1. The Shape of Things

    Sloterdijk, Peter. Bubbles: Spheres Volume I: Microspherology. Translated by Wieland Hoban. Semiotext(e), 2011. 664pp.

    For anyone even remotely interested in philosophy, when a figure sets out to “correct” Heidegger, you want to pay attention. This is not necessarily out of admiration for the author of Being and Time, or his ideas, but rather out of a genuine curiosity made up of equal parts amazement and horror. The interest would be compulsory, akin to intellectual rubbernecking, for it is more than likely that he or she, the subject of such an utterance, will, like Heidegger, be vulnerable to intense scrutiny and interpretation. Therefore, when MIT Press describes the much-anticipated Spheres trilogy by Peter Sloterdijk as “the late-twentieth-century bookend to Heidegger’s Being and Time,” there is reasonable expectation for it to be disastrous.

    Ever since the English translation of his The Critique of Cynical Reason in 1988, Sloterdijk has been known in English-speaking intellectual circles as somewhat of a mercurial figure. Not much, still, is known about him. From where, that is, what intellectual milieu or tradition, did he emerge? Is he a Frankfurt guy? Is he a Luhmannite? Is he Heideggerian? The rather out-of-nowhere character of Sloterdijk’s work, as well as the inconsistent reception of his work outside a handful of watchers of developments in continental philosophy and social theory, placed Sloterdijk in the category of “heard of him” (otherwise known as “oh right, he wrote that one thing”) in North American cultural theory. 

    But Sloterdijk’s trajectory differed tremendously in his native Germany. When copies of Cynical Reason started leaving the shelves at a rapid pace upon its release, the then-journalist was boosted into the highbrow German intellectual scene traditionally filled with academics. Today, we can count Sloterdijk among the country’s public intellectuals, a group that also includes luminaries like Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth (more on these two later). Sloterdijk is also host to a show called “Das Philosophische Quartett” (The Philosophical Quartet), which airs on ZDF, the German equivalent to PBS in the United States or NHK in Japan. It features Sloterdijk alongside guests of various intellectual pedigrees, from academics to journalists.

    More recently, Sloterdijk has made himself known among the wider American reading public for a controversy involving welfare state politics, class, ressentiment and Axel Honneth. As a blog post on the Global Post summarizes:

    According to an article published this past summer in one of Germany’s most widely read newspapers, the country’s welfare state is a “fiscal kleptocracy” that has transformed the country into a “swamp of resentment” and degraded its citizens into “mystified subjects of   tax law.” The text, by philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, goes on in that vein for some 3,000 words[…]

    Among the country’s intellectual class, the article has served as kindling for a fiercely fought and wide-ranging conversation about the national economy that, six months on, still shows little sign of abating. (Abadi)

    The article, entitled “Die Revolution der gebenden Hand” (“The Revolution of the Grasping Hand”), must be read as a polemic. While it includes some semblance of genealogical (in the Foucauldian sense) analysis of the modern democratic welfare state, its primary purpose is to offend. He begins with a meditation on the birth of the democratic state as the compromise between classical liberalism and anarchism, each of which was amenable to the declining significance of the state. For liberalism, the state needed to be minimal and imperceptible to its subjects, the citizens. For anarchism, the state needed to be destroyed. Hence, the “modern democratic state gradually transformed into the debtor state, within the space of a century metastasizing into a colossal monster—one that breathes and spits out money” (Sloterdijk, “The Grasping Hand”]). For a Europe that is currently under much economic turmoil, and with a Germany that is currently embroiled in a national debate, hinging in large part on a parochial stance toward Southern Europe as fiscally irresponsible debtees, about whether to “bail out” Greece and Spain, this article, for many of its critics, amounted basically to “piling on.” Further, according to its critics, it preyed on extant, albeit latent, nationalist sentiment, which culminated in the infamous book by Thilo Sarrazin, which all but placed the entirety of Germany’s economic woes on its immigrants.

    This was the context for the retort by Honneth, one of the last remaining flag bearers of the Frankfurt School. There he accused Sloterdijk of, among many things, being an ideological mouthpiece for advanced capitalism, “a mystical or speculative [interpreter] of history and the world,” and, rather strangely, a reader of Michel Foucault. The gist of Honneth’s critique, which I cannot fully assess in this space, is that Sloterdijk has taken ressentiment as “first psychology” of the lower classes and has attempted to pull the rug from up under the very foundations of European liberal democracy—the welfare state—by criticizing it. I bring up Honneth’s public spat with Sloterdijk in order to portray a picture of the latter that presents not only his prominence in the German intellectual scene but also his embattled public image. While Sloterdijk may only recently be gaining mass recognition in North America, he has, in Europe, at least, been a visible presence for the past two decades or so.

    For Sloterdijk, the problematic of inhabitation is that which courses through the veins of Western metaphysics and philosophy. The “old cosmology of ancient Europe,” as he calls it, “that rested on equating the house and home with the world,” can be seen in even the disparate philosophies of Hegel and Heidegger. Humans in this view were “inhabitants in a crowded building called cosmos”(Sloterdijk, “Spheres Theory”). As it was for his most obvious predecessor, Gaston Bachelard, the motif of the house—signifying order, unity and certainty—is one that unduly holds too much purchase in the West. For Sloterdijk, the Enlightenment should have dispelled the need for a “universal house in order to find the world a place worthy of inhabiting” (Ibid.). Yet, it remains, thanks in part to philosophers such as Heidegger, whose self-proclaimed task to “end metaphysics” as such did not do away with the, if we can call it something, the “metaphysics of the universal house.” Sloterdijk’s project, therefore, in his three-volume study called Spheres, is to forge a path beyond Heidegger, by providing a general theory of “associations.”

    For Heidegger, the overarching question of metaphysics was temporal—with the keywords “being” and “becoming.” For Sloterdijk, it is spatial; the keyword is “world.” While it is the case that Sloterdijk views Heidegger to have been wrong all along, there is something about the current technological, socio-political moment that has occasioned a particular response. Sloterdijk writes:

    It’s the final stage of a process that began in the epoch of Greek philosophical cosmology, and whose present vectors are rapid transportation as well as ultra-high-speed telecommunication. At the same time, it’s the product of a radical disappointment, whereby human beings had to abandon the privilege of inhabiting a real cosmos—which is to say, a closed and comforting world. The cosmos, such as the Greeks conceived it, was the totality of being imagined under the form of a great, perfectly symmetrical bubble. Aristotle and his followers were responsible for this idea of a cosmos composed of concentric, celestial spheres of increasing diameters, the majority of which consisted of a hypothetical material they called ether. For us, this model of the world is obviously no longer operational. (Sloterdijk, “Foreword to the Theory of Spheres” 223)

    In response to this “inoperability,” Sloterdijk offers a “spherology,” beginning from the micro, which is the subject of volume I of Spheres entitled Bubbles, all the way to the macro, the subject of volume III, entitled Foams. Sphere, for Sloterdijk, does not assume a totality or finality as the phenomenologically inflected “lifeworld” or “world” entails. As he puts it rather paradoxically, “the primordial existential sphere is created every time a moment of inter-psychic space happens” (Sloterdijk, “Foreword to the Theory of Spheres” 223–224). Against the weight of “existence,” Sloterdijk puts forth a succession of events, of happenings, wherein meaningful and significant connections are made but do not suffocate. Hence, the microspherology he presents in Bubbles, the volume under review, is, at root, a theory of “atmosphere” or as he likes to say, of “air.” He chooses these ethereal metaphors as he believes that spheres, the closest Heideggerian cognate being Stimmung (more on this later), “never speak but…brings everything together and makes everything possible…a treasure that that allowed human beings to realize the fact that they’re always already immersed in something almost imperceptible and yet very real, and that this space of immersion dominates the changing states of the soul down to its most intimate modifications”(Sloterdijk, “Foreword to the Theory of Spheres” 225).

    The development of this “spatial vocabulary” is necessary, therefore, because the concept of “world” is simply too bulky to do anything analytically. “Sphere” works better for several reasons. For one, it is more in tune with the development of modernity, which is characterized by “the increasing removal of safety structures from the traditional theological and cosmological narratives” (Sloterdijk, Bubbles 25) that used to provide human subjectivity with a degree of ontological security by providing human beings a place in the world, which was fixed, identifiable and orientating. Yet, these “safety structures” in the form of “worlds,” according to Sloterdijk, remained. While the emergence of the Figure of Man, allowed for humans to become the subject and object of knowledge, the “empirico-transcendental” as Foucault so rightly put it, it did not mean the complete “end of metaphysics.” It just diverted the sublimated energy. “People,” Sloterdijk precisely notes, “no longer wanted to receive their inspired ideas from embarrassing heavens”(Sloterdijk, Bubbles 28). Instead of God, these ideas came from within, so to speak, albeit mediated via technology, which reflected the “distance between what God was capable of in illo tempore and what humans will, in time, themselves be capable of” (37). Hence, supposedly secular models of subjectivity that emerged in the wake of the scientific revolutions of Galileo, Copernicus and later Newton, nonetheless remained closely tied to the imago Dei. The image of man as God simply shifted the flow of power from one end to another. It did not reconstitute the very elements of the prior cosmological system. The shape of the world, even after the emergence of the Figure of Man, did not much change.

    But it was not just the shape of the system that did not budge, but rather the way things in it related to one another. While Sloterdijk takes much care to provide various illustrations having to do with the contours of what he is describing, he is really in fact attempting to describe relationality. One could even go so far as to say that for him the way in which certain elements in a system relate—let us call this the “relational quantum”—gives the system itself shape. Thus to call something “foam,” “bubble,” or “sphere” is really an attempt by Sloterdijk to theorize a “connecting force.” Spheres, then, are “the original product of human coexistence.” In other words, spheres form out of the relations of certain existing ontological objects, or as Sloterdijk tends to call them, “nobjects”. Spheres therefore are unlike environments. “Environment,” while certainly a milieu for the facilitation of elements in action therein, is nevertheless a top-down way of thinking about social forms. Environments are determinants and causes, though perhaps not linear or direct ones. They are, still, somehow initiators. Spheres are more “atmospheric-symbolic places.” They are like “air” or even “air-conditioning systems in whose construction and calibration, for those living in real coexistence … is out of the question not to participate”( 46). “Living in spheres” is indeed a condition, a structure but one which is dynamic and ethereal. It “means inhabiting a shared subtlety” (46. Emphasis added.).

