Introduction to Political Philosophy syllabus

I’m about to teach an Introduction to Political Philosophy course for the second time. Last time around I used an adaptation of Robin James’ Social and Political Philosophy syllabus, which had a ton of great material but proved to be a bit much for my students. So I’ve more or less rewritten the whole course to go much more slowly through texts and topics. I’m planning to open with some conversations about race, gender and class as the three categories of analysis we’ll be using for thinking about how societies are organised, and then we’ll explore some key themes via reading and discussing some key political philosophers, as follows:

WEEK 1. Introduction to Political Philosophy
WEEK 2. The social contract: Thomas Hobbes
WEEK 3. The sexual contract: Carol Pateman
WEEK 4. The racial contract: Charles Mills
WEEK 5. Private Property: John Locke
WEEK 6. Communism: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
WEEK 8. Freedom: John Stuart Mill
WEEK 9. Resistance: Frantz Fanon
WEEK 10. Liberty: Robert Nozick
WEEK 11: Control: Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Paul B Preciado
WEEK 12: Topic selected by the class

Thanks to everyone who chipped in when I was planning the first iteration of this course; I went back over all the comments this time around and found them super helpful. Because I’ll be teaching a mixture of students doing Politics and PPE as well as some of our own students taking Philosophy, Religion and Ethics, I’ll be teaching a class of around 60, by far the biggest group I’ve ever taught. I’m planning to experiment with Nearpod to see if that will let me keep some meaningful element of student interaction in my classes, but if anyone has any tips for managing a group that size (we’ll be stuck in a lecture-style theatre just for added barriers to small group discussion) etc, I’m all ears! PO1103 PPE1001 S2 Handbook 2017-2018, for those who are interested.


Great Christian Thinkers 2 Syllabus: Greater, Christian-er, Thinkier

I start teaching again next week so have been adding the finishing touches to my new semester syllabi. At Winchester we have a course rotation system whereby a bunch of our courses for second and third year students run every other year, which is nice for the students insofar as it gives them more options, but currently a bit exhausting for me as I begin my second year in post with an almost entirely new teaching roster (I’ll be posting my syllabi for a course on Hegel, Marx and Dialectical Thinking and an Introduction to Political Philosophy one over the next couple of weeks).

My Great Christian Thinkers Part 1 class focused on introducing Augustine, key concepts in Christian theology, and core study, research and writing skills to our first year students, all organised around the theme of suffering and the question of whether it is, as Phillip Goodchild suggests, ‘what matters most’. Part 2 aims to give students an overview of some key developments in Christian history via a survey of five important Christian thinkers. I’m hoping that we’ll use the five in different ways to think about what it means to be a ‘great’ thinker; what makes someone specifically a Christian thinkers, and what counts or gets recognised as ‘thought’. So I’m opening the semester with Ursula Le Guins’ ‘The Mother Tongue‘, a commencement address she gave at Bryn Mawr college in 1986, where she talks about the kinds of thought that universities train students in and the limits of that training.

I’ve decided that my canon this time around will consist of Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Siena, John Calvin, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Gustavo Gutiérrez. I’ve tried to pick primary and secondary texts that give a feel for what’s distinctive about them as thinkers but also as representatives of particular historical periods, and that focus on some of the themes of suffering we covered in semester one. You can take a look at my complete syllabus here.

2017 Wasn’t All Bad: Let Me Sell You Some Books!

Hi everybody … it’s your friendly neighborhood bookseller, back for my semi-annual post about new books and such. As ever, my tastes have a certain lean, and I make no apologies for that. But I think I’ve cobbled together a list of books from 2017 that I not only loved, but suspect have broad appeal.

In no particular order: Continue reading “2017 Wasn’t All Bad: Let Me Sell You Some Books!”

