Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Politics

Fragmentary Thoughts on Anger

I’ve been pausing for the past few days over the thought of writing something on Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech. I’m not skilled at writing on such things, and there has certainly been no lack of commentary on this speech from other fronts. In any event, as always seems to be the case with current affairs, my thoughts are at a tangent to much of what – even I would agree – is more important to discuss about this speech… Just a few brief words then, tonight, since this tangent keeps nagging at my thoughts…

What struck me at the time I listened to the speech, and what has kept returning to mind over the past few days, are two themes: the discussion of anger, and the role subterranean anger plays in politics; and the more tacit conception of political transformation as a process that does not emerge from a “pure” space, where good or bad, ideal or regressive, impulses exist in some form untouched by their opposites. Trauma and transformative potential, while not identical, are intertwined legacies of contemporary historical dynamics – the possibility that we could be other and more, is part of what constitutes the traumatic, scarring experience of what, in practice, we are. Those who would effect transformation emerge from this complex crucible – scars and hopes, trauma and creation, interpenetrate. There is no untainted space from which politics begins. What distinguishes transformative politics is the commitment that something transcendent already does reside within our imperfections – that part of what we already are, is the possibility to become something better and more – that our present situation, in and through its imperfections, is not our fate or some kind of static given, but the seed around which as-yet-unrealised possibilities can crystallise. The movement here is very complex – a strange, difficult combination of acceptance and acknowledgement of our starting point, with collective self-criticism that refuses to accept that this starting point must also be an end. Obama’s speech touches on such issues – and also suggests that, absent the active assertion of the possibility for transformation, scarring and anger remain as forces that can be tapped and mobilised against transformative practice.

The problem may be even more complex. As I’ve written in relation to Adorno’s work before, there is a sense in which active participation in transformative projects aggressively confronts us with the non-necessity of our own scars and traumas – forces us to surrender the reassurance that our lives had to be the way they have been – compels us to give up the notion that nothing could have been done. Asserting the possibility for a different future involves the direct confrontation with the loss of that past that could have been ours – that past that now never will be – while at the same time we assert our own potency in effecting change. Adorno suggests that the psychological demands here are both high and conflictual, pulling in different directions. Particularly in circumstances in which transformative politics seem all too likely to fail, one risk is the temptation to retreat from what can be an unbearable recognition that history could have taken a different course: to endorse retroactively the necessity for our own loss by imposing a similar loss on others, to identify with and become part of what has created our own scars. The issue of what we do with our anger – of how we acknowledge and open a space for anger over sacrifices that have by now become constitutive of us, and that can therefore no longer be rescinded – is therefore a central political question…

Apologies for not being able to develop these thoughts in a more adequate way. There is a sense in which this constellation of issues – the hybridity of people and of our times – the inadequacy of abstracting individuals or situations into clearcut categories – is always very close to me, too close to enable effective writing… There is something about the simultaneous practice of a kind of fundamental acceptance, combined with a refusal to link acceptance with a passivity in the face of the given – something about the need to bind a fundamental empathy together with a relentless critique – that strikes me as central to the practice of transformation. Perhaps some day I’ll be better able to express what I mean…

The Weakness of Strong Ties

The issue of how bounded our personal and professional networks can be, and how this affects our ability to empathise and communicate across networks, seems to be in the academic air a bit at the moment – perhaps because so many conferences are both reconstituting and – hopefully – stretching established networks a bit this time of year.

Sinthome from Larval Subjects wrote an extended reflection on the elements of perception and thought that structure our individual and collective receptiveness to communication with those who don’t share similar identifications, and asked about the possibility for effective political discussion, given this predisposition not to be able to hear the potential logic of competing views. The result of communities organised around shared identifications, Sinthome suggests, is a strange combination of absolutism in thought, and extreme relativism in practice, resulting from the failure of all groups to acknowledge a sufficient common universe of referrents to enable productive cross-group discussion. Sinthome argues:

It is not that someone has deviously adopted a philosophical position of postmodernism wherein there is no ultimate reality, but rather that we are living in a postmodern situation. When I argue with my friend that is a staunch supporter of the war, we literally live in different realities or “universes of reference” by virtue of how our subjectivities are structured transferentially. For this reason, we are unable to use “actual reality” to decide the truth or falsity of contested propositions. Rather, our universes of reference (hence the plural) have become self-referential by virtue of what we recognize as a credible authority….

