Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Were the Japanese Elections Another Sign of the Turning of the Planetary Tide Against Neoliberalism?

Very interesting and congenial analysis of the recent Japanese Elections over at the always invaluable European Tribune today. Here are snippets, follow the link to read the whole piece:
For the first time since 1955 (and really, for the first time ever, since the pre-'55 House of Councillors was dominated by the royalist right), the Democratic Party, a left-leaning party, won control of Japan's House of Councillors, displacing the Liberal Democratic Party… that had ruled the chamber uninterrupted in the postwar period since the 1955 elections….. Reasons for the LDP's loss include widespread opposition to Japan's participation (however limited) in the occupation in Iraq, and upset with Prime Minister Abe's policy proposals to amend Japan's pacifist Constitution and to teach "patriotic" subjects in the public school system, both of which are key issues for the Japanese extreme right…. I suspect that one of the biggest reasons for the Democratic Party's victory had to do with the shift of Japanese rural voters from the LDP, as a result of ex-PM Koizumi's strong but ultimately ineffectual push to privatize the postal system in the service of neoliberal "reform." Rural voters were stalwart LDP voters for years, but when Koizumi tried to sacrifice the postal system and projects that benefitted rural voters, they crossed over and threw the upper house to the left in a rejection of neoliberal economics….

Wu Ming's analysis then turns to a wider (very best case) contextualization of this election result, which connects many of the same dots that preoccupy my own attention these days:
While it's far from a Chavez, Lula or Morales-style radical pushback against the neoliberal drive to privatize government and socialize costs, if this sticks it could still be a tidal shift in Japanese politics. The next House of Representatives election should make things clearer…. Bush's allies in war and pirate economics Aznar, Berlusconi, Blair and Koizumi are all off the political stage now, which leaves Howard in Australia, Harper in Canada, Merkel in Germany, Sarkozy in France and Olmert in Israel. With any luck, America will follow in the Japanese voters' footsteps and toss the corporate-friendly hawks out on their ear come 2008, and we'll get some traction to start rolling back the neoliberal "free trade" piracy that passes for economic policy these days.

Reasons to be hopeful, reasons to redouble our efforts.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Robert Novak Pines for Absolute Monarchy, Calls Democracy "Disgusting"

[via Think Progress] “I thought it was really disgusting," said Republican insider Robert Novak of the immensely successful YouTube Presidential Debate. Most Republicans seem to feel the same way. Not to put too fine a point on it, Republicans hate People Powered Politics because they hate the People. Hyperbole on my part, you say? Novak continued: “You know when we did away with the monarchy... there was a lot of fear that this sort of thing would happen."

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Documentary About Herbert Marcuse's California Period Online

[via Monthly Review]

Check out Herbert's Hippopotamus, a documentary film by Paul Alexander Juutilainen, available online.
Blending personal narration, archival news footage, staged imagery, and interviews, the documentary examines the media frenzy generated by [philosopher and activist Herbert] Marcuse's presence in Southern California through incidents such as Marcuse's support of student demands, Governor Ronald Reagan's call for his retirement, the American Legion's attempt to expel him from the University of California, and the numerous death threats made against Marcuse... Herbert's Hippopotamus explores the historical background for the encounter between Critical Philosophy and the Third World, Feminist and Anti-War Movements, as well as the political turmoil in reaction to these coalitions.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Three Cheers for Barbara Lee!

Oh, how I love my Congresswoman!
Today, by a vote of 399-24, the House passed legislation introduced by Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) to prevent permanent military bases in Iraq and bar U.S. control over Iraqi oil resources.


No Time to Relax

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Catsuits, Gadzooks!

The uncanny prescience of pulp futurology...

[via Time]:

Dava Newman, professor of aeronautics, astronautics and engineering systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology… just unveiled a promising new prototype called the BioSuit…. The form-fitting style of the new suit… keeps astronauts alive by creating what scientists call mechanical counter pressure, which balances out the vacuum pull of space. The spacesuits worn today use gas pressurization — they create a small Earth-like atmosphere inside the suit, which exerts the appropriate force on the astronaut's body. The system works, but many scientists consider it to be out of date because it requires bulky equipment and a life support system that weighs almost 300 lbs…. The new suit creates the same kind of pressurized environment, simply by wrapping layers of specially patterned nylon and Spandex fabric tightly around the body, a method that Newman's been working on for seven years.

Skewering Superlativity

Always a Must Read for me, Annalee Newitz is especially good puncturing several variations of popular Superlative Technology Discourse, right, left, past, present, and future, in her most recent Techsploitation column.

Monkey's Paw

People caught up in Superlative Technology sub(cult)ural movements should sniff the trends in the wind -- like the good futurologists they claim to be -- when a parody like this one cracks up people across the mainstream technoprogressive blogosphere

Self-identified "Transhumanist" types have long expressed an inexplicable fingernails-across-the-chalkboard enthusiasm for the ongoing public association of their sub(cult)ural techno-politics with figures from across the Rightwing political spectrum, from unrepentant irrational exuberants and libertechians to neoliberal bomb-builders and technocrats, folks like Glenn Reynolds, William Safire, Newt Gingrich, Virginia Postrel, Tom Friedman and so on. Among the better and brighter "Democratic Transhumanists," this enthusiasm is replaced by what is often worse, misguided support for and alliances with the very same sorts of figures, mobilizing a bland indifference to political substance that fancies itself, of all things, sensibly "tactical."

I've sounded warnings on this topic before. No doubt there are many more to come.

Republican Anti-Science Sex Panic

Democratic Presidential hopeful Barack Obama proposes: "[I]t's the right thing to do, to provide age-appropriate sex education, science-based sex education in schools."

Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney responds: "Senator Obama is wrong if he thinks science-based sex education has any place in kindergarten. We should be working to clean up the filthy waters our kids are swimming in."

Rick Perlstein points out that Romney is "framing science as inherently a bad thing" here, rather than lodging his complaint, as is more usual with his crowd, in a distinction of "sound science as against junk science" or in a debate about what are the proper standards of "appropriateness" to invoke in this case.

This matters, because by stripping his rhetoric of such qualifications Romney has nudged mainstream Movement Republicanism into an even balder extremity in its public antipathy to proper scientific practices and especially the role of science in democratic cultures. Romney is not just cynically undermining the role of warranted consensus science in government regulation, advice, and oversight to pander to social conservatives or moneyed interests in the usual corrupt and opportunistic Republican manner here, but actually calculating that his campaign will benefit from a blanket expression of hostility to science as such.

I believe that Romney, like most Movement Republicans, has failed to learn the lesson of the Terri Schiavo debacle, he has bought the spin of the "values voter" through which Rovian Republicans sought to distract our attention from a second stolen Election in 2004. I believe that Romney has misread America which, whatever the professed Christianity of a majority of its citizens, remains in my view absolutely a secular nation forming, even now in the midst of our great present distress, an emerging technoprogressive majority.

Where Would Edwards Take His Fight?

Right where he should.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Say It Again: Impeach!

I agree with Deborah Newell Tornello
We must impeach the President and Vice President of the United States, and we must begin proceedings to do so immediately, not just for the purpose of exacting a punitive remedy, but also toward enacting a vitally important preventive measure--one that may be the only available means by which to protect the country from the impending imposition of martial law at home as well as the declaration of war against Iran and possibly other countries in the Middle East.

