New Article: “Not Persuasion, but Power: Against ‘Making the Case'”

The idea that college faculty and their allies have somehow failed to “make the case” for the value of their work is one of the hoariest clichés of higher ed commentary — our equivalent to the legendary “since the dawn of time”-style opening for undergraduate papers…. It is clear enough why academics would be drawn to a solution that draws on their particular skillsets of persuasion and argumentation, but the demand that we “make the case” is naïve and impotent.

Read the rest of my scathing indictment of the entire world here.

Giorgio Agamben: Medicine as Religion

[Translator’s note: Agamben has asked me to translate his latest reflection on the coronavirus crisis.]

That science has become the religion of our time, that in which people believe they believe, has been obvious for some time now. In the modern West there have coexisted and, to a certain extent, still coexist three great systems of belief: Christianity, capitalism, and science. In the history of modernity, these three “religions” have often intersected, entering from time to time into conflict and later reconciling in a different way, until they progressively reached a sort of peaceful, articulated coexistence, if not a true and proper collaboration in the name of a common interest.

What is new is that between science and the other two religions there has ignited, without our noticing it, a subterranean and implacable conflict, the successful results of which for science are daily before our eyes and determine in an unheard-of way all aspects of our existence. This conflict does not concern, as happened in the past, theory or general principles, but, so to speak, cultic practice. Indeed, science too, like every religion, knows diverse forms and levels through which it organizes and orders its structure: to the elaboration of a subtle and rigorous dogmatic there corresponds in practice an extremely broad and widespread cultic sphere which coincides with what we call technology.

It is not surprising that the protagonist of this new war of religions should be that part of science where the dogmatic is less rigorous and the pragmatic aspect stronger: medicine, whose immediate object is the living body of human beings. Let us attempt to fix the essential character of this victorious faith with which we must increasingly settle accounts.
Continue reading “Giorgio Agamben: Medicine as Religion”

Beneath contempt

Every American public intellectual must eventually face a hard truth: American electoral politics are not worthy of sustained analysis. Only when placed in a broader context of economic transformations and extra-electoral struggles do they take on any genuine interest, and even then the strictly electoral aspect is bound to be the least compelling part of the narrative. Taken as a whole, our ruling classes are beneath contempt — an ensemble of short-sighted, corrupt mediocrities — and the few exceptions are basically a rounding error.

The response to such a dispiriting situation might seem obvious, namely, to avoid talking about or engaging with electoral politics unless strictly necessary. That difficulty, however, is that the whole of what passes for American public life is oriented around electoral politics. Policy decisions are normally discussed solely in terms of possible electoral strategies and outcomes, and even private conversations about politics tend to devolve into a binary choice between Democrats and Republicans. It is not enough for us to show up to vote — we must be perpetually campaigning for our preferred side, which means maintaining the party discipline of all those around us.

There is a difference between Republicans and Democrats. It is not as large as I wish it were, but it is large enough to make a difference and large enough to make the trouble of voting worth it for me as a harm reduction measure. Whenever there’s a primary, I vote for the left-most Democrat, and whenever there’s a general election, I vote for the Democrat. These elections happen, at most, once or twice a year, and they represent an important, but fundamentally uninteresting binary choice. No one needs the amount of political news the average American — much less the average “very online” American — consumes in order to make that choice. If the goal is to affect election outcomes, then we are all wasting an unfathomable amount of time, in the outer reaches of a region light-years from the point of diminishing returns.

We used to hear a lot in the early Trumpocene that we should not allow Trump’s latest antics to “distract us” from the truly important things we should be paying attention to. People seem to have grown tired of that rhetorical pose as it has become increasingly clear that there is no underlying agenda behind the antics — he really is as racist and callous and self-aggrandizing as he appears. The surface is the reality. As annoyed as I was by their rhetoric, though, I’d suggest that the distractionists actually did not go far enough: all of it is a “distraction,” none of it is real. Yes, it has real effects, and yes, it makes a difference. But all of our politicians are, with certain admirable but marginal exceptions, corrupt opportunists who are responding to forces more fundamental than those tracked by polling and pundits. The really interesting questions are why they act like they do, why our ramshackle apartheid “democracy” keeps producing these results, why the news media invests billions of dollars annually in convincing us that the petty grievances and bad-faith arguments of this class of sad losers is the most important and interesting thing in the world.