Grounds become matters of individual preferences and the savvy consumer shops around for those grounds that most suit his taste. I get my news from NPR and dismiss FOX, while you get your news from FOX and dismiss NPR. This is one of the meanings of Lacan’s aphorism that the big Other does not exist. What seems different today is that where before this truth was largely unconscious and repressed such that we at least pretended that there was a consistent and shared Other, today we seem conscious of this. I am not at all sure what is to be done. I hardly find it to be something that should be celebrated or that is a happy thesis.

While more optimistic in its conclusions, Gavin from Real Climate points to somewhat similar issues in a piece today on the necessity – and the limitations – of trusted peer networks for scientists trying to manage the often overwhelming amount of new research in their fields. Gavin argues:

It used to be that one could go to a meeting like this and get a wide overview of the work being done much more efficiently (and speedily) than reading the journals. However, that is clearly no longer true. And of course, we can’t keep up with all the relevant journal articies in the wider field either, and so how do scientists manage?

Basically, it’s tough! Everyone in the field generally decides that there are some technical areas that aren’t worth (for them) getting too deep into, and so they tend to ignore the technical literature on that topic. For myself, I draw the line at carbon isotope studies and anything older than the last glacial period in paleoclimate (with a couple of exceptions). Review papers and high profile articles are useful and read more often, but even they can be too technical if they’re not right in your field. But, given how multi-disciplinary climate science is, there are always going to be technical issues outside your field that you are going to need to know more about.

To deal with that, most sucessful scientists develop networks of ‘trusted’ sources – people you know and get along with, but who are specialists in different areas (dynamics, radiation, land surfaces, aerosols, deep time paleo etc.) and who you can just call up and ask for the bottom line. They can point you directly to the key paper related to your question or give you the unofficial ‘buzz’ about some new high profile paper. You don’t expect to agree with them all the time – we scientists are quite naturally contrarian (in a good way!) – but this is generally an efficient short cut to understanding what the most serious/interesting issues are.

It is, of course, at meetings like AGU that these networks become established and are nutured, and which is why, despite the difficulties, people come back year after year (though personally, I only go every few years). At this year’s meeting we got a lot of feedback about RealClimate, and a surprisingly common theme was the extent to which we are becoming part of these networks. That is both gratifying and slightly worrying – such responsibility!

However, there are dangers in having everyone tuned in to the same ‘network’ – it can lead to a certain rigidity in what is being thought important. As an illustration, when going between meetings in Europe and the US, you tend to see that ‘issues’ and ‘buzz’ are often completely distinct on either side of the Atlantic – a function of mostly non-intersecting networks. Fortunately, there are frequent contacts across the divide which leads to substantial cross-fertilization of ideas.

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Hegel on the Beach

Lovely reading group meeting today – except that I talked too much – enough that my throat is now actually sore… The discussion revolved mainly around the issue of standpoints of critique – why the notion of a standpoint is particularly important for secular critical theories, why certain theoretical approaches still rely on tacit concepts of nature or on metaphyical concepts to ground their critical standpoints, and how much, specifically, a critical standpoint should (or can) attempt to explain… We spilled well and truly beyond our brief (which was only to discuss the remainder of Derrida’s Limited Inc) – which is one of the reasons I talked so much, as I was the proxy voice in this discussion for a sweeping tradition of German critical theory (we’ll see whether this comes back to haunt me when the group actually reads some of this material themselves). LMagee will introduce the formal online discussion at some point in the near future.

For those wondering whether the reading group would now go into hiatus with the summer holidays approaching, the answer is no: we will be meeting next week for one final gesture at cognitive science before people scatter for the holidays. As mentioned previously, we’ll look at Lakoff’s Metaphors We Live By, and then at the recent debate between Pinker and Lakoff. LMagee intends to toss my gestural comments on Lakoff’s political writings into the mix, as well (perhaps to see how I presently compare with this past iteration of myself… ;-P).