It's come to that. It's really come to that. It's been unbelievably bad for a long time, I know, for so long, indeed, it's been bad from the moment we all permitted the Supreme Court to facilitate a certain coup in 2000, and the Project for a New American Century, and the Unitary Executive thesis, and the rubber stampization of administrative professionals, and a war based on lies everybody knows were lies, and the Downing Street Memo, and Plamegate, and the dismantlement of liberties in the name of preserving "liberties," and torturing while claiming "We Do Not Torture," and deregulation without end, and privatization without end, and cronyism without end, and mercenary armies owned by religious fundamentalist multimillionaires, and bodies ballooning from criminal neglect in the waters of the Gulf, and climate change denial, and Ground Zero toxicity denial, and Iraq debacle denial, and all the rest have been like bowling pins careening, tumbling, shattering one after the other in the aftermath of that initial sin, that initial bored idiotic acquiescence to the anti-democratic Selection over Election of the killer clowns, of the anti-governmentality that would govern by destroying government. But it doesn't matter now, honestly it's beyond punishment, it's beyond accountability, it doesn't matter how it sounds, it doesn't matter if you can't really believe "Cheney" or whoever could really do more than he has already impossibly done in the way of marauding lying thieving lawlessness, it doesn't matter at all. But call, write, demand, sign, lecture, parade, Impeach! Impeach! Impeach as if your life depended on it. Impeach as if the democracy you cherish is in danger. Impeach like there's no tomorrow if you don't. Impeach!

The Conversation Resumes!

Close Friend of Blog Martin Striz and I have had an extended exchange prompted by my recent post on Fundamentalism and "Priestly" Science (check out the comments for early episodes in the exchange), but I'm blogging my latest response as a new post, since it's been a few days since I paid much attention to the blog (teaching demands intervened), and I wanted to make sure Martin (and others) actually sees this latest contribution.

Fair warning, friends -- this is long, unedited, and a bit rambling even for me. UPDATE: Okay, I re-read this sprawling awkward thing again next morning, and have edited it a bit for clarity. This probably should be about three separate blog-posts, but I was on something of a tear. I hope people read this engagement in the exploratory and collegial spirit it intends.

To begin, once again, I regard fundamentalism as an essentially anti-democratic political formation, specifically as an authoritarian political formation, usually insistently patriarchal, and one that opportunistically mobilizes certain moral and esthetic aspects of particular religious faiths and practices to maintain and consolidate the incumbent and elite interests within a social order. Sometimes, Martin, you seem to agree with me at least in part in characterizing fundamentalism thus, so I'm assuming we are on roughly the same page here, or that you get my point even if you disagree with my emphasis here.

But it seems to me that

[1] you (along with others, many of whom are far worse) are pushing a stronger logical or structural identification between fundamentalist political formations and religious faiths and practices as such than I would personally, and that

[2] you are, in consequence, a bit too quick to describe congenial or at any rate harmless expressions of religious faith and practice you encounter as fundamentalist ones, even if they aren't really or only superficially are, and that

[3] you are, in consequence, describing more people as actively and intransigently fundamentalist than probably really are so, and that

[4] you are, in consequence, understandably a bit more disturbed and despairing about the capacity of reasonable democratic multiculturalism to prevail over the violent adjudication of human differences in today's world, especially where questions of deeply personal but incompatible modes of identity connected to religious faiths and practices are concerned, than I might be (on a good day).

It is the authoritarian politics themselves that are the problem for me, not the fact that "faith" has a role in some lives. Whereas it seems to me that certain versions of militant anti-religiosity that have taken on a real allure among many of my freethinking friends and colleagues at the moment take religion to be essentially irrational in a way that accounts especially or even definitively for the political pathology of religious fundamentalisms. I don't want to deny that this can be part of the picture of fundamentalist formations, certainly, but I think this is a profoundly incorrect emphasis that is sure to do more harm than good when all is said and done, for freethinkers themselves as well as for the standing of people of faith, if our perspective is defined by a commitment first of all to democracy.

Look, now, whatever you do, please don't react to this statement with "groans" -- since however much you disagree with what I am saying, if you finally even do, you can surely admit that you don't really think I am uninformed on this topic or behaving dangerously irrationally or whatever, so why pretend otherwise? Nor respond, please, with peremptory demands that I quote chapter and verse of this or that particular text you think I must be "casting aspersions" at -- when the truth is that I mentioned no particular texts at all.

I have been speaking all along here of a broad discourse of anti-religious militancy, which has resonated with unaccustomed volubility lately (and sometimes nicely edifyingly so) in many of the print and online fora I pay attention to, and for which, it is true, a few best-selling texts have been a conspicuous symptom and a prompt. But never in any of this have I claimed to be providing a thorough analysis or even book review of particular titles, which is a project that would require a very different style and approach than the one you see here. As for my awareness of the books that you are recommending to my attention in these exchanges -- I have read books by all three of these authors, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, I have read published essays and articles by all of these authors on the topic of religiosity, some of them I have been reading for years, as it happens, and I have paid careful attention to hundreds of enthusiastic and hostile responses to these books and articles in recent months.

Now, if you still think this makes me too ignorant or unqualified to discuss this topic you can only imagine how I feel defending "postmodernist" theory (the very term itself, in my view, usually indicating a flabbergasting ignorance of the complexities of the field that is presumably under discussion) and multicultural democracy against smug "Champions of Science" (and I would have thought it goes without saying I don't mean you by this designation, Martin, since we have so regularly and publicly agreed on questions of science advocacy hitherto) and ranters against the "Fashionable Nonsense" of many of my most brilliant, inspired, righteous colleagues in the "humanities," defending my own modest pragmatism against people who seem to regard their incomprehension of or even their outright refusal to read the very texts they decry as a signal of their superior intelligence on these topics -- although, to be fair, most clearly have read a few cherry picked quotations here and there which presumably demonstrate that Science and Technology Studies and post-Nietzschean critical theory is uniformly a kind of unrelenting indulgence in facile self-referential incoherence amidst an orgy of hysterical nihilism, probably sympathetic to the Terrorists ™.

It is very much in the context of these defensivenesses and frustrations of mine that I am publishing my hesitations about the new atheistical militancy, and it seems likely to me that your own context is almost certainly a very different one from mine.

I think this exchange of ours is getting a bit more heated than it has to do, because neither of us is always sure where we are personally being located when generalities are getting mobilized by the other. I would be shocked to hear you claim to be unaware that a sizable number of people who are caught up in the current militant anti-religiosity express reductionist attitudes that conjoin their atheism to a disdain for the humanities as they are actually practiced in many University settings, or that many of the militants seem incapable of or uninterested in distinguishing religiosity as it is expressed in authoritarian fundamentalist practices from its many other expressions, among them the common or garden varieties of personal religiosity I have described as essentially esthetic or moral ones. And surely you would be shocked to hear me claim that every atheist militancy inevitably expresses confusions of this kind -- especially since I am myself an absolutely convinced and unapologetic atheist, not above my own moments of militancy on the issue when the occasion demands it, and I certainly don't think I exhibit the tendencies I am decrying among the militants.

So let's not assume that either of us are making claims of the "all" or "none" variety, but only just claims about interestingly non-negligible "some"s in which either one of us may or may not be members ourselves. So, if the shoe fits wear it, but otherwise we'll not assume either is accusing the other of perniciousness, especially since we have such a long history of cordial agreement and mutual respect, after all.

On that note, I want to remind you all of a post I wrote here on Amor Mundi about two years ago, my answer to the question Is Science Democratic?". I still agree with every word of that post, which is still one of my personal favorites, and it does not seem to me that anything I have said in my recent criticisms of some versions of militant atheism and some championings of "science" that take on what look to me like perniciously "Priestly" colorations should surprise anybody who has read that piece.

Now, let's dig in a bit more closely.

I wrote:

Where I may disagree with you in the post is in my contention that [1] fundamentalism is in essence a political and not an epistemological phenomenon, [2] in my insistence that *both* scientific and religious outlooks are vulnerable to appropriation by fundamentalist mindsets, and [3] in my insistence that for *neither* scientific nor religious outlooks does this vulnerability to fundamentalist appropriation tell us what is *definitive* about the proper work of scientificity or of religiosity.

