In some Leftist circles, the exploding growth of homeless refugees gave rise to the notion of “nomadic proletariat.” The basic idea is that, in today’s global world, the main antagonism (the “primary contradiction”) is no longer between the capitalist ruling class and the proletariat but between those who are safe beneath the cupola of the “civilized” world (with public order, basic rights, etc.) and those excluded, reduced to bare life. “Nomadic proletarians” are not simply outside the cupola but somewhere in-between: their premodern substantial life-form is already in ruins, devastated by the impact of global capitalism, but they are not integrated into the global order, so that they roam in an in-between netherworld. They are not proletarians in the strict Marxian sense: paradoxically, when they enter developed countries, the ideal of most of them is precisely to become “normal” exploited proletarians. Recently, a refugee from Salvador who tried to enter the US on the Mexico-US border said to the TV cameras: “Please, Mr Trump, let us in, we just want to be good hard workers in your country.”
Tag Archives: Philosophy
Back in the late 1920s, Stalin was asked by a journalist which deviation is worse, the Rightist one (Bukharin&company) or the Leftist one (Trotsky&company), and he snapped back: “They are both worse!” It is a sad sign of our predicament that, when we are confronted with a political choice and obligated to take a side, even if it is only a less bad one, quite often the reply that imposes itself is: “But they are both worse!” This, of course, does not mean that both poles of the alternative simply amount to the same. In concrete situations, we should, for example, conditionally support the protests of the Yellow Vests in France or make a tactical pact with liberals to block fundamentalist threats to our freedoms (say, when fundamentalists want to limit abortion rights or pursue an openly racist politics). But what it does mean is that most of the choices imposed on us by the big media are false choices – their function is to obfuscate a true choice. The sad lesson to be drawn from this is: if one side in a conflict is bad, the opposite side is not necessarily good.
The motto of every authentic radical change is the same as the quote from Virgil that Freud chose as the epigraph for his Interpretation of Dreams. It is Acheronta movebo – I will move the infernal regions. Dare to disturb the underground of the unspoken underpinnings of our everyday lives! There are two such “infernal regions” in our societies: (1) the political unconscious proper, i.e., the vast domain of obscene unwritten rules that supplement public rules, and (2) the digital network which regulates our daily lives, from the public sphere to the innermost intimate sphere. Let’s take a closer look at each of the two.
The Catholic unconscious is structured like paedophilia
The sheer number of paedophiliac crimes that were taking place in the Catholic Church all around the world, from Ireland and Pennsylvania to Australia, crimes committed by members of the institution which propagates itself as the moral compass of our society, compels us to raise some difficult questions. Almost as terrible as the horror of the crimes is the way the Church tried to downplay the scandal.
It is not often that a neighbourhood squabble is remembered as a world-historical event. In the summer of 1846, Henry David Thoreau spent a single night in jail in Concord, Massachusetts after refusing to submit his poll tax to the local constable. This minor act of defiance would later be immortalised in Thoreau’s essay ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience’ (1849). There, he explains that he had been unwilling to provide material support to a federal government that perpetuated mass injustice – in particular, slavery and the Mexican-American war. While the essay went largely unread in his own lifetime, Thoreau’s theory of civil disobedience would later inspire many of the world’s greatest political thinkers, from Leo Tolstoy and Gandhi to Martin Luther King.
If there is a figure which stands out as the hero of our time, it is Christopher Wylie, a gay Canadian vegan who, at 24, came up with an idea that led to the founding of Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm that went on to claim a major role in the Leave campaign for Britain’s EU membership referendum. Later, he became a key figure in digital operations during Donald Trump’s election campaign, creating Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool. Wylie’s plan was to break into Facebook, harvest the Facebook profiles of millions of people in the US, use their private and personal information to create sophisticated psychological and political profiles, and then target them with political ads designed to work on their particular psychological makeup. At a certain point, Wylie was genuinely freaked out: “It’s insane. The company has created psychological profiles of 230 million Americans. And now they want to work with the Pentagon? It’s like Nixon on steroids.”[i]
Alors qu’au cours de ces derniers mois, ma vie de veille a été, pour reprendre l’euphémisante expression catalane, «bonne, si nous n’entrons pas dans les détails», ma vie onirique a eu la puissance d’un roman d’Ursula K. Le Guin. Au cours de l’un de mes derniers rêves, je discutais avec l’artiste Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster de mon problème : après des années de vie nomade, il m’est difficile de décider d’un lieu où vivre dans le monde. Pendant que nous avions cette conversation, nous observions les planètes tourner doucement sur leur orbite, comme si nous étions deux enfants géants et que le système solaire était un mobile Calder.
