And by a prudent flight and cunning save A life which valour could not, from the grave. A better buckler I can soon regain, But who can get another life again? Archilochus

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "The Masque of Pandora"


HEPHAESTUS (standing before the statue of Pandora.)
Not fashioned out of gold, like Hera's throne,
Nor forged of iron like the thunderbolts
Of Zeus omnipotent, or other works
Wrought by my hands at Lemnos or Olympus,
But moulded in soft clay, that unresisting
Yields itself to the touch, this lovely form
Before me stands, perfect in every part.
Not Aphrodite's self appeared more fair,
When first upwafted by caressing winds
She came to high Olympus, and the gods
Paid homage to her beauty. Thus her hair
Was cinctured; thus her floating drapery
Was like a cloud about her, and her face
Was radiant with the sunshine and the sea.


Is thy work done, Hephaestus?

It is finished!

Not finished till I breathe the breath of life
Into her nostrils, and she moves and speaks.

Will she become immortal like ourselves?

The form that thou hast fashioned out of clay
Is of the earth and mortal; but the spirit,
The life, the exhalation of my breath,
Is of diviner essence and immortal.
The gods shall shower on her their benefactions,
She shall possess all gifts: the gift of song,
The gift of eloquence, the gift of beauty,
The fascination and the nameless charm
That shall lead all men captive.

Wherefore? wherefore?

(A wind shakes the house.)

I hear the rushing of a mighty wind
Through all the halls and chambers of my house!
Her parted lips inhale it, and her bosom
Heaves with the inspiration. As a reed
Beside a river in the rippling current
Bends to and fro, she bows or lifts her head.
She gazes round about as if amazed;
She is alive; she breathes, but yet she speaks not!

(PANDORA descends from the pedestal.)


In the workshop of Hephaestus
What is this I see?
Have the Gods to four increased us
Who were only three?
Beautiful in form and feature,
Lovely as the day,
Can there be so fair a creature
Formed of common clay?

O sweet, pale face! O lovely eyes of azure,
Clear as the waters of a brook that run
Limpid and laughing in the summer sun!
O golden hair that like a miser's treasure
In its abundance overflows the measure!
O graceful form, that cloudlike floatest on
With the soft, undulating gait of one
Who moveth as if motion were a pleasure!
By what name shall I call thee? Nymph or Muse,
Callirrhoe or Urania? Some sweet name
Whose every syllable is a caress
Would best befit thee; but I cannot choose,
Nor do I care to choose; for still the same,
Nameless or named, will be thy loveliness.

Dowered with all celestial gifts,
Skilled in every art
That ennobles and uplifts
And delights the heart,
Fair on earth shall be thy fame
As thy face is fair,
And Pandora be the name
Thou henceforth shalt bear.



(putting on his sandals.)
Much must he toil who serves the Immortal Gods,
And I, who am their herald, most of all.
No rest have I, nor respite. I no sooner
Unclasp the winged sandals from my feet,
Than I again must clasp them, and depart
Upon some foolish errand. But to-day
The errand is not foolish. Never yet
With greater joy did I obey the summons
That sends me earthward. I will fly so swiftly
That my caduceus in the whistling air
Shall make a sound like the Pandaean pipes,
Cheating the shepherds; for to-day I go,
Commissioned by high-thundering Zeus, to lead
A maiden to Prometheus, in his tower,
And by my cunning arguments persuade him
To marry her. What mischief lies concealed
In this design I know not; but I know
Who thinks of marrying hath already taken
One step upon the road to penitence.
Such embassies delight me. Forth I launch
On the sustaining air, nor fear to fall
Like Icarus, nor swerve aside like him
Who drove amiss Hyperion's fiery steeds.
I sink, I fly! The yielding element
Folds itself round about me like an arm,
And holds me as a mother holds her child.




I hear the trumpet of Alectryon
Proclaim the dawn. The stars begin to fade,
And all the heavens are full of prophecies
And evil auguries. Blood-red last night
I saw great Kronos rise; the crescent moon
Sank through the mist, as if it were the scythe
His parricidal hand had flung far down
The western steeps. O ye Immortal Gods,
What evil are ye plotting and contriving?

(HERMES and PANDORA at the threshold.)

I cannot cross the threshold. An unseen
And icy hand repels me. These blank walls
Oppress me with their weight!

Powerful ye are,
But not omnipotent. Ye cannot fight
Against Necessity. The Fates control you,
As they do us, and so far we are equals!

Motionless, passionless, companionless,
He sits there muttering in his beard. His voice
Is like a river flowing underground!

Prometheus, hail!


Who calls me?


It is I.
Dost thou not know me?

By thy winged cap
And winged heels I know thee. Thou art Hermes,
Captain of thieves! Hast thou again been stealing
The heifers of Admetus in the sweet
Meadows of asphodel? or Hera's girdle?
Or the earth-shaking trident of Poseidon?

And thou, Prometheus; say, hast thou again
Been stealing fire from Helios' chariot-wheels
To light thy furnaces?

Why comest thou hither
So early in the dawn?

The Immortal Gods
Know naught of late or early. Zeus himself
The omnipotent hath sent me.

For what purpose?


To bring this maiden to thee.


I mistrust
The Gods and all their gifts. If they have sent her
It is for no good purpose.

What disaster
Could she bring on thy house, who is a woman?

The Gods are not my friends, nor am I theirs.
Whatever comes from them, though in a shape
As beautiful as this, is evil only.
Who art thou?

One who, though to thee unknown,
Yet knoweth thee.

How shouldst thou know me, woman?

Who knoweth not Prometheus the humane?

Prometheus the unfortunate; to whom
Both Gods and men have shown themselves ungrateful.
When every spark was quenched on every hearth
Throughout the earth, I brought to man the fire
And all its ministrations. My reward
Hath been the rock and vulture.

But the Gods
At last relent and pardon.

They relent not;
They pardon not; they are implacable,
Revengeful, unforgiving!

As a pledge
Of reconciliation they have sent to thee
This divine being, to be thy companion,
And bring into thy melancholy house
The sunshine and the fragrance of her youth.

I need them not. I have within myself
All that my heart desires; the ideal beauty
Which the creative faculty of mind
Fashions and follows in a thousand shapes
More lovely than the real. My own thoughts
Are my companions; my designs and labors
And aspirations are my only friends.

Decide not rashly. The decision made
Can never be recalled. The Gods implore not,
Plead not, solicit not; they only offer
Choice and occasion, which once being passed
Return no more. Dost thou accept the gift?

No gift of theirs, in whatsoever shape
It comes to me, with whatsoever charm
To fascinate my sense, will I receive.
Leave me.

Let us go hence. I will not stay.

We leave thee to thy vacant dreams, and all
The silence and the solitude of thought,
The endless bitterness of unbelief,
The loneliness of existence without love.



How the Titan, the defiant,
The self-centred, self-reliant,
Wrapped in visions and illusions,
Robs himself of life's best gifts!
Till by all the storm-winds shaken,
By the blast of fate o'ertaken,
Hopeless, helpless, and forsaken,
In the mists of his confusions
To the reefs of doom he drifts!

Sorely tried and sorely tempted,
From no agonies exempted,
In the penance of his trial,
And the discipline of pain;
Often by illusions cheated,
Often baffled and defeated
In the tasks to be completed,
He, by toil and self-denial,
To the highest shall attain.

Tempt no more the noble schemer;
Bear unto some idle dreamer
This new toy and fascination,
This new dalliance and delight!
To the garden where reposes
Epimetheus crowned with roses,
To the door that never closes
Upon pleasure and temptation,
Bring this vision of the night!



(returning to Olympus.)
As lonely as the tower that he inhabits,
As firm and cold as are the crags about him,
Prometheus stands. The thunderbolts of Zeus
Alone can move him; but the tender heart
Of Epimetheus, burning at white heat,
Hammers and flames like all his brother's forges!
Now as an arrow from Hyperion's bow,
My errand done, I fly, I float, I soar
Into the air, returning to Olympus.
O joy of motion! O delight to cleave
The infinite realms of space, the liquid ether,
Through the warm sunshine and the cooling cloud,
Myself as light as sunbeam or as cloud!
With one touch of my swift and winged feet,
I spurn the solid earth, and leave it rocking
As rocks the bough from which a bird takes wing.




