This semester is a milestone for me. I have long hoped to teach in all three major areas of the Shimer Great Books curriculum (humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences), and I finally get to teach a natural sciences course with “What is Matter?” — a study of the history of chemistry through important primary sources and reenactments of key experiments (a version of which I took as a student as part of my training). Not only that, but I get to teach in all three areas simultaneously! It should be exciting and challenging.
Yesterday was my first opportunity to vote as a UK citizen. As someone coming from the United States, I am well versed in electoral disappointment. Yet, just as the election of Trump felt different than previous political events, so too does the ascension of Boris Johnson seem to indicate something more significant that the triumph of one political party over the others.
There are many reasons for this sense of political frustration: the absurd behavior of a politician hiding in a fridge or snatching a reporter’s phone; the obvious and well tracked effort of political parties to lie to or mislead the public; the vacuity of debates in which many sounds are made but very little said; and the failure of long-standing media institutions to comment on this state of affairs from a variety of critical perspectives. Nothing new, of course, just a little salt in wound that never quite heals.
Fortunately, I long ago abandoned hope that any political party in either my country of birth or my adopted home has the capacity to enact meaningful political change. I am a pessimist. I (like most people who read this blog) don’t think the major problems confronting the UK or the rest of the world—staggering inequality, climate change and the inability for people to peacefully coexist despite a wide range of differences—are a matter of who is in power. The problem is the systems of power themselves. That doesn’t mean there is no difference between the parties. I’d much rather live in a country that is strengthening the social safety net rather than severing its last remaining strands. I just don’t think anyone is bringing answers or solutions.
So, I find my remnants of hope surprising. Last night, I waited for the exit poll results with a small, but nonetheless existent hope that somehow Labour would do ok. I went to bed shortly after the exit polls were announced, still hoping that they would be wrong. I don’t know where this hope comes from, but it is an unwelcome guest. It is a reminder that my effort to disinvest from the world (as Taubes might say) is incomplete.
I think that this hope is not really a hope that one party will win over the other, but a hope in other people (maybe the most dangerous). A hope that confronted with the images of children on hospital floors, a lifetime of racist statements and Donald fucking Trump’s endorsement, people might be persuaded to think twice. It’s a hope that a nation of people who have suffered through years of austerity, watching as public institutions crumble under increased pressure, might look at the blustering embodiment of every form of privilege and be repulsed. That they are not means I must confront the fact that there may be nothing I can do to persuade these people that a more equal, kind and caring society is better than what we have now.
Already people are calling for unity. We must respect each other as British citizens and be careful not to let hate slip in along with the disappointment. Rage is unproductive. I’m not so sure (not that productivity has to be the criteria for judging our feelings). These pleas for the nation to come together are rooted in a conviction that we Britons are all (or mostly), deep down, decent people. We may differ about who should lead the country, tax policy or membership in the EU, but at the end of the day we can all have a pint together down at the local pub. The desire to reunite post-election continues to invest in the hope that if we look at the facts carefully and discuss them politely, we’ll eventually arrive at a better society.
I see little historical evidence that this is a rational hope. The ability to overlook differences in views about immigration or inequality is an indication of how important those issues are to you in the first place. If leaving the EU is enough of a reason to vote for someone whose racism has been on full display for decades, that is another way of saying that racism doesn’t matter that much to you. If you find that you can’t overlook those issues, either in voting or in conversation, then you are beginning to acknowledge a deeper form of division. There are some people I have no interest in meeting down at the pub.
I’ve spent much of the last year reflecting on Schmitt’s theory of the enemy. I don’t think Schmitt gives us a sufficient understanding of enmity, but he’s a natural enough place to start for someone working on political theology. What Schmitt helps us start to think is that there are real differences that matter. There are lines that must be drawn. There is no deep-down common humanity that unites us as a nation or a species. As long as we continue to invest in that cruel hope, we will be distracted from the real political work of refusing to accept injustice in the name of unity.
