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, June 28, 2023

Things Axionic?

Are Axions related to the gravity/ magnetic field-related inter-dimensional spin element (Euclidean space vector vs. non-Euclidean spinors/bispinors) difference in Photon anti-particles? Else, why would axions emit photons in the presence of/ proximity to strong magnetic fields?

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Baah Humbug!

My phone is almost five years old, and it wasn’t a new model when I bought it. The screen protector is cracked and flaking, glass splintering into my fingers if I brush its surface the wrong way. The case is also cracked — both layers, rubber and plastic. Inside its faltering body, few apps are compatible with such a dated operating system, and glitches sabotage my attempts to order taxis, buy tickets and type messages.

I’ll admit this is an extreme example of my reluctance to adopt new technology. Some of it, really, is negligence. But my phone belongs to a whole family of decrepit tech, including CDs, (broken) film cameras, wired over-ear headphones and a card that isn’t contactless. When it comes to digital platforms, I’m worse. I’ve never used Hinge or TikTok. I do have an Instagram account, but I’ve never posted anything. It’s a frequent source of irritation and amusement amongst my friends. One affectionately rubs my shoulder; “my little Luddite”, she coos.

And she’s right, though there’s more to this than being resistant to change or getting a kick from having a phone thieves don’t want.

I have a soft spot for the Luddites. Their name an insult, their origins obscured. To be a Luddite means to be small-minded, to resent progress, to resist the inevitable. Or at least, that’s what we mean when we say it.

The Luddites, writes Jathan Sadowski, were a secret organisation of workers who smashed machinery in English textile factories in the early 19th century. ‘The contemporary usage of Luddite has the machine-smashing part correct’, he observes, ‘but that’s about all it gets right.’

The Luddites weren’t opposed to new technology, but to how manufacturers would pay ‘​​low wages, disregard worker safety, or speed up the pace of work.’ It was only manufacturers known for exploitative behaviour whose machines were targeted. And the machines weren’t new, either. ‘It wasn’t the invention of these machines that provoked the Luddites to action’, Sadowski explains. ‘They only banded together once factory owners began using these machines to displace and disempower workers.’

Like the Luddites, I’m concerned with how technology is enmeshed in the flow of power. Over 200 years later, tech has become diffuse and immaterial, shaping our lives beyond work in ways it’s difficult to see. Tech is out of our hands now; an assemblage of pixels, something in the air.

Technology’s move away from tactility doesn’t just make the objects we own useless, as pieces of code break them from the inside, or they’re replaced by digital platforms; it affects our relationships too. What I’m interested in is distance and obsolescence, in the loss of touch. In chatbot therapists, livestreaming and dating apps. In how the brand language of these things speaks of connection, despite the divide that they maintain.

‘Intelligence begins with the vulnerability of skin’, writes Richard Kearney. We can feel before we can see or hear — heat, pressure and pain mark our first encounter with the world. It’s the start of sense that underpins all others, which involve their own kinds of touch. Sound waves ripple through our ears, carried by tiny hairs that enable us to hear. Light hits our retinas, allowing us to see. Kerney’s essay Touch: Recovering Our Most Vital Sense, is written ‘in praise of the desire for tactile proximity’, celebrating its nuanced history as he questions ‘what is touch? Where is touch? And how might we get it back again?’

Kearney describes our society as ‘optocentric’, as it constructs a hierarchy of the senses where sight oversees touch, taste, smell and hearing. I think about the vibrant colours and sleek (im)materials of the hyperreal images that saturate our culture, and wonder whether their lack of texture is a symptom of touch’s declining hold. I think about the impossible smoothness of AI renderings, of rotund fonts and Instagram adverts for earrings that look like mirrored globules. The lack of friction lets my gaze become soft and glossy.

There is, of course, power at play within sight. It lets us look without being seen, to satisfy our senses whilst maintaining a distance. This voyeurism isn’t possible with touch. We can look at something that can’t look back, but everything we touch touches us in return. This two-sidedness is what Edmund Husserl calls ‘double sensation’, as we experience ‘the feeling of touching and being touched at the same time’. This lifts us down from the hierarchy and grounds us in amongst the world. It’s humbling. It reminds us that we’re vulnerable.

‘Whereas sight promises domination of my environment’, writes Kearney, ‘touch is the crossroads between me and all that is not me.’ It connects us to other people, intrigues and challenges us, forces us to be present. Touch is the start of empathy.

What happens when we replace a touch with a look, or mediate contact through technology? I’m thinking about dating apps and social media, in particular the behaviours they’ve fostered and neologisms they’ve birthed. Airing, breadcrumbing, ghosting; each has the ring of absence. Byung-Chul Han argues that these digital mediators erode our sense of ‘the Other’ as a person, as they ‘flatten’ everything into ‘an object of consumption’. Making a person into a digital object eschews the intimacy of double sensation, trapping us within what Han calls ‘the inferno of the same’.

The digital object we become through these platforms can be curated, traded and evaluated. This objectification is enacted on dating apps especially fluently, under the gaze of what Eva Illouz calls ‘scopic capitalism’. Like Kearney’s optocentrism, this form of capitalism locates value almost exclusively in appearance, forcing us to participate in ‘the productive sphere of labour as an image to be sold’. It’s worth noting that this kind of tech didn’t create scopic capitalism, but extended its cool logic into our pockets — and our relationships with others. The judgments it enables are ‘non-interactional and one-sided’, Illouz observes, defined by a sense of ‘speed’ and ‘optimisation’ that encourages us to see people as interchangeable. Dating apps are a phenomenon that my Luddite heart can’t bear. They make me feel flat and fungible… just like an image.

‘Perversions and pathologies of touch’, writes Kearney, ‘involve the reification of the person as a mere object’. I mull over the idea that loss of touch could be a kind of societal pathology, one that deprives us of tact(ility) — our ability to be ‘sensitive in our behaviour with others’. If we can’t reach the Other (in form or concept), how can we learn tact?

What arises through this network of ideas, effects and perspectives is an image of the contemporary Luddite not as a figure who hates technology, but who is deeply sceptical of its presence in the most intimate areas of our lives, where it can reproduce an ideology of competition, individualism and objectification. This kind of capitalist logic lets us lose touch with ourselves, and each other.

Touch isn’t the cure for this individualism, and skin-to-skin contact won’t save us from the reach of capitalism. But it can foster empathy, which is a humanising and community-building practice that resists objectification. I eye up my crap phone, which is in considerably worse shape than when I first started this essay. I think of the friend I wrote about in the beginning and pick up the cracked case. Love & miss u, I type, can’t wait to give u a hug x.

Monday, June 26, 2023

The Approaching Infopocalypse

Nathan Gardels, "Approaching The Infopocalypse" | NOEMA
Without institutions and practices that can establish and preserve the credibility of information, there is no solid ground for democratic discourse. What we will see instead is an "arms race of ploy and counterploy" in which the whole notion of objectivity is a casualty of the battle of truths, as Daniel Dennett, the philosopher of consciousness, has put it.

