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The Metaphysics of “American Freedom”

In keeping with the vivisection metaphor, let’s think of this essay as an exploratory surgery.  Rather than making a specific argument that I believe is true, I want to entertain a notion that I believe might be true and follow it.  The notion in question is that contemporary American political discourse is structured around a historically unique metaphysical notion of ‘Freedom’.

In The Postmodern Condition, Jean-François Lyotard famously identified postmodernity as the lack of a ‘metanarrative’, or overarching worldview.  This would seem to be backed up by the heterogenous superfluity of philosophies and schools of philosophy that defines the contemporary moment, where the disparity between something like Slavoj Žižek and Richard Dawkins–two people I have heard described as philosophers at the forefront of culture–seems unbridgeable, even if they do have a certain degree of common ground.  But when we look at the people afflicted with this postmodern ennui through the lens of contemporary American pop-political discourse (which for the sake of convenience I will refer to as American politics/culture, well aware of the problems this entails–but from its own point of view, as we shall see, it is the totality of America–and I hesitate to say ‘right-wing’ because I see this discourse on the left as well) we see that those afflicted by it are uniformly rejected as elitist, effete, socialist, or in some other way ‘not American.’  Perhaps this is because America is not struggling with a loss of meaning, even among the contingents that proudly call themselves atheist.  America has a God, and that God is Freedom.

Freedom-with-a-capital-F is a radical departure from the historically or lexically accepted meanings of the word.  It eludes definition, because to define it would be to limit its use or nature.  It is for some distinct from and contiguous with God and Country, the new WASP holy trilogy, or with Free Market and Country.  It is transcendent, an ideal like Heaven that is infinitely sublime–it is to be fought for, to kill for and die for, to cheat, lie, steal for–and yet like the Heavenly afterlife it is incredibly precarious, constantly at threat of collapse or being lost forever.  The threat does not ever come from within, this is one cardinal rule–one never gives up one’s Freedom.  To give up one’s freedom for one’s country (this being, of course, America) is considered acceptable as long as by doing so one is preserving Freedom.  It is, like salvation, composed of sacrifice.  One of the founding myths of Freedom is the appropriation of the (American only) war dead.  Many people have died for your Freedom.  It is guaranteed in sacred documents: the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights.  It has a new pantheon of deities, the Founding Fathers, who may be lauded or attacked but must always be understood as the key and vital catalyst for Freedom.

Most importantly, Freedom is defined by its lack.

Freedom is defined by the people who do not have it and the people who will take it away from you.  Freedom is the opposite of socialism, of fascism, of Islam, of Stalinism, of Maoism–of any other conceivable government system, all of which are defined by their lack of Freedom (this may seem a tautology–Freedom is what they don’t have, they are what doesn’t have Freedom–but a bootstrapping metaphysics like this is built on tautology).  The logical end of this is either to see the US government as uniquely capable of bestowing freedom, or of being itself an enemy of Freedom and therefore of America (we will talk about the shift from one to the other in a moment).  Freedom being lacking in all other countries, it is therefore uniquely, explicitly American.  Interestingly, it is wedded to the populace, not the soil–when the American goes abroad, they expect their Freedom to follow.

And yet “American” here is only a self-defining term again–it means those who have Freedom.  How do you lose your Freedom?  Someone attacks it.  But who?  How?

Let’s say A and B both possess Freedom and are therefore Americans.  Now let’s say A makes a sexist joke and B tells them it is not okay.  Within this metaphysical system, this constitutes an attack on A’s Freedom, which makes B un-American and therefore lacking Freedom.  Which is to say, one loses one’s Freedom by ‘attacking’ another’s, but only discursively.  One does not actually lose Freedom by losing real freedoms.  Take as example, the USA PATRIOT Act, which pretty definitively took freedoms away from the US citizenry but which was lauded as a defense of Freedom.

Now let’s look at how this mechanism plays out.  (Since this is an exploration rather than an argument: anecdotal and unsourced evidence ahead.)  A man fired for referring to basketball players as “nappy-headed hoes”: an attack on Freedom.  Marxist professors allowed to continue teaching at universities: an attack on Freedom.  Silencing the son of a 9/11 victim by cutting his mic when he talks in opposition to the Afghanistan war: a defense of Freedom.  Banning gay marriage: a defense of Freedom.  Banning assault rifles: an attack on Freedom.  A renowned law professor claiming police treated him roughly because of his race: an attack on Freedom.  A white man being criticized for shooting an unarmed black kid: an attack on Freedom.  Mandatory ‘nondenominational’ prayer and ‘teach the controversy’ in schools: a defense of Freedom.  Openly admitting oneself to be a Marxist: such an attack on Freedom that even among ‘left-wing’ Americans it can silence a conversation.

