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If You Can't Say Unqualified, Say Ungrateful

November 30, 2017 - 12:19
Tags:  Donald Trump, nfl, black labor, affirmative action, dog whistle

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

In 1988, a theatrical television commercial showcased two black men in profile, inches apart, shirtless, each staring the other down. Mike Tyson and Michael Spinks were fighters in their prime, undefeated over their professional careers to that point, both with legitimate claims to the world heavyweight title. The purse would be the richest in the history of professional boxing. After several seconds of silence, Spinks — still looking directly into Tyson’s eyes — mutters, “Thank you, Mr. Trump.” Tyson adds, “Yeah, thank you, Mr. Trump.” Their performance, a duet, concludes with them alternating the lines “Now we’ll see who’s the champion . . . and who’s the chump!” The Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino logo then fills the screen, urging viewers to order “Tyson vs. Spinks: Once and for All” on their pay per view system.

Both Tyson and Spinks stood to profit handsomely from the fight, their gratitude to Trump obviously scripted but probably not entirely unfounded given Trump’s role in setting up the fight and hawking the live and televised rights to watch it. Trump had paid $11 million to stage the fight next door to his Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, whose profits on fight night promised to be several times the norm. A relative newcomer to boxing promotion, Trump was learning to work with flamboyant industry personalities Butch Lewis, Spinks’s manager, and Don King, powerful black men whom he called “good businessmen” and “very honorable.” In hindsight, Tyson-Spinks may stand as the high-water mark for the respectability of the Trump brand among black people in the sports world.

It’s safe to say that we’ve arrived at the low point. In September, Trump told an audience in Alabama that NFL owners should fire any “son of a bitch” who didn’t stand for the national anthem. Since then, he has publicly sparred with multiple black sports personalities. They include NBA champ Steph Curry, whom Trump uninvited to the White House, SportsCenter host Jemele Hill, whom Trump blamed for ESPN’s ratings, and Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch, who did eventually stand for a national anthem — Mexico’s. Trump’s most recent target is entrepreneur LaVar Ball. Ball’s offense? A lack of gratitude for Trump’s involvement in securing the release of Ball’s son from a Chinese jail. Trump took his scorn to a new level by calling Ball an “ungrateful fool” and “a poor man’s Don King” on Twitter.

Months before, The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb called attention to the intersectional nature of Trump’s disdain for his targets; they are not just black entertainers but rich black entertainers who have transgressed. The cardinal sin in this worldview is ungratefulness: “the belief endures . . . that visible, affluent African-American entertainers are obliged to adopt a pose of ceaseless gratitude — appreciation for the waiver that spared them the low status of many others of their kind.” The collective “ingratitude” of rich black entertainers signals to Trump and his supporters that something is wrong with the system. A society that produces black wealth without producing black gratitude must be rigged.

While the predominant framing of ungrateful black athlete has been that of the unpatriotic American, examining the conflict within the context of black labor leads to fresh insights. The most important is that the stereotype of the ungrateful black athlete is the stereotype of the bad black worker.

The ungrateful black athlete stereotype complements the unqualified black hire stereotype, ascendant since the advent of federal affirmative action policies in the 1960s. “Ungrateful” and “unqualified” are two sides of the same coin. Together, they constitute a racist double bind that impugns black workers as a drag on national economic health and development. To conservatives offended by the NFL anthem protests, “ungrateful” is a potent dog whistle that reconciles seemingly contradictory archetypes of black labor — the talented black athlete and the black affirmative action hire.

The ungrateful stereotype is needed to cast black athletes as bad workers because it is impossible to do so using performance metrics. Based on his 2016 statistics, Colin Kaepernick is more qualified than almost all of the struggling journeymen quarterbacks starting this season. Yet the stereotype has successfully kept him out of the league, prompting him to sue the NFL for collusion. Team owners can refuse to sign a player if they believe his activities will be a distraction, provided there is no evidence of collusion among them or with the league office. Even if Kaepernick wins his lawsuit, his decision to sue his place of work will no doubt further entrench his reputation as a “disgruntled employee.”

The framing of kneeling black athletes as employees foremost — rather than as American citizens, say — associates them with black workers in general, stoking resentment among white Americans opposed to affirmative action. In Dog Whistle Politics, Ian Haney López describes the dog whistles that call to mind “imagined losses” for white Americans. While white Americans have taken tangible social losses after the end of de jure white supremacy in the US, Haney López argues, “these interests are dwarfed by a racial imagination that often heaps blame on nonwhites for almost every reversal in the fortunes of the white middle class over the last 50 years.” Tweets or memes critical of kneeling black athletes trigger these feelings of imagined losses.

When Sports Illustrated readers sounded off on the NFL protests, many pointed to their imagined losses as workers to justify their position. “Really, who is allowed to protest at work?” wrote Cindy Robertson. “The NFL players are at work. I really don't care what they think, just play ball.” A few readers were even convinced that players were taking something valuable away from them personally. “Make yourselves feel good about rich athletes protesting inequality all you want,” wrote Keith from San Diego, “but real people in America are working hard to live decent, productive lives, and we don't need politics infused in what was once an escape.” Michael Peters agreed. “Sunday is my escape. Sports are entertainment. I need a break from all that anger and yelling and name-calling. Now it permeates my escape.” Personal discomfort during leisure time was felt as a loss by these erstwhile fans, perhaps even a theft.

Because 70% of NFL players are black, any message portraying the NFL as a business beset by labor problems strengthens the ungrateful black athlete stereotype. Trump has fed this narrative by pairing digs at “unpatriotic” players with others mocking the NFL’s unpopularity and Commissioner Roger Goodell’s incompetence. Angry fans have led boycotts of the NFL as if the games themselves were shoddy consumer goods not built the way they used to be. Goodell’s lack of leadership was blamed even for declining pizza sales. “The Commissioner has lost control of the hemorrhaging league,” Trump tweeted on Black Friday. “Players are the boss!” In this upside-down world, somebody needs to be fired.

Enter LaVar Ball. Following the release of three UCLA basketball players from custody in China, including Ball’s son, Trump balked that “LaVar Ball, the father of LiAngelo, is unaccepting of what I did for his son and that shoplifting is no big deal. I should have left them in jail!” Ball, it appears, was “Very ungrateful!” Three days later, Trump was at it again. “LaVar,” he began, “you could have spent the next 5 to 10 years during Thanksgiving with your son in China, but no NBA contract to support you.” Trump’s fantasy of a black father and son sharing a jail cell locates the ungrateful black athlete at a single remove from the black criminal. To Trump, Ball is just another grifter exploiting a vulnerable system — and the labor of his sons — for his own personal gain, a far cry from Keith from San Diego’s “real” hard-working Americans. Trump’s first inclination has never been to question the patriotism of his enemies but to question how they do their jobs because of who they are.

In a recent Politico story by Michael Kruse, residents of an economically-distressed Pennsylvania town revealed that the national issue that upset them the most was the NFL anthem protests. Asked if he didn’t support equality, one man shot back, “For people who deserve it and earn it. . . . All my ancestors, Italian, 100 percent Italian, the Irish, Germans, Polish, whatever . . . they worked hard and . . . earned the success that they got. Some people don’t want to do that. They just want it handed to them.” He fell short of saying how NFL players were different. Kruse closes with a scene of a couple sharing their inside joke of what the letters “N.F.L.” stand for. The last two words are “for life,” and the n-word is just that.

In light of Kruse’s insightful reporting, it’s important to return to Jelani Cobb’s point that “ungrateful” is the new “uppity.” This is because, at least for now, “uppity,” like racist acronyms, is language still largely reserved for private spaces. At least for now, it’s still a bad career move for a public servant to keep a “list of no good n*****s,” especially if it includes the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. At least for now, comparing kneeling black athletes to “inmates running the prison” earns rebukes from peers and forces multiple apologies. And so “ungrateful” emerges to convey the same contempt for black people connoted by another word, one that most white Americans, only a couple of years ago it seems, would never let a journalist attribute to them.

Donald Trump did not invent the ungrateful black athlete stereotype, but he made it familiar, yoking it to bygone boogeymen of welfare queens and unqualified firefighters. The stereotype brands world-class athletes as undeserving of their station and recasts professionals at the top of their game as that black person who doesn’t know how to do their job. Maxine Waters. Frederica Wilson. La David Johnson. Barack Obama. For most public figures, the boundary of anti-black speech today is the dog whistle. “Ungrateful” is only the latest way to say that a black worker is unworthy because they are black.

Better than anyone, Trump knows that just enough people will always believe that a more deserving contender waits in the wings.

The Real Economic Consequences of Martin Luther

November 28, 2017 - 13:50
Tags:  early modern history, economics, Martin Luther, Reformation, political economy

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

Lo, Christ is never strong in us till we be weak. As our strength abateth, so groweth the strength of Christ in us; when we are clean emptied of our own strength, then are we full of Christ’s strength. And look, how much of our own strength remaineth in us, so much lacketh there of the strength of Christ.

– William Tyndale, Obedience of a Christian Man 

Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?

– Martin Luther, Thesis 86

Issuing a direct challenge to seemingly unshakable economic truths, the contemporary chartalist school of political economy known as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has argued that money is a boundless public utility and that at bottom employment is a creature of the state. As MMT economist Stephanie Kelton explains in a recent piece for The Los Angeles Times, this means that a currency-issuing polity can always afford to employ persons in service of social and environmental needs. Such targeted state spending should not precipitate harmful inflation, Kelton maintains, provided that government mobilizes available material resources and collective knowhow to realize its politically determined aims.

Chartalists like Kelton offer the left a genuine alterative to neoliberal privation and a novel foundation for politics. Still, possibilities for social and environmental justice tomorrow will also hinge on the struggle over defining money’s past, and chartalist historiography remains in its infancy. Pioneering efforts by Alfred Mitchell Innes, Michael Hudson, and Christine Desan notwithstanding, contemporary chartalism lacks a rich archive of social artefacts and demands more robust and interdisciplinary methods. This is where the complex historiographic methods practiced in the humanities can make a tremendous contribution to the chartalist project. Indeed, if the future of money is to be forged in the fires of its still-largely obscure history, the humanities can play a crucial role in mining money’s social past for its repressed social potentials.

Take, for example, the recent account of the Protestant Reformation by Davide Cantoni, Jeremiah Dittmar, and Noam Yuchtman. Published by VoxEU and later featured by Naked Capitalism, the essay contends that the tremendous economic transformation that accompanied the Reformation was precipitated by the breakup of a previously monopolized “market for salvation” and resulted in an “immediate and large secularization” of investment and production more generally.

It is clear that the authors’ entire thesis relies upon unquestioned neoclassical assumptions about the virtues of competitive markets, pricing on the margin, rational expectations, and econometric evidence; this alone should raise the eyebrow of any critical chartalist. Yet when viewed from an interdisciplinary historical perspective, their neoclassical fable of the Reformation melts into thin air.

The authors’ foundational error is to treat the Universal Church not as a governmental institution, as it would be in a chartalist reading, but as a sort of independent contractor providing religious services to interested individuals. They start by affirming earlier scholarship, which casts the various organs of the Church as “producers of salvation” for the lay Christians who served as the product’s “consumers.”

Having begun here, they introduce a second “product.” In addition to manufacturing salvation, the Church is also a supplier of legitimacy for so-called “secular rulers,” by which the authors primarily mean the monarchs of the emergent nation-states. Before the age of reform, the papacy held a spiritual monopoly, they explain, providing the crowned heads of Christendom with salvation, and especially legitimacy, for a very steep price. With the introduction of the new reformed confessions, however, the monopoly was broken, and sovereigns of every faith found they could now purchase the endorsement of religious leaders at a bargain. This meant that resources once diverted towards “religious” ends could be put to other, more “secular” uses.

Although it is hard to deny that the weakness of the papacy after 1517 allowed even Catholic rulers to enlarge the scope of their power, the rest of the account presented by Cantoni, Dittmar, and Yuchtman is far less credible. Their least plausible gesture is to stress a one-dimensional narrative of secularization at the expense of a more nuanced understanding of the evolving role of religion in European society.

The development of secular civil society in the West is obviously much debated. Was it a product of the later age Enlightenment? Or a gradual process unfolding over the course of many centuries? Instead of choosing either of these more plausible theories, the authors try to make the Reformation a dramatic turning point. Rather than a single step along a very long road, it is the site of a sudden realignment of social resources and political power away from the realm of the sacred, a moment when “human capital and fixed investment shifted sharply from religious to secular purposes.” The authors speak of a decline in the study of theology, “which paid off specifically in the religious sector,” of “increased [labor] demand in the secular sector,” and a reorientation of construction projects “towards the interests of secular lords — palaces and administrative buildings.”

This simplistic division is a mistake, and not because the transfer of social resources from the institutional church to monarchies and republics was imaginary; that it took place is beyond controversy. Instead we need to question the framing of the shift in terms of an opposition of “religious” and “secular.” Were the so-called “secular rulers” who benefited from the weakening of papal authority really less religious in their orientation?

Take the example of England! While Henry VIII dissolved most, although not all of the monasteries, it never occurred to him to abolish the English Church. Instead he placed himself at its head, appointing bishops, overseeing the indoctrination of his subjects, and setting the patterns of their worship; he did not abolish the papacy so much as take the pope’s place. He also laid claim upon the pope’s authority to punish heresy within his realm, a function enthusiastically continued by his children and successors, Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth. Can we really describe the empowerment of these rulers as a decline of the sacred at the expense of the secular?

And England is hardly an exception. The Catholic monarchs of Iberia inserted themselves even more dramatically into the spiritual lives of their subjects, and it was left to the “secular” town government of Geneva to establish perhaps the most systematically theocratic regime in the history of Western Europe.

The same may be said of the authors’ assertions regarding “secular” labor demand and “secular” construction projects. They speak of the “hiring of lawyers rather than theologians,” but a law degree had been a reliable path to success in the Roman curia since at least the thirteenth century; it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that the popes of the later middle ages employed more tax attorneys than doctors of theology. The authors also classify “palaces” as “secular” building projects, in contrast to churches and shrines, but this would be news to the architects and builders of the great ecclesiastical palaces of fifteenth-century Rome.

Moreover, by including “administrative buildings” on the “secular” side of the balance, the authors return to their original error. To treat courthouses and chanceries as more appropriate to a king or a prince than a cardinal or a pope means more than simply ignoring how many were built or refurbished to serve the needs of the massive papal bureaucracy. Ultimately, it is to forget that the pre-Reformation church was not a private provider of this or that service, but a source of political authority in its own right. It was not simply an impediment to the aspirations of would-be theocrats in London or Madrid, but their rival: a sophisticated and self-conscious governing project directed towards the collective life of Latin Christianity.

It is because Cantoni, Dittmar, and Yuchtman fail to recognize the political nature of the papacy that their simplified account of a rapid lurch towards secularization is necessary in the first place. Since they cannot acknowledge the real similarities between royal and papal regimes, they must resort to a forced opposition of kings and popes, royal lawyers and church lawyers, princes’ palaces and bishops’ palaces. They mistake a revolution in political and monetary governance for a story of markets, consumerism, and individual bargaining. As a consequence, they set forth a simplified and exaggerated story of secularization.

Their thinking allows no room for a different story, one not of supply and demand, provider and customer, but of contesting government enterprises, the decline of one, the papacy, and the rise of others in its place. They have already decided that the history of humanity is a story of producing and consuming, and buying and bargaining, and so this is what they find. And because this understanding is derived from a later era, namely the Enlightenment, they must impose the Enlightenment’s opposition of religion and secularism upon their account of the profoundly religious society of Reformation Europe. What is worse, by suppressing the Reformation’s true political contours, the authors misrepresent the period’s complex history and its potential meaning for a future politics. 

The great irony here is that it was the same age of Reformation which the authors so gravely misunderstand that cleared the way for the reductive vision of politics and economics upon which they rely. The later middle ages had nourished a number of diverse intellectual traditions, many of which anticipated chartalism’s sense of the potential of the state to answer the needs of the people.

In the era of Aquinas, Dante, and Accursius, a capacious and expansive understanding of law, government, sovereignty, and, above all, of currency, still seemed possible. It did not appear ridiculous to declare, as Dante does in De Monarchia, that the Empire cannot become insolvent because all things ultimately belong to the emperor.

In contrast, the greatest minds of the Reformation, Erasmus, Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, helped complete the work of stifling and foreclosing these traditions, work begun with the parallel development of Humanism and Nominalism in the fourteenth century. In their ostensibly theological writings on God’s power and Christ’s redeeming grace, the reformers developed a style of contracted, zero-sum thinking which, extended to political economy, makes the limitation of public spending seem natural and inevitable. Such thinking is on full display in the two epigraphs above.

The claim of the English reformer William Tyndale that Christ is only strong when the individual is weak is a metaphysical foreshadowing of the modern Liberal doctrine that the state’s power to spend must come at the expense of the private wealth of the citizen. The underlying logic of such a statement points toward a notion of “private money” being “taken” by a grasping state apparatus which is already adumbrated in Luther’s famous Theses.

Laying the groundwork for the later emergence of Liberal political economy and the modern system of nation-states, the reformers actively purged late-medieval conceptions of the monetary instrument as a public utility from the collective imagination. Instead, they construed money as a private, finite and decentered instrument, and sovereign governments as constrained by taxation revenues and borrowing. In historicizing the Reformation through a narrative of market maneuvering, Cantoni, Dittmar, and Yuchtman mirror the Reformation period’s self-serving repression of chartalism and bar chartalism’s political potential from expanding the contemporary political imagination.

History is not a transparent window onto bygone times; it is an opaque antechamber to still-undetermined futures. For this reason, chartalists need to tell fresh and compelling stories about money’s complex political and social history. In the meantime, we must insist that if money is irreducible to market exchange, so too is its past. Otherwise, the fate of collective life will remain imprisoned in a dismal story that the Reformation scripted long ago.