    Bubbles, the first volume of the project, is a “theory of the shared inside” (542). The bubble is the first step, the most elemental, the smallest unit of sphere. The question, of course, is what kind of bubble are we talking about here? In describing it, Sloterdijk references a variety of illustrations, including vaginas, wombs and soap. Stranger still is Sloterdijk’s embrace of the term “soul,” not the Cartesian variety but the Platonic one. Spheres are a form of “soul expansion” that would have previously been associated with “spirit,” although Sloterdijk claims that what was “meant was always inspired spatial communities” (19). But today, there is no thinking about spatial communities without thinking of networks, which has triggered “a general space crisis,” or what Paul Virilio calls “the annihilation of space.” This complicates, in particular, age-old ideas about subjectivity.

    According to Sloterdijk, the annihilation of space finally reveals the myth of individual autonomy, which he describes as the “basic neurosis of Western culture,” that is, “to dream of a subject that watches, names and owns everything, without letting anything contain, appoint or own it, not even if the discreetest God offered himself as an observer, container and client” (86). The Enlightenment emphasized and augmented loneliness as the default setting of the human being. This is the case not only with the ancients but also with Hegel and Heidgger in particular. To the contrary, for Sloterdijk, there is, what we can call, a primary “intimacy” between beings. Even phenomenological conceptions of “intersubjectivity” took as its quantum the individual, perceiving subject—a point made loud and clear most acutely by post-structuralist critics. But more to the point, the Modern Age too easily discarded the primacy of, what Sloterdijk describes as a magolological and erotological tendency. He writes:

    Among humans, fascination is the rule and disenchantment the exception. As desiring and imitating begins, humans constantly experience that they not only hold a lonely potential for desiring the other within themselves, but also that they manage, in an opaque and non-trivial manner, to infect the objects of their desire with their own longing for them; at the same time, individuals imitate the other’s longing for a third element as if under some infectious compulsion…Where philosophy of the early Modern Age mentions such effects of resonance and infection, it spontaneously draws on the vocabulary of magological traditions. As easy as antiquity, it was reflection on affective causalities of the magical type that initiated the clarification of the interpersonal or inter demonic concert, which, from Plato’s time on, was interpreted as a work of eros. (208) 

    Tracing this genealogy magolological of relation from the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Age allows for Sloterdijk to contrast the spheres’ model of relationality to that of subjectivity, which he, after Lacan, refers to as the psychoanalytic model. In large part, he does this to tie it to Judeo-Christian understandings of The Law, which “does not encourage merging, but constantly makes the case for constructive separations; its focus is not intimate fusion, but rather the discretion of the subject in relation to the other”( 217). The Law model of subjectivity, we can argue, is the basis for so many of the recent theories of the subject that are no doubt derivative of Lacan and Althusser. In the Althusserian version, which I think Sloterdijk has in mind although he more explicitly takes aim at Lacan, the subject is the subject of ideology, constituted in and through the ISAs (Ideological State Apparatuses) that have surrounded the subject’s entire identity through various layers of institutional identity formation and recognition. Thus, when the police officer hails you, the subject was always already interpellated, as evidenced by the subject’s assumption that it is he that office is addressing. Put in juxtaposition to Sloterdijk, this model seems to be top-down in that there is no theory of “bindability” beyond the superstructural notion of “ideology.” This amounts to sacrificing the “relationships between things” for “being-in-itself”( 220). Put differently, Sloterdijk identifies in this model of subjectivity an overemphasis on the ontic.

    The question of the ontic most certainly leads to questions around notions of thinghood and objects. Especially nowadays, there has been a flurry of philosophical interest in ideas of object-oriented ontology. “Things” or objects are a subject of serious theoretical inquiry. Sloterdijk, hardly a source for many of the thinkers associated with OOO and speculative realism, nevertheless shares these analytic concerns. Subjectivity is but one rather convenient level for him to begin. It is a point of entry, not his primary intellectual concern. Nevertheless, the importance of relationality brings Sloterdijk to theorize objects, those very entities whose relations he expresses such profound interest in. In large part, he use the term “nobject” from Thomas Macho, a German cultural theorist whose work has not quite reached the English-speaking theory world quite yet. In Sloterdijk’s rendering, nobjects are “things, media or persons that fulfill the function of the living genius or intimate augmenter for subjects”( 467). They are “objects that…are not objects because they have no subject-like counterpart”( 294). His examples of “nobjects” include air as well as placental blood. Air, he writes, “possesses unmistakable nobject properties as it affords the incipient subject a first chance at self-activity in respiratory autonomy, but without ever appearing as a thing with which to have a relationship”( 295). Placental blood is one of the many images of the gynecological register that Sloterdijk draws from throughout the work. The womb is of particular importance to Sloterdijk as it functions to counter the assumed importance of “primary narcissism”(320). Instead, he says that there is a primary duality, which is born out not only in art (a privileged area of evidence for Sloterdjik) but also in mythology.

    This leads him to venture into some rather odd places. For instance, in a chapter on what he calls “the primal companion,” he spends a lot of space on what he calls the “sanitization of afterbirth.” There, he argues that the importance of afterbirth which subsequently suffered from a “bourgeois-individualist” attempt to retroactively isolate the subject. He even goes so far as to offer a periodization. He notes, “modern individualism could only enter its intense phase in the second half of the eighteenth century, when the general clinical and cultural excommunication of the placenta began”(384). Thus the “lonely modern subject” is a “fission product from the informal separation of birth and afterbirth. Its positively willful being is tainted by a fault to which it will never admit: that it rests on the elimination of its most intimate pre-object”(386). Hence, the Modern Age can be thought of as defined by “placental nihilism.”

    Undoubtedly this is stylization taken to the nth degree. But there is something to Sloterdijk’s overuse of the metaphor.  He views the maternal relationship as the proto-type for his theory of relationality in spheres—“proto-subjectivity.” “[I]ntimacy is a transmission relationship … not taken from the symmetrical alliance between twins or like-minded parties, where each mirrors the other, but from the irresolvable asymmetrical communion between the maternal voice and the fetal ear”(511). While one could not blame any reader for being fed up with Sloterdijk’s “illustrative” method, there is, in my mind at least, a method, that is, a clear intention on the part of Sloterdijk. The imagistic aspect of his illustrative method is born out in not only the dearth of examples that he uses, but in the countless photographs and illustrations that Sloterdijk includes in Bubbles.

    But returning to the issue of spheres and proto-subjectivity, Sloterdijk does not necessarily spend all of his efforts in a nostalgic explication for a time where ontological thinking was not devoid of magolological or erotological elements. Instead, he suggests that “modern mass culture” already exhibits this sort of reality of spheres as it “offers new, direct ways of fulfilling the desire for homeostatic communion.” He goes on to argue that “pop music and its derivatives” allow for the “possibility of diving into a body of rhythmic noise in which critical ego functions become temporarily dispensable” (527). These sorts of communions share in common with religious communions the opportunity for “absorption,” as he calls it. The most telling of examples he provides is that of the Love Parade, held in Berlin for a long time but later moved to other cities in Germany. Up until its recent cancellation, the Love Parade was characterized by its particularly EDM (electronic dance music)-heavy focus, exhibitionist ethos, and the sheer number of attendees with figures (though disputed) reported to be in the hundreds of thousands. Of this festival, Sloterdijk writes:

    …[T]hey could easily be called “Truth Parades,” as their aim is to absorb large numbers of people, all of whom value the attributes of their individuality, into happy, symbiotic reversible and thus “true” sonospheres. These communions with the audio gods or the rhythmic juggernauts are based on the same truth model as post-Freudian psychoanalysis—with the difference that the latter recommends that its clients develop a strict individual rhetoric of mourning for the lost primal object, while integristic music therapy in the streets relies on drug-assisted group euphorias that may advance flirtation with absorption into a spheric primal body in the short term, but yield little profit for the participants’ media competence in the sobering periods that follow(527–528).

    It is in this unlikely example of the Love Parade, where I believe the key to Sloterdijk’s “theory of the shared inside” lies. By viewing this music festival as “communion,” and thus employing a religious register, Sloterdijk arguably betrays, what I view to be, his true intellectual concerns—theology. In showing that “life is always a life-in-the-midst-of-lives, Being-in, then, should be conceived as the togetherness of something with something in something”( 542), Sloterdijk ends up using the theological concept of “perichoresis,” which the Protestant German theologian Jürgen Moltmann in his God in Creation describes as “the principle of mutual interpenetration.”

    In Moltmann’s theology, all relationships “are analogous to God.” This is characterized by a “primal, reciprocal indwelling and mutual interpenetration,” which in theological terms is called perichoresis: “God in the world and the world in God; heaven and earth in the kingdom of God, pervaded by his glory.” This mutual interpenetration disabuses the notion of a solitary life. Against a panpsychic Leibnizian monadology, which sees ontologically individual beings that coordinate with another through a divine pre-established harmony, Moltmann describes the principle of mutual interpenetration as all living things “[living] in another and with one another, from one another and for one another”(Moltmann 17). This is analogous to Sloterdijk’s “onto-theology.”

    Yet, no matter how novel Sloterdijk’s overall argument, and mode of argument, in the end, it is rather familiar because it is, even according to him, a corrective. Bubbles, and the Spheres trilogy generally, is an attempt to demystify, a tact nearly identical to the theoretical methods of Rudolf Bultmann but also—surprisingly—the Frankfurt school, especially Adorno and Horkheimer. To demythologize is to suggest that if we simply understood the proper genealogy of a particular concept at the root of contemporary metaphysics, it would make for a better world. For Sloterdijk, it is “sphere,” whereas for the Frankfurt School, it was “mass culture.” For all of their public back-and-forths regarding the German welfare state, it seems that Sloterdijk and Honneth, the current director of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, have more in common than previously imagined.