Beautiful apparition! go not hence!
Surely thou art a Goddess, for thy voice
Is a celestial melody, and thy form
Self-poised as if it floated on the air!

No Goddess am I, nor of heavenly birth,
But a mere woman fashioned out of clay
And mortal as the rest.


Thy face is fair;
There is a wonder in thine azure eyes
That fascinates me. Thy whole presence seems
A soft desire, a breathing thought of love.
Say, would thy star like Merope's grow dim
If thou shouldst wed beneath thee?


Ask me not;
I cannot answer thee. I only know
The Gods have sent me hither.

I believe,
And thus believing am most fortunate.
It was not Hermes led thee here, but Eros,
And swifter than his arrows were thine eves
In wounding me. There was no moment's space
Between my seeing thee and loving thee.
O, what a telltale face thou hast! Again
I see the wonder in thy tender eyes.

They do but answer to the love in thine,
Yet secretly I wonder thou shouldst love me.
Thou knowest me not.


Perhaps I know thee better
Than had I known thee longer. Yet it seems
That I have always known thee, and but now
Have found thee. Ah, I have been waiting long.

How beautiful is this house! The atmosphere
Breathes rest and comfort, and the many chambers
Seem full of welcomes.

They not only seem,
But truly are. This dwelling and its master
Belong to thee.


Here let me stay forever!
There is a spell upon me.

Thou thyself
Art the enchantress, and I feel thy power
Envelop me, and wrap my soul and sense
In an Elysian dream.

O, let me stay.
How beautiful are all things round about me,
Multiplied by the mirrors on the walls!
What treasures hast thou here! Yon oaken chest,
Carven with figures and embossed with gold,
Is wonderful to look upon! What choice
And precious things dost thou keep hidden in it?

I know not. 'T is a mystery.

Hast thou never
Lifted the lid?


The oracle forbids.
Safely concealed there from all mortal eyes
Forever sleeps the secret of the Gods.
Seek not to know what they have hidden from thee,
Till they themselves reveal it.

As thou wilt.

Let us go forth from this mysterious place.
The garden walks are pleasant at this hour;
The nightingales among the sheltering boughs
Of populous and many-nested trees
Shall teach me how to woo thee, and shall tell me
By what resistless charms or incantations
They won their mates.

Thou dost not need a teacher.

(They go out.)

What the Immortals
Confide to thy keeping,
Tell unto no man;
Waking or sleeping,
Closed be thy portals
To friend as to foeman.

Silence conceals it;
The word that is spoken
Betrays and reveals it;
By breath or by token
The charm may be broken.

With shafts of their splendors
The Gods unforgiving
Pursue the offenders,
The dead and the living!
Fortune forsakes them,
Nor earth shall abide them,
Nor Tartarus hide them;
Swift wrath overtakes them!

With useless endeavor,
Forever, forever,
Is Sisyphus rolling
His stone up the mountain!
Immersed in the fountain,
Tantalus tastes not
The water that wastes not!
Through ages increasing
The pangs that afflict him,
With motion unceasing
The wheel of Ixion
Shall torture its victim!




Yon snow-white cloud that sails sublime in ether
Is but the sovereign Zeus, who like a swan
Flies to fair-ankled Leda!

Or perchance
Ixion's cloud, the shadowy shape of Hera,
That bore the Centaurs.

The divine and human.

Gently swaying to and fro,
Rocked by all the winds that blow,
Bright with sunshine from above
Dark with shadow from below,
Beak to beak and breast to breast
In the cradle of their nest,
Lie the fledglings of our love.

Love! love!

Hark! listen! Hear how sweetly overhead
The feathered flute-players pipe their songs of love,
And echo answers, love and only love.


Every flutter of the wing,
Every note of song we sing,
Every murmur, every tone,
Is of love and love alone.

Love alone!


Who would not love, if loving she might be
Changed like Callisto to a star in heaven?

Ah, who would love, if loving she might be
Like Semele consumed and burnt to ashes?

Whence knowest thou these stories?

Hermes taught me;
He told me all the history of the Gods.


Evermore a sound shall be
In the reeds of Arcady,
Evermore a low lament
Of unrest and discontent,
As the story is retold
Of the nymph so coy and cold,
Who with frightened feet outran
The pursuing steps of Pan.

The pipe of Pan out of these reeds is made,
And when he plays upon it to the shepherds
They pity him, so mournful is the sound.
Be thou not coy and cold as Syrinx was.

Nor thou as Pan be rude and mannerless.

Ho! Epimetheus!


'T is my brother's voice;
A sound unwelcome and inopportune
As was the braying of Silenus' ass,
Once heard in Cybele's garden.

Let me go.
I would not be found here. I would not see him.

(She escapes among the trees.)

Haste and hide thee,
Ere too late,
In these thickets intricate;
Lest Prometheus
See and chide thee,
Lest some hurt
Or harm betide thee,
Haste and hide thee!

PROMETHEUS (entering.)
Who was it fled from here? I saw a shape
Flitting among the trees.

It was Pandora.

O Epimetheus! Is it then in vain
That I have warned thee? Let me now implore.
Thou harborest in thy house a dangerous guest.

Whom the Gods love they honor with such guests.

Whom the Gods would destroy they first make mad.

Shall I refuse the gifts they send to me?

Reject all gifts that come from higher powers.

Such gifts as this are not to be rejected.

Make not thyself the slave of any woman.

Make not thyself the judge of any man.

I judge thee not; for thou art more than man;
Thou art descended from Titanic race,
And hast a Titan's strength, and faculties
That make thee godlike; and thou sittest here
Like Heracles spinning Omphale's flax,
And beaten with her sandals.

O my brother!
Thou drivest me to madness with thy taunts.

And me thou drivest to madness with thy follies.
Come with me to my tower on Caucasus:
See there my forges in the roaring caverns,
Beneficent to man, and taste the joy
That springs from labor. Read with me the stars,
And learn the virtues that lie hidden in plants,
And all things that are useful.

O my brother!
I am not as thou art. Thou dost inherit
Our father's strength, and I our mother's weakness:
The softness of the Oceanides,
The yielding nature that cannot resist.

Because thou wilt not.

Nay; because I cannot.

Assert thyself; rise up to thy full height;
Shake from thy soul these dreams effeminate,
These passions born of indolence and ease.
Resolve, and thou art free. But breathe the air
Of mountains, and their unapproachable summits
Will lift thee to the level of themselves.

The roar of forests and of waterfalls,
The rushing of a mighty wind, with loud
And undistinguishable voices calling,
Are in my ear!


O, listen and obey.

Thou leadest me as a child, I follow thee.

(They go out.)

Centuries old are the monntains;
Their foreheads wrinkled and rifted
Helios crowns by day,
Pallid Selene by night;
From their bosoms uptossed
The snows are driven and drifted,
Like Tithonus' beard
Streaming dishevelled and white.

Thunder and tempest of wind
Their trumpets blow in the vastness;
Phantoms of mist and rain,
Cloud and the shadow of cloud,
Pass and repass by the gates
Of their inaccessible fastness;
Ever unmoved they stand,
Solemn, eternal, and proud,


Flooded by rain and snow
In their inexhaustible sources,
Swollen by affluent streams
Hurrying onward and hurled
Headlong over the crags,
The impetuous water-courses,
Rush and roar and plunge
Down to the nethermost world.

Say, have the solid rocks
Into streams of silver been melted,
Flowing over the plains,
Spreading to lakes in the fields?
Or have the mountains, the giants,
The ice-helmed, the forest-belted,
Scattered their arms abroad;
Flung in the meadows their shields?

High on their turreted cliffs
That bolts of thunder have shattered,
Storm-winds muster and blow
Trumpets of terrible breath;
Then from the gateways rush,
And before them routed and scattered
Sullen the cloud-rack flies,
Pale with the pallor of death.

Onward the hurricane rides,
And flee for shelter the shepherds;
White are the frightened leaves,
Harvests with terror are white;
Panic seizes the herds,
And even the lions and leopards,
Prowling no longer for prey,
Crouch in their caverns with fright.

