Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Private Knowledge

Harvard researchers have discovered a new psychological capacity for cooperation.

For decades, researchers have examined the psychology behind altruistic cooperation, when one person pays some cost to benefit another. However, another form of cooperation in which both people benefit has been little studied, but that is changing.

A study co-authored by graduate student Kyle Thomas and Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker examines how people use “common knowledge” — the shared understanding in which two or more people know something, know that the other one knows, know the other one knows that they know, and so on — to coordinate their actions, and how people’s efforts to cooperate may fail without this infinite level of shared beliefs.

The study is described in a recently published paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The study also included Peter DeScioli, now Assistant Professor of Political Science at Stony Brook University, and Omar Haque, with Harvard Medical School.

“There has been a great deal of research that examines the psychological roots of altruism, and you can think of that as a kind of motivation problem,” explained Thomas, a Ph.D. candidate in the Psychology Department at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the lead author. “However, when cooperation involves coordinating behavior, the problem people must solve is a knowledge problem rather than a motivation problem: What do partners need to know about each others’ beliefs to coordinate their behavior?”

While the notion of common knowledge has existed for decades and has been applied to fields as varied as philosophy and computer science, studies that focused on the actual psychology of common knowledge have been few and far between, Thomas said.

The chief reason, he said, is that “paying costs to benefit others poses obvious evolutionary puzzles that are not apparent when both people benefit. Because they do not present any evolutionary puzzles, the coordination problems of common knowledge are not nearly as obvious to researchers. The question is, how do we anticipate what our social partners will do, when what they do depends on what they expect us to do? This is a profound social cognition problem. How does one read the mind of a mind reader?”

To examine the psychological roots of coordination and how different levels of knowledge affect it, Thomas and his colleagues recruited participants to play an online game.

The participants were paired off, with each assuming the role of either butcher or baker working in a market. As the game began, each was offered a choice: Try to work together for mutual benefit — butchers making hot dogs and bakers making buns — or work on their own for a lesser, but certain profit.

To test how knowledge levels might affect whether participants would work together, researchers created four levels of knowledge for how participants could earn more by working together.

The first level, called private knowledge, involved telling one player that he could earn more by working with his partner, but leaving him in the dark about what his partner’s knows. At the second level, called secondary knowledge, one player knows conditions are good, and knows his partner knows that as well. In the third, one player knows, knows his partner knows, and knows his partner knows that he knows. To create common knowledge, this information was broadcast over a loudspeaker.

“Each player then makes a decision,” Thomas explained. “They can decide to work alone or work together, and we paid them accordingly.”

As predicted, these levels of knowledge dramatically affected how people played the game.

“What we found was that, for private knowledge, even if we varied the payouts, or the number of people involved, only about 15 percent of people cooperated,” Thomas said. “With shared knowledge, we saw about 50 percent, and with common knowledge, it was 85 percent. It was just a whopping effect. That indicated to us that we are very sensitive to this previously unappreciated mental state. Our minds evolved to understand this important kind of social structure, and how different kinds of knowledge can impact it.”

The effects of common knowledge, however, are hardly limited to the type of economic games described in the study.

“You can see evidence of these coordination problems everywhere,” Thomas said. “We’ve done work on euphemism and indirect speech, where everyone understands the subtext of what’s being said, though it isn’t explicit. You can also see aspects of it when people talk about taboos or political correctness. When something is taboo, that’s a common-knowledge issue because even though everyone may think it, you can’t say it. There’s even evidence that self-conscious emotions, like guilt or pride or shame, are sensitive to common knowledge, and that certain emotional signals like blushing or crying are built around the idea.”
- Peter Reuell, "Understanding Common Knowledge"

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

American Politics: Avoiding Real Problems in Favour of Imaginary Ones...

The Jealousy Tango
One should not underestimate the complexity and persistence of different “ways of life,” and here psychoanalysis can be of some help. Which is the factor that renders different cultures (or, rather, ways of life in the rich texture of their daily practices) incompatible? What is the obstacle that prevents their fusion or, at least, their harmoniously indifferent co-existence?

The psychoanalytic answer is: jouissance. It is not only that different modes of jouissance are incongruous with each other without a common measure; the Other’s jouissance is insupportable for us because (and insofar as) we cannot find a proper way to relate to our own jouissance.

The ultimate incompatibility is not between mine and other’s jouissance, but between myself and my own jouissance, which forever remains an ex-timate intruder. It is to resolve this deadlock that the subject projects the core of its jouissance onto an Other, attributing to this Other full access to a consistent jouissance. Such a constellation cannot but give rise to jealousy: In jealousy, the subject creates/imagines a paradise (a utopia of full jouissance) from which he is excluded.

The same definition applies to what one can call political jealousy, from the anti-Semitic fantasies about the mysterious practices and abilities of the Jews (which sometimes reach the level of madness, like the claim that Jewish men also menstruate) to the Christian fundamentalists’ fantasies about the weird sexual practices of gays and lesbians. As Klaus Theweleit, a scholar of fascist sociology, pointed out, it is all too easy to read such phenomena as mere “projections”: Jealousy can be quite real and well-founded; other people can and do have as much more intense sexual life than the jealous subject—a fact that, as Lacan remarked, doesn’t make jealousy any less pathological. Here is Lacan’s succinct description of the political dimension of this predicament:
With our jouissance going off track, only the Other is able to mark its position, but only in so far as we are separated from this Other. Whence certain fantasies – unheard of before the melting pot. Leaving the Other to his own mode of jouissance, that would only be possible by not imposing our own on him, by not thinking of him as underdeveloped.
To recapitulate the argument: Due to our impasse with our own jouissance, the only way for us to imagine a consistent jouissance is to conceive it as the Other’s jouissance; however, the Other’s jouissance is by definition experienced as a threat to our identity, as something to be rejected, destroyed even.