     

    Works Cited

    Abadi, Cameron. “Germany’s Welfare State Under Fire.” GlobalPost 9 Jan. 2010. Web. 24 May 2012.

    Bogost, Ian. “What Is Object-Oriented Ontology?” IAN BOGOST - VIDEOGAME THEORY, CRITICISM, DESIGN 8 Dec. 2009. Web. 26 Sept. 2012.

    Bryant, Levi, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman. The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. re.press, 2011.

    Gregersen, Thomas. “Axel Honneth Versus Peter Sloterdijk.” Political Theory - Habermas and Rawls 26 Sept. 2009. Web. 25 Sept. 2012.

    Harman, Graham. Towards Speculative Realism: Essays and Lectures. O Books, 2010.

    Moltmann, Jurgen. God in Creation. 1st Fortress Press ed. Fortress Press, 1993.

    —-. God in Creation. Fortress Press, 1993.

    Salam, Reihan. “The Peter Sloterdijk Controversy.” The Agenda 12 Jan. 2010. Web. 24 May 2012.

    Shingleton, Cameron. “The Great Stage: Axel Honneth: Against Sloterdijk (Die Zeit, 24 September, 2009).” The Great Stage 11 Feb. 2010. Web. 25 Sept. 2012.

    Sloterdijk, Peter. Bubbles: Spheres Volume I: Microspherology. Trans. Wieland Hoban. Semiotext(e), 2011.

    —-. Derrida, an Egyptian. 1st ed. Polity, 2009.

    —-. “Foreword to the Theory of Spheres.” Cosmograms (2005): 223–240. 

    —-. “Spheres Theory: Talking to Myself About the Poetics of Space.” Harvard Design Magazine 2009 : n. pag.

    —-. “The Grasping Hand.” City Journal Winter 2010. Web. 24 May 2012.

    Virilio, Paul. Polar Inertia. Sage, 2000.

    —-. The Information Bomb. Verso Books, 2000.

    —-. The Vision Machine. Indiana University Press, 1994.

         While most of this exchange never made it to English-language publications, much of it has been chronicled on blogs. See Gregersen, Thomas. “Axel Honneth Versus Peter Sloterdijk.” Political Theory - Habermas and Rawls. 26 Sept. 2009. Web. 25 Sept. 2012; Shingleton, Cameron. “The Great Stage: Axel Honneth: Against Sloterdijk (Die Zeit, 24 September, 2009).” The Great Stage. 11 Feb. 2010. 25 Sept. 2012.

         One cannot but help to think of the continual resonance between Sloterdijk’s project and the recent work of Jean-Luc Nancy. This is the case not only with the recent work by Nancy on religious themes and globalization but also his earlier work on “communality” and “singular plurality.”

         There are many books and other writings, mostly on the World Wide Web, on object-oriented ontology. The best definition of OOO has come from videogame theorist Ian Bogost. That can be found at: Bogost, Ian. “What Is Object-Oriented Ontology?” IAN BOGOST - VIDEOGAME THEORY, CRITICISM, DESIGN 8 Dec. 2009. Web. 26 Sept. 2012. Of the books, the following anthologies provide suitable introductions. Bryant, Levi, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman. The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. re.press, 2011. Harman, Graham. Towards Speculative Realism: Essays and Lectures. O Books, 2010.

         There seems to be almost nothing of Macho’s translated into English. He does, however, have a web site. http://www.culture.hu-berlin.de/tm/

     
  2. Day Four: Reading William Gibson in Singapore

    To call it “cliche” is not quite right but it is the word that comes to mind when I reflect on the fact that upon moving to Singapore, that mercurial, authoritarian city-state in Southeast Asia, I chose to go to a bookstore and purchase a collection of essays which contains a famous, perhaps infamous, dressing-down of my new home. I didn’t expect to walk into the quaint Duxton Road bookstore to find William Gibson’s Distrust that Particular Flavor, an anthology of his non-fiction.

    I chose to purchase the book for two reasons: 1)I’m a fan of Gibson’s writing, including his Twitter feed. 2)I knew the book contained the essay first published in Wired called “Disneyland with the Death Penalty.” I knew I could find the piece online somewhere, but not having much to do, and also having just become newly middle-class, I thought, what the hell… But I guess there is also the added satisfaction of buying the book containing the essay that had once resulted in the banning of Wired here. And now, here the book is, uncensored and ready to buy. (I must admit, that buying this particular book, in this particular shop, is even more gratifying as Gibson launches his most, shall we say, cranky criticism of Singapore at its bookstores. “Bookstores in Singapore,” he writes, “are sad affairs, large busy places selling almost nothing I would ever want to buy … I was vaguely pleased that none of my own works seemed to be available(Distrust, p. 76).)

    Granted, I’m not exactly a neutral party here, if there could ever be something like it. I’ve just left my beloved New York City, ended (as amicably as possible) a relationship with my girlfriend of seven years, all to start my career as an academic, a professional theorist of things social. I admit that there is necessarily, and undoubtedly, a bit of self-delusion involved here. I could very well be playing out some Althusserian-cum-Lacanian theory. So, take this with many dashes of salt.



    I’ve tried to keep up with the news coming out of Singapore ever since I knew I’d teach here. This is difficult, as Gibson attests, as the papers here are reflective of the mode of political discourse sanctioned by the governing party of sixty years, the PAP(with exception to the budding blogosphere, which seems to be quite vibrant). The trains being delayed are primary headline-grabbers. But recently, in the properly liberal Northeast of the United States, the news out of Singapore was singular (and it didn’t involve public transportation). The National University of Singapore (NUS) (and also, not my employer), following trends of other Singaporean universities, was finalizing plans to open a liberal arts college, jointly with Yale. While this had long been in the works, Yale faculty realized that they had not been consulted. On other, perhaps more trivial, matters this would not have been a concern. Except with with Singapore, being certainly a totalitarian-lite state, the faculty did not wish to soil their liberal-minded self-identity and decided to take aim at the University’s plan. But in doing so, certain critical voices began to paint Singapore (and Singaporeans)) as dupes, while in some instances, having never set foot on the island. (Rather curiously, though, not very many non-Singaporean intellectuals employed by Singapore’s three main public universities failed to be heard from. They, one would think, are in a rather unique position to weigh in on matters.)



    The hotel that I stayed in for the few days before I was able to move into faculty housing is situated within a convention center on campus. While rare in the world of higher education that I’m a native of, the small liberal arts college, it is somewhat common in the large flagship campuses of state university systems in the US. My room overlooked the athletic facilities. Hence, in the distance I saw college-aged boys playing basketball. While feeling the itch to play, I was admittedly hesitant. Would the norms of the playgrounds of NYC be carried through here, in the far, Far East? Does globalization reach that deep? Do I want to find out?

    My worries were rather quickly dispelled as I was invited to get in on a 4-on-4. Keeping that I could pass as Singaporean at first glance the students’ shock was twofold: 1)My clear American accent. 2)I revealed that I was newly on the faculty. This resulted in not only a bit of intrigue (if I can say so myself) but also good-old Confucian respect. As I hit five or so jump shots from the elbows while warming up, a skinny kid with glasses and very little game to speak of, said to me while hitting me with a pass, “Prof, you have a really stable shot.” As we were selecting teams, I was introduced to a novel way of doing so. Instead of the first two to hit a free throw becoming captains and selecting his team based on the inexact, and prejudicial, science of sizing you up, the students formed a circle. One of them took the ball and spun it on his palm. Whoever the inflation hole for the air pump directed towards was on a team. This went on four times and a voila, a team was formed. I then asked one student what the rules were, most especially that of “taking back.” In pickup ball, unlike the NBA, the game happens without a clock and in the half court setting. To simulate the action of one team running down the length of the court to pursue the other team’s basket, it is common to bring the ball back to the three point line when the shot has hit rim or backboard. This, however was not the case here. The ball is taken back any time there is, as one of the students put it, “a change of attack,” meaning a turnover. In other words, every time the ball changes possession, the team now on offense would have to take the ball back. To my mind, this was quite fair, more so than the way I had grown up playing.



    There is an old myth, the myth of consistency, of which the phrase “all the way down” is a direct indicator. It posits that if something appears to have a certain logic about it, that the same logic also operates at all levels. This is not only fiction but it is bad social/cultural criticism. Psychoanalysis, in modern times, but Plato in more ancient times, dispelled the notion that existence and essence were correlative. Thus, in the case of Singapore, or any “society,” one must not only view it from afar but but be among it, whether immersed in the bodies going to-and-fro in the country’s mass transit system (MRT), in its coffee shops, its basketball courts, its gazillions of malls. (Gibson is surely right on this point. But, as I’m sure he knows, the mall is a key social space for teenagers across the United States. It is a meaningful gathering place for them.) To ask the cab driver from the airport to tell his or her take on the place, and then stylize it is for charlatans like Thomas Friedman. One would, and should, expect more from Gibson.

     
  3. Economic Nationalism: The Debt Deal’s Other Effect

    The debt deal is done, yet, as Guardian UK headline reads, “Wall Street [is] still in doldrums.” The US stock markets are amid an eight-day skid. And the Dow Jones fell over 160 points. Yes, perhaps short term financial disaster was averted with the raising of the debt ceiling, though close to the self-imposed deadline of August 2nd the credit agencies seemed to be indicating that they were willing to defer the downgrading of the US’ credit ratings. But there is wide agreement that the deal does not and will not provide any reprieve from the stagnant American economy. I heard former White House budget director Peter Orzag discuss on Charlie Rose the other night saying that he foresees 2% growth in the American economy until 2020. (To put that number in sobering perspective, Brazil and China had greater than 7% and 10% growth respectively in 2010.) So all in all, this deal did very little to get us on the path out of the Great Recession.

