Reading over some of my old work on the theme of divine and revolutionary violence in Žižek today it struck me how odd it is that although his discussion of these themes relies very heavily on Benjamin’s Critique of Violence, whose discussion of the different forms of violence revolves around the different forms of strike and the different types of state repression of strikes, nowhere in Žižek’s own work does he mention the strike as a form of political action. Probably the closest he comes is in his repeated invocation of Bartleby the Scrivener’s one-man strike which, despite Žižek’s repeated appeal to its political efficacy, results not in any general transformation of Bartleby’s workplace but simply the reordering of precisely the same system in a different location – that is to say, Bartleby fails to effect any meaningful change because while he as an individual worker in an individual office refuses to work or to leave the building, there remain plenty of other workers and other offices. The only form of collective action Žižek seems able to imagine is totally spontaneous and unorganised – the fictional refusal of the characters in Saramago’s Seeing to fill out their ballots, various riots which always, on Žižek’s reading, emerge out of nowhere – or organised around a single charismatic leader – here Gandhi is one of Žižek’s favoured examples, and again he focuses on classically liberal terrain, ‘consumer boycotts’. When he writes about the organised political action of the demonstrations in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown he can’t recognise the role of collective organising at work, describing them in the face of evidence to the contrary as ‘“irrational” violent demonstrations with no concrete programmatic demands, sustained by just a vague call for justice’, and comparing them to divine violence in Benjamin’s sense as ‘means without ends, not part of a long-term strategy’ – suggesting that he doesn’t really understand the idea of the general strike which is so central to Benjamin’s discussion. As his use of Benjamin indicates, it’s clearly not that Žižek doesn’t read the work of actually existing Marxists, though he’s much less interested in Marxists in general than he is in Lacanians and Hegelians. But it’s a striking lacuna in his work, and more generally indicative of his limitations as a political theorist, especially of his inability to imagine the use of deliberate and organised collective action.
Below you will find a long review essay on three relatively recent books in Object-Oriented Ontology as they attempt to engage with ecology and ecological concerns (you may also download it as a PDF if you prefer). For those who read the essay, you will see that I am very critical of these works. The review was originally commissioned for an academic journal. This journal differs from other in its review policies in that reviews are sent out for peer review. The two reports I received from readers were very enthusiastic and recommended the review be published with some minor corrections. One reviewer actually suggested that the review was too forgiving and thought I should be even more critical. When I made my revisions I didn’t act on that suggestion, as I felt the piece was already harsh and, for the few who would read it, would already be controversial as is.
I was excited to publish the review and had spent a great deal of time on it. However, after the initial peer review stage the two main editors also take a pass at the reviews. Both ultimately disagreed strongly with the readers and made a number of suggestions and demands. This process lasted through two rounds and ultimately I felt they were asking me to change the piece so substantially that it was no longer a tolerable situation. Though I disagree strongly with them, I am thankful for some of their comments and respect their commitment to their standards. However, I am criticizing very powerful figures in the broad field of environmental humanities not because I think it is a good career move, but because I believe in the criticism. As I explained to the editors when I decided to withdraw the piece, I am not really rewarded for publishing work at my institution and am provided very little support for research and writing and as such I see no reason to compromise on what I do decide to publish much as they refuse to compromise.
Some of what I put forward at the end of the piece is forming the basis for a new project on ecology and colonialism, which includes a reading of Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic” through the work of Frantz Fanon.
