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

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

The Clueless Left Lashes Out...

Will the Coronavirus Change the World? On Gramsci’s ‘Interregnum’ and Zizek’s Ethnocentric Philosophy

The prophecies are here and it is a foregone conclusion: the post-coronavirus world will look fundamentally different from anything that we have seen or experienced, at least since the end of World War II.

Even before the ‘curve flattened’ in many countries that have experienced high death tolls – let alone economic devastation – as a result of the unhindered spread of the COVID-19 disease, thinkers and philosophers began speculating, from the comfort of their own quarantines, about the many scenarios that await us.

The devastation inflicted by the coronavirus is likely to be as consequential as “the fall of the Berlin Wall or the collapse of the Lehman Brothers,” wrote Foreign Policy magazine in a widely read analysis, entitled ‘How the World Will Look After the Coronavirus Pandemic’.

While major newspapers and news media outlets jumped on the bandwagon of trying to construct the various post-coronavirus possibilities, Foreign Policy sought the views of twelve thinkers, each providing their own reading of the future.

Stephen M. Walt concluded that “COVID-19 will create a world that is less open, less prosperous, and less free”.

Robin Niblett wrote that it is “highly unlikely… that the world will return to the idea of mutually beneficial globalization that defined the early 21st century”.

‘Mutually beneficial’ is a phrase deserving of a completely different essay, as it is a claim that can easily be contested by many small and poor countries.

Be that as it may, globalization was a focal point of discussion among many of the twelve thinkers, although a major point of contention was whether globalization will remain in place in its current form, whether it will be redefined or discarded altogether.

Kishore Mahbubani wrote that, “the COVID-19 pandemic will not fundamentally alter global economic directions. It will only accelerate a change that had already begun: a move away from US-centric globalization to a more China-centric globalization”.

And so on…

While political economists focused on COVID-19’s impact on major economic trends, globalization and the resultant shift of political power, environmentalists emphasized the fact that the quarantine, which has affected the vast majority of the world’s population, raises hopes that it might not be too late for Planet Earth after all.

Numerous articles, citing scientific research and accompanied by photo galleries that illustrate the blue skies over Delhi and the clean waters of Venice, all underline the point that the upcoming ‘change’ will prove most consequential for the environment.

With prophecies afoot, even discredited philosophers such as Slavoj Zizek, tried to stage a comeback, offering their own predictions of ‘ideological viruses’, including “the virus of thinking about an alternate society, a society beyond nation-state, a society that actualizes itself in the forms of global solidarity and cooperation”.

In his article, published in the German newspaper Die Welt, Zizek proposes what he describes as a ‘paradox’: while COVID-19 constitutes a ‘blow to capitalism’ it “will also compel us to re-invent communism based on trust in the people and in science”.

Ironically, only a few years ago, Zizek, who is often referred to as a ‘celebrity philosopher’, advocated an ethnocentric discourse targeting refugees, immigrants and Muslims.

“I never liked this humanitarian approach that if you really talk with them (meaning war refugees who sought safety in Europe) you discover we are all the same people,” Zizek said in his book ‘Refugees, Terror and other Troubles with the Neighbors’. “No, we are not — we have fundamental differences.”

In an article discussing Zizek’s book, published in Quartz, Annalisa Merelli wrote, “Following the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015, Zizek warned that liberals need to let go of the taboos that prevent open discussion of the problems that come from admitting people of different cultures to Europe, and in particular the denial of any public safety danger caused by refugees.”

This supposedly ‘Marxist philosopher’ went even further, borrowing from Christian theology in explaining that “the Christian motto ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ is not as simple as it appears,” criticizing the alleged ‘prohibition’ by some leftist circles of “any critique of Islam”.

“It is a simple fact that most of the refugees come from a culture that is incompatible with Western European notions of human rights,” Zizek wrote, conveniently omitting that it is Western imperialism, colonialism and wars of economic dominance that have been the main triggers of Middle Eastern crises for at least a century.

It would be safe to assume that Zizek’s unorthodox ‘reinvention of communism’ excludes millions of refugees who are paying the price, not for the ills of ‘the global economy’ – as he conveniently proposes – but for war-driven Western hegemony and neo-colonialism.

Our seemingly-disproportionate emphasis on Zizek’s unsettling ideas is only meant to illustrate that ‘celebrity philosophy’ is not only useless in this context, but also a distraction from a truly urgent discussion on the mechanics of equitable change in society, a process currently hindered by war, racism, xenophobia, and populist-centric far-right ideologies.

In truth, it is far easier to predict the future of globalization or air-pollution when analysts are confronted with straight-forward indicators – technological advancement, exports, currency valuation, and air quality.

But speaking of the reinvention of society, with little credibility to boot, is the equivalence of intellectual guesswork, especially when the so-called intellectual is almost entirely detached from the trials of everyday society.

The problem with most analyses of the various ‘futures’ that lie ahead is that very few of these predictions are predicated on an honest examination of the problems that have plagued our past and afflicted our present.

But how are we to chart a better understanding and a suitable response to the future and its many challenges if we do not truly and honestly confront and dissect the problems that have taken us to this dismal point of global crisis?

We concur. The future will bring about change. It ought to. It must. Because the status quo is simply unsustainable. Because the wars in Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan; the Israeli occupation of Palestine; the dehumanization and economic strangulation of Africa and South America, and so on, must not be allowed to become an everyday occurrence.