    Neither did it do much on what the House Republicans high jacked the debt ceiling issue over—balancing the federal budget. After the President, in my opinion, gave up on tax hikes for the rich (or what in Washington-speak is called “revenues”), the deal basically came down to cuts in services (“entitlements”) along with a provision for the setting up of a bipartisan supercommittee that will decide on what further cuts to make. Then, the Congress and Senate will have an up or down vote (no amendments or modifications of the bill) on passing the recommendations of the committee. If they fail to, then a set of automatic cuts go into effect. This is called a “trigger.”

    (See this graphic provided by the New York Times if you wish to skip over the prose above.)

    There is a tendency in America to blame this on a reified concept—“the economy.” We wouldn’t be in the scenario that we’re in if it weren’t for the sluggish economy. But, as Vijay Prashad recently notes: 

    …the “economy” does not exist outside our social relations, and the public policies enacted by governments to shape those relations. The United States government handed the keys of the treasury to large corporations (General Electric pays no taxes, and indeed won a rebate last year!). Policy-making benefits large corporations and the paper-thin class that controls them. The Supreme Court adjudged these corporations as individuals, so that they could exert their power through the constitutional protections of free speech.

    Referring to the movement spearheaded by progressive House Democrats to reinstate the military draft in order to force the issue of who (that is, in terms of race and class) is deemed expendable to risk the loss of life to exercise various wars around the world, Prashad concludes that there is already a draft in operation.

    There is no military draft, but there is an economic draft. The current economic collapse has reduced those who had built up some assets, on whatever fictitious foundation, to the level of bare life. The drain of wealth to the war economy is a massive regressive taxation on the population: the rich who pay a much smaller proportion of their taxes (and nothing on capital gains, which is also income) and the corporations (who pay little to no taxes) are insulated from the costs of war, and indeed some of them benefit from the windfalls of war. To balance the budget in the context of the economic draft means to devastate whatever social spending remains: education, healthcare, senior care, care for the indigent, resources for the environment, capacity for the state regulators and so on. President Obama seems to have picked Al Gore’s pocket and stolen the key to the lock-box that holds Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. These are all victims of the war economy.

    The point that Prashad is getting at bears repeating and clarification. When the “economy” is reified as “that which we must all cheer back to good health” we succumb to what is one of contemporary capitalism’s amazing and horrifying feats: its ability to kick you in the ass and then have you still cheer for it. In other words, it is the failure of capitalism that requires us to cheer for it, since our livelihoods, educations, retirements, homes, cars, and everything else is tied into it. (Be clear: if it were some how “successful,” why would we need so much market-correcting ordinances like bailouts in the US and abroad? Japan just devalued its currency to help its exports. The idea that capitalism exists sui generis with its central logic being the market principle flies against all empirical reality. Capitalism, as Fernand Braudel so well pointed out, is anti-market.)

    This economic draft has the effect of all drafts: nationalism. As a recent New York Times article about the troubles of the mandatory military draft in South Korea, which in recent years has been held responsible for sparking suicides resulting from hazing, draft dodging (very high-profile instances actually), and a school shooting-type incident, the attempts at shifting the attitude about the Garrison culture in the Korean military proves difficult because it is seen as “a sacred duty,” a symbol of one’s national identity (for men).

    The broader implication for Korean society is rather clear: a widespread militarized, nationalist ethos. From the NYT article:

    Since nearly all men are military veterans, the code of ethics they practice in their years in the services tends to bleed over into civilian life, and corporate offices. The benefits are clear: South Korea’s powerful companies and institutions carry out projects quickly and efficiently, many say, because of the ethos of not questioning orders and showing respect for superiors.

    Workers who fall short are often chided by colleagues who ask, “Weren’t you in the military?”

    But analysts have also blamed that same culture for stifling individual initiative, instilling tolerance of physical violence in school and at home and encouraging people in business or the government to turn a blind eye to corruption.

    I’m suggesting today that the United States exhibits and probably has since post-1945 an economic nationalism, where one “performs nationality,” not by listening to your boss without question and caring about efficiency, as in the Korean example, but with a modal (as in mood) attachment to how well the American economy is seemingly doing.

    This is neoliberalism 101—the conjoining of the economic and the political. Because most Americans still view the state’s primary function as protecting them, there is, a collective orientation towards the “we,” as if we are all in this together (which we are not). This is the fallacy of the debt deal and its rhetoric. The debt was seen as all of our faults but in reality it wasn’t. But it felt like it was. Thus, we were all taken by the impending downgrade of the credit rating of the United States because it is us that are hit hardest if and when the economy tanks more, not the lawmakers and the chattering class, who decide much of its fate but do not bear much of its deadly consequences. We are indeed on a sinking ship, impacted by a humongous iceberg, most of us in the cheap rooms at the very bottom, praying to our gods to show mercy on a ship that we couldn’t even get a good night’s sleep in days before.

     
  4. 10:40 16th May 2011

    Notes: 5

    image: Download

    Blogging about being blogged about. So vain, I know. But I thought I’d take this opportunity to thank all the folks who have read my response and also critically engaged with it as well as broader, related issues. 
Also, thanks New York Magazine (though I’m not worthy to be mentioned in the same paragraph as Mary HK Choi.)

    Blogging about being blogged about. So vain, I know. But I thought I’d take this opportunity to thank all the folks who have read my response and also critically engaged with it as well as broader, related issues. 

    Also, thanks New York Magazine (though I’m not worthy to be mentioned in the same paragraph as Mary HK Choi.)

     
  5. #Asianpeopleproblems: A Critique of “Paper Tigers”

    A lot of chatter is being generated by this feature in New York Magazine by Wesley Yang on…well…what is it about? I think the screed-like nature of the piece is why so many folks, in particular Asian Americans, are getting rubbed the wrong way by it. But, for me at least, it wasn’t at all provocative or enlightening. It expressed, at best, a certain anomie, a sense of being out of place, felt by the writer and others of his type: thirty-something Asian American men, who aren’t doctors, lawyers etc. It reads as part LiveJournal-entry, part pop-sociology, part feature journalism and, most interestingly, part therapeutic couch-session. These are all legitimate forms of discourse, in my opinion. I just wish it were more easily identifiable. But this is not really my gripe. 

    My initial observation in reading the piece is that it seems Yang is dealing with something that many of us who are not white, straight, male, solidly middle-class, educated, employed, able-bodied, etc. deal with rather early in life. It is the feeling that I am unlike the majority of the society into which I’ve been socialized. I exist outside the ideal-type of “person” that is normal in the given society. While Yang is shocked by his jet-black hair and flat face (phenotypically Asian features though this is a bit reductive since well, what about South Asians… but I digress), I am not. I know what I look like. And it’s not white or black. I came to this realization very early. So early, I don’t quite remember when I did. But I’m assuming for many of us who defy the prescribed racial categories of American society, this happened in the early on, that is to say, in elementary school. I find it strange that Yang would have such a deferred experience of what I’m calling his “fact of Asianness” (a modification of Franz Fanon’s notion of “the fact of blackness” in Black Skin, White Masks.)[1] I guess my experience was like that of W.E.B. DuBois, whose realization of his “fact of blackness” came in elementary school. As he tells it in his Souls of Black Folk

    I remember well when the shadow swept across me. I was a little thing, away up in the hills of New England, where the dark Housatonic winds between Hoosac and Taghkanic to the sea. In a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys’ and girls’ heads to buy gorgeous visiting-cards–ten cents a package–and exchange. The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card,–refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil… .

    I do not wish to denigrate or take away from what Yang points to—the process whereby one realizes that he or she is marginal. It is devastating. But how late did this realization occur? I don’t mean to say “he should’ve gotten over it a long time ago” but I sort of am. Not so much because he shouldn’t be talking about this because I think it is rather brave of him to reveal such feelings but I am genuinely interested in how the basic operations of race in America and where he fit in were not, at least in some intuitive level, availed to him much earlier. Did he grow up in a predominantly white neighborhood? If so, I can understand somewhat the delayed actualization of his “fact of yellowness.”

    There was once a person I knew from a Korean church I used to go to in high school. She was from Connecticut and grew up in a nice, though not well-to-do town. Her dad worked at an engineering firm and her mom stayed at home. She grew up not speaking Korean and was in many ways aided in her assimilation by her parents. They both spoke decent English, and her familial structure (dad works, mom stays at home) eased her into fitting in with other students. She, crucially, was also not an immigrant. She was born here. She revealed to me one day that she didn’t realize she was not white, not Korean or Asian, but not white until high school. This moment, both when she was in high school and also her recounting to me, was emotional and I didn’t want to cheapen the leap in trust she took in telling me this story. But afterwards, I asked her: “How many non-whites were there in your school?” She told me: “Five.”

    What I didn’t want to ask her but was thinking was: “Well when did you know you were not black?” When did you know that you were not at the very bottom of the racial strata of American society? When did you know that you were not reviled and seen as criminal? When did you know that you were not likely to be thrown into a statistical personage that de-individualized you, thus characterizing you as either a drain on the State or, as DuBois in that very same essay I reference above, calls “a problem”?

    I ask this, following Vijay Prashad’s wonderful book The Karma of Brown Folk, because I think what Asian Americans (I hesitate to say “we” here) seem to constantly miss is how much discourses of “Asian American success” and “model minority” are used (not necessarily by us at first) for the reproduction of the American racial strata whose logic and raison d’etre is anti-Black, and largely sexist. (I need not remind you all the racist figures of “welfare queen” that began under Reagan and came to a boiling point in Bill Clinton. It is he who ended welfare after all.) And most importantly, how Asian American men benefit from this. More than anything, I’m troubled by Yang’s utter ignorance of this fact. There is no mention of African Americans or women. Hence, his piece is littered with stories about Asian American men’s inability to get what white men get—whether it be in the realm of college admissions, professional mobility, or white women. (It is on this last point that I find the non-mention of Asian American women, even just an aside, to be rather odd.)

    College admissions:

    Colleges have a way of correcting for this imbalance: The Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade has calculated that an Asian applicant must, in practice, score 140 points higher on the SAT than a comparable white applicant to have the same chance of admission. This is obviously unfair to the many qualified Asian individuals who are punished for the success of others with similar faces. Upper-middle-class white kids, after all, have their own elite private schools, and their own private tutors, far more expensive than the cram schools, to help them game the education system.

