Friday, November 11, 2011

The Power of Life

I have been using this strange medium for the past six years as a public notebook. Some of the sketches posted in this blog found their way into my new book, which, in this day and age, feels like an even stranger medium.

Google Books
Stanford UP

Also, Wittgenstein's Form of Life is now available in paperback.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Mad Men

I have a question for you:

What is the proportion between the time you spend, on the one hand, reading and thinking and writing in your field, and the time you spend, on the other hand, selling yourself by writing proposals and applications, shmoozing with colleagues and professors, and so forth?

And I have another question:

Did you know that the most cold-blooded corporations spend on advertisement anywhere between about %1 of their revenues (in the retail business) and about %7 (for companies selling packaged goods)?

This is just an educated guess, but I have a feeling that, on average, successful academics spend a much larger chunk of their intellectual resources on self-promotion than what good capitalists spend on marketing their wares.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Mass Culture and Terrorist Culture

1. The great fear of the nineteenth century was that amorphous blob called “the masses.” The masses were irrational, unpredictable, ungovernable, and extremely violent. From the construction of the wide boulevards in Paris to the castle-like armories across New York, the people in charge went out of their way to combat the monster in the heart of the great metropolis.

2. For a twenty-first century reader of nineteenth century newspapers, the stories about the riots and the general paranoia they engendered feel very much like today’s discourse about terrorism. Though the looters are still alive and kicking, and the terrorists seem to be on the wane and on the run, there is certainly an overall shift in good society’s “greatest fear.”

3. What is the most effective way to gain control over the masses and avoid the dreadful riot? More police officers and CCTV? Better jobs and social benefits? The twentieth century actually found a much better method to put the masses on a leash: It invented something called “mass culture.” To paraphrase Clement Greenberg, we could say that mass culture pretends to demand of its consumers not only their money, but also the promise to never revolt.

4. If you can’t beat the masses, entertain the masses. If the masses can see their own image and likeness in films, music, television, etc., then their sense of oppression is all of a sudden, as if by magic, less justified. When life feels like a dead end, you can easily band with others who feel the same and take to the streets. Alternatively, you can press play on your iPod and listen to your favorite rapper telling you about his fabulous exploits. You feel that you have a voice, you feel empowered, the anger goes away, and you decide to stay in your room.

5. European culture is still much more elitist than American culture, which is one way to explain why European cities are more vulnerable these days to riots than American cities. In the US everyone is front of their TV sets. Justice needs not be done, if it can only be seen as if it is done. Economically, kids in New York have as good a reason to smash a window as the kids in London. Culturally, they feel too good about themselves to even bother.

6. Mass culture, however, has been drugging the unstable masses to non-action long before hip hop. We have to keep things in perspective and realize that today’s anxiety from the rioting mob is a pale semblance of what it used to be a hundred years ago. Mass culture is such an effective mass tranquilizer that this (justified or unjustified) fear that people will suddenly unleash the animals inside of them is not unlike the zoogoers’ giddy fantasy that the tiger will escape from its cage.

7. If the comparison between the old fear of the masses and the new fear of terrorism is indeed viable, then the following thesis becomes very tempting: In precisely the same way that the best way to cope with “the masses” is to develop a powerful mass culture, then the best way to deal with terrorism is through what I would like to call “terrorist culture.” Terrorist culture will shape the culture of the twenty-first century exactly as mass culture shaped the culture of the previous century. Just as mass culture dispelled the fear of the masses, terrorist culture is quelling the terrorist boogeyman.

8. Banksy is the high priest of the burgeoning terrorist culture. Terrorist culture must (appear as if it) subvert(s) the cultural hegemony. Indeed, terrorist culture must (pretend to) undermine the insipid power of mass culture. While those in power have guns, the terrorists have homemade bombs. While the corporations inundate us with their fast food and stupid sitcoms, we can still make our own artisanal bread and shoot with our phones a quirky video and post it on YouTube. If only Harvard professors get to be critics for the New Yorker, we can write a blog.

9. Al-Qaeda is a DIY army. Voina is waging a cultural Jihad. If the capitals of mass culture are Manhattan and Hollywood, the capitals of terrorist culture are Brooklyn and San Francisco. If television was the prime tool to disseminate mass culture, smartphones are the best way to propagate terrorist culture. But if a revolution is “all over twitter” (rather than televised), does the statue of the sovereign make a sound as it tumbles (or tumblrs)?

10. Terrorist culture is no longer operating on the fringes of mass culture, the way Greenberg believed that the avant-garde must remain the obscure alternative to kitsch. Terrorist culture is becoming the dominant cultural force in the twenty-first century. In the same way that Adorno used to lament the demise of high culture in face of the rise of mass culture, some smartass will soon tell us how glorious were the days when mass culture gave us a sense of unity and democracy, while today’s terrorist culture is only leading to fragmentation and exclusivity.

11. Nevertheless, terrorist culture, like mass culture, is only a reaction against a deep-seated anxiety. They are both just a continuation of a war (on the masses, on terror) by other means. From this perspective, both mass and terrorist culture are probably doomed to do more harm than good, because they end up sacrificing a genuine revolutionary force on the altar of its own representation.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Academic Labor

An academic job is much more demanding than it seems. You need to do a lot of work to hide the fact that you don't really have anything significant to say. 

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Alienation of Theory

“How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life” --Wittgenstein

Granted, there is not much money to be made doing theoretical work. Which makes it all the more difficult to explain why theory turned into something that looks more and more like a feverish commodity market. Like the latest electronic gadgets, today’s concepts and subjects quickly rise and fall as they enter and exit the discourse of speculative exchange in the marketplace of ideas.

