Justifications for the Iraq War as Incoherent Discourses

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This is the beginning to an academic article I’ll be submitting later this weekend.

Queer theorist David Halperin argues that disputing the lies of homophobia is pointless. His argument is not that homophobic discourses are irrefutable, but on the contrary, that they are endlessly disputable because they are based on series’ of mutually contradictory double binds. Halperin uses the legal debate over homosexuality as an “immutable characteristic” to illustrate such a double bind whereby if homosexuality is inborn, it justifies medical and legal discrimination on the basis of biological difference, or alternately, if homosexuality is a choice, then medical practitioners and politicians can restrict and punish homosexual behavior as a matter of volition.[1] Theoretically describing this discursive problematic, Halperin draws on the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “Epistemology of the Closet” to argue that since “homophobic discourses contain no fixed propositional content,” they “operate strategically by means of logical contradictions” whose infinite substitutability empowers those discourses while simultaneously incapacitating queers through incoherence.[2] For Halperin, following Sedgwick, the consequence is that homophobic lies are easily falsifiable when taken one at a time, but refuting them one by one “does nothing the strategic function of discourses that operate precisely by deploying a series of mutually contradictory premises in such a way that anyone of them can be substituted for any other as different circumstances may require, without changing the final outcome of the argument.”[3]

The Bush Administration’s case for the Iraq War, with its many divergent justifications, expresses a discursive incoherence similar to homophobia. President Bush’s ex post facto justification for the war was quite vague, “that the Iraqi people are much better off without Saddam,” yet as policy analysts Daalder and Lindsey argue, the wide berth of this justification relies on the “basic but highly salient fact that there would not have been a war without his argument that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction posed an unacceptable threat that was both immediate and serious.”[4] Restoring clarity to the Bush Administration’s initial claims about WMDs seems hardly probable, however, given the incoherence of the discourse through which the justifications for war were presented. As public policy professor James P Pfiffner points out, administration officials made WMDs a moving target, with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz claiming that the verifiable presence of WMDs was not the paramount issue for policymakers while Secretary of Defense Collin Powell was asserting its centrality.[5] Pfiffner concludes that even while President Bush made “few untrue statements” and accepted some widely shared claims, his statements were also systematically misleading, gave false impressions, and defied the better judgment of others.[6] Continue reading “Justifications for the Iraq War as Incoherent Discourses”

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Affective Critique: Mediation as a Response to Cynical Ideology (Paper Proposal)

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The role of critique in contemporary cinema has been displaced. Consider the story of Chicago gang member Danny Toro, who would watch Scarface almost every day for 10 years despite the film’s heavy-handed critique of its gangster protagonist Tony Montana. Perhaps as equally perplexing, the film American Psycho is popular among many yuppies even though its point is to critique the masculinity and violence of a financial culture much similar to their own. Or even more striking: fraternities across the country hold “Fight Club” events inspired by David Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s book although the film is an in-your-face condemnation of preppy social climbing.

Diagnosing this problem, Slovenian philosopher and critic Slajov Zizek writes that we no longer live in an age where “they know not what they do,” but rather: “they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it.” To make his argument, Zizek echoes the theory of German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, who argues that we have entered the age of “cynical ideology” whereby the demystifying correction of ideological camera obscuras no longer motivates social action – or in the words of French sociologist of science Bruno Latour, the critique has “run out of steam.”

The alternatives suggested by all three are disappointing, however: Zizek proposes empty political doctrines (“signifiers without a signified”), Sloterdijk recommends a return to the irony and sarcasm of the Greeks (“kynicism”), and Latour calls for a “stubborn realist attitude” (“empiricism”).

In contrast to these three alternatives, I propose contemporary theories of affect as replacement for the diagnostic and effective functions of ideology critique. Continue reading “Affective Critique: Mediation as a Response to Cynical Ideology (Paper Proposal)”

To “Suffer in Silence”: On Masochism in Virgilio Piñera’s René’s Flesh

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Today, my students concluded Cuban modernist Virgilio Piñera’s 1949 novel René’s Flesh. Subverting the genre expectations set in the first few chapters, René’s Flesh defies the linear motion of the coming of age novel. The conventional coming of age novel begins with a stubborn climb in the attempt to conquer societal expectations by overcoming them, the protagonist’s ultimate passage to transcendence traverses failure with recognition and acceptance. In that way, character development in the coming of age story occurs at the moment rebellion turns to understanding and the protagonist desires the demands put on him by society.

