A Dark Precursor

Provisional Thoughts on Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, Politics, and Universities

Category: Politics and Social Issues

Trapped in Cephalus’ House: Academics, Trolls, and Politics

By now it has surely come to seem somewhat banal to quote Socrates’ remarks at line 31d of the Apology when considering the question of a philosopher’s relation to politics. If not, it probably should, as much of the point of those remarks—at least absent considerable interpretive gymnastics—amounts to fairly standard-issue complaints that a) functioning as a public official means one has to abandon a serious commitment to justice; and b) that participation in politics as a speaker of truth (as Socrates has, of course, constructed himself since the beginning of the text (17c), exposes one not only to the risk but to the virtual certainty of death.

There is actually quite a bit to say about the second of Socrates’ claims. Foucault, for instance, has given us a tremendous amount of contextual material, in his studies of parrhesia, on the basis of which to interpret this claim, and even to ask to what extent Socrates’ very act of placing himself manifestly in danger as a result of his speech was supposed to function as an epistemological (and not merely a rhetorical) guarantee of the truth of what he had said.

But such interpretations already operate on a level that presumes another point: political speech, even and especially insofar as it carries the value of truth, often has little or nothing to do with attempts to produce knowledge or belief. On the contrary, political speech often presupposes one or the other of these, or at very least formations of sympathy, experience, sensibility, etc., that more or less predictably and reliably dispose people towards (or against) knowledge or belief.[1]  On this basis, political speech seeks to assemble, organize, mobilize, direct, assert, claim, assent, give notice, etc., or alternately, to decompose, block, interrupt, deny, withhold, refuse, etc.[2] Such speech is not, by any means, always agonistic. It is perfectly possible for it to be broadly cooperative—and much of what takes place under the sign of political struggle is preceded by the development and extension of various forms of cooperation. But the forms of agon—the forms of struggle—which are certainly one of its the key modalities typically exist at a very significant remove from those which are frequently at work in philosophical practice—and, more broadly, in academic and scientific discourses and the institutions and practices that have been built around them. Read the rest of this entry »

Etienne Balibar – Laïcité or Identity – English Translation

Today in Liberation there appeared a short piece by Etienne Balibar devoted to the question of the principle of laïcité in contemporary French political life — most recently manifested in the ban imposed by several municipalities on the wearing of burkinis, which was overturned last week by the Council of State, which is the highest administrative court in France.

Balibar welcomes this ruling, but also argues that there is a more serious matter at stake, and worries that the principle of laïcité, historically vital to the preservation of civil and personal freedom in France, is — in the ‘identitarian’ version that is currently in the process of being articulated — coming more and more to serve exactly the opposite function. He traces a philosophical genealogy of the notion, and then shows how in the current conjuncture it is being deployed in a way that is profoundly dangerous and indeed both drifts in the direction of a legitimation of “States of exception” and tends to be drawn into what he calls a “mimetic rivalry with the totalitarian discourse against which, at the same time, French politics pretends to guard itself.”

Given the interest of this piece, and its short length, I took the liberty of translating it quickly for the benefit of non-French speaking readers. Below you can find my draft translation (corrections and suggestions are always welcome). Please note that I have left ‘laïcité’ and related terms untranslated, since the English equivalents ‘lay’ or ‘secular’ are either frequently awkward or confusing given Balibar’s use of ‘seculaire’ in several places in the article in a non-technical sense.

Read the rest of this entry »

Guattari, Institutions, and … Utopias?

I’ve been thinking about Guattari and institutions a lot. More specifically, I’ve been thinking that part of what is interesting about Guattari is that a large portion of his thought is devoted to questions not only about the ways in which subjects are constituted by and in relation to institutions, but also about how relations between subjects and institutions can be rearticulated in order to give rise to real and lasting transformations of both.

Such questions are eminently practical for Guattari, arising out of his political and his psychiatric practice, both of which involve institutional relations at very basic levels—he was a hospital psychiatrist and an activist whose political work was always carried out within a network of highly instituted contexts (Trotskyist militancy, the Youth Hostel movement, various periodical publishing collectives and research groups, etc.).