With regard to the identity of an ethnic group, this means that “there is always, in any human community, a rejection of an inassimilable jouissance, which forms the mainspring of a possible barbarism.” Here, Lacan underpins Freud, for whom the social bond (group identification) is mediated by the identification of each of its members with the figure of a Leader shared by all: Lacan conceives this symbolic identification with a Master-Signifier as secondary to some preceding rejection of jouissance, which is why, for him, “the founding crime is not the murder of the father, but the will to murder he who embodies the jouissance that I reject.” (And, one might add, even the murder of the primordial father is grounded in the hatred of his excessive jouissance, his possessing of all women.)

---

Since there is no space here to engage in this explanation (every good introduction to Lacan will do the job), I will limit myself to a passage from Kriss’s reply which condenses his double confusion, theoretical as well as political, culminating in his ridiculous notion of fidelity to a fantasy:
In Lacanian terminology, what Zizek identifies as a fundamental disparity between ‘our’ civilized European way of life and the irreducible foreignness of the migrants would be called an asymmetry in the Symbolic order. (It’s not just Lacanianism that he abandons here — what happened to the Hegelian identity of non-identity and identity?) If this asymmetry does exist, then fantasy is precisely the means by which it can be resolved. If we lack the appropriate signifiers for each other, then the interdicting untruth of fantasy opens up a space for some semblance of communication. If migrants are to live peacefully and happily in Europe, the demand should not be that they give up their fantasy of a better life, but that they cling to it for all its worth.
First, the basic premise of Lacan’s theory is that what my critic rather clumsily calls the “asymmetry in the symbolic order” does not primarily occur between different ways of life (cultures) but within each particular culture: each culture is structured around its particular “points of impossibility,” immanent blockades, antagonisms, around its Real.

Second, far from “resolving” it, a fantasy obfuscates it, it covers up the antagonism – a classic case: the fantasmatic figure of the Jew in anti-Semitism obfuscates the class antagonism by way of projecting it onto the “Jew,” the external cause that disturbs an otherwise harmonious social edifice. The statement “If we lack the appropriate signifiers for each other, then the interdicting untruth of fantasy opens up a space for some semblance of communication.” is thus totally misleading: it implies that each culture somehow manages to be in touch with itself, it just lacks appropriate signifiers for other cultures. Lacan’s thesis is, on the contrary, that each culture lacks “appropriate signifiers” for itself, for its own representation, which is why fantasies are needed to fill in this gap.

And it is here that things get really interesting: these fantasies as a rule concern other cultures. Back to the Nazis: the fantasy of the Jew is a key ingredient of the Nazi identity. The Jew as the enemy allows the anti-Semitic subject to avoid the choice between working class and capital: by blaming the Jew whose plotting foments class warfare, he can advocate the vision of a harmonious society in which work and capital collaborate.

This is also why Julia Kristeva is right in linking the phobic object (the Jew whose plots anti-Semites fear) to the avoidance of a choice: “The phobic object is precisely avoidance of choice, it tries as long as possible to maintain the subject far from a decision.”

Does this proposition not hold especially for political phobia? Does the phobic object/abject on the fear of which the rightist-populist ideology mobilizes its partisans (the Jew, the immigrant, today in Europe the refugee) not embody a refusal to choose? Choose what? A position in class struggle. The anti-Semitic fetish-figure of the Jew is the last thing a subject sees just before he confronts social antagonism as constitutive of the social body (I paraphrase here Freud’s definition of fetish as the last thing a subject sees before discovering that a woman doesn’t have a penis).
- Slavoj Zizek, "The Need to Traverse the Fantasy: A call to mobilize Europe’s radical-emancipatory tradition and why we need a solidarity of struggle, not a dialogue of cultures"

Saturday, December 26, 2015

If You Could Send Only One Band to North Korea...

....Why Wouldn't You Send Laibach?
Arirang, Arirang, Arariyo...
Crossing over Arirang Pass.
Dear who abandoned me [here]
Shall not walk even ten li
before his/her feet hurt.

Just as there are many stars in the clear sky,
There are also many dreams in our heart.

There, over there that mountain is Baekdu Mountain,
Where, even in the middle of winter days, flowers bloom.

...or...

Look on me! Look on me! Look on me!
In midwinter, when you see a flower, please think of me!
Chorus: Ari-arirang! Ssuri-Ssurirang! Arariga nanne!
O'er Arirang Pass I long to cross today.
Moonkyung weak Bird has too many curves
Winding up, winding down, in tears I go.
Carry me, carry me, carry me and go!
When flowers bloom in Hanyang, carry me and go.

...or...

Castor and camellia, bear no beans!
Deep mountain fair maidens would go a-flirting.
Chorus: Ari-Ari, Ssuri-Ssuri, Arariyo!
Ari-Ari Pass I cross and go.
Though I pray, my soya field yet will bear no beans;
Castor and camellia, why should you bear beans?
When I broke the hedge bush stem, you said you'd come away;
At your doorway I stamp my feet, why do you delay?
Precious in the mountains are darae and moroo;
Honey sweet to you and me would be our love so true.
Come to me! Come to me! Come and join me!
In a castor and camellia garden we'll meet, my love!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

More Celebrating of Christmas Rituals...

Dim dawn behind the tamerisks -- the sky is saffron-yellow --
As the women in the village grind the corn,
And the parrots seek the riverside, each calling to his fellow
That the Day, the staring Easter Day is born.
Oh the white dust on the highway! Oh the stenches in the byway!
Oh the clammy fog that hovers
And at Home they're making merry 'neath the white and scarlet berry --
What part have India's exiles in their mirth?