The challenge, though, is that to be heard at all in what we laughingly call the public sphere, the intellectual must — or at least feels they must — somehow contextualize their point in the struggle between the sad losers everyone hates. So that sucks.

The Real State of Exception?

An Illinois legislator named Darren Bailey has convinced a judge to overrule the governor’s stay-at-home order for him — and him alone. It is worth pondering the peculiar form of life that emerges as one individual is excepted from the general state of exception. He is able to move freely, unencumbered by social distancing requirements, and yet every other resident in the state is obliged to stay away from him. He can leave his home freely, and yet there is nowhere for him to go. He is an outcast insofar as he is the only resident of the “normal” society that the stay-at-home order suspended. His civil rights thus enter into a state of pure inoperativity, rendered useless by the very order that supposedly vindicated them.

Is Bailey a messianic figure? The response of the sovereign — in this case, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker — may tempt us to think so. Yet it is a curious messiah who promises only to lead us back to the normal functioning of law. To be truly messianic, Bailey would have to renounce any claim to serve as a precedent, choosing instead to live out his peculiar form-of-life in a way that enacts its absurdity. We can imagine that solitary vigil as a kind of performance art piece that repeatedly exposes the limit of the bourgeois rights he has uselessly reclaimed.

The messianic condition is one in which all the rights of citizenship will be useless in their current sense — pointing to the potential for a new, unheard-of use.

Reading the Qur’an: The Seal of the Prophets

[This semester, I am blogging my course on the Qur’an. You can see my previous post here and the whole series here.]

The Arabic text displayed above means: “Muhammad is not the father of any one of you men; he is God’s Messenger and the seal of the prophets: God knows everything” (Qur’an 33:40, Haleem trans.). This is one of the most pivotal verses of the Qur’an, clarifying that Muhammad is not just one among many prophets, who happens to have been sent to the Arab tribes of Mecca, but indeed the conclusion to the sequence of prophets that has been continually reiterated and rearticulated throughout the Qur’anic revelation. It seems like a fitting verse with which to begin my final post in this series of reflections on teaching the Qur’an. Though my students have papers left to write (for which they have selected very interesting topics), classes have concluded, and we have both read through the entire text of the Qur’an and finished with an account of the conquest of Mecca, the farewell pilgrimage, and the death of the Prophet.

One of my primary emphases in the course has been the comparison with biblical stories, which helps to clarify the theological goals of the Qur’an. In some cases, the agenda guiding the Qur’an’s revisionism is clear — for instance, Qur’anic versions of the story almost always omit any of the moral ambiguity of the biblical versions. Taking a step back and looking at the full sweep of Muhammad’s career, however, I believe that there is a much more thorough-going revision and rearticulation of the monotheistic prophetic tradition than one would detect by focusing on the stories one by one.

Continue reading “Reading the Qur’an: The Seal of the Prophets”

On doing the thing

During our sojourn in place, I have found myself unable to concentrate on much of anything beyond the immediate task in hand. Reformatting my courses for online delivery — then, inevitably, reformatting them again when the first version didn’t seem to be working — has been time-consuming, trying to keep the various discussions moving has been more draining than normal in-person classes, and keeping in contact with all the students who seem to be falling behind has been more difficult and stressful. This was in a semester when I already had three fresh preps in three radically different subjects, which is fun but also requires a lot of energy to keep up with. I am normally not able to do any considerable outside writing or research late in the semester, but at this point it feels like I am completely intellectually spent. I have actually welcomed the production work on my forthcoming monograph and translation, as relatively mechanical labor that keeps me busy without taking a lot of mental energy. Without the time commitment of commuting, I have been able to keep up more with studying the Qur’an in Arabic than I otherwise would have, but that too is more a matter of just putting in the time and flipping through the dictionary and trusting that I’ll gradually get better — I am not having startling creative insights so far.

Outside of those routines, I have mostly been binging TV, walking the dog, and drinking, on average, 10-15% too much. But I have found time for two intellectual activites: resuming my reading of Thomas Pynchon, whose work I have been revisiting during break periods for the last few years, and translating short pieces by Giorgio Agamben on the coronavirus crisis. Continue reading “On doing the thing”

Giorgio Agamben: A Question

[Translator’s note: Agamben has again requested that I translate his latest essay on the ethical implications of the coronavirus crisis.]

