Beat on the Brat

There's an old rhetorical trick apologists of capitalism like to use: blame the poor for their own poverty. Poor people are lazy. Poor people are stupid. Or both. This blame-the-victim approach is a perennial favorite, and is constantly cropping up in new forms. Plenty of people have taken it upon themselves to answer this charge, especially in its straightforwardly economic form. But I'd like to take a moment to look at another version of what I think is the same basic argument.

Even those of you who don't believe the statement "poor people are poor because they're lazy" might still believe it in this form: "Poor students are (academically) poor because they are lazy." It will seem that we have slipped into metaphor. It will seem as if I am equivocating. Economic poverty isn't the same thing as academic poverty, after all. But does this make the argument any more valid?

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    The Clash, "The Guns of Brixton"

"Alone in a Darkened Room..."

I saw Twilight today (and my guess was correct: it was me and a bunch of high school girls in the audience...). What follows, by and large, is not a review; I'm rather interested in thinking about the role of the vampire in pop consciousness. By way of review, I will say two things. First, the movie is fun, and not campy/cheesy in the way so many vampire movies are. Second, I find it interesting that the central relationship in an incredibly popular romance story should be so obsessional, even co-dependent. Perhaps an issue for another time.

What is most striking is the very fact of the movie: not a vampire story with a romance in it, but a romance story with a vampire in it. Further, look at the "monsters" themselves: No Buffy-style wumply foreheads here. No, and in fact, Stephenie Meyer's 'creatures of the night' not only get along just fine during the day, they only avoid sunlight because it makes them sparkle like diamonds. Yes: that classic foe of vampires, the sun, simply makes the vampires of Twilight more beautiful. We've come a long way since Bram Stoker's first description of the Count:

His face was a strong, a very strong, aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils, with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth. These protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale, and at the tops extremely pointed. The chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.

Hitherto I had noticed the backs of his hands as they lay on his knees in the firelight, and they had seemed rather white and fine. But seeing them now close to me, I could not but notice that they were rather coarse, broad, with squat fingers. Strange to say, there were hairs in the centre of the palm. The nails were long and fine, and cut to a sharp point. As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me, I could not repress a shudder. It may have been that his breath was rank, but a horrible feeling of nausea came over me, which, do what I would, I could not conceal.
Stoker's Dracula is strange and nauseating--a tone which carries through all early popular depictions of vampires. Meyer's vampires may be a little more "sparkly" than their contemporaries, but their beauty is by this point nothing out of the ordinary: be it Angel or Spike, Louis or Lestat, Bill or Blade, Dracula or...well...Dracula, today the "sexy vampire" has become the standard. So what happened?

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    P.I.L.: "This Is Not A Love Song"

Teaching Philosophy I: Reading 1.0 vs. Reading 2.0

In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams tells the story of programmers who create an amazing supercomputer, Deep Thought (the second greatest computer of all time and space...), to calculate and reveal to them the "ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything." Deep Thought takes 7.5 million years to calculate the answer, but then finally makes his long-awaited proclaimation: The ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything is...42.

The programmers (well, their distant descendants...) feel--perhaps justly--confused and irate: The answer "42" makes no sense.

Of course not, Deep Thought tells them; they don't have the question for which this "ultimate answer" makes sense. And so, naturally, the programmers ask Deep Thought: Can it reveal to them the question, for which "42" is the answer?

No, Deep Thought declares: it isn't nearly powerful enough. However, it can design a bigger, better computer for them, one which will eventually produce the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.

Those familiar with the five-book-trilogy know where the story goes from here: The supercomputer designed by Deep Thought is the planet Earth, which--after a small setback, and under the watchful eye of the mice--takes 10 million years to run the program which will produce the question, only to be destroyed by the Vogons five minutes before successful completion. But in this story are two aspects which might help us to think about reading philosophy:

1. "The Answer" is no good if you don't know which question it answers.
2. "The Question" can actually be harder to find than "The Answer."