You responded:

I agree on the second two points. On the first one, I think that fundamentalism is primarily a psychological phenomenon.

I wouldn't deny that fundamentalisms as political phenomena typically correspond to and are enabled by a multiplicity of psychological factors. I have even referred occasionally in our exchanges to a fundamentalist "mind-set," for example. I was enormously influenced by post-war texts by critical theorists (like Adorno, Marcuse, and Reich) and 20C Beats (like Burroughs and Ginsberg) who were concerned about an "Authoritarian Personality," for example. Recently, some of this work found its way into John Dean's analysis of/polemic against contemporary American movement conservatism, including its religious fundamentalist base, in Conservatives Without Conscience. I am also immensely interested in and recommend the multivolume multiyear academic study published about ten years ago under the title of The Fundamentalism Project -- almost all of which I have read and studied quite carefully, as it happens.

But I am not sure why claiming fundamentalism to be importantly psychological would imply disagreement with my own sense that fundamentalism is essentially a political formation, rather than, say, an essentially epistemological problem. I won't put words in your mouth, or attribute attitudes to you that I don't know about, so let me just say that my worry is when at least some of the new atheistical militants claim fundamentalism to be "psychological" they mean less to address themselves to the complex dynamics of personal affect and collective agency but simply, straightforwardly, to pathologize vulnerable and exploited people who deserve and are perfectly capable of implementing democracy on their own terms.

Many (even most) anti-religionists seem to me to define religiosity first of all as the declaration of a belief in the existence of God, a belief that is analogized to belief in something like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. In this understanding, belief in God takes the form, "x exists," the force of which belief derives its heft from its connection to belief in innumerable other "x's" like tables, chairs, hunger pangs, protons, and so on, but with the difference that these "x's" earn their reality-bolstering wings through their adequacy to certain criteria of warrantability, usually summarized as either demonstrability or defeasibility depending on one's tastes in these methodological matters, whereas "God as x" is never either demonstrable or defeasible and, hence, its achievement of a reality effect is always a kind of fraud or parasitic infestation of reason, properly so-called.

I think that these sorts of logical and epistemological problems are what many atheistical militants have in mind when they turn their attention to the "psychological" dimensions of fundamentalisms, a move which tends to involve a pathologization of faith as such, and which then tends to deduce the authoritarian politics of fundamentalist formations as entailments of that essential pathology, while likewise positing nonauthoritarian religosities as compromises between an essential faithly irrationality and more wholesome glimmers of pragmatic scientificity. This move has the merit of simplicity, certainly, but it tends to eventuate in judgments that the overabundant majority of people on earth are incomparably more irrational than I personally think the facts bear out, it tends to authorize self-congratulatory explanations of the violence and instability of vulnerable exploited people who may be considerably more reasonable than we are giving them credit for, and it tends to undercut the celebration of both equity and diversity on which movements for planetary democratic multiculture deeply depend.

I would be the last to deny this sort of thing plays out in some measure in many of the variously faithful, from time to time, nor even that this mechanism plays out catastrophically in at least some believers. But I do think treating this critique as an adequate or essential characterization of religiosity in general amounts to a massive missing of the point, as far as practices of faith and professions of belief actually play out in the world practically speaking. As I have said before, I think an enormous number of professions of "belief in x, where x is 'God'" can be perfectly adequately translated by the pragmatic non-believer into statements of the form "I really try to be a decent person," or "I draw much of my personal sustenance from my membership in a community of good people defined by our shared attestation to this belief," or "my own project of personal self-creation seems to lead me to focus my attention on non-standard practices or states that are not easily or immediately describable in terms of current conventional commonsensical preoccupations."

When someone seems to say to me that they "believe" in the existence of a "thing" that cannot exist in the way things that exist normally do I ask myself -- now, what could this person really be trying to express in the way of belief if they aren't really insane or stupid beyond belief? Incredibly, this simple move usually is all it takes to open myself to extraordinary insights that before I had been stubbornly resisting out of ignorance or fear or a shabby self-importance. This point seems to me precisely analogous to one that applies to those who decry relativists as people who deny that "existence exists." It seems to me that nobody in their right mind denies that "existence exists" and so, whenever I encounter a claim from a philosopher or activist or poet that initially seems to suggest otherwise, I ask myself -- now, what could this person be trying to get at if they aren't making a facile self-referentially incoherent claim of the kind they seem to be making at first? Incredibly, this simple move usually is all it takes to open myself to extraordinary insights that before I had been stubbornly resisting out of ignorance or fear or shabby self-importance. As a good pragmatist I have to say that I don't focus too much worry on differences of belief that fail to play out in differences of conduct, but where actual conduct differs, there I try to determine what actual differences of belief account for that.

I'm assuming you'll charge that I foolishly misidentify fundamentalists as what you call "moderates," and further that you think I'll respond to this charge by claiming that you are doing something like the reverse, misidentifying moderates as "fundamentalists." But part of what I am saying is that the basic framing of this issue in terms of moderation and extremity seems to me likely to derange our understanding of the variety of religious belief and practice. I think religiosity is essentially a matter of esthetics and morals, a matter of highly idiosyncratic projects of private perfection and coping with the sublime dimensions of human experience (those that have not yet been assimilated into commonsense and literal language) as well as a matter of practices of moral identification and moral disidentification (the expression of "we-intentions" in Wilfred Sellars's parlance) providing a sense of belonging and social support. When you say that estheticized and moralizing modes of religiosity exemplify religious "moderateness" I cannot agree that this is the case, because it seems to me you are saying that religiosity is truly a matter of basic irrationality, faith in the existence of a non-existing thing, which in some people, thankfully, is "moderated" by more practical and mitigating concerns or something like that, when it seems to me that these variously faithful folks are simply straightforwardly religious, and not moderately so in the least.

For me, there is nothing about religiosity, per se, that would incline me to think that I am in the presence of a person who cannot be "reached" through deliberation, although I am quite aware that many prefer that religion not find its way to the dinner table else the collegiality of the meal be spoiled.

I wrote:

I think many of the religious claims dismissed as unfalsifiable perversions of proper scientific claims may be better described instead as declarations of membership in moral communities, expressions of "we"-intentions, testaments to essentially esthetic attitudes concerning the sublime and so on. To say that what matters most about them is the way they fail to pass muster as scientific claims is often just a matter of massively missing the point.

You replied:

53% of the American population rejects evolution in any form. A sizable percentage of them want their mythology taught in school. They make claims about metaphysical souls that reside in embryos and then demand public policy regarding research to reflect their views. Again, neither I nor the authors that I cite have any contention with people wanting to join moral or social communities. But the false instrumental claims that they make are real and dangerous.

I have regularly pointed to these sorts of outrageous states of affairs here on Amor Mundi, and so I am not exactly unaware of them, as you know. Indeed, we are very much on the same page on most of this sort of stuff. Queer feminist atheist anti-war vegetarian democratic socialists aren't exactly big fans of the Religious Right, doncha know!

I don't know if I always draw precisely the same set of conclusions from all the data as you do, however. You say that more than half of Americans reject evolution in any form. This is, of course, what many say, but part of the way in which people say things is by doing things. And when Christians aren't declaring their hostility to evolution because their moral leaders have told them that this public declaration is essential to their identity as believers in "family values" or what have you, they are also doing things like choosing surgeons over faith healers, driving cars rather than hopping on brooms, engaging honorably in a variety of modes of interpersonal commerce with people they would morally despise as sinners, and declaring in the face of injustice that "there ought'a be a law!" rather than "trust jeebus to sort it out," or what have you.

That is to say, quite a lot of what might seem attributable to a consistent logical application of irrational faith to practical conduct, probably really amounts just as often to uninterrogated uncritical laziness, of a kind that under the terms of a more secular institutional status quo will probably relatively effortlessly accommodate those changed circumstances as readily as they accommodate here and now the theological aspirations of the marginal small and opportunistic theological activists of the actually existing fundamentalism.