LMagee and I will then be left to our own devices in Melbourne’s January heat, and have decided that a bit of Hegel on the beach might be nice. We’ll be working our way through Phenomenology of Spirit, on some random and eratic schedule to be determined, no doubt, by how successfully we resist a range of summer temptations…

The Apparition of Postmodernity

So I was going to write something on the concept of theoretical pessimism, but then got distracted by this article from The Australian on the rather severe absence of opportunities for students to study Australian literature systematically at university level – severe as in:

Next year, the University of Sydney may have no students taking up the country’s only honours program in Australian literature.

Readers not from Australia may not appreciate how local discussions of anything vaguely related to literary matters – or, more broadly, education policy – somehow always come back to postmodernism. Sure enough, this article obliges:

THE decline of Australian literature is also blamed on funding cuts and the inexorable rise of postmodern theory, a charge that supporters of that theory deny strenuously.


But this indifference doesn’t just come from the pincer movement of academics – Eurocentric traditionalists on one flank, postmodern theorists on the other – who have pushed Australian literature to the periphery.


Pierce declares that the tertiary sector’s neglect of our literature exposes a disconnect between the public and academics: “It isn’t as if people have stopped reading Australian literature. It’s a dissociation of the readership from the formal study of Australian literature.”

He says the rot set in when academics who “abased” themselves before the altar of literary theory acquired institutional power and “captured literature departments in the ’80s”.

Postmodern literary theory – and its near-relation, cultural studies – do not accord canonical works, Australian or otherwise, a privileged place. Such theories hold that everything from Big Brother to Charles Dickens’s Bleak House and Peter Carey’s Bliss is a text, thus diminishing the role of serious literature as a defining cultural force.

The bitter divisions provoked by the rise of theory are well known. Yale University professor Harold Bloom has attacked cultural studies as an enemy of reading and part of the “lunatic destruction of literary studies”.

In Australia, what remains largely unexplored is the role imported, voguish theories have played in the destruction of our literature.

I have a strange fascination with the way in which postmodernism has assumed this sinister reds-under-beds status in Australian policy discussions. The article is filled with more mundane explanations for the plight of Australian literary studies at the tertiary level: longstanding Anglophilia and deprecation of local cultural production; a shift in student interests away from the humanities and, for those who remain within the humanities, toward programs such as creative writing, and away from the study of literary texts; changing structures for the funding of tertiary education, which have resulted in pressures on universities to demonstrate the financial viability of individual degree programs; the drying up of career paths and publication opportunities for tertiary students of Australian literature… But these mundane and obvious causal explanations apparently lack the lustre of postmodernism as a form of spectral causation – after all, how can you beat something that can be demonised as “imported” and “voguish”, that “captures” departments and causes “rot” and that, apparently, carries a faint whiff of idolatry, requiring as it does ritual abasement before an altar of literary theory.

The casual juxtapositions sprinkled through the article are equally problematic – the absence of any impulse to try to reconcile or make sense of contradictory statements suggests the degree to which postmodernism functions as a spectre. Thus the article notes that postmodernism denies privileged status to the canon, while also asking readers to imagine that Eurocentric traditionalists have cooperated with postmodernists in a pincher move to squeeze out the teaching of Australian literature… The article also cites funding cuts and postmodernism in the same sentence – hitting here on something that may represent an actual relationship, but mainly in the sense that the assault on specific forms of academic theory is often hauled out as a political rationalisation for funding cuts, on the grounds that the sorts of “frivolous” studies postmodernism is claimed to promote, are then taken to exemplify why universities must be made more accountable in their use of government funds.

It would be obvious to regular readers that I am very critical of many theoretical approaches that could legitimately be described as postmodernist. The spectrisation of the term “postmodernism” in local policy discussions, however, has very little to do with either the theory or the practice of any kind of actual academic theory. Whatever the intentions, the term “postmodernism” in Australian policy discourse has come to function as a useful deflector of political energies – invoking this term predictably draws out people compelled to defend the theoretical tradition, whose participation in this ritual debate then reinforces the impression that the political dispute actually has something to do with academic theory. Coverage of the various criticisms and defenses of postmodernism then dominates the public discussion. Meanwhile issues that, from my point of view, would be worth a more serious and sustained discussion in the public sphere – changes to the structure of funding for tertiary education, for example – can hide in plain sight, while the heat of the postmodernism debate helps ensure that light rarely falls on them…

Maybe I’m writing about pessimism after all… ;-P

Playing to Lose

From an article in The Age on computer games with social agendas:

Among other socially conscious games with an agricultural theme is Third World Farmer, a 2005 student project from Denmark’s IT University of Copenhagen ( The game challenges players to stay alive through drought, disease, civil war, falling market prices and exposure to toxic waste from a chemical company that wants to lease their land.