How Toussaint de Bréda became ‘the Opening’

November 20, 2017 - 15:55
Tags:  Haiti, Toussaint Louverture, French Revolution, Revolution, Francophone, France, biography

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

The child was born on the Day of all Saints to an Allada aristocrat named Hippolyte and an Aja woman named Pauline, both slaves at Haut-du-Cap, one of four plantations owned by Pantaleón de Bréda, an absentee owner. On Nov 1, 1742, the child was therefore christened “Tous-saint de Breda.” Toussaint grew up among slaves speaking Fon and practicing Vodun. Eventually, Toussaint developed close relationship with Catholic priests and came to reject “African barbarism and superstitions” throughout his life. In the 1790s, as he helped organize the slave armies to destroy plantations around Le Cap, Toussaint understood his role in providential Catholic terms — he had become “the opening,” L’Ouverture, for slaves to gain both emancipation and French civilization, including literacy and classical learning. De Bréda mutated into “the Opening” by sheer self-will. TL was an autodidact who at age 50 began to teach himself reading and writing. During his 1803 imprisonment near the Swiss Alps, TL left a 16,000 word petition to Napoleon in phonetic spelling in his own handwriting. He wrote and rewrote the petition several times, forcefully claiming to be primarily a Frenchman, a Black general of the Republic. Napoleon never read the petition. There is only one surviving copy left. It was found sown into the frock TL wore in prison, along with a collection of other notarized papers.

Philippe Girard’s Touissant Louverture: A Revolutionary Life is a book that is hard to read. Girard takes apart the sacred aura surrounding TL’s life. Girard offers a portrayal completely at odds with James’s myth-making Black Jacobins (1938), drawing on untapped primary records in 22 different archives. TL comes across as an arriviste Francophile, deeply insecure of his own racial worth and whose best friend was François Bayon, the white lawyer who corruptly ran the plantations for the Bréda family and for whom TL worked as a stagecoach driver.

In 1776, Bayon granted TL manumission in very obscure circumstances. In 1779, TL moved out of Haut-du-Cap to run the coffee plantation of his white son-in-law, Dessir, with 13 slaves, one of whom happened to be Jean-Jacques Dessalines. TL mismanaged the plantation and two of the slaves he “rented” died. In 1782, the bankrupted TL returned to the Bréda plantation to work for Bayon as a muleteer. By then his first wife Cecile had ran away with the free mulatto and wealthy slave owner Guillaume Provoyeur. In the 1780s, TL lost two of his sons with Cecile. He also lost Dessir. His daughter inherited Dessir’s surviving slaves, including Dessalines. TL “married” again a laundress, the slave in Haut-du-Cap, Suzanne. Suzanne brought to the relationship a mulatto son, Placide, whom TL loved more than his black son with Suzanne, Isaac.

In 1789, his friend Bayon was sacked as administrator of the Breda states due to corruption and mismanagement. The new administration reshuffled slaves among the plantations and increased demands on muleteers like TL who kept horse-driven sugar mills going. As a consequence, TL became the unacknowledged leader behind the first slave rebellions in the northern district of Le Cap in early 1791.

When TL became the French Republic’s military governor of San Domingue, he sent both Placide and Isaac to be educated in France. The French used the two kids as a security to guarantee TL’s fidelity during most of the 1790s. The French had a reason to doubt TL’s loyalty. He had switched sides twice. TL first abandoned the service of France for Monarchical Spain. After stint of two years, TL went back to the service of the French Republic. The French republican authorities were familiar with TL’s original deep Catholic, Royalist leanings.

Girard presents TL as a savvy yet unprincipled leader who while in the service of the Spanish monarchy would acquire many landed properties in Santo Domingo and traffic in slaves across the border. In the 1790s, TL became one of the wealthiest men in the island, with large plantations ran by “cultivators,” former slaves who now worked for “wages.” TL transformed one-year contracts into life contracts. He also re-instituted chained gangs and physical punishments. Under his labor regime, cultivators enjoyed fewer rights than slaves under the French ancien régime Black Code. TL crushed cultivator rebellions and massacred thousands. For a decade, TL opposed the massacre of white planters and whites in cities, both in San Domingue and Santo Domingo. Whites were key in the economic revival after the wars. They would also keep the island culturally tethered to France. When he governed Saint Domingue for the French Consulate, TL also opposed redistribution of plantation property for subsistence farming. When in 1801 cultivators in Cap massacred 300 whites, including his friend Bayon, TL ordered 5000 cultivators slaughtered as retribution.

When TL secured absolute control over the two halves of Island in 1801, the French Republic requested TL to prepare armies to attack British Jamaica and the US Carolinas, to abolish slavery. TL had no interest in dismantling the regime of slavery in the wider Caribbean. He rather secured the survival of favorable trading conditions for Saint Domingue, to have fiscal revenue and keep the plantation regime viable. TL conducted secret diplomacy with Britain and the USA, signing informal armistices to the mounting rage of Napoleon. TL had refused to follow the geopolitical instructions of the Republic that sought to destroy the British and the American economies by exporting abolitionism and war from Saint Domingue. Worse, TL also secured the revival of the African slave trade with British Jamaica. Africans were to arrive in Saint Domingue as “cultivators” not “slaves.”

When Napoleon sent his young brother-in-law Leclerc to sack TL for running the island under a constitution that TL penned to give himslef absolute power, TL had no allies among black generals and cultivators. Leclerc’s invading French army found sacks of cash all over the island that TL had order stashed as his own personal wealth. His daughter’s former slave, Dessalines, TL’s faithful companion during the endless wars of the 1790s, personally turned TL in as prisoner of the French.

It is not surprising that TL went on to enjoy a century of opprobrium in Haiti. It was British, French, and US early 20th century intellectuals and particularly the Afro Trinidadian C.L.R. James who would memorialize TL as the immaculate leader of the first successful slave rebellion in the Americas. By then, historians could access only documents that TL had himself ordered printed in both France and San Domingue, lionizing TL as a republican emancipator. Girard offers a deeply researched yet jarring and unsentimental biography of a deeply flawed republican hero.

This is a review of Philippe Girard’s Touissaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life.

Allies with Benefits: Linda Sarsour and the Muslim World in the Age of Trump

November 13, 2017 - 15:26
Tags:  Muslim, Donald Trump, American election, Progressive Politics, Saudi Arabia, Driving Ban

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

The recent lifting of the ban in Saudi Arabia on women driving is a historic moment not only for Saudi activists, without whose persistence and many sacrifices in the last decades — often painful — the royal decree would never have seen the light of day, but also for millions of women throughout the Muslim world. Despite the deep political rivalry between the two Islamic poles, the Saudi decision's ripple effect is likely to reach the shores of Iran and perhaps enhance the momentum of White Wednesday; a campaign that calls on women and men to wear white scarves or garments on Wednesdays in symbolic protest to the country's mandatory dress code for women imposed by law since the revolution in 1979. The winds of change are also expected to blow north to my birthplace of Baghdad where a considerable number of young girls took to the streets in February pedaling their bicycles in blue jeans at a time when the Iraqi parliament swarms with female members shrouded in black Abayas. One of the brave cyclists said she only wanted to practice a right that her mother and grandmother had taken for granted ages ago before the country started spiraling into a bottomless abyss of tribalism and sectarianism.

Such initiatives would have gotten Liberals in the United States cheering had they taken place just a few years earlier. But the news received only a lukewarm welcome abroad. US Liberals seem to have aligned themselves with quite a different agenda since the election of Donald Trump. His infamous executive order to bar immigrants and travelers from several Muslim-majority countries was too precious an opportunity to miss. America looked around for a Muslim figure to Snapchat or Instagram to rub in the president's face. It didn't really matter what convictions that person held. They only needed to look Muslim and sound Muslim. Oh, and be loud too! And loud was Linda Sarsour.

The self-proclaimed "unapologetic Palestinian-American, born and raised in Brooklyn" has since been invited to talk at nearly every prestigious university and appeared in almost all the major newspapers, magazines, and television networks in the United States. Sarsour has engaged in heated political debates arguing for the competence and benevolence of Sharia or at least her interpretation of it since there is much confusion and ambiguity surrounding the term. Linda has been keen to showcase her perfect Muslim life, including her mother's Maqluba (meat, rice, and fried vegetables) recipe, which the Sarsours offered New York Times readers. The sharing, however, didn't stop there. Wed in an arranged marriage at the age of 17, Linda Sarsour has advocated for the tradition and its validity for Muslim girls living in Western societies. She also finds head-covering a perfectly normal and non-oppressive practice, and has made a statement that banning women from driving is by no means a discriminatory act as long as they (women) get fully-paid maternity leave. Sarsour's regressive opinions, coming from a self-proclaimed "civil rights activist" who is often being introduced as a "feminist" are putting US Liberals' credibility and integrity to the test, and causing harm to real feminist movements by implying that Muslim females are happy to be considered inferior to males and treated as such in their countries.

They are not! I did a quick search in Arabic on Twitter and some results included numerous accusations of her being a terrorist or a Hamas and/or Muslim Brotherhood propagandist. Most of the "unfriendly" sentiments against Sarsour came from educated Arab Muslim females like herself. Only they refused to be deprived of free will in the name of religion. The pragmatic courtship between US Liberals and Sarsour has obviously empowered the latter and given her such extensive exposure we hardly get to listen anymore to the progressive voices that call for reform and gender equality in the Muslim world, like Nawal el Saadawi, Irshad Manji, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Speaking of whom, the Australian and New Zealand tour of the Somali-born Dutch-American author of Infidel was cancelled in April due to "a number of reasons, including security concerns." I may not share Ayaan's radically confrontational approach, but I certainly respect her viewpoints and was looking forward to hearing what she had to say about her journey from Islam to atheism. When I heard about the last-minute cancellation, I was disappointed, but not surprised. I wouldn't be surprised either if an announcement was made that Linda Sarsour is coming to Auckland soon.

This is an edited version of the original article that first appeared in The Dominion Post, New Zealand. 

Exit Monty Hall, through door number 3

October 31, 2017 - 08:24

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

Monty Hall will live on as the eponym of the Monty Hall problem.

Since it's now well-understood it might be worth recovering some of its spookiness. So I offer this recollection: 

Among those who got it wrong at the time (early nineties) were the logician and philosopher Burton Dreben and the famous and eccentric mathematician Paul Erdös (I almost have an Erdös number of 2. If I can just convinced my friend to publish some sort piece with me!) And "Cecil Adams" of the Straight Dope, which is where I read about it. Marilyn Vos Savant got it right. I remember realizing that, after I read the Straight Dope take down of her, and feeling proud.

One night I explained it to Dreben with quarters over Sangria. We had three quarters, two even years and one odd. I would put them heads down (it was there coin Monty!), and ask him to pick the odd year. He'd pick, I'd flip one of the evens, he'd always stick, and lose 2/3 of the time.

Doing it that way was really eerie because there was a probabilistic ontology to the two remaining quarters, one being twice as likely to be odd as the other. They were physically unchanged and physically unremarkable, and yet this ghostly probability haunted and hung over them.

Of Beauty and the Beast or What do Birds Know about Art?

October 2, 2017 - 10:37
Tags:  beauty, Darwin, Evolutionary Biology, Arts & Humanities, place of art in life, Aesthetics

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

After a conference in Sydney a couple of years ago, my friend Anthony drove me to his summer house in Bawley Point, a surfer’s paradise on the southern coast of Australia. Never having witnessed anyone surfing in real life, I was eager to head to a look-out point.

But Anthony, knowing my interests in Kantian aesthetics, suggested that I visit his neighbor’s yard and check out the nest of the bowerbird. Intrigued I put off my hankering for the sea and ambled to the neighbor’s house. The birds had left but I did find their astonishing nest in the front lawn.

Rather than traditional cup-like structures, the male bird had gathered reeds and grasses, and bent them into an arch. Amazingly, in his attempt to lure potential females to the nest, he also created a pathway of ornaments all in indigo blue: stones, plastic bits, Dasani bottle tops, broken glass, and straws. Why all in this particular color I wondered? It seemed that the male was making particular choices, like a postmodern artist, collecting trash and trinkets.

Foregoing the beach, I returned home and learned that the bowerbird’s behavior served as an example of sexual adaptation that was supposed to improve survival. But what type of adaptation did this indicate? What did this corridor of blue reveal to the female bird about her paramour? Strength? Intelligence? For me it showed that the male bird was making aesthetic judgments. Unlike his feathers or beak, over which he had no conscious control, he was choosing objects of a particular color to attract females.

Over the years I have been unpersuaded by the evolutionary explanation of beauty, that it was an adaption for survival. I have wondered, for instance, about the function of the peacock’s flamboyant tail. Would this awkward appendage not more likely get in the way of his attempts to flee a predator? Moreover, what could the tail communicate to the female? Good genes? Fitness? For that matter, what does the square, chiseled jaw reveal about the strength and intelligence of the guy sipping a martini in a bar? Not much. The same must be true about the peacock I thought. Surely the lane of the indigo blue laid out by the bowerbird must manifest an aesthetic disposition rather than simply express an instinctive process.

These questions were of direct concern to my work. Over the years I had written about the place of beauty in life. I have argued that, although we might disagree over the definition of beauty, people all over the world create it self-consciously either by painting the body, a canvass, composing a song, drafting a poem, or staging a play. Just because this beauty is sometimes part of a religious ritual or sexual game does not mean people don’t value it.

In my classes I suggest that we cherish beautiful moments because they are not utilitarian. When we behold a sunset, listen to a song, read a novel, brush a finger against a baby’s face, or go to an art gallery, we are concentrating on that experience itself rather than being engaged in an instrumental activity like making bread or driving. Literature, my specialty, is another manifestation of our preoccupation with beauty. It provides an imaginary space which we enter knowing all the time that it is a fiction. We have, in other words, a disposition towards beauty that expresses itself in different ways, from tattoos to television dramas.

That afternoon in Bawley Point what I wanted to say about the bowerbirds was that they had a taste for the beautiful, which was independent of an ultimate purpose like evolutionary adaptation. But not having any expertise in evolutionary biology, I dropped the matter until this summer when I read Richard O. Prum’s The Evolution of Beauty. How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World.

As the titles implies, Prum returns to a theory already conceived by Darwin on the relationship between beauty and mate selection. According to Prum, Darwin had developed two ideas, one on the evolution of beauty and the other on the origins of humankind. Natural selection and sexual selection were for him two different processes. While biologists largely ignored his ideas on the role of beauty in mate choice, Prum resurrects them, arguing that animals are not simply subject to extrinsic forces of ecological completion and geography but play a role in their own evolution through sexual selections. Crucial here are females who ultimately define what is beautiful and who, thereby, push evolution forward. Beauty, whether in the animal or human world, exists in the eye of the beholder.

This suggests that evolution, like human fashion, is driven less by function than by subjective feelings of beauty. The most attractive male is not necessarily the most healthy. Feathers, color, songs, and other ornamental features, very costly in time and energy, don’t improve chances for survival. In short, beauty in animals and humans is not subject to a purpose or grand design but has value and power in itself. Beauty surrounds us and we respond to it with pleasure. It comes to be without ultimate meaning, expressing the desire of animals to admire and be admired. Evolution then is as much about allure, sensory delight, and subjective experiences as it as about survival of the fittest.

Prum’s return to Darwin’s more revolutionary theories of evolution is part of a great effort in recent years to rethink our traditional, anthropocentric view of animals. Studies have appeared on the intelligence of crows, the capacity of the octopus for theory of mind, the aptitude of wolves for empathy, and the creation of culture by dolphins.

The reconsideration of the place of beauty in the world should inspire humanists to rethink the place of beauty in the curriculum. Out of fear of essentializing beauty, we have largely banned it from the domain of theory. We seem even to distrust it, finding it self-indulgent and meretricious. Beauty, after all, calls attention to itself. Flowers, feathers, whistles invite us to stop whatever we are doing and concentrate on them. What is a poem, after all, other than language showing off?

But isn’t this the whole point of beauty, either natural or human made, to make us stop and observe. In Mary Oliver’s lovely poem, “The Summer Day,” the speaker finds herself ambling through the meadow, crouching down to marvel at a grasshopper. Is this a waste of time? “I do know how to pay attention,” she says, “how to fall down/ into the grass, how to be idle and blessed.” What else should she be doing, she wonders. And then she asks: “What is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?” Though useless, beauty asks us to think about this issue.

Recently I was confronted with this question when our Dean spoke about the alarming decline of majors in the humanities. He suggested that parents in search of something tangible from post-secondary education often dissuade their high school children from majoring in the humanities. They consider the arts an impractical preoccupation.

And so we were asked to revise the “snapshot” statement parents and high school seniors see when they look at departments on the university page. We were encouraged to include real-world skills students would acquire if, for example, they studied Modern Greek — my discipline. As a parent of two sons who finished university with degrees in arts and humanities and one daughter who just started in biology, I was sympathetic to this exercise. So, I enumerated what students would learn in order to be “competitive in our globalized world:” How to build persuasive arguments, write elegant papers, speak in front of an audience, think critically, and acquire empathy. But for the last item I added: “appreciate the importance of beauty in life.”

What else could we be doing, to quote Oliver again? We have grown numb to beauty in a society sacralizing goal-oriented, means-driven, purposeful action. Effectively we have unlearned what the animal world has never forgotten, that beauty surrounds us. Perhaps it’s time to follow the lead of the bowerbird.

Possible worlds within possible worlds

September 25, 2017 - 13:36
Tags:  David Lewis, Borges, Lem, J.D. Salinger, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Preston Sturgis, Ray Davis, Arthur Danto, Stephen King, Muriel Spark, Boccaccio, Dante, Browning, Shakespeare, Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

David Lewis uses fictional worlds as a way of exploring the idea of the proximity of possible worlds, but confesses he's not quite sure what to do with fictions within fictions.