It isn't that I don't take this sort of thing seriously -- I quite assure you that fundamentalism, and Christian Nationalism, and Pentecostal evangelism and all that stuff scares the living daylights out of me. But I know not to confuse the inertia of institutional accommodation with firm, settled conviction. Things can change enormously and quickly for the better -- or for the worst.

This matters, among many other reasons, because it seems to me that uncritical, esthetic, and modest moral religiosities of the relatively harmless and commonplace varieties seem to me pretty obviously more likely to respond well to anti-fundamentalisms that appeal to them as intelligent sensible adult peers rather than anti-fundamentalisms that demand disrespectfully that they all be bagged for disposal forthwith. Such religiosities (which you want to call "moderate," but which I just see as straightforward) only really become anti-democratizing and lethal in industrial societies when one is unlucky enough to live in one of those eras in which bad confluences of historical instability and institutional weakness bring out the worst authoritarianism inhering in any broadly disseminated thoughtlessness across the social scene, as they have often seemed to do through most of my own lifetime (mostly as perfectly intelligible and often sensible compensation formations against the derangement of incumbent pieities in a rapidly networked and planetized world, yielding the desperate but disciplined power grab of Movement Conservatism facilitated by the anti-democratic institutional features of the Electoral College, the lifelong appointments of the Supreme Court, the proneness to the Executive to reconsolidate as a traditional sovereign in wartime, and corporate media consolidation, while yielding at one and the same time anomie, manufactured consent, ubiquitous gambling, and short-term parochial preoccupation in too many people too much of the time). I am honestly flabbergasted when I realize just how many millions of their fellow human beings some militant anti-religionists and other Supreme Rationalists seem willing to consign to the status of hopelessly unreachable irrationalist subhumanity.

And before you point out that "they" feel the same, let me just say, I'm a godless faggot socialist and you aren't going beat me in the earmarked for destruction by fundamentalists game so don't even try it, but also, well, I'm not really finally so sure that outside the catastrophic impersonal meat grinder of a war zone there really are that many people, including zealous fundamentalists, who really would rather murder me than leave me to my own devices, or to make use of my skills, or to listen to me crack a joke, or what have you.

Before we decide to get all hard-headed hard-boiled hard-cocked and "realistic" about the irrationality of the scary brownskinned religionists (which is what so much of this discourse finally amounts to as it plays out -- and I'm assuming you know what I mean and detest it quite as much as I do, Martin, I'm certainly not accusing you of this sort of disgusting ickiness) I think we should remember who has all the money, remember who is avoidably suffering for lack of even a small portion of that kind of money, and remember who is pointing guns at whom in order to secure that money unjustly in the face of the frustration that injustice engenders.

Once one looks at these sorts of actual facts squarely, one begins to wonder if the anti-religionist champions of abstract facticity aren't engaging after all in a bit of the politics of distraction -- if not by outright design, then simply because privileged people can usually find nice rationalizations to keep them from facing the scope and toll of their collaboration in violence, exploitation, and disastrous neglect.

That is to say, if there really are more authoritarian fundamentalists in the world today, it seems to me that recognizing our own complicity in their awful unnecessary suffering and engaging in the difficult social struggle to compensate the losses from which we have gained is far more likely to democratize and secularize the world than lecturing abjected foreigners about the logical problems connected to expressions of faith in the existence of a being invested with the Omni-Predicates. I'm just saying.

I said:

Debates about religious faith, moral membership, esthetic taste are prone to dreadful derangement by those who want always to understand reasonableness from the perspective of just one mode of reasonable belief-ascription.

You replied:

You always mention ethics, esthetics, and politics, but you never elucidate what exactly those modes of thinking are and why one should subscribe to them.

This is puzzling, since if one has read enough of me to know that I "always mention ethics, esthetics, and politics" then it is hard to believe that you haven't noticed the various corresponding elaborations of what "those modes of thinking are and why one should subscribe to them" that so often go along with these mentions. Actually what I tend to say is that these are all modes of reasonable belief ascription, that they differ in their ends, their forms, and their criteria of warrant. I don't think that one has much choice in the matter of "subscribing to them" as opposed to not so subscribing, since I simply claim that people straightforwardly exhibit these different modes of belief-ascription, and so I think the interesting question is what are the actual practices and criteria of warrant that differently prevail in each of these modes and which, within the modes, deserve to be credited with more or less reasonableness. What I oppose are versions of critique that would demand, in the name of reasonableness, the reduction of all the modes to the terms of just one preferred mode, in defiance of sense or actual practice, and it seems to me, if I may don my Nietzschean cap for a moment, that one of the things that Philosophy is prone to, unfortunately and very much to the cost of those who get taken in by this sort of thing, are precisely such oversimplifying fumigatorial fantasies.

To be rather schematic about it (since this really is something I go on about regularly hereabouts) I distinguish

[1] Instrumental beliefs, (a) implemented through collective practices of experimentation and publication, (b) warranted by criteria of demonstration and/or defeasibility, and contingent commitment to which provides (c) relative powers of prediction and control;

[2] Moral beliefs, (a) implemented through collective practices of identification and disidentification, (b) warranted by coherence with observed collective practice or with authoritative utterances (by established authoritaties or through authoritative interpretations of canonical texts), and contingent commitment to which provides (c) a relative sense of belonging and assurance of social support;

[3] Esthetic beliefs (beliefs that things that are idiosyncratically valued by oneself are therefore valuable as such, that is to say, susceptible to legibility as valued even if they are not in fact valued widely at present or even at all valued otherwise), (a) implemented through personal practices of ongoing self-creation offered up to general reception, (b) warranted by the scene of informed, nonduressed consent (even if not necessarily legible as optimal, normalizable, generalizable, rationalizable, moralistically acceptable, and so on), and contingent commitment to which provides (c) a relative sense of personal perfection;

[4] Ethical beliefs, (a) implemented through practices of public deliberation available -- typically only "in principle" -- to all, (b) warranted by formal universalizablity (this is tricky to delineate theoretically, since universals will always retroactively be exposed as expressions of parochial perspectives: the real force of formal universality is that it is a normativity that aspires to a universality defined, in practice, against the grain of contemporary practices of moral normativity that themselves are always circumscribed by practices of disidentification with constitutive outsiders who are then in principle included (includable) in a formal universality that fails to yield the effects of positive identification), and contingent commitment to which provides (c) a relative incarnation of a "personal status" accorded the standing of rights-bearer, property-bearer, consent-bearer, peer among peers;

[5] Political beliefs, (a) implemented through the dynamic of strategic, opportunistic, usually citational, never equal interpersonal power relationships (in the sense best and complementarily delineated by Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt as non-sovereign "power," and then recently reformulated by Judith Butler as "performativity"), (b) warranted by their legitimacy -- in democratic variations, usually according to constitutional establishments of a rule of law ordained by the consent of the governed, in anti-democratic variations, to authoritative pronouncements by a ruling or incumbent elite often claiming a privileged relation to a divine or naturally (this includes "market") ordained order of things -- a process which provides (c) a contingent reconciliation of the diversity of aspirations desired by the diversity of people who share (and are experienced as sharing, though not necessarily as equals) a finite world -- in democratic variations, reconciling these ends as consensually and nonviolently as possible, in anti-democratic variations, reconciling majorities to elite or incumbent interests.

You said:

Oh, and by the way, the very claim that "several modes of rationality exist, including instrumental, ethical, esthetic and political" is an instrumental claim requiring evidence. Perhaps your next blog post should be a solid instrumental defense of that claim.