René, a sick and pathetic excuse for a boy, is twenty years old yet incapable of meeting even his family’s simple demands. It opens with René nearly passing out at the butcher shop during a joyous day when it has the unrestricted sale of meat, which is met by excitement and hysteria by the rest of the town. René is soon introduced to his central role in the “The Cause” and its “battle of the flesh” as its soon-to-be chief. Millions of lives hang in the balance, yet René’s clouded inability to understand the simplest meaning spills over to the reader. In content becoming form, Piñera uses absurd nonsense to confirm René subversion of the genre – instead of recognition and acceptance, René’s Flesh is an exercise in frustration and evasion. Continue reading “To “Suffer in Silence”: On Masochism in Virgilio Piñera’s René’s Flesh”

The State as a Virtual Object – Full Paper

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The State as a Virtual Object [[or how Max Stirner can get you hanged]]
Rethinking Marxism 2013
PS: after discussing it w/ Gregg Flaxman, I’ve decided to “deontologize” the whole paper to sharpen the ontology/virtuality divide.

Japanese director Nagisa Oshima’s 1968 film “Death by Hanging” begins with the execution of an ethnic Korean man, R. Miraculously, the hanging does not kill him; in fact, its only effect is that it erases his memory (08:23). Taken by surprise, officials debate the law and decide that execution is only just if a person realizes the guilt for which they are being punished (10:55). In an effort to make R admit guilt for a crime that he has no memory of committing, the officials simulate his crimes, which only leads to an absurd comedy of errors that exposes the racist, violent dimension of the nationalist law and history. R finally admits to the crimes but he maintains his innocence, which motivates him to debate the officials (49:30). “Is it wrong to kill?” R asks. “Yes,” they respond, “it is wrong to kill.” “Then, killing me is wrong, isn’t it?” R replies and then extends his argument “… A fine idea. First we kill the murderer… …then, being murderers, we’ll be killed, and so on and so on.” The official rejoinder is a predictable one: “Don’t say such things! We’re legal executioners! It’s the nation that does not permit you to live.” To which R responds: “I don’t accept that. What is a nation? Show me one! I don’t want to be killed by an abstraction” (52:52).

Less than a decade later, French historian Michel Foucault aired similar frustrations to R, though in the context of the genealogical study of power. Intellectually dissatisfied that “the representation of power has remained under the spell of monarchy,” he claims that long after the rise of the Republic, “we still have not cut off the head of the king” (Foucault, History of Sexuality, 88-89). Continue reading “The State as a Virtual Object – Full Paper”

Colonialism as an Abstract Machine

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Marxists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have a useful illustration of a similar abstraction in their 2000 book Empire. According to Hardt and Negri, colonialism works as an abstract machine, a term synonymous with abstraction or virtual object. The abstract machine of colonialism, they say, creates a dialectic of identity and alterity that imposes binaries divisions on the colonial world (Empire, 128-129). And while differences and identities are created by colonialism “as if they were absolute, essential, and natural,” they in fact function “only in relation to each other and (despite appearances) have no real necessary basis in nature, biology, or rationality” (129). Hardt and Negri do not go as far as to call Empire an abstract machine, but perhaps we should. Customary definitions of Empire usually focus on a polycentric sovereignty of global governance as it intersects with the postmodern production of informatized, immaterial, and biopolitical products. In contrast, I contend that Empire arrives as an entirely incorporeal entity that lacks its own body and is deprived of a material existence to call its own. However devoid of existence, Empire persists as the force behind a concept for organizing and directing the capitalist world market. As a result, Empire operates through management and circulation, but it is not extensive with its products. Perhaps the most powerful example of the incorporeal transformation is the transformation that occurs when a judge declares the accused to be guilty of their crimes – transforming an alleged criminal into a real one (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 80-81).