The violence of refusal

I’m currently working through some (hopefully final) edits on my book about Dionysius and Žižek, and have found myself back trying to figure out the relationship between Žižek’s account of violence (primarily in his book Violence) and the account of violence in Benjamin’s Critique of Violence. I’ve pointed out before the way that Žižek ignores the fact that Benjamin’s discussion is dealing in part with the question of violence in relation to the general strike. But what I hadn’t quite grasped is that where, for Žižek, it is acts of passive refusal such as Bartleby the Scrivener’s ‘I would prefer not to’ or Saramago’s fictional country where all the citizens spontaneously refuse to fill our election ballots which best exemplify ‘divine violence’, for Benjamin the general strike is specifically not violent. That seems like an important distinction between the two accounts of violence, but I can’t quite get straight what that distinction is, so I’m hoping some of you might be able to help me figure it out. Here’s where I’ve got to:

For Žižek there are four types of violence. There is law-founding or mythical violence, which consists of the unjustifiable decision to create a social or symbolic order in the first place. The violence (that is, the excessive nature of this act – its lack of grounding in any reason or cause) of this moment is often covered up by reference to a God or gods: we do things this way and not that way because God has so ordained it. There is law-maintaining violence, the various forms of coercion directed at anything which threatens the ongoing existence of the social and symbolic order – whether that’s calling the police on strikers or gossiping about the person who made a social faux pas. There is simple criminal violence, which transgresses the law but doesn’t pose a threat to it. And there is divine violence, which for Žižek is anything which poses an existential threat to the existing social order, forcing a radical transformation.

Benjamin is trickier. Again, violence is always entangled with the social and symbolic order – Critique of Violence says that the question of violence arises in relation to law and justice. For law, violence can be justified only if it is deployed in order to achieve ends which are sanctioned by the law. The law wants a monopoly on violence – it wants to be the sole arbiter of whether or not violence is justified. Even when violence is legal, if it is not wielded directly by the state, then it poses a threat to the law: and this is where we get to the question of the strike. Benjamin argues that organised labour is ‘apart from the state probably the only legal subject entitled to exercise violence.’ And here’s where it gets tricky. A strike is not an action so much as a refusal to act. It is a withdrawal from the violent coercion of the employer. But a strike can aim either at an end that is sanctioned by the law – higher wages, say – or at an end that threatens the existence of the law as such – revolution, the end of the law. In the second case, although striking as such is legal, the law cries violence because the aim of the strike is one that threatens its existence.

Later, though, Benjamin makes a distinction between  the political general strike and the proletarian general strike. The political general strike doesn’t want to overthrow the law and the state, it just wants a reorganisation of the state or law: different bosses, different conditions for waged labour. But the proletarian general strike wants to end the state and the law. If the law is defined as a set of agreements about when violence is and is not legitimate (so a legal contract, Benjamin says, confers on each party the right to resort to some kind of violence against the other if they break the terms of the contract), then the general strike is properly anarchic: the strikers refuse to work until there is no more state, no more law, no more society in which the decision to work or to not work is enforced by the threat of violence. In the political general strike, the strikers want more control of the power of violent coercion held by the state; in the proletarian general strike, the strikers refuse any kind of social order built on violent coercion.

And then we get to divine violence. If mythic violence is lawmaking, Benjamin says, divine violence is law-destroying. It is not about enforcing the law, and so it is not about retribution or payback. It kills not to enforce the law of talion, but for the sake of humanity, whose value cannot be reduced to the law. On Žižek’s reading of Benjamin, this would mean that the proletarian general strike is the ideal exemplar of divine violence, and Benjamin has earlier indicated that the law might indeed perceive the general strike as violent. But he has also argued that the proletarian general strike is not violent.

I can’t work out how to square this circle. In part, I am not quite sure what Benjamin means by violence. Sometimes it seems that coercion is at play; but this again would seem to make the proletarian general strike violent, though Benjamin insists  that it is not. We could see it as having to do with the law, and specifically the way in which the law is founded on the state’s monopoly of violence and the law of talion. But then divine violence, which takes place in utter indifference to the state’s authority or the law of talion, would not count as violence. Either way, I’m stumped, and if anyone with a better grasp of Benjamin can help me out I’d be extremely grateful.

