Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The polypill and the purple pill

More proof that what's good for health - and society as a whole - is bad for business, in today's Independent headline. Fie on you, Big Pharma.

The standard rationale for the patenting and high pricing of pharmaceuticals - i.e. that the poor, struggling multinationals need money to fund research - makes no mention of the fact that they spend about twice as much on marketing as they do on research, or that the very people proposing it earn six-figure (and up) salaries. In other words, given that producing the actual chemicals costs next to nothing, about two-thirds of every pill you take pays for advertising and promoting that pill to you, paying lobbyists, paying the media, paying politicians, paying doctors and clinics to prescribe that particular pill to you over another one.

Nor do they mention the fact that the money they do spend on "research" mostly goes to developing and marketing stuff like Prozac and Viagra, given that treatments for things like AIDS and Hepatitis just aren't profitable enough - precisely because the people who suffer from these illnesses can't afford the treatments that Big Pharma offers, at the prices at which they are offered.

And when no research is necessary, and the (unpatented) ingredients are cheaply available, and treatments can be cheaply produced at a profit? Nah, who needs that. Public health, improving the lot of humanity? Who cares. If we can't dig real deep in people's pockets and hold a knife to their throat, why bother?

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Night wraps the sky

Night Wraps the Sky: Writings by and About Mayakovsky (ed. Michael Almereyda) uniquely intersperses Mayakovsky's poetry and other writings (diary entries, excerpts) with others' writings about him, fictional and non-fictional, some fairly recent.

"In 150,000,000, a poem written during the American intervention in the Russian Civil War, the collossal peasant Ivan, who has 150,000,000 heads, an arm as long as the Neva River, and heels as big as the Caspian steppes, wades across the Atlantic to fight a hand-to-hand battle with a Woodrow Wilson resplendent in a top hat as high as the Eiffel Tower."

Why didn't anybody think of that during the Iraq war? Hm...

Be Like Turtle: Constructing a time for thought

Badiou in Infinite Thought, p. 51 ('Philosophy and Desire'):

"the singular and irreducible role of philosophy is to establish a fixed point within discourse, a point of interruption, a point of discontinuity, an unconditional point. Our world is marked by its speed: the speed of historical change; the speed of technical change; the speed of communications; of transmissions; and even the speed with which human beings establish connections with one another. This speed exposes us to the danger of a very great incoherency. It is because things, images and relations circulate to quickly that we do not even have the time to measure the extent of this incoherency. Speed is the mask of inconsistency. Philosophy must propose a retardation process. It must construct a time for thought, which, in the face of the injunction to speed, will constitute a time of its own. I consider this a singularity of philosophy; that its thinking is leisurely, because today revolt requires leisureliness and not speed."

Aside from providing a stark contrast to the anti-philosophical injunctions of fascist sympathizers like the Italian Futurist artist Marinetti, who celebrate speed and modern commerce and advocate the burning of libraries (something to that effect, at least), this philosophical tasking gives meaning to my own lifestyle, or to my somewhat lengthy morning routine. Thanks Badiou, now I don't feel useless any more - cooking porridge, eating, shaving, and drinking a cup of freshly-ground Zapatista coffee for about two hours every morning. Aside from being excellent bike fuel, a massive bowl of porridge, consumed slowly, is certainly conducive to 'constructing a time for thought'. To re-/paraphrase Badiou, the task of philosophy is to solve one major philosophical problem every day by lunchtime.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Quo vadis domine?: Totality and Totalitarianism

Following on the previous post I have been contemplating the relation between political totalitarianism and philosophical totality. Zizek's claim that the two are in an inverse relation, that political totalitarianism corresponds not to philosophical totality, but precisely to contingency and subjectivity, and vice versa - provides an interesting starting point, although I have never heard him elaborate on it much.

The whole point of the totalitarian state apparatus - and any modern state can be said to have components or degrees of it - is to fill a gap in the structure of Power/Knowledge. The state is afraid and is constituted by fear: its law must be enforced because it is not believed in; it must be obeyed because it is not 'in the hearts of men' (to use Rousseau's phrase).