“As the average computer game player is getting older, there’s going to be a larger market for games dealing with serious issues,” says graduate student Frederik Hermund, who helped design the game.

In the game there is no way to “win”, something Mr Hermund says has left many players frustrated, adding that the new version will not be “so bleak”. “We’re trying to implement ways to solve some of the problems by building roads and communications. I hope we’ll get less hate mail.”

Something about this scenario is strangely reminiscent of a discussion from the postgrad planning theory course this term. It’s a bit difficult to summarise the context, which related to the use of worst-case scenarios in particular kinds of activist literature. The discussion initially related to the… provenance of the scenarios – to whether particular kinds of claims could be grounded empirically. Talk rapidly shifted, however, from the accuracy of the scenarios, to what kinds of writing would mobilise greater numbers of people to political action.

I’m apparently an outlier on this one, because I tend to think that mainstream political mobilisation is more likely to result from a sense that some solution is viable. (I always think back to an undergraduate lecturer of mine who, asked whether peasants had revolted in a particular period because they were being deprived of food, said something like, “In general, historically, when you deprive people of food, they don’t revolt: they starve.” He then proceeded to draw attention to the constructive, as well as the reactive, provocations that contributed to driving dissatisfaction to be mobilised as political action.) Several of my students disagreed quite strongly, arguing that larger mobilisations would result from drilling in a sense that we have reached a point of no return: that we are facing issues to which no solution could ever be found.

I don’t have a strong universalist claim on the issue – my default position is to assume that political mobilisations have diverse causes. I would tend to think, though, that when problems appear (or, in the case we were discussing, are made to appear) overwhelming and fundamentally insoluable, a level of denial and demobilisation is somewhat likely to set in – and, as with the game manufacturers above, perhaps even a level of shoot-the-messenger anger against the harbingers of depressing news… To approach the same problem from a different direction, I tend also to think (with some qualifications) that Marx might have been onto something in suggesting:

Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.

Class Acts

So my tutorial sessions this week in the undergraduate economics course have tried, in part, to disentangle two different ways of thinking about social class: one approach that sees class as a function of the quantity of income or wealth that someone possesses; and another – Weberian or Marxian – approach that sees class as a function of the way in which your income is derived.

Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. The first approach – commonly seen in pictorial representations of social “pyramids” or in discussions of population quintiles – relies, essentially, on a descriptive definition, prone to debates over where lines should be drawn between different income groups, and potentially useful for analysing things like the correllation between wealth and life outcomes. The second approach, which was historically developed to try to explain patterns in the “ideologies” or political behaviour of social groups, relies on a structural definition and argues that the role you play in the economy predisposes you to perceive society and your choices within society in specific ways – commonly expressed in terms of “class interest”.

Problems arise when, as in some of the materials I was discussing with my students today, these two very different concepts of class come to be blended together. Read more of this post


I’ve been oscillating over this post for the last several days… I’m not convinced that I can articulate clearly and concisely the issues that are troubling me; I believe the post sits outside the normal focus of this blog; and I also suspect it may annoy some regular readers whose opinions I respect… Yet the subject keeps nagging me in ways that usually drive me to write something… I’ll therefore place the content below the fold – anyone interested in my (somewhat self-indulgent) rant on the occasional experience of being a token American in local discussions of US politics can read on… Read more of this post

Homeland Insecurity

Little Red BookSavage Minds drew my attention to the story, reported originally in the Standard Times South Coast Today, that a UMass Dartmouth student was visited by the Department of Homeland Security after requesting a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book via interlibrary loan.