One thing some writers have done is to write the actual (our-world) fictional work that some fictional works only mention. They give it to us for our use. (This is the converse of the sort of thing that Borges and Lem do.)

A few such useful texts spring to mind right away, in chronological order of first mention:

Prencipe Galeotto: Dante has Francesca say of the book she and Paolo are reading together when they stop reading, "Galeotto fu 'l libro e chi lo scrisse." So Galeotto — Prince Galahad (perhaps: it's not clear whether Dante took Galeotto as Galahad), vicariously catalyzing their mutual seduction — is both the author and the book itself. Boccaccio gives the Decameron the sub- or alternative title Prencipe Galeotto, making it into the book that Paolo and Francesca were reading, and promising it as a conversation piece for later lovers to seduce each other with.

Spenser completes one of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the Squire's, in Book IV of The Faerie Queene. (Spenser takes it as complete — a real thing that Chaucer mentions, but that we don't have.)

"Where is the Life that Late I Led?" Petruchio interrupts himself after he starts singing this song in Taming of the Shrew. Cole Porter gives us the whole song (with a bridge and a slight modification of Petruchio's interrupted second line).

"Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came": Browning writes the poem that Edgar quotes in King Lear.

O Brother, Where Art Thou, as Ray Davis reminds me, is the movie that Sullivan wants to make in Preston Sturges's Sullivan's Travels, and which the Coen Brothers do make. (Someone should write the novel, since Sullivan's movie is based on the fictional novel of the same name.)

The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: From Muriel Spark's Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the book that Sandy Stranger writes when she becomes a nun (Sister Helena). Arthur Danto (not Dante!) then wrote a book about the philosophy of art with that title.

The Secret Goldfish: D.B.'s "terrific book of short stories" in Catcher in the Rye, and the title of a book of short stories by David Means.

Can you think of others?

This is the first of two posts about possibly bridging the gap between possible worlds through fiction.

The Alamo: The First and Last Confederate Monument?

September 18, 2017 - 10:31
Tags:  United States History, Texas, Mexico, Colonialism, Crow Jim, Alamo, Black Lives Matter

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

Many have argued that the removal of Confederate monuments will soon lead to the destruction of statues honoring Jefferson, Washington, and Andrew Jackson. One could argue, however, that the statutes of Robert E Lee and Jefferson Davis did not just seek to honor slaveholders. They were deliberately erected to memorialize Jim Crow and thus intimidate blacks. What about The Alamo? 

According to myth, The Alamo honors the resilience and courage of Anglos and Tejanos pitted against Mexican centralism, brutality, and corruption. In fact, The Alamo is all about emancipation and slavery.

Slavery separated the Republic of Mexico from the United States. American Freedom led to one of the largest hemispheric spikes of Black captivity as British industrial demand for cotton led to an upsurge of racialized plantation slavery in the US South. In Mexico, on the other hand, the Wars of Independence (1808-1824) led to the almost complete eradication of slavery in the zones where it most mattered, the Mexican Bajio, the economic engine of the late Spanish viceroyalty. 

Texas was a region long used to indigenous slavery. To Tejanos, the Apache and Comanche were both cousins and captives. Industrial racialized slavery, however, arrived in Texas with entrepreneurs like the Austins who persuaded the impoverished Tejanos in San Antonio to become their lobbyists in Saltillo to delay the implementation of state legislation outlawing chattel slavery. Besieged and brutalized by Comanche raids, Tejanos became Austin’s lobbyists in Coahuila, a federal province deeply skeptical of plantation slavery.
For a full decade (1825-1835), leading Afro-Mexican generals and politicians in Mexico City witnessed with growing concern the expansion of racialized plantation slavery in Texas. In 1835, Mexico passed a centralizing constitution abolishing slavery in every state in the Union, including Coahuila, and sent an army led by Santa Ana to dismantle the Texas Cotton Kingdom. Anglo settlers fled to Louisiana, including the retreating armies of Sam Houston. Santa Ana split his cavalry to cut off Houston at the Sabine. In a serendipitous last moment decision, Houston turned around to confront the weakened Santa Ana. Houston won. The Lone Star Republic was born.

Until 1845, Texas was a pariah state, shunned by the British, the French and the USA. It accomplished little, except avoiding Comanche raids. Steamboats could not ply the waters of the Sabine, Natchez, Trinity, and Brazos that went undragged. Galveston did not become a deep-water port and cotton moved on rafts to neighboring New Orleans. The public infrastructure to secure plantation slavery was financed after 1845 with federal dollars (a lesson to keep in mind in the wake of Harvey). The only thing Texas did well as an independent republic was to draft the constitution of 1841. It made it illegal for any manumitted Black to remain physically in the state, let alone aspire to citizenship.

In 1836, John Quincy Adams described the Texas Revolt as the first civil war "between slavery and emancipation." The Alamo memorializes the first battle of the American Civil War, full twenty-five years before the battle of Fort Sumter. It is the first Confederate monument to slavery.

Auerbach's Languages

September 13, 2017 - 10:51
Tags:  Auerbach, Mimesis, Polyglot, Comparative Literature, criticism

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

For the last five years I have been working on a project on the idea of the Renaissance in the work of Erich Auerbach. I have discovered that there is a peculiar irony in the scholarship: the author whose signature phrase was the “serious representation of daily life” has been regularly treated as a decorous academic aristocrat: Mount Auerbach, the Virgil of criticism.  One of the pleasures of research has been, in contrast, discovering an Auerbach of daily life. Kader Konuk’s study of Auerbach in Istanbul has helped give some texture to his biography in wartime Istanbul (despite the old story, there were, in fact, books). What interests me more, though, is the daily life of his critical writing, so to speak—the quotidian in his style and in his arguments. One thing I am trying to do with the study of the Renaissance is draw out the mix of decorum and quotidian in Auerbach’s writing style. Peering beneath the polish of Auerbach’s critical art, reading him as less a master than a master of a mixed style, reveals an academic regularly struggling to figure out what his thesis is—that is, reveals a person in history, not above history.  

That struggle applies to something Auerbach is justly famous for—his mastery of languages. His command of languages has often made Auerbach seem inimitable. Auerbach knew German, French, Italian, Latin, Greek, English, Spanish, Provençal, and probably a few others (not counting the many medieval versions and dialects of all of these), and he knew them all very well. But his language proficiency was hardly effortless. In October 1949, his third year in the United States, Auerbach gave the very first of what would come to be called the Gauss seminars at Princeton (the topics were Pascal, Baudelaire, and Flaubert; the story comes from a memoir by Robert Fitzgerald). During the q&a at the second lecture, someone in the audience remarked that an artist “always had formed material on his hands, was stuck with it.” “Stuck with it?” asked Auerbach, “all polite attention but puzzled by the idiom” (28).   

This sort of moment reminds me why I like Auerbach so much—it is the type of scene he himself was so good at reading. In April 1948, Auerbach wrote to Benedetto Croce from “The Pennsylvania State College” (Auerbach’s first teaching position in the United States; he’d left Istanbul for America with no secure employment, though he received offers to return to Germany), in part to tell Croce he has sent him a copy of Mimesis. But, adds Auerbach, “vedo bene che non trova tempo, con tanto lavoro, nella nona decade della Sua bella vita, di leggere un volume di 500 pagine”; “but I know that you won’t find time, with so much work, in the ninth decade of your beautiful life, to read a 500 page book.” A very charming sentence, but Auerbach is worried it doesn’t sound quite right:

Scusi, prego, il mio ‘cativo stile.’ Da quindici anni, parlo tutte le lingue—scrivo in tedesco, francese, italiano, inglese, latino—ho insegnato in francese a Istanbul, vi ho parlato ogni giorno quattro o cinque lingue—persino un po’ di turco—ed adesso ho da insegnare in inglese. E di tutta questa ‘poliglotnia’ ho imperato che non si può saper bene una lingua sola, la lingua materna.

Please excuse my “terrible style.” For fifteen years, I’ve been speaking all the languages—I write in German, French, Italian, English, Latin—I taught in French in Istanbul, I spoke four or five languages everyday—even a little Turkish—and now I have to teach in English.  And in all this “polyglotness” I have learned that you can only know well one language alone, your mother tongue.

Auerbach has received some criticism that he was too Eurocentric (these are not “tutte le lingue”), that he wasn’t interested enough in Turkey, that he kept writing all his research in German after he’d moved to the United States. But it is not unlike the young Milton proclaiming “Hail native language”: you only say what you want to say, to the extent that you ever can, in the language that made you into yourself. Auerbach knew a lot of languages, but, in the end, even he knew only one, the one that, as Milton puts it, “Didst move my first endeavouring tongue to speak.”  

That sentiment appears elsewhere in his correspondence with Croce (sixty letters survive), which was conducted entirely in Italian, with one crucial exception. Over the course of twenty-five years, they formed what seems to have been a close, if professional, friendship. From beginning to end, they were both great fans of Vico—the relationship began in the 1920s, with Auerbach, a largely unknown librarian in Berlin (but with powerful academic advisors), writing to Croce about the publication and translation of Croce’s book on Vico. In these early letters, Auerbach is at times painfully obsequious, or at least overly polite. He learns at one point that Croce will be in Berlin, and he writes (it is in italics in the edited version): “I am always at your disposal if you have need of me. I am at the library every day until 3pm, and then almost always at home.” (letter 18) The correspondence ends in 1952, with Auerbach writing a simple, touching note to Croce’s widow: “his was one of the most beautiful lives with which I’ve had acquaintance” (letter 61).  

The relationship was sometimes tense, and the stress manifests itself in the one notable linguistic shift. Auerbach writes on 18 December 1928 that he has sent a copy of his first book, Dante als Dichter der irdischen Welt, to Croce, but Auerbach is clearly nervous: he mentions the book only in the middle of the letter. A week later—Christmas Day, 1928—Auerbach writes to Croce again. He has received a letter (apparently lost), in which Croce must have written something sharply critical about Auerbach’s book (did Croce really read it that fast?).  The letter begins by declaring, in Italian, “Please permit me to write today in German.” Auerbach then proceeds, in German, to explain that the main point of his book is on page 108 in the paragraph that starts, “Allein die Menschen” (page 86 in the English version, if you are interested) and that the argument is both the fruit of, and an absolute opposition to, Croce’s writing on poetry and expression. I should add that he also says, in German, that it is more of an honor to be refuted by Croce than to be praised by someone else; and Auerbach inserts into his German a phrase in Greek that, to the best guess of experts in the classics department at Toronto, makes no sense at all (whether the fault of Auerbach or the editor of the correspondence, who knows). When Croce’s review finally comes out, Auerbach writes again, in Italian, and is remarkably chipper. “Thanks for your most friendly review! I expected your opposition, but not the courtesy with which you expressed it.” Maybe too chipper: others have not found Croce’s review very courteous—Riccardo Castellana calls it “una vera e propria stroncatura,”—a real trashing. To me Croce’s review sounds a little petty, but often fair, and it is clear that Auerbach took his criticism very seriously.  Still, when it came to defending (or simply repeating) his thesis, Auerbach did not trust to Italian. You only have one mother tongue, and to defend himself he turned back to it.

Auerbach probably felt more comfortable writing in French than Italian. In May 1936, for instance, he wrote to Giulio Bertoni, the editor of the Italian journal Archivum romanicum, about putting together a festschrift for Leo Spitzer. Bertoni was friends with Spitzer, and Archivum romanicum was one of the only journals in which German Jewish authors could publish.  Complicated times: the journal was funded in part by Mussolini. But Auerbach wrote to Bertoni in French, not Italian. He apologized for doing so on the grounds that it was the language he was speaking everyday in Geneva, where Auerbach was practicing speaking in preparation for his move to Istanbul, where he would teach in French. When he wrote to Bertoni two years later (April 1938) to offer his essay “Figura” for publication, Auerbach again wrote in French: “je l’ai écrits en allemand et avant de le traduire je cherche un moyen de le publier en allemand, puisque la traduction serait assez difficile à faire”; “I wrote it in German and before translating it I am looking for a way to publish it in German, given that the translation would be rather difficult to do.” He does not add what language he was thinking of translating it into, but I imagine it was Italian. Unsurprisingly, Bertoni accepted it in German (a common language in Archivum romanicum). But imagine what “Figura” would look like were it originally published in Italian, rather than simply in an Italian journal. 

I don’t mean to overemphasize Auerbach’s language troubles; they are, in some respects, a sign of his astonishing auto-didacticism. His languages are less a result of his training than his temperament, his urge to learn what he needed to learn in order to write what he wanted to write… in German. And the occasional slips in his letters to Croce (he gets the odd preposition wrong) might be taken as signs that you do not need to be a specialist, or be perfect, to make a point. I had had a fantasy that the reason there are only two chapters in Mimesis on English language writers (Shakespeare and Woolf) was that English was Auerbach’s worst language; when Harry Levin met Auerbach in Cambridge, MA in fall 1947, they spoke mostly French. But then I heard an audio recording that has resurfaced of Auerbach delivering a lecture on Dante—in English—at Penn State just a few months later, in March 1948.  Auerbach spoke English very, very well. Apparently, he learned fast.

The best part of the recording? Hearing him read passages in Dante’s Tuscan: he sings them. A mixed-style on the page and on audio tape, and the result is the image of the man eclipses the image of the God. That eclipse in Dante, Auerbach argued in Mimesis, was the inauguration of the Renaissance.  There is the Auerbach that interests me.

Money's Laws of Motion

July 26, 2017 - 10:24
Tags:  MMT, Marxism, political economy, monetary theory

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

Epicurus supposed that even in the midst of the void the atoms declined slightly from the straight line, and from this, he said, arose freedom.

-Pierre Bayle, quoted by Karl Marx

Money is no object.

-Stephanie Kelton

In previous contributions to Arcade, I have drawn sharp distinctions between the heterodox school of economics known as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and the Marxist tradition that dominates the critical humanities. My intention was neither to flatly oppose MMT and Marxism, nor to wholly discount the latter’s impulses and insights. Rather, I sought to illuminate MMT’s expansive conception of money as a limitless public instrument and develop its transformative implications for contemporary thought and practice. In so doing, I criticized Marxism’s preoccupation with decentralized exchange relations for barring such possibilities from leftist critique and contestation.

Working out these claims, I set aside the complex entanglements that link MMT's and Marxism's histories and methods. In this essay, I explore some of these entanglements and lay bare the divergent ontological commitments that, on my analysis, fundamentally separate MMT’s critical project from the Marxist one.

Viewed from afar, MMT and Marxism appear opposed. Contemporary Marxists such as The New School's Anwar Shaikh reject MMT and, typically, MMT is disassociated from Marxism when presented to the public. In truth, however, MMT and Marxism share an entangled history that thwarts neat distinctions and oppositions.

For one, Karl Marx’s intervention stands at the origin of critical political economy. Protesting that the modern money systems that mainstream economics deem natural and self-correcting are in truth politically constructed and destabilizing, Marxism functions as a philosophical torchbearer for the heterodox post-Keynesian tradition from which MMT arises. What is more, post-Keynesianism itself comprises a kaleidoscopic conflagration of Keynesian and Marxist impulses, which cannot be sharply disarticulated.

In terms of direct influence, MMT owes many specific insights to the history of Marxist thought. MMT relies heavily on post-Keynesian theories of effective demand and stock-flow consistency, both of which are traceable to the second and third volumes of Marx’s Capital. Moreover, MMTers such as Bill Mitchell, Mathew Forstater, and Peter Cooper regularly draw upon Marxist concepts and arguments in their writings, paying express heed to Marxism’s ongoing relevance for MMT.

Meanwhile, post-Keynesian circuitist theory has increasingly prioritized state credit money in their analyses of the monetary circuit (M-C-M) outlined in the first volume of Capital. Especially interesting in this regard are European Marxist circuitists like Riccardo Bellofiore who overtly utilize MMT’s insights. Forging novel connections between Marxism, post-Keynesianism, and MMT, Bellofiore and his followers continue to uncover important genealogical and theoretical linkages among these projects.

One might say far more about the linkages and discordances that riddle heterodox economics. For the time being, however, I indicate the folly of treating MMT and Marxism as unrelated or categorically opposed. To do so is to overlook post-Keynesianism’s paramount role within the history of heterodox economics and to repress the contested field of inquiry to which both MMT and Marxism belong.

Still, when it comes to questions of social ontology, it becomes necessary to reckon with what genuinely distinguishes MMT from Marxism and thus what cuts through the genealogical entwinements sketched above. Generally speaking, scholarly and public debates skirt around MMT’s and Marxism’s competing ontological commitments. Instead, they argue over the technical operations of political economy and the political responses various crises necessitate. Upon closer inspection, however, it turns out that tacit ontological divisions structure such contests from start to finish.

Ontology is embarrassing. It is embarrassing because it announces plainly what is uncouth to admit in ordinary discourse. Yet it is especially embarrassing because it means exposing the unexamined desires that drive everyday discursive struggles. For these reasons, ontological claims are often met with skepticism, disavowal, or scorn.

Nonetheless, I wish to risk articulating outright the underlying rift that cleaves MMT and Marxism. Marxism attributes the greatest degree of being to immediate material relations, imagining monetary abstraction as a volatilization and estrangement of conscious local associations. By contrast, MMT hangs collective existence on a community's political center and maintains that money is an inexhaustible government instrument for socializing relations of production and distribution at a distance. Instead of condemning money for disrupting and evacuating otherwise self-subsistent local activities, MMT treats a people's remote obligations to a centralized polity as ontologically prior to any immediate association and sees monetary abstraction as a powerful public mechanism for variously coordinating and enlarging such obligations. Hence, while Marxism assumes that money is a private, alienating, and crisis-ridden exchange relationship that ought to be overcome, MMT holds money to be a boundless public utility that, though by no means untroubled, is well-equipped to actualize radical collectivist ends.