End of Year Boredom: TV Open Thread

Hello fellow legacy media users, I’m at home procrastinating on finishing my syllabus for Intro to Religion for the Spring, so let’s chat TV. I won’t pretend to be a critic or anything and list out 10 shows, but here are my favorites from 2017 in no particular order:

  • The Young Pope – I seem to remember it was a hard sell to get Katie to watch this with me, but once we started we were both totally hooked. If the Cherry Coke Zero scene doesn’t immediately reel you in, it’s probably not for you. The last two episodes, especially, are beautiful and surprising. Also, maybe my favorite title sequence ever?
  • The Leftovers – Adam and I have had some chats about this show. We agreed that it captures something about what it means to be a fundamentalist that is never portrayed in TV or film–empathy towards religious fanatics while neither succumbing to liberal condescension nor romanticization. Truly great character studies.
  • Insecure – Issa Rae makes me laugh. This is another show that bursts through the typical Hollywood stereotypes. Also, along with Master of None’s portrayal of New York, I love the way that LA is a character in the show. Insecure’s camera work, both of people and places, is excellent.
  • Master of None – Probably doesn’t belong amongst these other shows, but I really liked this season. At times it seemed like Aziz could have pushed the characters a little further and gotten to a really interesting place, but the whole thing is worth it for the Thanksgiving episode.

Dear readers, what did you watch this year?

2019: The Voight-Kampff Test


In Blade Runner (1982), the LAPD of 2019 make use of privatized detectives—‘blade runner units’—in order to hunt down and murder runaway slaves. In the manner of certain contemporary societies, these slaves are used to build and maintain the basis for a ‘new world.’ In this case: the ‘offworld colonies’ out in some interstellar elsewhere. And just as in these ‘historical’ regimes that commercialized slavery and placed it at the center of the construction of the ‘new world,’ the line between slave and free is given ontological weight; it is a ‘line separating kind.’ The difference between freedom and slavery is the difference between ‘human’ and ‘non-human’ or ‘human’ and ’replicant.’ The slaves, you see, have been genetically designed and manufactured for the roles they will play in colonization, sold off from inception as ‘pleasure models’ or as fodder for hazardous labor, immune from pain, or as cannon fodder placed at the barrier between civilization and that which threatens it. And so when these slaves—valuable commercial property—occasionally flee, effectively stealing themselves from their owners, and return to earth to hide amongst the surplus population of a world that has been effectively left behind, they must be “retired”—murdered—by these police slave patrols. The problem, however (as it is for all regimes of slavery built on the ontological difference between humanity and its outside) is that the line between human and inhuman requires a surprising degree of maintenance to sustain. How does one know whether one is speaking to a human or a replicant? “Have you ever retired a human by mistake?” In 2019, the cops have a means: the Voight-Kampff test, which, we are told, can separate human from inhuman.

The Voight-Kampff (VK) test consists of a series of questions asked of the subject in rapid succession. We aren’t told much about how, exactly, the test separates replicant responses from human ones. In the film, we’re told that it’s an “empathy test,” and that what’s important aren’t the answers given to the questions, but the subject’s physiological responses; “capillary dilation of the so-called blush response … fluctuation of the pupil … involuntary dilation of the iris.” Decades of fan speculation have assumed that the VK tests for the presence or absence of empathetic response on the part of the subject. This idea is supported by the novella that serves as the main source material for the film, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). Androids… is much much more direct in its description of the VK test and how it works. In the world of the novella, a past nuclear conflict has resulted in a mass extinction event, and the extravagant wealth needed to keep one of the few real animals remaining on Earth has become a status symbol. As a result, cruelty to animals features prominently in VK questions:

“You’re reading a novel written in the old days before the war. The characters are visiting Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. They become hungry and enter a seafood restaurant. One of them orders lobster, and the chef drops the lobster into the tub of boiling water while the characters watch.”

“Oh god,” Rachael said. “That’s awful! Did they really do that? It’s depraved! You mean a live lobster?”