Now, I don't know if this is most interestingly seen as an instrumental claim when all is said and done, and I can't say that I know what you would accept as an instrumental defense of it. Not every compelling argument looks like a lab experiment, nor should it: what if, instead of an argument, I changed the subject with a joke, kissed you on the cheek, slipped a poem in your pocket? What I've offered is my clearest schematic delineation of modes of belief I pretty much just stipulate as differing from one another (although it should be clear that this is a delineation that leans on a pretty longstanding tradition of philosophical thought that lends it some broad intuitive familiarity, however idiosyncratic my appropriation of these old distinctions), hoping that distinguishing them this way will appear plausible enough even to those to whom such distinctions will be unfamiliar to get me a hearing. My reasons for insisting on this delineation (or other similarly multifaceted delineations of reasonable normativity, even if they carve the phenomena up concretely differently than I do here), are very familiar ones from the perspective of analytic philosophy: sense a problematic and intractable tension? Relieve the tension by proposing and then maintaining salient distinctions.

I fully expect you and others to point out that with a little squinting and wiggling it is easily possible to shoehorn all of these modes of warrantable belief into a single one (almost certainly the winner will be: wait for it... wait for it... the instrumental mode! Ta Da!), and I would be the last to deny the force of this point. But just because it is possible to scale the reductionist Everest that doesn't necessarily mean it is a good idea -- especially if one can preserve reasonableness quite well without imposing a crabbed moralizing puritanical monotone onto the weird wonderful tapestry of warranted belief-ascription as people practice it. Quite apart from the way my delineation might help facilitate a multiculturalism that still has the conceptual resources to defend consensus science on its own terms and the legitimacy of general democratic standards of consent and right on their own terms (which is a key problem for philosophers in an era of radical technodevelopmental planetary change and social struggle, as far as I can see), it also provides a nice frame through which to understand various specific philosophical projects historically that have tried in one way or another to comprehend, reduce, or otherwise definitively hierarchize reasonableness in all of these modes to or from the terms of one particular privileged one.

I expressed exasperation at the militant notion that one needs "[t]o attack all religiosity as inevitably irrational[which] seems to me a hopeless cause in a world of billions of believers."

To which you replied promisingly that "the attack is mainly on religious fundamentalism," which as an authoritarian political formation I agree should be the focus of democratization (subsidizing universal healthcare, education, ensuring a free press, protecting unions, supporting local self-reliance through decentralized provision of social services, overcoming corrupt secretive public institutions, breaking up anti-democratizing elites by soaking the rich with progressive income, investment, and property taxes, and so on), not by impertinently lecturing victims of neoliberalism by mouthing pieties about "becoming practical reasonable adults," "taking personal responsibility," and peddling the "glories" of a liberty that amounts to isolation and systematic neglect), but then you added, far less promisingly, "and in the case of Harris, any faith-based belief system."

Now, clearly when we trust our lives to instrumental claims, what are wanted are beliefs warranted through the protocols of consensus science, defeasible, widely tested, long published, well-established, nicely coherent with long-settled conviction, and so on.

But, where what is wanted is a claim that helps us feel we fit in, where what is wanted is a claim that helps us overcome our influences and blaze a new trail with our own names on it, where what is wanted is to offer up a confident judgment of right to the tribunal of history, where what is wanted is to find one's way to reconciliation among intractable stakeholders who verge on violence in their differences for now, in such circumstances the word for what is wanted simply isn't always going to be "fact" (although, to be sure, sometimes what's wanted even under these differing circumstances is precisely a nice fact, I'm the last to feel the need to deny this sort of thing in a silly striving after philosophical neatness).

The point is, even as a proud inhabitant of what many of us in the debased era of the unprecedented criminal clown college of the Bush Administration have come to describe as The Reality Based Community, I am not so foolish to pretend that warranted scientific belief constitute the firm foundation of warrant on which the others depend.

For me, to be reasonable means to affirm as true those beliefs that accord with the standards of reasonable warrant that correspond to the mode of belief in question -- including very much an affirmation of the standards, institutions, and protocols of consensus science where what is wanted are beliefs that offer us powers of environmental prediction and control -- but also to understand the differences between the modes of belief on offer, the different ends that articulate them, and their different implementations. It seems to me one deranges and debases belief into irrationality not only by violating the standards proper to its mode, but by seeking to twist or expand it to accommodate ends and practices that are not proper to its mode.

You go on to say:

"[T]here are plenty of other fundamentalists, but religious fundamentalists are by far the most numerous, and in any case, they currently yield a lot of power and have a growing number of secularists worried, which is why they are the object of criticism among a growing number of people, in print and online."

But, you know, I truly wonder whether one can make a case that market fundamentalism isn't really the form most catastrophically devastating to actual human beings on earth today. Given the systematic infrastructure neglect, over-urbanization, austerity measures of debt restructuring, the volatility of social structure for the precarious in the face of relentless financialization of profit-taking, and the rest it seems to me that neoliberalism is quite as lethal as fundamentalist Islam or whatever it is that scares the atheistical militants most at the moment. And frankly when we turn our attentions to the real social impact of authoritarian fundamentalism, it doesn't take long to realize that its chief victims are women, kids, and queers -- structural features common to most anti-democratic authoritarianisms, features that foreground the role of political incumbency and control in fundamentalist formations rather than the role of the logical, ontological, and epistemological paradoxes of "faith" that often preoccupy the militantly atheistical boys online. I know, I know, I'm a guy, you're a guy, many readers clenching their fists in frustration at the moment are guys, but you all know what I mean as well as I do, we can all chisel past the facile point to the one I’m actually interested in here: If what we're talking about when we're talking about what is pernicious in fundamentalisms is describable as "patriarchy" then it isn't clear at all why authoritarian politics are not obviously our proper focus while the easily estheticizable question of faithful personal practices quickly comes to look rather obviously incidental to the problem of fundamentalism.

You write:

I actually think that, to the extent that moral, esthetic and political considerations have real-world outcomes, they are subject to scientific analysis, and can be informed by science. For example, if ethical considerations are contingent on consciousness, then science can tell us what kinds of agents demand our ethical consideration. If morality has anything to do with happiness, then scientific disciplines like positive psychology can help us understand what we ought to do to be happy -- to be moral.

I agree with you. Every moral belief or esthetic practice is certainly susceptible to scientific analysis (and oftentimes clarified by such), just as every scientific belief is invigorated by moral and esthetic considerations. Ultimately, instrumental belief is still a normative mode inasmuch as prediction and control are articulated (though not determined, because of the diversity of actual believers) by the horizon of desired outcomes. Instrumentality is far from automonous from the other modes, fueled as it is by desire and communicated through metaphor. But all of the modes are complexly inter-implicated.

All this is why none of the modes can settle into a position a superiority among the others in a way that will achieve general assent, but it is also why seekers after clarity and reassurance (Philosophers among them) will rarely be able to resist the siren call to clarify these complexities through reductionisms, hierarchizations, and so on.

I welcome the kind of inter-implication and illumination through interdisciplinary consideration that you are talking about here. But I don't think we rightly infer from this insight that science "has all the answers" or provides the measure or model for answerability as such. I think we tend to turn to some projects when we hanker after an unhealthy cleanliness, false ease, costly authority, misleading reassurance, usually in the face of the painful realization of our finitude and our precariousness as incarnated tinkerers, in the face of the facts that we are vulnerable to pain, to misunderstanding, to betrayal, to meaninglessness, to death.

I understand these attitudes well enough but I have not succumbed to them (bad days aside) and implore you all to resist them as well. It is better by far to be open to the voice of the other who will make unexpected demands on your patience, your faith, your time, your capacities but will clear the space of freedom with you and collaborate with you in building the road along which futures are made, than to retreat into the solitary confinement of Philosophy's false certainties and selfish consolations. Clearly, I seem to addressing a broader imagined audience, rather than just you there, Martin! I'm not so impertinent as to lecture you, my friend! I've been writing a while and I'm getting a little tired.