I’m making some tweaks to my Introduction to Political Philosophy syllabus this year, so thought I’d post an updated handbook here. The two key changes are that I’m dropping Robert Nozick (who’s basically just Mill on steroids anyway) and replacing him with Carl Schmitt, whose discussion of politics as fundamentally concerned with the distinction between friends and enemies offers a more meaningful contrast with mainstream liberalism; and I’m getting rid of the free choice week I used to have in week 12 in order to introduce some anarchism via Errico Malatesta. I kept finding that I wanted to articulate something like the anarchist emphasis on our mutual dependency and the centrality of mutual aid to human survival as a contrast with the more individualist and sovereign visions of the human person that we were reading in Locke and Mill, and Malatesta’s Anarchy does a good job of articulating that in terms that make sense in the context of the tradition as I’ve constructed it here. So I’m hoping these switches will make for a slightly more rounded sense of the different alternatives at play within modern Western political philosophy. As ever, if you’d like to see any of my teaching materials, I’m very happy to share them – drop me a line on email@example.com
You can see from the weekly overview the way I’ve structured the module. The class has one two-hour teaching session per week, so I use the second half of one class to introduce a key concept and the thinker whose discussion of the concept we’re going to be reading; then the students go away and do the reading; then the first half of the next class we spend discussing the set text via a mixture of general questions and detailed analysis of extracts from the text. The module as a whole is still pretty indebted to Robin James’ Social and Political Philosophy syllabus.
So many cultural tropes around high school are attempts to make our actions and experiences at that time make sense, when in reality we were all just flailing at random and mostly hated each other and ourselves most of the time. There is something humiliating about remembering — truly remembering — that we were once high schoolers. That’s why teenage dramas cast 20-something supermodels who move effortlessly within a clearly legible social hierarchy, to allow us to forget.
There’s a deep, but probably unfixable cruelty to the fact that our “choices” — if we can call them that — in high school shape our lives so profoundly. And there’s something in us that is so seduced by the fantasy of retrieving that moment and doing it right this time.
That’s the innovation of neoliberalism — it provides a clearly legible benchmark for what it means to do high school right. And parents are so eager to feed their children to that machine, because they wish so dearly that they had had that kind of clarity and purpose. The result is a generation who wasted their childhood — precisely by not “wasting” it, by treating childhood as a job. And maybe that means that they will be the first generation to grow up, to know for a fact that they did all they could in high school and it didn’t matter.
Ever since then candidate Trump began calling for mass deportations and religious bans, comparisons to the Third Reich have consistently been made. While many of these comparisons fall short, it is not too difficult to see why and how they have been drawn. For decades, both of the political parties in America have laid the groundwork for a hard turn right, and now that a repugnant egotistical bigot is in office, many of our worst nightmares are coming true (see Trump’s latest tweet that ICE will soon begin said mass deportations). American fascism will look different than European fascism, but there are already enough similarities that many of the post-World War II sentiments have become common to invoke. In particular, the phrase “never again” has been heard consistently, with the added emphasis that “never again is now.” I believe that it is important to briefly account for the origins of “never again” to understand why it is more important than simply being a declarative catch phrase.
It is Theodor Adorno who is commonly associated with coining “never again” and there are two places where he articulates precisely what he means. In his essay “Education after Auschwitz” Adorno states quite strongly that, “The premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again…Every debate about the ideals of education is trivial and inconsequential compared to this single ideal: never again Auschwitz.” After stating this claim, Adorno goes on to make two additional points in the essay: 1) the fundamental conditions of society that culminated in Auschwitz have mostly remained unchanged. This is particularly troublesome for Adorno because 2) the fact that Auschwitz occurred reveals a strong social tendency towards genocide. In other words, genocide is not an exception, but a norm of modernity. One is hard pressed to find much hope in Adorno’s work, but in the face of this tendency he insists that, “nevertheless the attempt must be made” to resist the pull towards barbarism. Committing to “never again” potentially creates the possibility of negating creeping fascism, for Adorno.