But for that better, more equitable future to arrive, our understanding of it must be situated within a historically valid, ideologically defensible, and humane view of our troubled world, of ourselves and of others – and not within the detached and callous view of mainstream Western economists or celebrity philosophers.

It is indeed strange how Zizek and his like can still embrace an ethnocentric view of Europe and Christianity while still being viewed as ‘communist’. What strange breed of communism is this ideology that does not acknowledge the centrality and history of global class struggles?

If we are to place the Marxist class struggle within broader and more global terms, it is befitting and tenable, then to assume that Western powers have historically represented the ‘ruling classes’, while the colonized and historically oppressed Southern hemisphere makes up the ‘subordinate classes’.

It is this dynamic of oppression, usurpation and enslavement that fueled the ‘engine of history’ – the Marxist notion that history is propelled by internal contradictions within the system of material production.

It would be simply naive to assume that an outbreak of a pandemic can automatically and inexorably, in itself, propel and produce change, and that such a romanticized ‘change’ will intuitively favor the ‘subordinate classes’, whether within local societal structures or at a global level.

There is no denial that the current crisis – whether economic or within the healthcare system – is fundamentally a structural crisis that can be traced to the numerous fault-lines within the capitalist system, which is enduring what Italian anti-fascist intellectual and politician Antonio Gramsci refers to as ‘interregnum’.

In his ‘Prison Notebooks’, Gramsci wrote: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

The ‘variety of morbid symptoms’ were expressed in the last two decades in the gradual decay, if not decimation, of the very global system that was constructed ever so diligently by capitalist Western forces, which shaped the world to pursue their own interests for nearly a century.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s was meant to usher in a whole new world – uncontested, militaristic to the core and unapologetically capitalist. Little of that has actualized, however. The first US-led Iraq military adventure (1990-91), the parallel ‘new world order’ and subsequent ‘new Middle East’, and so on, ultimately, amounted to naught.

Frustrated by its inability to translate its military and technological superiority to sustainable dominance on the ground, the US and its Western allies fell apart at a much faster rate than ever expected. Barack Obama’s administration’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ – accompanied by military retreat from the oil-rich Middle East – was only the beginning of an inevitable course of decline that no US administration, however belligerent and irrational, can possibly stop.

Largely helpless before relentless crises facing the once-triumphant capitalist order, dominant Western institutions, the likes of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU), grew useless and dysfunctional. No prophecies are required here to assume that the post-coronavirus world will further undermine the very idea behind the EU. Interestingly, although not surprisingly, the ‘European community,’ at the time of Europe’s greatest crisis since World War II, turned out to be a farce, since it was China and Cuba that extended a helping hand to Italy and Spain, not Germany, France or the Netherlands.

It is rather ironic that the very forces that championed economic globalization – and derided reluctant countries that refused to join in – are the same as those that are now advocating some form of sovereignism, isolationism, and nationalism.

This is precisely the ‘interregnum’ that Gramsci has talked about. It should not be taken for granted, however, that this political vacuum can be filled through wishful thinking alone, for real, lasting and sustainable change can only be the outcome of a mindful process, one that keeps in mind the nature of future conflicts and our ideological and moral position in response to these conflicts.

Celebrity philosophers certainly do not represent, nor do they earn the right to speak on behalf of the ‘subordinate classes’ – neither locally nor globally. What is needed, instead, is a counter ‘cultural hegemony’, championed by the true representatives of oppressed societies (minorities united by mutual solidarity, oppressed nations, and so on), who must be aware of the historical opportunity and challenges that lie ahead.

A distinct symptom of ‘interregnum’ is the palpable detachment exhibited by the masses towards traditional ideologies – a process which has begun much earlier than the outbreak of the coronavirus.

“If the ruling class has lost its consensus, i.e., is no longer ‘leading’ but only ‘dominant,’ exercising coercive force alone, this means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously”, Gramsci wrote.

Admittedly, there is a problem with true democratic representation all over the world, due to the rise of military dictatorships (as in the case of Egypt), and far-right populism (as in the case of the US, various Western countries, India and so forth).

Bearing all of that in mind, simply counting on ‘trust in the people and in science’ – as disconcertingly prescribed by Zizek – will neither ‘re-invent communism’, restore democracy or redistribute wealth fairly and equitably among all classes. And, needless to say, it will not bring the Israeli occupation to an end or humanely end the global refugee crisis.

In fact, the opposite is true. Under the cover of trying to control the spread of the coronavirus, several governments have carried out authoritarian measures that merely aim at strengthening their grip on power, as was the case in Hungary and Israel.

Not that Hungary and Israel have been governed according to high democratic standards prior to the spread of the coronavirus. The collective panic that resulted from the high death-toll of a barely understood disease, however, served as the needed collective ‘shock’ – see Naomi Klein’s ‘Shock Doctrine’ – required by authoritarian regimes to seize the moment and to further erode any semblance of democracy in their own societies.

Following each and every global crisis, analysts, military strategists and philosophers take on whatever available platform to prophesize seismic changes and speak of paradigm shifts. Some even go as far as declaring the ‘end of history’, ‘clashes of civilizations’, or, as in the case of Zizek, a new form of communism.

French critic and journalist, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (born November 1808), has once written that “the more things change, the more they continue to be the same thing”.