Guarding the mountains around
Majestic the forests are standing,
Bright are their crested helms,
Dark is their armor of leaves;
Filled with the breath of freedom
Each bosom subsiding, expanding,
Now like the ocean sinks,
Now like the ocean upheaves.

Planted firm on the rock,
With foreheads stern and defiant,
Loud they shout to the winds,
Loud to the tempest they call;
Naught but Olympian thunders,
That blasted Titan and Giant,
Them can uproot and o'erthrow,
Shaking the earth with their fall.


These are the Voices Three
Of winds and forests and fountains,
Voices of earth and of air,
Murmur and rushing of streams,
Making together one sound,
The mysterious voice of the mountains,
Waking the sluggard that sleeps,
Waking the dreamer of dreams.

These are the Voices Three,
That speak of endless endeavor,
Speak of endurance and strength,
Triumph and fulness of fame,
Sounding about the world,
An inspiration forever,
Stirring the hearts of men,
Shaping their end and their aim.



Left to myself I wander as I will,
And as my fancy leads me, through this house,
Nor could I ask a dwelling more complete
Were I indeed the Goddess that he deems me.
No mansion of Olympus, framed to be
The habitation of the Immortal Gods,
Can be more beautiful. And this is mine
And more than this, the love wherewith he crowns me.
As if impelled by powers invisible
And irresistible, my steps return
Unto this spacious hall. All corridors
And passages lead hither, and all doors
But open into it. Yon mysterious chest
Attracts and fascinates me. Would I knew
What there lies hidden! But the oracle
Forbids. Ah me! The secret then is safe.
So would it be if it were in my keeping.
A crowd of shadowy faces from the mirrors
That line these walls are watching me. I dare not
Lift up the lid. A hundred times the act
Would be repeated, and the secret seen
By twice a hundred incorporeal eyes.

(She walks to the other side of the hall.)

My feet are weary, wandering to and fro,
My eyes with seeing and my heart with waiting.
I will lie here and rest till he returns,
Who is my dawn, my day, my Helios.

(Throws herself upon a couch, and falls asleep.)

Come from thy caverns dark and deep.
O son of Erebus and Night;
All sense of hearing and of sight
Enfold in the serene delight
And quietude of sleep!

Set all the silent sentinels
To bar and guard the Ivory Gate,
And keep the evil dreams of fate
And falsehood and infernal hate
Imprisoned in their cells.

But open wide the Gate of Horn,
Whence, beautiful as planets, rise
The dreams of truth, with starry eyes,
And all the wondrous prophecies
And visions of the morn.

Ye sentinels of sleep,
It is in vain ye keep
Your drowsy watch before the Ivory Gate;
Though closed the portal seems,
The airy feet of dreams
Ye cannot thus in walls incarcerate.

We phantoms are and dreams
Born by Tartarean streams,
As ministers of the infernal powers;
O son of Erebus
And Night, behold! we thus
Elude your watchful warders on the towers!

From gloomy Tartarus
The Fates have summoned us
To whisper in her ear, who lies asleep,
A tale to fan the fire
Of her insane desire
To know a secret that the Gods would keep.

This passion, in their ire,
The Gods themselves inspire,
To vex mankind with evils manifold,
So that disease and pain
O'er the whole earth may reign,
And nevermore return the Age of Gold.

PANDORA (waking).
A voice said in my sleep: 'Do not delay:
Do not delay; the golden moments fly!
The oracle hath forbidden; yet not thee
Doth it forbid, but Epimetheus only!'
I am alone. These faces in the mirrors
Are but the shadows and phantoms of myself;
They cannot help nor hinder. No one sees me,
Save the all-seeing Gods, who, knowing good
And knowing evil, have created me
Such as I am, and filled me with desire
Of knowing good and evil like themselves.

(She approaches the chest.)

I hesitate no longer. Weal or woe,
Or life or death, the moment shall decide.

(She lifts the lid. A dense mist rises from
the chest, and fills the room. PANDORA
falls senseless on the floor. Storm without.)

Yes, the moment shall decide!
It already hath decided;
And the secret once confided
To the keeping of the Titan
Now is flying far and wide,
Whispered, told on every side,
To disquiet and to frighten.

Fever of the heart and brain,
Sorrow, pestilence, and pain,
Moans of anguish, maniac laughter,
All the evils that hereafter
Shall afflict and vex mankind,
All into the air have risen
From the chambers of their prison;
Only Hope remains behind.




The storm is past, but it hath left behind it
Ruin and desolation. All the walks
Are strewn with shattered boughs; the birds are silent;
The flowers, downtrodden by the wind, lie dead;
The swollen rivulet sobs with secret pain,
The melancholy reeds whisper together
As if some dreadful deed had been committed
They dare not name, and all the air is heavy
With an unspoken sorrow! Premonitions,
Foreshadowings of some terrible disaster
Oppress my heart. Ye Gods, avert the omen!

PANDORA (coming from the house).
O Epimetheus, I no longer dare
To lift mine eyes to thine, nor hear thy voice,
Being no longer worthy of thy love.

What hast thou done?

Forgive me not, but kill me.

What hast thou done?

I pray for death, not pardon.

What hast thou done?

I dare not speak of it.

Thy pallor and thy silence terrify me!

I have brought wrath and ruin on thy house!
My heart hath braved the oracle that guarded
The fatal secret from us, and my hand
Lifted the lid of the mysterious chest!

Then all is lost! I am indeed undone.

I pray for punishment, and not for pardon.

Mine is the fault not thine. On me shall fall
The vengeance of the Gods, for I betrayed
Their secret when, in evil hour, I said
It was a secret; when, in evil hour,
I left thee here alone to this temptation.
Why did I leave thee?

Why didst thou return?
Eternal absence would have been to me
The greatest punishment. To be left alone
And face to face with my own crime, had been
Just retribution. Upon me, ye Gods,
Let all your vengeance fall!

On thee and me.
I do not love thee less for what is done,
And cannot be undone. Thy very weakness
Hath brought thee nearer to me, and henceforth
My love will have a sense of pity in it,
Making it less a worship than before.


Pity me not; pity is degradation.
Love me and kill me.

Beautiful Pandora!
Thou art a Goddess still!

I am a woman;
And the insurgent demon in my nature,
That made me brave the oracle, revolts
At pity and compassion. Let me die;
What else remains for me?

Youth, hope, and love:
To build a new life on a ruined life,
To make the future fairer than the past,
And make the past appear a troubled dream.
Even now in passing through the garden walks
Upon the ground I saw a fallen nest
Ruined and full of rain; and over me
Beheld the uncomplaining birds already
Busy in building a new habitation.

Auspicious omen!

May the Eumenides
Put out their torches and behold us not,
And fling away their whips of scorpions
And touch us not.

Me let them punish.
Only through punishment of our evil deeds,
Only through suffering, are we reconciled
To the immortal Gods and to ourselves.

Never shall souls like these
Escape the Eumenides,
The daughters dark of Acheron and Night!
Unquenched our torches glare,
Our scourges in the air
Send forth prophetic sounds before they smite.

Never by lapse of time
The soul defaced by crime
Into its former self returns again;
For every guilty deed
Holds in itself the seed
Of retribution and undying pain.

Never shall be the loss
Restored, till Helios
Hath purified them with his heavenly fires;
Then what was lost is won,
And the new life begun,
Kindled with nobler passions and desires.
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Monday, April 23, 2018

Do Sexbots Have Rights?

The current wave of politically-correct moralism reared its head in recent debates about the need to regulate relations between humans and sexbots (sexual robots).

First, for context, allow me to quote from a news report:
“last year a sex robot named Samantha was ‘molested’ and seriously damaged at a tech industry festival; the incident spurred debate on the need to raise the issue of ethics in relation to machines... while the developers of sexbots have claimed that their projects will do anything to indulge their customers’ desires, it seems that they might start rejecting some persistent men... people ignore the fact that they may seriously damage the machine, just because it cannot say ‘no’ to their ‘advances’... future humanoid sex robots might be sophisticated enough to ‘enjoy a certain degree of consciousness’ to consent to sexual intercourse, albeit, to their mind, conscious feelings were not necessary components of being able to give or withhold consent... in legal terms, introduction of the notion of consent into human-robot sexual relationships is vital in a way similar to sexual relations between humans and it will help prevent the creation of a ‘class of legally incorporated sex-slaves.’”
Although these ideas are just a specific application of a proposal for the EU to impose the basic “rights” for AI (artificial intelligence), the domain of sexbots brings out in a clear way the implicit presuppositions that determine such thinking. We are basically dealing with laziness in thinking: by adopting such “ethical” attitudes, we comfortably avoid the complex web of underlying problems.