Beyond simply a declaration, though, there is also an ethical dimension to “never again” that Adorno articulates in Negative Dialectics when he famously writes that “A new categorical imperative has been imposed by Hitler upon unfree mankind: to arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen.” Without getting into the Kantian elements of this sentence, it is simple enough to make the obvious point that a categorical imperative is, in fact, an imperative. This imperative requires, as Adorno says, that both thoughts and actions undergo a transformation, or else Auschwitz will happen again. “Never again” is both the demand upon all education, and a categorical imperative that we all must heed.
The average American deeply suppresses the fact that America is one of the most barbaric empires the world has ever known, and therefore lives with a general sense that we are a mostly good people. This means that calls for “never again” tend to ring hollow, and almost sound offensive, because we have convinced ourselves that “that” could never happen here. Adorno was aware of this, and he was not naive about the historical amnesia of the west. For Adorno, there is a strong indication that Auschwitz will certainly happen again, and the only way to possibly prevent that is when political instruction “devotes itself openly, without fear of offending any authorities” to “never again.”
At the end of “Education After Auschwitz” Adorno recounts the time that Walter Benjamin asked him if there were really enough torturers in Germany to carry out the orders of the Nazis. There were enough. And were President Trump to order that his own concentration camps become death camps, there would be enough Americans to carry out the order. We should not be naive about this reality. The catastrophe of American fascism is well underway, and there is no clear sign that it will slow down. In light of this, “never again” as a statement will not accomplish much in preventing the disaster. As an imperative, though, I think Adorno is correct that “never again” “can still manage a little something.”
Theodor Adorno, “Education After Auschwitz” in Critical Models, 191.
The following is the text of a presentation I gave last summer in Berlin. While some of the ideas and problematics articulated here are ones I wouldn’t frame in quite the same way now–that’s the nature of a research project that’s still very much active!–I realized that it’s been a while since I’ve provided any kind of update on the direction my research on time and usury is taking, and thought it might be of interest for some readers here.
1.0 In his review of Deleuze’s The Fold, Alain Badiou positions his own philosophy against Deleuze’s by placing the two of them on opposite sides of one and the same basic decision or divide. The choice, he claims, is between “mathematic” and “organicist” paradigms of multiplicity. Or—as we run through the sequence of opposing terms that reiterates this point throughout the review—a choice between “number” and “animal,” “Plato” and “Aristotle,” “quantity” and “quality,” and, finally—and to my mind, most decisively—“extensive” and “intensive” multiplicities.
Badiou’s—and his admirers’—polemics against Deleuze, have centered in large part on the question of novelty; of what it means for something truly new to come about. This is an issue of both politics and ontology, but this emphasis on novelty also makes it an issue of time—of the time of the new; of how we should think of time in order to think what’s new about the new. The new is, after all, novel because it differs from what comes before it; novelty is a temporal idea. I don’t want to rehash, here, the long and exhaustive debate that’s played out between partisans of these two philosophers over the last several decades—entering a new volley in the repeating fire across the trenches simply isn’t something I’m interested in.
What I want to do instead is take the fact of this division—between extensive and intensive temporal multiplicities—as a kind of index. In particular, I want to take the fact of this division to index a certain operation of division. When I say “operation of division,” I’m recalling especially of Daniel Colucciello Barber’s work on Spinoza, and his chapter “Metarelation and Nonrelation” in Serial Killing, echoes of which you may hear throughout this piece. If we’re being asked to divide time in two for the sake of a decision in favor of novelty—in whatever form that might take—then what is this operation of division that’s being asked of us? What are its stakes and what is its impetus? I’m doing this, for reasons that might become clearer over the course of what I’m saying here, in order to speak in favor of a certain kind of refusal of this division, which is also to say a refusal to decide on the form of the new. I want to apologize a bit for how schematic many of these comments will be, and how much they’ll jump back and forth in both time and disciplinary space. Hopefully you’ll be able to follow the resonances here, and I’m of course happy to talk more about why I’m connecting certain texts and ideas. Continue reading “You’re On God’s Time Now”→