I said:

I think that many who are enthusiastic about these militantly atheistical books at the moment do indeed use them to justify and evangelize for their eliminativist and reductionist projects of scientism.

You replied:

"Have you actually read those books, or do you just enjoy casting aspersions like seeds in the wind?"

Are you denying, then, "that many who are enthusiastic about these militantly atheistical books at the moment do indeed use them to justify and evangelize for their eliminativist and reductionist projects of scientism" and that this would obviously be a matter of concern to me and a matter at the heart of our ongoing disagreement? I don't understand how your objection is in point, and given the incredible time and care I have exhibited throughout this exchange (and others like it) it does seem a bit weird to trot out accusations of ignorance and lack of credibility this late in the conversation.

[E]very academic discipline with any merit uses an evidence-based mode of rationality. You have yet to make the case for any other one.

I do not agree that "evidence-based" equals "meritorious" in any kind of blanket way, in the Academy or anywhere else, even if certainly and obviously it should have pride of place in scientific practice and publication. I doubt you would actually enjoy living in a world where such an attitude really prevailed at a more general level, and so I will assume your statement was a glib overgeneralization offered for polemical effect (of a kind I myself am not exactly immune to making here and there, as you know). It seems to me I have offered up quite a lot of reasons why I believe as I do -- but if you were to refuse to regard as "making a case" anything that fails to pass muster in the restricted sense of warranting a specifically instrumental case then I would say you have been nudged uncharacteristically into behaving in an obtuse way that provides you in itself with all the evidence you should need. (Put a smiley there if you imagine me saying that in a caustic or disrespectful way -- the fact is I imagine you instantly see what I mean by this and you are chuckling appreciatively and collegially at my little joke, and I am loathe to resort to smileys as a general rule.)

The "atheistic militancy" that you perceive seems to some secularists like the only way to engage people that you can't reason with.

I hold a Deweyan faith in democracy -- and I do think it is right to admit that this is very much a matter of faith -- that there is almost no one on earth who cannot be reasoned with, and that one should strive to create and maintain the institutional conditions that encourage reasonableness between people.

This seems to me to be a straightforward application of the Philosophical Principle of Charity (which, contrary to what one might otherwise initially think is actually an epistemological notion, of all things), that to recognize a language-user as such is likewise to recognize a being who for the most part is "getting things right" from a propositional standpoint. One can almost always find ways to reason with a being one recognizes as a language user. Returning to the terms of my own distinction of moral from ethical normativity, one need not demand of a language user that they be reasonable enough to identify with to recognize them as reasonable enough to reason with.

It is just as likely (I'd venture to suggest usually more likely) to be the laziness of incumbent privilege rather than the subhuman irrationality of the alien other that accounts for failures of reasoning between people, whatever their personal beliefs, failures of civility, of patience, of imagination, of nerve. I think some of the atheistical militants are deploying their critique in a way that promotes absurd overgeneralizations that right about now historically play too often and too easily into dreadful racist and neoliberal "Clash of Civilizations" discourses, that these versions of militancy function to dismiss hundreds of millions of people as beyond the pale (as it were) of accessibility to reasonableness, bolstering a politics of intolerance and purity in the name of "Reason," making us fearful of alien others rather than open to what is reasonable in them, offering us easy alibis for the unearned privileges, the indifference to suffering, the short-term greed, the acceptance of violence exercised in our names that truly fuels so much of "unreasonableness" of the faithful that have been opportunistically exploited by authoritarians.

I propose that estheticizing faith will facilitate the peaceful and prosperous co-existence of the variously religious and not-religious people of the world, a secular attitude that provides a critique of authoritarian and fundamentalist formations of religiosity while at once one that is perfectly capable of respecting religiosity in general rather than disrespectfully demanding its elimination before the bulldozer of a triumphalist and reductionist scientism. It seems to me that there is a lot to say for such an attitude (not just for religious people whose religiosity is separable from fundamentalism but also for nonreligious folks who happen to be deeply invested in unorthodox practices of self-creation that are likewise not easily justified through current and conventional standards of instrumental warrant) while there is at one and the same time quite a lot to worry about in professions from my fellow atheists that Reason is not just marvelously useful but Great and must, in its Greatness, Prevail. You may very well disagree with my characterization or with my focus, Martin, but I hope you no longer think (if you ever did) that my characterization or my focus entails some kind of subversion of my advocacy for democracy or for the proper facilitation of practices of consensus science in democracies, nor, worse, that you think I would attribute any pernicious anti-democratic attitude to your own secularism even where it disagrees in some respects with mine. I fully expect you agree with me more than not, and that where you disagree with me you still appreciate my point. And the same goes for me.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Today's Random Wilde

No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.

Grading, Grating

Hi, all. Grading papers at the moment, and so a few great ongoing conversations are momentarily suspended. I'll dive back in this weekend.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Priestly "Science" and Democratic Politics

Given all the atheist militancy raising a ruckus lately, I suppose it isn't too surprising that I am stumbling upon more regular and more baldly dismissive declarations these days about the ineradicable incompatibility of science and religion among Science's self-appointed Elite Champions online.

I've been a perfectly convinced and rather cheerfully nonjudgmental atheist for well over twenty years at this point, but I must say that I think it is arrant nonsense to claim that scientific and religious practices or scientific and religious beliefs are incompatible, given the overabundant evidence of people who weave them together in their lives every day so conspicuously. A little respect for the facts you claim so to cherish, people?

I suspect that it is especially when one assumes an essentially religious attitude toward what one has construed as "science" that "science" so construed is invested with such ferocious incompatibility with its religious competitors. As far as I can tell, plenty of people have essentially aestheticized their religious faith and practice, or mean to indicate through their declarations of faith that they like to think of themselves as "decent" people in some undercritical sense of the word, or to designate the straightforward sociological fact of their membership in some moral community that matters to them. None of this is any more incompatible with science than being a music lover, a foodie, a druggie, or a promiscuous pervert is "incompatible" with science. One expects Priests (including the self-appointed Priests of Science) to think otherwise than this, however.

This matters, among other things, because the last thing the world needs these days is another mode of fundamentalist religiosity (this time in the name of a Priestly and too-authoritarian "science") encouraging True Believers that if only they'll be intolerant and pure enough in their moral fervor they will prevail over all difference and sweep the world.

Secularism is a political attitude, and more particularly a democratic political attitude, that seeks to proliferate the moral and esthetic lifeways that can reconcile themselves to peaceful co-existence but without renouncing the indispensable edifications of their personal perfections. This attitude has the benefit, to the extent that it succeeds, of facilitating collaborative problem-solving among otherwise incompatibly differently-identified people (something science-minded folks should be especially enthusiastic about), of minimizing the civilizational energies wasted in bloodyminded disputation, and of making the world safer for the idiosyncratic personal creative expressivity that expands the space of freedom available for all.

I am enormously encouraged at the courage of the new atheist militants who publish unapologetic declarations of their own personal paths to perfection. And as an atheist myself I am well pleased to discern a trace of the strange path I myself am on in reading of theirs.

But I have no doubt whatsoever that the secular compromise will function to protect my own idiosyncratic freethinking primarily because the variously faithful have learned the hard way that they need protection from one another. The overabundant majority of Believers benefit from secular tolerance and it is an appeal to this common sense that will best ensure that a separation of Church and State is re-instituted and subsequently thrives, not some false identification of secularism with the needs of a small minority of atheists demanding protection from the variously faithful.

And as for the ascetic idealism of our eliminative materialists, as for the eager or reluctant technocratic attitude that technoscientific complexities or technodevelopmental urgencies demand the circumvention of democratic deliberation among the "ignorant" and "unintelligent" herd, as for the palpable desperation with which our statisticians and bomb-builders cling to their pet methodologies with all the hysteria of dot-eyed fanatics contemplating the One True Way, denying the historical indebtedness of science to practices of esoteric mysticism, denying the ongoing life of religiosity and estheticism in science's invigorating metaphors, denying the unpredictable passions that drive scientific agency, denying the absolute imbrication of scientific practice and political practice, as for the facile Providential and Apocalyptic tonalities in which our Superlative Technologists discuss Progress, as for all that one honestly would expect atheists of all people to know better than to fall for all that crap.