Full day begind the tamarisks -- the sky is blue and staring --
As the cattle crawl afield beneath the yoke,
And they bear One o'er the field-path, who is past all hope or caring,
To the ghat below the curling wreaths of smoke.
Call on Rama, going slowly, as ye bear a brother lowly --
Call on Rama -- he may hear, perhaps, your voice!
With our hymn-books and our psalters we appeal to other altars,
And to-day we bid "good Christian men rejoice!"

High noon behind the tamarisks -- the sun is hot above us --
As at Home the Christmas Day is breaking wan.
They will drink our healths at dinner -- those who tell us how they love us,
And forget us till another year be gone!
Oh the toil that knows no breaking! Oh the Heimweh, ceaseless, aching!
Oh the black dividing Sea and alien Plain!
Youth was cheap -- wherefore we sold it.
Gold was good -- we hoped to hold it,
And to-day we know the fulness of our gain.

Grey dusk behind the tamarisks -- the parrots fly together --
As the sun is sinking slowly over Home;
And his last ray seems to mock us shackled in a lifelong tether.
That drags us back how'er so far we roam.
Hard her service, poor her payment -- she is ancient, tattered raiment --
India, she the grim Stepmother of our kind.
If a year of life be lent her, if her temple's shrine we enter,
The door is shut -- we may not look behind.

Black night behind the tamarisks -- the owls begin their chorus --
As the conches from the temple scream and bray.
With the fruitless years behind us, and the hopeless years before us,
Let us honor, O my brother, Christmas Day!
Call a truce, then, to our labors -- let us feast with friends and neighbors,
And be merry as the custom of our caste;
For if "faint and forced the laughter," and if sadness follow after,
We are richer by one mocking Christmas past.
Rudyard Kipling, "Christmas in India"

On Celebrating Christmas in the Blog-o-Sphere...

'Twas the night before a certain faith-based celebratory occasion, and all through the house,
Not a creature was aware of an approaching louse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney we don't use,
For proud liberals we are, so we dare not light its fuse.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
Without one thought of fiscal cliffs dancing in their heads.
My wife in his teddy, and I in my Birkenstocks,
Had just settled into bed, boy were we socked.

When in from outside, there seeped such a smell
‘Twas smoke from a Newport Light, I blurted: “What the hell?”
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Turned on my compact florescent light bulb and threw up the sash.
The moon was full, but there was no mid-day glow,
Global warming had once again deprived us of snow
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature Chevy Volt, and eight pathetic reindeer.

With a skinny brown driver, I needn’t a moment of pause,
I knew right then it must be...OBAMA CLAUS!
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
Condescendingly he shouted to each by name!
“Now Morgan! Now Maddow! Now Matthews and Blitzer! On Schultz! On Sharpton! On all ye Bullshitzers!
To the top of the roof! To the top of the wall!
Don your ski masks and gloves, you each have them all!”
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The complaining and parroting of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney Obama Claus came with a bound.

He had a big grey beard, and although it was dark,
I couldn’t help thinking: He looks like Karl Marx!
He produced an empty sack, that I saw clear,
“But I put our gifts out already” I said. “Why are you here?”
His eyes were so blood-shot, his nose like a cherry,
My God did he reek of bourbon or sherry!
His usual smile then turned upside down,
“I’ve come for your presents,” he said with a frown.
I asked why, believing not what I heard,
“Others don’t have as many gifts,” he said. “Don’t be a turd.”
But I had worked hard all year, paid my fair share,
“Of that,” said Obama, “I really don’t care.”

“But I’m a loyal Democrat! I’ll even pay more tax,
Please Obama Claus, try to relax!”
He just rolled his eyes, blew smoke in my face,
And began stuffing his sack with considerable haste.
"But I voted for you twice! I thought you were cool!
Obama just chuckled...he was talking to a fool.

“I bust my ass! I work hard for what I make!”
“And that,” Obama snapped, “is your first mistake.”
I lunged for Obama, man I was pissed!
But then three words stopped me: “Presidential kill list”.
I could do nothing, except stand there and huff,
That’s when I realized: America had fucked up!

I imagined four more years, man whata’ bitch!
And I had not voted for Romney all because he was rich,
But it was all over now: we had sealed our fate,
All because some GOP asshole had said “legitimate rape”?
When Obama Claus was finished we had but one gift,
A visit from a Socialist who gave not a shit.
All this time he said only the rich was he after,
Obama Claus deserved an Oscar for Best Actor

He returned to the roof and waiting sycophants,
Never caring at all if we were Donkeys or Elephants.
But I heard him exclaim, as he headed back to his elves,
“Merry Christmas, America! Go fuck yourselves!”
- Duh Progressive, "The Night Before Christmas (w/ObamaClaus)"

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

When the Republic Became the Empire...

Darth Capital?
When the final installment of the Star Wars series, Revenge of the Sith, brings us the pivotal moment of the entire saga–the change of the “good” Anakin Skywalker into the “bad” Darth Vader–it aims to draw parallels between our personal and political decisions.

In a 2002 Time magazine interview, George Lucas explained the personal level through a type of pop-Buddhism: “He turns into Darth Vader because he gets attached to things. He can’t let go of his mother; he can’t let go of his girlfriend. He can’t let go of things. It makes you greedy. And when you’re greedy, you are on the path to the dark side, because you fear you’re going to lose things.”

But more resonant than how Anakin turned into Darth Vader is the parallel political question: How did the Republic turn into the Empire, or, more precisely, how does a democracy become a dictatorship? Lucas explained that it isn’t that the Empire conquered the Republic, but that the Republic became the Empire. “One day, Princess Leia and her friends woke up and said, ‘This isn’t the Republic anymore, it’s the Empire. We are the bad guys.’ ” The contemporary connotations of this reference to Ancient Rome suggest the Star Wars transformation from Republic to Empire should be read against the background of Hardt and Negri’s Empire (from Nation State to the Global Empire).