On the Use and Abuse of Objects for the Environmental Humanities: Recent Books in Object-Oriented Ontology and Ecotheory
Anthony Paul Smith, Department of Religion & Theology, La Salle University, United States
This review essay examines three recent works of ecotheory, Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory beyond Green(edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen), Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman, and Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, all of which attempt to make use and deepen the philosophical project of object-oriented ontology (OOO). After an overview of the place of OOO within contemporary philosophy and its general principles, the essay posits that there is a unidirectional relationship between OOO and ecotheory (inclusive of scientific ecology). Since the practitioners of OOO discussed in this essay all claim that their work is philosophically realist in orientation, this failure to engage and mutate their philosophical work according to scientific ecology bears witness to the inability to fully break from anthropocentrism. At a deeper level this failure acts as a symptom for a wider failure to break from the colonial episteme that goes unexamined by OOO. Making use of Hortense Spillers’s conception of “pornotroping”, the essay offers a reading of various author appeals to love, erotics, and sadomasochism that argues this same colonial episteme of anti-Blackness structures OOO’s understanding of the object. While presenting a general critique of OOO’s interventions into ecotheory, the essay also calls for a deeper engagement and centering of scholarship in Black Studies and Queer Studies, particularly from an Afro-pessimist and anti-social perspective. Continue reading “On the Use and Abuse of Objects for the Environmental Humanities: Recent Books in Object-Oriented Ontology and Ecotheory”
My skin is blackMy arms are long
My hair is woolly
My back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain
inflicted again and again
What do they call me
My name is AUNT SARAHMy name is Aunt SarahMy skin is yellow
My hair is long
Between two worlds
I do belong
My father was rich and white
He forced my mother late one night
What do they call me
My name is SAFFRONIA
My name is SaffroniaMy skin is tan
My hair is fine
My hips invite you
my mouth like wine
Whose little girl am I?
Anyone who has money to buy
What do they call me
My name is SWEET THING
My name is Sweet ThingMy skin is brown
my manner is tough
I’ll kill the first mother I see
my life has been too rough
I’m awfully bitter these days
because my parents were slaves
What do they call me
My name is PEACHES–Nina Simone, Four Women
From Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy:
In a symbolic painting, Raphael, himself one of these immortal “naive” ones, has represented for us this demotion of appearance to the level of mere appearance, the primitive process of the naive artist and of Apollinian culture. In his Transfiguration the lower half of the picture, with the possessed boy, the despairing bearers, the bewildered, terrified disciples, shows us the reflection of suffering, primal and eternal, the sole ground of the world: the “mere appearance” here is the reflection of eternal contradition, the father of things. From this mere appearance arises, like ambrosial vapor, a new visionary world of mere appearances, invisible to those wrapped in the first appearance–a radiant floating in purest bliss, a serene contemplation beaming from wide-open eyes. Here was have presented, in the most sublime artistic symbolism, that Apollinian world of beauty and its substratum, the terrible wisdom of Silenus; and intuitively we comprehend their necessary interdependence.
It’s summer! Hopefully this means you have a little down time to read books you might not otherwise. Though it is literally my job to make such recommendations, I thought I might do so here for free, as well. I’m focusing on independent presses for a couple of reasons, but I’ll spare you the sermon. Short version: big publishers get plenty of publicity already.
- Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Kintu (Transit Books) — It’s a big, dense book. But, alas, such is life! Quit your whining. It’s worth every page, this one. I love enormous stories where the coursing, cursed bloodline of a family tells the story of something so much larger. Makumbi’s book is a story about Uganda, true, and while she is definitely not interested in Anglocizing it for you, it’s one of the achievements of the novel that neither is this compromise necessary.
- Elena Passarello, Animals Strike Curious Poses (Sarabande Books) — I can’t say enough good about this essay collection. There has been some talk about how maybe the internet has wore out the essay-form for a bit. That’s probably bunk however you spin it, but Passarello rips it to shred and feeds it to birds (who surely should know better than to eat paper). Anyway: this is the best new essay collection of the year. Come at me.
- Mathias Énard, Compass [trans. Charlotte Mandell] (New Directions) — Another big book, I’m sorry. And, yes, it is one of those books — long, semi-florid sentences; self-obsessed male narrator; West reflecting on East. Somehow, though, Énard more than pulls this off. I’ve liked everything of his I’ve read thus far, but this feels like what he’s been building toward. Kotsko, especially take notice of all the music in this book. Compass has tapped into something very special, and I suspect it’ll be one we’re talking about for some time.
- Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet [trans. Jerónimo Pizarro & Margaret Jull Costa] (New Directions) — You probably have heard of this one. Maybe you even own one of the translations. I don’t know … there’s just something about this time and place that begs for us all to return to Pessoa’s classic. The quintessential example of the book that took a lifetime to write, and has been a lifeline for so many.
- Fleur Jaeggy, These Possible Lives [trans. Minna Zallman Proctor] (New Directions) — Another book from New Directions. They’re always solid, but they really hit a good stride this year. This is a very slim collection of essays about three writers — De Quincey, Keats, & Marcel Schwob (more on him in a second) — but its so mighty in its effect and sheer style. A perfect length to hole up with you for an afternoon or evening at the bar.
- Marcel Schwob, The King in the Golden Mask [trans. Kit Schluter] (Wakefield Press) — Speaking of Schwob, I can’t tell you how happy I am that Wakefield Press (and translator Kit Schluter) are making him more readily accessible in English. Vicious and sublime, dark and hallucinatory, reading him for the first time somehow leaves a mark on your subsequent reading. A master storyteller, whose influences you feel and influence is felt … even if too rarely identified as such.
- Layli Long Soldier, Whereas (Graywolf) — This is somehow Soldier’s first book of poetry. It’s staggeringly good. I’ll leave her to describe it: “I am a citizen of the United States and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, meaning I am a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation—and in this dual citizenship I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.” Every word of this is woven into her debut collection. Whereas will be rightly lauded with awards come fall.
- Ibn Khālawayh, Names of the Lion [trans. David Larsen] (Wave Books) — Probably a curious choice, but I think many of you will really dig this. A cult classic you couldn’t get your hand on for years, this is David Larsen’s English translation of the 10th-century Arabic lexicographer Ibn Khālawayh’s list of names of lions. Larsen is a poet himself and an Arabic scholar, both of which shine through in his introduction and stellar notations throughout the collection. He notes that Ibn Khālawayh would in no way have regarded his intent as poetic, but there’s no denying that something poetic is happening in Larsen’s engagement with his work.
- Leonora Carrington, The Complete Stories (Dorothy Project) — During a time that is too-often-to-be-useful called “surreal,” it’s helpful that so much actual surrealism is coming back into print. Leading the charge is Leonora Carrington. Here you have debutante’s swapping roles with a wolf, both of whom are hungry for something different; a rocking horses suffering its fate; and, naturally corpses. It’s weird to call Carrington “a joy,” and yet indulging such weirdness also feels perfectly appropriate.
- Gabe Habash, Stephen Florida (Coffee House Press) — I’m delighted that this debut novel has been garnering such great reviews. Whether you’re a sports fan or not, it’s hard to deny it is a perfect vehicle for storytelling. Goal-oriented monomania . . . it drives the athlete as much as it does any Ahab. Gabe Habash has crafted a really special book. One of the best sports novels I’ve ever read … and surely one of the year’s best novels, period.
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
Pagans and infidels are bound by the power and judgement of the keys, because those who do not believe have already been judged.
–Augustinus Triumphus, 1214-13381
On May 8, anno Domini, 2017, the NYCLU released a report detailing the “outsized role” that NYPD police officers play in the “extreme racial disparities” evident in which NYC public school students are given summonses, arrested, and “unnecessarily handcuffed.”2 3 The data indicates that in 2016, 99% of NYC public school students handcuffed in “child in crisis” incidents were coded as Black and Latinx. The so-called child “in crisis” is a student designated by NYPD police officers, school administrators, and safety officers as “displaying signs of emotional distress.” The student is handcuffed, removed from the classroom, and then remanded to a hospital setting for a psychological evaluation. An “actual” crisis, psychological, or otherwise is not necessary for the initiation of the “child in crisis” operation, simply the belief of/in one, so determined by the adjudicating authority.