The novella’s version of the VK test, in other words, is a test of how far the subject’s empathy extends. Does one empathize with humans? That serves as a baseline. But empathy for humans isn’t necessarily sufficient to distinguish human from android. And so, degrees of humanity are measured according to an ever-expanding radius of empathy, culminating in the ability to empathize with non-anthropomorphic animals. There are reasons, even in the novella, to distrust the efficacy of the test, or its ability to sustain the sort of ontological distinction it’s meant to establish. After all, a surprising number of humans show very little empathy for nonhuman animals as it is. Empathy for animals, in the world of the novella, maps in a very particular way onto socioeconomic divides: not only the ones separating human and nonhuman, but the divides among the novella’s humans themselves. More than anything else, it’s a test of the extent to which the aspiration to a certain form of humanity has been internalized as empathy.

The world of Blade Runner’s 2019, however, is a very different one from that of the novella. The novella’s androids are much closer to what we traditionally think of when we hear the term “robot;”[1] full of wires and computers underneath an exterior façade made to match the humans and animals that they mimic. In 2019, replicants are flesh and bone. They may be manufactured rather than ‘born,’ but their status as nonhuman owes more to their provenance as an object of design than to a difference in material composition. Additionally, while the world of Blade Runner is similarly devoid of ‘natural’ animals, we’re given very little reason to think that this is the result of Cold War-era nuclear fears come true. The mass extinction that haunts the margins of the earth in 2019 hews closer to the slower, more mundane ecological catastrophes we’ve already wrought for ourselves than to a vision of nuclear winter. As a result, there’s less reason than it initially appears to assume that the film’s version of the VK test is designed along similar lines.

The key to the film’s version of the test is summed up nicely by Sarah Gailey: “It is not about having enough empathy, but about having empathy for the correct things. If you do not have enough empathy for the correct things, you will be murdered by a cop who does have empathy for the correct things.” Consider Leon, the one slave who we’re shown failing a Voight-Kampff test. We don’t need to measure Leon’s capillary response to see that when it’s suggested by a VK question that he’s not helping a dying turtle in the desert he’s visibly disturbed, to the point of losing all composure. Conversely, the affection associated with familial kinship is totally alien to him. “My mother? Let me tell you about my mother…” Rachel, on the other hand, whose failure occurs only offscreen, dozens of questions after the ones we’re shown, doesn’t bat an eye at the idea of taking an animal life:

“You’re watching television. Suddenly you realize there’s a wasp crawling on your arm.”

“I’d kill it.”


When the police “put the machine on” you in 2019, it’s not in order to determine whether you have empathy, but to determine the extent to which the distribution of your capacity for empathy aligns with a very specific—human—distribution. It’s not a question of having more or less empathy. It’s not even really a question of lacking empathy for the things you should associate with yourself. To have empathy for the wrong things, to have inhuman empathy is not only excessive, but suspect. What kind of person, anyway, would look at things and see themselves?


It’s impossible to understand what, exactly, is at stake in this act of ‘misrecognition’ without thinking about what it means to be a slave. What kind of thing is slavery? What is it, exactly, that defines a slave? Orlando Patterson, writing in Slavery and Social Death (1982), pointed out that what’s most central to the relation between slave and master is a specific kind of power relationship; the titular social death. This emphasis on social death should be understood in contrast with an understanding of slavery that primarily imagines it as a particularly extreme form of exploitation. There’s a strong tendency in the history of thinking about slavery to associate it most directly with the experience of forced labor. A slave, according to this way of thinking, is exploited for their labor—just as a worker is—but to much a greater degree, and with much greater force. We could, for example, say that a worker is exploited exactly to the degree to which some amount of their labor isn’t compensated—and from that point we could draw a series of analogies that point to greater and greater degrees of exploitation, culminating in the slave, who labors without any relationship to compensation in the form of a wage. It’s on the basis of this image of what slavery is, for instance, that it makes sense to speak of an analogy between the condition of black slaves in the Atlantic slave trade, and the white indentured workers forced to labor alongside them in plantation fields until their debts had been paid off (an analogy captured in terms like ‘debt slavery’). If slavery is defined in terms of the experience of exploitation, then slavery and indentured servitude—and, by extension, wage labor—don’t differ so much in kind as in degree: an ascending pyramid of exploitation upon which, at the very top, sits the slave.