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    Gang of Four: "Natural's Not In It"

The Hero Takes a Fall

I received my copy of Huston Smith's The World's Religions as a freshman in high school; it was required reading for Flex, the amazing four-year humanities course I took all through high school. I've had that same copy ever since; over the years, it's been a book I've continually come back to--not only to re-read it, but also assigning portions of it to my students (in both Introduction to Philosophy courses and a Philosophy of Religion course I taught). For a while in college, I even made a challenge of working a Huston Smith quote into every paper I wrote, no matter the topic. It's not simply that I enjoyed the book; it was Huston Smith himself, his approach to religions and "our wisdom traditions," that really spoke to me: Here was someone who said, we can approach the various world religions as an area of open, scholarly inquiry, as seekers of truth, without necessarily making religion an object either of scorn or reverance, nor simply reducing it to the status of "literature." At the tender age of fifteen, Smith was a powerful influence to temper my raging, indignant, crusading atheism with the calm voice of rational inquiry, helping in no small part to funnel my knee-jerk skepticism into the critical consciousness of a philosopher.

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    Pattern Is Movement: "Bird"

Change We Can (Make-)Believe In

All that can be said with some certainty is that an arithmetical majority on the Left at the ballot-box and, with it, constitutional legitimacy is no guarantee of either the power or the 'right' to govern--as the murder of Chile yesterday, the agony of Nicaragua today, bear witness.
--Gregory Elliot, Althusser: The Detour of Theory

Obama's response to critics after a recent spate of conservative kow-towing has been interesting: “Look, let me talk about the broader issue, this whole notion that I am shifting to the center. The people who say this apparently haven’t been listening to me.” Of course, Obama follows up truth with half-truth, adding, “I am someone who is no doubt progressive.” The quote comes from a speech intended to defend his 'progressive' status--which reminds me of something Terry Eagleton once wrote about Stanley Fish: "It is one of the minor symptoms of the mental decline of the United States that Stanley Fish [or Barack Obama--or the Democrat party, for that matter] is thought to be on the Left....In a nation so politically addled that 'liberal' can mean 'state-interventionist' and 'libertarianism' letting the poor die on the streets, this is perhaps not wholly unpredictable." Which is to say: Obama is exactly right when he says that anyone who thinks he's "suddenly shifting to the Center" hasn't been listening to him. But it's not--as he himself suggests--because he's still fighting the good, progressive fight. Rather, it's because he's still as progressive as he's ever been; that is to say, he's been in the Center all along.

Certainly though, it's been a hard week or two for Obama's faithful--or at least those among his faithful who harbor dreams of "change," "hope," etc. His support of FISA--which passed in what can only be called a landslide vote in the Democratically-controlled Senate--is hard to defend as anything but a complete volte face. And his positive comments on the recent Supreme Court ruling overturning the DC gun ban, coupled with his public disagreement with the Supreme Court ruling against executing child rapists, both certainly smack of playing to the reactionary Right. (In fairness, however, Obama guards his position on capital punishment with essentially the correct caveat: "At the same time," the above-cited Caucus blog notes, "he said the system of death penalty justice was so flawed that the nation should declare a moratorium on executions, such as that imposed in Illinois by Republican Gov. George Ryan.") So those who feel, in Joan Walsh's words, "betrayed by Obama" are not entirely wrong or naive.

If there is an up-side to this betrayal, however, it might be the beginning of an end to the "Democrat-as-progressive" fantasy that has driven the Democrat-Left electoral alliance since the late 40s. In large part, this fantasy has been strengthened through hypotheticals and missed-encounters: "If only JFK hadn't been assasinated..." "If only Robert Kennedy hadn't been assasinated..." "If only George McGovern hadn't lost to Nixon..." Like Zizek's assessment of the Soviet Invasion and the end of the Hungarian Spring, in each case an outside intervention can be used to sustain the fantasy. I would have gotten away with it, if it weren't for you snooping kids... Already in the Obama disillusionment-fallout, one can sense the sneaking suspicion that Emma Goldman was right: "If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal." (Or, who was it who put it this way: "No matter who wins, the government gets elected.") An Obama presidency--and the full-scale demonstration of what "Change" really means to the Democrat party--might be exactly what Leftist politics needs...

