago Police 40 Years Ago

Repost of my short piece from LibNow!:Image

December 4 marked the fourtieth anniversary of the assassination of Fred Hampton, a plot carried out methodically in cooperation by the FBI, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, and the Chicago police. The circumstances of the night-raid, in which Hampton and another Panther leader, Mark Clark, got killed, were not clear at the outset. Careful investigation revealed, however, that the authorities had long conspired to have Hampton–incredibly charismatic, outspoken, and active in Chicago–eliminated.

Democracy Now commemorated the Hampton’s murder by conducting an interview with the author of The Assasination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther, Jeffrey Haas. Hampton was only 21 on the day of his death. An extremely talented revolutionary and promising, evolving intellectual, he was on the way to becoming a major threat to oppressive state ideology and structures. The decision and conspiracy aimed at getting rid of him were therefore not surprising, and surely Hampton–like countless other radicals–saw it coming.

What happens when power expects another figure of Malcolm X’s stature to come round and destabilize its capitalist underpinnings? The answer to all but the most naive is clear; and Hampton’s, as well as other Black Panthers’ tragic deaths at the hands of state-issued violence, are testament to that.

Our passion and efficacy scare the hell out of the oppressors. As animal liberationists we know we have a reputation far exceeding what we’ve already accomplished. This is telling of what we still need to get done–our reputation has to be deserved.

To all those that are unfamiliar with Hampton’s story, views, style, and presence, the linked interview might be of help. To the rest of us, it will serve as a painful reminder of state-capitalist brutality employed day-in, day-out, in defense of class and other privileges.

But Hampton would not have liked to be turned into a martyr. He was a practical thinker serving the people. That’s it. We should not fetishize him, either. Fetishization is the first step towards forgetting the vital substance of the matter. You put someone up on a stand only to stop listening.

The Panthers, especially in the upper echelons of the party, were still riven with authoritarianism, sexism, anti-white racism, not to mention blatant speciesism. Perhaps the single, most recognizable element of the many memorable Panther slogans is the derisive use of “pig.” “Pigs want war;” “the only good pig is a dead pig;” “these racist Gestapo pigs.” What the pig has to do with the Gestapo is beyond me. The tragedy of this has been that this unacceptable vocabulary has entered the national US vernacular.

This is what happens to a speciesist party in a speciesist society: the most pervasively exploited and powerless beings end up victims of struggles for the freedom of others, themselves condemned to injustice. The Panthers, then, have been by no means historically unproblematic, and a growing body of scrupulously researched evidence and literature attests to this. Still, there are lessons that the Panthers can teach us–the activists of today. The anniversary of Hampton’s death is as good a place to start us up on our education as any.

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In Lieu of the Good Life

The good life has been a major theme in virtually all cultural thought ever since it was lost. The more the thing slipped out of sight, the more forcefully the concept was announced in consolation. The ancients were dreaming it up just as it was fading as a reality. But the good life was not meant to be imagined, envisioned, or projected―our cerebra couldn’t handle that caliber of truth. It was to be enacted with the whole of our frail being. The philosophers of old traded in the flesh for the shadow. “How come we’ve ended up with a second-hand existence?” is perhaps the only question worth asking; that we aren’t living the good life―the one true tragedy. All the rest follows from that.

All-embracing imposition[1] is the mark of our time. To be imposed upon is to be cut up and synthesized along contextually foreign lines. The Real―the sensuous, the instinctive, the immediate[2]―becomes mere stuff of domination which reverberates through the most minute gesture and all the way up to the most monumental world-historical convulsion. It deracinates us to float about aimlessly in a vacuum, with only a rarified image of reality left to sink our teeth into.

I recently stumbled into an acquaintance walking home back from the mall. Having once worked there, he used to watch folks run around all day long in compulsive execution of some sacred-like ritual. (Can you say neurosis?) He and I talked a little amidst a beautifully forested area outside the city, right after dusk. The contrast between the undeniable reality of the surrounding forest and the bizarre artificiality of the mall must have armed him with a fresh perspective on things; a few moments into the conversation, he remarked (as if he was saying the most obvious of things) that “we’re so far off―so disconnected from the vitals of life―that it would be enough to flip the ‘off’ switch for it to all be over.”[3] The hermeneuts of suspicion, as Ricoeur famously called Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx,[4] lifted the veil off of something huge: turn off the lights and all you see is madness. At least this much I have learned from them.