If Patterson is right, however, exploitation may be a common effect and experience of slavery, but isn’t what defines the condition of the slave. The relationship between slave and master is defined instead by the fact that the slave is, from the point of view of the master, socially dead. As summarized and rearticulated by Frank Wilderson III, social death has three basic elements: [1] gratuitous violence, [2] natal alienation, and [3] generalized dishonor. First: the violence heaped upon slaves is gratuitous in the specific sense that it’s not—unlike the violence that might be unleashed on, say, workers—validated by the idea that the slave has stepped outside her role. “This vulnerability,” he argues, “is not contingent upon his or her transgressing some type of law, as in going on strike with the worker.”[3] A slave’s body can be the target of ‘legitimate’ violence simply as a result of being a slave, without the pretext of, say, disobedience. Second: slaves are natally alienated in the sense that filial kinship among slaves is systematically disrupted or unrecognized. The claims that a mother or a father might make upon a child are always, in the case of the slave, mitigated by the prior demands of the master—slaves are sold away from their kin, their names changed, their lineages obscured. Both of these prior points articulate the more general third: slaves undergo general dishonor in the sense that they are transferred from one realm to another; from the realm of persons to the realm of property. In other words, what underwrites both the gratuity of violence and disruption of filiation that define the slave as socially dead is the transformation of a person into a specific kind of thing: a commodity. Since the slave, once transformed into a commodity, is often put to work, this is often experienced as exploitation, but to define slavery in terms of that experience is to confuse the effect with the systematic terror from which it stems. “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it?,” Roy Batty comments to Deckard. “That’s what it is to be a slave”


What kind of person would look at things and see themselves? This is a question that hangs in a particular way over the year 2019. One of the most common complaints among critics who went to see Blade Runner in its original (failed) theatrical run was the absence of a character with whom the audience could meaningfully identify. This absence was attributed to a number of factors. For one, Harrison Ford turns in an uncharacteristically affectless performance as the film’s eponymous blade runner. Even to the extent that Ford’s sarcastic charm can cut through the cold, visibly depressed Deckard, audiences seemed to find it difficult to identify with the casual brutality of a man who would shoot through a crowded street in order to murder an unarmed slave in the pouring rain. It’s hard to ignore the fact that the film’s central ‘romance’—between Rachel and Deckard—reads so strongly as a rape.

In response to this, the received wisdom among the film’s fans has been that the film exists more as an exploration of ideas than an invitation to identify with any particular characters. And the most basic idea under examination, on this reading, can be phrased as a simple question: ‘what does it mean to be human?’ The film, of course, studiously avoids revealing much of the information that would take the work of answering this question out of the audience’s hands: we’re never definitively told, for instance, whether we should understand Deckard to be a replicant, or whether the replicants we do see enjoy real human emotions or make real human decisions. Call it a cinematic Turing test: do the replicants possess humanity, or do they not? This is a question that it’s possible to ask in 2019. By asking it, however, the viewer tacitly enters the film from the vantage of the police. The ontological difference between human and slave is reiterated as the ontological difference between human and replicant. Can a nonhuman rise to the level of humanity? This is the question that animates a certain reading of Blade Runner, but it’s also the question that occupied the case against Reconstruction in the American South and—much later—the infamous Moynihan Report.