     Professional mobility:

    The researcher was talking about what some refer to as the “Bamboo Ceiling”—an invisible barrier that maintains a pyramidal racial structure throughout corporate America, with lots of Asians at junior levels, quite a few in middle management, and virtually none in the higher reaches of leadership.

     White women:

     “You realize there are things you really don’t understand about courtship or just acting in a certain way. Things that somehow come naturally to people who go to school in the suburbs and have parents who are culturally assimilated.” I pressed him for specifics, and he mentioned that he had visited his white girlfriend’s parents’ house the past Christmas, where the family had “sat around cooking together and playing Scrabble.” This ordinary vision of suburban-American domesticity lingered with Mao[an interview subject who had gone to Stuyvesant High School, which is over 70% Asian]: Here, at last, was the setting in which all that implicit knowledge “about social norms and propriety” had been transmitted. There was no cram school that taught these lessons.

     “Asian values“(this nebulous term is only defined in negative relation) are, we are told by Yang, what is at the heart of Asian disadvantage. In order to correct this, it is the onus of Asian Americans to correct their behavior. Hence, the rather silly detail about the Asian dude who teaches other Asian dudes to pick up blonde women. As Yang describes him:

    Yes, it is about picking up white women. Yes, it is about attracting those women whose hair is the color of the midday sun and eyes are the color of the ocean, and it is about having sex with them. He is not going to apologize for the images of blonde women plastered all over his website. This is what he prefers, what he stands for, and what he is selling: the courage to pursue anyone you want, and the skills to make the person you desire desire you back. White guys do what they want; he is going to do the same. (Emphasis added.)

    To be fair, Yang mentions three Asian American corporate executives who have managed to break the “Bamboo ceiling” without forays into behavior modification.

    If the Bamboo Ceiling is ever going to break, it’s probably going to have less to do with any form of behavior assimilation than with the emergence of risk-takers whose success obviates the need for Asians to meet someone else’s behavioral standard. People like Steve Chen, who was one of the creators of YouTube, or Kai and Charles Huang, who created Guitar Hero. Or Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos.com, the online shoe retailer that he sold to Amazon for about a billion dollars in 2009. Hsieh is a short Asian man who speaks tersely and is devoid of obvious charisma. One cannot imagine him being promoted in an American corporation. And yet he has proved that an awkward Asian guy can be a formidable CEO and the unlikeliest of management gurus.

    While Yang tries to balance the “de-Asianification” of ethos and values in the former example with the latter, I see a common thread running in the argumentative function in both, which ineluctably serve as “types of response to being Asian”: the desire not only to be white but to be white men, that is, to be like the top of the racial-gender strata. There is no hint of questioning the strata itself. What we are left with is quite frankly a meditation on how to acquire white privilege, not the questioning of the value-system of privileging based on race and gender itself.

     I don’t need Yang to be anti-capitalist or feign some quasi-Marxism. I just would’ve liked to see acknowledgement of the systemic nature of these very complicated and important issues that he’s raising. Instead, Yang opts for a burrowing deeper into his own lair, like the Invisible Man of Ellison’s novel. He writes:

    In lieu of loving the world twice as hard, I care, in the end, about expressing my obdurate singularity at any cost. I love this hard and unyielding part of myself more than any other reward the world has to offer a newly brightened and ingratiating demeanor, and I will bear any costs associated with it.

    It seems to me that he has already achieved the very “substance” of white-male privilege in American society—the ability to care about one’s own well-being without any sense of complicity (not to mention responsibility). Mr. Yang may have already gotten what he’s wanted all along.


    [1] The “fact of blackness” for Fanon is his, I think, most fruitful use of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s idea of identity as “meconnassaince” [misrecognition]. The black person in the French colony (the situation that Fanon is speaking about) is black by mere fact that he is identified as such but his white colonizer. He or she may not consider blackness to be at the top of the list of what makes him or her who he or she is but this of no consequence as “blackness” is something that is at root of his or her formation of subjectivity, that is, both self-identity(what one thinks of him- or herself) and social-identity (how others see you). If this sounds like Althusser’s “interpellation” to you, you get a gold star. 

     
  6. The Brooksianization of the American Mind

    The gift and curse of sociology is that it is an entirely modern enterprise. This has as much to do with the historical fact that “societies,” as we conceive of them today, emerged from the melange of various institutional, cultural and economic shifts that we in retrospect concretize  to call “modernity,” as it does with the tiny detail that sociology, as a discipline (distinct from sociological thinking which can be traced, in the West, to at least Aristotle’s Politics). Hence, the gift: there is a kind of inherent familiarity with key “problematics” among those trained in sociology with many of us who know that the way we live now is very different from even 150 years ago. But there is the curse, or better yet affliction—of overfamiliarity, of assumed intellectual access. It is similarly experienced by psychoanalysis, whose tenets have been widely disseminated but roundly misunderstood. (The sad state of affairs can be seen in any given introductory psychology course on any college campus in the US where “shortchanging” is given new meaning by most members of psychology faculties.) 

    Acting as Romulus and Rebus of the modern “worldview,” sociology and psychology are today, de facto, practiced by all. This, in my view, is a great thing. My insecurities as a soon-to-be doctored practitioner and teacher of one of these does not extend towards keeping my craft specialized. That is silly and stupid. But when David Brooks writes of “the composure class" in a recent New Yorker article, I reconsider this and for the few minutes that I’m reading his article, I’m enraged. Yes, I’m being dramatic but in that article, an assault to writing in general as the article was some kind of bizarre parable, speaking to Brooks’ rather inflated sense of profundity. (Shots fired.) 

    The ease with which he dips into social science, for me, stems from the kind of sense of familiarity mentioned above. Perhaps it could be some kind of overblown sense of entitlement on the part of Brooks. And, in fact, let me say that it is a major factor in why he thinks he can do this repeatedly. (Now at this point if you think I’m not only speaking about Brooks but a certain afro’d, Canadian, best-selling author well that’s all on you not me!) The results of such things are, again, two-folded. On the one hand, the popularizing of social scientific research for the public is an unquestionable good, as many researchers of all backgrounds have all but stopped writing for a popular audience. On the other, there is a bit of a butchering that is inevitable. Brooks, who models himself after his hero William Buckley, is a learned man to be sure but one who knows little about a lot. This isn’t meant to be derogatory. It takes a severe intelligence to be read in so many areas. At best, Brooks tends to make uninteresting summaries meant for the New York Times audience. This is assuming he gets it right, which at times he does not. At worst, he is making bizarre generalizations that are rooted in characterology than anything else. Just read this excerpt from the recent New Yorker article mentioned above:

    You can see a paragon of the Composure Class having an al-fresco lunch at some bistro in Aspen or Jackson Hole. He’s just back from China and stopping by for a corporate board meeting on his way to a five-hundred-mile bike-a-thon to support the fight against lactose intolerance. He is asexually handsome, with a little less body fat than Michelangelo’s David. As he crosses his legs, you observe that they are immeasurably long and slender. He doesn’t really have thighs. Each leg is just one elegant calf on top of another. His voice is so calm and measured that he makes Barack Obama sound like Sam Kinison. He met his wife at the Clinton Global Initiative, where they happened to be wearing the same Doctors Without Borders support bracelets. They are a wonderfully matched pair; the only tension between them involves their workout routines. For some reason, today’s high-status men do a lot of running and biking and so only really work on the muscles in the lower half of their bodies. High-status women, on the other hand, pay ferocious attention to their torsos, biceps, and forearms so they can wear sleeveless dresses all summer and crush rocks with their bare hands.

    Where’s the outrage? Not from the social scientists(for whom I believe Brooks and Gladwell are kind of doing a favor since we don’t need the help of two megawriters to write ourselves out of public discourse) but from the readers and subscribers of the Times and the New Yorker, who deserve a better “translator” of social science. But enough about Brooks. He is not the true object of this speculation. It is, instead, something I’ve noticed more and more, which I’m calling “Brooksianization.”  

    Daniel Akst has written a new Brooksian book on the perils of technology (yeah I know, another book on this issue). It was covered in the book review section of the Los Angeles Times and in a blog post at the New Yorker. Entitled We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess, Akst’s book, which I haven’t read, seems to be symptomatic of the kind of shallow wading into social science by the “translator class” of popular intellectuals, of which Brooks is part. 

    A favorite trough from which this burgeoning “intellectual class” seems to drink is, in addition to sociology and psychology, is technology, especially new media. Brooks himself has rather bludgeoned the subject before. What I mean is that almost anyone who is afforded a large enough platform, seems to believe that they are able to pontificate on matters social and psychological, and increasingly, technological and matters new media. I get it. In many ways, media and technology are part of who we are as humans. Thus, if one were attempting to grapple with “the human condition,” there would be no way that you could discount them. But does the analysis have to be so…thin? Can we save technology from the fate of sociology and psychology? Akst, in a book about self-control, points to technology in a rather peculiar way. As Emily Green in the LA Times notes in her review:

    Among the mounting environmental pressures preying on us, Akst does point to technology, asking: Why write a term paper when one can be bought on the Internet? In a weird moment, he writes, “The same is true of sex, available now almost literally on demand, at least for gay men trolling Craigslist…”

    This is, for Akst, related to the “democratization of temptation”:

    a movement which, by promoting bad habits like smoking, eating poorly, lethargy, overdrinking, and oversexing, leads to more than a million deaths in the U.S. each year.

    Oh the Internet! It is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Though other reviews suggest he offers a bit more nuance and philosophical discussion, Akst seems to do what Brooks does, that is, make rash universal claims without regard for either specificity or theoretical rigor. Technology, like sociology and psychology, become available to all to comment on and be taken seriously.

    In a recent pilfering review of Envisioning Real Utopias, written by Marxist sociologist, and president of the American Sociological Association, Erik Olin Wright, Russell Jacoby notes that Wright uses Wikipedia as an example of a “real utopia.” As Jacoby writes:

    For Wright, Wikipedia exemplifies “the anti-capitalist potential of information technology.” It consists of unpaid and egalitarian participation with democratic governance. 