Indeed, we are already seeing all that is solid melting into information we no longer know if we can trust. As another philosopher, Byung-Chul Han, observed in an interview with Noema, democracy requires a common narrative of binding values, ideals and shared convictions. But "the informatization of reality leads to its atomization — separated spheres of what is thought to be true. … Bits of information provide neither meaning nor orientation. They do not congeal into a narrative. They are purely additive. From a certain point onward, they no longer inform — they deform."

Today, he argues, democracy has given way to "infocracy" as peer-to-peer connectivity "redirects the flows of communication. Information is spread without forming a public sphere. It is produced in private spaces and distributed to private spaces. The web does not create a public."

Writing in Noema, Renée DiResta of the Stanford Internet Observatory points out that the elite gatekeepers of yesterday’s mass media were often castigated for “manufacturing consent” among a “phantom” public by leaving too many voices out. What may be worse is that the structural fragmentation of today’s digital media ecosystem is manufacturing a level of dissensus detrimental to the possibility of arriving at consensually agreed truths necessary to hold any society together.

DiResta brilliantly exposes the dynamic behind this splintering at scale. She shows how the incentive for siloed social networks to monetize attention has empowered a new kind of distributed propaganda crafted to fit niche audiences living in their own reality.

Niche Propaganda Thrives On Distrust

“Propaganda,” says DiResta, “is information with an agenda, delivered to susceptible audiences to serve the objectives of the creator. Anyone so inclined can set up an account and target an audience, producing spin to fit a preferred ideological agenda. … Rather than persuading a mass audience to align with a nationally oriented hegemonic point of view … the niche propagandists activate and shape the perception of niche audiences. The propaganda of today entrenches fragmented publics in divergent factional realities, with increasingly little bridging the gaps.”

As DiResta sees it, the new propagandists thrive on the trope of being excluded and persecuted to attract audiences of the alienated who believe they have “exited the Matrix” of the mainstream media, government and Big Tech conspiring to silence the people.

“Sustaining attention in a highly competitive market,” DiResta argues, “practically requires that niche propaganda be hyper-adversarial, as often as possible. The rhetorical style is easily recognizable: They are lying to you, while I have your best interests at heart.”

These “media-of-one,” she continues, “are incentivized to increase the fracturing of the public and perpetuate the crisis of trust, in order to ensure that their niche audience continues to pay them.” Their success has propelled Davids into Goliaths of influence that are eclipsing the old channels of information.


As these new niche propagandists overshadow any bridging media, Aviv Ovadya of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center fears we are headed into “a catastrophic failure of the marketplace of ideas” with “no one believing anything or everyone believing lies.” He calls this “the infopocalypse.”

As Dennett and Han have understood, democracy cannot survive this failure of the marketplace of ideas because it disables the formation of any shared ground where competing propositions can be tested against each other in the full gaze of the body politic as a whole.

What can be done? The cat of distributed social networks is out of the bag and can never revert to a media ecosystem where custodians of perception edit out voices they don’t want to hear in order to manufacture phantom consent. The point of challenge must be where information meets the political space.

As we have written in Noema, new mediating institutions, such as citizens’ assemblies, that encourage and enable civil discourse and consensus formation at the same virtual scale as social networks, are more necessary than ever because the forces of fragmentation have never been greater. Mending the breach of distrust between the public and institutions of self-government in the digital age can only happen by absorbing the wired activation of civil society into governance through integrating connectivity with common platforms for deliberation.

Just as republics have historically sustained themselves by creating countervailing institutions to check power when too much of it is concentrated in one place, so too such checks are needed in the digital age when power is so distributed that the public sphere itself is disempowered.

Saturday, June 24, 2023

Is AI too smart to be an idiot?

Byung-Chul Han, "Artificial intelligence is incapable of thinking, because it is incapable of 'faire l'idiot' (He's too smart to be an idiot)." (Google Translate)
On a deeper level, thought is a resolutely analogical process. Before grasping the world in concepts, he is imprisoned, even affected by it. The affective is essential to human thought. The first affectation of thought is goosebumps. Artificial intelligence can't think because you don't give it goosebumps. It lacks the affective-analogue dimension, the emotion that data and information cannot entail.

Thought starts from a totality that precedes concepts, ideas and information. He moves already in a "field of experience" before turning specifically to the objects and facts he finds in it. The totality of the existing that the thought faces, is initially opened to it in an affective medium, in a psychic disposition: "The soul disposition (Stimmung) has already opened the being-in-the-world as a whole, and this is the first thing that makes it possible to turn towards..." Before thought is directed towards anything, it is already in a basic mood disposition. This being in a mood characterizes human thought. The mood is not a subjective state that stains the objective world. It's the world. Subsequently, thought articulates in concepts the open world in a fundamental psychic disposition. This precedes the conceptualization, the work with the concepts: "We define philosophizing as a conceptual question from an essential shudder of Dasein. But this shudder is only possible from, and in, a fundamental soul disposition of Dasein." Only this mood disposition makes us think: "Every essential thought requires that its thoughts and statements be on every occasion obtained, like the metal of the ore, from the fundamental soul disposition"

Man like Dasein is always thrown into a certain world. The world opens to him prereflexively as a whole. Dasein as a mood precedes Dasein as a conscious being. In its initial shudder, the thought is as if out of itself. The fundamental mood disposition puts him on an outside. Artificial intelligence does not think because it is never outside of itself. The spirit is originally beside itself or shaken. Artificial intelligence can calculate quickly, but it lacks the spirit. For the calculation, the shudder would only be a disturbance.

"Analogue" is what corresponds. Heidegger uses here the kinship between words of his language. Thought as an analogical process corresponds (entspricht) to a voice (Stimme) that determines it (be-stimmt) and tunes (durch-stimmt) to it. Thought is not questioned by this or that entity, but by the totality of the entity, by the being of the entity. Heidegger's phenomenology of mood disposition illustrates the fundamental difference between human thought and artificial intelligence. In What is philosophy? Heidegger writes: "The corresponder (Das Ent-sprechen) hears the voice of a call. What we are told as the voice of being, determines (be-stimmt) our correspondence. "Correspond" then means: to be determined, être disposé, by the being of the entity. [...] Correspondence is necessarily, and always, not just be determined accidentally and occasionally. It is a state of determination. And it is only from the psychic disposition that the saying of correspondence receives its precision, its determined being." Thought hears, better, listens and pays attention. Artificial intelligence is deaf. He doesn't hear that "voice."

The "beginning of a truly living philosophizing" is, according to Heidegger, the "awakening of a fundamental psychic disposition" that "determines us in a fundamental way." The fundamental mood disposition is the force of gravity that gathers words and concepts around it. Without such a psychic disposition, thought lacks an organizing framework: "If the fundamental psychic disposition is absent, everything is a forced din of empty concepts and words." The affective totality that occurs in this psychic disposition is the analogical dimension of thought, which artificial intelligence cannot reproduce.