At the same time young financiers consult their Bloomberg machines in an attempt to decide whether they should invest their available capital in crude oil futures or sub-prime morgages, young philosophers attend scholarly conferences and read blog posts in an attempt to figure out what people talk about in today’s theoretical landscape, and where they should invest their available brain cells. Biopolitics? Animal philosophy? Speculative realism? Anarchism? Hauntology?

This is certainly a fun little game. It makes us think that the world of theory is alive and kicking. Like fashion, it creates the exclusive feeling of the in-crowd, the exciting sense of hype, and the exaggerated belief that some understand something that others simply don’t get.

The downside to all of this (the “collateral damage,” to use the right buzz word) is the alienation of theory. We talk about concepts the way a Wall Street analyst talks about stocks, or the way a Burger King employee flips burgers. Ideas have only exchange value for us, but no use value. Our philosophical labor feels more and more foreign to who we really are. The only thing we really care about is not the work that we do (the arguments we make, the books we write) but its surplus value (the invitation to present a paper, the prospect that others will cite it, and, ultimately, the tenure job).

Philosophy used to function according to the formula C-M-C: you developed a new Concept, which led to the gathering of Minions, which helped you to develop other Concepts, and so on. But today’s philosophy functions according to the formula M-C-M: you gather around you Minions, with the help of which you can disseminate your Concepts, which leads to the attraction of new Minions, and so forth.

It is rather strange to see how so many thinkers who love to talk about Marx (at least since he made his spectacular comeback in Derrida’s Specters) fail to apply his most basic idea about the alienation of labor to their own lofty practice. While all around us people try to reintroduce un-alienated labor (the “artisanal” bakery that replaces the factory bread), in theoretical work any investigation that defies the cosmopolitan production of jet-set ideas is treated as a marker of low intellectual capacity.

No one in particular is to be blamed for the alienation of theory. Neither Derrida, nor Zizek, nor Agamben, nor their minions, is more responsible than others for this predicament. We all carry this blame together. Once we realize this, we could begin to cure ourselves from the depressing effects of this alienation, no matter what faction or school we belong to. Then, perhaps, the notion of “lifework,” where one’s life and one’s work cannot be told apart from each other, will return to inform who we are and what we do.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Finest Thing about New York City

"The finest thing about New York City, I think, is that it is like one of those complicated Renaissance clocks where on one level an allegorical marionette pops out to mark the day of the week, on another a skeleton death bangs the quarter hour with his scythe, and on the third the Twelve Apostles do a cakewalk. The variety of the sideshows distracts one’s attention from the advance of the hour hand."

-A. J. Liebling, "Apology for Breathing"

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


This diagram was prepared by Bruce Jessen, a psychologist whose work was instrumental in the design of the Enhanced Interrogation Techniques Program, used by the US Department of Defense and the CIA to torture their detainees.

What interests me about this diagram is the way the prisoner at the center is treated as a zone of indetermination that can either undermine or substantiate Carl Schmitt's friend/enemy distinction. First, noticed that the American interrogator is labeled in the diagram as the enemy, while the terrorist group back at home is the friend (in the prisoner's mind, of course). The point is to transform the enemy into a friend and the friend into an enemy, that is, to make the prisoner collaborate with the enemy and resist his friend.

To achieve this goal, torture is actually presented as counterproductive. Punishment from the enemy (the interrogator), coupled with the potential reward from the friend (predicated on the prisoner's unwillingness to collaborate), leads to colossal failure (this is the left side of the diagram). Success lies on the right: rewarding the prisoner (thus making him feel that the interrogating enemy is actually a friend), while instilling the notion that collaboration will lead to punishment from the friend back at home (thus transforming the friend into the new enemy of the prisoner).

Of course, turning the friend-enemy distinction on its head is only an illusion. The interrogator will never be the prisoner's friend, and the prisoner knows it. This is why the interrogator always remains an enemy in the diagram, even when collaboration is achieved (the same is true about the friend).

But what is most intriguing about this diagram is that the prisoner is labeled in it neither as a friend nor as an enemy. Instead, the prisoner creates a zone of indistinction between the two categories. Put differently, the prisoner is the sovereign who decides on who is a friend and who is an enemy.

It is therefore not a coincidence that the prisoner is depicted in the diagram as if crucified. What Christ does to the Jew/Gentile distinction the prisoner does to the friend/enemy distinction. This becomes clear when one considers Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor,” where the image of Christ and that of the prisoner merge into one. In the parable, Christ returns to Spain in the sixteenth century, performs a few miracles, and is adored by the people as the true Messiah. But before long the cynical Inquisition, which perceives Jesus as a threat to the status quo, decides to sentence him to death. Christ does not utter a word throughout the parable, so the bulk of the text is dominated by the long speech of the Grand Inquisitor during his nocturnal visit to the cell where the Resurrected awaits his execution. But Christ does reply to this speech, though not with words. When the old inquisitor concludes his denunciation, at the very end of the parable, Christ gently kisses the old man on his “bloodless” lips.

Schmitt, who was a devout Roman Catholic, could be easily compared to the Grand Inquisitor. I wonder what would be his reaction if, at the end of one of his lectures in which he discussed his friend/enemy distinction, one of the audience members (preferably a Jew) were to approach him behind the lectern and kiss the eloquent jurist on his bloodless lips.

And who knows, maybe in one of the interrogation cells in Guatanamo Bay a prisoner is leaning over right now and kissing his American interrogator. I would love to see this scene at the end of a Hollywoodian psychological thriller about a CIA agent and an al-Qaeda operative. Maybe the film should be titled, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."