A familiar, unpleasant pattern begins to emerge.  When we look at definitions, Freedom appears founded on a tautology; when we look at experience, it is nothing but the mystification of racist, sexist, and otherwise bigoted processes we’ve been long familiar with.  Am I saying that American Freedom is bigotry?  Not quite–look at some of the smaller examples, like the defense of the two guys Adria Richards drew attention to for sexist comments at a tech conference.  More than anything, Freedom seems to be the right to be bigoted.

This explains its peculiar character.  When someone appeals to the American’s conscience, they are trying to undercut the right to bigotry.  They themselves are therefore not bigoted–which is to say, un-American.  This is also how one’s Freedom can be genuinely threatened: an appeal to conscience may succeed.

Bigotry is founded in the kyriarchy, the network of power structures in our society that includes sexism, racism, classism, and plenty of other forms of abuse.  It is institutional and also socially amorphous.  As I pointed out in previous posts, everyone participates in it, both from a place of privilege and from a place of marginalization.  This is stressful–to be marginalized means to be in a state of discomfort, among other things.  Thus Freedom, which will solidify the boundaries of one privileged group, the Americans, and the rest.  However, Freedom is both something people are unfortunate to lack and something they are responsible for lacking.  As such, one need not feel compassion for those lacking Freedom, since they must have reached that point out of some perverse desire of their own.  Alternatively, if one does feel compassion, rather than examining the systemic abuses that create the ‘lack of Freedom’, one must bring Freedom.

There are a lot of ways to bring Freedom, but they are almost all figured as invasion, and they are all nearly impossible ventures.

Because Freedom is inherently bigoted, someone cannot have it without accepting this bigotry.  With a few unpleasant exceptions, few people are willing to openly accept bigotry directed at them in such a way as to not make one being bigoted feel uncomfortable.  Certainly this cannot occur on a national level; hence the inevitable failure of any effort to bring Freedom abroad.  If a nation like Canada or Mexico is not Free (as, of course, they are not), then how could Iraq ever be?  Freedom is again a drive to root out whatever may challenge Freedom, i.e. whatever challenges the conditions of bigotry.  The greatest exception to this is of course on the level of class: we see Americans who equate wealth with hard work while having none of the former.

I believe this mechanism has not yet been particularly understood because for a long time the Freedom-worship seemed like another simple form of authoritarianism.  This is due to the degree to which the authority participated in Freedom culture.  If you look at pop culture criticisms of the situation during the W Bush presidency, most of them adopt the language of George Orwell’s 1984 or of response to Hitlerian Fascism.  This was because the notion of Freedom was wedded to the federal government.  Country was made of land, government, military might, Founding Fathers . . . the whole package was in sync.  However, something happened to severely disrupt this synchronism: a black man was elected president.

Obama created a paradox within the Freedom system: a president against whom one should be bigoted by the rules of the system.  If one could be bigoted against the man, how could he be president?  (Remember the quasi-religious nature with which the office of president was received circa 2007.)  If one could not be bigoted against him . . . then he is attacking the American’s Freedom . . . and therefore not Free.

All told, it was not particularly difficult for Freedom culture to jettison the federal government and jump into the arms of one of the sects that had been waiting around for a while: right-wing libertarianism.  Although built on principles of Atheism, that was not fundamental to its core; an obsession with Freedom was.  Thus the Tea Party, which among other things organized a number of bigoted attacks against Obama.  If he is not Free, he is not American–let’s check his birth certificate!  It must be a fake!  I’ve been trying very hard to skate free of Godwin’s Law throughout this article, but if I may be permitted one slip-up, it’s hard not to see how the conflation of Muslim and Socialist in the attacks leveled against Obama mirror the conflation of Jew and Bolshevik in the attacks Hitler leveled at his enemies.

All of which is not by way of defending Obama for the atrocities he has committed–but only recently has Freedom culture begun to take advantage of these as a leverage point.  And who knows, perhaps that leverage will have a real positive effect in the world, as bigotry is used to help prevent massacres.  I don’t have much faith in such a thing.