According to Heidegger, the history of philosophy is a history of that fundamental psychic disposition. Descartes' thought, for example, is determined by doubt, while Plato's is determined by astonishment. Descartes' cogito is based on the fundamental psychic disposition of doubt. Heidegger characterizes the psychic disposition of modern philosophy as follows: "For him [Descartes], doubt constitutes that psychic disposition which centers on the ens certum, that which exists with certainty. Certitudo is then that firmness of the ens qua ens which results from the indubitability of the cogito (ergo) sum for the ego of man. [...] The psychic disposition of confidence in the ever-attainable absolute certainty of knowledge will be pathos, and therefore the arche of modern philosophy." Pathos is the beginning of thought. Artificial intelligence is apathetic, that is, without pathos, without passion. Just calculate.

Artificial intelligence does not have access to horizons that are glimpsed instead of being clearly defined. But this "glimpse" is not a "first rung on the ladder of knowledge." Rather, it opens the "anteroom" "that contains, that is, hides everything that can be known". Heidegger locates this glimpse in the heart. Artificial intelligence has no heart. The thought of the heart perceives and gropes spaces before working with concepts. In this it differs from calculation, which does not need spaces: "If this knowledge 'of the heart' is a glimpse, we must never take this glimpse for a thought that fades into darkness. It has its own clarity and resolution, and yet it remains fundamentally distinct from the security of the calculating mind."

Following Heidegger, artificial intelligence would be incapable of thinking to the extent that it is closed to that totality in which thought has its origin. It has no world. The totality as a semantic horizon encompasses more than the objectives envisaged in artificial intelligence. Thinking proceeds very differently from artificial intelligence. The totality constitutes the initial framework from which the facts are formed. The change of mood disposition as a change of frame is like a paradigm shift that gives rise to new facts. Artificial intelligence, on the other hand, processes predetermined facts that remain the same. It cannot give itself new facts.

Big data suggests absolute knowledge. Things reveal their secret correlations. Everything becomes calculable, predictable and controllable. A whole new era of knowledge is being heralded. Actually, it is a rather primitive way of knowing. Data mining discovers correlations. According to Hegel's logic, correlation represents the lowest way of knowing. The correlation between A and B says: A often occurs along with B. With correlation it is not known why this happens. It just happens. Correlation indicates probability, not necessity. It differs from causality, which establishes a need: A cause B. Reciprocal action represents the next level of knowledge. It says: A and B condition each other. A necessary connection is established between A and B. However, at this level of knowledge it is not yet understood: "If we stop at the consideration of a certain content merely from the point of view of reciprocal action, it is in truth a totally incomprehensible behavior"

Only the "concept" captures the connection between A and B. It is the C that connects A and B. By means of C, the relationship between A and B is understood. The concept reforms the framework, the whole, which brings A and B together and clarifies their relationship. A and B are only the "moments of a superior third". Knowledge in the proper sense is only possible at the level of concept: "The concept is what is inherent in things themselves, which tells us that they are what they are, and, therefore, to understand an object means to be aware of its concept." Only from the all-encompassing concept C can the relationship between A and B be fully understood. Reality itself is transmitted by knowing when it is grasped by the concept.

Big data provides rudimentary knowledge. It remains in correlations and pattern recognition, in which, however, nothing is understood. The concept forms a totality that includes and comprehends its moments in itself. Totality is a final form. The concept is a conclusion. "Everything is conclusion" means "everything is concept" [60]. Reason is also a conclusion: "Everything rational is a conclusion." Big data is additive. The additive does not form a totality, an end. It lacks the concept, that is, what unites the parts into a whole. Artificial intelligence never reaches the conceptual level of knowledge. He does not understand the results of his calculations. Calculus differs from thinking in that it does not form concepts and does not advance from one conclusion to another.

Artificial intelligence learns from the past. The future he calculates is not a future in the proper sense of the word. The former is blind to events. But thought has an eventful character. It puts something completely different in the world. Artificial intelligence lacks the negativity of breakup, which causes the truly new to break through. Everything remains the same. "Intelligence" means to choose between (inter-legere). Artificial intelligence only chooses between options given in advance, ultimately between one and zero. It does not leave the previously given towards the imtransited.

Emphatic thinking begets a new world. He is on his way to the completely other, to another place: "The word of thought is poor in images and devoid of stimuli. [...] However, thinking changes the world. It changes it in the deeper, darker and darker pit which is an enigma, and which, being darker, is the promise of greater clarity." The intelligence of machines does not reach that depth of the dark well of an enigma. Information and data have no depth. Human thinking is more than calculation and problem solving. It clears and illuminates the world. It gives rise to a completely different world. The intelligence of machines entails above all the danger that human thought will resemble it and become itself mechanical.

Thought is nourished by eros. In Plato, logos and eros enter into an intimate relationship. Eros is the condition of possibility of thought. Heidegger also follows Plato in this. On the way to the impassed, thought is inspired by eros: "I call it eros, the oldest of the gods in the words of Parmenides. The flapping of the wings of that god moves me every time I take an essential step in thought and venture into the impassed." Eros is absent in the calculation. Data and information do not seduce.

According to Deleuze, philosophy begins with a "faire l'idiot". It is not intelligence, but idiotism, that characterizes thought. Every philosopher who produces a new language, a new thought, a new language, is an idiot. He says goodbye to all that has been. It dwells that virgin immanence, not yet described, of thought. With this "faire l'idiot", thought dares to jump to the totally other, to the untraveled. The history of philosophy is a history of idiotisms, of idiotic leaps: "The ancient idiot intended to reach some evidence that he would arrive at by himself: in the meantime he would doubt everything [...]. The modern idiot does not pretend to arrive at any evidence [...], he wants the absurd, it is not the same image of thought." Artificial intelligence is incapable of thinking, because it is incapable of "faire l'idiot". He is too smart to be an idiot.

Nolan Time

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Libidinal Paradoxes

Slavoj Zizek, "Without Whistleblowers, the West Is Lost"
The biggest threat to Western democracies is not Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and the transparency that he represents. It is the nihilism and self-indulgence that have come to characterize their politics.

LJUBLJANA – Earlier this month, CNN reported that a British court has denied Wikileaks founder Julian Assange “permission to appeal an order to extradite him to the United States, where he faces criminal charges under the Espionage Act.” Although Assange’s legal team will continue to explore its options, the snare around his neck is clearly tightening. Time is not on his side. The US and British authorities who are pursuing him can afford to wait for any remaining public interest in his case to dwindle in the face of wars, climate change, anxiety about artificial intelligence, and other global issues.

But if we want to manage such challenges, we will need people like Assange. Who else will expose all the abuses and inconvenient truths that those in power want to keep secret – be it war crimes or social-media companies’ internal findings about what their platforms are doing to teen girls?