The framing offered by the NYCLU locates the “problem” in the extremity of the racial disparities. The elimination of racial excess and “unnecessary handcuffing” are the stated aspirations toward keeping “students and staff safe.” In the words of NYCLU Advocacy Director Johanna Miller, “the NYPD should not treat schools as places to hunt for students they believe committed a crime off of school grounds. Students should never be afraid to go to school.” The hunters should be made to abide by the permitted bounds, the warren of their fair game limited to the gates of public schools, lest crisis grant them permission to transgress in the pursuit of safety. The “problem” is a paradox. Crisis is ever present not in the figure of the “child in crisis,” but the ever present, yet constituitively foreclosed racial crisis, and it’s incarnations, the
children of crisis. We are offered an account of “the problem” from the formation that institutes the conditions under which “the problem” emerges. An account that names “excess racial disparity” as the evil, forecloses the extension of this “solution” as but another operation of authority. Racial disparity becomes that which must be overcome in the pursuit of grace, yet the life of grace is racial.
Authority is the anima of the police and all that constitutes the legible and illegible life of the crisis. Domination obscures itself as a condition of its institution. Never in question, the decisions issuing the distinctions that render crisis legible are also the resources that extend the possibility of resolving conflict within it’s dominion. Authority is emancipation, so gleaning an essence of legitimacy from the peformative transcendence of its adjudication. Crisis is Racial Life. That what might have been a child is now annihilated, consumed in the sacramental performative act of binding evil. Hancuffed, there by the grace of god goes race.
Jared Rodríguez is a Doctoral Candidate in African American Studies at Northwestern University. Their forthcoming dissertation, Apocalyptic Blackness: The (Im)Possibility of Political Theology in Four Chapters, offers an account of the Christanity of Anti-Blackness and Racialized Modernity.
- Wilks, Michael. 2008. The problem of sovereignty in the later Middle Ages: the Papal monarchy with Augustinus Triumphus and the publicists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pg. 414. Original Latin: Pagani et infideles potestate clavium ligati sunt et iudicati, quia qui non credunt iam iudicati sunt. Translation mine. ↩
- Anno Domini is Latin for year of the/our Lord (Christ). ↩
- City School Safety Data Shows Handcuffs Used Disproportionately On Black And Latino Children, https://www.nyclu.org/en/news/city-school-safety-data-shows-handcuffs-used-disproportionately-black-and-latino-children ↩
I’ve inherited a first year course called ‘Great Christian Thinkers’, which has two parts: in one semester the idea is to help students understand what’s expected of them in the transition from school to university (high school to school, maybe, in US parlance?) by going through the process of writing an essay about Augustine together over the course of a semester. The idea is to do a mixture of practical and theoretical introductions both to academic work and to Augustine as a foundational figure for Western thought. The second half of the course will look at a range of important Christian thinkers, hopefully applying some of the lessons of semester 1 to the texts we’re reading; I need to work out at some point who I want to include in my canon, but have a little longer to make those decisions so am putting that on the back burner for now.
I’ll have a mixture of theology and philosophy students in my class, so need to try to pitch the classes in a way that will appeal to both. I’m hoping to find some fun exercises to make some basic study and essay-writing skills interesting, and to somehow balance giving the students an introduction to Augustine and some of the secondary literature on Augustine with trying to think about some of the fundamental questions they’ll want to bring to the texts they read over the course of their degree (what’s the role of gender in the text? What are the basic metaphors and how do they shape the argument? What key binaries are at work and where do they start to collapse? What’s the relationship between the social and historical context and the texts we’re reading?) So I’m looking for general advice and suggestions, but especially helpful would be:
- any recommendations on books, activities or guides covering basic study and essay writing skills
- your favourite Augustine texts (that are suitable for first year undergrads), both primary and secondary
- any ideas about things you wish *your* students had learnt early on in their degree