Indeed, without a people-propelled form of change, the status quo seems to constantly reinvent itself, restoring its dominance, cultural hegemony and undemocratic claim to power.

Undeniably, the global crisis invited by the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic embodies within it the opportunity of fundamental change (towards greater equality or greater authoritarianism), or no change at all.

It is us, the people, and our true authentic voices – the ‘organic intellectuals’, not the celebrity philosophers – who have the right and the moral legitimacy to rise up to reclaim our democracy and redefine a new discourse on a global, not ethnocentric, form of justice.

It is either that we exercise this option, or the current ‘interregnum’ will fizzle out into yet another missed opportunity.

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books. His latest is “These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons” (Clarity Press, Atlanta). Dr. Baroud is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA), Istanbul Zaim University (IZU). His website is www.ramzybaroud.net Romana Rubeo is an Italian writer and the managing editor of The Palestine Chronicle. Her articles appeared in many online newspapers and academic journals. She holds a Master’s Degree in Foreign Languages and Literature, and specializes in audio-visual and journalism translation.
Argumentum al Universalism...
Zizek discusses why white liberals love identity politics and political correctness, arguing that their emphasis on minorities' identities gives them a monopoly on universality.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Sex You Later!

Slavoj Zizek, "Can Covid-19 remind us that SEX is an important channel for sprituality?"
The Covid-19 epidemic will certainly give a boost to digital sexual games, but hopefully it will also lead to a new appreciation of physical intimacy and we will remember that sex between two people is a medium for spirituality.

The Irish Health Service Executive has issued guidelines about practicing sex in the time of coronavirus, and the two key recommendations are:
“Taking a break from physical and face-to face interactions is worth considering, especially if you usually meet your sex partners online or make a living by having sex. Consider using video dates, sexting or chat rooms. Make sure to disinfect keyboards and touch screens that you share with others.”

“Masturbation will not spread coronavirus, especially if you wash your hands (and any sex toys) with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after.”
Reasonable common sense advice for a time of epidemics spread by bodily contact – but one should note that these recommendations just conclude the process which was already going on with the progressive digitalization of our lives: statistics show that today’s adolescents spend much less time exploring their sexuality than surfing the web.

Even if they engage in sex, is doing it in a virtual space (with hardcore pornography) not much easier and more instantly gratifying?

For this reason, the new American TV series Euphoria (described by HBO as “following a group of high school students as they navigate drugs, sex, identity, trauma, social media, love and friendship”) with its portrayal of the dissolute life of today’s high school population is almost the opposite of present-day reality. It is out of touch with today’s youth and, for this reason, weirdly anachronistic – more an exercise in middle-age nostalgia for how depraved the young generations once were.

But we should go even a step further here: what if there never was an entirely “real” sex void of any virtual or fantasized supplement? The usual definition of masturbation is “doing it to yourself while imagining partners,” but what if real sex is always – up to a point – masturbation with a real partner? What do I mean by this? In a comment for the Guardian, Eva Wiseman refers to a moment in ‘The Butterfly Effect’, Jon Ronson’s podcast series about the aftershocks of internet porn. “On the set of a porn film an actor lost his erection mid-scene – to coax it back, he turned away from the woman, naked below him, grabbed his phone and searched Pornhub. Which struck me as vaguely apocalyptic.” She concludes: “Something is rotten in the state of sex.”

I agree, but I would add this lesson of psychoanalysis: something is constitutively rotten in the state of sex, human sexuality is in itself perverted, exposed to sadomasochist reversals and, specifically, to the mixture of reality and fantasy. Even when I am alone with my partner, my sexual interaction with him/her is inextricably intertwined with my fantasies, i.e., every sexual interaction is potentially structured like “masturbation with a real partner” – I use the flesh and body of my partner as a prop to realize/enact my fantasies.

We cannot reduce this gap between the bodily reality of a partner and the universe of fantasies to a distortion opened up by patriarchy and social domination or exploitation – the gap is here from the very beginning. So I quite understand the actor who, in order to regain his erection, searched Pornhub – he was looking for a fantasmatic support of his performance. It is for this same reason that, as part of sexual intercourse, one partner asks the other to go on talking, usually narrating something “dirty” – even when you hold in your hands the “thing itself” (the beloved partner’s naked body), this presence has to be supplemented by verbal fantasizing…

This worked for the actor because he was obviously not in a personal love relationship with the actress – her body was more a living sexbot for him. If he were to be passionately in love with his partner, her body would have mattered to him since every gesture of touching her would disturb the core of her subjectivity. When one makes love with someone one truly loves, touching the partner’s body is crucial. One should therefore turn around the common wisdom according to which sexual lust is bodily while love is spiritual: sexual love is more bodily than sex without love.

Will, then, the ongoing epidemics limit sexuality and promulgate love, a distant admiration of the beloved who remains out of touch? The epidemics will definitely give a boost to digital sexual games without bodily contact. Hopefully, however, a new appreciation of sexual intimacy will arise out of the epidemics, and we will learn again the lesson of Andrei Tarkovsky for whom earth, its inert, humid stuff, is not opposed to spirituality but its very medium. In Tarkovsky's masterpiece Mirror, his father Arseny Tarkovsky recites his own lines: “A soul is sinful without a body, like a body without clothes.” Masturbation in front of hard-core porn images is sinful while bodily contact is a path to spirituality.