The recent small-scale drone attack on the Kremlin is a case in point. While the Ukrainian government denied any involvement (attributing it to the Russian opposition forces), Russian President Vladimir Putin promptly denounced it as a “terrorist act,” and some Western observers complained that the Ukrainians were pushing the war too far. But what actually happened? The fact that we do not know means that events are playing out under a dangerous fog of war.

But one is also reminded of the last lines in Bertold Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera: “And some are in the darkness / And the others in the light / But you only see those in the light / Those in the darkness you don’t see.” How better to describe today’s media age? While mainstream media are full of news about Ukraine, notes journalist Anjan Sundaram, “enormous wars” in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and elsewhere receive almost no attention.

This asymmetry does not mean we should offer anything less than full support for Ukraine. But it does oblige us to think about how we frame that support. We should reject the idea that Ukraine merits assistance mainly because “such things should not happen in Europe,” or because we are “defending Western civilization.” After all, Western civilization not only ignores the horrors occurring outside its borders; it is often complicit in them.

Instead, Europeans and other Westerners should recognize that, with the invasion of Ukraine, we have gotten a taste of what has been playing out elsewhere all along – just beyond our scope of concern. The war forces us to consider what we do not know, what we do not want to know, and what we know but do not want to care about. We need people like Assange to force such reckonings – to make us see “those in the darkness.”

Of course, one can criticize Assange for focusing exclusively on the liberal West and ignoring even greater injustices in Russia and China. But those injustices are already highly visible in our media. We read about them all the time. If Assange is guilty of applying a double standard, so, too, are Westerners who condemn Iran while turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia.

As Matthew 7:3 asks: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Assange has taught us to acknowledge not only the plank in our own eye but also the hidden connections between it and the sawdust in our enemies’ eyes. His approach allows us to see anew many of the big struggles that consume our media and politics.

Consider the conflict between the new populist right and the woke left. In late May, the Davis School District in Utah removed the Bible from its elementary and middle schools after a parent complained that it “has ‘no serious values for minors’ because it’s pornographic by our new definition” under a book-ban law passed last year. Is this just a case of Mormons waging a culture war against Christians? On the contrary, the district has since received a request also to review the Book of Mormon for possible violations of the law.

So, who is behind these demands? Is it the woke left seeking revenge for bans on material about race and LGBT+ issues? Is it the radicalized right applying strict family-values criteria to its own cherished texts? Ultimately, it does not matter, because both the new right and the woke left have embraced the same logic of intolerance. For all their ideological animosity, they mirror each other. While the woke left wants to dismantle its own political foundation (the European emancipatory tradition), the right may finally have mustered the courage to question the obscenity contained in its own foundational texts.

In a cruel irony, the Western democratic tradition of self-criticism has descended into absurdity, sowing the seeds of its own destruction. What issues are languishing in the darkness while this process hogs all the light? The biggest threat to Western democracies is not Assange and the transparency that he represents, but rather the nihilism and self-indulgence that have come to characterize their politics.

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Mark Rappolt, "Byung-Chul Han on Absence as a Positive Force"
The author of The Burnout Society (2015) and Shanzai: Deconstruction in Chinese (2017) starts his latest English-language text, originally published in German in 2007 and now appearing in a translated edition, with the proposition that Western and Eastern thinking is fundamentally opposed. The former is based on a metaphysics of presence; the latter is founded in a metaphysics of absence. It’s a question of desire versus indifference; dwelling rather than, following Daoist thought, wandering; full stops as opposed to an endless series of commas or ands. And both, in turn, define how we respectively think about the self and its relation to the world.

In a change from the ‘haikuesque’ style for which the South Korean-born German writer is known, Absence isn’t so much a process of machine-gunning pithy aphorisms secure in the knowledge that eventually they will destroy their target. Rather, it is something of an explanation of why he writes in this manner (‘absencing spreads across Dasein [existence or, after Martin Heidegger, ‘being’], something dreamlike and hovering, because it makes it impossible to give an unambiguous, final, that is substantial, contour to things,’ he writes at one point, as if to explain both his use of ambiguous short statements and the European influence on this thinking), and a defence of his own status as a philosopher operating between two traditions (because ‘absence’, as is defined positively here, would involve not choosing to be part of one or other of them). Though that’s not to say that the aphorisms don’t punctuate this text, because to assert the differences between those traditions requires an explanation or the creation of that difference, machine-gunning references to a range of philosophers. And so we whizz through the thoughts and practices of G. W. F. Hegel, Heidegger, Plato, Heinrich von Kleist, Immanuel Kant, Confucius, Matsuo Basho, Zhuangzi, Laozi, Yoshida Kenkō, Jun’ichiroTanizaki and Tao Yuanming, among others.

Comparing the architecture of cathedrals (Han is Catholic) and Buddhist temples, he then moves this analysis to culture. Rice-paper screens are ‘indifferent’, creating an empty white space; stained glass windows give light meaning and therefore substance. Zen Buddhist ink paintings exist to draw out the white of the paper; the opposite of the chiaroscuro that illuminates human features in Caravaggio’s oil paintings, or Vermeer’s use of light to highlight objects. He goes on similarly to tackle urbanism, greetings, worldviews and language. It’s not long before he’s implicating rice too (colourless, flavourless and therefore, by refusing to insist on its presence, the perfect complement to any other flavour) into his project. Which chimes with his suggestion, at the beginning of the text, that absence is conducive to friendliness, while presence (and the self-centring that comes with it) creates foreignness and is therefore more conducive to alienation.

To accept absencing as a positive force, however, is not without problems – particularly in the sphere of politics. In an entertaining chapter, he describes how absencing, which involves a lack of doing or acting (here he evokes a story about Tao, a Six Dynasties-period poet, playing a stringless zither), necessitates an appreciation of foolishness in leaders and a lack of resistance when things go wrong. Many of his arguments may be rooted in tradition, but Han is ultimately targeting a present governed by identity politics, and by national, social and political divisions, where a degree of ‘foolishness’ might indeed be a balm. The title of his book may suggest he’s providing a handbook for the thinking of the Far East; in reality it’s a tool for reengaging with the world wherever you are.

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Living in Bonanzaland

from Wikipedia
"Memoirs Found in a Bathtub" starts with the finding of a diary in the distant future. The introduction dwells on the difficulties of historical research on the fictional 'Neogene Era', "the period of the heyday of the pre-Chaotic culture, which preceded the Great Decomposition". "Great Decomposition" refers to the apocalyptic event of "papyrolysis", decomposition of all paper on the planet in the pre-information-technology era, causing all records and money to turn into dust––the end of the "epoch of papycracy".

The diary, known as the 'Notes of a Man from the Neogene', was found in the lava-filled ruins of Third Pentagon within the territory of the disappeared state of Ammer-Ka. Previously, little was known about the hypothetical 'Last Pentagon'. One researcher suggested that Pentagon was a kind of military brain, the center in charge of maintaining the faith of Cap-i-Taal, dominant in Ammer-Ka in the period of U-S. This was confirmed by the finding of the diary, supposedly of an agent trapped deep within the subterranean bowels of the vast Third Pentagon, although the authenticity and authorship of the document were questioned by some researchers.