    If this hackneyed, Shirky-lite, reading of Wikipedia that is found in a 700pp book written by the president of a major scholarly organization in the US doesn’t convince you of the serious problem we have I don’t know what will.

    (There are plenty of great media scholars and critics. Can we leave it to them please?)

    In 1987, Allan Bloom discharged the first shot in what we now call the “canon wars” with the publication of his The Closing of the American Mind. It was and still is a rather ridiculous book with an argument that even the conservative thinkers of this generation would find discomforting. For him, the universities were failing its students for teaching useless things like analytic philosophy and also allowing what were once called “the new social movements” to influence syllabi. All we needed were the Great Books. Bloom thought the “souls of Americans” were in crisis by relativism. Ha! How ludicrous! But he also did bemoan the lack of serious thinking. He thought this was attributable to too little Shakespeare and Socrates on today’s college campuses and too much Mick Jagger. That is silly; but today, we may have a closing of the American mind but under the guise of bourgeois learnedness. 

     
  7. Anonymous said: hey!

    this is sort of weird I guess. But I found your site and I like it as much for its insightful cultural criticism as the format itself. The idea that good analysis has to be trapped inside an academic stranglehold system is soon to be outdated if not already so it's nice to see good writing available for free via the internet. That's not the weird part.

    There's this website www.thinqon.com that is sort of a hub of cultural conversation. It's basically a forum for people to talk their own intellectual games. Some people all up on religion others politics and art. It's cool as a writer to see how your own shit blossoms in other people's brains.

    If you'd be interested in cross posting your essays there I think some great conversations might be born and I feel like it can only serve to improve your readership/traffic to this site if that is something you're looking for.

    for example conversation about facebook: http://tinyurl.com/2cc8zhq

    best, hope this ain't too forward, but the internet is a weird place.

    hey, 

    no need for apologies. this is precisely what the “ask”-function on tumblr is for, in my view. at any rate, thanks for the kind words regarding the blog. though regular schedule dictates that i post something new tomorrow, i probably won’t get around to it until much later in the week. nevertheless, i appreciate you reading. 

    as for thinqon, from the very little perusing i just did, it seems like a long-form version of quora, which i had joined early on but haven’t quite found it to be useful to me, in spite of its recent success. i like how it’s laid out. i’ll probably join. why not? 

    best, 

    sam 

     
  8. Against geek austerity: A slight retort to Patton Oswalt

    Patton Oswalt, the voice of the main character of Ratatouille(which I hear, by the way, is an excellent film), is one America’s most literary comics. Yes, there is this other guy but after one bizarre-o appearance at the 92Y this year, well, it seems that people have realized that his time as the intellectual doyen of comedy is slowly coming to an end. But to call Oswalt the new Martin would be unfair to both. Martin basically cut his teeth as a voice in the literary upper echelon of the US through the New Yorker, perhaps still the major gatekeeper of what is in among the cultural elite. Oswalt, on the other hand, has really relied on the web and Wired. Both are fantastic writers, but have really addressed different “publics,” Martin’s being the NPR-crowd (broadly) and Oswalt’s being the TRON-crowd (broadly). 

    In the most recent issue of Wired, Oswalt penned a much-lauded essay on the past, present and future of “geek culture.” I have to say it was a great read—well-written, made a point and often funny. But at the end of it all, I was left with a bit of puzzled feeling. Let me explain. 

    The general thrust of Oswalt’s argument is that geek culture, once the exclusive property of actual geeks, has massified, become pop, and irrevocably Web-ified, making it no longer actually geek but just simply one among many cultural pools from which people can take a sip. Here’s Oswalt’s the state of the geek: 

    The topsoil has been scraped away, forever, in 2010. In fact, it’s been dug up, thrown into the air, and allowed to rain down and coat everyone in a thin gray-brown mist called the Internet. Everyone considers themselves otaku about something—whether it’s the mythology of Lost or the minor intrigues of Top Chef. American Idol inspires—if not in depth, at least in length and passion—the same number of conversations as does The Wire. There are no more hidden thought-palaces—they’re easily accessed websites, or Facebook pages with thousands of fans. And I’m not going to bore you with the step-by-step specifics of how it happened. In the timeline of the upheaval, part of the graph should be interrupted by the words the Internet. And now here we are.

    The problem with the Internet, however, is that it lets anyone become otaku about anything instantly. In the ’80s, you couldn’t get up to speed on an entire genre in a weekend. You had to wait, month to month, for the issues of Watchmen to come out. We couldn’t BitTorrent the latest John Woo film or digitally download an entire decade’s worth of grunge or hip hop. Hell, there were a few weeks during the spring of 1991 when we couldn’t tell whether Nirvana or Tad would be the next band to break big. Imagine the terror!

    Long gone is the ”chilly thrill in moving with the herd while quietly being tuned in to something dark, complicated, and unknown just beneath the topsoil of popularity.” 

    I get it. Oswalt’s lament is something that die-hard fans of various subcultures feel when what they once viewed was theirs is shared by the masses, usually boiled down to LCD (Lowest Common Denominator) backwash that no longer resembles what they first fell in love with and obsessed over for so long. It’s not hard to imagine why Oswalt, and conceivably others, would feel such a way. I used to feel that way about hip hop. Once considered to be a cultural danger on par with drugs (remember Tipper Gore and C. Dolores Tucker?), hip hop has emerged as part and parcel of the cultural logic of capitalism, or at least one can argue. But more specifically, the fear for Oswalt is that the increase in availability of geek culture will lead to not only its dilution but a kind of laziness. See, part of Oswalt’s definition of geek is a penchant for working hard. There’s a strong thread of austerity that undergirds much of his descriptions of his early years as a geek. Thus, the actual fear for him is ease not massification. He calls this condition ETEWAF: Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever.

    Here’s the danger: That creates weak otakus. Etewaf doesn’t produce a new generation of artists—just an army of sated consumers. Why create anything new when there’s a mountain of freshly excavated pop culture to recut, repurpose, and manipulate on your iMovie? The Shining can be remade into a comedy trailer. Both movie versions of the Joker can be sent to battle each another. The Dude is in The Matrix.

    So what does Oswalt suggest we do about the status quo, with geek culture being spread so thin that it no longer holds meaning? 

    Rather surprisingly, he takes a page from a rather orthodox Marxism. Like those adhere to the linear theory of history that Marx provided, Oswalt suggests that in order to get to a degree zero of geek culture, where everything is as it was, we must accelerate the very thing that he admonishes and trying to take down. In the case of Marxism, it was to help along the process of capitalist “primitive accumulation.” For some Marxists, in order to get to the state of communism, where one could be a poet at night and a fisherman during the day, there needed to at least be the social conditions under which the transitional period of socialism could emerge. But this can only occur if capitalism, viewed by Marx, as a stage of the development of history towards communism, and its universe of economic and social relations takes hold. 

    No, I’m not suggesting that Oswalt is in anyway Stalin-like but I do wish to draw some parallels in the kind of rigid framework under which he is writing. I understand, he’s trying to be funny and not every word in his essay is meant to be taken literally. But, there is undoubtedly some sense that the Web, for better or for worse, has ruined geek culture. For various Marxists, this has been a point of confusion and has resulted in a rather bizarre way of dealing with non-proletariat populations. How does on develop a revolutionary class consciousness when the group one is trying to galvanize is not even in the stage before the stage before that stage that would lead to communist paradise? Well, you either killed them all or removed them to the Gulag. Either get on the Juggernaut, or we’ll throw you off. While there is no geek ETEWAF Gulag in Siberia, Oswalt does suggest that we must aid the process of ETEWAF to the point where there is, as he describes it an “ETEWAF singularity.”   

    So the topsoil we’re coated in needs to wash away for a while. I want my daughter to have a 1987 the way I did and experience the otaku thrill. While everyone else is grooving on the latest Jay-Z, 5 Gallons of Diesel, I’d like her to share a secret look with a friend, both of them hip to the fact that, from Germany, there’s a bootleg MP3 of a group called Dr. Cali-gory, pioneers of superviolent line-dancing music. And I want her to enjoy that secret look for a little while before Dr. Cali-gory’s songs get used in commercials for cruise lines.

    Oswalt is effectively contributing to a cultural elitism that has long been the favored strategy of post-WWII social and cultural critics, particularly the group of intellectuals called “the Frankfurt School” and those influenced by them, of which the most important figure today would be Fredric Jameson. (See this article in particular where he comes off as especially culturally elitist.)

    In the case of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the most representative figures of the Frankfurt school, it was revolutionary, anti-capitalist consciousness that they argued was being repressed by homogeneity of mass culture, which they, tellingly, refer to as “the culture industry.” For them, the massification of culture through technological means meant that the artistic sphere, for instance, which used to be the breeding ground of anti-status quo ideas and sentiment, has become the very opposite, the bearer of hegemonic ideology. In their classic The Dialectic of Enlightenment, they write: 

    Works of art are ascetic and unashamed; the culture industry is pornographic and prudish. Love is downgraded to romance. And, after the descent, much is permitted; even license as a marketable speciality has its quota bearing the trade description “daring.” The mass production of the sexual automatically achieves its repression. Because of his ubiquity, the film star with whom one is meant to fall in love is from the outset a copy of himself. Every tenor voice comes to sound like a Caruso record, and the “natural” faces of Texas girls are like the successful models by whom Hollywood has typecast them. The mechanical reproduction of beauty, which reactionary cultural fanaticism wholeheartedly serves in its methodical idolisation of individuality, leaves no room for that unconscious idolatry which was once essential to beauty.

    The assembly-line character of the culture industry, the synthetic, planned method of turning out its products (factory-like not only in the studio but, more or less, in the compilation of cheap biographies, pseudo-documentary novels, and hit songs) is very suited to advertising: the important individual points, by becoming detachable, interchangeable, and even technically alienated from any connected meaning, lend themselves to ends external to the work. The effect, the trick, the isolated repeatable device, have always been used to exhibit goods for advertising purposes, and today every monster close-up of a star is an advertisement for her name, and every hit song a plug for its tune. Advertising and the culture industry merge technically as well as economically. In both cases the same thing can be seen in innumerable places, and the mechanical repetition of the same culture product has come to be the same as that of the propaganda slogan. In both cases the insistent demand for effectiveness makes technology into psycho-technology, into a procedure for manipulating men. In both cases the standards are the striking yet familiar, the easy yet catchy, the skilful yet simple; the object is to overpower the customer, who is conceived as absent-minded or resistant.