This ontological cleavage becomes clearest in the ways that Marxism and MMT explain employment and unemployment. For the Marxist, employment comes into being through private wage contracts between firms and workers. Unemployment is then understood principally as a negative relation, functioning as a constitutive excess that reciprocally shapes capitalist production and exchange from the outside. For the MMTer, however, unemployment is a positive relation that results from the tax obligation. As Rohan Grey and Raúl Carrillo describe it, "the state creates unemployment by imposing a non-reciprocal liability (i.e. a tax) that can only be satisfied by obtaining its tokens (i.e. tax credits)." No unemployed person sits outside this public obligation. And since government is both the source of money and the cause of unemployment, it alone is ultimately responsible for determining the employment level.

As I have already noted, some Marxists embrace MMT's grounding of money in centralized governance and a handful of MMTers work in a Marxist idiom. Yet beneath this exchange of ideas looms an irreconcilable split over political economy’s center of gravity. That is, despite their shared histories and convergences, Marxism and MMT offer two very different Gestalts of the macro-economic order.

Perhaps the best way to make sense these contrasting pictures is to take seriously the turn of phrase center of gravity. For all its dubiousness, Marxism has adopted a literal and curiously pious relation to physical gravitation. Strewn with gravitropic metaphors meant to exhibit the value-form’s concealed “laws of motion,” Marxist criticism tends to subordinate macro-economic reality to material gravity, whereby far-flung abstractions always come down to material interactions between particular individuals.

In The German Ideology, for instance, Marx repeatedly insists that critical political economy must attend to production's "earthly" bases. He ridicules German idealists for fleeing from social reality, arguing that they proceed as if material gravity were merely a superstition. And he characterizes communism as the impulse to gather abstractly dispersed social activities back to their immediate tellurian origins. “The reality that communism creates," Marx writes, "is precisely the true basis for rendering it impossible that anything should exist independently of individuals, insofar as reality is nevertheless only the product of the preceding intercourse of individuals.”

To be sure, Marx's own critical methodology is comprised of abstract concepts and complex dialectical reasoning. Yet, for Marx, this abstractive method is no end in itself. It is, rather, a way to expose the terrestrial injustices precipitated by money's abstract movements. It also means to make way for a directly associated, free society that is liberated from monetary alienation and its diremptive phantoms.

Eschewing Marxism’s gravitropic metaphysics, MMT locates the center of macro-economic activity in an abstract legal rapport between the currency issuing center and the body politic that depends upon the currency to physically survive and thrive. On this model, the totality issues from money’s governing center and unfolds as an interlocking cascade of mediation that conditions economic life as a whole. “[T]he hierarchy of money can be thought of as a multitiered pyramid where the tiers represent promises with differing degrees of acceptability,” explains Stephanie Kelton (née Bell). “As the most acceptable money in the hierarchy, the state’s debts serve as both a means of payment and a medium of exchange in private transactions.” Despite its “ideal” status, money’s topological hierarchy is no second-order phenomenon, according to MMT. Money is not a mere “expression” or “representation” of aggregate private value creation, "ascend[ing] from earth to heaven," as Marx asserts in The German Ideology. Instead, MMT supposes that money’s featherweight fiscal center and macro-economic cascade together mobilize a shared material horizon of production and distribution.

There is no treatise on physical gravitation in the MMT corpus. The term “gravity” appears nowhere in MMT’s myriad publications, as far as I have seen. Yet a careful reading of MMT’s texts reveals a subtle inversion in the topological relationship between the ideal and the real that not-so-subtly downgrades gravity’s metaphysical import for critical political economy.

Like Marxism, MMT situates value in the construction and maintenance of a collective material reality. It accordingly rejects Neoclassical utility theory, which roots value in the play of individual preferences. Only, in contrast to Marxism, MMT contends that the production of value is conditioned by money’s abstract fiscal capacity and the hierarchy of mediation it supports. MMT hardly dismisses the pull of physical gravitation on human existence. Rather, it implicitly de-prioritizes gravity’s causality in political and economic processes, showing how the ideal conditions the real via money’s distributed pyramidal structure.

As a consequence of this inversion, MMT lends greater acuity to economic analysis. Still more important, it radically expands the political horizon concerning what is possible under a modern money economy. Indeed, by abandoning physical gravitation as the origin and telos of politics, MMT keys the struggle for political power to a commodious public abstraction, while refusing one-sided denunciations of money as some inevitable fall from grace.

Such ontological distinctions matter for critical work in the humanities. Humanists take pride in scrutinizing the terms and logics that make historical realities intelligible. Frequently, however, when humanists take on the history and potential futures of monetary relations, Marxism’s gravitropic materialism severely contracts the voluminous topology that MMT strives to hold open.

Take the recent work of David Harvey, “Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason,” a talk based on his forthcoming book of the same title. Harvey has made important contributions to the overlapping realms of humanities scholarship and social criticism, from his historical-geographical critiques of modernity to his widely-read examinations of postmodern ideology and neoliberal political economy. I have little doubt that Harvey has much to offer us in the future. What worries me about Harvey’s latest project, however, is that it doubles-down on the Marxist laws of motion. In so doing, it blocks the capacious macro-economic Gestalt that MMT makes perceptible, along with the radical political possibilities it makes immediately actionable.

Rather than affirming state spending as the macroeconomic backbone of production and distribution and a powerful weapon for political transformation, Harvey deems decentralized private exchange the threshold of value’s realization and public money as mere “anti-value” and “fictitious capital.” As a result, he imagines the contemporary money relation as an unruly global flux and renders government money just as reckless and ineffectual as private speculation.

Worst of all is the explicit metaphor that anchors Harvey’s forthcoming publication: the water cycle. Appealing to a punishingly gravitropic image, Harvey at once metaphorizes and diagrams the monetary circuit as a water cycle that is spiraling out of control. Drawing on G. W. F. Hegel’s terminology, he brands money’s endless unraveling a “bad infinity,” an infinite regress that leads nowhere but into further crisis. With this, Harvey surmises that our collective future becomes like so many underwater mortgages after the 2007-8 financial crash: foreclosed.

In a sense Harvey is correct: contemporary neoliberalism is grim. Seen through the eyes of MMT, however, the future hardly looks foreclosed. Private debt can become a “bad infinity.” But public money is the best kind of infinity and it constitutes the center around which this forsaken system turns.

Marxism is a rich, heterogeneous project that continues to bear fruit across disciplines. Yet I fear that, unless critical humanists begin to relinquish their own gravitropic attachments, and learn to perceive and think otherwise, Harvey’s bleak diagnosis will almost certainly turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy.

An earlier version first appeared on the site Radical Political Economy.

Black Odysseus: An Elegy

July 14, 2017 - 12:27
Tags:  Nes Wordz (Sheron Colbert), Hip-Hop, Columbus, Death, Mourning, Homer, the Odyssey, Friendship

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I ) 

Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth

A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.

Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”

Nes Wordz : Photo Sharon Colbert 

It was his smile that first struck me. I was biking home in July, 2016, hearing as I neared the garage my son’s band, New Thousand, practicing their synthesis of hip-hop, classical, and Mediterranean. A young man I didn’t know was coming out: African-American, tall, lanky with a beard, probably in his early thirties. “This is Nes Wordz,” my son Adrian called, introducing me as it turned out to perhaps one of the best hip-hop artists in Ohio. We shook hands; mine slightly sweaty from the long bike ride. But this didn’t matter to Nes.

He had a pharaonic majesty about him without the sneer of judgment, both conciliatory and welcoming. When he smiled, you felt the tensions and contortions of the universe give way, and then a breeze of exaltation.

Nes, it turned out, had come over to talk to Adrian and the others in the band, Max and Alex, about their upcoming performance in a hip-hop festival to be held that weekend in the Wineland Park area of Columbus.

To support them the following week I went down to hear the show, though I felt out of place in every way: race, class, and age. But it was Nes who, in a wordless way, made me feel welcome, lean against the telephone pole and take everything in.

They had set their “stage” in front of someone’s porch and in the twilight of that July evening they began: Adrian on electronic violin, Alex on electronic percussion and Max on synthesizer, Nes, in hip-hop style, improvised on everything. 

Photo Adrian Jusdanis

Thrown any word or phrase, without missing a beat, Nes could turn it into a rhyme. It was not only his linguistic virtuosity but also his presence that turned his shows into magnetic, mesmerizing spectacles.

Feeling rapt by the magic, I began to think about how I could bring Nes and his word-craft to the large lecture class I was about to teach at Ohio State, an introduction to classical literature. The improvisation of music and words I had witnessed that evening was Homeric, a street performance without previous planning. It had its roots in a time when art was part of life, not something detached and termed “art,” which you paid money to hear and see.

I considered asking Nes and New Thousand to compose an episode of the Odyssey for my class, to demonstrate how Homer might have functioned in his own society. Wondering if this was a crazy idea, I approached Nes who grinned and told me he loved it. He had enjoyed the Odyssey in school and remembered many details of the poem. As my wife said of Nes, he would put the “rap” back in the “rhapsode,” the Homeric performer.

The next weekend I invited Nes and his manager, Darrio, over for beer and pesto, which turned out to be one of Nes’s favorite meals, so that we could go over various scenarios. Nes wanted to rap about Polyphemus, the one-eyed creature Odysseus blinds in his cave. He seemed taken by the possibility of not simply reciting Homer in hip-hop rhythms — that would have been easy — but of reimaging the Greek bard, of setting him in the “hood,” in Columbus, of translating his language in Nes’s own idiom.

As we approached the day of the performance, Nes seemed maniacal in his determination, changed his approach, revised drafts, called often, stayed up late at night. He wanted to get it right.

When we met we often talked about the seeming incongruity of our collaboration. I was twice his age and we came from parts of the city that hardly communicated with each other. And then there was our race. “Can you believe it, Mr. Jusdanis, you working on Homer with a black rapper!” he once said over dinner. It was Homer and Nes’s heart that made our relationship possible.

On the day of the performance in October 2016 my fingers jittered as I introduced my class to our guest artists, before taking a seat among the students. The magic began. Nes rapped about Big O and the One-eyed P. “I'm a man, tryna reap the spoils of the land, with a big torch placed in my hand.” He made Odysseus into an arrogant “gangsta,” someone selfishly moving through the neighborhood for his own benefit, subjecting everyone around him to his own experience and domination. Nes had given a different slant on Odysseus from that we had taken in class.

In the ensuing discussion he told the students he hoped to rewrite the entire Odyssey and the take it to schools to bring the classics to the street, to unify the high and low, the abstract and the concrete, the black and white. He wanted to call this project “The Black Odyssey.”

When New Thousand migrated to New Orleans, their winter home, I met often with Nes to talk about the next episode: Odysseus’s journey to the land of the dead where he was reunited with his deceased mother and his fallen comrades from Troy. Nes would set this episode in a funeral home where Big O would pay his respects to a dead friend.

We discussed various possibilities the day I invited him over again to share with him some designer clothes my relatives had passed on to me from their own wardrobes. Since I could not wear everything myself, I wanted to share them with my two sons and friends. Sitting on the floor of our sunroom, I threw out to him Brioni shirts, pants by Armani, Versace jackets, and shoes by Salvatore Farragamo. Nes would take them and try them on and reappear with a big grin as comfortable in Christian Dior as in street clothes. “You’ll be the best dressed middle-school teacher in Columbus,” I told him. What he really loved was a leather jacket by Hugo Boss which he wore going out into the cold night.

By early spring our meetings stopped, Nes becoming silent. There was another bag of clothes I wanted to show him and, of course, I wanted to talk about our project. With Adrian in New Orleans, I thought it was best to wait for Nes’s semester at the middle school to end.

The weeks passed. In May I went overseas to a conference and to conduct research. On June 28, 2017 out of the blue I asked Adrian if he had seen Nes in the meantime. And he told me that indeed he had a few days earlier at ComFest, an annual music festival in Columbus, which I had to miss because I was out of town. Just by coincidence Nes had the slot before New Thousand.

Adrian said that Nes was dressed in white, brought his oldest son on the stage, rapped about the difficulties of being black in America, and mentioned his many dead friends. People were dancing on the stage and hundreds on the ground. At one point Nes came forward and threw a stack of dollar bills onto the crowd.

In retrospect, I can only wonder. Did Zeus know? Did God know? Did the cruel fates know that this was going to be his last concert?

At the end of the show and before Adrian got on the stage Nes approached him and said: “I can explain everything.” It was a literary moment, a prelude to the next act. But it was not to come. That night Nes fell and suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He died a few days later, roughly at the time that Adrian and I were talking about him.

I was in the office when Adrian called and told me to sit down. But I couldn’t. I remember hearing his words but not being able to comprehend them, my mind preferring to think about the sharp pain in my right thigh. That was graspable. Nes’s death was not.

It was not difficult to love Nes, his incomparable smile, his capacity to turn breath into song, and his courage to wear his heart like a Hugo Boss jacket for all to see. As the seventeenth-century poet, Abraham Cowley said about his dead friend, William Hervey, “Large was his soul, as large a soul as e’er/ Submitted to inform a body here.” 

When I finally raised my head from my desk, I thought about the books around me that dealt with the dead friend. In the ancient Sumerian epic Gilgamesh asked “What now is this sleep that has seized you?/ Come back to me! You hear me not.” And David in the Hebrew Bible wailed, “I am distressed for thee my brother Jonathan.” John Dryden perhaps captured best my feelings: “Once more, hail and farewell, farewell thou young, / But ah too short, Marcellus of our Tongue.” Nes was like Marcellus, a talented, future Caesar who died without fulfilling his promise.

I sought solace in Tennyson who wrote of his friend, Arthur Hallam:

For I am but an earthly Muse

And owning but a little art

To lull with song an aching heart,

And render human love his due.

In times of grief I have often said to myself that love conquers death. But in the case of Nes, poetry also overcomes life’s passing. Throughout history poetry has attempted to make sense of death by rendering the friend immortal through song. Achilles and Patroclus live forever in Homer’s enchanting verses.

Sometime in the winter Nes sent me a copy of the “Black Odyssey.” I include it here so that it can continue, a first draft, subject to revision.

The Black Odyssey

I'm a man, tryna reap the spoils of the land, with a big torch placed in my hand, I could light up the whole block ya understand, so hot I could make glass from the sand, I'm big O you ain't know who I am, we'll get familiar cuz I'm bout to go in....

From a fight I never ran, I fought many battles and I didn't lose a hand, hopped out the Trojan horse and guns went blam, flawless victory, I'll make you a memory, I'm a king so I know they envy me? Hop out my chariot, all black tints so you haters can't stare in it, tryna get back to my queen that I married got son that I cherish it's crazy I could have anything I want staying at the Marriott, roaming Zeus green earth, tryna get back to my native dirt, but I really can't cuz I know I'm cursed, but I won't never stop now, ima keep trying till my lights out, cuz I got a family that miss me and I fly house, it all started when I put that sucka P's eye out, called his pops up on his celly to tell him bout it , thought he was tough but all in the end he started pouting, should've heard the way he his screams when I did it, he was crying and shouting, asking me what name is, like I was a lame kid, if I didn't do that I could've got away with it, funny how these things happen, who would've thought I'd let somebody get that beat of catch me slippin.

Let me tell you about P from up the street his pops a old school gangsta he be running wit g's, he be holding down the block counting all of the cheese, everybody who cross his path say he is mean, while me and my men we grinding hard, trying to eat, I got a plan to go and get him tie em up for his cream, it's survival, I don't really look at him at as rival, better for him to get it than to do somebody I know, we go in his palace take what we can manage, no more than we can handle, from the jewelry to the chalice, we make our way into the crib, nobody was in, so we took everything that we seen and raided the fridge, time passed, I forgot where I'm at, I'm just chilling in this big house like it's my pad, heard the latch on the door, keys jingle, it's about to go down, gave the signal to my people.

He came in quick, big dude at least 6'6", when he seen us, he was eager to scrap with his fist, didnt flinch put my homies head in the wall, he was putting ppl down left and right with no prob, it was amazing, I couldn't just run in guns blazing, and I wasn't gonna go out with the white flag waving, we should've been in and out to count up at the days inn, but instead we partied in another persons haven, just let me think, what do I do I can't blink, I'm caught red handed my futures looking bleek, everybody round me getting bodied, while I was in hiding I spotted me a shotty, grabbed it up checked it for shells making sure I got a shot, got one, came from round the wall, aimed at his top, caught him in the eye now he blind and he's on the ground, screaming out "who shot me in my eye" I'ma get you clown, I told that my name was no man, he vowed revenge, even if wasn't until he was old man, time to run, dropped the gun, gather up my duns, feeling like a dunce but happy that air still in my lungs, turned around I left and said loudly, my name big O, I'm a king and I say it proudly, he laughed hard and said you made a big mistakes, my father won't be happy to hear what happened today, I hope he find you and kill you he's as powerful as gates, more richer than Buffett, more gangster than frank, better watch ya back and better watch ya place, cuz what you done today it prolly sealed your fate, I look and reply wit a grin that I can't wait, but what he said was real and more problems awaits.

Anyone wishing to contribute to the Nes Wordz Memorial Fund in support of his family please visit this link

Missing Nostalgia in Alexandria

June 20, 2017 - 07:41
Tags:  Cavafy, Alexandria, Egypt, E. M. Forster, Lawrence Durrell, Cosmopolitanism

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I, II ) 

How many of your favorite haunts are going to survive 120 years? Would you be able to recognize your neighborhood in a century? I reflected on these questions when, in May, I flew to Alexandria in search of traces of the Greek-Egyptian poet, C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933), who had spent most of his life there. Collecting information for a biography, I wanted to get a sense of where he had lived and worked, the cafes he had frequented, and the streets he had walked on.

