Thursday, March 09, 2006

Are You Living in the Abstract World?

Yesterday the prospective students for my department came by, and so naturally the discussions always inevitable in an Ethnic Studies Program took place.

The origin of Ethnic Studies is a mixture of explicit politics and academics, and so the eternal struggle in any such department is how to balance the rigors of both life spheres. What are we to do with the divisions between the "abstract" world of academia and "concrete" world of real life?

I should point here that my point here will not be that these divisions are false, but that how we position ourselves in relation to them is what makes all the difference on whether we will implicitly/explicitly accept them or transgress them.

A crucial mistake that I see students make when posing philosophically these problems, is that rather than narrating a relationship to this particular division, which might in some way reveal its contingency, they instead narrate themselves into an interpassive state, whereby the division becomes reified, with both the speaker and what lies upon the other side of that division becoming transparent. As I wrote a few days ago, the classic political example of this is politicians. The mantra of "corrupt politicians" is such an interpassive remark, meaning that its tone of enunciation is designed to unravel what appears to be the intent of the statement.

"Corrupt politicians" is one of the ultimate public, populist critiques, anyone anywhere devoid of any particular knowledge or experience can make readily readable critiques. (I will spare everyone a citation of Imagined Communities here) Critiques which can resonate in an interestingly ineffective way. The key is of course, pathology or stuck meaning. There is something in this group or this person that I recognize, that I can pinpoint, but what I find isn't just any form of meaning, but a particular, special kind of trapped meaning. A common joke of Yassir Arafat for example was that "he never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity." According to Zizek what this joke hints at isn't just simple existence or simple universality, because that would mean that Arafat just misses opportunities, no big deal. But the joke reveals how Arafat has a particular, super human ability to miss opportunities. The recognition of this super surplus meaning is what (re)produces a rational weakly engaged national political subject, but at the same time (re)produce an clear disengagement. In the way I recognize this split, this flaw, I simultaneously put it beyond intervention, beyond hope.

The recognition of pathologically corrupt politicians is the first step in the production of the national apolitical subject, whose transparency, insularity is conserved through a palpable pathology, which confers a form of transparency upon this subject through its divorcing from political obligations, responsibilities and complicities.

I often get trapped in this tangent, but most recently because I am working on a paper right now which outlines different moments of recognition which (re)produce national subjects. I've mentioned a few of these moments in passing throughout the past few months. I have three main moments, the first is from Slavoj Zizek's introduction to his Metastases of Enjoyment (the recognition of the split in the other), the second from Gayatri Spivak's infamously mis-understood article "Can the Subaltern Speak?" from a book I would absolutely love to own Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (the recognition of the fullness of the other), and lastly the one I hope to use to talk about indigenous peoples throughout the American Pacific, which comes from the song El Scorcho by Weezer.

Returning to my initial point, a similar interpassive process often takes place when students in Ethnic Studies discuss their estranged relationship to "the streets" and the "real world." While there is obviously some element of truth to this, one can only cling to this somewhat spontaneous truth for a short period of time, before the need to rethink its naturalness should intervene. The mere recognition of how we are estranged from where the real battles are taking place and privileged to have to spend our time just thinking and reading is barely an insight worth mentioning. The key is what takes place after this recognition, because this recognition alone is just reinventing transparency, reinventing disengagement. What logically follows, although it can be articulated in differing distorted ways is "what are we doing here?" "we are wasting our time here!" and eventually one must therefore make the assertion that academia is meaningless and that it has no effect on real world issues and problems.

Although most people tend to become less Marxist as they older, I think I'm moving in the opposite direction. As I get older (lana, kao un honngge este? Kuantos anos yu'? Bente singko, ya esta este i sinangan-hu?) I am becoming more and more Marxist, specifically along the lines of Gramsci and Lenin. Both of them but Lenin more so to resist a social homogeneity and equality amongst political/social agents. In Lenin for example, the existence of the vanguard is formalized, and is therefore changed from a strategic step which is taken in the face of circumstances unforeseen by Marx's work, and instead a necessary element for how the Universal class (the Proletariat) will take control of society, by acting as the conservationists of class consciousness as well as political brokers who forge strategic alliances with other parties within society.

There are hierarchies in society, and within social movements, unless a whole new universe of social meaning emerges (which I hope it does), there will be hierarchies as well. When meeting with student revolutionaries in France in 1968, Lacan was famed to have told them, "as hysterics you demand a new master, and you shall get one!" It does no one any good to be oppressed through assumptions of homogeneity or pervasive, almost polite yet plague like unity. We cannot ever all be on the same page, but that does not preclude our ability to organize together and work together. In fact the possibility of people working together, of even love, as well as the possibility of politics itself, as Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau articulate so well in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, is antagonism, is the glitch in the system which makes any full agreement, any full meaning or fixed consistency impossible. Take for example the episode of Seinfeld where Jerry falls in love with Janeane Garafalo because she is him, they are perfect together because of how they compliment as opposed to supplement each other. Their last line to each other is of course not "I love you" but, "I hate you!"