Who/What's the Parasite?

...and do rich people smell funny?

Saturday, April 25, 2020

On the Many Fruits of Snark...

...borne of Hubris, and Amour Propre, Not Amour de Soi or Agape Love. Adrasteia, take note!
The Sick Lion and the Ass

A lion sunk by time's decay,
Too feeble grown to hunt his prey,
Observed his fatal hour draw nigh:
He drooped and laid him down to die.
There came by chance a savage boar,
Who trembled oft to hear him roar,
But when he saw him thus distressed
He tore and gored his royal breast.
A bull came next (ungen'rous foe),
Rejoiced to find him fall'n so low,
And with his horny-armed head
He aimed at once to strike him dead, -
He strikes, he wounds, he shocks in vain,
The lion still conceals his pain.
At length a base inglorious ass,
Who saw so many insults pass,
Came up and kicked him in the side:
'Twas this that raised the lion's pride.
He roused, and thus he spoke at length,
For indignation gave him strength:
Thou sorry, stupid, sluggish creature,
Disgrace and shame and scorn of nature!
You saw how well I could dispense
With blows from beasts of consequence!
They dignified the wounds they gave;
For none complain who feel the brave.
But you, the lowest of all brutes,
How ill your face with courage suits!
What dullness in thy looks appears!
I'd rather far (by heav'n 'tis true)
Expire by these than live by you:
A kick from thee is double death -
I curse thee with my dying breath!

The Moral

Rebukes are easy from our betters,
From men of quality and letters;
But when low dunces will affront,
What man alive can stand the brunt?
-Jonathan Swift

Does a Nemean Lion loyal to Aderasteia await the Ass? Not being "experts", we can only hope for the day in which the Boojum arrive to feast upon the Snark of equus asinus.

1-4 the Snark-o-Philes...

...who lack the Soul of Genius...
“Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.”
― Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Humanitarian Insights... On Punishment

Thursday, April 23, 2020

It's a Catastrophe!

Slavoj Žižek, "The future will not follow any of the already imagined Hollywood movie scripts"
We desperately need new scripts, new stories that will provide a realistic, non-catastrophic sense of where we should be going

We often hear that what we are going through is a real life case of what we used to see in Hollywood dystopias. So what kind of movie are we now watching?

When I got the message from many US friends that gun stores sold out their stock even faster than pharmacies, I tried to imagine the reasoning of the buyers: they probably imagined themselves as a group of people safely isolated in their well-stocked house and defending it with guns against a hungry infected mob, like the movies about the attack of the living dead. (One can also imagine a less chaotic version of this scenario: elites will survive in their secluded areas, as in Roland Emmerich’s 2012 where a couple of thousand selected survive – with the admission price of $1 billion per person.)

Another scenario along the same catastrophic lines came to my mind when I read the following news headline: 'Death penalty states urged to release stockpiled drugs for Covid-19 patients. Top health experts sign letter saying badly needed medications used in lethal injections "could save the lives of hundreds".' I immediately understood that the point is to ease the pain of the patients, not to kill them; but for a split of a second, I recall the dystopian Soylent Green (1973), which takes place in a post-apocalyptic overpopulated earth, where old citizens, disgusted with life in such a degraded world, are given the choice to 'return to the home of God': in a government clinic, they take a comfortable seat and, while watching scenes from pristine nature, they are gradually and painlessly put to sleep. When some US conservatives proposed that the lives of those over-70 should be sacrificed in order to get the economy running and save the American way of life, would the option staged in the film not be a 'human' way to do it?

But we are not yet there. When coronavirus began to spread, the predominant idea was that it is a brief nightmare which will pass with the weather getting warmer in the spring – the movie rerun here was that of a short attack (earthquake, tornado etc.) whose function is to make us appreciate in what a nice society we live. (A subspecies of this version is the story of scientists saving humanity at the last minute by inventing the successful cure or vaccine against a contagion – the secret hope of most of us today.)

Now that we are forced to admit the epidemics will stay with us for some time, and will profoundly change our entire life, another movie scenario is emerging: a utopia masked as dystopia. Recall Kevin Costner’s The Postman, a post-apocalyptic mega-flop from 1997, set in 2013, 15 years after an unspecified apocalyptic event left a huge impact on human civilisation and erased most technology. It follows the story of an unnamed nomadic drifter who stumbles across the uniform of an old United States postal service mail carrier and starts to distribute post between scattered villages, pretending to act on behalf of the 'Restored United States of America'; others begin to imitate him and, gradually, through this game, the basic institutional network of the United States emerges again. The utopia that arises after the zero-point of apocalyptic destruction is the same United States we have now, just purified of its postmodern excesses – a modest society in which the basic values of our life are fully reasserted.

All these scenarios miss the really strange thing about the coronavirus epidemic, its non-apocalyptic character. It is neither an apocalypse in the usual sense of the utter destruction of our world, and even less an apocalypse in the original sense of the revelation of some hitherto concealed truth. Yes, our world is falling apart, but this process of falling-apart just drags on with no ending in sight.