Cavafy’s apartment, my first stop, has been converted into a museum and contains some of his furniture. His office of employment is part of the majestic Metropole Hotel on the Alexandrian waterfront, or corniche. On the ground floor of the Metropole, I visited the “Trianon” restaurant, where Cavafy often dined amidst its art nouveaux splendor.

From there it was only about five minutes back to his house, the Orthodox Church where his funeral was held and then still further to his grave, where, according to one of the guards, a woman comes from Cairo each month to lay fresh flowers.

But the “Billiards Palace,” where he spent much of his time, is long gone along with the cinema, “Rialto,” and his favorite bookstore. Much has disappeared.

Life does go on, however. Next to the hospital where Cavafy died, and around the corner from his house, now stands the “Apollo” gym with huge posters outside of bulging men. What would Cavafy, the poet of homoerotic desire, have made of this irony? But he would have had a hard time recognizing his neighborhood.

It is easy to be nostalgic in Alexandria, to yearn for the literary city created by Cavafy, E. M. Forster, Lawrence Durrell, Naguib Mahfouz, Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, Edwar al-Kharrat, Robert Liddell, Stratis Tsirkas, and Harry E. Tzalas. Writing of the elegant Rue Rosette, today Rue Fouad, Forster said, “it wants to be smart and of a Parisian smartness. Eternally well-dressed people driving infinitely in either direction.”

A visitor can become disenchanted by the crumbling facades, the pollution, and the loss of the city’s multicultural past, when up to the 1950’s it was home to thousands of Greeks, Jews, Italians, Syrians, French, and Lebanese. Alexandria today (like Izmir and Thessaloniki – two other multiethnic cities of the Mediterranean) has become largely monocultural. To mourn the passing of this ethnic diversity has been a trope for westerners who have written about this city and who can’t reconcile today’s poverty and congestion with past grandeur.

We forget, however, that this cosmopolitanism did not accommodate the bulk of the Egyptian population. Cavafy himself knew little Arabic. While his poetry treated Alexandria like a modernist poem, a utopia of “faultlessly beautiful” young men, it was blind to the actual city. “And naked feet unheard of in your verses,” wrote the English poet, D. J. Enright in his “To Cavafy, of Alexandria.”

Most Europeans had very little to do with the Egyptian masses. But then when do intellectual or economic elites mix with the lower social orders? Do they do so in today’s Columbus, Istanbul, Lagos, or Quito? We blame Cavafy’s Alexandria for practices of exclusion we tacitly accept in our own lives.

Is this cosmopolitanism really dead today In Alexandria? I used to think so until I went there and experienced the vestiges of ethnic and religious mixing and an openness to the Other. Emblematic of this attitude was Zahraa, who spent two days showing me around the city, including – much to my surprise – the house of Daphne du Maurier, where she had made initial sketches for Rebecca. Her family has been in Alexandria for seven generations, with her various grandparents being of Greek-Sudanese, Turkish-Moroccan, and Judeo-Greek background.

Sitting with her in the tranquil courtyard of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, I spoke with a priest who ministers to the Orthodox faithful in Mali, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, and Ghana. A Jordanian Bedouin and fluent in Arabic, Greek, and English, he argued passionately — via a video on his phone — that no one is ethnically or racially pure. His life’s mission has been to embrace the Other as someone different from oneself.

And when we climbed up the two flights of stairs to Cavafy’s house afterwards, Mohammed, who has been the keeper of the museum for 25 years and who has taught himself Greek and English, also promoted this perspective. He wanted to be known as Mohammed Cavafy, to show that the Greek and the Egyptian, Muslim and Christian could coexist, that Alexandria was a “hybrid,” as Durrell said in Justine.  When I asked people what Alexandria means today, they pointed to this peaceful interaction among communities. 

This sense of mutual coexistence was forced upon me one evening. Looking for a restaurant along Salah Salem St., I felt someone yanking my arm into a shop. Feeling generally safe in the city, I was startled by this act of violence and tried to pull away. But when I turned around to look at my assailant, I saw the smiling grin of Mahmoud, my barber.

I had appeared in his shop the day before, pointed to my hair and made scissor-like movements with my two fingers. Not knowing Arabic, I sat silently in the chair until he asked awkwardly “where from?” When I answered “Younan” (Greece), I could see his face beaming in the mirror. Then he tried to explain, I think, that his grandfather was Greek. At one moment he blurted out the only Greek he knew: “S’agapo” – I love you.

I understood that he wanted to link us with this powerful phrase. Without the self-consciousness and worldly knowledge of the priest at the Patriarchate, he too strived for moments of global empathy.

So did the architect who was described to me as the city’s last cosmopolitan. On the eve of Ramadan, this cultivated and humane man, who has struggled to preserve the city’s architectural past, invited me to dinner. In his sumptuous villa, filled with objects and art of the city’s past, I met people who represented the ethnic and religious mixing of the Mediterranean. In their sixties and seventies, they were a connection to Cavafy’s world, speaking primarily Arabic but easily switching to English or French and a few in Greek.

Amongst them was Georges a product and symbol of this Mediterranean crucible. To my astonishment, his grandmother had actually known Cavafy, even though she had disapproved of him, probably because of his homosexuality. When she discovered that young Georges had been reading Cavafy’s poetry in school, she dismissed it curtly, saying “c’est abominable!” On my last evening I met Georges in the Greek Athletic Club for a final conversation about Cavafy and about Lawrence Durrell whom he met one morning at the famed Cecil Hotel.

Before sitting down at our table, Georges pointed across the field to his former school, built in the late-nineteenth century by the Greek community. Largely empty, it had only a handful of pupils now.

After our meal we rode the tram back to the Metropole Hotel, the tram that Cavafy and his friends used to take to the Casino in Ramleh (now torn down for a new Four Seasons Hotel), the same tram-line where E. M. Forster met Mohammed, his first and only passionate love who died in his early twenties. It was hard not to be melancholic – Mohammed’s premature death, the probable closure of the Georges’ school, the demise of the Greek community, the dilapidation of once-grand architecture. So much loss.

Yet the streets around us were filling up with people celebrating the end of the day’s fast. The cafes and restaurants, empty the whole day, were suddenly alive. The Athineos restaurant, refurbished and modernized, was beckoning another generation of Alexandrians. While it was not the place Cavafy frequented, it used the name nevertheless and served similar food, along with hamburgers, its neon sign projecting Greek words! 

Nostalgia is our reaction to rapid social change, expressing our desire to return back to a time we imagine as happier and more innocent. Cavafy’s cosmopolitanism was an ideal we cannot recreate. But neither should we dismiss it, as many are want to do, because of its imperfections and injustices.

In a week when Isis terrorists had butchered scores of Coptic Christians in Upper Egypt and when Trump withdrew from the Paris Accord on climate change, we ignore this model of coexistence at our peril.

How this ends

May 23, 2017 - 13:17
Tags:  Verfassungsschutz; Secret assassins; Feminist utopia; Alternate history, President Trump, democracy

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I ) 

How this ends:

a) Mossad activates sleeper agent Rahm Emanuel, who takes out Trump with quiet efficiency; or

b) Rogue elements of the FBI, probably the New York office, flip and reveal both October surprise and Comey firing arranged by a Cypriot mafia associate of Kushner; or

c) Russian Chekists take out Priebus and Kellyanne with polonium-tainted TV bronzer, leave Bannon in place; or

d) Steve Miller flips, takes out Bannon, Mercer, and UKIP while he’s at it; or

e) CIA activates secret dossiers on 5 Republican Senators, who suddenly out of patriotic conscience decide to turn on Trump; or

f) Mutiny against Paul Ryan in the House by just enough imperilled GOP Reps to join with Democrats in impeachment articles; or

g) Melania and Ivanka stage a coup to save i) Barron and ii) The Brand; or

h) Ivanka and Jared persuade him the jig is up; all flee to newly-created posh golf resort somewhere in the Crimea; or

i) The George III Option: Trump declared unfit by reason of insanity and a dissolute Regent is named (probably Jared); or

j) KGB assassins blocked in the Rose Garden by Shaolin monks sent by Chinese oligarchs who want to protect their exclusive path to visas; or

k) Both parties realize that a cabal within the GOP has been totally corrupted by the billionaire donor class, belatedly enact campaign reform; or

l) Billionaires squeezed by the CIA, all forced to flee to Cayman Islands where they live out lives in increasingly dismal FyreFestival scenario; or

m) Both parties realize that the core of irrational white supremacy that Nixon bought so dearly for the GOP must be combatted root and branch, like the “constitutional protections” prohibitions against Nazism in postwar Germany; or

n) Fox News labelled an enemy of the state; whole operation flees to Quebec where it starts dismantling Canada; or

o) Rupert Murdoch revealed as Russian agent, all property seized and forfeited; The Guardian buys Sky; or

p) Evangelicals kill Trump to install their Messiah Pence; blame Obama; theocratic regime installed; or

q) Trump, stressed, overdoses on diet pills and has a stroke; or

r) Twitter taken down by massive hacking wave, during which everyone in the line of succession UP TO ORRIN HATCH disappears; or

s) Trump’s second scoop of ice cream is sprinkled with arsenic by the person who runs Rogue Potus Staff twitter account (who is probably a cook); or

t) Louise Mensch and Jill Stein join to form a ruling cabal of Bad Women; or

u) Obama recalled from retirement by popular acclaim, like Cincinnatus called from the plow; National Unity Government formed; or

v) Inspired by Thankful Flower emoji, massive emotional popular movement drives people into streets in praise of empathy and welcome to strangers; they give ecstasy to the GOP and all the guns melt; or

w) French army troops land on Cape Cod; greeted with grateful tears and flowers; or

x) Russian democracy activist kills Putin, is instantly strangled by Putin’s pet bear; or

y) Malia and Chelsea rob Wall Street, use the money to instate Universal Basic Income, or finally

z) Law is passed that no men may vote; women assume all elective office and country returns to normal.



The Metaphysics of Handiwork or How Aristotle Conquered America

April 29, 2017 - 14:29

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I, II ) 

The debate between Juan Gines de Sepúlveda and Bartolomé de Las Casas held in Valladolid, Spain in 1550 was the culmination of some forty years of agonizing policy discussions over the rights of Spain to the New World. The encounter at Valladolid has produced numerous influential critical interpretations in the centuries since. Lewis Hanke, for example, reads it as a prolonged discussion over “justice” pitting Aristotelians against each other. Anthony Pagden cast the debate as one aimed at either justifying or undermining dominium via evolutionary and comparative ethnographies. Rolena Adorno, more recently, argued that it was a polemics not over how to identify the “truth,” but over persuasion. Every party involved in the debate sought to move powerful patrons to change policy, engendering different literary genres in order to push their agendas. [1]

In The Matter of Empire: Metaphysics and Mining in Colonial Peru (Pittsburgh, 2017), Orlando Bentacor approaches this debate differently. Betancor frames Iberian Neo-Scholasticism as a “metaphysics of handiwork” and invites the reader to see Aristotle not only as an interpreter of “barbarians” but also of matter itself. Aristotle’s notions of causation and change are strange: an artisanal nature handcrafts each individual object with specialized tools and blueprints. Nature uses tools (efficient cause) to give form (formal cause) to shapeless matter (material cause), always with a purpose in mind (final cause). 

Nature behaves like an artisan. Diego Saavedra Fajardo-Idea Principis Christiano-Politici (Brussels,1649)

Betancor complicates the picture by highlighting that Nature was seen not as a lone artisan but as a guild. Nature was organized along a hierarchical scale of artisanal skills in a world in which not all trades were equal. A navigator who used portolans and cross-staffs to sail a ship was above the shipbuilder who used saws and hammers to build it. The ship-builder, in turn, was above the woodcutter who used axes to fell trees. Aristotle’s Nature was a complex, hierarchical community of materials, blueprints, tools, and guilds.

This thoroughly anthropomorphic Aristotelian model of causation, in turn, not only interpreted nature but sociology and political philosophy as well.  Humans were artisans who created polities in the same way that nature transformed objects. To explain the workings of societies, scholars set out to find material, formal, efficient and final causes.  Laws were the “form” that shaped the “matter” that were communities. Rulers were the “efficient” cause; the common good was the “final” cause. Princes were craft makers of commonwealths.

The Prince as artisan-weaver. Juan Solórzano Pereira- Emblemata regis politica in centuriam (Madrid, 1653)

Betancor shows that Neo-Scholastics deployed this metaphysics of handiwork to justify conquest and colonization. The Matter of Empire begins with Francisco de Vitoria, the famous Dominican professor at the University of Salamanca whose ideas about the Spanish rights to conquest allegedly shaped modern international law. The Aristotelian that he was, Vitoria understood America as an artisanal workshop. Vitoria saw the differences between Europeans and Indians as those between “form” and “matter.” The natives were the clay upon which the artisanal Europeans would sculpt new men. Vitoria posited that polities could not only be an “efficient cause” for the commonwealth but also a "material cause" upon which outsiders could impose blueprints.

Betancor analyses how Vitoria understood the autonomous polity through the prism of the four Aristotelian causes. Laws were the “form” that shaped the “matter” that were communities. Princes were craft makers of commonwealths. They were also artisans of war. According to Betancor, Vitoria did not justify mindless dispossession and slavery in the Americas. He did, however, justify the natural rights of Europeans to travel, trade, and evangelize in lands over which Europeans had no sovereignty. Indigenous resistance to these alleged European rights justified just war, and, thus, slavery and dispossession. Bentancor sees Vitoria caught in a contradiction of his own making: the sovereign was summoned to declare war to maintain trade and commerce (and mining). Trade and commerce, in turn, was necessary to maintain the sovereign. Vitoria posited an endlessly mutually-reinforcing cycle of colonial expansion and violence all in the name of peace.

Betancor seizes on Vitoria’s aporia to explore Juan Gines de Sepúlveda’s solution to the problem of justifying colonialism through reason. Sepúlveda, he argues, simply understood the Indian to be the matter-clay over which the law-reason of Spanish “form” should act. The Spanish commonwealth was to be the artisan who would stamp form-law onto the pliable matter that was Indian polities. Natural slavery was justified through the metaphysics of handiwork. This was a position that would be refuted by Sepúlveda’s opponent at the Valladolid debate, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas.

Juan Gines de Sepulveda. Opera, cum edita, tum inedita, 4 v. (Madrid, 1780)

Las Casas understood indigenous communities as perfect, autonomous communities with formal, material, efficient, and final causes of their own. Indians were full artisans of their commonwealths. To postulate otherwise was heretical since it implied that God had created an entire continent of incomplete humans. To be a human was to be an autonomous creator of communities. According to Las Casas, the perfection of nature ruled out the very category of the incomplete barbarian or natural slave whose teleological purpose (final cause) could only be realized through the exertion of outside force. The natives were the efficient cause of perfect polities, not the material cause upon which others could impose blueprints. 

Betancor’s interpretation of another colonial theorist, José de Acosta, is just as intriguing. He argues that Acosta shifted constantly between soft Lascasian and harsh Sepulvedan justifications of colonialism. The novelty, however, is that Acosta incorporated the peculiar nature of New World metals into his political analysis. Acosta found America full of metals waiting to realize their teleological purpose (final cause), namely, their transformation into currency. Acosta found in the continent the providential reason (final cause) for its own colonization. The precious metals of America were the material foundation (matter) upon which the efficient cause that that was the Monarquía de España could be built. Betancor highlights the aporia haunting Acosta’s understanding of colonialism: labor in the mines meant certain death and, yet, was necessary for the global monarchy to exist.

For Spain to rule the world, Providence and the Sun have produced veins of gold within mountains. Diego Saavedra Fajardo-Idea Principis Christiano-Politici (Brussels,1649)

Betancor then offers a fascinating study of the Toledan reforms in Peru in the 1570s, which included the introduction of the mita in the mines of Potosí (silver) and Huancavelica (mercury), the resettlement of entire indigenous communities, and the destruction of the neo-Inca state of Vilcabamba. Betancor offers a persuasive interpretation of a critical juncture in the history of the Iberian Empire. He sheds light on how Spain shifted the justification of empire away from the transcendental (saving the soul of the natives) towards the instrumental. At this turning point, the goal of empire was no longer to convert and save souls but to keep silver flowing to save the imperial whole from its numerous enemies, Protestant and Ottoman.

The Toledan reforms had two central goals. One the one hand, the demotion of the Inca as the natural lords of Peru into newly arrived tyrants. On the other, the shift from silver obtained through smelting and furnaces to silver obtained through amalgamation in patios. The shift from furnaces to amalgamation signified a shift into economies of scale in silver production. It also brought about the introduction of a discourse of alchemy and the self-generation of metals in veins of the earth.

Indigenous furnaces. Antonio Barba, Arte de los Metales (Madrid, 1645)

Images of the patio amalgamation system. In Bartolomé Arzáns de Orsúa y Vela, Historia de la Villa Imperial de Potosí. (1705-1736). Archivo y Biblioteca Nacionales de Bolivia

But amalgamation could only work through the forced mobilization of indigenous communities into the man-eating silver and mercury mines of Potosí and Huancavelica. For this to happen, the Lascasian Peruvian project of devolving power to the Inca elites had to be crushed. Juan de Matienzo, Pedro Gamboa de Sarmiento, and other intellectuals surrounding the Viceroy Toledo created new, powerful historical accounts that sought to delegitimize the Inca as natural lords while at the same time legitimating age-old Andean systems of labor mobilization. The consequence of all these changes, Betancor argues, was the justifying of the scale of suffering in the mines as the unintended yet necessary consequence of maintaining the empire. Instrumental reason thus became Machiavellian reason-of-state.

Juan Solórzano Pereira. Disputationem de Indiarum Iure (Madrid 1629)

In the final chapter, Betancor turns to Juan de Solórzano Pereira as an early seventeenth-century figure who did away with Vitoria’s reason and natural law as justification for possession. Solórzano saw history and time as sufficient foundation, even for empires that could have originated though illegal and tyrannical means.