The political connotations of the Star Wars universe are multiple and inconsistent. Therein resides the “mythic” power of that universe–a universe that includes a Reaganesque vision of the Free World versus the Evil Empire; the retreat of the Nation States, which can be given a rightist, nationalist Buchanan-Le Pen twist; the contradiction of persons of a noble status (Princesses, Jedi knights, etc.) defending the “democratic” republic; and finally, its key insight that “we are the bad guys,” that the Empire emerges through the very way we, the “good guys,” fight the enemy out there. (In today’s “war on terror,” the real danger is what this war is turning us into.) Such inconsistencies are what make the Star Wars series a political myth proper, which is not so much a narrative with a determinate political meaning, but rather an empty container of multiple, inconsistent and even mutually exclusive meanings. The question “But what does this political myth really mean?” is the wrong question, because its “meaning” is precisely to serve as this vessel of multiple meanings.

Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace gave us a crucial hint as to where to orient ourselves in this melee, specifically, the “Christological” features of the young Anakin (his immaculate conception, his victorious “pod-car” race, with its echoes of the famous chariot race in Ben-Hur, this “tale of Christ”). Since Star Wars’ ideological framework is the New Age pagan universe, it is quite appropriate that its central figure of Evil should echo Christ. Within the pagan horizon, the Event of Christ is the ultimate scandal. The figure of the Devil is specific to the Judeo-Christian tradition. But more than that, Christ himself is the ultimate diabolic figure, insofar as diabolos (to separate, to tear apart the One into Two) is the opposite of symbolos (to gather and unify). He brought the “sword, not peace,” in order to disturb the existing harmonious unity. Or, as Christ told Luke: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and his mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes even his own life–he cannot be my disciple.” In order for there to be a properly unified “symbolic” community of believers, Christ had to first come and perform the Holy Spirit’s separating “diabolic” founding gesture.

Thus the Christian stance is radically different from the teachings of paganism. In clear contrast to the pagan wisdom that the universe is the abyss of the primordial Ground in which all “false” opposites–Good and Evil, appearance and reality, folly and wisdom, etc.–coincide, Christianity proclaims as the highest action precisely what paganism condemns as the source of all evil–the gesture of separation, of drawing the line, of clinging to an element that disturbs the balance of All.

What this means is that the Buddhist all-encompassing Compassion has to be opposed to the Christian intolerant, violent Love. The Buddhist stance is ultimately that of indifference, of quenching all passions that strive to establish differences, while the Christian love is a violent passion to introduce a difference, a gap in the order of being, to privilege and elevate some object above others. Love is violence not (only) in the vulgar sense of the Balkan proverb, “If he doesn’t beat me, he doesn’t love me!” The choice of love itself is already violent, as it tears an object out of its context and elevates it to the Thing. In Montenegrin folklore, the origin of Evil is a beautiful woman: She makes men lose their balance, she literally destabilizes the universe, coloring all things with a tone of partiality.

In March, the Vatican strongly condemned Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code as a book that spreads false teachings (that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and that they had descendants, that the true identity of the Grail is Mary’s vagina). The Vatican especially rued that the book is so popular among the younger generation searching for spiritual guidance. The form of the Vatican’s intervention, which barely concealed a longing for the good old days when it could simply burn books, was obviously absurd. (Indeed, one almost suspects a conspiracy between the Vatican and the book’s publisher to give a fresh boost to its sales.) Nevertheless, the content of the Vatican’s message was basically correct. The Da Vinci Code effectively re-inscribes Christianity into the New Age’s paradigm of seeking balance between masculine and feminine principles.

And–back to the Revenge of the Sith–the price for the film’s sticking to these same New Age motifs is not only its ideological confusion, but, simultaneously, its inferior narrative quality. These motifs are why Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader–the series’ pivotal moment–lacks the proper tragic grandeur. Instead of focusing on Anakin’s hubris as an overwhelming desire to intervene, to do Good, to go to the end for those he loves and thus fall to the Dark Side, Anakin is simply shown as an indecisive warrior who is gradually sliding into Evil by giving way to the temptation of Power, by falling under the spell of the evil Emperor. In other words, Lucas lacked the nerve to really apply his parallel between the shift of the Republic to Empire and of Anakin to Darth Vader. Anakin should have become a monster out his very excessive attachment with seeing Evil everywhere and fighting it.

Where, then, does this leave us? The ultimate postmodern irony is today’s strange exchange between the West and the East. At the very moment when, at the level of “economic infrastructure,” Western technology and capitalism are triumphing worldwide, at the level of “ideological superstructure,” the Judeo-Christian legacy is threatened in the West itself by the onslaught of New Age “Asiatic” thought. Such Eastern wisdom, from “Western Buddhism” to Taoism, is establishing itself as the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism. But while Western Buddhism presents itself as the remedy against the stress of capitalism’s dynamics–by allowing us to uncouple and retain some inner peace–it actually functions as the perfect ideological supplement.

Consider the phenomenon of “future shock”–the popular term for how people today can no longer psychologically cope with the dazzling rhythm of technological development and the accompanying social change. Before one can become accustomed to the newest invention, another arrives to take its place, so that increasingly one lacks the most elementary “cognitive mapping.” Eastern thought offers a way out that is far superior to the desperate attempt to escape into old traditions. The way to cope with this dizzying change, such wisdom suggests, is to renounce any attempts to retain control over what goes on, rejecting such efforts as expressions of the modern logic of domination. Instead, one should “let oneself go,” drift along, while retaining an inner distance and indifference toward the mad dance of the accelerated process. Such distance is based on the insight that all of the upheaval is ultimately just a non-substantial proliferation of semblances that do not really concern the innermost kernel of our being.