More primarily than a Turing test, Blade Runner performs, in fact, a kind of cinematic Voight-Kampff test. What kind of viewer would look at slaves and see themselves? As difficult as audiences found it to identify with Deckard’s depressive brutality, Roy Batty’s lethal pathway of ascent to the Tyrell corporation’s penthouse suite tends to inspire even lower levels of empathetic response. Even when there’s a certain logic of frustration that’s granted to him in the moment he kills his own creator after being admonished as ungrateful for the life he’s been given, the fact that he kills the bashful and ostensibly friendly J.F. Sebastian on his way out the door is often understood as an act of needless brutality. Viewed from the position of the slave, however, J.F. Sebastian’s ‘playful’ curiosity takes on a very different tenor, however. Sebastian is, after all, a man who fills his house with a menagerie of living toys, each genetically designed—just as the replicants are—to fulfill his flights of whimsy. Walking tin soldiers, porcelain dolls enfleshed: each designed for a life of monstrous servitude. It’s in light of this that we should read his similarly playful attitude toward Pris and Roy, each of whom is asked in his early encounters with them to perform physical feats for his amusement. Far from an innocent bystander, Sebastian is the owner and operator of a kind of slave zoo; and his death represents an end to this particular cavalcade of horrors. Only when the film is viewed from the vantage of the slave—when the pertinence of the question of replicant humanity is refused from the start—can his death appear for what it is.

[1] Of course, this actually places them further from the origin of the term; from Rossum’s Universal Robots, in which the term ‘robot’ translates an Old Slavonic term for ‘slave.’ Notably, in RUR, just as in the film, the titular ‘robots’ are biological rather than mechanical in form.

[3] Frank Wilderson, “BLACKS AND THE MASTER/ SLAVE RELATION” in Afropessimism: an Introduction.

Help me plan a course about Great Christian Thinkers

I like to think that there will come a point in my life where I will have time to think about something other than teaching, but I think I’m a little way off that yet. I’m just over a third of the way into Semester 1 and already Semester 2 is looming large. I’ll be teaching three courses next semester instead of the two I’m teaching this semester, and if I make it through alive I’ll be in danger of believing in miracles. I’ll probably post about all three courses separately over the course of syllabus design and redesign, but I’ll be teaching Great Christian Thinkers Part 2, the second half of my first year intro course, an Introduction to Political Philosophy, and a module on Marx, Hegel and Dialectical Thinking.

The idea behind Great Christian Thinkers Part 2 is to give students an overview of some major Christian thinkers so they get some familiarity with some of the Big Names of Christian theology, some initial sense of the development of Christian theology over time, as well as a general sense of how some of the core theological concepts we’ve looked at in semester 1 play out in later thinkers. Last time around they did St Paul, Aquinas, Calvin, Schleiermacher and Barth.

This iteration of the course is themed around suffering, and in semester 1 we’ve been working through major Christian doctrines in relation to the idea of suffering as follows:

WEEK 1: What Matters Most
WEEK 2: Augustine, Theology, and the Problem of Suffering
WEEK 3: God, Evil and the Nature of Suffering
WEEK 4: The Fall
WEEK 5: Free to Suffer?
WEEK 6: The Devil
WEEK 8: Suffering Desire, Desiring Suffering
WEEK 9: Suffering and the Ethics of Sacrifice
WEEK 10: Political Suffering: A Tale of Two Cities
WEEK 11: Political Suffering: War
WEEK 12: What Matters Most?

This is probably the only module on the course where the students will spend a lot of time with pre-20th century Big Name Theologians so I’m trying to work out which of those thinkers are most important for the students to have some familiarity with. I’m tempted to keep the line-up roughly the same but perhaps swap out Barth and add in Catherine of Siena so we can really spend some time thinking about the crucial shifts that happen in the medieval period. But I’m also not a specialist on any of those thinkers (maybe more so with Aquinas), so would gratefully appreciate any thoughts on the following:

  • Which are the most indispensable Big Theological Thinkers, especially pre-20th century?
  • What’s some good secondary reading on any of those Big Names that might help me find interesting ways into thinking about them, especially when it comes to the role of suffering in their work? I’d love to use the Aquinas section to think about the crucial role of Christian  encounters with Jewish and Muslim thought in forming systematic theology, for example.