Like Acosta, Solórzano found the mita system to be aberrant and possibly illegal. Yet, in the midst of a general decline and malaise that enveloped Spain, Solórzano found it to be, well, unavoidable. In fact, Betancor argues that Solórzano found the solution to the exploitation of the mita in the opening of even more mines. The crisis of Potosi, produced by both the exhaustion of veins and indigenous demographic collapse, could only be resolved by the opening of new mines and by the alchemical re-production of the mineral veins within the earth. Sepúlveda’s vision was one of an endless recreation of labor exploitation and ecological exhaustion. Betancor closes this fascinating book by observing that Andean vitalism that sees minerals as self-generating cannot naively be read as “decolonial” answers to Spanish colonialism. They were just part of the unraveling system of contradictory discourses.


Betancor succeeds in bringing together Heidegger and Marx’s apparently antithetical understandings of the crisis of modernity, either as “enframing” (the reduction of the toolmaker into a tool) or as “deterritorialization” (a self-perpetuating loop of capital accumulation for accumulation’s sake that destroys institutions and communities). His prose is abstruse and demands from readers a full understanding of Aristotelian theories of causation. Yet underneath his dense yet unrelentingly rigorous analysis lies a powerfully gripping new interpretation of colonial imperial discourses.

Review of Orlando Bentacor’s The Matter of Empire: Metaphysics and Mining in Colonial Peru (Pittsburgh, 2017). 

[1] Lewis Hanke, The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America (Southern Methodist University Press, 1949); Anthony Pagden, The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology (Cambridge University Press, 1982); Rolena Adorno, Polemics of Possession in Spanish American Narrative (Yale University Press, 2007)


Toasting to Friendship in Tbilisi

April 25, 2017 - 05:59
Tags:  Friendship, travel, Caucasus Mountains, Georgia, Tbilisi, monasticism

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I ) 

I met Irakli on the flight from Munich to Tbilisi. Being used to the indifference of fellow passengers on American flights, I did not expect more than a perfunctory greeting upon taking my seat. But rather than ontological rejection, Irakli offered conversation and later dinner in one of his restaurants.

I was coming to Tbilisi, along with my son, Alexander, to give three talks at various universities, get to know the city, and visit some monasteries in the eastern part of the country. Since Georgia seemed to be opening up as a travel destination, I thought I should see Tbilisi before it became another Prague, inundated by westerners writing their first novels.

Even in our first walk, we were taken by the city’s topography and architecture. Built along the banks of the Kura River, Tbilisi shows the influences of the many peoples and empires that have marched through the area. The old city, where we stayed, follows the here-and-there street pattern of medieval times. Brick houses have balconies that are sometimes enclosed and painted in Ottoman fashion. Other houses have multicolored roof tiles that add to the whimsical effect.

The museums tend to be in the modern part of the town, especially along the elegant Rustaveli Avenue, where the neoclassical lives along the art nouveau, pseudo-Moorish, and the Soviet Stalinist. Surrounding the city we saw churches erected on high hills or rocks that, when illuminated at night, seemed suspended in air.

The interior spaces were just as fanciful. On our fist day we stopped for tea in a café on the third floor of a brick building that resembled a Victorian parlor and before my first lecture we had lunch in a restaurant whose interior décor and fixtures indicated Iranian influences.

Sitting in this café I tried repeatedly to call Irakli with no success. Frustratingly my emails to him had also bounced back. I finally reached him the next day by phone as we descended a steep mountain whose summit housed a monastery so isolated that not even our Georgian driver had seen it previously. Relieved that I finally called, Irakli told me that he and his wife, Anna, would pick us up that evening.

After a day of hiking and, in my case after being almost bitten by two dogs, we looked forward to dinner in one of our host’s restaurants, an energetic, modern space with high ceiling and an open kitchen that specializes in Georgian cuisine. As we sat down Irakli explained that, since we would be toasting quite a bit during the meal, he ordered a light rosé.

“How much is in that carafe,” I asked after the waitress brought it to the table. “About a liter and a half,” he responded, adding that we would need two more during the whole evening. Although we as guests were not expected to do so, it was traditional to gulp down the entire glass with each toast.

The feast lasted four hours, one delicacy after another, in what must have been about 16 to 20 plates. But for Alexander and me what was remarkable was the ritual of the toast. As we discovered, toasting in Georgia is not a gesture of hurriedly mumbling “to your health.” Each round is an elegant process that can last as long as five minutes. Never abruptly introduced, every toast is incorporated naturally into the dinner.

As tamada master, Irakli determined when and what we would drink to. In the course of the conversation he would turn to the next toast unobtrusively, say about peace, motherhood, or Georgia, and then go into a long and eloquent discourse. We would finish the toast and then return to the dialogue while more plates were brought to the table.

I listened to Irakli’s lovely words, also appreciating the diversity of flavors we were offered. But, as a foreign guest, I began to worry about my own role in the process. Should I make a toast myself? So without the deftness of my host, I simply raised my glass to friendship. At that point Anna and Irakli looked at me with surprise. What had I done, I wondered? Had I committed a faux pas?

With the same finesse that he introduced his toasts, Irakli explained that only the tamada is permitted to make toast and, on top of that, a drink to friendship requires distinctive vessels. So we stopped everything as Irakli ordered special clay bowls that he filled with wine for this occasion only.

When this distinctive toast was over, I asked Irakli about his friends. He told me that he saw his two to three times a week. “How is it possible,” I asked, “that as an owner of so many restaurants, a husband, and father of three children, that you could see friends so often?” My questions seemed incomprehensible to him. How he could not see them, he wondered. To his horror I said that I did not know a single person in the United States past their early twenties who met friends with such frequency.

So I turned to Anna, a well-known surgeon. She couldn’t possibly have much time for friendship, given her professional and family obligations. Before answering, Anna smiled impishly, turned her head to the right, blew out some cigarette smoke and then said that she saw her friends twice a week.

What gives? How can they see their friends so often and we don’t? Of course, Irakli’s and Anna’s situation is not unique. In other parts of the world a friendship culture seems to thrive. In Salta, Northern Argentina, for instance, our guide, Mario, who led us through mountain hikes a couple of years ago, told me that his group organized an asado (outdoor grill) every Wednesday. It was assumed that everyone would attend and friends only texted Mario if they could not.

So why not in the US? Is it because in western societies marriage and family have become antagonists of friendship, making people subservient to family at the expense of non-kinship relations? (Surely in no other part of the world do exhausted parents drive their over-booked children to ever more soccer games and piano lessons.) Has the American family become a suffocating institution, not tolerating any competition? Or has geographical mobility undermined the tight relationships of friendship? After all, Irakli, Anna, and Mario can get together so often because they live so close to each other. Or has friendship been converted into a luxury, like literature and art, activities which people pursue only when they have spare time?

I thought about these questions during our drive the next day to eastern Georgia, in search of monasteries below the snowy Caucasus Mountains and almost on the border of Azerbaijan. Over many hours we visited fanciful structures with cone-shaped domes either perched on high hills or guarded by tall walls. When just before sunset we stopped for tea in the house of our driver, along with Mariam and Diana, our hosts, I wondered whether in western societies the family has become the new monasticism. Is the American family the equivalent of these remote monasteries in the Caucasus, isolating people from the outside world?

I addressed this issue during my presentation at the Caucasus International University where a working group on peace and conflict resolution had invited me to consider how literature could contribute to world peace. During the discussion earnest students asked me how works of literature could enable coexistence between peoples, say, between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

While I could not offer any direct hope in that situation, I tried to argue that literature promotes empathic thinking by encouraging people to step out of their consciousness and enter the mind of characters in a story. I suggested that if readers could put themselves in the shoes of a literary character, they could also try to do so with respect to real people — their enemies, refugees, or anyone they are not familiar or related to.

I also proposed that this is what friendship does as well. Friends are the first links we form as children outside of the family. Our friends urge us to open up to individuals beyond our house by encouraging us to acknowledge that other people have their own perspectives, just as we do. At the very least, friendship is a way of recognizing that those next to us have a valid way of looking at the world, even though it’s different from our own. The friend, as Aristotle has suggested, is a version of the self. We form friends by interacting with others.

Friendship somehow linked our dinner with Irakli and Anna, our drive to the Caucasus Mountains, and our final discussions in Tbilisi on conflict resolution. Friends inspire us to escape the monasticism of our thinking by asking us to embrace people who live outside our home.

Education in the Age of AI

April 18, 2017 - 19:30
Tags:  artificial intelligence, future of the humanities, value of the humanities, specialization

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I ) 

There’s all this talk that robots will replace humans in the workplace, leaving us poor, redundant schmucks with nothing to do but embrace the glorious (yet terrifying) creative potential of opiates and ennui. (Let it be noted that bumdom was all the rage in the 19th century, leading to the surging ecstasies of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and the crown priest of hermeticism (and my all-time favorite poet besides Sappho*), Stéphane Mallarmé**).

As I’ve argued in a previous post, I think that’s bollocks. But I also think it’s worth thinking about what cognitive, services-oriented jobs could and should look like in the next 20 years as technology advances. Note that I’m restricting my commentary to professional services work, as the manufacturing, agricultural, and transportation (truck and taxi driving) sectors entail a different type of work activity and are governed by different economic dynamics. They may indeed be quite threatened by emerging artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.

So, here we go.

I’m currently reading Yuval Noah Harari’s latest book, Homo Deus, and the following passage caught my attention:

“In fact, as time goes by it becomes easier and easier to replace humans with computer algorithms, not merely because the algorithms are getting smarter, but also because humans are professionalizing. Ancient hunter-gatherers mastered a very wide variety of skills in order to survive, which is why it would be immensely difficult to design a robotic hunter-gatherer. Such a robot would have to know how to prepare spear points from flint stones, find edible mushrooms in a forest, track down a mammoth and coordinate a charge with a dozen other hunters, and afterwards use medicinal herbs to bandage any wounds. However, over the last few thousand years we humans have been specializing. A taxi driver or a cardiologist specializes in a much narrower niche than a hunter-gatherer, which makes it easier to replace them with AI. As I have repeatedly stressed, AI is nowhere near human-like existence. But 99 per cent of human qualities and abilities are simply redundant for the performance of most modern jobs. For AI to squeeze humans out of the job market it needs only to outperform us in the specific abilities a particular profession demands.”

Harari is at his best critiquing liberal humanism. He features Duchamp’s ready-made art as the apogee of humanist aesthetics, where beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

This is astute. I love how Harari debunks the false impression that the human race progresses over time. We tend to be amazed upon seeing the technical difficulty of ancient works of art at the Met or the Louvre, assuming History (big H intended) is a straightforward, linear march from primitivism towards perfection. While culture and technologies are passed down through language and traditions from generation to generation, shaping and changing how we interact with one another and with the physical world, how we interact as a collective and emerge into something way beyond our capacities to observe, this does not mean that the culture and civilization we inhabit today is morally superior to those that came before, or those few that still exist in the remote corners of the globe. Indeed, primitive hunter-gatherers, given the broad range of tasks they had to carry out to survive prior to Adam Smith’s division of labor across a collective, may have a skill set more immune to the “cognitive” smarts of new technologies than a highly educated, highly specialized service worker!

This reveals something about both the nature of AI and the nature of the division of labor in contemporary capitalism arising from industrialism. First, it helps us understand that intelligent systems are best viewed as idiot savants, not Renaissance Men. They are specialists, not generalists. As Tom Mitchell explains in the opening of his manifesto on machine learning:

“We say that a machine learns with respect to a particular task T, performance metric P, and type of experience E, if the system reliably improves its performance P at task T, following experience E. Depending on how we specify T, P, and E, the learning task might also be called by names such as data mining, autonomous discovery, database updating, programming by example, etc.”

Confusion about super-intelligent systems stems from the popular misunderstanding of the word “learn,” which is a term with a specific meaning in the machine learning community. The learning of machine learning, as Mitchell explains, does not mean perfecting a skill through repetition or synthesizing ideas to create something new. It means updating the slope of your function so as to better fit new data as it arrives. In deep learning, these functions need not be simple, 2-D lines like we learn in middle school algebra: they can be incredibly complex curves that transverse thousands of dimensions (which we have a hard time visualizing, leading to tools like t-SNE that compress multi-dimensional math into the comfortable space-time parameters of human cognition).

t-SNE reminds me of Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, where dimensions signify different social castes.

The AI research community is making baby steps in the dark trying to create systems with more general intelligence, i.e., systems that reliably perform more than one task. OpenAI Universe and DeepMind Lab are the most exciting attempts. At the Future Labs AI Summit this week, Facebook’s Yann LeCun discussed (largely failed) attempts to teach machines common sense. We tend to think that highly skilled tasks like diagnosing pneumonia from an X-ray or deeming a tax return in compliance with the IRS code require more smarts than intuiting that a Jenga tower is about to fall or perceiving that someone may be bluffing in a poker game. But these physical and emotional intuitions are, in fact, incredibly difficult to encode into mathematical models and functions. Our minds are probabilistic, plastic approximation machines, constantly rewiring themselves to help us navigate the physical world. This is damn hard to replicate with math, no matter how many parameters we stuff into a model! It may also explain why the greatest philosophers in history have always had room to revisit and question the givens of human experience****, infinitely more interesting and harder to describe than the specialized knowledge that populates academic journals.

Next, it is precisely this specialization that renders workers susceptible to being replaced by machines. I’m not versed enough in the history of economics to know how and when specialization arose, but it makes sense that there is a tight correlation between specialization, machine coordination, and scale, as R. David Dixon recently discussed in his excellent Medium article about machines and the division of labor. Some people are drawn to startups because they are the antithesis of specialization. You get to wear multiple hats, doubling, as I do in my role at Fast Forward Labs, as sales, marketing, branding, partnerships, and even consulting and services delivery. Guild work used to work this way, as in the nursery rhyme Rub-a-dub-dub: the butcher prepared meat from end to end, the baker made bread from end to end, and the candlestick maker made candles from end to end. As Dixon points out, tasks and the time it takes to do tasks become important once the steps in a given work process are broken apart, leading to theories of economic specialization as we see in Adam Smith, Henry Ford, and, in their modern manifestation, the cold, harsh governance of algorithms and KPIs. The corollary of scale is mechanism, templates, repetition, efficiency. And the educational system we’ve inherited from the late 19th century is tailored and tuned to farm out skilled, specialized automatons who fit nicely into the specific roles required by corporate machines like Google or Goldman Sachs.

Frederick Taylor pioneered the scientific management theories that shaped factories in the 20th century, culminating in process methodologies like Lean Six Sigma

This leads to the core argument I’d like to put forth in this post: the right educational training and curriculum for the AI-enabled job market of the 21st century should create generalists, not specialists. Intelligent systems will get better and better at carrying out specific activities and specific tasks on our behalf. They’ll do them reliably. They won’t get sick. They won’t have fragile egos. They won’t want to stay home and eat ice cream after a breakup. They can and should take over this specialized work to drive efficiencies and scale. But, machines won’t be like startup employees any time soon. They won’t be able to reliably wear multiple hats, shifting behavior and style for different contexts and different needs. They won’t be creative problem solvers, dreamers, or creators of mission. We need to educate the next generation of workers to be more like startup employees. We need to bring back respect for the generalist. We need the honnête homme of the 17th century or Arnheim*** in Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities. We need hunter-gatherers who may not do one thing fabulously, but have the resiliency to do a lot of things well enough to get by.

What types of skills should these AI-resistant generalists have and how can we teach them?

Flexibility and Adaptability

Andrew Ng is a pithy tweeter. He recently wrote: “The half-life of knowledge is decreasing. That’s why you need to keep learning your whole life, not only through college.”

This is sound. The apprenticeship model we’ve inherited from the guild days, where the father-figure professor passes down his wisdom to the student who becomes assistant professor then associate professor then tenured professor then stays there for the rest of his life only to repeat the cycle in the next generation, should probably just stop. Technologies are advancing quickly, which open opportunities to automate tasks that we used to do manually or do new things we couldn’t do before (like summarizing 10,000 customer reviews on Amazon in a second, as the system my colleagues at Fast Forward Labs built). Many people fear change and there are emotional hurdles to having to break out of habits and routine and learn something new. But honing the ability to recognize that new technologies are opening new markets and new opportunities will be seminal to succeeding in a world where things constantly change. This is not to extol disruption. That’s infantile. It’s to accept and embrace the need to constantly learn to stay relevant. That’s exciting and even meaningful. Most people wait until they retire to finally take the time to paint or learn a new hobby. What if work itself offered the opportunity to constantly expand and take on something new? That doesn’t mean that everyone will be up to the challenge of becoming a data scientist over night in some bootcamp. So the task universities and MOOCs have before them is to create curricula that will help laymen update their skills to stay relevant in the future economy.


From the late 17th to mid 18th centuries, intellectual giants like Leibniz, D’Alembert, and Diderot undertook the colossal task of curating and editing encyclopedias (the Greek etymology means “in the circle of knowledge”) to represent and organize all the world’s knowledge (Google and Wikipedia being the modern manifestations of the same goal). These Enlightenment powerhouses all assumed that the world was one, and that our various disciplines were simply different prisms that refracted a unified whole. The magic of the encyclopedia lay in the play of hyperlinks, where we could see the connections between things as we jumped from physics to architecture to Haitian voodoo, all different lenses we mere mortals required to view what God (for lack of a better name) would understand holistically and all at once.

Contemporary curricula focused on specialization force students to grow myopic blinders, viewing phenomena according to the methodologies and formalisms unique to a particular course of study. We then mistake these different ways of studying and asking questions for literally different things and objects in the world and in the process develop prejudices against other tastes, interests, and preferences.