Here, one is almost tempted to resuscitate the old, infamous Marxist cliché of religion as “the opium of the people,” as the imaginary supplement of real-life misery. The “Western Buddhist” meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in the capitalist economy while retaining the appearance of sanity. If Max Weber were alive today, he would definitely write a second, supplementary volume to his Protestant Ethic, titled The Taoist Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capitalism.

Therefore, the true companion piece to Star Wars III is Alexander Oey’s 2003 documentary, Sandcastles: Buddhism and Global Finance. A wonderfully ambiguous indication of our present ideological predicament, Sandcastles combines the commentaries of economist Arnoud Boot, sociologist Saskia Sassen and the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Dzongzar Khyentse Rinpoche. Sassen and Boot discuss the gigantic scope and power, as well as social and economic effects, of global finance. Capital markets, now valued at $83 trillion, exist within a system based purely on self-interest, in which herd behavior, often based on rumors, can inflate or destroy the value of companies–or whole economies–in a matter of hours. Khyentse Rinpoche counters them with ruminations about the nature of human perception, illusion and enlightenment. He tries to throw a new light on the mad dance of billion-dollar speculations with his philosophico-ethical statement, “Release your attachment to something that is not there in reality, but is a perception.” Echoing the Buddhist notion that there is no self, only a stream of continuous perceptions, Sassen comments about global capital: “It’s not that there are $83 trillion. It is essentially a continuous set of movements. It disappears and it reappears.”

But how are we to read this parallel between the Buddhist ontology and the structure of virtual capitalism’s universe? The documentary tends toward the humanist reading: Seen through a Buddhist lens, the exuberance of global financial wealth is illusory, divorced from the objective reality–the very human suffering caused by deals made on trading floors and in boardrooms invisible to most of us. However, if one accepts the premise that the value of material wealth, and one’s experience of reality, is subjective, and that desire plays a decisive role in both daily life and neoliberal economics, isn’t it also possible to draw the exact opposite conclusion? Perhaps our traditional viewpoint of the world was based on naive notions of a substantial, external reality composed of fixed objects, while the hitherto unknown dynamic of “virtual capitalism” confronts us with the illusory nature of reality. What better proof of the non-substantial nature of reality than a gigantic fortune that can dissolve into nothing in a couple of hours due to a sudden false rumor? Consequently, why complain that financial speculations with futures markets are “divorced from objective reality,” when the basic premise of Buddhist ontology is that there is no “objective reality”?

The only “critical” lesson to be drawn from Buddhism’s perspective on virtual capitalism is that one should be aware that we are dealing with a mere theater of shadows, with no substantial existence. Thus we need not fully engage ourselves in the capitalist game, but play it with an inner distance. Virtual capitalism could thus act as a first step toward “liberation.” It confronts us with the fact that the cause of our suffering is not objective reality–there is no such thing–but rather our Desire, our craving for material things. All one has to do then, after ridding oneself of the false notion of a substantial reality, is simply renounce desire itself and adopt an attitude of inner peace and distance. No wonder Buddhism can function as the perfect ideological supplement to virtual capitalism: It allows us to participate in it with an inner distance, keeping our fingers crossed, and our hands clean, as it were.

It is against such a temptation that we should remain faithful to the Christian legacy of separation, of elevating some principles above others.
- Slavoj Zizek, "The Revenge of Global Finance" (5/21/2005)

Santa Claus Conquers the *Martians (1964)

*Martians as proxy for Soviets?

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

To All My Blogging Friends, Here's Hoping Your Christmas is ANYTHING but BLUE!

Merry Christmas to All!

...but for Britain

I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul's history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

What is precious is never to forget
The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs
Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.
Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light
Nor its grave evening demand for love.
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields
See how these names are feted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life
Who wore at their hearts the fire's center.
Born of the sun they traveled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honor.
-Stephen Spender, "I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great"

Happy Solstice!

So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive,
And when the new year's sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us - Listen!!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, fest, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
Welcome Yule!!
- Susan Cooper, "The Shortest Day"

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Unveiling the University Discourse

The Wrong Approach
Comedy is thus the very opposite of shame: shame endeavors to maintain the veil, while comedy relies on the gesture of unveiling. More closely, the comic effect proper occurs when, after the act of unveiling, one confronts the ridicule and the nullity of the unveiled content—in contrast to encountering behind the veil the terrifying Thing too traumatic for our gaze.
- Slavoj Zizek, "The Christian-Hegelian Comedy"
The Right Approach

Unveils the "why" they're politically correct. "Why?", to gain personal advantages which accompany the perception of possession of or the University's alliance with "*Power," of course (the source of ALL it's so-called "authority").
* RULE 1: “Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.” Power is derived from 2 main sources – money and people. “Have-Nots” must build power from flesh and blood. (These are two things of which there is a plentiful supply. Government and corporations always have a difficult time appealing to people, and usually do so almost exclusively with economic arguments.)
- Saul Alinsky, "Rules for Radicals"

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Tragic Comedy


Alternate link to the Zizek talk...
A patient in a large hospital room with many beds complains to the doctor about the constant noise and cries other patients are making, which are driving him crazy. After the doctor replies that nothing can be done if the patients are like that, that one cannot forbid them from expressing their despair since they all know they are dying, the patient goes on: “Why don’t you then put them in a separate room for dying?” The doctor replies calmly and glibly: “But this is a room for those who are dying…” Why does anyone who knows a little bit about Hegel immediately discern a “Hegelian” taste in this morbid joke? It is precisely because of the final twist in which the patient’s subjective position is undermined: he finds himself included into the series from which he wanted to maintain distance.