Fundamentalism is an anti-democratic political formation derived from a moral one. It is essentially anti-democratic. I can empathize with the human frailty that renders this move appealing to some, I can celebrate the underlying idiosyncratic pleasures that this move seeks to protect, I can cheerfully treat the differences on the basis of which the various fundamentalisms derive their identities as differences that don't make a difference to my sense of sharing the world with a peer so long as the fundamentalist extends the same courtesy to me or, sadly incapable of this, withdraws from the world altogether to contemplate her personal perfection in private. But where democracy is threatened by anti-democracy one must struggle against it, one must agitate, educate, and organize to facilitate democratic outcomes. The defense of democracy actually demands the democratization of anti-democracy, not the tolerance of anti-democracy in the name of democracy.

No doubt the fundamentalists will sneer that this is hardly a "cheerfully nonjudgmental" attitude, this is hardly an expression of "secular tolerance" -- but one must understand that the constitutive gesture of fundamentalism is its substitution of moral for political belief: Fundamentalism is an essentially anti-democratic or pre-democratic attitude, and one no more properly applies democratic attitudes like secular tolerance to fundamentalist moralizing than one would to a hurricane or a pandemic or an art fad.

For fundamentalists, of course, it would only be with the obliteration of political contestation altogether and the presumed prevalence of their signature moral monoculture that they would affirm that, at last, they were "tolerated" in the measure proper to them. To extend democratic considerations to fundamentalist formations is to misconstrue democratic politics as fundamentally as fundamentalists do themselves.

The proper democratic attitude to take with fundamentalists is to insist that their fundamentalism must be democratized, the texture of their faith privatized or estheticized and then celebrated as an expression of diversity, their authoritarianism discouraged where possible and domesticated into harmlessness where impossible. Do please read that sentence carefully before any of you foolishly start crowing about how tyrannical democracy truly, secretly is in its deepest heart compared to your own fundamentalist piety or incumbent elitism or parochial bigotry or market idolatry or what have you, all you lurking anti-democrats out there. Democracy doesn't democratize "by any means necessary" precisely for fear that a false democratization will be anti-democratizing. We're way ahead of you. Democrats are quite as aware of their own vulnerabilities and of the anti-democratizing pathologies of power as any critic who claims to have arrived at an anti-democratic viewpoint through a hardboiled contemplation of such vulnerabilities and pathologies (always, one discovers, the better to rationalize their indifference to the unearned suffering in the world that facilitates their own unearned privileges).

Be that as it may, this attitude that fundamentalism must be democratized else it will surely undermine the democracy most of us cherish seems to me to be precisely the same attitude democratically-minded people should take as well with those who would rewrite science in the image of authoritarian religiosity. Such projects -- whatever their own honest assessment or retroactive rationalization that theirs is the only way technoscientific practices may be protected in a world that tragically disdains them too easily -- finally look to me to be all too often little more than the typical and distasteful effort of some fundamentalistically-inclined folks to spoil a perfectly good and reasonable collaborative practice (through which indispensable powers of prediction and control are acquired in the service of the solution of shared problems) by turning it into yet another occasion for Priestly moralizing elites to demand reverence and awe from everybody else.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Precarity on Wikipedia

In the past I have recommended the Wikipedia entry on Precarity to my students as a jumping off point for their research into the idea, but I cannot continue to do so in good conscience so long as this entry remains in its present form. (Here is something I have written on the topic myself.)

Someone objected that the old article was wrong to state that the term "precarity" was first used in the year 2000, when we clearly find the term already in use before that, as in "the widely circulated article by the famous American Catholic social activist Dorothy Day, 'Poverty and Precarity,' published in The Catholic Worker newspaper in May 1952."

Now, I may be a crusty atheist, but I am a huge fan of Dorothy Day and I actually found it enormously useful to direct people's attention to this historical context.

Unfortunately, the interventions into the article inspired by this move went far beyond registering Day's contribution to the broadest construal of Precarity discourse. Now when one goes to the article one is told that Precarity is a "theological" term. It is connected in a sidebar to "Christianity" and described as "Part of a series of articles on Christianity," under which one finds a huge black crucifix. The first section of the article is now entitled "Catholic Origins."

It is only once we reach paragraph three (still mysteriously included under the heading of Catholic Origins) that we are informed:
Precarity is a general term to describe how large parts of the population are being subjected to flexible exploitation or flexploitation (low pay, high blackmailability, intermittent income, etc.), and existential precariousness (high risk of social exclusion because of low incomes, welfare cuts, high cost of living, etc.) The condition of precarity is said to affect all of service labor in a narrow sense, and the whole of society in a wider sense, but particularly youth, women, and immigrants.

This is the useful general description with which the article used to begin. When Mike Davis discusses informalization or Naomi Klein discusses disaster capitalism one wonders if anybody in their right mind seriously imagines that this is exclusively or primarily a "Christian topic"?

The author of these changes responded to my expressed concerns on this question by saying "I think you may have had a point, were it not for the fact that the promotion of San Precario has very much reinforced this Christian aspect[.]" Presumably, then, I don't have a point, after all? Surely it matters that "the promotion of San Precario" to which the critic refers is, at least in some conspicuous instances, obviously parodic, an iconic representation of a fast-food worker on his knees in his dumpy uniform? (Contemplate, if you will, the image at the head of this blog-post.) Surely this easily owes as much to the prankster-politics of Situationism as to the pious politics of Catholicism?

Surely, the centrality of May Day in Precarity protests should at least give this critic pause before denying I "have a point" here? If one follows the actual links in this entry to the actual political organizing inspired by the idea of a Revolutionary Precariat it takes no time at all to realize that this is not a movement defined by Christianity, but by the global struggle for democracy and against neoliberalism, a struggle that is not remotely subsumable under Christianity, given the role of non-Christian people of faith, the role of secular multiculturalists, the role of materialist socialists, and so on in these struggles.

I do not mean to suggest by all this that Precarity is anti-Christian in some way, nor that the contribution of Christianity to Precarity discourse and protest should not be affirmed better than it was in the original article. I recognize the contribution critics have made in pointing out the role of Dorothy Day and other Christians in the formation of this movement, but to subsume Precarity under "Christianity" still seems to me a rather breathtaking overreach to the cost of all sense.

"The Futures Meme"

Over on Open The Future, Jamais Cascio offers up an amusing provocation:
So here's the task: Think about the world of fifteen years hence (2022, if you're counting along at home). Think about how technology might change, how fashions and pop culture might evolve, how the environment might grab our attention, and so forth. Now, take a sentence or two and answer...

• What do you fear we'll likely see in fifteen years?
• What do you hope we'll likely see in fifteen years?
• What do you think you'll be doing in fifteen years?

There are no wrong answers here -- only opportunities to surprise, provoke and amuse.

After providing answers of his own, Jamais asked five other people to offer up their answers to these questions, one of whom was me, and then asked which five people would we like to hear the same responses from. My response follows. The five folks (among many people I'd love to hear responses from, actually) I'd be especially intrigued to hear respond are James Hughes, Michel Bauwens, Robin Zebrowski, Nato Welch, and Anne Corwin.