The rest of the book is the diary itself. In a Kafkaesque maelstrom of terrifying bureaucratic confusion and utter insanity, the agent attempts to follow his mission directives, conducting on-the-spot investigations: "Verify. Search. Destroy. Incite. Inform. Over and out. On the nth day nth hour sector n subsector n rendezvous with N." The narrator inhabits a paranoid dystopia where nothing is as it seems, chaos seems to rule all events, and everyone is deeply suspicious of everyone else.

'Twas battered and scarred,
And the auctioneer thought it
hardly worth his while
To waste his time on the old violin,
but he held it up with a smile.

"What am I bid, good people", he cried,
"Who starts the bidding for me?"
"One dollar, one dollar, Do I hear two?"
"Two dollars, who makes it three?"
"Three dollars once, three dollars twice, going for three,"

But, No,
From the room far back a gray bearded man
Came forward and picked up the bow,
Then wiping the dust from the old violin
And tightening up the strings,
He played a melody, pure and sweet
As sweet as the angel sings.

The music ceased and the auctioneer
With a voice that was quiet and low,
Said "What now am I bid for this old violin?"
As he held it aloft with its' bow.

"One thousand, one thousand, Do I hear two?"
"Two thousand, Who makes it three?"
"Three thousand once, three thousand twice,
Going and gone", said he.

The audience cheered,
But some of them cried,
"We just don't understand."
"What changed its' worth?"
Swift came the reply.
"The Touch of the Masters Hand."

"And many a man with life out of tune
All battered and bruised with hardship
Is auctioned cheap to a thoughtless crowd
Much like that old violin

A mess of pottage, a glass of wine,
A game and he travels on.
He is going once, he is going twice,
He is going and almost gone.

But the Master comes,
And the foolish crowd never can quite understand,
The worth of a soul and the change that is wrought
By the Touch of the Masters' Hand.
-Myra Brooks Welch

Sunday, June 18, 2023

The New Summer BLOCKBUSTER!!!!

Freedom & the Society of Control

"Intelligence means choosing-between. It is not entirely free in so far as it is caught in between, which depends on the system in operation. Intelligence has no access to outside, because it makes a choice between options in the system. Therefor intelligence does not really exercise free choice: it can only select among the offerings the system affords. Intelligence follows the logic of the system. It is system- immanent. a given system defines given intelligence."
- Byung-Chul Han, "Psychopolitics and New Technology of Power"

The Metaphysics and Theology of Transgender Fundamentalism

Friday, June 9, 2023

Ideological Distortions

Slavoj Žižek, "Iraq Angle: Upper Winnebago, Lower Winnebago "
(before: The Truth of the Approachative Shear)

Claude Lévi-Strauss's exemplary analysis in Structural Anthropology can serve to clarify the 'divergence angle': What is the spatial arrangement of houses in Winnebago, where a tribe lives in the Great Lakes region?The tribe is divided into two subgroups ('two halves'), 'upper Winnebago' and 'lower Winnebago'. If you have a person draw the layout of his village (the spatial layout of the huts) on a piece of paper or sand, you will get two completely different answers; which answer you get also depends on the subgroup of the person you're asking.

In the perception of both groups, the village is in the form of a circle, but:
— According to a subgroup, in this circle there is another circle of central houses, there are two concentric circles.
— Relative to the other subgroup, the circle is divided in half by a clear line.
In other words:
— In the perception of the members of the first (let's say 'conservative-integrative') subgroup, the layout of the village consists of ring-ring houses placed symmetrically around the central temple.
— In the perception of the second (say, 'revolutionary-conflicting') subgroup, the two discrete sets of houses in the village settlement are separated from each other by an invisible border.
This example in no way leads Lévi-Strauss to cultural relativism, nor does he say that 'the perception of social space depends on the observer's group belonging'. The division of the village into two 'relative' perceptions refers to an underlying hidden constant; but this is not the objective, 'real' placement of fixed houses.

It is a traumatic nucleus: it is a fundamental conflict that the inhabitants of the village are unable to symbolize, to reckon, to 'adopt', to settle accounts, it is an imbalance that prevents the community from stabilizing as a harmonious whole, it is a reality that warps social relations.

The two different perceptions of the settlement plan are two (mutually exclusive) attempts to deal with this traumatic conflict, an effort to heal the social wound by imposing a balanced symbolic structure...

Thus ultimately the status of Truth consists of the 'angle of divergence' and is substanceless: Truth has no material concentration in itself, it is only the rift between two points of view, you can perceive it only when you are diverging from one angle to the other.

From the Angle of Iraq

Turkish: Işık Barış Fidaner
Slavoj Žižek, "The Angle of Iraq: The Truth of the Approachary Shear" (Google translated from Turkish)
Not everything is just about obvious games, there is a Truth.

But this Truth is not the inaccessible Thing, it is the crack that prevents us from accessing that Thing, the conflicting 'rock' that warps our view of the perceived object with biased approaches.

Accordingly, 'truth' is not a state of 'real', it is not seeing the object 'directly' without being warped by any approach, but rather it is the conflicting Truth that causes the warping of those approaches.

The field of truth is not 'what things really are like in their own way' (without being warped by approaches), but the crack that separates one approach from another, the transition, the degree that transcends the limits between disproportionate approaches.

'Real/impossibility' is the reason why you can see the object from a 'neutral' roof that is not warped by any approach.

There is a truth, not everything is in relative idling; But this truth is the truth of the approach-oriented warp, not a truth that is warped by one-sided approaches and opinions.
From the Angle of Iraq

(after: Upper Winnebago, Lower Winnebago)

Turkish: Işık Barış Fidaner

See "Excerpts from Menkibe on Nejativity", "Excerpts from Menkibe on Cosmological Superstition (astroanalytic myth status)", "Hegelian Nejativity/Menfiyet" Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Zizek, "The Tickling Object" (from "The Parallax View")
Recall Claude Levi-Strauss's exemplary analysis, from his Structural Anthropology, of the spatial disposition of buildings in the Winnebago, one of the Great Lake tribes, might be of some help here. The tribe is divided into two sub-groups ("moieties"), "those who are from above" and "those who are from below"; when we ask an individual to draw on a piece of paper, or on sand, the ground-plan of his/her village (the spatial disposition of cottages), we obtain two quite different answers, depending on his/her belonging to one or the other sub-group. Both perceive the village as a circle; but for one sub-group, there is within this circle another circle of central houses, so that we have two concentric circles, while for the other sub-group, the circle is split into two by a clear dividing line. In other words, a member of the first sub-group (let us call it "conservative-corporatist") perceives the ground-plan of the village as a ring of houses more or less symmetrically disposed around the central temple, whereas a member of the second ("revolutionary-antagonistic") sub-group perceives his/her village as two distinct heaps of houses separated by an invisible frontier... 20 The point Levi-Strauss wants to make is that this example should in no way entice us into cultural relativism, according to which the perception of social space depends on the observer's group-belonging: the very splitting into the two "relative" perceptions implies a hidden reference to a constant - not the objective, "actual" disposition of buildings but a traumatic kernel, a fundamental antagonism the inhabitants of the village were unable to symbolize, to account for, to "internalize", to come to terms with, an imbalance in social relations that prevented the community from stabilizing itself into a harmonious whole. The two perceptions of the ground-plan are simply two mutually exclusive endeavors to cope with this traumatic antagonism, to heal its wound via the imposition of a balanced symbolic structure. It is here that one can see it what precise sense the Real intervenes through anamorphosis. We have first the "actual," "objective," arrangement of the houses, and then its two different symbolizations which both distort in an anamorphic way the actual arrangement. However, the "real" is here not the actual arrangement, but the traumatic core of some social antagonism which distorts the tribe members' view of the actual arrangement of the houses in their village.