When the numbers of infected and dead rise, our media speculate how far from the peak are we – are we already there, will it be in one or two weeks? We all eagerly attend the peak of the epidemic, as if this peak will be followed by a gradual return to normality, but the crisis just drags on. Maybe, we should gather the courage and accept that we will remain in a viral world threatened by epidemics and environmental disturbances. Maybe, even if the vaccine against the virus will be discovered, we will continue to live under the threat of another epidemic or ecological catastrophe. We are now awakening from the dream that the epidemic will evaporate in the summer heat. There is no clear long-term exit plan. The only debate is how to gradually weaken the lockdown measures. When eventually the epidemic recedes, we will be too exhausted to take pleasure in it. What scenario does this imply? The following lines appeared at the beginning of April in a major British daily, outlining a possible story:
“Radical reforms — reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades — will need to be put on the table. Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities, and look for ways to make labour markets less insecure. Redistribution will again be on the agenda; the privileges of the elderly and wealthy in question. Policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix.
Is this a rehash of the British Labour manifesto? No, it’s a passage from an editorial in the Financial Times. Along the same lines, Bill Gates calls for a 'global approach' to fighting the disease and warns that, if the virus is left to spread through developing nations unhindered, it will rebound and hit richer nations in subsequent waves:
“Even if wealthy nations succeed in slowing the disease over the next few months, Covid-19 could return if the pandemic remains severe enough elsewhere. It is likely only a matter of time before one part of the planet re-infects another. [...] I’m a big believer in capitalism – but some markets simply don’t function properly in a pandemic, and the market for life-saving supplies is an obvious example.
Welcome as they are, these predictions and proposals are all too modest: much more will be demanded. At a certain basic level, we should simply bypass the logic of profitability and begin to think in terms of the ability of a society to mobilize its resources in order to continue to function. We have enough resources, the task is to allocate them directly, outside the market logic. Healthcare, global ecology, food production and distribution, water and electricity supply, the smooth functioning of the internet and phone – this should remain, all other things are secondary.

What this implies is also the duty and the right of a state to mobilize individuals. They have a problem now (not only) in France. It’s the time of harvesting spring vegetables and fruits, and usually thousands of seasonal workers come from Spain and other countries to do the job. But since now borders are closed, who will do it? France is already looking for volunteers to replace foreign workers, but what if there aren't enough? Food is needed, so what if direct mobilization will be the only way?

As Alenka Zupancic put it in a simple and clear way, if reacting to the pandemic in full solidarity can cause greater damage than the pandemic itself, is this not an indication that there is something terribly wrong with a society and economy which cannot sustain such solidarity? Why should there be a choice between solidarity and economy? Should our answer to this alternative not be the same as: 'Coffee or tea? Yes, please!' It doesn’t matter how we’ll call the new order we need, communism or co-immunism, as Peter Sloterdijk does (a collectively organised immunity from viral attacks), the point is the same.

This reality will not follow any of the already imagined movie scripts, but we desperately need new scripts, new stories that will provide a kind of cognitive mapping, a realistic and at the same time non-catastrophic sense of where we should be going. We need a horizon of hope; we need a new, post-pandemic Hollywood.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Social Distance

-Slavoj Zizek, "To Touch or Not to Touch: On Distance and Love"
“Touch me not,” according to John 20:17, is what Jesus said to Mary Magdalene when she recognized him after his resurrection.

How do I, an avowed Christian atheist, understand these words? First, I take them together with Christ’s answer to his disciple’s question as to how we will know that he is returned, resurrected. Christ says he will be there whenever there is love between his believers. He will be there not as a person to touch, but as the bond of love and solidarity between people—so, “do not touch me, touch and deal with other people in the spirit of love.”

Today, however, in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic, we are all bombarded precisely by calls not to touch others but to isolate ourselves, to maintain a proper corporeal distance. What does this mean for the injunction “touch me not?” Hands cannot reach the other person; it is only from within that we can approach one another—and the window onto “within” is our eyes. These days, when you meet someone close to you (or even a stranger) and maintain a proper distance, a deep look into the other’s eyes can disclose more than an intimate touch. In one of his youthful fragments, Hegel wrote:
The beloves is not opposed to us, he is one with our own being; we see us only in him, but then again he is not a we anymore- a riddle, a miracle, one that we cannot grasp.
It is crucial not to read these two claims as opposed, as if the beloved is partially a “we,” part of myself, and partially a riddle. Is not the miracle of love that you are part of my identity precisely insofar as you remain a miracle that I cannot grasp, a riddle not only for me but also for yourself? To quote another well-known passage from young Hegel:
The human being is this night, this empty nothing, that contains everything in its simplicity—an unending wealth of many representations, images, of which none belongs to him—or which are not present. One catches sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye.
No coronavirus can take this from us. So there is a hope that corporeal distancing will even strengthen the intensity of our link with others. It is only now, when I have to avoid many of those who are close to me, that I fully experience their presence, their importance to me.

I can already hear a cynic’s laughter at this point: Okay, maybe we will get such moments of spiritual proximity, but how will this help us to deal with the ongoing catastrophe? Will we learn anything from it?

Hegel wrote that the only thing we can learn from history is that we learn nothing from history, so I doubt the epidemic will make us any wiser. The only thing that is clear is that the virus will shatter the very foundations of our lives, causing not only an immense amount of suffering but also economic havoc conceivably worse than the Great Recession. There is no return to normal; the new “normal” will have to be constructed on the ruins of our old lives, or we will find ourselves in a new barbarism whose signs are already clearly discernible. It will not be enough to treat the epidemic as an unfortunate accident, to get rid of its consequences and return to the smooth functioning of the old way of doing things, with perhaps some adjustments to our healthcare arrangements. We will have to raise the key question: What is wrong with our system that we were caught unprepared by the catastrophe despite scientists warning us about it for years?