The state has no traffic with philosophical truth, therefore it must acquire knowledge or 'intelligence' by purely technical means (surveillance, CCTV, phone-tapping, etc). It does not know its citizens, and therefore must spy on them; it registers no knowing, and therefore must force knowledge to come to it. An absolutist, totalitarian state cannot be beholden to any absolute philosophical truth or totality or absolute law, since that would appear to suggest that there is something above the state, an absolute law or truth that even the absolute ruler must obey. On the contrary, the only truth of a truly absolute, totalitarian state are the subjective whims and contingencies of the absolute ruler's will.

The state is afraid and does not trust its citizens, nor can it gain their trust any longer; it must resort to technical means of control (walls, fences, barriers, prisons), and technical manipulation; it must make threats and regulations and enforce its judgments.

It goes without saying that in the process of all this surveillance and regulation and control, in the process of protecting itself from 'terror', the state commits far greater wrongs, invasions and violations than are ever committed against it. But even at its most totalitarian/technocratic it hardly aspires to philosophical truth, or totality. Even its belief in itself is deeply cynical.

It is no coincidence that one of the earliest rebels against what could in an abstract sense be called 'the state' was a fragile being who feared nothing and was nailed to a cross; who confronted the Roman Empire not with contingency and subjectivity, but with an absolute philosophical totality: 'God as love' or the 'Kingdom of Heaven'.

To the Roman Empire Jesus says: your power is of this world - temporary, subjective, contingent; behind me is a power far greater, a totality which is the origin of all creation.

The political message is clear: Caesar is not divine. Give unto caesar that which is Caesar's; give unto God that which is God's: in historical context, the effect of this subversive message dressed up as political obedience is - if anything - drawing a line in the sand, putting up a barricade: 'NO PASARAN'. An act of resistance and an act of will, a violent separation. Caesar: historical contingency. God: absolute totality.

As Godard puts it in L'Origine du XXIème siècle (quoting Bergson I think), "Nothing conflicts more with the image of the beloved than that of the state...The state in no way possesses, or it has lost, the power to embrace before our eyes the totality of the world, that totality of the universe offered externally via the loved one as object, and internally via the lover as subject."

There is a kernel of truth in Monty Python's legendary parody of the crucifixion in Life of Brian where, nailed to the cross, the Jewish convicts sing the ditty 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.' This refrain effectively sums up Jesus' political message, which offers both hope and empowerment to a wholly disempowered people: there is always another side, always a way out, one can always subvert/rerout the game and turn the table on Empire, turn a weakness into a strength, and set up the antagonism without falling back on the negative, without being drawn into the pit of open confrontation. One can always win, even when one loses - by taking up one's burden and willing it all backwards - or as Nietzsche has it, by turning every 'it was' into an 'I willed it thus' (J. returns to Rome to be crucified again). To turn one's own punishment for disobedience into just another gesture of defiance: "Ah, so you think you've got me there, ey? But I wanted to be crucified, you fools!"

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Waiting for the barbarians: Lies (and the lying liars who tell them)

In a recent article for the Guardian, George Monbiot laments the extensive use of UK anti-harassment legislation, in particular the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, to curb public protest - and its relatively sparse use for its intended purpose: "As the injunctions use civil law to create criminal offences, they require a much lower standard of proof: hearsay evidence and untested and unproven allegations can be used to criminalise any action the police or the courts wish to stop...In 2001, the act was used to prosecute protesters outside the US intelligence base at Menwith Hill, who were deemed to have distressed American servicemen by holding up a placard reading "George W Bush? Oh dear!""

One person particularly upset by this abuse of the legislation by police is Evonne Powell-Von Heussen, who spent five years vigorously campaigning for the passage of the law, having been for "17 years...the victim of an aggressive stalker, who attacked her and held her captive."

Yet this is not a problem simply with this piece of legislation, or with the notion of harassment. It is a problem with the law and legal reasoning as a whole.

Protesters against a goverment certainly do fit the technical definition of 'harassment' in the act, and the wide remit of definition may even be 'necessary' in a purely formal sense. Yet the fact that the same government may have, for instance, told bald-faced lies, causing untold deaths in some far-away land, is beyond the comprehension of the law. Lying, taken alone, is at most a civil wrong (i.e. 'defamation' or 'slander'), rarely a criminal one, and almost never one for which a government can in any way be held collectively responsible.