The Real is thus the disavowed X on account of which our vision of reality is anamorphically distorted; it is SIMULTANEOUSLY the Thing to which direct access is not possible AND the obstacle which prevents this direct access, the Thing which eludes our grasp AND the distorting screen which makes us miss the Thing. More precisely, the Real is ultimately the very shift of perspective from the first to the second standpoint. Recall the old well-known Adorno's analysis of the antagonistic character of the notion of society: in a first approach, the split between the two notions of society (Anglo-Saxon individualistic-nominalistic and Durkheimian organicist notion of society as a totality which preexists individuals) seems irreducible, we seem to be dealing with a true Kantian antinomy which cannot be resolved via a higher "dialectical synthesis," and which elevates society into an inaccessible Thing-in-itself; however, in a second approach, one should merely take not of how this radical antinomy which seems to preclude our access to the Thing ALREADY IS THE THING ITSELF - the fundamental feature of today's society IS the irreconcilable antagonism between Totality and the individual. What this means is that, ultimately, the status of the Real is purely parallactic and, as such, non-substantial: is has no substantial density in itself, it is just a gap between two points of perspective, perceptible only in the shift from the one to the other. The parallax Real is thus opposed to the standard (Lacanian) notion of the Real as that which "always returns at its place," i.e., as that which remains the same in all possible (symbolic) universes: the parallax Real is rather that which accounts for the very multiplicity of appearances of the same underlying Real - it is not the hard core which persists as the Same, but the hard bone of contention which pulverizes the sameness into the multitude of appearances. In a first move, the Real is the impossible hard core which we cannot confront directly, but only through the lenses of a multitude of symbolic fictions, virtual formations. In a second move, this very hard core is purely virtual, actually non-existing, an X which can be reconstructed only retroactively, from the multitude of symbolic formations which are "all that there actually is."

Thursday, June 8, 2023

Suicide Watch

Phone Calls from Your Super-Ego to Your Ego-Ideal

Lawrence Yeo, "Burnout Is the Echo of Self-Judgment"
Burnout takes many forms, but perhaps the most common one is that of exhaustion. There’s a feeling of surrender to a torrent of expectations, much of which are derived from workplace demands and pressures. You can’t seem to turn off the spigot of work that overflows your plate, and the result is a feeling of overwhelm that characterizes this condition.

While this depiction makes sense, I’m realizing that it makes a fundamental error. It assumes that burnout is a response to external events, when in reality, burnout is entirely the result of inner exploitation. This may sound confusing at first, so today, I’m going to take a moment to untangle the knots.

When it comes to work, there are essentially two forces that ensure your competency:
(1) An external authority figure that keeps inventory of your performance, and

(2) An inner critic that judges whether you are doing enough.
#1 is what is referred to as a “boss,” and #2 is what we can refer to as “yourself.”

The common view of burnout uses #1 as its lens. This is why any image of burnout will have an overwhelmed worker at her desk, staring anxiously at a towering pile of papers. Implicit in this image is a demanding boss that’s giving the employee far more than she can handle, which leads to acute distress.

Sure, this archetype of an insufferable boss may be the reason someone burns out at work, but I don’t think it’s the main one. The real reason resides in the second lens, which is how the inner critic keeps you chained to the belief that you’re not good enough.

The philosopher Byung-Chul Han has an interesting theory on the connection between capitalism and burnout. He argues that capitalism has been so successful because it has aligned one’s productivity with monetary rewards, which ultimately will be used to purchase freedom. So if you are valuable to someone else for long enough, you will eventually be able to buy the ability to do whatever you want.

But in the quest to pursue this freedom, you will end up chaining yourself to the value you produce for others. After all, if money is what buys freedom, you need to ensure that you’re being useful enough to get paid in the first place. This results in a kind of circular logic that looks like this:

Freedom is the great promise of capitalism, but it has also enshrined productivity as a virtue in order to achieve that aim. You will always feel the need to produce value for others, and it is this ceaseless tug on your conscience that makes your inner critic so loud. No external boss will be needed for you to get to work, as your inner critic will always remind you that there’s more to be done.

This dynamic is what is referred to as self-exploitation, which leads to the feeling that you’re never enough. This results in the continuous extraction of value from your own mind to prove that you can achieve the freedom you so desire. And it is this relentless chastising of oneself that ultimately takes the form of burnout.

Byung-Chul Han points to his home country of South Korea as a textbook case of what he calls a “burnout society.” Korea is an astounding case of economic growth, where a once-impoverished nation has grown to one of the powerhouses of the world. In fact, as recently as 1997, Korea required emergency aid from the IMF to alleviate the effects of a currency crisis. Fast forward to today, and it’s now in the top 10 economies by GDP, and is one of the leading exporters of culture across the world.

But Han states that this growth and wholehearted embrace of capitalism has come at detrimental costs to its population, particularly to its youth. This is evidenced by Korea’s horrifically high suicide rates, which stands amongst the highest in the world and is disproportionately skewed to young students. Han argues that the mounting pressure for people to succeed causes them to be disillusioned with themselves, which makes the inner critic roar with self-hatred. And it is the inability to cope with the resulting burnout that causes people to depart existence entirely.

Now, the burnout you’re familiar with (hopefully) isn’t as severe, but you’ll likely understand what it means to live with that inner critic. After all, if you were truly content with who you were, you wouldn’t feel overwhelmed with what you have to do next. If you didn’t think that you had to prove anything to anyone, then any demand on your attention will seem far less urgent.

When I think about the problem of burnout, I direct my attention to this one part of the diagram:

While the ubiquity of money and the desire for freedom are fixed variables, the belief of how valuable we must be to others is variable and can therefore be adjusted. If you define yourself solely by what you produce, then burnout will be an inevitable feature of your days. Since the expectations you have of yourself will continuously exceed the energy you can expend, the inner critic will always be there to tell you that you’re not doing enough.

But if you believe that there’s an essence to you that exists independent of what you produce, then you can tame that inner critic’s voice. If you know that you – as you are now – is deserving of kindness irrespective of how “valuable” you are, then you can lessen the heaviness that characterizes your work life.