Lacan 101 - The Graph

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Edward Archer, "The Intellectual and Moral Decline in Academic Research"
For most of the past century, the United States was the pre-eminent nation in science and technology. The evidence for that is beyond dispute: Since 1901, American researchers have won more Nobel prizes in medicine, chemistry, and physics than any other nation. Given our history of discovery, innovation, and success, it is not surprising that across the political landscape Americans consider the funding of scientific research to be both a source of pride and a worthy investment.

Nevertheless, in his 1961 farewell address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned that the pursuit of government grants would have a corrupting influence on the scientific community. He feared that while American universities were “historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery,” the pursuit of taxpayer monies would become “a substitute for intellectual curiosity” and lead to “domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment…and the power of money.”

Eisenhower’s fears were well-founded and prescient.

My experiences at four research universities and as a National Institutes of Health (NIH) research fellow taught me that the relentless pursuit of taxpayer funding has eliminated curiosity, basic competence, and scientific integrity in many fields.

Yet, more importantly, training in “science” is now tantamount to grant-writing and learning how to obtain funding. Organized skepticism, critical thinking, and methodological rigor, if present at all, are afterthoughts. Thus, our nation’s institutions no longer perform their role as Eisenhower’s fountainhead of free ideas and discovery. Instead, American universities often produce corrupt, incompetent, or scientifically meaningless research that endangers the public, confounds public policy, and diminishes our nation’s preparedness to meet future challenges.

Nowhere is the intellectual and moral decline more evident than in public health research. From 1970 to 2010, as taxpayer funding for public health research increased 700 percent, the number of retractions of biomedical research articles increased more than 900 percent, with most due to misconduct. Fraud and retractions increased so precipitously from 2010 to 2015 that private foundations created the Center for Scientific Integrity and “Retraction Watch” to alert the public.

One reason non-government organizations lead the battle to improve science is that universities and federal funding agencies lack accountability and often ignore fraud and misconduct. There are numerous examples in which universities refused to hold their faculty accountable until elected officials intervened, and even when found guilty, faculty researchers continued to receive tens of millions of taxpayers’ dollars. Those facts are an open secret: When anonymously surveyed, over 14 percent of researchers report that their colleagues commit fraud and 72 percent report other questionable practices. The problem goes well beyond the known frauds.

The list of elite institutions at which high-profile faculty commit misconduct is growing rapidly.

In 2018, Duke University was the eighth-largest recipient of NIH funding with $475 million, and in 2019, Duke acquired over $570 million. Yet, in 2014, a whistleblower at Duke alleged that $200 million in grants were obtained using falsified data. Despite the retraction of nearly 50 papers, Duke refused to take responsibility and mounted a legal battle. The result was a $112.5 million penalty in which Duke did not have to admit culpability. That was Duke’s second major misconduct debacle in a decade. In each instance, Duke fought to keep the details confidential while continuing to receive hundreds of millions in public funds.

Harvard is the wealthiest university in the world and, despite being a private institution, received almost $600 million in public funds from the NIH and other agencies in 2018. In fact, some faculty received more NIH funding than many states, and these funds are sufficient to pay for tuition, room, board, and books of every undergrad at Harvard. Nevertheless, Harvard’s faculty has an ever-increasing number of retractions due to misconduct or incompetence. In one case, Harvard’s teaching hospital was forced to pay $10 million because its faculty had fraudulently obtained NIH funding. The penalty was only a fraction of the NIH funds acquired by the guilty faculty.

More recently, Cornell opened its third investigation of a researcher who received more than $4.6 million from the United States Department of Agriculture and $3.3 million from the NIH. As is typical, Cornell exonerated its faculty member in the initial investigation and only reinvestigated after intense media scrutiny.

Ubiquitous sexual harassment is also emblematic of the moral decline in academic science. The number of academics found responsible for sexual harassment has skyrocketed. Yet most universities simply “pass the harasser” so that faculty can transfer their grants to another institution. A 2019 headline in The Chronicle of Higher Education read: “‘Pass the Harasser’ Is Higher Ed’s Worst-Kept Secret.” The NIH has been slow to respond and “apologizes for lack of action on sexual harassers.”

Retractions, misconduct, and harassment are only part of the decline. Incompetence is another. An article in The Economist suggested, “[f]raud is very likely second to incompetence in generating erroneous results.”

The widespread inability of publicly funded researchers to generate valid, reproducible findings is a testament to the failure of universities to properly train scientists and instill intellectual and methodologic rigor. That failure means taxpayers are being misled by results that are non-reproducible or demonstrably false.

The widespread inability of publicly funded researchers to generate valid, reproducible findings is a testament to the failure of universities to properly train scientists.

A number of critics, including John Ioannidis of Stanford University, contend that academic research is often “conducted for no other reason than to give physicians and researchers qualifications for promotion or tenure.” In other words, taxpayers fund studies that are conducted for non-scientific reasons such as career advancement and “policy-based evidence-making.”