Things lose their own standing and we come to live on abstractions. Meanwhile, the real world looks increasingly grim. “Is this a fucking ghetto?,” a friend asked me, pointing to the lines of fence surrounding us like prison bars on a stroll through my once-spacious neighborhood. Who’s hiding behind the fence? Why, it’s the historical heirs of the bourgeoisie, the self-avowedly classless folk of catch-all aspiration. Like their predecessors, they inhabit a sphere of compulsive inventiveness chained in service of pettiness and fear. As the bourgeoisie lost its coherence as a sociological object, at the same time it became the universalized ground of late-modern experience, the contemporary perversion of the good life. The rich and poor alike weave their dreams into a bourgeois web. Capital, the marrow of these dreams, has become the controlling stakeholder of the life built on illusion peddled worldwide to the voracious masses starved of fulfillment. Money is the fountain of that life at which the industrious of today line up. Two-faced, they nourish the growth of mass society and flee the fallout of its excrement, a process that closely resembles the once-common European practice of throwing bucketsful of waste out the windows and onto the streets. Take suburban sprawl: uniformity reigns as everyone is issued a one-size-fits-all bucket. The difference lies with an exponential increase in toxicity of substance and throwing range. In the court of history, our daily actions, targeting every forest, meadow, hill and mountain, should go on record as agents of colonization. The verdict, in any fair trial, should state: “Their heads and hearts gave in to distraction, their hands merged with the death machine. And that was that.”

The above could be construed as just so much ranting from a radical pseudo-intellectual. This is an easy way out for a skeptic; for, after all, don’t we live in unparalleled affluence?[5] And I am not presenting the kind of systematic argument behind which I could set up camp, either. But here’s the kicker: First, critical theory (on the fringes of which this essay attempts to locate itself) makes a point of proceeding through a degree of exaggeration; not for showiness, but to shed some light on morbid phenomena as they emerge in order to play a part in preventing their maturation. Second, and more importantly, I hear real mainstream folks agree with the general lines of what I’m saying, and that on a fairly regular basis. There is real, if inchoate, discontent bubbling beneath the surface of appearances. It is there, even though it seldom amounts to more than a silent scream. And when it does, it’s too late to talk; voices are drowned out by gunfire. Bullets fly and bodies drop.

But not only the dead are dead.

Last week stores in Poland were closed for a day on account of a Catholic holiday. It is as ridiculous as it is telling that the night before, on Halloween, the lines at the stores got huge, with flashes of panic in the shoppers’ eyes. It was as if they were going to be cut off from the world the day after. The sad news is that we got collectively cut off ages before all those stores were built. The same Halloween night, a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the street asked me what turned out to be a trick question: “Can the dead come back to life?” At first I was taken aback, then thought it funny how the whole tied in with the recent zombie fad. But its deeper meaning eluded both the Witnesses and myself at the time: It is we who are the dead, the living dead, going through the motions, having our days reduced to an enactment of a script for a bad movie (a zombie flick, if you will).

The Replicable Dream

The web entangles more and more of the world in a cloak of unfreedom, leaving the wonderful bundle of earthly forces gasping for air. But this is not an alien imposition―it didn’t come from anywhere “outside.” It’s an extension of our animal instincts gone awry and turned on themselves. As Adorno puts it in Negative Dialectics, “[e]ven the steps which society takes to exterminate itself are at the same time absurd acts of unleashed self-preservation.”[6] In other words, there is reason, animal reason, in this madness, albeit it is wicked. It is a basic ontological fact that the body and the world, while inseparably bound together, do not coincide.[7] But this originary, dialectical disparity has now mutated―through the homo monstrous―into outright world-hostility.

But restoration is not a matter of technique. Technique is a mode of disclosure by which the world is broken up into an array of disposables and the suffering subject is, in the end, erased as a meaningless conjecture of happenstance. Meanwhile, effective negation of misery requires as its subject a whole animal. Since at the moment we’re in bits and pieces, we do not really know what to do with our pain. Our instincts, gone unheard for long enough to have withered, fail to override the false hope that something radically different may still come from doing more of the same. “If you don’t know the roots and foundation, the antecedents of what you’re doing, then… you’re… shadow-boxing.”[8] But we can’t recognize a lie anymore, even if the whole world turns into one. Perhaps, however, the negative is still alive, its power “concentrate[d] in [the] still partly unconquered, primitive, elemental forces.”[9] Indeed, from beneath all the rottenness, we try to listen in, hoping against all odds for something feral and uncorrupted to lie dormant in our viscera; something that, turning us inside out, will burst through us towards poiesis of the good life. For if the good life cannot be pictured or thought,[10] its currents still enfold us in the amidst the decay.

Thanks to Ronnie Rose for his suggestions a careful reading of a draft of this essay.


[1]This term is closely related to the Heideggerian Gestell, variously translated into English as “enframing” or “composing.” See R. Rojcewicz’s The Gods and Technology: A Reading of Heidegger (Albany: SUNY Press, 2006), esp. Part II, 67-126, where the author discusses Heidegger’s take on the essence of modern technology.