“The plague marked for the city the beginning of corruption… No one was any longer disposed to persevere in what he had previously judged to be the good, because he believed that perhaps he would die before achieving it.” (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, II.53)

I would like to share with whoever wants it a question on which for over a month now I have never stopped reflecting. How could it happen that an entire country has, without noticing it, politically and ethically collapsed in the face of an illness? The words that I have used to formulate this question have been carefully weighed one by one. The measure of the abdication of our own ethical and political principles is, in fact, very simple: it is a matter of asking ourselves what is the limit beyond which we are not prepared to renounce them. I believe that the reader who takes the trouble to consider the points that follow will not be able not to agree that — without noticing it or by pretending not to notice it — the threshold that separates humanity from barbarism has been crossed.

  1. The first point, perhaps the most serious, concerns the bodies of dead persons. How could we have accepted, solely in the name of a risk that it was not possible to specify, that persons who are dear to us and human beings in general should not only die alone, but — something that had never happened before in history, from Antigone to today — that their cadavers should be burned without a funeral?
  2. We then accepted without too many problems, solely in the name of a risk that it was not possible to specify, limiting, to an extent that had never happened before in the history of the country, not even during the Second World War (the curfew during the war was limited to certain hours), our freedom of movement. We consequently accepted, solely in the name of a risk that it was not possible to specify, de facto suspending our relationships of friendship and love, because our proximity had become a possible source of contagion.
  3. This was able to happen — and here we hit on the root of the phenomenon — because we have split the unity of our vital experience, which is always inseparably bodily and spiritual, into a purely biological entity on one hand and an affective and cultural life on the other. Ivan Illich demonstrated, and David Cayley has recalled it here recently, the responsibility of modern medicine in this split, which is taken for granted but is actually the greatest of abstractions. I know very well that this abstraction was actualized in modern science through apparatuses of reanimation, which can maintain a body in a state of pure vegetative life. But if this condition is extended beyond the spatial and temporal confines that are proper to it, as we are today seeking to do, and it becomes a sort of principle of social behavior, we fall into contradictions from which there is no way out.

I know that someone will hasten to respond that we are dealing with a condition that is limited in time, after which everything will return to how it was. It is truly strange that we could repeat this other than in bad faith, since the same authorities that proclaimed the emergency never stop reminding us that when the emergency has been overcome, we will have to continue to observe the same directives and that “social distancing,” as it has been called with a significant euphemism, will be society’s new organizing principle. And, in every case, what we have accepted submitting to, in good or bad faith, cannot be cancelled.

At this point, because I have declared the responsibilities of each of us, I cannot fail to mention the even more serious responsibility of those who had the duty to keep watch over human dignity. The Church above all, which, in making itself the handmaid of science, which has now become the true religion of our time, has radically repudiated its most essential principles. The Church, under a Pope who calls himself Francis, has forgotten that Francis embraced lepers. It has forgotten that one of the works of mercy is that of visiting the sick. It has forgotten that the martyrs teach that we must be prepared to sacrifice our life rather than our faith and that renouncing our neighbor means renouncing faith.

Another category that has failed in their duties is that of jurists. For some time we have been habituated to the rash use of emergency decrees by means of which the executive power is de facto substituted for that the legislative, abolishing that principle of the separation of powers that defines democracy. But in this case, every limit has been surpassed, and one has the impression that the words of the prime minister and of the head of civil defense, as was said of those of the Führer, immediately have the force of law. And we do not see how, going beyond the temporal limits of validity of the emergency decrees, the limitations of freedom could, as is foretold, be maintained. With what juridical apparatuses? With a permanent state of exception? It is the duty of jurists to verify that the rules of the constitution are respected, but the jurists are silent. Quare silete iuristae in munere vestro? (Why are jurists silent on what concerns them?)

I know that there will inevitably be someone who will respond that the sacrifice, which is of course serious, has been made in the name of moral principles. To them I would recall that a norm that affirms that we must renounce the good to save the good is just as false and contradictory as that which, to protect freedom, orders us to renounce freedom.

Reading the Qur’an: Moving on to Medina

[This semester, I am blogging my course on the Qur’an. You can see my previous post here and the whole series here.]