My initial reaction, posted to Savage Minds, was that the story seemed a bit… odd. It’s admittedly been a while since I lived in the US, but I never had to provide my social security number to request a book from interlibrary loan. And then there’s the issue of Homeland Security priorities: why would a request for a single work by Mao take priority, given all of the other issues students and faculty research that are more closely related to immediate security threats? And the further problem that the story is essentially a third-hand account: a student described the incident to two professors, who in turn recounted it several weeks later to a news reporter looking for reactions to the recent revelations on Bush’s authorisation of warrantless surveillance of US citizens.

Not surprisingly, others had similar questions and, as the story bounced around the blogosphere, some of these folks set about investigating whether the story were a hoax. (I was lazier – after some initial internet searches to confirm that the newspaper and reporter appear to be real, and that the professors named in the article appear to exist and teach in relevant areas, I satisfied myself with emailing the problem to the good folks at Snopes.)

As this investigation has unfolded, the story has become, if anything, odder than the one reported in the original article. A copycat story, repeating the narrative of the original, but transposing the events to UCSC and naming Bruce Levine as the faculty source, began circulating – and was quickly demonstrated to be a hoax. And minor facts of the original article were also quickly disproven: social security numbers are not collected by UMass Dartmouth for campus transactions – whether for interlibrary loan or other purposes – nor does the library there have any record of anyone placing an interlibrary loan request for Mao’s Little Red Book.

At the same time, the reporter who published the original story has insisted that the story was sincere, and that he published after confirmation from the two university professors named in the article. One of those professors – Brian Glyn Williams – has stepped forward to defend the still-anonymous student but, in the process, has provided a few other details about the incident that are stranger than those reported in the original article. According to Williams, UMass has no record of the interlibrary loan request because the request was made through another library entirely, and the Homeland Security officers personally picked up the offending book from the source library, and took it with them to the student’s home, when they went to enquire to what purpose the student had requested the book.

The story now sits in a very awkward place, with many people suspecting that the student may have misrepresented the facts, or even invented the story in its entirety, without realising that it would suddenly reach a far wider – and more critical – audience. Others have argued that, if the story has even a grain of truth, it merits concern – and that the recent wiretapping revelations lend the story some credence, even if specific facts may not be fully correct.

I have to position myself on the skeptical side of the continuum on this one. I am very curious to know whether there is any relation between the story as reported, and the actual events (was the student visited by Homeland Security, but for another reason? was there some inadvertant miscommunication between the professors and the student, resulting in a somewhat distorted story that hit the press? etc.). Others are trying to get the student to come forward, and Homeland Security to comment, so we may have a clearer story soon.

Update (22 Dec.): While Boing Boing has posted an update that quotes library and university sources who do not believe the story is a hoax, Aaron Nicodemus, the reporter who originally broke the story, has published an update that quotes sources from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI who are highly skeptical that an investigation would proceed as reported in the original article. Nicodemus writes:

A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security said the story seemed unlikely.

“We’re aware of the claims,” said Kirk Whitworth, a DHS spokesman in Washington, D.C.

“However, the scenario sounds unlikely because investigations are based on violation of law, not on the books an individual might check out from the library.”

Mr. Whitworth pointed out that while the original story stated the student was visited by agents of the Department of Homeland Security, the DHS does not actually have its own agents. Under the umbrella of the DHS are Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Inspector General, the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Secret Service, and the Coast Guard, among others.

Mr. Whitworth could not comment on the record whether the agency monitors inter-library loans, or whether there is a watch list of books that the agency maintains.

An FBI spokeswoman was similarly skeptical.

“I have never heard that we would go after someone because of a book,” said Gail Marcinkiewicz, who works in the FBI’s Boston office. “That event in itself is not a criminal activity. I can’t imagine how we would follow up something like that. Everyone is protected under the First Amendment, which would include what you would read.”

Nicodemus has attempted to contact the student and the student’s parents, but they have refused to comment.

Update (24 Dec): BoingBoing now reports that the story has been confirmed as a hoax. News articles covering the hoax admission can be found at the Boston Globe, and at South Coast Today. It will be interesting to see, as Robert KC Johnson has asked, what action, if any, UMass Dartmouth will take. It will also be interesting to see, as Savage Minds has suggested, whether this hoax will now be used to discredit legitimate accounts of the abuse of investigative powers in the war on terror.