The law, like capital, objectifies and therefore distorts the real relations between human brings. Just as for economic Marxists capital generates the abstract notion of value as expressed by money, in the legal sphere we have the abstract notion of 'legal wrong' as expressed both in money terms (damages, fines) and prison sentences. In the economic sphere, a cinema ticket might be equal to 10 packets of crisps, or as Marx might have put it, a yard of linen = 20 kg flour. In the legal sphere, this is analogous to the equation that smoking about 150 joints is equivalent to murder.

A real relation is thus reduced to a purely quantitative one; once this initial abstraction is accomplished and embedded within a system, all kinds of other distortions creep in, where even any sense of quantitative proportion is eventually abandoned. So for instance, under current UK law a defendant can be given a lifetime jail sentence for 'supplying' magic mushrooms, which until recently were legal. This, it just so happens, is the very same sentence recently given by an Austrian court to Josef Fritzl, who "fathered seven children with his daughter while he kept her locked in a cellar for 24 years, one of whom he admitted having murdered by neglect."

Under the law of some countries, smoking about 270 joints could be equated with Fritzl.

I will therefore take this opportunity to make a bold assertion to the contrary: that in a society where magic mushrooms and marijuana were totally permitted, among other things, there would be no Josef Fritzls in existence. But that, sadly, would be a free human society - a utopian dream, to be sure.

The inverse is also true - Fritzl is the Foucauldian convict who resides at the very heart of the carceral archipelago, the necessary product of the system which convicts him, who gives it its meaning and justifies its existence.

(Of course, if for instance marijuana was legalized overnight in the present state of society, there would probably be a lot of teenagers getting wacky in the streets, etc; what I am suggesting rather is a mental experiment; I urge the reader to imagine for a moment a very different kind of society in which there is no need for codified law, and smoking a joint or nibbling on a shroom is no different than having a glass of wine with dinner.)

It is worth reconsidering in this light Marx's remark that it is not communism (as he conceives it) but liberal capitalism (bourgeois society) that is the true enemy of the individual and singular; law and capital are both part of the framework which transforms the singular human being into an abstract value, which alienates and divides the human subject on the inside as well as on the outside, confining, categorizing and determining by class, profession, legal category (wrongdoer/wronged); and formulating all social relations within these rigid terms, solidifying them within this firmament.

As Che Guevara, a doctor who became a revolutionary, wrote in a letter to Uruguayan journalist Carlos Quijano : "we socialists are freer because we are more complete; we are more complete because we are freer."

The law, which concerns itself with facts, has no interest in the category of truth as such, in the true as the whole, the truth of a situation; for this reason it cannot concern itself with crimes committed half a world away by a government 'harassed' by protesters.

Once we use the language of the law, as Eyal Weizman explains in his critique of the Israeli occupation, we accept the basic premise of the hegemonic power; once we frame our critique in terms of 'war crimes', legal rights and legal wrongs, we accept the basic legitimacy of the non-illegal violence (the violence exerted within the confines of international law, violence minus war crimes), and thus the basic legitimacy of the occupation; we give in to the kind of thinking advocated by the legalists in Nazi Germany, to use Slavoj Zizek's example, who expressed their absolute contempt for the Jews but “nevertheless insisted that there were no proper legal grounds for the radical measures they were debating.”

Like capital, the law subordinates the present (labour) to the past (accumulated capital). It even prides itself on this: for the greatest virtues that it claims for itself are things like precedent (internal consistency), neutrality or 'equality before the law' (equal right to be mistreated), and procedure; not truth and justice. This is why the law is said to be by nature conservative; it is also atavistic.

Even when it changes it remains the same: a decision that is made into a law is still a past that speaks to and subordinates a present; but a present whose real truth eludes its grasp, escapes it. At this juncture the Heideggerian category of being-thrown-into-the-world emerges; a gap between a situation which can never be formulated in advance, and a corresponding legal category which constantly attempts to formulate that situation in advance. (Take for instance some of the security measures in the so-called 'war on terror', the various micro-practices of power - the imperative to take off one's shoes, the ban on liquids - they are always retrospective, i.e. the terrorists could have done their job the first time had it not been for some unfortunate accident; and their real target is not the terrorists, but us.)