You don’t have to quit your job or stop working to do this; in fact, all it takes is a framing shift. By realizing that your identity is distributed across many areas, you can approach your work identity with a lightheartedness knowing that it doesn’t define the entirety of who you are.

Tuesday, June 6, 2023

"Enjoy!" Consumerism's Compulsory Commandment

Jarryd Bartle, "Sterility as liberation: Sex positivity drains the erotic of existential meaning"
What compels a grown man to write a book called Boyslut?

This simple question piqued my initial interest in this “memoir and manifesto” by Men’s Health sex columnist Zachary Zane.

Zane, who is in his thirties, makes a living selling his “sex positive” lifestyle, providing advice to readers on how to fulfil their sexual fantasies guilt-free and without consequence.

In Boyslut, Zane documents his struggles with being “bisexual, polyamorous, and horny all the time” in a world in which structural systems “idealize an unhealthy masculinity, promote queerphobia, and perpetuate sex-negativity”.

Zane’s first-hand experiences with these “oppressive” systems are documented at length in Boyslut — revealing much in their innocuousness.

Zane admits he grew up in a “very liberal, queer affirming” household. It was his nanny who first introduced him to sexual shame, when she scolded him for experimenting with another boy at the tender age of seven. Zane makes it clear that he doesn’t blame the help for this unfortunate foundational trauma, noting that she “like us all, was a product of a sex-negative and homophobic society”.

In a bizarre aside, Zane notes that he truly loved his nanny and that he “would beg her to feed me her half-eaten food, directly from her mouth like a mama bird”. Rich kid things, I suppose.

Zane’s other big resentment is the “double discrimination” he experiences as a bisexual man. Bisexuals, particularly online, are quick to lament their lack of “representation” in the wider media. They begrudge their diminished situational power within the dog-eat-dog world of identity politics. This insecurity is revealed in some hilariously bland complaints of biphobia in Boyslut, consisting of gay and lesbian people not sufficiently recognising Zane’s “queerness” and both men and women refusing sex. Harrowing stuff!

When reading the first chapters of Boyslut, I was fully prepared to just mock the author for his self-indulgent nonsense. The book is written in painful millennial sarcasm, and it’s pretty clear the author lacks the confidence to write seriously on any topic. How else is one meant to interpret: “I think we should celebrate STIs. It means you’re getting some, and couldn’t we all use a little more action?”

As Boyslut becomes more confessional, the darker components of Zane’s “sex positive” lifestyle bleed through. What at first comes off as a juvenile and asinine take on sex is gradually exposed to be something much more troubling.

Zane is a self-confessed “fraysexual” — one of those stupid online neologisms for a person who only experiences sexual attraction to someone for whom they have no emotional attachment. Relatedly, and possibly because of this, Zane primarily engages in very rough sex.

Much of Boyslut is spent describing Zane’s experiences within group sex — choking and (so important it gets its own chapter) emetophilia. “Whether someone’s puking on my dick or I’m puking on theirs; I’m an equal opportunity vomit fetishist!” Zane exclaims.

Sex for Zane is a completely unserious activity. Having racked up over 2,000 sexual partners he still understands eros as a bit of “fun” without much, if any, emotional significance attached. It therefore wasn’t at all surprising to learn that Zane deals with ongoing mental health issues, particularly obsessive-compulsive disorder. A sex columnist with obsessiveness is a bit like a doctor with hypochondria — prone to projecting their own pathological worldview onto others.

For people disposed to intrusive thoughts, the contemporary “sex positive” movement is understandably appealing: providing clear structures and certainties to mitigate sexual risk, whilst working to purge society of all guilt. However, it’s clear Zane has been led by these ideas towards a rather diminished understanding of sexuality.

Beginning in the internal squabbles amongst feminists in the 1990s, the “sex positive movement” is an ideology that frames sex as inherently unproblematic as long as it is done in a consensual, risk-aware and health-conscious manner. Sexologist Carol Queen describes the movement as a celebration of “sexual diversity, differing desires and relationship structures, and individual choices based on consent”.

Sex-positivity fits within what philosopher Slavoj Zizek calls the “enlightened consumerist hedonism” of the West, where “enjoyment is tolerated, solicited even, but on condition that it is healthy, that it doesn’t threaten our psychic or biological stability”. It is this free market approach to sexuality — combined with a fair amount of US-style therapy language about harm, trauma and “finding oneself” — that we see in Boyslut. For Zane, we are not born sexually free, but into a world filled with hang-ups and stigma, which we must unlearn and transcend to enjoy ourselves.

Zane’s ethos is to not be “bound by traditional heteronormative scripts” and to “embrace a range of ethically non-monogamous relationship styles”. “I’ve gotten over my sexual insecurities,” Zane proudly exclaims. “I’m brazenly out as bisexual, and I don’t have a bone in me that’s sex-negative. I’m sexually shameless, baby!” We all, of course, must become sexually shameless as well.

In substance, sex-positivity is a far cry from how many of the leading theorists of eroticism have approached the subject.

For the grand theorist of eroticism Georges Bataille, drawing on Freud, sexual desire is intertwined with a longing for self-annihilation. According to Bataille, we find refuge from cold individuality in the touch of another by breaking through to a sense of continuity, by “assenting to life up to the point of death”. Good sexuality (or eroticism) is not about simple pleasure seeking, but an encounter with the abyss in the moment right after orgasm (the little death).

Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer argued that all pleasures, including from sex, come not as some gift from the body, but in the relief of ridding oneself of an unpleasantness (in this case, the sexual drive). It is in the brief post-coital suspension of the mind amongst lovers where sexual bliss is truly found, not in the possessive climax that precedes it.

This of course, all sounds very “sex negative” to contemporary ears. What’s wrong with a bit of harmless fun without all the sentimentality? Boyslut gives us the answer in its depiction of sex completely purged of existential risk.

Zane’s accounts of sex, rather than enviable moments of life-affirming, mind shattering sex, read more like a tourist racking up novel experiences. In the opening chapter to Boyslut, Zane cheerfully lists off his various accomplishments:

>>I’ve had sex with men, women, and nonbinary folks. I’ve had sex with twenty-one-year-old guys and grandmothers three times that age. I’ve had sex with people in and from dozens of countries. I’ve had sex with drug addicts, millionaires, and millionaire drug addicts (free cocaine, yay!). I’ve had orgies with over a hundred people, anonymous sex in saunas, and have hooked up with my Lyft driver.<<

These aren’t the tantalising memoirs of a Don Juan, but a rather silly attempt to impress readers by flexing one’s promiscuity.

Philosopher Byung Chul Han describes how our current social climate is one of culturally mandated self-exploitation. Becoming an “entrepreneur of the self” cages us in a cycle of self-curation, novelty seeking and self-marketing. Reading Zane’s accounts of his sexual exploits, I do wonder how much of all of this is playing up to the mascot of “horny bisexual sex columnist”, rather an earnest quest for sexual freedom.