What all these institutions have in common is that they are at least potentially revolutionary—though in both the case of the hospital and the case of the party, there is also the constant risk of stagnation, blockage, or constraint. As a result, working within institutions requires constant attention. But given this attention, and a certain amount of institutional skill, Guattari also clearly believes that the institution, as such, can function both as a site and an enabling condition for the emergence of new and better forms of life. In the psychiatric context, for instance, the transversal relations that can be set up within the institution allow it to function as a rich and flexible diagnostic and therapeutic instrument.

Guattari is by no means unique among his contemporaries in seeing the creative power of institutions with respect to forms of life.  Foucault, of course, must be credited with a similar insight.  And the very early Deleuze also seemed to have been thinking in terms of institutions as mechanisms of satisfaction, rather than exploitation or constraint.  But Guattari frequently inflects the point differently, and especially optimistically.

In this respect, it seems worth asking what might be gained by reading Guattari in relation to the Utopian tradition.  Already in More we can find envisioned a manner of organization in which the institutions of society should be capable of producing, at least in most cases, a profound alteration in the affective constitution of subjectivity—such that, for example, the desires for property, luxury, or visible status should be purged from the citizens of his island.  Moreover, the organization of work and the distribution of tasks in Utopia is clearly aimed at fostering in each individual a continual process of development precisely on the basis of maximizing his or her opportunities for intellectual, scientific, and creative endeavors.

But it may be less to More’s canonical text and more to the experimental communities that were set up by many socialists in the 19th and 20th Centuries, and which may have to some extent been consciously or unconsciously repeated in the hostelage movement, that it may be profitable to compare the relatively closed, or at least deliberately circumscribed and programmatically organized (and reorganized) space of the clinic to which Guattari devotes so much of his early theoretical energy.

At very least, this seems worth following up.

Letter to the Trustees of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, re: Steven Salaita

Christopher G. Kennedy, Chair, University of Illinois Board of Trustees
Hannah Cave, Trustee
Ricardo Estrada, Trustee
Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Trustee
Lucas N. Frye, Trustee
Karen Hasara, Trustee
Patricia Brown Holmes, Trustee
Timothy N. Koritz, Trustee
Danielle M. Leibowitz, Trustee
Edward L. McMillan, Trustee
James D. Montgomery, Trustee
Pamela B. Strobel, Trustee
Robert A. Easter, President
Thomas R. Bearrows, University Counsel
Susan M. Kies, Secretary of the Board of Trustees and the University
Lester H. McKeever, Jr., Treasurer, Board of Trustees

Dear Trustees and Other Officers,

I write to express my dismay at the conduct of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the case of Steven Salaita, who by all common standards and past practices at your institution (and throughout the U.S. academy) was hired as an Associate Professor of American Indian and Indigenous Studies at your institution, only to see his appointment revoked weeks before he was due to take up the position.

This action was taken in violation of established procedures of shared governance, which give faculty in individual departments and the academic authorities of their colleges control over the decision of who to hire. Salaita’s candidacy was thoroughly reviewed by his prospective colleagues, who found him acceptable, as did other university authorities. He was offered a contract and signed it. For Chancellor Wise, apparently on the basis of trustees’ expected refusal to give final approval to his appointment (heretofore an entirely pro forma step in the process), to terminate his appointment at this stage without any due process is a gross violation of the well established norms of shared governance, and in particular of the principle—set forward by your own accrediting body—that “the governing board delegates day-to-day management of the institution to the administration and expects the faculty to oversee academic matters” (see Section 2c4 of http://www.ncahlc.org/Criteria-Eligibility-and-Candidacy/criteria-and-core-components.html).

Further, the basis for all of this, namely the fact that some people were upset by some of Salaita’s public statements regarding events this summer in Israel/Palestine and lobbied the administration and the trustees, is a gross violation of established norms of academic freedom. Salaita’s statements have no bearing whatsoever on his professional duties at the university—regardless of the specious and deeply disingenuous arguments that have been constructed in order to make it appear that they might. Again, there is an ample body of evidence regarding Salaita’s conduct in the classroom, which was duly considered by his hiring department during his candidacy. By all reports, he is an exemplary teacher—one who is held in the kind of nearly universal esteem by his students that most of us could only dream of. To prefer the baseless insinuations of parties who have never encountered the man in a classroom to the reports of his colleagues and students in order to manufacture a pretense for removing him is absurd.

There is, in other words, no justification for removing him. More, to do so in the manner in which your institution has conducted itself is to violate core principles of due process, shared governance, and academic freedom—bedrock principles of university life. The degree to which this is true is evidenced by the extraordinary number of academics—including myself—who have agreed to boycott your institution until this decision is reversed.