The ideals of the Enlightenment are the basis of our democracies and universities in the 21st century: belief in reason, science, skepticism, secularism, and equality. In fact, no other era compares with the Age of Enlightenment. Classical Antiquity is inspiring, but a world away from our modern societies. The Middle Ages was more reasonable than its reputation, but still medieval. The Renaissance was glorious, but largely because of its result: the Enlightenment. The Romantic era was a reaction to the Age of Reason – but the ideals of today’s modern states are seldom expressed in terms of romanticism and emotion. Immanuel Kant’s argument in the essay ‘Perpetual Peace’ (1795) that ‘the human race’ should work for ‘a cosmopolitan constitution’ can be seen as a precursor for the United Nations.
As the story usually goes, the Enlightenment began with René Descartes’s Discourse on the Method (1637), continuing on through John Locke, Isaac Newton, David Hume, Voltaire and Kant for around one and a half centuries, and ending with the French Revolution of 1789, or perhaps with the Reign of Terror in 1793. By the time that Thomas Paine published The Age of Reason in 1794, that era had reached its twilight. Napoleon was on the rise.
How are capitalism and the prospect of post-humanity related? Usually it is posited that capitalism is (more) historical, and our humanity, inclusive of sexual difference, more basic, even ahistorical. However, what we are witnessing today is nothing less than an attempt to integrate the passage to post-humanity into capitalism. This is what the efforts of new billionaire gurus like Elon Musk are about; their prediction that capitalism “as we know it” is coming to an end refers to “human” capitalism, and the passage they talk about is the passage from “human” to post-human capitalism. Blade Runner 2049 deals with this topic.
The first question to ask is: Why is the fact that two replicants (Deckard and Rachael) formed a sexual couple and created a human being in a human way, experienced as such a traumatic event, celebrated by some as a miracle and castigated by others as a threat? Is it about reproduction or about sex, i.e., about sexuality in its specific human form? The movie focuses exclusively on reproduction, again neglecting the big question: Can sexuality, deprived of its reproductive function, survive into the post-human era? The image of sexuality remains the standard one. The sexual act is shown from the male perspective, so that the flesh-and-blood android woman is reduced to the material support of the hologram fantasy-woman Joi created to serve the man: “she must overlap with an actual person’s body, so she is constantly slipping between the two identities, showing that the woman is the real divided subject, and the flesh and blood other just serves as a vehicle for the fantasy.“ The sex scene in the film is thus almost too directly “Lacanian” (in line with films like Her), ignoring authentic hetero-sexuality where the partner is not just a support for me to enact my fantasies but a real Other. The movie also fails to explore the potentially antagonistic difference among androids themselves, that is, between the “real flesh” androids and an android whose body is just a 3D hologram projection. How does, in the sex scene, the flesh-and-blood android woman relate to being reduced to the material support of the male fantasy? Why doesn’t she resist and sabotage it?
As the geopolitical chessboard continues to be tossed around by ill winds, an exhausted West wallows in the mire of its own failings, and the planet faces a mounting existential crisis, we might do worse than to pause and reflect on how one of the great minds of a previous generation might help us make sense of these times of trouble.
Jean-Paul Sartre was one of the last towering giants of a Renaissance pantheon concerned with the whole spectrum of human existence. Sharp, independent minds have always enjoyed the Sartrean glow that permeates Western culture (or at least those particles of it not fossilized by academia).
Sartre, via his “protest” philosophy, was indisputably the preeminent moral voice and intelligence of the second half of the 20th century, with “protest” carrying the meaning it was imbued with by Martin Luther. And as with Luther, Sartre’s existentialism has a fulminating formula:
Julian Jaynes was living out of a couple of suitcases in a Princeton dorm in the early 1970s. He must have been an odd sight there among the undergraduates, some of whom knew him as a lecturer who taught psychology, holding forth in a deep baritone voice. He was in his early 50s, a fairly heavy drinker, untenured, and apparently uninterested in tenure. His position was marginal. “I don’t think the university was paying him on a regular basis,” recalls Roy Baumeister, then a student at Princeton and today a professor of psychology at Florida State University. But among the youthful inhabitants of the dorm, Jaynes was working on his masterpiece, and had been for years.
From the age of 6, Jaynes had been transfixed by the singularity of conscious experience. Gazing at a yellow forsythia flower, he’d wondered how he could be sure that others saw the same yellow as he did. As a young man, serving three years in a Pennsylvania prison for declining to support the war effort, he watched a worm in the grass of the prison yard one spring, wondering what separated the unthinking earth from the worm and the worm from himself. It was the kind of question that dogged him for the rest of his life, and the book he was working on would grip a generation beginning to ask themselves similar questions.