There is a lot of value in doing the philosophical work to understand just what our methodologies and assumptions are, and how they shape how we view problems and ask and answer questions about the world. I think one of the best ways to help students develop sensitivities for methodologies is to have them study a single topic, like climate change, energy, truth, beauty, emergence, whatever it may be, from multiple disciplinary perspectives. So understanding how physics studies climate change; how politicians study climate change; how international relations study climate change; how authors have portrayed climate change and its impact on society in recent literature. Stanford’s Thinking Matters and the University of Chicago’s Social Thought programs approach big questions this way. 

The 18th-century Encyclopédie placed vocational knowledge like embroidery on equal footing with abstract knowledge of philosophy or religion.

Model Thinking

Michael Lewis does a masterful job narrating the lifelong (though not always strong) partnership between Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in The Undoing Project. Kahneman and Tversky spent their lives showing how we are horrible probabilistic thinkers. We struggle with uncertainty and have developed all sorts of narrative and heuristic mental techniques to make our world make more concrete sense. Unfortunately, we need to improve our statistical intuitions to succeed in the world of AI, which are probabilistic systems that output responses couched in statistical terms. While we can hide this complexity behind savvy design choices, really understanding how AI works and how it may impact our lives requires that we develop intuitions for how models, well, model the world. At least when I was a student 10 years ago, statistics was not required in high school or undergrad. We had to take geometry, algebra, and calculus, not stats. It seems to make sense to make basic statistics a mandatory requirement for contemporary curricula.

Synthetic and Analogical Reasoning

There are a lot of TED Talks about brains and creativity. People love to hear about the science of making up new things. Many interesting breakthroughs in the history of philosophy or physics came from combining together two strands of thought that were formerly separate: the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, whose unintelligibility is besides the point, cleverly combined linguistic theory from Ferdinand Saussure with psychoanalytic theory from Sigmund Freud to make his special brand of analysis; the Dutch physicist Erik Verlinde cleverly combined Newton and Maxwell’s equations with information theory to come to the stunning conclusion that gravity emerges from entropy (which is debated, but super interesting).

As we saw above, AI systems aren’t analogical or synthetic reasoners. In law, for example, they excel at classification tasks to identify if a piece of evidence is relevant for a given matter, but they fail at executing other types of reasoning tasks like identifying that the facts of a particular case are similar to the facts of another to merit a comparison using precedent. Technology cases help illustrate this. Data privacy law, for example, frequently thinks about our right to privacy in the virtual world through reference back to Katz v. United States, a 1967 case featuring a man making illegal gambling bets from a phone booth. Topic modeling algorithms would struggle to recognize that words connoting phones and bets had a relationship to words connoting tracking sensors on the bottom of trucks (as in United States v. Jones). But lawyers and judges use Katz as precedent to think through this brave new world, showing how we can see similarities between radically different particulars from a particular level of abstraction.

Does this mean that, like stats, everyone should take a course on the basics of legal reasoning to make sure they’re relevant in the AI-enabled world? That doesn’t feel right. I think requiring coursework in the arts and humanities could do the trick.

Framing Qualitative Ideas as Quantitative Problems

A final skill that seems paramount for the AI-enabled economy is the ability to translate an idea into something that can be measured. Not everyone needs to be able to this, but there will be good jobs—and more and more jobs—for the people who can.

This is the data science equivalent of being able to go from strategy to tactical execution. Perhaps the hardest thing in data science, in particular as tooling becomes more ubiquitous and commoditized, is to figure out what problems are worth solving and what products are worth building. This requires working closely with non-technical business leaders who set strategy and have visions about where they’d like to go. But it takes a lot of work to break down a big idea into a set of small steps that can be represented as a quantitative problem, i.e., translated into some sort of technology or product. This is also synthetic and interdisciplinary thinking. It requires the flexibility to speak human and speak machine, to prioritize projects and have a sense for how long it will take to build a system that does what it needs to do, to render the messy real-world tractable for computation. Machines won’t be automating this kind of work anytime soon, so it’s a skill set worth building. The best way to teach this is through case studies. I’d advocate for co-op training programs alongside theoretical studies, as Waterloo provides for its computer science students.


While our culture idealizes and extols polymaths like Da Vinci or Galileo, it also undervalues generalists who seem to lack the discipline and rigor to focus on doing something well. Our academic institutions prize novelty and specialization, pushing us to focus on growing the new leaf at the edge of a vast tree wizened with rings of experience. We need to change this mindset to cultivate a workforce that can successfully collaborate with intelligent machines. The risk is a world without work; the reward is a vibrant and curious new humanity.

*Sappho may be the sexiest poet of all time. An ancient lyric poet from Lesbos, she left fragments that pulse with desire and eroticism. Randomly opening a collection, for example, I came across this:

Afraid of losing you

I ran fluttering/like a little girl/after her mother

**I’m stretching the truth here for rhetorical effect. Mallarmé actually made a living as an English teacher, although he was apparently horrible at both teaching and speaking English. Like Knausgaard in Book 2 of My Struggle, Mallarmé frequently writes poems about how hard it is for him to find a block of silence while his kids are screaming and needing attention. Bourgeois family life sublimated into the ecstasy of hermeticism. Another fun fact is that the French Symbolists loved Edgar Allen Poe, but in France they drop the Allen and just call him Edgar Poe.

***Musil modeled Arnheim after his nemesis Walther Rathenau, the German Foreign Minister during the Weimar Republic. Rathenau was a Jew, but identified mostly as a German. He wrote some very mystical works on the soul that aren’t worth reading unless you’d like to understand the philosophical and cocktail party ethos of the Habsburg Empire.

****I’m a devout listener of the Partially Examined Life podcast, where they recently discussed Wilfrid Sellars’s Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind. Sellars critiques what he calls “the myth of the given” and has amazing thoughts on what it means to tell the truth.

The Neologismcene

April 3, 2017 - 04:50
Tags:  environmental humanities, Anthropocene, Oceans, Climate change

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I ) 

This particular terminological game is just about up, I think, and it's no surprise that Anthropos has won again. I don't think we'll be using any word but Anthropocene to describe the ecological present anytime soon. More's the pity, perhaps—but the Anthropocene is here to stay.

But as we environmental humanists embark on necessary efforts to pluralize the Anthropocene!, it might be worth assembling a list of the alternative preterites whose names are even now being passed over in our efforts to make sense of the changing eco-now. There may never be a more neologism-filled moment in the environmental humanities. What do all these 'cenes have to say? What pluralities can we try to recover and value while facing the onrushing tide of the Anthropocene?

Here's my stab at a list of also-ran 'cenes. Suggestions and additions welcome!

Agnotocene: Derived from the term "agnotology" in sociology and the history of science, which studies "the production of zones of ignorance" (198), this jaw-breaker is one of the many alternative 'cenes suggested by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptise Fressoz in their stunningly-wide ranging and brilliant book, The Shock of the Anthropocene (Verso, 2016).

Anglocene: In a side-note within their chapter on the Thermocene, Bonneuil and Fressoz remark that another possible term would be the "Anglocene," a name chosen to emphasize the outsized contributions of Great Britain and the United States to global carbon emissions. Or, as they put it in slightly more political terms: "The overwhelming share of responsibility for climate change of the two hegemonic powers of the nineteenth (Great Britain) and twentieth (United States) centuries attests to the fundamental link between climate change and projects of world domination" (117).

Anthrobscene: Jurri Parrika's coinage, which appeared in 2015 via U Minnesota Press's Forerunners series, emphasizes the obscenity in today's 'cene. I wrote a bit about it on the Bookfish a couple years ago.

Capitalocene: This term has been taken up by the eco-Marxist historian Jason W. Moore, among others, to argue that the environmental villain is Capitalism, not Humanity or even Man writ large. Moore's Capitalism in the Web of Life (Verso, 2015) explores the progress of capitalist exploitation of the natural world from roughly 1500 until the present.

Chthulucene: Donna Haraway's term, from Staying with the Trouble (Duke, 2016), asks for more-than-human alliances with "diverse earthwide tentacular powers and forces" (101), though she pointedly rejects the label "posthumanist" and isn't writing about Lovecraft's cosmic figure. (She emphasizes that her Chthulu does not equal his Cthulhu: "note spelling difference.") She proposes the slogan: "Make Kin not Babies!" (102). She also makes the case that our current era may be well-described by Kim Stanley Robinson's term, "The Dithering" from the sci-fi novel 2312—but since that word has no 'cene in it I'll leave it out.

Homogenocene: I first found this one in Charles Mann's brilliant work of popular ecological history, 1493: Uncovering the New World that Columbus Created (Vintage 2012); Mann cites his scholarly source as M.J. Samways, in a 1999 article in Journal of Insect Conservation. The Homogenocene presents a horrifying vision of a world in which all things in all places grow increasingly homogeneous in physical, ecological, and even cultural terms. (See also Plantationocene.)

Naufragocene: My own invention, in Shipwreck Modernity (Minnesota, 2015), this 'cene uses shipwreck—naufragia—as a master-trope for the age of catastrophic environmental change that exposed itself through ecological globalization in the early modern period and, in different forms, continues today.

Oliganthrocene: I can't locate my source for this one, but the name tells a clear enough story: the age of (political) oligarchy, the form of elite domination typical of, but not limited to, capitalism, colonialism, and industrial modernity.

Phagocene: Another 'cene from Bonneuil and Fressoz, the Phagocene puts consumerism and "disciplinary hedonism" (157) at the center of climate destruction. They diagnose modernity as "a throw-away culture" (159), which they connect primarily to twentieth-century American mass-production of consumer goods, especially the automobile and its cognate, the suburb.

Phronocene: One of Bonneuil and Fressoz's more paradoxical coinages, the Phronocene explores the longstanding awareness by European central planners and early ecologists of environmental vulnerability. They conclude ruefully that "our ancestors destroyed environments in full awareness of what they were doing" (196). In this view, efforts to increase our "environmental awareness" seem futile, because although such awareness has been plentiful in the historical record, it has not yet succeeded in slowing humanity's destruction of nonhuman systems.

Plantationocene: I first spotted this one on twitter via Tobias Menley, but it also appears in recent articles by Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing. In Tsing's compelling formulation, "Plantations are machines of replication, ecologies devoted to the production of the same." (See also Homogenocene.) The Age of the Plantation reformulates the Capitolocene so that the slave plantation, rather than the factory, represents the dominant economic and ecological engine of progress and disaster.

Planthropocene: A coinage of medievalist ecocritic Rob Barrett, for a work in progress about which I'm eager to hear more.

Polemocene: Bonneuil and Fressoz use this 'cene to emphasize a long history of political struggle motivated by social justice and "environmentalism of the poor" (253). Resistance to industrialism and "progress," they show, is as old as the industrial revolution, which means that political resources and histories are available to continue this struggle today. #resist!

Sustainocene: As championed in a TED talk by Harvard professor Daniel G. Nocera, this neologism proposes an era of "personalized energy" made possible though compact photosynthesis devices.

Symbiocene: I found this one via the artist Cathy Fitzgerald, who cites Glenn Albrecht's 2016 article in Minding Nature. As an alternative to the "ecocide of the Anthropocene", the symbiocene "emphasizes ideas and practices to enhance the mutual flourishing of all life."

Thalassocene: My other original-ish coinage in Shipwreck Modernity, I neologize this 'cene by way of the "new thalassology" of the environmental historians of the premodern Mediterranean Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell (The Corrupting Sea 2000). In my global rather than Med-centric sense, the Thalassocene writes human history through and on the World Ocean, whose currents and storms shape exchanges of cultures, products, creatures, and stories.

Thanatocene: Bonneuil and Fressoz's term for an Age of Death reads the twentieth century's signature contributions to climate catastrophe through deadly global wars and ecological devastation. They emphasize that the "petrolization of Western societies" owes a powerful debt to, and is perhaps unthinkable without, the global mobilizations of the Second World War (138).

Thermocene: In Bonneuil and Fressoz's "political history of CO2," familiar hockey-stick climate curves get placed in the larger context of industrial modernity. Insisting that we must "denauturalize the history of energy" (107) requires also acknowledging that the history of energy regimes is "political, military, and ideological" (107).

Trumpocene: [OK, I just made this one up. I leave its elaboration as an exercise for the reader.]

Devising an adequate response to the vast plurality of all this 'cene-salad comprises one of the essential questions for this moment in the environmental humanities. Let's get started on it!

The Construction of the Administrative State

March 21, 2017 - 23:43
Tags:  Proust, Blanchot, Milton, Paradise Lost, Dante, Inferno, Steve Bannon, Homer, Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Vergil, Henry James, The Golden Bowl, Samuel Johnson

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I ) 

In class today we were talking about the differences between Vergil and Homer. The difference between the deep administrative state that Vergil is describing, and the unchanging, contextualizing hierarchical background against which Homeric personal relations play out. Dr. Johnson (Rambler 121) sees the silence of Dido in Book VI of The Aeneid as one of the clearest ways in which Vergil ornaments his poem with sparkling Homeric lusters that he can't resist, and complains that it is much less affecting than the silence of the painfully ineloquent Ajax in Book XI of The Odyssey. But he misses the lesson of one of his own points: Vergil unites the beauties of The Iliad and The Odyssey, as he says, but he reverses their order: the intense personal experience that burgeons more and more throughout The Iliad and culminates in The Odyssey is in Vergil a turn away from that intensifying depiction of private experience, and a turn to the always emerging possibilities of political violence that the administrative state develops from and resists. The end of the Vergilian Odyssey is in Book VI of The Aeneid, at which point Aeneas turns away from the Homeric characters in the underworld and leaves them behind forever. Dido's silence is a recognition of this: she has fallen in love not with Hector but with a proto-Roman, which is why it adumbrates Lavinia's equally conspicuous silence in the last six books. The story is not about her, and barely about Turnus or Pallas or even Lausus and Mezentius, the Vergilian equivalents of Hector and Priam. We get a similar reversal when Vergil gives us his version of Achilles's point of view, remembering his own father when Priam supplicates him, as Aeneas thinks of his own son when he kills Lausus and sees Mezentius's intense mourning and desire to die. Achilles threatens to kill Priam but takes pity on him and gives him safe-conduct back to Troy; Aeneas takes pity on Mezentius by killing him, so he needn't outlive Lausus very long: a final farewell to the Homeric characters. 

The deep state administers and monopolizes and so restricts the violence that threatens everywhere. That insight is what leads to the proto-Miltonic moments in Vergil, in particular when the Vergilian narrator speaks, for the only time, from the perspective of the first person plural: we Romans, in Vergil, "nostra vita" in Dante (who must be knowingly alluding ot this), we fallen humans ("all our woe") in Milton.

We can measure the modernity of this moment by hearing its not too distant echo in Henry James, in The Golden Bowl. Vergil's narrative innovation (I don't think this is too strong a phrase) is to describe any intense incident, and more and more as The Aeneid progresses, from the perspective of those in distress or pain or despair. This is particularly true in the shifts in perspective in the last moment of The Aeneid, Vergil's recapitulation of the death of Hector, when Turnus loses his single combat against Aeneas, and Aeneas kills the suppliant. We go from his despairing perspective to Aeneas's when the latter sees Pallas's belt and is filled with uncertainty and guilt and grief and resolves these passions by violence. And then the very last moment is the flight of Turnus's indignant (indignata) soul down to the shades.

But even before that Turnus has the nightmarish experience of being unable or barely able to hold his own:

...velut in somnis, oculos ubi languida pressit

nocte quies, nequiquam auidos extendere cursus

velle videmur, et in mediis conatibus aegri

succidimus  (XII.908-911) in dreams, when languid rest has pressed our eyes at night, we seem in vain to wish to stretch forth our eager running, and in the middle of our efforts we sink down exhausted.

As has been pointed out (e.g. by Christine G. Perkell in her helpful account of this scene), this is a Vergilian recasting of a description of the dream-frustration described, in the third-person, in The Iliad (22.199-200).

James's omniscient (or near omniscient) narrator uses the first person fairly frequently (singular and plural, though the plurals are a bit more specific, designating narrator and readers, not all human beings), but not like this, except perhaps for this passage near the end of The Golden Bowl:

He was so near now that she could touch him, taste him, smell him, kiss him, hold him; he almost pressed upon her, and the warmth of his face — frowning, smiling, she mightn't know which; only beautiful and strange — was bent upon her with the largeness with which objects loom in dreams.  (Chapter XLI)

"...pressed upon her": is that a memory of Vergil's "pressit"? For though the first person here is latent, it is all the more powerful for that: James knows, and we know, what our experience of dreaming is like. This is James’s version of the Proustian nous, as impersonal a first person plural as we ever find in Proust, since it applies to all of us in our lonely and isolated dreams: a universal loneliness, a universal separation. So too is Turnus all alone, as all are. For Vergil this is the birth of the administrative state, the real entity that has replaced Homeric human relation. Blanchot (commenting on Priam's supplication of Achilles) says the choice in Homer is violence or speech. In Vergil, in the modern state, our choice is only violence or the silence, whether of Dido or Ajax, imposed upon us by our isolation within the emptiness of our dreams (Milton).

Against Hate: Deconstructing Terror (III)

March 13, 2017 - 02:34
Tags:  Muslim Ban, War on Terror, Donald Trump, Islamophobia, Muslims Americans, Stephen Bannon

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( III, III ) 

Steve Bannon recently articulated the task of the Trump Administration as “the deconstruction of the Administrative State.” Just like landing on the longest square in the Snakes and Ladders game, this phrase has the power of taking you down some dark corridors in the pre-history of World War II. More specifically, the phrase makes a stark reference to an ideology of hate espoused by proponents of the Nazi party, and noted in the Black Notebooks of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976).

Hate is an ideology in the sense that all ideologies constitute an imaginary relationship to a real. Like racism, which is predicated on a considerable amount of animosity and aversion based on skin color, hate is a negative emotion, an aggressive predisposition and the polar opposite of empathy and compassion towards someone or a class of people. Hate is so perverse that it cannot only consume an individual’s entire life, but, when circumstances are favorable enough, can also blur into moral judgment, seep into philosophical discourses and be passed on from an individual to whole institutions and nations, as was seen in Nazi Germany.