...That said, there is another fantasy that we ought to be on the lookout for: Ron Paul (who, I note, didn't vote on FISA...). The neo-con "outside intervention" here may serve to preserve the Ron Paul fantasy as an option for disillusioned Obama supporters; already, there have been moves in this direction as part of the Pelosi-disillusionment fallout. And Libertarians like Lew Rockwell are playing right to this crowd: "If only the prophetic and courageous Ron Paul were running as an independent. People are ready for real change. As Tweedledee and Tweedldum struggle for power, with almost exactly the same program, Ron could be making History. It wasn't right for him, he felt, and given his political skills, that has to be determinative. And yet, if only..." Libertarians are slowly positioning themselves as "a not-so-lunatic fringe." My gut feeling here is that the best Leftist strategy over the next few years may amount to the election of Barack Obama, coupled with the engaged struggle against Libertarianism as a viable option for disillusioned progressives as the Obama White House makes one "compromise" after another.
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    The Cure: "Faith"

Quick Shot: Undead, Undead, Undead!

We never believe that someone is dead; we know that they are dead...but we do not believe it.

In September of 1977, Time magazine ran an article on The New Philosophers (la nouveaux philosophes), "a group of young intellectuals, most of them lapsed Marxists." The cover in America for that issue showed a cartoon house suspended in the air, for a cover story on rising housing prices (tagline: "Sky-High Housing: Building Up, Prices Up"), but the European edition made the New Philosophers article the cover story, with the tagline "Marx is Dead." Less than a year later, in-fighting among the groups of France's Union of the Left (along with some good old fashioned sabotage by the leaders of the PCF) saw a landslide--and, for most, unthinkably unexpected--defeat of the left at the polls, and France joined Britain and the United States in the political slide to the far Right leading into the 80s.

It was, to be sure, not the first time Marx had (very publicly) 'died'; nor, certainly, would it be the last. In fact, we can mark the passage of the last half-century of political struggles by the recurrent deaths of Karl Marx--the Kenny McCormick of Leftist politics: 1956; 1968; 1975-1980; 1989-1991; etc. Perhaps Derrida is right to invoke ghosts when talking about Marx; Marx is dead, but keeps returning like the specter haunting Europe that he spent his life championing. Is the Left being haunted? Do we need an exorcism--or the Ghostbusters?

...but could there be another explanation?

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    The Ting Tings: "That's Not My Name"

Redemption Song (Or: I Am Not Legend)

The lesson that we should learn--and that the movies try to avoid--is that we ourselves are the aliens.

Having eagerly anticipated the release of I Am Legend, I finally got a chance to see it over the holiday week. What disappointed me about the movie (and, specifically, comparing it with the source material) was not so much the way the story has changed in the transition to the screen; rather, it's in the way the meaning of the story has been changed.

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    Rolling Stones, "Gimmie Shelter"

Quick Shot: The Subject Supposed to Participate

It's time to come clean, American liberals. Or progressives. Or whatever nonthreatening word you've quietly adopted for yourself these days in the vain hope that Ann Coulter will not use it in an emasculating Christmas jingle: You love you some Kucinich.
And so do I.*
*Not that I plan to vote for him. That would be crazy.

The response to an ideological interpellation is also made in the name of a claim of sense: it is this "presupposition of intelligibility" that pushes the interpellated individual towards an identification with the subject supposed to believe. The active part played by the interpellated individual consists precisely in her/his helping to establish a "facade"--an ideological effect of coherence. The interpellated individual does indeed interpret "on the basis of certain anticipatory ideas": but s/he ascribes them to the subject supposed to believe, and thus confers upon them an a priori social status.

As an elaboration of Althusser's (Lacanian) theory of ideology (and ideological interpellation), Mocnik discusses the role of the "subject supposed to believe" (an analogue to Lacan's "subject supposed to know") in the interpellation of individuals. The idea being that one does not have to "believe" in the ideology oneself in order to be interpellated by it, one merely need suppose that others might believe. The clear example is the case of a rumor about the banks running out of money. This need in no way be true, and the individual in question need in no way believe it's true. Still, he says to himself, "Others will believe this rumor, and they will go and take their money out of the bank, causing a run on the banks!" And so what does our non-believing individual do? Of course: he goes and tries to take his money out of the bank, "just in case other people cause a run." And in so doing, contributes to the creation of that very phenomena.

The notion of "electability" plays the same role within American politics as the rumor in the above example. It is a function of ideological interpellation which no individual voter need really take seriously; but the very idea that this notion has any sense at all, in other words, the supposition of a subject who does believe, is enough to change voting behavior. The idea that one might "throw away one's vote" or--worse yet (and the 2000 election is constantly evoked here as the story to frighten children into behaving)--"split the vote," thus de facto giving the "other side" the upper hand in the election. We saw this rumor of electability slowly weed out the better of the candidates for the 2004 election, until we were left with the "most electable" John Kerry. Once again, the rumor mill is running high this campaign season, and the place we see this most is in media dealings with Dennis Kucinich. (And if you haven't read Gore Vidal's piece on Kucinich from The Nation, check it out; it's worth the read.)