Incompetence in concert with a lack of accountability and political or personal agendas has grave consequences: The Economist stated that from 2000 to 2010, nearly 80,000 patients were involved in clinical trials based on research that was later retracted.

Beginning in 2013, my colleagues and I published a series of empirical refutations in top medical and scientific journals showing that no human could survive on the diets used by the U.S. government to create the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. To be precise, we demonstrated that the methods used by government and academic researchers produced data that were physiologically implausible and inadmissible as scientific evidence.

Yet, rather than address the consequences of our refutations, academic researchers simply ignored the evidence. That lack of scientific integrity leads to evermore faculty and students using demonstrably implausible dietary data every year. Given that taxpayers fund thousands of meaningless studies that generate erroneous and often ridiculous conclusions (e.g., eggs cause heart disease or coffee causes cancer), it is unsurprising that policy architects and the public are confused about “healthy eating.”

As Eisenhower feared, the pursuit of government grants corrupted our nation’s scholars and money has now become a substitute for intellectual integrity and curiosity. Nevertheless, reform is possible.

Currently, universities take 52 percent of each NIH grant as “indirect costs” to cover administrative expenses. That revenue incentivizes both a lack of accountability and misconduct while allowing the wealthiest 10 percent of universities to receive 90 percent of NIH funding. Ending the “indirect cost” legerdemain and instituting mandatory penalties against universities for faculty misconduct would effectively double research funding while disincentivizing fraud and harassment.

Second, the NIH should limit the number of projects an investigator can simultaneously control and institute a mandatory age limit for grant recipients. Currently, the NIH gives more money to investigators aged 56-75 than aged 24-40. Since innovation and discovery occur early in a scientist’s career, that policy would stop elderly but well-connected researchers from impeding progress.

Finally, disallow the use of taxpayer monies for publicity. Currently, investigators have free rein to “hype” their research with taxpayer funds. Misleading or exaggerated claims in press releases has contributed significantly to the public’s confusion on nutrition and many other health issues.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

I'm So Tired...

-Slavoj Zizek, "Why Are We Tired All the Time? "
The coronavirus epidemic confronts us with two opposed figures that prevail in our daily lives: those who are overworked to exhaustion (medical stuff, caretakers…) and those who have nothing to do since they are forcibly or voluntarily confined to their homes. Belonging to the second category, I feel obliged to use this predicament to propose a short reflection on different ways in which we can be tired. I will ignore here the obvious paradox of the enforced inactivity itself making us tired, so let me begin with Byung-Chul Han who provided a systematic account of how and why we live in a “burnout society.”[i] Here is a short resume of Byung-Chul Han’s masterpiece shamelessly taken from Wikipedia:
“Driven by the demand to persevere and not to fail, as well as by the ambition of efficiency, we become committers and sacrificers at the same time and enter a swirl of demarcation, self-exploitation and collapse. ‘When production is immaterial, everyone already owns the means of production him- or herself. The neoliberal system is no longer a class system in the proper sense. It does not consist of classes that display mutual antagonism. This is what accounts for the system’s stability.’ Han argues that subjects become self-exploiters: ‘Today, everyone is an auto-exploiting labourer in his or her own enterprise. People are now master and slave in one. Even class struggle has transformed into an inner struggle against oneself.’ Individuals has become what Han calls ‘the achievement-subjects’; they do not believe they are subjugated ‘subjects’ but rather ‘projects: Always refashioning and reinventing ourselves’ which ‘amounts to a form of compulsion and constraint – indeed, to a more efficient kind of subjectivation and subjugation. As a project deeming itself free of external and alien limitations, the I is now subjugating itself to internal limitations and self-constraints, which are taking the form of compulsive achievement and optimization.’”
While Han offers perspicuous observations on the new mode of subjectivation from which we can learn a lot – what he discerns is today’s figure of the superego -, one should note that the new form of subjectivity described by Han is conditioned by the new phase of global capitalism, which remains a class system with growing inequalities. Struggle and antagonisms are in no way reducible to the intra-personal “struggle against oneself.” There are still millions of manual workers in Third World countries, just as there are big differences between different kinds of immaterial workers (suffice it to mention the growing domain of “human services” like the caretakers of old people). A gap separates the top manager who owns or runs a company from a precarious worker spending days at home alone with his/her PC: they are definitely not both a master and a slave in the same sense.

A lot is being written on how the old Fordist assembly line mode of work is replaced by a new mode of creative cooperative work that leaves much more space for individual creativity. Nonetheless, what is effectively going on is not so much a replacement but an outsourcing: work at Microsoft and Apple may be organized in a more cooperative way, but final products are then put together in China or Indonesia in a very Fordist way. Assembly line work is simply outsourced. So, we get a new division of work: self-employed and self-exploited workers (described by Han) in the developed West, assembly line debilitating work in the Third World, plus the growing domain of human care workers in all its forms (caretakers, waiters…) where exploitation also abounds. Only the first group (self-employed, often precarious workers) fits Han’s description.