(This is what I am realizing is the underlying problem with Hardt and Negri's concept of Multitude. It is not so much with the things they say per se, but rather that the political tradition from which they derive the Multitude is based on immanence, and as I understand it, immanence in one way or another precludes politics.)

When I came into the Ethnic Studies Department two years ago, I encountered a fairly oppressive facade of polite homogeneity. Since we were all in Ethnic Studies, we all had good politics, right?. We all had the same basic critiques about race, the state, gender, sexuality, nation, class, etc. right? The problem is, that we were all not on the same page, yet that veneer of unity prevented those theoretical or political antagonisms from surfacing and therefore the contestation, debate and articulating of meaning all became personal and therefore acceptably pathological. People were dubbed weird or strange, and on that basis pathologized or essentialized in certain authentically oppressive ways.

In my current master's thesis I wrote recently about material and institutional accumulation and its relationship to hegemony and battles of meaning in society. In the ways that we talk about society, even if we are clearly talking about inequalities and inequities in power, there is a tendency to flatten the social field, or even worse depress certain zones. To disengage certain spheres from each other, or to privilege by virtue of some nostalgic or guilty imaginary certain groups or places.

Academia has a huge amount of capital/clout, but we shouldn't make the mistake of flattening its effect or impact. The key is always strategy and context, so we must get a sense of what the typical circuits and routes for meaning and effect are. What are the natural spheres where our speech by virtue of coming from an academic institution will have predictable readability, easy effect? But that is the easy part, the task for those who are interested in truly transformative work will of course come through the transgression and traversing of these divisions one has just identified. The use and acknowledgement of those inroads in any given political terrain is necessary, but the acceptance of those inroads as the only possibility and only adequate movement will mean that whatever is providing/ representing the hegemonic content(s) of that system will remain unscathed. Things might change, but the basic structure, which is coded into the production of those inroads, will remain beyond the edge of your critique.

Part of the project of Ethnic Studies as I see it, is to show just very basically how that separating of the academic from the rest of the world is just plain untrue in both negative and positive ways. I hate to resort to quoting the film The Butterfly Effect here, but it slithered into my brain, over the past paragraph, because of its use of Chaos Theory, and the two basic paths that one can move from its basic theoretical premise, the first implies a underlying structure to everything, the second claims that any structure is merely imposed on a chaotic random universe.

The film begins with the line, "It has been said something as small as the flutter of a butterfly's wing can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway around the world." The first route is best articulated through an article by Harlan Ellison on Chaos Theory, "There is no such thing as chance, only patterns we don't understand." The second route, I've found most frequently invoked in Lacanian psychoanalysis through the Slovenian School (hunggan, siguru na guaha otro na lugat nai ma sasangan este, lao ti meggai na hu taitai). The slogan that "There is no Big Other" means that there is no Other of the Other, that there is no Other behind the other before you who guarantees ultimate meaning or consistency. The Big Other is instead always a necessary fiction, through which we can invest meaningful meaning about the world around us. (Zizek uses the novel Possession, but you can find this motif everywhere, false trail of breadcrumbs or clues, such as "Communism" in the film Clue ("Communism was just a red herring"), or the "Wiper" in the legendary G.I. Joe episode.)

Ultimately, the point is not the relationship between "academia" and "the real world," but our relationship to this relationship. How do we position ourselves in relation to it not just through our scholarly work, but through our everyday speech and actions? Is our big accomplishment to be just recognizing this relation? Just pointing it out and telling everyone about how bad it is? As I've already noted, this is a reworking of transparency, this is a facade of investment, a pretense of engagement. How is your recognition of this division, not just reifying it, but also make you the object of it? How is my very discourse around my privilege the thing which protects it?

These worlds are obviously connected and disconnected, and our task is not just seeing those gaps, breaks and overlaps, but trying to rework them. To change them.

Gof ya-na i che'lu-hu Si Kuri (Jeremy) tumaitai put "revolutionaries." Recently, ha taitai put i lina'la'n Joe Hill, ni' ma puno' giya Utah put i che'cho'-na gi inetnon Labor (pi'ot i IWW). Gof magahet i mas matungo' na sinangan, "don't mourn for me, organize!" Achokka' hunggan debi di ta hasso antes di ta fano'gue, debi di ta na'siguru na ti todu i kinalamten-ta hinasso ha'. Or that i hinasso-ta siha, ti ma chomma' todu i kinalamten-ta. Taibali yanggen todu i hinassosso-mu, u na'paranaihon todu i kinalamten-mu.

We all know about the cultural capital that colleges have and those producing knowledge within them gain or lose speech readability, resonance and distance based on that capital. Therefore what academics produce will have alot of weight in terms of how the public is structured, what bodies are privileged, pathologies, what historical moments are elevated and articulated as the vital points of historical and national equivalence. (we should be careful here, because an overestimation of this apparent privilege and impact can be just as detrimental)

It is given this quagmire, which will always be there, but at times becomes inanely counterproductive, that I find value in reviving Gramsci and his concept of "organic intellectual." Its getting late, I'll post about it tomorrow.

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