    Why is austerity and difficulty so important for this perspective? What about the process of spending long hours to discover something special only to keep it to yourself is so appealing? While I understand where both A+H and Oswalt are coming from, I have a few questions in response to this figure of the “austere geek”: How many of today’s geeks grew up as Oswalt did, with a family with means so much so that as children they could spend hours upon hours digging through geek-cultural esoterica? Is not Oswalt’s lament basically one that assumes a middle-classness of yesteryear that no longer exists for the majority of America’s potential geeks? To call for a return to the hard-work era of geek culture, is not Oswalt simply providing a cover, a rather well-argued one at that, that is founded upon a sacrosanct status quo ante that, well, is simply a justification of elitism under the guise of “revolutionary” politics? What is more “capitalist” than an ethic of hard work? 

    If it is this “geek culture” for which Oswalt is nostalgic, I say good riddance. It’s been a long time coming. 

     
  9. Bad Santa: A Case Against “Home”

    There have been many attempts at writing just the right thing for the holidays. Perhaps the best effort has come from David Sedaris, whose Santaland Diaries is so masterful, I’d sacrifice 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th borns to the writing gods to obtain such literary skill. (Listen to an excerpt from NPR here.) Alas, I can’t, not only because there are no writing gods but also because I don’t really have or want children. (Another story for another post). Yet, I do feel compelled to write something about the holidays, since I live in New York City, where the holidays, no matter how hard one tries, is inescapable. Christmas lights are dangling everywhere. (Electrical fires waiting to happen.) Stores are blasting pop-versions of Christmas tunes. (“Silent Night” sung by Beyonce…really?) I see people on the train wearing Santa hats. (I guess going to and from Christmas parties? But when did Christmas parties become dress-up? It’s not Halloween. Also, if you are over 25 and dressing up for Halloween, I mean…)

    All of this, however, I can deal with. I live in New York. I grew up here. I’m sort of expecting all of this.

    What I have a harder time with is the family-centrism of the whole block of time, starting from a week before Christmas to the 3rd of January, or whenever that Monday is when people come back to work. No, one is forcing anyone to go “home” to see your parents but nevertheless all small-talk in the run-up to this period of two weeks turns into something related to going home.

    "What are you doing for the holidays?"

    "Are you traveling?"

    These are all what James Scott, the political anthropologist, calls “euphemizations.”[Sub. req.] Statements like these have a double-meaning. While seemingly innocent, questions like these are probes into one’s “family situation.” To be fair, this doesn’t happen during the holidays exclusively, but it is most pointed around this time. A pretty generic question when getting to know someone is about brothers, sisters, moms, dads, etc. I never understood this, though I undoubtedly have played into this myself. Family, for me, is not necessarily something I wish to talk about because well…I don’t see it as having much to do with who I am. It was bizarre when I first entered my “limousine liberal” middle and high school (which I loved and still do by the way), and saw my (white) friends have relationships with their parents that exceeded mere Hi’s, Bye’s and silent meals? To be asked about my family is well, I don’t know, like asking about my left pinky toe. I have one, it’s necessary and pretty important to me but I don’t think about it as capturing who I am.

    But it’s not really my family that I’m really hating on here (though truth be told, my parents could use some work. I know, they’ve sacrificed a tremendous amount for me but, as my fellow Koreans will attest to, that Confucian ethic of obligation is really wack. My brother Paul is the man though!). I’m more so grating against the fact that “family” has become the object of worship during today’s secularized holidays. Thanksgiving is really about family. Christmas is really about family. You go “home” for Thanksgiving; you go “home” for Christmas or Hanukkah. All holidays seemingly function in this manner. (Perhaps the consideration of a holiday from holidays is in order.)

    The family, in the United states, has been an ideological tool used most historically for some sublimated form of nationalism. Indeed, this is the very basis for the theory of “civil religion,” articulated first by Rousseau but more recently by sociologist of religion Robert Bellah, who looked at events such as the Presidential Inauguration as rituals for worshiping a new transcendent figure, the Nation. Perhaps the sacraments of the holidays have reoriented its object to another transcendent deity—family.

    "Family values," the phrase, betrays this history of the alignment of national identity and family. So does the Family Reunification Act, first instantiated in the 1965 Immigration Act, which much sociological literature on immigration views as its point d’appui. The family, as an institution, has done much of the cultural work required to preserve the social order in the United States. It has, in my view, an innate conservative function. I don’t mean conservative in terms of political spectrum but in its true sense; it conserves and upholds. It maintains. We still live in the wake of Leave it Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, Happy Days, Brady Bunch, Full House andThe Cosby Show. To be fair, not all of these portrayed “traditional” families—you know, 2.5 kids, dog, white picket fence, house with a garage, etc. Nevertheless, what they did portray was the family as center, as emotional stability, as unconditional love, as…HOME.

    As a consequence, the “home,” as the temple of family, is a figure closely associated with American-ness. The financial crisis sparked by the over-leveraging of mortgage-backed securities is more telling culturally and semiotically than what many so-called experts have let on in their analyses. So much of the analyses overlooked the simple fact that the selling of bad mortgages is predicated upon an extant collective ideal, a “cultural goal” as the sociologist Robert Merton once called it, for owning a home. The metaphysics of home-ownership runs so deep in this country that basic mathematical skills are overrun by one’s dreams of a granite countertop. “Yeah, an ARM (adjustable rate mortgage) and no down payment are definitely fishy, but who cares, I’m going to own my first HOME!!!!” You can see this cultural goal in action in no better place than on HGTV, where on shows like “House Hunters” and “My First Place,” couples say things like, “I can really see us starting a family here.” This is also the case on another home-centric TV show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, which selects families under some sort of duress, usually financial, and basically constructs a new McMansion for them. The “reveal” (when the families return to see their brand new homes for the first time) is always super-emotional, with mom in crying hysterics and children jumping up and down in excitement hysterics. The appeal of the show is affective. It draws upon a certain empathy that most of us feel towards a family, without a home, to have one. This is the same set of feelings that panhandlers draw upon in the NYC subway when they mention they are scrounging up something with which to feed their kids. I’m in no place to judge whether the deployment of family, as strategy, is good or bad. I quite frankly don’t care. If dropping a line about one’s kids gets more change or a few dollar bills in the paper cup, I’m all for it. But I’m more interested in why it works. How is it that in the US, family, has taken on a sacred status, when nearly everyone who comes back from holidays usually complain about their crazy families? Perhaps it is less so a fetishism of family and home and more so a fear of homelessness, not in the literal sense but in the metaphorical sense of not having a center, a core, an essence.

    Home is, in addition to being where the heart is, a metaphor for ontological security. It gives you the feeling that you are.

    The nature of “home” has been analyzed wonderfully by Gaston Bachelard and Mircea Eliade, in spatial and religious terms. But none, in my view, have approached the issues that I feel are most pertinent to me, someone who has lived in sixteen different dwellings in my lifetime, than the Chicana, feminist theorist Gloria Anzaldua, who in the much-celebrated Borderlands tells this story:

    In a New England college where I taught, the presence of a few lesbians threw the more conservative heterosexual students and faculty into a panic. The two lesbian students and we two lesbian instructors met with them to discuss their fears. One of the students said, “I thought homophobia meant fear of going home after a residency.”

    And I thought, how apt. Fear of going home. And of not being taken in. We’re afraid of being abandoned by the mother, the culture, la Raza, for being unacceptable, faulty, damaged. Most of us unconsciously believe that if we reveal this unacceptable aspect of the self our mother/culture/race will totally reject us. To avoid rejection, some of us conform to the values of the culture, push the unacceptable parts into the shadows. Which leves only one fear—that we will be found out and that the Shadow-Beast will break out of its cage. Some of us take another route. We try to make ourselves conscious of the Shadow-Beast, stare at the sexual lust and lust for power and destruction we see on its face, discern among its features the undershadow that the reining order of heterosexual males project on our Beast…But a few of us have been lucky—on the face of the Shadow-Beast we have seen not lust but tenderness; on its face we have uncovered the lie.

    Ultimately Anzaldua concludes that we must be comfortable with this homophobia, and that it is a condition of living in “the intersticios.” She must live as outsider in a New England college as well as the Tejas of her youth.

    Like Anzaldua, I don’t see this as tragic. It’s quite simply, how we live now. Existing on the borderlands, that is, living away from home but not truly making a home where you live, is something more people in the 20th century have done than in previous centuries thanks to the advent of road travel, sea travel and air travel. (The deruralfication of China in recent years, actually, is one the largest migrations of peoples in human history.) Today, “home” is something, as we are reminded more and more each day, for the landed elite. The rest are out here surviving, doing the best they can.

    Happy holidays to you and yours.

    @scatteredspecs will be back in the New Year.

     
  10. Informational Governmentality: The Politics of the Leak

    We live in an era of a “governmentality” first discovered in the eighteenth century. This governmentalization of the state is a singularly paradoxical phenomenon, since in if in fact the problems of governmentality and the techniques of government have become the only political issue, the only real space for political struggle and contestation, this is because the governmentalization of the state is at the same time what has permitted the state to survive, and it is possible to supposed that if the state is what it is today, this is so precisely thanks to this governmentality, which is at once internal and external to the state, since it is the tactics of government which make possible the continual definition and redefinition of what is within the competence and what is not, the public versus the private, and so on; thus the state can only be understood in its survival and its limits on the basis of the general tactics of governmentality.