As John Irving, that crypto-Marxist (I am aware this is normally used as a derogatory term) of the American novel, put it:

"Who live here in this cider house, Peaches? Who grind them apples, who press the cider, who clean up the mess, and who just plain live here... just breathin' in the vinegar? Somebody who don't live here made them rules. Them rules ain't for us. We the ones who make up them rules. We makin' our own rules, every day. Ain't that right, Homer?"

The meaning of that present which eludes the past is what constitutes the human; the (non-)subject whose truth eludes the objectifying operations of law and capital.

The arrest of political protesters on charges of harassment - while true injustices continue unimpeded - makes visible a gap within the structure. The more law tries to grasp the human, the more its grasp is eluded, the more fixed and impotent it becomes, the more it contradicts itself, the more it turns into a serpent swallowing its own tail, gnawing on its own entrails; while the human being grows and persists, without interrupting this lethal circuit - it never occupies the place designated for it within this asexual edifice, the space between the mouth and the tail.

This (non-)subject is perhaps precisely what Cavafy is after in his famous poem - the barbarians at the gates of Empire who never appear - for whom no laws can be written, who are unimpressed by rhetoric - and yet who would have been "a kind of solution." Isn't this also the meaning of the injunction "we do not negotiate with terrorists"? It is interesting to note that as UK officials have quietly parted wih the Bush administration over its approach to terrorism, they have just as quietly dropped the term itself, 'the war on terror'. Isn't the 'war on terror' in a broader sense - very much like, or even more than its Cold-War-era counterpart, the 'war on drugs' - a war not on the terrorists themselves or on terrorism as such, but on the human (non-)subject, a war on the 'neighbour', a war on human singularity that cannot be circumscribed/contained by the law, by the machinery of power, for which the only speech reserved is the law's refusal to speak, a refusal to negotiate, a refusal to acknowledge its own impotence when faced with a presence it cannot comprehend and which it considers by definition extra-legal, para-military, extra-ordinary (think: 'rendition'), liable to torture, imprisonment without trial, etc - not worthy even of the minimal constitutional protections that even someone like Josef Fritzl is given?

Waiting for the Barbarians
C.P. Cavafy

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn't anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.
What laws can the senators make now?
Once the barbarians are here, they'll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city's main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don't our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and they're bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people's faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what's going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

(on the)Roads

Following on the above post, this poem by Bosnian poet Mak Dizdar (who was, incidentally, born in October 1917, on the eve of revolution) traces the same gap within the edifice of power. On one hand it speaks to a certain sense of Bosnian hybrid multicultural identity; on the other it more universally applies to the self-creating identity of the colonized (non-)subject which resists yet rejects being reduced to victimhood. Dizdar was also a linguist and scholar of medieval gravestones (stećci) left by the bogumils, the gnostic heretical faith that thrived in the Kingdom of Bosnia; his poetry was peppered with archaic terms derived from the stećci. Although the below is a very good translation, this particular dimension of Dizdar's language is totally absent.

Mak Dizdar


You have decreed me not to be cost what may
Charging me down
You laugh and weep
On your way
You purge all clean
You wipe all out

You have decided to wipe me out whatever the price
Yet nowhere will you find
The real
Road to me

You know roads carved and cleared
But none beyond
(Barren they be and narrow indeed
No matter how broad
And long
They seem
To you
So proud
And strong)

You know only the paths
That rise
From heart

But that is not all


Roads unfold ahead
With no trace of beaten track
No almanac
Departure time
Or tide

Your path to me in my misery
Seems trodden and tried in your sight
The sort
That leads

You fool yourself I can be found
If you follow a course
Like north

But that is not all

Hide and seek
Eyes peeled
Come and find me
Beneath the rye rippling in the wind
In the roots of earth where the dark has congealed


But from the measureless heights
The mightiest

But that is not all

You know no right of way
At the crossroads
Of night
And day

But that is not all

For you know least that in your life
The one true war
The hardest strife
Is at your
Spirit's core.