Indeed, the initial suspicion is that the proponents of such demands do not really care about the AI machines (they are well aware that they cannot really experience pain and humiliation) but about aggressive humans: what they want is not to alleviate the suffering of the machines but to squash the problematic aggressive desires, fantasies and pleasures of us, humans.

Moral Maze

This becomes clear the moment we include the topics of video games and virtual reality: if, instead of sexbots – actual plastic bodies whose (re)actions are regulated by AI, we imagine escapades in virtual reality (or, even more plastic, augmented reality) in which we can sexually torture and brutally exploit people – although, in this case, it is clear that no actual entity is suffering, the proponents of the rights of AI machines would nonetheless in all probability insist on imposing some limitations on what we, humans, can do in virtual space.

The argument that those who fantasize about such things are prone to do them in real life is very problematic: the relationship between imagining and doing it in real life is much more complex in both relations. We often do horrible things while imagining that we are doing something noble, and vice versa. Not to mention how we often secretly daydream about doing things we would in no way be able to perform in real life. We enter thereby the old debate: if someone has brutal tendencies, is it better to allow him to play with them in virtual space or with machines, with the hope that, in this way, he will be satisfied enough and not do them in real life?

Finding Answers

Another question: if a sexbot rejects our rough advances, does this not simply mean that it was programmed in this way? So why not re-program it in a different way? Or, to go to the end, why not program it in such a way that it welcomes our brutal mistreatment? (The catch is, of course, will we, the sadistic perpetrators, still enjoy it in this case? Because a sadist wants his victims to be terrified and ashamed.)

And one more: what if an evil programmer makes the sexbots themselves sadists who enjoy brutally mistreating us, its partners? If we confer rights to AI sexbots and prohibit their brutal mistreatment, this means that we treat them as minimally autonomous and responsible entities – so should we also treat them as minimally “guilty” if they mistreat us, or should we just blame their programmer?

Nevertheless, the basic mistake of advocates for AI rights is that they presuppose our, human, standards (and rights) as being the highest form. What if, with the explosive development of AI, new entities will emerge with what we could conditionally call a “psychology” (series of attitudes or mindsets) which will be incompatible with ours, but in some sense definitely “higher” than ours (measured by our standards, they can appear either more “evil” or more “good” than ours)? What right do WE (humans) have to measure them with our ethical standards?

So let’s conclude this detour with a provocative thought: maybe, a true sign of the ethical and subjective autonomy of a sexbot would have been not that it rejects our advances but that, even if it was programmed to reject our brutal treatment, it secretly starts to enjoy it? In this way, the sexbot would become a true subject of desire, divided and inconsistent as we humans are.
- Slavoj Zizek, "Do Sexbots Have Rights?"

Sunday, April 22, 2018

On the Essence of Anti-Capitalism

Mao's shift with regard to Lenin and Stalin concerns the relationship between the working class and peasantry: both Lenin and Stalin were deeply distrustful towards the peasantry, they saw as one of the main tasks of Soviet power to break the inertia of the peasants, their substantial attachment to the land, to 'proletarianize' them and thus fully expose them to the dynamics of modernization - in clear contrast to Mao who, in his critical notes on Stalin's "Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR" (from 1958) remarked that 'Stalin's point of view... it is almost completely wrong. The basic error is mistrust of the peasants.' The theoretical and political consequences of this shift are properly shattering: they imply no less than a thorough reworking of Marx's Hegelian notion of the proletarian position as the position of 'substanceless subjectivity', of those who are reduced to the abyss of their subjectivity.

This is the movement of 'concrete universality', this radical 'transubstantiation' through which the original theory has to reinvent itself in a new context: only by way of surviving this transplant can it emerge as effectively universal. And, of course, the point is not that we are dealing here with the pseudo-Hegelian process of 'alienation' and 'disalienation', of how the original theory is 'alienated' and then has to incorporate the foreign context radically affects the original theory itself, so that, when the theory 'returns to itself in its' otherness' (reinvents itself in the foreign context), its very substance changes - and yet this shift is not just the reaction to an external shock, it remains an inherent transformation of the same theory of the overcoming of capitalism. This is how capitalism is a 'concrete universality': it is not a question of isolating what all the particular forms have in common, their shared universal features, but of grasping this matrix as a positive force in itself, as something which all actual particular forms try to counteract, in order to contain its destructive effects.
- Slavoj Zizek intorduction to "Mao: On Practice and Contradiction"

Thursday, April 19, 2018


In the sombre woods of ancient Dodona
Was a Dorian temple by expert hand built,
No other in this world could compare to its beauty,
Surrounded by statues of silver and gilt.

Laden with gifts appeared kings from afar
To honour the priestess, her speech divining,
Like hermits they huddled in fasting and prayer
Awaiting their fate, outside they were pining.

But fate and the future have eyes unbound,
And lots when cast can quickly turn round,
A word is enough, if sent from the heavens...

How many thrones have been toppled and tossed,
And how many leaders' minds have been lost
For failing to heed that old woman's words.
Aleksander Stavre Drenova, "The Oracle of Dodona"

’Tis mute, the word they went to hear on high Dodona mountain
When winds were in the oakenshaws and all the cauldrons tolled,
And mute’s the midland navel-stone beside the singing fountain,
And echoes list to silence now where gods told lies of old.

I took my question to the shrine that has not ceased from speaking,
The heart within, that tells the truth and tells it twice as plain;
And from the cave of oracles I hear the priestess shrieking
That she and I should surely die and never live again.

Oh priestess, what you cry is clear, and sound good sense I think it;
But let the screaming echoes rest, and froth your mouth no more.
’Tis true there’s better boose than brine, but he that drowns must drink it;
And oh, my lass, the news is news that men have heard before.

The king with half the East at heel is marched from lands of morning;
Their fighters drink the rivers up, their shafts benight the air.
And he that stands must die for nought, and home there’s no returning.
The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair.
A. E. Housman, "The Oracles"

Wink, Wink? Nudge, Nudge!

Slavoj Zizek, "Cambridge Analytica and Popular Happiness Industry"

Truth and happiness don’t go together – truth hurts, it brings instability, it ruins the smooth flow of our daily lives. The choice is ours: do we want to be happily manipulated or expose ourselves to the risks of authentic creativity?
Now that our media is full of reports and comments on Cambridge Analytica, a key feature of the affair is, as a rule, ignored: the context of Cambridge Analytica makes it clear how cold manipulation and the care for love and human welfare are two sides of the same coin. Tamsin Shaw recently pointed out the central role played by researchers into happiness, like “The World Well-Being Project, a group at the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center that specialises in the use of big data to measure health and happiness in order to improve well-being,” then there is “Aleksandr Kogan, who also works in the field of positive psychology and has written papers on happiness, kindness, and love (according to his résumé, an early paper was called ‘Down the Rabbit Hole: A Unified Theory of Love’).”

Why does such research on authentic happiness and well-being draw so much interest from intelligence agencies and defence contractors? This link is not externally imposed on the behavioural sciences by “bad” political manipulators but is implied by their immanent orientation: their aim is to discover “means by which we can be ‘nudged’ in the direction of our true well-being as positive psychologists understand it.” This “nudging” does not make individuals overcome their “irrationalities”: contemporary behavioural sciences “aim to exploit our irrationalities” since they view us “as manipulable subjects rather than rational agents.”

All this is extensively covered by our media, and we are getting a terrifying image of the new forms of social control which make the good old 20th-century “totalitarianism” a rather primitive and clumsy machine. To grasp the full scope of this control, we should move beyond the link between private corporations and political parties to the interpenetration of data processing companies like Google or Facebook and state security agencies. The biggest achievement of the new cognitive-military complex is that direct and obvious oppression is no longer necessary: individuals are much better controlled and “nudged” in the desired direction when they continue to experience themselves as free and autonomous agents of their own life.