And, since one is dealing with Hegel here, one is immediately tempted to conceive of this joke as the first term of a triad. Thus, since the basic turn of this joke resides in the inclusion into the series of the apparent exception (the complaining patient is himself dying), its “negation” would be a joke whose final turn would, on the contrary, involve exclusion from the series, i.e., the extraction of the One and its positing as an exception to the series. In a recent Bosnian joke, for example, Fata (the proverbial ordinary Bosnian’s wife) complains to the doctor that Muyo, her husband, makes love to her for hours every evening, so that, even in the darkness of their bedroom, she cannot get enough sleep—again and again, he jumps on her. The good doctor advises her to apply shock therapy: she should keep at her bedside a strong lamp so that, when she gets really tired of sex, she can all of a sudden blind Muyo, and this shock will for sure cool off his excessive passion. That same evening, after hours of sex, Fata does exactly as advised—and recognizes the face of Haso, one of Muyo’s colleagues. Surprised, she asks him, ”But what are you doing here? Where is Muyo, my husband?” The embarrassed Haso answers, “Well, he is there at the door, collecting money from those waiting in line…” And the third term in the Hegelian triad would be here a kind of joke-correlative of the “infinite judgment,” the tautology as supreme contradiction, as in the joke about a man who complains to his doctor that he often hears voices of people who are not present in the room. The doctor inquires, “Really? In order to enable me to discover the meaning of this hallucination, could you describe to me under what precise circumstances you usually hear the voices of people who are not present?” “Well, it mostly happens when I talk on a phone…”


As is often the case, Kierkegaard is here unexpectedly close to Hegel, officially his greatest opponent. Kierkegaard insists on the comical character of Christianity: is there anything more comical than Incarnation, this ridiculous overlapping of the Highest and the Lowest, the coincidence of God, creator of the universe, and a miserable man?1 And, again, the point is that the gap that separates God from man in Christ is purely parallactic: Christ is not a person with two substances, immortal and mortal. Perhaps, this would also be one way to distinguish between pagan gnosticism and Christianity: the problem with Gnosticism is that it is all too serious in developing its narrative of ascent towards Wisdom, that it misses the humorous side of religious experience—Gnostics are Christians who miss the joke of Christianity. (And, incidentally, this is why Mel Gibson’s Passion is ultimately an anti-Christian film: it totally lacks this comic aspect.)


For Hegel, the passage from tragedy to comedy concerns overcoming the limits of representation. While in a tragedy the individual actor represents the universal character he plays, in a comedy he immediately is this character.2 The gap of representation is thus closed, exactly as in the case of Christ who, in contrast to previous pagan divinities, does not “represent” some universal power or principle (as in Hinduism, in which Krishna, Vishna, Shivu, etc., all “stand for” certain spiritual principles or powers such as love, hatred, reason). As this miserable human, Christ directly is God. Christ is not also human distinct from being a god; he is a man precisely insofar as he is God, i.e., the ecce homo is the highest mark of his divinity. There is thus an objective irony in Pontius Pilate’s “Ecce homo!,” when he presents Christ to the enraged mob. Its meaning is not “Look at this miserable tortured creature? Do you not see in it a simple vulnerable man? Have you not any compassion for it?” but, rather, “Here is God himself!”


However, in a comedy, the actor does not coincide with the person he plays in the sense that he plays himself on the stage, that he “is what he really is” up there. It is rather that, in a properly Hegelian way, the gap that separates the actor from his stage persona in a tragedy is transposed into the stage persona itself. A comic character is never fully identified with his role; he always retains the ability to observe himself from outside, “making fun of himself.” Recall the immortal Lucy from I Love Lucy whose trademark gesture when something surprised her was to bend her neck slightly and cast a direct fixed gaze of surprise into the camera—this was not Lucille Ball, the actress, mockingly addressing the public, but an attitude of self-estrangement that was part of “Lucy” (as a screen persona) herself. This is how Hegelian “reconciliation” works: not as an immediate synthesis or reconciliation of opposites, but as the redoubling of the gap or antagonism—the two opposed moments are “reconciled” when the gap that separates them is posited as inherent to one of the terms. In Christianity, the gap that separates God from man is not effectively “sublated” directly in the figure of Christ as God-man, but only in the tensest moment of crucifixion when Christ himself despairs (“Father, why have you forsaken me?”). In this moment, the gap that separates God from man is transposed into God himself, as the gap that separates Christ from God-Father. The properly dialectical trick here is that the very feature that appeared to separate me from God turns out to unite me with God.


And this brings us back to comedy: for Hegel, what happens in comedy is that the Universal appears directly. It appears “as such,” in direct contrast to the mere “abstract” universal which is the “mute” universality of the passive link (common feature) between particular moments. In other words, in comedy, universality directly acts. How? Comedy does not rely on the undermining of our dignity with reminders of the ridiculous contingencies of our terrestrial existence. On the contrary, comedy is the full assertion of universality, the immediate coincidence of universality with the character’s/actor’s singularity. Or to ask it another way, what effectively happens when all universal features of dignity are mocked and subverted in a comedy? The negative force that undermines them is that of the individual, of the hero with his attitude of disrespect towards all elevated universal values, and this negativity itself is the only true remaining universal force. And does the same not hold for Christ? All stable-substantial universal features are undermined, relativized, by his scandalous acts, so that the only remaining universality is the one embodied in Him, in his very singularity. The universals undermined by Christ are “abstract” substantial universals (presented in the guise of the Jewish Law), while the “concrete” universality is the very negativity of undermining abstract universals. 