Each of the three groups implies a specific mode of being tired and overworked. Assembly line work is simply debilitating in its repetitiveness. You get desperately tired of assembling again and again the same iPhone behind a table at a Foxconn factory in a suburb of Shanghai. In contrast to this tiredness, what makes human care work so tiresome is the very fact that you are (also) paid to pretend to do your work with true affection, that you really care about your “objects” of work. A kindergarten worker is paid also to show sincere affection for children, and the same goes for those who take care for old retired persons. Can one imagine the strain of “being nice” on and on? In contrast to the first two spheres where at least we can maintain some kind of inner distance towards what we are doing (even when we are expected to treat a child nicely, we can just pretend to do it), the third sphere demands of us something which is much more tiresome. Imagine I am hired to elaborate how to publicize or package a product in order to seduce people to buy it. Even if I personally don’t care about this or even hate the idea, I have to engage quite intensely with what one cannot but awaken my creativity, trying to figure out original solutions. And such an effort can exhaust me much more than boring repetitive assembly line work: this is the specific tiredness Han is talking about.

And, last but not least, we should avoid the temptation to condemn strict self-discipline and dedication to work and propagate the stance of “Just take it easy!” Arbeit macht frei! is still the right motto, although it was brutally misused by the Nazis. So, to conclude with the ongoing pandemic: yes, there is hard exhaustive work for many who deal with its effects, but it is a meaningful work for the benefit of the community, which brings its own satisfaction, not the stupid effort to succeed on the market. When a medical worker gets deadly tired from working overtime, when a caretaker is exhausted, they are tired in a way that is totally different from the exhaustion of being obsessed with career moves.

Here is how my friend Andreas Rosenfelder, a German journalist from Die Welt, described the new stance towards daily life that is emerging: “I really can feel something heroic about this new ethics, also in journalism – everybody works day and night from home office, making video conferences and taking care of children or schooling them at the same time, but nobody asks why he or she is doing it, because it’s not any more ‘I get money and can go to vacation etc.’, since nobody knows if there will be vacations again and if there will be money. It’s the idea of a world where you have a flat, basics like food etc., the love of others and a task that really matters, now more than ever. The idea that one needs ‘more’ seems unreal now.” I cannot imagine a better description of what one should call a non-alienated decent life.
[i] Byung-Chul Han, The Burnout Society, Redwood City: Stanford UP 2015.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Nerd Food

Imagine a Breathalizer Test that Could Detect Both the Presence of the COVID19 Virus and/or the Antibodies Associated with COVID19 Virus...

Dr. Francis Collins, "Snapshots of Life: Virus Hunting with Carbon Nanotubes" (Posted on December 1st, 2016)
The purple pods that you see in this scanning electron micrograph are the H5N2 avian flu virus, a costly threat to the poultry and egg industry and, in very rare instances, a health risk for humans. However, these particular pods are unlikely to infect anything because they are trapped in a gray mesh of carbon nanotubes. Made by linking carbon atoms into a cylindrical pattern, such nanotubes are about 10,000 times smaller than width of a human hair.

The nanotubes above have been carefully aligned on a special type of silicon chip called a carbon-nanotube size-tunable-enrichment-microdevice (CNT-STEM). As described recently in Science Advances, this ultrasensitive device is designed to capture viruses rapidly based on their size, not their molecular characteristics [1]. This unique feature enables researchers to detect completely unknown viruses, even when they are present in extremely low numbers. In proof-of-principle studies, CNT-STEM made it possible to collect and detect viruses in a sample at concentrations 100 times lower than with other methods, suggesting the device and its new approach will be helpful in the ongoing hunt for new and emerging viruses, including those that infect people.

The new device is the result of a long collaboration at Penn State University, University Park, involving experts in materials science, physics, chemistry, infectious diseases, and genomics. The work was led by NIH grantees Mauricio Terrones and Si-Yang Zheng, who received additional support from an NIH Director’s New Innovator Award.

As Terrones and Zheng explained, carbon nanotubes are an ideal material to catch viruses because they are incredibly flexible and strong. They reportedly having the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any known material, which allows them to compress and bend without breaking when they encounter a virus. Another big plus is the team members can construct carbon nanotubes right on their device, controlling the distance between nanotubes with exquisite precision and, thereby, tailoring each device to the particuar size of the viruses being hunted.

To put CNT-STEM to a real-world test, Terrones and Zheng examined samples from five wild ducks in Pennsylvania, which were collected as part of a surveillance effort to track the evolution and spread of influenza viruses that could potentially cause illness in domestic poultry and/or people. They uncovered an emerging H11N9 strain of avian influenza, which couldn’t be detected by other techniques.

In a second case study, the researchers used CNT-STEM to search for viruses possibly present in a sample taken from the eyelid of a sick turkey. Earlier attempts to diagnose the turkey, which was suffering from swollen lesions of suspected viral origin, came up negative. After using the new approach to capture potential viruses in the sample, the team’s genetic analysis identified a completely novel viral strain.

CNT-STEM is lightweight and portable. It also doesn’t require any special storage, antibodies, or other chemical reagents. All of these features make it ideal for use in the field, wherever a suspected viral infection pops up. The researchers have immediate plans to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to apply their device in the search for viruses that may be a threat to plants, crops, and food.

It’s already feasible to make up to 1,500 of the devices per week for just a few dollars each. The next task is to scale up production, while continuing to evaluate possible refinements to the device and its technological capabilities.

[1] Tunable and label-free virus enrichment for ultrasensitive virus detection using carbon nanotube arrays. Yeh YT, Tang Y, Sebastian A, Dasgupta A, Perea-Lopez N, Albert I, Lu H, Terrones M, Zheng SY. Sci Adv. 2016 Oct 7;2(10):e1601026.