The descriptions of violent sexuality in Boyslut aren’t shocking because of their content — we’ve known for centuries that male sexuality is prone to aggressive, sadomasochistic fantasy — but because the author gives no weight to these experiences. They are merely part of his shame-free sexual brand.

The sex positivity movement, in its urge to “destigmatise” and license any and all sexual activity, has deprived sexual encounters of any value. Call me a prude, but I think oral penetration to the point of puking should elicit something of a visceral response. Sexual shame, rather than a tool of oppression, is a sign that a person is embedded within a prism of meaning where limits exist to be transgressed. There is no point in a kink without shame.

Writer Mary Harrington has noted that the increased popularity of BDSM and stylised sexual violence is an attempt by many (particularly young people) to recapture and “re-wild” sexuality, which has been culturally overexposed and overanalysed. “The true, deep wildness of sex can only be reproduced, in the sterile order of de-risked consumer sex,” she writes in Feminism Against Progress. Even these extremes appear at risk of being intellectualised and diminished.

In one chapter, Zane describes being part of a panel discussion at a porn film festival where he nonchalantly discusses his puke fetish. “Oh, very interesting,” the moderator calmly replies. “Is there any type of puke you prefer?”

At its core, the sexual liberation proposed in Boyslut is that of Nietzsche’s “last man” — a contentment with simple pleasures with no desire to ascend to sensual heights. Zane’s anxious mind has fixated on the permissions and rules of sex positive gurus, denying himself any truly life changing erotic experiences. In practice, this has led him to the edges of depravity but without any libertine sense of transgression or intimacy.

Despite its jokey title, Boyslut provides an unintentionally nightmarish glimpse at contemporary sexuality. It scandalises, not because of its explicitness, but because its author repackages emotional sterility as a form of liberation.

Saturday, June 3, 2023

Modern Propaganda's Birthplace...

When the Recommended Cure Becomes the Cause...

Slavoj Zizek, "Antisemitism and intersectionality"
Calls for hate against Jews to be treated different from other discrimination could produce the bigotry it seeks to oppose

LJUBLJANA – On May 14, 2023, the European Jewish Association held its annual conference in Porto, Portugal, where it adopted a resolution calling for antisemitism to be “treated separately from other forms of hate and discrimination.”

The EJA is urging “other Jewish organizations to reject ‘intersectionality,’” a conceptual framework that tends to categorize groups as being either “privileged” or “oppressed.” According to the EJA, “antisemitism is unique and must be treated as such,” on the grounds that it is “state-sanctioned in many countries,” “given cover by the United Nations,” and not always regarded as a form of racism by other groups affected by hate.

But why are intersectionality and the demarcation between the privileged and the oppressed problematic from a Jewish standpoint? Generally speaking, intersectionality is a useful concept in social theory and practical analysis. When we consider particular individuals or groups, we discover that their experiences of oppression or privilege reflect a wide array of diverse factors.

Let us shamelessly quote Wikipedia’s definition:

“Intersectionality is an analytical framework for understanding how a person’s various social and political identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege. Intersectionality identifies multiple factors of advantage and disadvantage. Examples of these factors include gender, caste, sex, race, ethnicity, class, religion, education, wealth, disability, weight, age and physical appearance. These intersecting and overlapping social identities may be both empowering and oppressing.”

The point, Anne Sisson Runyan of the University of Cincinnati explains, is “that forms of oppression are not just additive, as if they were wholly separate layers of domination. Rather, women of color actually experience a different form of racism from men of color, just as they experience a different form of sexism from white women.”

By the same token, the antisemitic idea of the “Jew” combines features of religion, ethnicity, sexuality, education, wealth and physical appearance. To be stigmatized as a Jew entails the ascription of various other features, such as uncleanliness, dogmatic adherence to religious rules, nefarious financial speculation and hidden global influence — all of which featured prominently in Nazi propaganda. The upshot of intersectional analysis is that all individuals experience unique forms of oppression or privilege by dint of the makeup of their identities. Consider a low-income Black lesbian; she is at a quadruple disadvantage almost anywhere in the world.

Why, then, do those who insist on the uniqueness of antisemitism reject intersectionality? The oppression faced by Jews in developed Western countries nowadays is somewhat more ambiguous, because Jews also tend to occupy positions of privilege (economically, culturally and so forth) and the association of the Jews with wealth and culture (“Hollywood” as Jewish) in the public imagination is itself a source of classic antisemitic tropes. The EJA worries that this combination of oppression and privileges makes antisemitism just another form of racial hatred, not only comparable to others but even milder when set alongside other modes of oppression. When we apply an intersectional lens, hatred for “the Jew,” the EJA fears, becomes a minor case in the broader taxonomy of hatreds.

Is this fear justified?

The EJA is right to insist that there is something exceptional about antisemitism. It is not like other racism: Its aim is not to subordinate the Jews but to exterminate them. The antisemite perceives them not as lower foreigners but as secret masters. The Holocaust is not the same as the destruction of civilizations in the history of colonialism; it is a unique phenomenon of industrially organized annihilation.

But it is the very coupling of “oppressed” and “privileged” which provides the key to understanding antisemitism, at least in its modern form. Under fascism, “the Jew” served as the external intruder who could be blamed for corruption, disorder and exploitation. Projecting the conflict between the “oppressed” and the “privileged” onto a scapegoat can distract people’s attention from the fact that such struggles are, in fact, intrinsic to their own political and economic order. The fact that many Jews are “privileged” (in the sense of their wealth, education and political influence) is thus the very resource of antisemitism: being perceived as privileged makes Jews a target of social hatred.

Problems arise when one tries to use the exceptional status of antisemitism to support a double standard or to prohibit any critical analysis of the privileges that Jews, on average, enjoy. In a 2020 Der Spiegel dialogue on antisemitism and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel, one finds the dictum that, “The Jew, and not the potential antisemite, determines who is an antisemite” (Wer Antisemit ist, bestimmt der Jude und nicht der potenzielle Antisemit). But if that is the case, should we not apply the same principle to Palestinians in the West Bank? Solely by dint of being Palestinian, they are being deprived of their land and basic rights.

But, more than that, the EJA’s stance relies on its own intersectional framework. Any analysis of the privileged positions held by some Jews is immediately denounced as antisemitic and even critiques of capitalism are rejected on the same grounds, owing to the association between “Jewishness” and “rich capitalists.” The Marxist thesis that antisemitism is a primitive, distorted version of anti-capitalism is thus inverted: Anti-capitalism is a mask of antisemitism.

If the implication is that Jewishness is both exceptional and inextricably bound up with capitalism, aren’t we just left with an age-old antisemitic trope? Do we not directly provoke the poor and oppressed to blame the Jews for their misfortunes? Other Jewish organizations should reject the EJA stance, not because of some obscene need for “balance” between different forms of racism, but to advance the very struggle against antisemitism.