And so you do not know
That you are the least of my evils
Among a legion
Of larger

You do not know
With whom you are dealing

You know nothing of this roadmap I own


You do not know that the road from you to me
Is other than the road
From me
To you

You know nothing of my wealth
Hidden from your mighty eyes
(You do not know
That fate
Did demise
And deal me
Far more than
You may

You have decided to wipe me out whatever the price
But nowhere will you find the real road
To me

(I understand you:
You are a man in one space and time
Alive just here and now
You cannot know of the boundless
Space of time
In which I am
From a distant yesterday
To a far-off tomorrow
Thinking of you

But that is not all)

Monday, 16 March 2009

Zizek is not simply itself: some thoughts on the 'communist hypothesis'

This is still in a rough draft stage, but I am putting it up anyway and will add/modify when I have time.

Some of the highlights of the Communism conference this weekend are Zizek's retorts in general discussion, which I must admit, as much as I might disagree with him on some points. To the suggestion, advanced by Badiou and others, that there is no 'outside', that it is impossible to construct an outside to capitalism today, that everything is by now fully subsumed within the logic of capital, Zizek summed up his proto-Hegelian reply with "Capitalism is not simply itself".

Well, duh. Isn't this Marx's whole point? All those internal differences, contradictions, inconsistencies - are they not simply to show that 'capitalism is not simply itself"?

Yet this is where Zizek is fundamentally mistaken on Deleuze. For if, as Zizek claims (and has proclaimed during the conference), we have to abandon the notion that 'history is on our side', or if the emergence of communism out of capitalist society is no longer simply a matter of developing productive forces and moving history forward toward this ineluctable goal, do we not then have to abandon Hegelian dialectics - the 'false movement' of negativity - altogether in favour of Deleuze's notion of the virtual?

Is this not precisely the difference between Hegelian dialectics and the Deleuzian virtual: while Hegelian dialectics is dependent on a certain inertia or movement of history where for traditional Marxists communism is simply the 'development' of capitalism, the virtual - 'real without being actual' - must be actively struggled for at every step and made spatially possible in order to become actual, or to actualize itself. It is never inevitable or determined in advance, but always contingent on the spatio-temporal conditions of the actual: history must be made.

It is here that Deleuze's intervention - the splicing of Proustian poetics with the Darwinian notion of 'actualization' - is crucial. If we are to take seriously Zizek's pronouncement and if communism should no longer be conceived as the inevitable dialectical end of capitalism, its presence within capitalism must be conceived as the virtual 'not itself' of the capitalist idea, its internal difference. The split between the virtual and the actual means that it is never a matter of simple contingency (what Deleuze calls the 'possible' as opposed to the virtual), or of dialectical necessity.

Unlocking the revolutionary potential of a situation in this sense is equivalent to creating the conditions necessary for the expression of a gene (the virtual). There is no linear progression at stake, and it is not a matter of historical development, but simply dynamic and volatile spatial reorganization which is responsive to change and can always change direction when the conditions are right: "the world is an egg, but the egg itself is a theatre: a staged theatre in which the roles dominate the actors, the spaces dominate the roles and the Ideas dominate the spaces."

Capitalism may generate contradictions, and may have a tendency to produce the conditions of its own downfall, but this negative space should not be mistaken for the path to communism. The actual expression of the communist Idea as the internal difference of capitalism is not simply the effect of a negation (this is the mistake of dialectics), but an act dependent on concrete will, as suggested in Peter Hallward's paper at the conference, 'Communism of the Intellect, Communism of the Will': "the virtues of the communist idea are distinct from anti-capitalism. Anti-capitalism concedes too much to the idea of capitalism." Internal difference is not a contradiction actualized in the unfolding of an idea, it is there in the beginning, it is a difference and an antagonism that precludes and precedes identity and the negative.

There are two ways one could explain Zizek's turnaround. On one hand, this could be simply further insight into Zizek's polemical approach, which is to win every argument by adopting theoretically inconsistent positions on different issues if necessary, so long as the inconsistency is not immediately obvious in the moment. On the other, it could be a complex case of philosophical parapraxis, indicating Zizek's secret wish to reconcile with his philosophical father, Deleuze. (hehe)

Hardt and Negri's papers both dealt with the notion of the common in some form and, for Hardt especially, the necessity (for the actualization of the communist idea) of producing the common. What is crucial here is the opposition of the socialist model (top-down, statist) to the communist one (the common as commonly produced); which is echoed in Zizek's interpolation that, especially in view of the current financial crisis and government responses to it, the future will be either socialist (Keynesian, perhaps?) or communist.