When hate becomes a dominant ideology and a “mission,” administered by government officials, passed into laws, executed by the police and border protection officers, what in reality is being policed and protected is the pathology of hate itself, now metamorphosed into law and order, administratively funneled through social institutions and practiced without misgivings on a daily basis. At stake is the shifting of the moral compass and the transformation of hate into a lived reality, a banality à la Arendt, no longer questioned, an everyday systemic practice, like taking the train to work or lining up for coffee at Starbucks. Hate wants to control everything, especially the media, in order to gain access to the population and slowly suture citizens into conformity and normalization. Oppose the politics of hate and you become the enemy of the state.

What do you do if you wake up one morning and find yourself the enemy of your own state as you witness a not so tacit decline into authoritarianism? What do you do when someone is inviting you to take part in a new national project, namely, “the deconstruction of the administrative state?” If you haven’t read Heidegger, or Derrida, or even Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and if you haven't sympathized with a tormented young prince on the brink of madness struggling to make sense of his father’s death and the chaos that has now become the state of Denmark, then you would probably want to know the meaning of “deconstructing the administrative state.” I don’t believe that Bannon wants us to understand as much as he would like us to sing and revel in the rhetorical charm and captivating jingles of such a platitudinous catchphrase. It’s a phrase that calls for a movement, a phrase with a telos if you will: let’s all go and deconstruct the administrative state. But the ghost of Hamlet looms large in this unfolding drama of hate. When the apparition appears to the dejected young prince, it is dressed in full armor, only not facing its enemy, Norway, but Denmark the homeland, thus turning the tragedy inwards. The enemy is inside, and Shakespeare has always been ahead of us. The way out of darkness is the rekindling of our conscience, leading to a deconstruction different from that of Bannon's, a deconstruction of greed, hate and monopoly. In a world of questioned realities and alternative facts, the voice of the dead, the killed, the banned, the demonized, the hated, comes back to remind Prince Hamlet of who indeed the true carrier of the hate and greed pathology is and who is causing the rottenness in the state of Denmark.

The Executive Order, the banning that many BCP officers continue to impose on citizens and foreigners in defiance of the law, and for which the administration is mobilizing even 15,000 more Border patrol and ICE agents, is nothing but a shameful externalization of deep-seated hate. Hate is a sign that a chronic disease in our body politic has gone dormant but was never treated; the symptoms are back, strong and visible; the ghost of Hamlet needs to be beckoned yet again to show us where to find the antidote before the body becomes immune to its cure and begins to die.

In Snakes and Ladders, Steve Bannon has thrown the dice and landed it perfectly on the 90th square. To believe that the mission of the White House is the “deconstruction of the Administrative State” is a steep fall into ridicule and insult. This hate-charged phrase constitutes an affront not only to our intelligence but to our recent social history, the very history which brought about deconstruction as a method of thought. But one cannot expect less from Bannon, whose statement is neither shocking nor surprising but predictable and quite appropriate for his agenda. Just a short prehistory of the word “deconstruction” will give us the clue.

The word “deconstruction” resurfaced and took substance in Jacques Derrida’s déconstruction, a term he adapted from Martin Heidegger’s Destruktion, which essentially means “destruction,” though more literally “un-building.” Heidegger was a controversial Third Reich German intellectual whose scandalous endorsement of Nazism led to a huge post-war uproar and a court hearing that resulted in banning him from teaching in Germany between 1945-1951. Germany banned Heidegger because, despite his original “philosophy,” he was proven to be a staunch anti-Semite and a Hitler devotee, as his own words testify in the Black Notebooks. The scholar in Derrida wanted to save Heideggerian “deconstruction” from falling prey to anthropocentrism, so he took a different linguistic turn and adopted the term in Of Grammatology, using it to un-build binary oppositions between the signifier and the signified, signaling the birth of poststructuralism. Derrida advocated a “historicality” to Heidegger’s Dasein in Being and Time in order to save it, and although the planned meeting of 1972 between the two never materialized, Derrida’s “historicality” remains blind to itself, which-despite my admiration of his work and thought during my years in graduate school, I can neither understand nor forgive, but that’s a different topic altogether.

The main reason behind the banning of Heidegger in post-war Germany was his anti-Semitic white supremacy complex, a pathology that tainted his philosophy and for which he never apologized. This is not news. Many academics and historians, including but not limited to Günther Figal and Heidegger’s own student Victor Farías, have called for a philosophical banning of Heidegger. Farías’s important work Heidegger Under Nazism not only exposes Heidegger’s fascist anti-Semitism but digs deeper into his embrace of racialism as early as the 1920s, culminating in joining the Nazi party in 1933. Farías has called for all of Heidegger’s work to be taken out of the philosophy section in libraries and re-shelved under the history of Nazism next to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and the anti-Jewish 1935 Nuremberg Race laws which outlawed sex and marriage between Aryans and non-Aryans (basically Jews) in order to preserve racial purity.

In our current context, we will want to hold onto the word "deconstruction," which underscores the historical associations of a supremacy fantasy, allowing us to put Bannon’s statement into a mise en scène that makes it neither innocent nor coincidental. It's a term charged with what Lacan in a different context would call "primary narcissism," referring to a child going through a mirror stage of aggressivity towards an alien and non-identical self. In his case, the aggression is rooted in a dangerous and pernicious epistemology, aimed at American Muslims, Jews, and every off-white population in the United States. Bannon’s “deconstruction” brings back, and unabashedly so, the agonizing history of white supremacy to make it the new ideology of the White House. But that is not all. “The Deconstruction of the Administrative State” gets even more shocking: Does Bannon want us to believe that “the administrative state” — which in this context could only refer to the American system of government, its inclusivity, its Constitutionality, its anti-discriminatory amendments, its separation of powers, its democratic electoral process which has put him and Trump in the White House in the first place — does all this need to be “deconstructed,” i.e., destroyed, un-built, taken apart?

What is wrong with our current “administrative state” to deserve this new call for deconstruction? Deconstruction entered the sphere of our literary theory in the 1970s as a rigorous tool for self-critique. As an educator, I welcome a deconstruction of our educational system and a critique of the intrusion of economic imperatives into our universities, turning student success into a catch-22 and higher education into a “hunger games,” reducing faculty and diminishing the number of classes we have to offer in order to graduate our students on time. I would also welcome a deconstruction of the brutal market systems that have created soul-crushing bureaucracies, reshuffled our lives and resulted in massive pockets of poverty in every state and widening the gap between the 1% and the 99%. This, however, is not Bannon’s idea of deconstruction. His is a sordid pastiche, a platitudinous re-hashing of staggering European reflections on postwar malaise we find in the writings of Habermas and others. Listen closely and you will hear the ghost of Heidegger whispering into the ears of Bannon’s palimpsest pathology. After all, it was Heidegger who criticized America’s wishful slogan to embrace inclusivity in a “free world” and accused America of threatening to end the world, a lapse into a melting pot, a foreshadow of the end of whiteness, which in his mind was tantamount to the destruction of the earth:

18th of August, 1941

Dear Fritz, dear Liesel, dear Boys! 
[…] It is not Russianism that will bring about the destruction of the earth but Americanism, not just the English but all of Europe has fallen prey to it as it represents modernity in its monstrosity.

If the “deconstruction of the administrative state” is nothing but a methodical re-codification of white supremacy, then expect an entire cabinet sleeplessly dedicated to a systematic un-doing of the last 60 years, a re-administration of hate of which the banning of Muslims, the rejection of refugees, the burning of mosques, the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, and the massive deportation of undocumented immigrants is only the beginning. Against all hate, against the disciplined “purification” of America and against summoning the ghost of Heidegger, we must summon an army of ghosts, not just the ghost of King Hamlet, but the ghost of Martin Luther King Jr., of Bayard Rustin, Dorothy Height, Hosea Williams, Gloria Richardson, James L. Farmer Jr.,  Medger Evers, Malcolm X,  Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, James Baldwin, and Muhammad Ali. We must remind ourselves that their struggle for equality and freedom was well worth the fight, that the dream they had for an inclusive and tolerant America, the dream that sent bullets into some of their bodies, was worth dying for. We must remind America that its hard-fought deconstruction of the segregated state” was not achieved in vain and cannot be reversed by the ghost of a Nazi philosopheme.

The Utility of the Humanities in the 21st Century

March 9, 2017 - 05:30
Tags:  Crisis in the Humanities, computers, academic work, value of the humanities

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( III ) 

I did my PhD in Comparative Literature at Stanford. There is likely no university in the US with a culture more antithetical to the humanities: Stanford embodies the libertarian, technocratic values of Silicon Valley, where disruptive innovation has crystallized into a platitude* and engineers are the new priestly caste. Stanford had massive electrical engineering and computer science graduate cohorts; there were five students in my cohort in comparative literature (all women, of diverse backgrounds, and quite large in contrast to the two- or three-student cohorts in Italian, German, and French). I had been accepted into several graduate programs across the country, but felt a responsibility to study at a university where the humanities were threatened. I didn't want the ivory tower, the prestigious rare book collection, the ability to misuse words like isomorphism and polymorphic because they sounded scientific (I was a math undergrad), the stultified comfort that Wordsworth and Shelley were on the minds of strangers on the street. I wanted to learn what it would mean to defend a discipline undervalued by society, in an age where universities were becoming private businesses tailoring to undergraduate student consumers and the rising costs of education made it borderline irresponsible not to pursue vocational training that would land a decent job coding for a startup. Stanford's very libertarianism also enabled me to craft an interdisciplinary methodology—crossing literature, history of science and mathematics, analytic philosophy, and classics—that more conservative departments would never entertain. This was wonderful during my coursework, but my Achilles heel when I had to write a dissertation and build a professional identity more conservative departments could recognize. I went insane, but mustered the strength and resilience required to complete my dissertation (in retrospect, I’m very grateful I did, as having a PhD has enabled me to teach as adjunct faculty alongside my primary job). After graduation, I left academia for the greener, freer pastures of the private sector. 

The 2008-2009 financial crisis took place in the midst of my graduate studies. Ever tighter departmental budgets exacerbated the identity crisis the humanities were already facing. Universities had to cut costs, and French departments or Film Studies departments or German departments were the first to go. This shrunk the already minuscule demand for humanities faculty, and exponentially increased the level of anxiety my fellow PhDs and I experienced regarding our future livelihood. In keeping with the futurism of the Valley, Stanford (or at least a few professors at Stanford) was at the vanguard for promoting alternative career paths for humanities PhDs: professors discussed shortening the time to degree, providing students with more vocational communications training so they could land jobs as social media marketers, extolling the values of academic administration as a career path equal to that of a researcher. Others resisted vehemently. There was also a wave of activity defending the utility of the humanities to cultivate empathy and other social skills. I've spent a good portion of my life reading fiction, but must say it was never as rich a moral training ground as actual life experience. I've learned more about regulating my emotions and empathizing with others' points of view in my four years in the private sector than I had in the 28 years of life before I embraced work as a career (rather than a job). Some people are really hard to deal with, and you have to face these challenges head on to grow.

All this is context for my opinions defending the utility of the humanities in our contemporary society and economy. To be clear, in proposing these economic arguments, I’m not abandoning claims for the importance of the humanities in individual personal and intellectual development. On the contrary, I strongly believe that a balanced liberal arts education is critical in fostering the development of personal autonomy and civic judgement, to preserve and potentially resurrect our early Republican (as political experiment, not party) goals that education cultivate critical citizens, not compliant economic agents. I was miserable as a graduate student, but don’t regret my path for a minute. And I think there is a case to be made that humanities will be as—if not more—important than STEM to our national interests in the near future. Here’s why:

Technology and White-Collar Professions — In The Future of the Professions, Richard and Daniel Susskind demonstrate how technology is changing professions like medicine, law, investment management, accounting, and architecture. Their key insight is to structurally define white-collar professionals by the information asymmetry that exists between professional and client. Professionals know things it is hard for laymen to know: the tax code is complex and arcane, and it would take too much time for the Everyman (gender intentional) to understand it well enough to make judgments in her (gender intentional) favor. Same goes for diagnosing and treating an illness or managing the finances of a large corporation. The internet, and, perhaps more importantly, the new machine learning technologies that enable us to use the internet to answer hard, formerly professional, questions, however, levels this information asymmetry. Suddenly, tools can do what trained professionals used to do, and at a much lower costs (contrast the billed hours of a good lawyer with the economies of scale of Google). As such, the skills and activities professionals need are changing and will continue to change.

Working in machine learning, I can say from experience that we are nowhere near an age where machines are going to flat out replace people, creating a utopian world with universal basic income and bored Baudelaires assuaging ennui with opiates, sex, and poetry (laced with healthy doses of Catholic guilt). What is happening is that the day-to-day work of professionals is changing and will continue to change. Machines are ready and able to execute many of the repetitive tasks done by many professionals (think young associates reviewing documents to find relevant information for lawsuit—in 2015, the Second Circuit tried to define what it means to practice law by contrasting tasks humans can do with tasks computers can do). As machines creep ever further into work that requires thinking and judgment, critical thinking, creativity, interpretation, emotions, and reasoning will become increasingly important. STEM may just lead to its own obsoleteness (AI software is now making its own AI software), and in doing so is increasing the value of professionals trained in the humanities. This value lies in the design methodologies required to transform what were once thought processes into statistical techniques, to crystallize probabilistic outputs into intuitive features for non-technical users. It lies in creating the training data required to make a friendly chat bot. Most importantly, it lies in the empathy and problem-solving skills that will be the essence of professional work in the future.

Autonomy and Mores in the Gig Economy — In October, 2015, I spoke at a Financial Times conference about corporate sustainability. The audience was filled with executives from organizations like the Hudson Bay Company (they started by selling beaver pelts and now own department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue) that had stayed in business over literally hundreds of years by gradually evolving and adding new business lines. The silver-haired rich men on the panel with me kept extolling the importance of "company values" as the key to keeping incumbents relevant in today's society. And my challenge to them was to ask how modern, global organizations, in particular those with large, temporary 1099 workforces managed by impersonal algorithms, could cultivate mores and values like the small, local companies of the past. Indeed, I spent a few years helping international law firms build centralized risk and compliance operations, and in doing so came to appreciate that the Cravath model, an apprenticeship culture where skills and corporate culture and mores are passed down from generation to generation, as there is very low mobility between firms, simply does not scale to our mobile, changing, global workforce. As such, inculcating values takes a very different form and structure than it did in the past. We read a lot about how today's careers are more like jungle gyms than ladders, where there is a need to constantly revamp and acquire new skills to keep up with changing technologies and demand, but this often overlooks the fact that companies—like clubs and societies—used to also shape our moral characters. You may say that user reviews (the five stars you can get as an Uber rider or AirBnB lodger) take the place of what was formerly subjective judgment of colleagues and peers. But these cold metrics are a far cry from the suffering and satisfaction we experience when we break from or align with a community's mores. This merits much more commentary than the brief suggestions I'll make here, but I believe our globalized gig economy requires a self-reliant morality and autonomy that has no choice but to be cultivated apart from the workplace. And the seat of that cultivation would be some training in philosophy, ethics, and humanities. Otherwise corporate values will be reduced to the cold rationality of some algorithm measuring OKRs and KPIs.

Ethics and Emerging Technologies — Just this morning, Guru Banavar, IBM's Chief Science Officer for Cognitive Computing, posted a blog admonishing technologists building AI products that they "now shoulder the added burden of ensuring these technologies are developed, deployed and adopted in responsible, ethical and enduring ways." Banavar's post is a very brief advertisement for the Partnership on AI created by IBM, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple to formalize attention around the ethical implications of the technologies they are building. Elon Musk founded OpenAI with a similar mission to research AI technologies with an eye towards ethics and safety. Again, there is much to say about the different ethical issues new technologies present (I surveyed a few a year ago in a Fast Forward Labs newsletter). The point here is that ethics is moving from a niche interest of progressive technologists to a core component of large corporate technology strategy. And the ethical issues new technologies pose are not trivial. It's very easy to fall into chicken little logic traps (where scholars like Nick Bostrom speculate on worst-case scenarios just because they are feasible for us to imagine) that grab headlines instead of sticking with the discipline required to recognize how data technologies can amplify existing social biases. As Ted Underwood recently tweeted, doing this well requires both people who are motivated by critical thinking and people who are actually interested in machine learning technologies. But the "and" is critical, else technologists will waste a lot of time reinventing methods philosophers and ethicists have already honed. And even if the auditing of algorithms is carried out by technologists, humanists can help voice and articulate what they find. Finally, it goes without saying that we all need to sharpen our critical reading skills to protect our democracy in the age of Trump, filter bubbles, and fake news.

This is just a start. Each of these points can be developed, and there are many more to make. My purpose here is to shift the dialogue on the value of the humanities from utility in cultivating empathy and emotional character to real economic and social impact. The humanities are worth fighting for.

*For those unaware, Clayton Christensen coined the term disruptive innovation in The Innovator's Dilemma. He contrasted it was sustaining innovation, the gradual technical improvements companies make to a product to meet market and customer demands. Inspired by Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Christensen artfully demonstrates how great companies miss out on opportunities for disruptive innovation precisely because they are well run: disruptive innovations seize upon new markets with an unserved need, and only catch up to incumbents because technology can change faster than market preferences and demand. As disruption has crystallized into ideology, people often overlook that most products are sustaining innovations, incremental improvements upon an existing product or market need. It's admittedly much more exciting to carry out a Copernican revolution, but if we consider that Trump may well be a disruptive innovator, who identified a latent market whose needs were underserved only to topple the establishment, we might sit back, pause, and reconsider our ideological assumptions.

Originally appeared on February 20, 2017 on