But all these are well-known facts, and we have to go a step further. It is not enough to demystify the innocent-sounding research into happiness and to bring out a hidden gigantic complex of social control and manipulation that uses it. What is urgently needed is also the opposite move: we should focus on the form itself. Is the topic of scientific research of human welfare and happiness (at least the way it is practised today) really so innocent, or is it already in itself permeated by the stance of control and manipulation? What if sciences are here not just misused, what if they find here precisely their proper use? We should question the recent rise of a new discipline: “happiness studies.”

As is often the case, Bhutan, a developing Third World country, naively spelled out the absurd socio-political consequences of this notion of happiness: two decades ago, the kingdom of Bhutan decided to focus on Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than Gross National Product (GNP); the idea was the brainchild of ex-king Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who sought to steer Bhutan into the modern world, while preserving its unique identity. The Oxford-educated new king, 27-year-old Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, ordered a state agency to calculate how happy the kingdom’s 670,000 people are. The main concerns were identified as psychological well-being, health, education, good governance, living standards, community vitality and ecological diversity: this is cultural imperialism, if there ever was one. No wonder that, two decades ago, ethnic cleansing was conducted since it was “discovered” that the presence of a strong non-Buddhist minority is an obstacle to the happiness of the Buddhist majority.

We should date to take an even further step and enquire into the hidden side of the notion of happiness itself – when, exactly, can a people be said to be happy? In a country like Czechoslovakia in the late 1970s and 1980s, people in a way effectively were happy: three fundamental conditions of happiness were fulfilled there. Firstly, their material needs were basically satisfied – not too satisfied, since the excess of consumption can in itself generate unhappiness. It is good to experience a brief shortage of some goods on the market from time to time (no coffee for a couple of days, then no beef, then no TV sets): these brief periods of shortage functioned as exceptions which reminded people that they should be glad that the goods were generally available. Life thus went on in a regular and predictable way, without any great efforts or shocks, one was allowed to withdraw into one’s private niche.

Secondly, the Communist Party was conveniently blamed for everything that went wrong, so that one did not feel really responsible – if there was a temporary shortage of some goods, even if there a stormy weather caused great damage, it was their guilt.

Thirdly, last but not least, there was an Other Place (the consumerist West) about which one was allowed to dream, and even visit sometimes – this place was just at the right distance, not too far, not too close. This fragile balance was disturbed – by what? By desire, precisely. Desire was the force which compelled the people to move beyond – and end up in a system in which the large majority is definitely less happy.

Happiness is something confused and inconsistent – recall the proverbial answer of a German immigrant to the US who, when asked “Are you happy?”, answered: “Yes, yes, I am very happy, aber gluecklich bin ich nicht…” It is a pagan category: for pagans, the goal of life is to live a happy life – no wonder Dalai Lama himself is having such a success recently preaching around the world the gospel of happiness, and no wonder he is finding the greatest response precisely in the US, this ultimate empire of the (pursuit of) happiness. In our daily lives, we (pretend to) desire things which we do not really desire, so that, ultimately, the worst thing that can happen is for us to get what we officially desire. Happiness is thus inherently hypocritical: it is the happiness of dreaming about things we really do not want.

Do we not encounter a similar gesture in much of leftist politics? In the UK, many leftists privately admit that the near-victory of the Labour Party in the last elections was the best thing it could have happened, much better than the insecurity of what might have happened in the Labour government would have tried to implement its programme.

The same holds for the prospect of Bernie Sanders’ eventual victory: what would have been his chances against the onslaught of the big capital? The mother of all such gestures is the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia which crushed the Prague Spring and its hope of democratic socialism. Without this intervention, the “reformist” government would have to confront the fact that there was no real possibility of a democratic Socialism at that historical moment, so it would have to choose between reasserting the party control and allowing Czechoslovakia to become one of the Western liberal-democratic capitalism.

The Soviet intervention saved the Prague Spring as a dream, as a hope that, without the intervention, a new form of democratic Socialism might have emerged. And did not something similar occur in Greece when the Syriza government organised the referendum against Brussels’ pressure to accept the austerity politics? The government was secretly hoping to lose the referendum, in which case it would have to step down and leave it to others to perform the dirty job of austerity. Since they won, this task fell to themselves, and the result was the self-destruction of the radical Left in Greece. Without any doubt, Syriza would have been much happier if it lost the referendum.

So, back to our starting point, not only are we controlled and manipulated, “happy” people secretly and hypocritically demand even to be manipulated for their own good. Truth and happiness don’t go together – truth hurts, it brings instability, it ruins the smooth flow of our daily lives. The choice is ours: do we want to be happily manipulated or expose ourselves to the risks of authentic creativity?

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

On the Information Economy: Capitalizing on the Ability to Collect Rent on the General Intellect

Extreme Subjectivity: The Roots of German Expressionism & Our Ever Leftward Drift

...and subsequent application of "theory" by the Left
Imagine all that is going on around you, all those struggles
Picturing them just like historical incidents
For this is how you should go on to portray them on the stage:
The fight for a job, sweet and bitter conversations
Between the man and his woman, arguments about books
Resignation and revolt, attempt and failure
All these you will go on to portray as historical incidents.
(Even what is happening here, at this moment, with us, is something you
Can regard as a picture in this way)
-Bertolt Brecht, "Speech to Danish working-class actors on the art of observation"

Friday, April 13, 2018

Exploring Subjectivity: From Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke

from Wikipedia
The Thin White Duke was David Bowie's 1975 and 1976 persona and character. He is primarily identified with Bowie's 1976 album Station to Station and is mentioned by name in the title track. However, Bowie had begun to adopt the "Duke" persona during the preceding Young Americans tour and promotion in 1975. The persona's look and character are somewhat based on Thomas Jerome Newton, the titular humanoid alien played by Bowie in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth.

The Thin White Duke was a controversial figure due to ostensibly pro-fascist statements made by Bowie in press interviews. Soon after making the comments, Bowie claimed that they were "theatrical" remarks made in character and did not reflect his actual views. In later years, he blamed his erratic behaviour during his mid-1970s Duke era on an "astronomical" use of hard drugs (particularly cocaine) while living in Los Angeles.

Bowie left California for Europe in 1976 to improve his mental and physical well-being. He settled in West Berlin in early 1977, at which point he quietly retired the Thin White Duke persona.
The Sefirot in Jewish Kabbalah

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Antigone and Ismene, Models for Post-Oedipal Post-Modern Development?

One of the lessons which Hitler has taught us is that it is better not to be too clever. The Jews put forward all kinds of well-founded arguments to show that he could not come to power when his rise was clear for all to see. I remember a conversation during which a political economist demonstrated- on the basis of the interests of the Bavarian brewers- that the Germans could not be brought into line. Other experts proved that Fascism was impossible in the West. The educated made it easy for the barbarians everywhere by being so stupid. The farsighted judgments, the forecasts based on statistics and experience, the comments beginning "this is a subject I know very well," and the well-rounded, solid statements, are all untrue
-Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno

At all events, it is better to be controlled by someone else than by oneself. Better to be oppressed, exploited, persecuted and manipulated by someone other than by oneself. In this sense the entire movement for liberation and emancipation, inasmuch as it is predicated on a demand for greater autonomy- or, in other words, on a more complete introjection of all forms of control and constraint under the banner of freedom- is a regression.
-Jean Baudrillard