What I do have more faith in is the limitations that arise from the structure of Freedom culture.  In short, it lies in the degree to which bigotry can no longer occur in a cultural echo chamber.  More and more people are speaking out–again, after a decade of decreasing discourse.  The information age puts the American in accidental contact with the un-American in such a way that superstitions about those lacking Freedom may be unintentionally challenged.  Most of all, those excluded from the America of Freedom culture are making their voices heard in the US.  As I pointed out before, Obama was reelected on the basis of the marginalized vote.  Women are becoming a political force.  People of color (half of which, of course, are women as well) are becoming a political force, even in the face of a country that is seeking dozens of ways to criminalize them.  Even queers are beginning to have some political draw, although generally only the wealthier white ones.  Freedom culture may be the last gasp of the long historical moment of liberal (meant in the tradition philosophic-historical sense) oppression, brought down by the the very notion of universal enfranchisement that it birthed.

Or we may be witnessing a temporary lapse before another rise to power.  Even if this depiction of the political situation in the US is accurate, it doesn’t yet answer the question that I find most pressing: where to go from here.  But from the angle of personal ethics, the answer seems clear: renouncing Freedom to begin working toward freedom.

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Quick Thoughts on the Video Games Industry and the Notion of Collective Work

Just a quick aside.  On the internet, I ran across an image someone had posted:

ign

The degree to which the notion of individual work permeates our consciousness actually prevents us from having a rational discussion about acts of group work.  You don’t just see this in video game journalism, you see it in film theory, literary theory, sociology, anthopology, politics, history, even in the way that biologists try to understand animal behavior (many use a simplified form of game theory that presumes a selfishness that, while accurate to a degree, often fails to even consider mutually beneficial arrangements that police transgressions).  When revolutionary Enlightenment ideals emerged from millennia of variations on monarchism, they kept the tendency to attribute the work of many to the work of one (I mean, we still speak of Khafre’s Pyramid, not the Pyramid of a Fuckton of Slaves and Many Engineers That Was Built on the Instructions of One Guy).  Some might even argue that the cultural willingness to attribute work to oneself is a good working definition of class consciousness–it’s definitely true that we see, for example, second-wave feminism beginning to organize around an awareness of “women’s work.”  Recognizing the efforts of the ‘lower’ workers entails not only seeing that they put in a great deal of work, usually just as much or more than the figure who serves as the cultural referent, but also that their lives are likewise determined by the success or failure of the project, even if they get no say in the project’s management.  Except, of course, in the hopefully rare cases where the management is so abusive that even when the workers have created a successful project, their lives are still jeopardized within the ordinary course of doing business; see my earlier post on the VFX industry and specifically the Life of Pi incident.

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Accumulation

In early 1940s Germany, the Reichsbank was faced with some degree of difficulty in finding a way to liquidate the embarrassing amounts of personal valuables that were being deposited with them. They ended up pawning an inordinate number of such goods, particularly the streams of gold fillings mysteriously flowing in from locations like Auschwitz. At Nuremberg, the bankers claimed not to know the source of the deposits.

(adapted from Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich)

 

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On Plain Speech and Academic Language

Often on forum discussions of political language in contemporary academia we see the same tired examples trotted out to attack contemporary academic writing.  The most common bogeymen are Alan Sokal, who will no doubt be the subject of a sometime future post, and George Orwell, specifically his views on language as put forth in the essay, “Politics and the English Language”.  I want to first address the essay on a few points, and then focus on the way it seems to be used in contemporary amateur discourse.

The main attack of the essay is an argument on the perils of circuitous and imprecise language.  To be direct, this is all kinds of bullshit.  First of all, Orwell attacks phrasing that is indirect.  He seems to fail to understand the value of the way the first half of this sentence is constructed; no doubt he would prefer to simply ‘miss’ the value, and therein throw off the whole structure of pragmatic equivocating that makes English, for me, a fun language.  Language is not just the transmission of information, it is a form of social interaction.  Awkward subordinate clauses and circumlocutions are the body language of what could otherwise be a straightforward message, and straightforward direct language is as exciting as a social interaction with no physical cues.  There’s a reason contemporary textbooks on biology and physics tend to lull one to sleep much faster than Daniel Dennett or Michio Kaku.

At another point he attacks this language for its euphemistic approach to issues like the Stalinist mass-murder, but to be frank this is also a ridiculous critique.    Orwell says,

Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.”