Like everything else, my Qur’an blogging has been disrupted by coronavirus. We had one final week of in-person discussions after Spring Break — during which my class, full of graduating seniors and athletes, were understandably distracted by their disappointment in all that they’d be missing the rest of the year — and then moved to a discussion-board format. This was a natural fit given that I had assigned them to present short papers to the class as their primary writing requirement, so that those could be the main prompts for a text-based discussion. We are going to do a few optional video conferences in the remaining weeks, but overall the format seems to be working well. But I am still sad that this class, which I put so much work into designing, is ending in such a diminished form.

In any case! As I mentioned in the previous post, Spring Break marked the Hijra, and we are definitely in Medinan territory now. Continue reading “Reading the Qur’an: Moving on to Medina”

We can’t let the invisible hand kill us

There is no binary choice of “next Great Depression or mass death.” The government can support people while they take the absolutely necessary steps to contain coronavirus, allowing them to pick up where they left off once sheltering in place is no longer necessary. Other, smaller countries are taking measures that could be models here and wouldn’t require any new programs or political infrastructure — just pumping money through existing channels. We have the technology (i.e., money). Lives and livelihoods do not need to be destroyed.

But left to itself, the invisible hand is going to inflict a Great Depression on us as punishment for doing the right and necessary things. The invisible hand will destroy careers and businesses and whole communities full of people who did all they could to save lives. How do you expect people to sit back and take that?

The Financial Crisis already inflicted a huge system-wide economic shock on people who were ostensibly “doing the right thing” (buying a home), and that was a huge blow to the legitimacy of the system. Coronavirus is on course to do even worse. And establishment Democrats are doing their level best to guarantee that once the legitimacy of the system — not just the neoliberal order, but perhaps the Constitution itself — is destroyed, the extreme right will be the ONLY organized force in a position to pick up the pieces.

Giorgio Agamben: “Clarifications”

Translator’s Note: Giorgio Agamben asked me to translate this brief essay, which serves as an indirect response to the controversy surrounding his article about the response to coronavirus in Italy (see here for the original Italian piece and here for an English translation).

Fear is a poor advisor, but it causes many things to appear that one pretended not to see. The problem is not to give opinions on the gravity of the disease, but to ask about the ethical and political consequences of the epidemic. The first thing that the wave of panic that has paralyzed the country obviously shows is that our society no longer believes in anything but bare life. It is obvious that Italians are disposed to sacrifice practically everything — the normal conditions of life, social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions — to the danger of getting sick. Bare life — and the danger of losing it — is not something that unites people, but blinds and separates them. Other human beings, as in the plague described in Alessandro Manzoni’s novel, are now seen solely as possible spreaders of the plague whom one must avoid at all costs and from whom one needs to keep oneself at a distance of at least a meter. The dead — our dead — do not have a right to a funeral and it is not clear what will happen to the bodies of our loved ones. Our neighbor has been cancelled and it is curious that churches remain silent on the subject. What do human relationships become in a country that habituates itself to live in this way for who knows how long? And what is a society that has no value other than survival?

The other thing, no less disquieting than the first, that the epidemic has caused to appear with clarity is that the state of exception, to which governments have habituated us for some time, has truly become the normal condition. There have been more serious epidemics in the past, but no one ever thought for that reason to declare a state of emergency like the current one, which prevents us even from moving. People have been so habituated to live in conditions of perennial crisis and perennial emergency that they don’t seem to notice that their life has been reduced to a purely biological condition and has not only every social and political dimension, but also human and affective. A society that lives in a perennial state of emergency cannot be a free society. We in fact live in a society that has sacrificed freedom to so-called “reasons of security” and has therefore condemned itself to live in a perennial state of fear and insecurity.

It is not surprising that for the virus one speaks of war. The emergency measures obligate us in fact to life in conditions of curfew. But a war with an invisible enemy that can lurk in every other person is the most absurd of wars. It is, in reality, a civil war. The enemy is not outside, it is within us.

What is worrisome is not so much or not only the present, but what comes after. Just as wars have left as a legacy to peace a series of inauspicious technologies, from barbed wire to nuclear power plants, so it is also very likely that one will seek to continue even after the health emergency experiments that governments did not manage to bring to reality before: closing universities and schools and doing lessons only online, putting a stop once and for all to meeting together and speaking for political or cultural reasons and exchanging only digital messages with each other, wherever possible substituting machines for every contact — every contagion — between human beings.