The problems of cynicism and violence, while certainly not new and arguably not as severe as the media coverage might suggest, are nevertheless noteworthy for being symptomatic of larger cultural shifts.' These shifts, often given the general descriptive term "postmodem," can also be described in terms of what Gilles Deleuze calls the "society of control" and what Slavoj Zizek calls "de-oedipalization." These two otherwise disparate theories of the social resonate with one another since they both argue that Michel Foucault's concept of the disciplinary society no longer carries sufficient descriptive force. Deleuze and Zizek suggest that power is no longer organized primarily through institutions to produce compliant, useful, and productive bodies; instead, institutions are breaking down and forms of external regulation are withdrawing. However, as has been noted by several cultural theorists, there has not been a concomitant resurgence of liberatory practices. The usefulness of Deleuze and Zizek is that they provide two ways to model how the flow of power has found new modalities through which to exercise control. Zizek further suggests that the withdrawal of the body of external social regulations and constraints- what is referred to as "the big Other" in Lacanian theory- has initiated post-oedipalized forms of subjectivity no longer keyed to the oedipal scene. Lacking the libidinal, internalized attachment to authority (typically in patriarchal forms of the Father and its substitutes), these subjects are prone to disaffected attitudes and behavior, including cynicism, apathy, disregard, and violence.
- Thomas Rickert, "Hands Up, You're Free: Composition in a Post-Oedipal World"
Pablo Picasso, "Garçon à la Pipe (English: Boy with a Pipe)" (1905)

Heart-Shaped Hyper-Liberal Boxes

For liberals the recent transformation of universities into institutions devoted to the eradication of thought crime must seem paradoxical. In the past higher education was avowedly shaped by an ideal of unfettered inquiry. Varieties of social democrats and conservatives, liberals and Marxists taught and researched alongside scholars with no strong political views. Academic disciplines cherished their orthodoxies, and dissenters could face difficulties in being heard. But visiting lecturers were rarely dis­invited because their views were deemed unspeakable, course readings were not routinely screened in case they contained material that students might find discomforting, and faculty members who departed from the prevailing consensus did not face attempts to silence them or terminate their careers. An inquisitorial culture had not yet taken over.

It would be easy to say that liberalism has now been abandoned. Practices of toleration that used to be seen as essential to freedom are being deconstructed and dismissed as structures of repression, and any ideas or beliefs that stand in the way of this process banned from public discourse. Judged by old-fashioned standards, this is the opposite of what liberals have stood for. But what has happened in higher education is not that liberalism has been supplanted by some other ruling philos­ophy. Instead, a hyper-liberal ideology has developed that aims to purge society of any trace of other views of the world. If a regime of censorship prevails in universities, it is because they have become vehicles for this project. When students from China study in Western countries one of the lessons they learn is that the enforcement of intellectual orthodoxy does not require an authoritarian gov­ernment. In institutions that proclaim their commitment to critical inquiry, censorship is most effective when it is self-imposed. A defining feature of tyranny, the policing of opinion is now established practice in societies that believe themselves to be freer than they have ever been.

A shift to hyper-liberalism has also occurred in politics. In Britain some have described the ascendancy of Jeremy Corbyn as the capture of the Labour Party by a Trotskyite brand of Marxism. No doubt some factions in the party hark back to the hard-left groups that fought for control of Labour in the 1970s and 80s in their rhetoric, methods and policies. But there is not much in the ideology animating Corbynite Labour that is recognizably Marxist. In Marx, the historical agent of progress in capitalist societies is the industrial working class. But for many who have joined the mass party that Corbyn has constructed, the surviving remnants of this class can only be obstacles to progress. With their attachment to national identity and anxieties about immigration, these residues of the past stand in the way of a world without communal boundaries and inherited group identities – a vision that, more than socialism or concern for the worst-off, animates this new party. It is a prospect that attracts sections of the middle classes – not least graduate millennials, who through Corbyn’s promise to abolish student fees could be major beneficiaries of his policies – that regard themselves as the most progressive elements in society. But there are some telling differ­ences between these hyper-liberals and the progressives of the past.

One can be seen in the frenzy surrounding the question of colonialism. The complex and at times contradictory realities of empire have been expelled from intellectual debate. While student bodies have dedicated themselves to removing relics of the colonial era from public places, sections of the faculty have ganged up to denounce anyone who suggests that the legacy of empire is not one of unmitigated criminality. If he was alive today one of these dissident figures would be Marx himself, who in his writings on India maintained that the impact of British imperialism was in some ways positive. Acknowledging that “the misery that was inflicted by the British on Hindostan is of an essentially different and infinitely more intensive kind than all Hindostan had to suffer before”, Marx continued by attacking the “undignified, stagnatory and vegetative life” of Indian villages:
we must not forget that these idyllic village communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it within traditional rules . . . . England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated by only the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England, she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution. (“The British Rule in India”, New-York Daily Tribune, June 10, 1853)
Of course, Marx may have been mistaken in this judgement. Along with most progressive thinkers of his day, he assumed that India and other colonized countries would replicate a Western model of development. But like other progressive thinkers at the time, he also took for granted that this was a question that could and should be debated. He never believed that colonialism was self-evidently damaging in all of its effects.

There are other features that distinguish hyper-liberals from progressive thinkers of previous generations. Last year’s Labour Conference was notable for a fringe event, later condemned by the Labour Party, in which one speaker seemed to suggest that questioning whether the Holocaust happened should be a legitimate part of public debate. This sits oddly with curbs on debate that many of those present would – I imagine – have supported on other issues, such as colonialism. Again, no one at the meeting proposed that the myths surrounding communism – such as the idea that large-scale repression originated with Stalin – should be exposed to critical inquiry. The costs and benefits of European colonialism and Soviet communism are not simple matters of fact; assessing them involves complex historical and moral judgements, which should be freely discussed. In contrast, suggesting that the Holocaust may not have occurred is a denial of incontrovertible fact. If Holocaust denial is accepted as a respectable branch of historical inquiry, the most infallible symptom of anti-Semitism is normalized. At the same time a key part of the ideology of the alt-right, according to which facts are not objectively identifiable features of the world, is affirmed.

However, indifference to facts is not confined to the alt-right and the hyper-liberal Left. It is pervasive among liberals who came of age at the end of the Cold War. Francis Fuku­yama’s claim that with the fall of communism the world was witnessing “the universalization of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” is nowadays widely mocked. Yet when he made this pronouncement in 1989, in the summer issue of the National Interest, it expressed what most liberals believed, and, for all that has since transpired, most continue to insist that the arc of history curves in their direction. They believe this even though the Middle East is a patchwork of theocracy, secular authoritarianism and states fractured by Western intervention; much of post-communist Europe is ruled by illiberal democracies (regimes that mobilize popular consent while dismantling protections for individuals and minorities); Russia is governed through a type of elective autocracy; and the US under Trump appears to be on the way to becoming an illiberal regime not unlike those that have emerged in Hungary and Poland. They pass over the fact that parties of the far Right attract growing support from voters in several of the countries of the European Union. In Germany – the centre of the stupendous liberal project of a transnational European state – a recent poll showed larger numbers of the electorate intending to vote for the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD) than for the centre-left Social Democrats. In Italy, Centre Left and Centre Right have been rejected in favour of extreme parties, some of them with links to Fascism. One reason liberal democracy is not going to be universalized is that in some cases it is morphing into a different form of government entirely.

Many who believe liberalism is in crisis have identified the underlying causes as being primarily economic in nature. With some caveats, this is the view of Edward Luce in one of the better recent books on the subject, The Retreat of Western Liberalism (2017). If the West cannot keep up with the economic and technological advance of China, and distribute the fruits of economic growth more widely, Luce asks, how can it maintain its claim to superiority? In this view, the populist upheavals that have shaken Western countries are clearly a backlash from those who have been excluded from the benefits of an expanding global market. Certainly this was one of the reasons for the revolt against established ruling elites that erupted in 2016. Brexit and the Trump presidency are different in many ways, but neither would have happened had it not been for large numbers of voters having a well-founded sense of being left out. Rev­ulsion against Washington-centric oligarchical capitalism was part of the mood that Trump exploited. But it was not only their marginal­ization in the economy that the voters resented. They were also responding to the denigration of their values and identities by parties and leaders who claimed to be fighting for social justice. Hillary Clinton’s contemptuous reference to a “basket of deplorables” was emblematic. In recent years, no social group has been more freely disparaged than the proles who find themselves trapped in the abandoned communities of America’s post-industrial wastelands. With their economic grievances dismissed as “white­lash”, their lives and identities derided, and their view of the world attributed to poor education and sheer stupidity, many of these despised plebs may have voted for Trump more out of anger than conviction. If this mood persists and penetrates sections of the middle classes it has not yet deeply affected, he could yet win a second term. It may not be the economy but a need for respect that decides the outcome.