But of course he is attacking a straw man here: the English professor in question most likely does not simply believe in achieving ‘good results’–by cutting off the argument there Orwell makes the person sound petty and insincere, which he then goes on to accuse the person of being.  Wow, you proved that a character you created exhibited the traits you gave him, amazing,bravo,etc.  While I wouldn’t defend the Stalinist murders, I acknowledge that there is an argument to be made in their defense, and it doesn’t derive from the issue of good results so much as the fact that, for a Stalinist, those results constitute the eventual achievement of a Utopian society.  This becomes a “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”–at least for one who genuinely believes in the potential of Stalinism to achieve Utopia, which I think few now do.  What Orwell has done is to obfuscate by directness: by stating the thing simply, he strips it of the context that gives it meaning.  Also, he makes the assumption that the reader is too stupid to figure out that the phrase “a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition” is a cover for killing, which may have been true at the time of writing (I wasn’t there, couldn’t say) but definitely doesn’t apply to a contemporary society that is used to drawing truth from complex situations–complexities that characterize the world we live in.

Complexities that characterize the world we live in dictate language.  That is what is at stake here.  After his listing of six rules, Orwell says “I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.”  That’s great and all but it’s also impossible.  Once again, I acknowledge that the 1946 timestamp on this document puts it a good twenty years before Derrida and his friends started making trouble, but they were hardly the first to observe how the ambiguities of language and life interrupt the art of “expressing and not … concealing” in communication.  As I mentioned in the above example, a short, quick expression can be just as obfuscatory as a long circuitous one.  But the long circuitous one makes the reader aware that they are being confronted with complex ambiguities, whereas the short direct speech does not–it puts the reader at ease, and thus can be more misleading simply by implying the existence of non-misleading speech.  Again I will draw on one of my favorite pieces of writing, Melville’s “Benito Cereno”.  The language is full of that ‘not un-‘ construction that Orwell mocks, as well as other complex and circuitous phrasing, precisely because of its ability to create a fog over meaning, to show the fog that is always present.  The denouement is presented as a plain legal document which should be robbed of such confusion, but which is not because its context is already polluted by confusion.  The actual story of “Benito Cereno” does not lie in the text, it lies outside of the text, only implied by it.  (Likewise with Moby-Dick and a number of Melville’s other works–he was one of the great predecessors of postmodernity, and surpassed most of its own writers in expressing its ideas.)  By contrast one can think of the ‘plain speech’ of Ronald Reagan or John McCain.  The discourse of the GOP has largely been defined in recent years by a return to plain speech, a move away from ‘elitist’ college language, and it is precisely this plain speech which is misleading.  Reagan at one point, upon hearing about isoprene monomers naturally produced by plants which contribute to troposphere ozone immediately jumped to the conclusion and statement that trees pollute more than people.  There are ways this could be seen as true, but those simplistic ways are completely false to the nature of reality, a reality which is more complex than can be portrayed in plain speech.

So we return to the old forum debates over contemporary academia.  People in academia toss around terms like ‘reification’, ‘post-structuralist’, ‘jouissance‘, ‘biopower’, and ‘ideological state apparatus’.  First of all, these don’t even precisely violate Orwell’s rules, since in many cases there is no better word to replace them.  The people who often attack this language as degrading the practice of English fail to realize that this is a specialized vocabulary, a jargon of philosophy of literature the same way that ‘RNA-transcriptase’ is a much easier term to describe a certain protein than a name in ‘plain speech’.  The reason this bothers people is because a lot of people don’t think literature needs a jargon–it comes back to that old hard science/soft science/liberal arts hierarchy that believes that something like studying literature is below the need of a specialized speech.  But more importantly, a specialized speech is important with political philosophy because it confuses the reader.  It stops the reader, disrupts the flow of thought while reading, and therefore confronts the reader with his or her own lack of knowledge about what is being said.  It thereby forces the reader to examine the work critically.  I would argue that those who get frustrated at the language have made a key error: they’re examining the presentation of the ideas critically but without making any effort towards reconciliation.  They stand on their shore of meaning and mock what they see happening without the effort to complete the bridge.  Granted, not all bridges need to be completed, and one must show discretion in where one is willing to put mental effort.  But if no attempt is made to understand the text on its own terms, then meaning really has been lost, and obfuscation is complete.  The worst English writing is not complex and confusing, it is the English writing that the reader can glide over without ever going outside their own perspective.

As a final case study, let’s look at a sentence that, according to ever-reliable wikipedia, Judith Butler won a ‘bad writing’ award for:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Of course, this could be rendered into plain speech.

When people stopped thinking about capital as doing the same thing everywhere and started paying attention to how it did similar things in different ways at different times and places it made us think about how time is important in how things are being done and meant that people agreed less with the philosopher (Althusser) who said things all happen in about the same way and instead were able to think about how the place-and-time-dependent things-happening-ness means we can thing about all things happening as being made of little things always happening.