[2] The philosopher, notoriously drunk with power that language and discourse proffer, will likely object that these faculties of the human brain have enriched life. But this is a standard argument of those who would rather talk about an apple than actually have one, those who would rather discuss sex than have sex. John Zerzan opens his Twilight of the Machines (Port Townsend, WA: Feral House, 2008, 3) with an anecdote about philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend. Feyerabend was once invited to sign a petition drafted by Europe’s leading philosophers, including Derrida and Ricoeur. They contended, according to Zerzan, “we need philosophy.” But Feyerabend declined. In Zerzan’s words, “[h]e pointed out that philosophy’s ‘treasures’ were not meant as additions to ways of living, but were intended to express their replacement.” Feyerabend explained in his Conquest of Abundance (subtitled A Tale of Abstraction versus the Richness of Being, Chicago: Chicago Univerity Press, 1999, 270) that “[p]hilosophers have destroyed what they have found, much in the way that the [other] standard bearers of Western civilization have destroyed indigenous cultures.…”

Another, related point, would be to argue―philosophically, in fact―that the most rarified thought and the most remote figment of imagination are rooted in the body’s encounter with the world. If, then, that encounter is occluded by abstraction, and its vital importance denied, we really get lost and not only do we not know where we are; we don’t even know what we are thinking and talking about! From this vantage point it is not difficult to see how one might mistake the symbol for the thing, and give―with all the power of one’s belief―the symbol a sense of autonomous existence that then is said to enrich ours.

[3] I’m quoting from memory, though I’m sure this is more or less what he said.

[4] P. Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, trans. D. Savage. New Haven and London: Yale Univerity Press, 1970.

[5] The answer to that question is complicated, for “affluence” is a historically contingent category in the sense that it is a function of needs. Marshall D. Sahlins elaborates on this in his seminal essay “The Original Affluent Society,” published in his Stone Age Economics (Chicago & New York, 1972: Aldine-Atherton, Inc). Sahlins puts it this way: “there are two possible courses to affluence. Wants may be ‘easily satisfied’ either by producing much or desiring little. The familiar conception, the Galbraithean way, makes assumptions particularly appropriate to market economies: that man’s wants are great, not to say infinite, whereas his means are limited, although improvable: thus, the gap between means and ends can be narrowed down by industrial productivity, at least to the point that ‘urgent goods’ become plentiful. But there is also a Zen road to affluence, departing from premises somewhat different from our own: that human material wants are finite and few, and technical means unchanging but on the whole adequate. Adopting the Zen strategy, a people can enjoy an unparalleled material plenty―with a low standard of living” (1-2, italics mine). From the latter, “Zen” perspective―long lost on productivist society―it is easy to see how we are snatched into a spiral of insatiability.

[6] T.W. Adorno. Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B. Ashton. Great Britain: Routledge, 1973, 203.

[7] A more exact and, at the same time, pretentious way of putting this would be something like “originary incommensurability of body and world.”

[8] Interview with Benjamin Zephaniah on Chat Politics. Accessed Nov 10, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_po6wrUGt1M.

[9] H. Marcuse. Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. From the “Political Preface.” Boston: Beacon Press, 1974, XVII.

[10] Cf. R. Jacoby. Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age. New York: ColumbiaUniversity Press, 2006.

 

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“Fleshling,” or Thank You, Megatron!

Image

I partly grew up on cartoons. My parents would leave me to my own devices and somehow I would find my way around the TV and what was on cable. And on were the Transformers.

Why it’s taken me so long to connect the dots between that old and–admittedly–shabby cartoon, and my writing on carnality (hopefully less shabby), is beyond me. I’m coming to realize there is indeed a connection!

I remember the Decepticons called humans “fleshlings.” The term was supposed to carry a derogatory connotation, referring to an “obviously lower,” organic life form. Be that as it may, I find this term, fleshling–so closely related to “earthling” but scarcely ever used–to be a very fitting designation for, as the Transformer Jetfire puts it in the 2009 Revenge of the Fallen movie, “a non-mechanized sentient form of life.” Or just “a sentient form of life,” since, honestly, I do not know of any mechanical sentients. So, fleshling it is!

(Revenge, by the way, was way, way shabbier than the original animated stuff, needless to say.)

And to think this comes out of a cartoon? I can only wonder to what degree my conviction of the onto-ethical centrality of fleshly sentience and my general fondness for the life of the flesh were shaped by the hours spent in front of the TV; and watching a cartoon that, by all accounts, was developed to sell bullshit plastic toys mass-produced by Hasbro. Maybe they made the show a bit too good… In your face, capitalist spectacle!

And, of course, an analysis of the thinly-veiled anthropocentrist ideology of the cartoon would not be entirely out of place. Off the top of my head: have you ever noticed how the “good” Autobots had this human-face-looking symbol as theirs, and the devious, “immoral” Decepticons gathered under a decidedly more “animal”-looking banner? Let’s leave that to the poststructuralists, shall we?

Fleshling in animalist philosophy and politics? Dibbs, brothers and sisters!

DIsclaimer 1: I claim no copyright to the attached image. I do feel, however, that Hasbro owes me big on account of my nascent short-sightedness, and have no qualms posting the pic on RR.

Disclaimer 2: To this day, I have learned nothing from Captain Planet.

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