It is at this point that the rise of an illiberal liberalism becomes politically significant. What happens on campus may not matter much in itself. Anxiously clinging to the fringes of middle-class life, many faculty members have only a passing acquaintance with the larger society in which they live. Few have friends who are not also graduates, fewer still any who are industrial workers. Swathes of their fellow citizens are, to them, embo­diments of the Other – brutish aliens whom they seldom or never meet. Hyper-liberalism serves this section of the academy as a legitimating ideology, giving them an illusory sense of having a leading role in society. The result is a richly entertaining mixture of bourgeois careerism with virtue-signalling self-righteousness – the stuff of a comic novel, though few so far have been up to the task of chronicling it. We are yet to see anything quite as cutting as Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man (1975) or Saul Bellow’s The Dean’s Dec­ember (1982), where the campus radicals of a generation ago were depicted with dark humour and cruel wit. Despite being on a larger scale than ever before, the campus may be too small and self-enclosed a world to interest many novelists today.

Yet the identity politics that is being preached on campus has effects on society at large. Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal (TLS, February 9) has been widely attacked for claiming that a Rooseveltian project of building a common identity that spans ethnicities can produce a more enduring liberal politics: any such view, faculty inquisitors hiss, can only be a disguised defence of white supremacy. Lilla’s book cannot be faulted on the ground that it harks back to Roosevelt. By attacking a liberal conception of American national identity as a repressive construction, hyper-liberals confirmed the perception of large sections of the American population – not least blue-collar workers who voted Democrat in the past – that they were being excluded from politics. Showing how the decline of liberalism in America has been mostly self-induced, Lilla’s book has performed an important service. If his analysis has a fault, it is that it does not go back further in time and explore the moment when liberalism became a secular religion.

John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859) may seem an unlikely point of origin for an illiberal brand of liberalism. In the second chapter of that celebrated essay, the author presented a canonical argument for free expression:
the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
For some, all would be well if only we returned to these old liberal verities. But Mill’s argument has limitations. It depends on the premiss that truth should be valued as an end in itself – an assumption hard to square with his Utilitarian moral philosophy, according to which the only thing valuable in itself is the satisfaction of wants. What if many people want what Mill (citing an unnamed author) described as the “deep slumber of decided opinion”? In a later work, Utilitarianism, Mill suggested that anyone who had known the intellectual pleasure of free inquiry would prefer it over mere contentment: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied,” he declared, “than a pig satisfied”. If the pig thinks otherwise, it is because the pig is not familiar with the delights of the mind. Mill’s certainty on this point is droll. A high-minded Victorian, he was insufficiently familiar with the lower pleasures to make a considered judgement. His assertion that human beings would prefer intellectual freedom over contented conformity was at odds with his empiricist philosophy. Essentially unfalsifiable, it was a matter of faith.

While he never faced up to the contradictions in his thinking, Mill was fully aware that he was fashioning a new religion. Much influenced by Auguste Comte, he was an exponent of what he and the French Positivist philosopher described as “the Religion of Humanity”. Instead of worshipping a transcendent divinity, Comte instructed followers of the new religion to venerate the human species as “the new Supreme Being”. Replacing the rituals of Christianity, they would perform daily ceremonies based in science, touching their skulls at the point that phrenology had identified as the location of altruism (a word Comte invented). In an essay written not long before the appearance of On Liberty but published posthumously (he died in 1873), Mill described this creed as “a better religion than any of those that are ordinarily called by that title”.

Mill’s transmutation of liberalism into a religion marked a fundamental shift. Modern liberal societies emerged as offshoots from Jewish and Christian monotheism. The idea that political and religious authority should be separated is prefigured in the dictum of the charismatic Jewish prophet who came to be revered as Christianity’s founder: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”. In seventeenth-century England, Milton defended freedom of conscience and expression as a condition of true faith, while John Locke saw toleration as a duty to God. When they claimed universality for these values they did so in the belief that they were divinely ordained. Mill and the secular liberals who followed him did not give up the claim to universality. They made it all the more strongly, and in a more radical form. What this meant for Mill becomes clear in the third chapter of On Liberty, “Of Individuality as one of the Elements of Well-Being”. Here, freedom no longer refers only, or even mainly, to protection from coercion by the law or other people – a system of toleration – but to a radical type of personal autonomy – the ability to create an identity and a style of life for oneself without regard for public opinion or any external authority. In future, only a single type of life would be tolerated – one based on individual choice.

It is a problematic vision, some of whose difficulties Mill glimpsed. A society that promotes individuality of this kind will iron out differences based in tradition and history; but since much of the diversity of human life comes from these sources, the result may be mass conformity. Again, in a society of the sort Mill envisioned, other religions and philos­ophies would be gradually eliminated. But if only one view of the world is acceptable, what becomes of intellectual diversity? This was not a theoretical risk for Mill. He found it exemplified in Comte, whose philosophy he came to believe led to “liberticide” – the destruction of intellectual freedom that comes when everyone is required to hold the same view. A hostile critic of liberalism who valued free inquiry only insofar as it was useful in weeding out irrational beliefs, Comte welcomed the rise of an intellectual orthodoxy with the power to impose itself on society. Mill was horrified by the prospect. He could scarcely have imagined that such an orthodoxy would be developed and enforced by liberals not unlike himself.

Mill’s religion of humanity has deeper problems. Like Comte, he believed that humanity is a progressive species, though he diverged profoundly in how he understood progress. And what is “humanity”? The conception of humankind as a collective agent gradually achieving its goals is not reached by observation. All that is empirically observable are human beings muddling on with their conflicting goals and values. Nor is it clear that many people yearn for the sort of life that Mill promoted. If history is any guide, large numbers want a sense of security as much as, or more than, personal autonomy.

Liberals who rail at populist movements are adamant that voters who support them are deluded or deceived. The possibility that these movements are exploiting needs that highly individualist societies cannot satisfy is not seriously considered. In the liberalism that has prevailed over the past generation such needs have been dismissed as atavistic prejudices, which must be swept away wherever they stand in the way of schemes for transnational government or an expanding global market. This stance is one reason why anti-liberal movements continue to advance. Liberalism and empiricism have parted company, and nothing has been learnt. Some of the strongest evidence against the liberal belief that we learn from our errors and follies comes from the behaviour of liberals themselves.

That modern politics has been shaped by secular religions is widely recognized in the case of totalitarian regimes. Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government (TLS, December 22 & 29, 2017) is a magisterial account of Bolshevism as an apocalyptic sect, which differed from earlier millenarian groups in the vast territory over which it ruled and the scale of the power it exercised. Whereas Jan Bockelson and his early sixteenth-century Anabaptists controlled only the city of Münster, Lenin and his party ruled over the peoples of the former Romanov empire. By destroying existing institutions, they aimed to open the way to a new society – indeed a new humanity. The Bolshevik project came to nothing, apart from death and broken lives for tens of millions. But the Bolsheviks would not be the last millenarian movement to seize control of a modern state. In his pioneering study The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957), Norman Cohn showed how Nazism was also a chiliastic movement. Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Pol Pot’s Cambodia can be added to the list. Much of twentieth-century politics was the pursuit of apocalyptic visions by secular regimes.

While liberals have been ready to acknowledge that totalitarian movements have functioned as corrupt religions, they resist any claim that the same has been true in their own case. Yet an evangelical faith was manifestly part of the wars launched by the West in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. No doubt these wars served geopolitical strategies, however poorly thought out and badly executed, but underpinning them was an article of faith: that slowly, fitfully and with many relapses, humankind was evolving towards a worldwide society based on liberal values. Existing humans might vary greatly in their devotion to these values; some might be bitterly hostile to them. But this was only a result of having been repressed for so long. Sweep away the tyrants and their regimes, and a new humanity would emerge from the ruins. And when it failed to materialize, it was only because there had been insufficient preparation for its arrival.