    Governmentality was born out of, on the one hand, the archaic model of Christian pastoral, and on the other, a diplomatic-military technique, perfected on a European scale with the Treaty of Westphalia; and it could assume the dimensions it has only thanks to a series of specific instruments, whose formaiton is exactly contemporaneous with that of the art of government and which are known, in the old seventeenth- and eighteenth-century senes of the term, as police. The pastoral, the new diplomatic-military techniques and, lastly, police: these are the three elements that I believe made possible the production of this fundamental phenomenon in Western history, the governmentalization of the state. 

      -Michel Foucault, 1978

    The recent seizures of BitTorrent search sites and a few notable rap blogs by ICE (of all agencies) along with the recent leaking of a quarter-million diplomatic documents by WikiLeaks with cooperation with some of the world’s biggest newspapers has me thinking about what counts as “the political” and what counts as “commerce,” and the related question of who, or what agency in this case, can exercise power, and crucially, under what pretense.

    As my friend Simon Vozick-Levinson details in his post for Entertainment Weekly, a couple of weeks ago, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, took down OnSmash.com and DaJaz1.com along with 80 other web sites, some of which were Bit Torrent aggregation search sites and others which sold counterfeit clothing. Simon asks the question that must have been on many people’s minds: 

    Why were these sites shut down by Homeland Security?

    The answer he receives when posing this question to a representative of DHS reads as follows: 

    One of our responsibilities [at Homeland Security] is the protection of copyright and trademarks. We’ve been doing this frankly for about 40 years at least, when we were the U.S. Customs Service. Of course, back then, it was seizing container loads of mostly luxury goods that were coming into the United States, mostly from China. Like a lot of crime over the last 10 to 15 years, this has now transitioned from flea markets and small vendors to the Internet.

    The pretense is copyright and trademark. Okay fine but as Simon rightly notes: 

    That analogy might perhaps apply to alleged counterfeiters like burberryoutletshop.com or nfljerseysupply.com, but clearly OnSmash and dajaz1 were not selling fake luxury goods. These weren’t knock-off handbag warehouses — they were prominent parts of a cultural scene. In many cases, the sites have said that record labels gave them tracks to post for promotional purposes. And per TechDirt, no less a recording artist than Kanye West linked approvingly to OnSmash just weeks ago.

    S V-L: 1, DHS: 0. The unraveling of the DHS rep’s logic by Simon is rooted in the issue of categorization. Are OnSmash or dajaz1, or any other rap blog in the same vein, bootleggers in the traditional sense of Folex-selling dudes on Canal Street? Is a link, usually hosted externally mind you, to a new T.I. song akin to selling fake Air Force 1’s? 

    Not quite, but as most frequenters of rap blogs know, the issue is not really about the “bootleg” in the sense of “Nah, I didn’t watch it in the theater but I saw it on bootleg” but the relatively new entity known as “the leak.” As Julianne Escobedo Shepherd over at AlterNet writes: 

    But these rap blogs weren’t selling any music. They weren’t selling DVDs. In fact, the only thing you could accuse them of selling was ads — hardly big income, definitely not enough to turn a profit. They aren’t even close to the biggest music downloading sites out there. So why were they targeted?

    Julianne asks the right question, along similar lines as Simon. How could ICE argue, on good faith, that they were combatting copyright infringement if these blogs are on the one hand not even the biggest “culprits” of pirated music but also on the other, were posting material often received from daily email blasts by employees of record labels or members of a recording artist’s team? Well the answer is simple. There is no good argument. The RIAA is simply interested in protecting its own dwindling industry. Julianne again: 

    RIAA’s continued support of Internet censorship is a clear and desperate attempt to justify its existence in an ever-altering information society. You could call it an effort to stop time. Often, though, marketers and others employed by major labels will send out mp3s to blogs under the radar, knowing that ultimately having the music available will help their artists’ buzz and contribute to their bottom line, as income comes decreasingly from album sales and relies more on cross-promotion, marketing deals, tours and merchandise. That’s because RIAA doesn’t support artists — it supports corporations. It’s transparent about this; its mission statement explicitly states that it “supports and promotes the creative and financial vitality of the major music companies.”

    Astutely, Julianne situates these recent events in the backdrop of the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), a bill that may allow the US government to censor any web content it sees as dangerous, and the recent leaking of over 250,000 diplomatic documents by major newspapers across the world provided by WikiLeaks.

    These events are, I’m suggesting, indicative of the shifting frontiers of what I call “informational politics.” Informational politics, which I’ve attempted to develop in a more robust way elsewhere, quite simply refer to the fact that politics are not outside the realm of technologies; they are, rather, intrinsic to them, that is to say, certain structural, technical and/or architectural aspects of the software or web site have certain political implications. 

    Within this framework of informational politics, I wish to hone in on “the leak” as its new quantum, much in the way that Marx first identified “labor” as the quantum of industrial capitalism. The leak is, much like Marx contended about labor in the dominant neoclassical economics of his time, thrown around quite a bit yet hardly understood. What is “the leak,” this rather odd entity, that has gotten both OnSmash and Julian Assange in so much hot water? 

    In the hip-hop blogosphere, “the leak” takes on a variety of ontologies (“forms of being”). There is of course the traditional leak. The album gets out before it should thanks to a disgruntled intern at the record label, recording studio, mastering studio, courier service or what have you. The scenarios are endless as to how an album can get out. Sometimes, even artists’ private emails are hacked for the album! 

    A more recent version is the “web rip.” In order to combat the downloading of leaks, especially unfinished draft versions of songs, record labels came up with the idea to stream the album in its entirety on the artist’s MySpace page or personal web site. This however led to the ripping of the streamed songs. Though of lesser quality than an actual leak, these served as blog material. 

    The traditional leak and web rip are technically illegal. But there are also legal kinds. And this is where the ontologies of leaks marks its import for the purposes of this piece. As Hua Hsu notes in his wide-ranging piece on the culture of leaks in The Atlantic, published in the wake of the previous WikiLeaks dump:

    But there were also now ways to generate buzz through legally-gray, label-provided leaks. Or to create the illusion of demand by calling a middling effort a leak, as if the very fact that someone had bothered to leak it was suggestive of its greatness. Or maybe a leak could be punitive, or a trial balloon.

    Hua rightly points to the rise of label-provided content. The leaked song that we see on sites like OnSmash is sometimes on the level of what labels used to call a “street single,” at least in rap. It was a single before the single. A tester. To echo the point of Hua’s essay, these are not leaks! They are “controlled leaks, readymade narratives, silver platter punch-lines,” as he says, thus making the pretense of the “crackdown” of sites like OnSmash and dajaz1 even more ridiculous. On whose behalf is the State and its apparatuses acting? The corporations? How so, when much of the content is provided by them!? 

    Could it be that the issue is not in the least the protection of copyright and trademark as the DHS rep who spoke to Simon suggested? Could it be more about an informational moral play? That is, by seizing sites like OnSmash and dajaz1, the DHS, and the State, is not so much “doing the bidding of capital,” as I rather hastily observed on Twitter, but rather constructing an ethos of what is acceptable to consume as leak and what is not? In other words, the “target” of leak-plugging is not the leaker but the population it aims to keep safe. The desired outcome is not a change in the behavior of the leakers but those of us who consume the leaks. 

    One could make this argument about WikiLeaks, which I’m sure everyone would agree has much higher political stakes. In the deservedly much-talked-about blog post, zunguzungu offers a piercing analysis of the political theory of Julian Assange, the most dangerous man in the world. By reading many of Assange’s writings, zunguzungu explicates the basic political strategy of WikiLeaks. 

    He[Julian Assange] decides…that the most effective way to attack this kind of organization would be to make “leaks” a fundamental part of the conspiracy’s  information environment. Which is why the point is not that particular leaks are specifically effective. Wikileaks does not leak something like the “Collateral Murder” video as a way of putting an end to that particular military tactic; that would be to target a specific leg of the hydra even as it grows two more. Instead, the idea is that increasing the porousness of the conspiracy’s information system will impede its functioning, that the conspiracy will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function. You destroy the conspiracy, in other words, by making it so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire:

    The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption. Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.

    The leak, in other words, is only the catalyst for the desired counter-overreaction; Wikileaks wants to provoke the conspiracy into turning off its own brain in response to the threat. As it tries to plug its own holes and find the leakers, he reasons, its component elements will de-synchronize from and turn against each other, de-link from the central processing network, and come undone. Even if all the elements of the conspiracy still exist, in this sense, depriving themselves of a vigorous flow of information to connect them all together as a conspiracy prevents them from acting as a conspiracy.

    The vocation of leak, in the case of WikiLeaks, is not its revelatory content but more so its function as leak qua leak. In other words, the point of the leak is to poke a hole in the closed bubble of diplomacy so as to create enough suspicion and anxiety over leaks so as to alter the normal, secretive, activity of diplomacy. (Assange interestingly uses the terminology of quantum physics on this point—“nonlinearity,” “open” vs. “closed” systems.) While many in the mainstream media have drawn comparisons to the Pentagon Papers, the strategy is entirely different. That was the release of a specific set of documents in hopes of a large scale outcry by the public to put pressure to stop the State from taking certain actions. It was a politics of appeal. WikiLeaks is more direct. There is no mediatory “public” to put pressure on the State or its apparatuses. WikiLeaks has already done that. It has already altered the practice of diplomacy worldwide.  

    True enough, the reactions by the secretaries of state and defense have been muted. Clinton and Gates basically called it a non-issue with regard to putting American lives at risk. The calling of WikiLeaks and Assange as “terrorists” by Peter King and Joe Lieberman are moral claims directed not at WikiLeaks or Assange but at us, much like the ICE seizures of OnSmash and dajaz1. They are rather pathetic attempts to have us view WikiLeaks as unacceptable morally, and thus not navigate to it on our browsers. They exemplify the key characteristic of what Foucault calls “governmentality.” The prohibition and/or encouragement of particular practices is always justified in terms of the population’s security. In this case, censorship for your own good. 

    Isn’t it telling that the plugging of leaks (in both the seizure of music sites and the push-back to WikiLeaks) is happening within the very governmental apparatus that spied on American citizens home and abroad to keep us safe

    PS: Scattered Speculations is also on Twitter. Follow: @scatteredspecs.