Before closing this message, I also want to ask you to consider another aspect of this case which has been less frequently remarked upon, namely that what is happening to Salaita—the invocation of a standard of civility as grounds for excluding a scholar from a university community—fits an old and ugly pattern. Salaita, as I am sure you know, is Palestinian-American. Those of his statements which some have contested are not simply the speech of any generic individual, but the speech of someone whose own community was profoundly and directly affected by the events that he was discussing. This speech expresses a grievance. But this has been obscured in much of the discussion, which has simply painted him as generically ‘uncivil.’ And precisely this operation of obscuring the speaker’s position in order to facilitate labeling him or her as ‘uncivil’ has all too frequently been used to shut down aggrieved speech by members of marginalized groups against the systems (or the agents thereof) that marginalize them. In the American academy, this tactic has been all too common, having been used against generations of non-white scholars, non-male scholars, queer scholars, scholars demanding equitable treatment for those affected by disability, and so forth. (If you think about it for a moment, you should be able to recognize the stereotypes of the ‘angry black man or woman’, the ‘angry feminist,’ etc., and see how they work here.) Labeling the claims of those folks (and their conduct) as uncivil and unprofessional serves simply to divert attention from the substance of those claims and the necessity of acknowledging or answering them. It also prevents us from recognizing or acknowledging the position—and the anguish—of the speakers. That it frequently leads to the exclusion of the folks so labeled from the academic world as such is, of course, part of the point of such labeling. And to the extent that you have accepted that label as it has been applied to Salaita, you are reiterating this pattern once again.

What, then, are the stakes here? This tactic, the degree to which it is all too often successful, is a crucial part of why the U.S. academy remains, for all of its nominal or rhetorical interest in ‘diversity,’ a space that is dominated by logics of white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, ableism, etc. We are very far from really achieving the diversity that we supposedly seek—and which the same document setting out the Criteria for Accreditation under which your institution operates articulates as one of the values that it is bound to foster. The choice which faces you is thus not merely a choice regarding principles of shared governance and academic freedom, but it is also a choice about whether you will make the substantive commitment to applying those principles to all members of the academic community, and will actively seek to foster a community that is genuinely inclusive instead of reiterating once again an old, tired pattern of exclusion.

For all of these reasons, I encourage you in the strongest possible terms to approve Steven Salaita’s appointment. Doing so is the only possible path toward resorting the position of your fine institution within the international academic community.


Edward Kazarian, PhD
Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies
Rowan University*

*I list my institutional and departmental affiliations only for the purposes of identification. I do not speak for the Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies or Rowan University.

Moral Stupidty

Yesterday, Talking Points Memo reported on new CBS News poll that found extremely high percentages of respondents approving of the use of drones against suspected terrorists. According to the article:

Seventy-one percent of Americans — including 78 percent of Republicans and 70 percent of Democrats — said they support the use of drones against suspected terrorists. Only 20 percent of respondents said they are opposed.

My initial response to this was twofold: 1) disgust and dismay, and 2) the thought that we might need a category of ‘moral stupidity’ to describe this kind of phenomenon. I want to briefly explain the latter, since the more I think about it, the more I think such a category — or perhaps, for reasons I’ll explain below, a category of ‘moral stupidities’ — has some genuine value and is worth developing in a precise way.

Read the rest of this entry »

Badiou’s “The Racism of the Intellectuals”

Alain Badiou published the following short article in Le Monde on Saturday, the eve of the French election that brought an end to the Sarkozy government. Entitled “The Racism of the Intellectuals,” it insists that primary responsibility for the current climate of racism, xenophobia, and ‘rampant fascism’ in France must be laid at the door of a set of politicians — left and right-wing — and intellectuals who have over the past several decades been willing to cultivate and exploit such sentiments.  It also powerfully calls into question the position of the incoming Socialist government of François Hollande on many of these points, and resists the tendency to identify these attitudes only with the far right. I offer here my own rough translation in order to make the piece more accessible to non-Francophone readers, who may find that many of Badiou’s criticisms of the French intelligensia and the French political establishment can be transposed into other contexts with rather startling ease.

Full text below (and in pdf here)—and as usual, comments, corrections or suggestions for the translation are welcome.  Read the rest of this entry »