The true lesson of these wars was quite different. While intervention may be justified in order to prevent the worst crimes against humanity – a genocidal assault on the Yezidis, for example – the freedoms of thought and expression that have existed in some societies in the past few centuries cannot be transplanted at will throughout the world. Late growths of Judaism and Christianity, these liberties are products of a particular pattern of historical development. At present, they are being discarded in the societies where they originated. The idea that the world is gradually moving towards a universal civilization based on old-fashioned liberal values is as fanciful as Comte’s notion that altruism emanates from a bump on the head.

Hyper-liberals will reject any idea that what they are promoting is an exorbitant version of the liberalism they incessantly attack. Yet the belief persists that a new society will appear once we have been stripped of our historic identities, and switched to a system in which all are deemed different and yet somehow the same. In this view, all identities are equal in being cultural constructions. In practice some identities are more equal than others. Those of practitioners of historic nationalities and religions, for example, are marked out for deconstruction, while those of ethnic and sexual minorities that have been or are being oppressed are valorized. How this distinction can be maintained is unclear. If human values are no more than social constructions, how can a society that is oppressive be distinguished from one that is not? Or do all societies repress an untrammelled human subject that has yet to see the light of day?

The politics of identity is a postmodern twist on the liberal religion of humanity. The Supreme Being has become an unknown God – a species of human being nowhere encountered in history, which does not need to define itself through family or community, nationality or any religion. Parallels with the new humanity envisioned by the Bolsheviks are obvious. But it is the affinities with recent liberalism that are more pertinent. In the past, liberals have struggled to reconcile their commitment to liberty with a recognition that people need a sense of collective belonging as well. In other writings Mill balanced the individualism of On Liberty with an understanding that a common culture is necessary if freedom is to be secure, while Isaiah Berlin acknowledged that for most people being part of a community in which they can recognize themselves is an integral part of a worthwhile life. These insights were lost, or suppressed, in the liberalism that prevailed after the end of the Cold War. If it was not dismissed as ata­vistic, the need for a common identity was regarded as one that could be satisfied in private life. A global space was coming into being that would recognize only universal humanity. Any artefact that embodied the achievements of a particular state or country could only be an obstacle to this notional realm. The hyper-liberal demand that public spaces be purged of symbols of past oppression continues a post-Cold War fantasy of the end of history.

Liberals who are dismayed at the rise of the new intolerance have not noticed how much they have in common with those who are imposing it. Hyper-liberal “snowflakes”, who demand safe spaces where they cannot be troubled by disturbing facts and ideas, are what their elders have made them. Possessed by faith in an imaginary humanity, both seek to weaken or destroy the national and religious traditions that have supported freedom and toleration in the past. Insignificant in itself and often comically absurd, the current spate of campus frenzies may come to be remembered for the part it played in the undoing of what is still described as the liberal West.
- John Gray, "The problem of hyper-liberalism"

Monday, April 9, 2018

Antisemitism and Israel

Imagine all that is going on around you, all those struggles
Picturing them just like historical incidents
For this is how you should go on to portray them on the stage:
The fight for a job, sweet and bitter conversations
Between the man and his woman, arguments about books
Resignation and revolt, attempt and failure
All these you will go on to portray as historical incidents.
(Even what is happening here, at this moment, with us, is something you
Can regard as a picture in this way)
-Bertolt Brecht, "Speech to Danish working-class actors on the art of observation"


Slavoj Zizek, "We need to examine the reasons why we equate criticism of Israel with antisemitism"
When approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one should stick to ruthless and cold standards, suspending the urge to try to 'understand' the situation

The ongoing attacks on the Labour Party for the alleged antisemitism of some of its prominent members is not only extremely biased and in the long term, it also obfuscates the true danger of antisemitism today.

Such a danger was perfectly illustrated by a caricature published back in July 2008 in the Viennese daily Die Presse: two stocky Nazi-looking Austrians sit at a table, and one of them holding in his hands a newspaper and commenting to his friend: “Here you can see again how a totally justified antisemitism is being misused for a cheap critique of Israel!”

This joke turns around the standard argument against critics of the policies of the state of Israel: like every other state, Israel can and should be judged and eventually criticised, but some critics of Israel misuse the justified critique of Israeli policy for antisemitic purposes. When today’s Christian fundamentalist supporters of Israeli politics reject leftist critiques of Israeli policies, is their implicit line of argument not uncannily close to the caricature from Die Presse?

What this means is that, when approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one should stick to ruthless and cold standards, suspending the urge to try to “understand” the situation: one should unconditionally resist the temptation to “understand” the Arab antisemitism (where we really do encounter it) as a “natural” reaction to the sad plight of the Palestinians, or to “understand” the Israeli measures as a “natural” reaction against the background of the memory of the holocaust.

There should be no “understanding” for the fact that, in many, if not most, of the Arab countries, from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, Hitler is still considered a hero, the fact that, in the primary school textbooks, all the traditional antisemitic myths, from the notoriously antisemitic (and forged) book The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to the claims that Jews use the blood of Christian (or Arab) children for sacrificial purposes, are attributed to them.
To claim that this antisemitism articulates in a displaced mode the resistance against capitalism in no way justifies it, and the same goes for the Nazi antisemitism: it also drew its energy from the anti-capitalist resistance. Displacement is not here a secondary operation, but the fundamental gesture of ideological mystification.

So we should not interpret or judge singular acts together, we should excise them from their historical texture: the present actions of the Israeli Defense Forces on the West Bank should not be judged against the background of the holocaust. The fact that many Arabs celebrate Hitler or that synagogues are desecrated in France and elsewhere in Europe should not be judged as an inappropriate, but understandable, reaction to what Israelis are doing in the West Bank.

When any public protest against the Israel Defense Forces activities in the West Bank is flatly denounced as an expression of antisemitism, and – implicitly, at least – put in the same line with the defenders of the Holocaust, that is to say, when the shadow of the Holocaust is permanently evoked in order to neutralise any criticism of Israeli military and political operations, it is not enough to insist on the difference between antisemitism and the critique of particular measures of the State of Israel – one should go a step further and claim that it is the state of Israel which, in this case, is desecrating the memory of the Holocaust victims, ruthlessly manipulating them, instrumentalising them into a means to legitimise present political measures.

What this means is that one should flatly reject the very notion of any logical or political link between the Holocaust and the present Israeli-Palestinian tensions. These are two thoroughly different phenomena: the one part of the European history of rightist resistance to the dynamics of modernisation, the other one of the last chapters in the history of colonisation.

On the other hand, the difficult task for the Palestinians is to accept that their true enemy is not the Jewish people but the Arab regimes themselves which manipulate their plight in order, precisely, to prevent this shift – the political radicalisation in their own midst.

Part of today’s situation in Europe effectively is the growth of antisemitism. In Malmo, Sweden, the aggressive Muslim minority harasses Jews so that they are afraid to walk in the streets in their traditional dress. Such phenomena should be clearly and unambiguously condemned: the struggle against antisemitism and the struggle against Islamophobia should be viewed as two aspects of the same struggle. Far from standing for a utopian position, this necessity of a common struggle is grounded in the very fact of the far-reaching consequences of extreme suffering. In a memorable passage in Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered, Ruth Klüger describes a conversation with “some advanced PhD candidates” in Germany:
“One reports how in Jerusalem he made the acquaintance of an old Hungarian Jew who was a survivor of Auschwitz, and yet this man cursed the Arabs and held them all in contempt. ‘How can someone who comes from Auschwitz talk like that,’ the German asks. I get into the act and argue, perhaps more hotly than need be. What did he expect? Auschwitz was no instructional institution [...] You learned nothing there, and least of all humanity and tolerance. ‘Absolutely nothing good came out of the concentration camps,’ I hear myself saying, with my voice rising, and he expects catharsis, purgation, the sort of thing you go to the theatre for? They were the most useless, pointless establishments imaginable.”
In short, the extreme horror of Auschwitz did not make it into a place which intrinsically purifies every single one of its surviving victims into ethically sensitive subjects who got rid of all petty egotistic interests.

The lesson to be drawn here is a very sad one: we have to abandon the idea that there is something emancipatory in extreme experiences, that they enable us to clear the mess and open our eyes to the ultimate truth of a situation. Or, as Arthur Koestler, the great anti-Communist convert, put it concisely: “If power corrupts, the reverse is also true; persecution corrupts the victims, though perhaps in subtler and more tragic ways.”