This direct overlapping of the Universal and the Singular also poses a limit to the standard critique of “reification.” While observing Napoleon on a horse in the streets of Jena after the battle of 1807, Hegel remarked that it was as if he saw there World Spirit riding a horse. The Christological implications of this remark are obvious: what happened in the case of Christ is that God himself, the creator of our entire universe, was walking out there as a common individual. This mystery of incarnation is discernible at different levels, up to parents’ speculative judgment apropos a child that “out there our love is walking,” which stands for the Hegelian reversal of determinate reflection into reflexive determination. The same happens with a king when his subjects see him walking around: “Out there our state is walking.” Marx’s evocation of reflexive determination (in his famous footnote in Chapter 1 of Capital) falls too short: individuals think they treat a person as a king because he is a king in himself, while, effectively, he is a king only because they treat him as one. However, the crucial point is that this “reification” of a social relation in a person cannot be dismissed as a simple “fetishist misperception”; what such a dismissal itself misses is something that, perhaps, could be designated as the “Hegelian performative.” Of course a king is “in himself” a miserable individual, and of course he is a king only insofar as his subjects treat him like one. However, the point is that the “fetishist illusion” which sustains our veneration of the king has in itself a performative dimension—the very unity of our state, that which the king “embodies,” actualizes itself only in the person of a king. Which is why it is not enough to insist on the need to avoid the “fetishist trap” and to distinguish between the contingent person of a king and what he stands for. What the king stands for only comes to be in his person, the same as with a couple’s love which only becomes actual in their offspring (at least within a certain traditional perspective). And it is not difficult to see the extreme proximity of the sublime and the ridiculous in these cases: there is something sublime in stating, “Look out! The World Spirit itself is riding a horse there,” but also something inherently comical.


Comedy is thus the very opposite of shame: shame endeavors to maintain the veil, while comedy relies on the gesture of unveiling. More closely, the comic effect proper occurs when, after the act of unveiling, one confronts the ridicule and the nullity of the unveiled content—in contrast to encountering behind the veil the terrifying Thing too traumatic for our gaze. Which is why the ultimate comical effect occurs when, after removing the mask, we confront exactly the same face as that of the mask. A supreme case of such a comedy occurred in December 2001 in Buenos Aires, when Argentinians took to the streets to protest against the current government, and especially against Domingo Cavallo, the Minister of Economy. When the crowd gathered around Cavallo’s building, threatening to storm it, he escaped wearing a mask of himself (sold in disguise shops so that people could mock him by wearing his mask). It thus seems that at least Cavallo did learn something from the widely spread Lacanian movement in Argentina—the fact that a thing is its own best mask. And is this also not the ultimate definition of the divinity—God also has to wear a mask of himself? Perhaps “God” is the name for this supreme split between the absolute as the noumenal Thing and the absolute as the appearance of itself, for the fact is that the two are the same, that the difference between the two is purely formal. In this precise sense, “God” names the supreme contradiction: God—the absolute irrepresentable Beyond—has to appear as such. What one encounters in tautology is thus pure difference, not the difference between the element and other elements, but the difference of the element from itself. This is why the Marx brothers’ “This man looks as an idiot and acts as an idiot; but this should not deceive you—he is an idiot!” is properly comical: when, instead of a hidden terrifying secret, we encounter behind the veil the same thing as in front of it, this very lack of difference between the two elements confronts us with the “pure” difference that separates an element from itself.


According to an anecdote from the May ’68 period, there was a graffito on a Paris wall that read “God is dead. Nietzsche.” Next day, another graffito appeared below it: “Nietzsche is dead. God.” What is wrong with this joke? Why is it so obviously reactionary? It is not only that the reversed statement relies on a moralistic platitude with no inherent truth; its failure is deeper, and it concerns the form of reversal itself. What makes the joke a bad joke is the pure symmetry of the reversal—the underlying claim of the first graffito (“God is dead. Signed by [obviously living] Nietzsche”) is turned around into a statement which implies “Nietzsche is dead, while I am still alive. God.” There is a well-known Yugoslav riddle-joke: “What is the difference between the Pope and a trumpet? The Pope is from Rome, and the trumpet is made from tin. And what is the difference between the Pope from Rome and the trumpet made from tin? The trumpet made from tin can be from Rome, while the Pope from Rome cannot be made from tin.” In a similar way, one should redouble the Paris graffiti joke: “What is the difference between ‘God is dead’ and ‘Nietzsche is dead’? It was Nietzsche who said, ‘God is dead,’ and it was God who said ‘Nietzsche is dead.’ And what is the difference between Nietzsche who said, ‘God is dead’ and God who said, ‘Nietzsche is dead’? Nietzsche who said, ‘God is dead’ was not dead, while the God who said ‘Nietzsche is dead’ was himself dead.” Crucial for the proper comical effect is not difference where we expect sameness, but, rather, sameness where we expect difference,3 which is why, as Alenka Zupancic has pointed out, the materialist (and therefore properly comic) version of the above joke would have been something like: “God is dead. And, as a matter of fact, I also do not feel too well…” Is this not a comic version of Christ’s complaint on the cross? Christ will die on the cross not to get rid of his mortal envelope and rejoin the divine; he will die because he is God. No wonder, then, that, in the last years of his intellectual activity, Nietzsche used to sign his texts and letters also as “Christ”: the proper comical supplement to Nietzsche’s “God is dead” would have been to make Nietzsche himself add to it: “And, as a matter of fact, I also do not feel too well…”


1. See The Humor of Kierkegaard. An Anthology, edited and introduced by Thomas C. Oden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).

2. I rely here heavily on Alenka Zupancic’s unpublished manuscript on comedy.

3. This is why the “What is the difference between…” jokes are most efficient when difference is denied, as in: “What is the difference between toy trains and women’s breasts? None: both are meant for children, and with both it is mostly adult men that play.”