We can now return to the interrupted scene of Oshima’s film, knowing more about the abstraction that wants to kill R. Continue reading “Colonialism as an Abstract Machine”

The State as a Virtual Object

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PS: after discussing it w/ Gregg Flaxman, I’ve decided to “deontologize” the whole paper to sharpen the ontology/virtuality divide.

Returning to Foucault’s critique nearly thirty years later, we can reassess whether or not Marxist and Anarchist scholarship should remain condemned to hanging. Should Foucault’s arguments against state phobia be repeated, that it enables neo-liberalism and lacks singularity, or can Marxist and Anarchist state theory be rescued? Of course there are already numerous scholars who have squared Foucault with Marxist and Anarchist thought, and that such scholarship offers exemplary critiques of actually existing neoliberalism (one being our respondent today). Already in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Foucault’s work was incorporated into Structuralist Marxim and Italian Autonomist Marxisms, and more recently, Foucault’s theory of power has inspired the creation of Post-Anarchism.[1] In fact, Foucaultian scholarship is so thoroughly disseminated today that among Marxists and Anarchists, perhaps Fredric Jameson is the last holdout.

Instead of saving Marxism and Anarchism, then, what may be called for is a renewed defense of two things: state phobia, and non-empiricism. My defense of state phobia is political. While governmentality studies describe power well, they lack external grounds for critiquing that power. A study of governmentality can of course analyze power according to its own self-professed aims, but without something like Derridean deconstruction or Adornian immanent critique, the study is not political but descriptive.[2] Leading scholars says this themselves, expressing that studies of government “are not hardwired to any political perspective” but “are compatible with other methods” (Rose, O’Malley, Valverde, “Governmentality,” 101). Marxism, anarchism, or another other critique of power thus offers the external ground to challenge actually existing governmentalization, and state phobia provides the point of condensation for common struggles that share an anti-authoritarian critique of power. My defense of non-empiricism, which is less commensurate with the study of governmentality and is the focus of the rest of this paper, is methodological. Methodologically, I disagree with those scholars within governmentality studies who argue for a shallow definition of the state, which they justify through ‘brute’ empiricism. For these scholars, governmentality is a strictly “an empirical mapping of governmental rationalities and techniques” that “turn away from grand theory, the state, globalization, reflexive individualization, and the like” (99; 101). I contend that this empiricism leaves no place for the state as an abstraction, and the project of amending the study of governmentality to include abstraction requires revising its methodology.

Contrary to Foucault’s shallow definition of the state, French Marxists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari treat the state as a ‘virtual object’ that is neither an ideological effect nor solely repressive – thus avoiding the crude terms of Foucault’s brief argument from the classic governmentality lecture. Continue reading “The State as a Virtual Object”

Foucault’s Targets: Functionalism and Fear

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There are two targets to Foucault’s criticism: the classic state theories of Marxism and Anarchism, the first of which he charges with functionalism whereby the state is an epiphenomenal effect of a model of production, while the second he accuses of treating the state as a ‘cold monster’ to be universally feared (Security, Territory, Population, 109; 114fn39). In turn, Foucault suggests that political analysis should minimize the importance of the state, because perhaps “the state is only composite reality and a mythicized abstraction whose importance is much less than we think. What is important for our modernity, that is to say, for our present, is not the state’s takeover (éstatisation) of society, so much as what I would call the ‘governmentalization’ of the state” (Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 109).[1]

Anglo-American social sciences have taken up Foucault’s approach in earnest. Interestingly, they took their initial inspiration from a single lecture on governmentality that comes from the much longer lecture series entitled Security, Territory, Population – the lecture I quoted from above.[2] Even without the associated three-year lecture series where Foucault completed a genealogy of the liberal rule, Anglo-Americans were still able to developed a highly original methodology for Foucaultian state theory that took seriously Foucault’s enjoinment to study ‘the governmentalization of the state.’ Continue reading “Foucault’s Targets: Functionalism and Fear”