Kucinich has, of course, been repeatedly asked about this; and his answer is always something along the lines of, "I know I'm a long-shot candidate. But what I stand for is central to the hopes and dreams of the American population." Unfortunately, the very opportunity to answer the charge reinforces the idea of a subject supposed to believe; the very framing of Kucinich as "a long-shot candidate." Kucinich takes the optimistic approach: "This 'electability' issue is something right out of Forrest Gump: 'Electability is as electability does'." He maintains that "people will catch on," and that we'll "see [his] numbers start to rise."

Terry Eagleton has famously defended ideology theory because of the power of the "false consciousness" aspect of the theory. This same aspect of ideology theory has fallen out of favor over the last fifteen or twenty years, due to the paternalistic way of framing political struggle: "I'm engaged politically on behalf of people who are too ideologically blinded to help themselves," and all that. The subject supposed to believe, however, seems to me precisely the way in which ideology theory can recover the power of "false consciousness" without the paternalistic presupposition of anything like "true consciousness" and "blind masses." Instead, election year political struggle should be a more Lacanian exercise: our job is not to convince people about what their "real interests" are; if Kucinich is right (and the entire reason the question of 'electability' is thrown in his face is, as the above articles attest, that he is right), he already represents the interests of Americans, and they already know it. Our job instead is simply to help everyone (including ourselves!) understand that there is no subject who believes. It's not about "throwing away your vote" on the basis of principles; it's about really voting, of choosing not to throw away your vote.
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    Siouxsie: "Into a Swan"

Only When I Lose Myself

It is easy to imagine, too, that certain mystical practices may succeed in upsetting the normal relations between the different regions of the mind, so that, for instance, perception may be able to grasp happenings in the depths of the ego and in the id which were otherwise inaccessible to it. It may be safely doubted, however, whether this road will lead us to the ultimate truths from which salvation is to be expected. Nevertheless it may be admitted that the theraputic efforts of psycho-analysis have chosen a similar line of approach. Its intention is, indeed, to strengthen the ego, to make it more independent of the super-ego, to widen its field of perception and enlarge its organization, so that it can appropriate fresh portions of the id. Where id was, there ego shall be.
--Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis
(Standard Edition, trans. James Strachey, pp. 99-100)

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    Concrete Blonde, "Everybody Knows"

President Gas

With Apologies to Plato (by way of Grube and Reeve)...

"Socrates," Glaucon said, "do you want to seem to have persuaded us that democracy is the best form of government, or do you want truly to convince us of this?"

"I truly want to convince you," I said, "if I can."

"Well then, you certainly aren't doing what you want. Tell me, do you recognize that when we say 'best', we sometimes mean this comparatively, that which is better than its alternatives, though not necessarily good in any absolute sense, in itself?"

"Certainly, I recognize this meaning of the term."

"And do you also recognize another meaning of the term 'best', by which we mean that which is inherently good in itself, and thus better than any possible alternative?"

"There is also this meaning. But what of it?"

"Where do you put Democracy?"

"I myself mean that it is good in itself, and thereby the best possible form of government."

"That isn't most people's opinion. They'd say that Democracy belongs to the first kind, the 'lesser of several evils', and is to be supported simply as a way of limiting the power of any one individual to do greater evil."

"I know, that's the general opinion. Thrasymachus faulted Democracy on these grounds just a moment ago, but it seems that I'm a slow learner."

"Come, then, and listen to me as well, and see whether you still have that problem, for I think that Thrasymachus gave up before he had to, charmed by you as if he were a snake. But I'm not yet satisfied by the argument on either side. I want to know what Democracy and its opposite are and what power each itself has when it's by itself in the state. I want to leave out of account their abuses and what comes of each of them. So, if you'll agree, I'll renew the argument of Thrasymachus. First, I'll state what kind of a thing people consider Democracy to be and what its origins are. Second, I'll argue that all who support it do so unwillingly, as simply the lesser of two evils, not as something good in itself. Third, I'll argue that they have good reason to think as they do."

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    Camouflage, "The Great Commandment"