- Slavoj Zizek, "The Christian-Hegelian Comedy"

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Living in Stereo

life's the same i'm moving in stereo
life's the same except for my shoes
life's the same you're shaking like tremolo
life's the same it's all inside you

it's so easy to blow up your problems
it's so easy to play up your breakdown
it's so easy to fly through a window
it's so easy to fool with the sound

it's so tough to get up
it's so tough
it's so tough to live up
it's so tough on you

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Get Bent!

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.
-Kahlil Gibran, "On Children"

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The creation of large companies must be avoided...

Laboulaye rejects the "statism" of Louis Blanc as well as the "anti-statism" of the Anglophile economists, and shows that the role of the state is precisely to encourage progress, by fostering technological development and education. He clearly differentiates the British from the American model:
"The creation of large companies must be avoided; the British-style industrial expansion which leads to pauperization and demoralization must be stopped. . .. In England, the country which, to this day, is still the most affected by the feudal era, where the descendants of the Normand have become large landowners ... and have permitted the building of British industry in a most aristocratic fashion ... industry is found to be organized on the model of ever-divisible territorial property, on the model of its fully aristocratic political society, totally feudal."

"In the United States of America ... the organization of industry is totally democratic. The worker only works today, so to speak, in the hope of being his own master tomorrow, and the industrial enterprises grow in number more than in size. In the two countries, the industrial organization is the faithful image of the political laws; it is aristocratic in the first, democratic in the second .... The feeling that one's elevation in society is impossible has indeed largely contributed to the revolution of 1848, the laboring classes always hearing talk about the increase in bankers' wealth, in that of rich speculators, and amidst the crisis of industry, never seeing one of their own ranks rise into property through labor and innovation. Those are the unhappy seeds planted in times of demoralization, which have produced the false ideas that today pose the greatest dangers to the country. Oh, if we could get all the theoreticians to look at the beautiful American industrial scene! ... Either the plain, dumb desire for improvement will lead us into communism ... or it will surely lead us into a frightening equality of misery, through the degradation of everything and everyone; or we shall see an industrial democratic power with a broad base, gifted with an immense energy for productive work, well-being becoming the ensured reward of talent. ... [This] will bring about growth in the wealth of the nation, to undreamed-of proportions."
Laboulaye lists several prescriptions for reaching that goal, including the following:
"Credit. The only country with the goal of putting credit at the disposal of any capability that will make it bear fruit, is America. Thus have we seen that country, in a few years, realize undreamed-of progress . . .. Of course, the goal was sometimes missed ... and that nearly always happened when credit was turned into an instrument of speculation, instead of a means of fostering labor. "
- Laboulaye "Dictionary of Arts and Manufactures"
-Dino De Paoli

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Well Being...

What mystery pervades a well!
That water lives so far –
A neighbor from another world
Residing in a jar

Whose limit none has ever seen,
But just his lid of glass –
Like looking every time you please
In an abyss's face!

The grass does not appear afraid,
I often wonder he
Can stand so close and look so bold
At what is awe to me.

Related somehow they may be,
The sedge stands near the sea –
Where he is floorless
And does no timidity betray

But nature is a stranger yet:
The ones that cite her most
Have never passed her haunted house,
Nor simplified her ghost.

To pity those that know her not
Is helped by the regret
That those who know her, know her less
The nearer her they get.
-Emily Dickinson, "What mystery pervades a well!"

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Exhorting the Masses to Pursue Greater Sophistication...

The Incomparable Anna Russell Explains Wagner's Ring Cycle
Part I
Part II
Part III
h/t - FreeThinke

Building an Image of Sophistication...

An olive-skinned woman in a ruby satin dress
lazily swishes her martini in a long-stemmed glass.
She rests at the end of the bar
tendrils of smoke blur the curves of her face.

Her posture flawless,
her free hand lightly caressing her thigh,
she surveys the muted room with familiarity,
A wisdom that softens her lips
and hardens her eyes.

She is noticed, and she knows it.
But an air of respect diffuses the scent of carnal desire,
saturating the crisp suits and pearly tablecloths,
allowing her to glow in the periphery
like the candle on the rim of a bathtub.

Greetings are answered with a gentle smile.
Propositions politely refused with a shake of the head.
Veteran patrons don’t linger to chat,
but leave her to her drink and consideration.

She holds a vigil every night,
The same drink, the same bar stool,
The same tired, defiant glimmer in her eye.
Her head tilts elegantly at the sound of the saxophone
And somehow, the newcomers know she has them all figured out.

What she doesn’t know
is that I can see her
all the way through
and her sophistication is my graceful attempt
to cling to my soulfulness
to prevent its being suppressed into silence
by a distant refinement
separating me from desire
and the pounding of my heart.
- Kiernan Michau, "Sophisticated Lady" (Sep 19, 2010)

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

I'll Go On...

“Unfortunately I am afraid, as always, of going on. For to go on means going from here, means finding me, losing me, vanishing and beginning again, a stranger first, then little by little the same as always, in another place, where I shall say I have always been, of which I shall know nothing, being incapable of seeing, moving, thinking, speaking, but of which little by little, in spite of these handicaps, I shall begin to know something, just enough for it to turn out to be the same place as always, the same which seems made for me and does not want me, which I seem to want and do not want, take your choice, which spews me out or swallows me up, I’ll never know, which is perhaps merely the inside of my distant skull where once I wandered, now am fixed, lost for tininess, or straining against the walls, with my head, my hands, my feet, my back, and ever murmuring my old stories, my old story, as if it were the first time.”
― Samuel Beckett, "The Unnamable"