Yes, it’s a crude mockery, but no more so than that often held out against academic language, and I think it demonstrates the point I’m trying to make: words mean things that you don’t know.  They always do, unless you just wrote those words, and even then they still usually do.  We need to always approach language critically.  But tied into that approach is the way that words can direct our thinking to certain thought patterns.  What’s missing here is how a word like ‘hegemony’ conjures up for the right reader a whole lineage of Gramsci and Situationist perspective on capital, how ‘totality’ resurrects Lukacs and the discussions of the Frankfurt school–in a way, any specialized sentence can be unpacked like a line of Milton.  That is what ‘plain speech’ advocates are promoting: a true death of culture, a homogenized world where language would mean the same thing to everyone, as if that were even possible.  It is, indeed, the dream of a certain type of America, and even a certain type of England–but that dream belongs to the past, with all the corpses it was built on.  If we want a language of the future that will help us avoid mass graves we need a language that makes us constantly uncomfortable, constantly aware of the ambiguities and frustrations of existence, that will avoid the soothing lie of plain speech.

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Thoughts on the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election

Having had a few days to distance ourselves from the immediate results of the election, I think one of the things that we can really get out of it, as an event, is the demographic breakdown, the response from both sides, and what this says about the culture of contemporary America.

I’d like to start my discussion with the tumblr White People Mourning Romney which documents a certain kind of reaction to the election.  Although there’s some sadistic enjoyment to be had in the pictures, what I find more interesting are the snatches of discourse from twitter and facebook, indicating a sort of concerted response of disbelief with regard to Obama’s victory, and a serious sense of apocalypse.  Add to this this rant by a Romney-supporter and the various responses I heard on AM talk radio stations the next day (I was driving for four and a half hours on the 7th) and there’s a serious sensation that, somehow, America is doomed now.  Putting aside the misuse of words like ‘socialist’, it’s still a claim that I find difficult to understand–did we not just have four years of Obama presidency, without the end of America?  I was certainly displeased when Bush was re-elected, on the basis of his earlier actions, but I didn’t think that a re-election would somehow constitute a turn downward.  I think there’s a relation to the continuously-appearing opinion that either no one knows how Obama could have been re-elected, or that his re-election indicates the ignorance of those who voted for him.  But why is this the discourse now?  I think to understand this, we should look at how Obama actually did get re-elected.

If we look at the demographic breakdown for the election, it suddenly becomes clear that not only is this a deeply divided nation, as all pundits seem required to say at all times, but it is divided on the basis of very real distinctions.  On the last exit polls I saw, Obama was leading by 10 points with women and Romney by 7 points with men.  Obama led with black Americans and Latinos, and Romney led with white voters.  Obama led with secular voters, Romney with regular church-attenders.  Obama led with younger voters, Romney with older voters.  How is it that Obama won, white church-going men (and women) ask, and the answer seems to be that he was elected by all the people that they forget constitute part of America.  To be frank, the ‘division’ of this nation seems to be a division between the ‘old order’ and a supercoalition of everyone else.  Romney tried to court these groups, but the Republican party’s stance on immigration, reproductive rights, evolution, education, health care, race, rape, and just about every social issue is downright offensive.  This party has become the senile old man sitting in the corner shouting racial epithets.  I don’t know whether this will mark the point of a major ideological change, or whether America is just preparing to retire the GOP and bring in someone new (Libertarians is my guess, since they represent similar economic ideals but generally take a hands-off approach to social issues), but this election should make it clear that what they have going now is not a sustainable strategy.

Couldn’t the GOP base rally and perhaps get more votes with swing voters?  That might apply if the parties were divided over policy, but they’re not, not really.  They’re divided by ideology and demographics, and that’s a losing game for the GOP.  Young voters are replacing old voters.  The white demographic is shrinking while the Latino demographic is growing–and the potential impending addition of Puerto Rico as the 51st state may have an impact here as well; certainly Obama’s planned immigration reform should add Latino voters with Democratic sympathies.

Although I do have strong political opinions, I’m not trying to push them here (if I were I would be arguing nearly as strongly against the Democratic Party, which is only slightly less heinous than the GOP), I’m just giving my opinion on what seems to have happened here.  The face of America is changing, and if we take one lesson away from this election it should be that WASPs can no longer consider it self-evident that they are the average American.  But it seems like that’s exactly what they’re doing: neglecting the change, choosing to remain ignorant just as they have in the past.  This will not serve them well, but I can’t say I’m sympathetic.

 

[Note: since writing this post, I have encountered this analysis of race in America which gives a much more in-depth and historically-grounded account of what I’m talking about.]

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