My own response:

I. What do you fear we'll likely see in fifteen years?

1. Neoliberal over-urbanization's chickens coming home to roost in the form of global pandemics, unspeakably massive amplification of deaths from malnutrition and treatable water-borne diseases, further catastrophic widening of the gap between the wealth of the few and the precarity, marginality, hopelessness, and instability of the overabundant majority of human beings on earth.
2. Corporate derailment of the Green movement superficially replaces current extractive petrochemical industries with equally centralized and dangerous nuclear plants and "clean coal" and yet people feel good about this "success."
3. The same right wing zealots still presiding over the United States Supreme Court, and all of them beneficiaries of SENS-precursor therapies.
4. Fashionistas having breakdowns when the time arrives for a Retro 2000s movement and they realize that nothing both popular and unique happened in music, fashion, or art during the Bush years worthy of revival.
5. A version of myself that has become utterly unfuckable.

II. What do you hope we'll likely see in fifteen years?

1. Planetary peer-to-peer organizing implements a worldwide universal non-means-tested basic income guarantee.
2. Activists start making war unprofitable through the implementation of unprecedented War Profiteering laws, domestically and internationally. Hope sweeps the world.
3. Again, peer-to-peer organizing results in a democratically elected body with real stature either supplementing or altogether replacing the current United Nations General Assembly.
4. Bruce Sterling writes another novel as good as Holy Fire.
5. Blue Skying for the Futurological Congress here assembled: A Space Elevator under construction with the consequence that hundreds of millions of hopeful saucer eyed kids dream dreams of exploring and settling the solar system.

III. What do you think you'll be doing in fifteen years?

1. I'm hoping I can continue teaching in prestigious academic institutions and writing unreadably dense theoryhead prose online, all the while thumbing my nose at the conventional path of professorial professionalization, without ending up homeless on the street in a pee-stained overcoat howling at random passersby about socialism.
2. I'm hoping I will be contributing some small part to the education, agitation, and organizing that cashes out in Hopes 1-3, above.
3. I'm hoping vegetarianism, squats, and emerging rejuvenation medicine keeps me relatively fuckable, after all.
4. I'm hoping I'll be reading Bruce Sterling's new novel.
5. I'm pretty sure I'll still be ridiculing Singularitarians (or whatever the Superlative Technologists will be calling themselves in fifteen years' time), caught up in the same fulsome froth of True Belief in immanent artificial intelligence, technological immortalism, nanosantalogical abundance, superhuman prostheticization, and anti-political technofixes for everything that ails us.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Pragmatic Science, Not Priestly Science

Upgraded and adapted from Comments:

Very good and long-standing Friend of Blog Martin Striz objects to my too-pragmatic characterization of scientific practice and belief-ascription. He begins by quoting this passage from an earlier post of mine:
[L]iterally every technoscientific and technodevelopmental outcome is historically specific, arriving on the scene through historically specific articulations (via disputation, social struggle, vicissitudes in matters of funding, and regulation, serendipities in the lab, eddies in communication, fashion, education, and so on) all of which are in some measure accidental and any of which could easily have been otherwise. These outcomes settle -- to the extent that they manage the feat -- into institutional, factual, normative, customary formations that are quite likely, however natural(ized) they seem for now, to become otherwise in the future through the very same sorts of articulative forces, as these incessantly sweep a world shared by free, intelligent, creative, expressive, provocative, problem-solving peers.

Martin objects: While it is true that social and political elements shape the kind of science that gets done, it is not true that these elements alter scientific truths -- at least not if science is done right.

But it seems to me that "science getting done" is social and political practices, which Martin quite properly concedes himself by the end of that very sentence of his. By "scientific truths" I presume Martin means beliefs justified by the protocols and criteria that have emerged over centuries of practice as the ones most apt to deliver powers of prediction and control to those who are guided by them. But that's what I would mean by "scientific truths," too. There is nothing proper to science that is threatened by my formulations.

However, temptations to rewrite warranted scientific belief in the image of a finality, a certainty, or a non-human autonomy to which humans are beholden -- what amounts in my view, in essence, to a rewriting of pragmatic consensus science in the image of a priestly religiosity we would all do better to leave behind us -- fare less well once one takes up my attitude. That's what I like about it. I prefer my science useful, rather than authoritative.

He continues on: [T]he history of science is replete with new truths that go against intuition and sociopolitical norms.

We are definitely in agreement there. As I said at the end of the passage he himself quoted: "[C]ustomary formations... are quite likely, however natural(ized) they seem for now, to become otherwise in the future through the very same sorts of articulative forces, as these incessantly sweep a world shared by free, intelligent, creative, expressive, provocative, problem-solving peers."

None of that denies the force of conservative resistances and the costs they exact on innovators, of course. Thomas Kuhn provided some of the classic theoretical and ethnographic discussions of this sort of thing (not that I agree with everything he says, I'm just assuming most folks interested in these questions will know Kuhn well enough to slot in his insights here, so that I don't have to).

Later, Martin proposed an amplification of this point (about which he seems to think my own pragmatic characterization of science forces me into a position of disagreement with him):

We know [science] works when we are surprised. If you were never surprised by a discovery, if a discovery never challenged your expectations, if every discovery simply validated the accepted paradigm, then science wouldn't be doing its job. It would just be another avenue to validate our biases. But science has continually surprised us.

When people are free they will surprise us. That is because human beings are different from one another, responsive to one another, and endlessly inventive.

But Martin proposes a different explanation for such surprises: As long as they stuck to the data, the truths would be the same. Good science is sticking to the data.

Now, as far as I can see, one can easily account for human inventiveness without making any recourse at all to what looks to me like the rather curious notion that the Universe has preferences in the matter of the words humans use to describe it, imagined "preferences" that cause some of us to describe some words not just as the best justified candidates for instrumental belief presently on offer but as mysterious incarnations of some suprajustificatory externality that they will call, for want of anything better on hand, "the data" (NB: the data -- even if, as so often happens, the description identified with this exclusive the is subsequently supplanted by another better justified claim because our knowledge changes or our priorities change).

I'm pretty sure that this takes us to the heart of our dispute here. Martin writes: [T]here is an objective external reality which preceded the arrival of humans, and by necessity, any sociopolitical bias.

This claim seems to me pretty harmless, as far as it goes, but also completely uninteresting. I'll cheerfully agree with it, for whatever it's worth. But it seems to me that the moment one tries to use this claim as a hat-hook on which to hang an "explanation" as to why the criteria we use to justify scientific beliefs actually deliver the goods of prediction and control with which we entrust them, well, then this claim begins to do untold mischief as far as I'm concerned. That's when an otherwise innocuous claim becomes a crow bar that opens the door and invites the Priests in to spoil the party.

I don't see how one could deny that there is an ineradicable gap between the world and the words that describe it without losing one's competence as a language user. Which means that of course I agree with Martin and everybody else who uses language on the utterly noncontroversial "question" of the existence of "external reality." But, not to put too fine a point on it, I don't believe that anybody on earth, outside a few lunatics and substance experimentalists on a real bender, possibly, really does deny this truism. This is so, I'm afraid, even when people are offering up theoretical accounts of justification that enrage epistemological realists.

But neither do I see any difference between those who would use this grammatical truism to invest declarations by proper scientists with sociocultural autonomy or with a decisive authority (prioritized, say, over ongoing democratic stakeholder disputes over the actual diversity of desired outcomes), and those who would invest declarations by Priestly authorities about the existence of supernatural beings and their presumed wants in respect to human conduct and historical outcomes with a similar priority over democratic contestation.

Martin offers up as an olive brance of sorts, that, whatever the solid stolid "truths" disinterred by science, [t]here is always room for interpretation.

But, for me, that's what scientific practices of warranted description are. I agree that we properly distinguish scientific or instrumental modes of reasonable belief-ascription from other modes (moral, ethical, esthetic, political, and so on). Indeed, offering up such distinctions was right there at the heart of the discussion to which Martin was objecting in the first place. But just as strongly as I agree that we rightly distinguish the forms, ends, and warrants of instrumental rationality from other modes, I disagree that we rightly prioritize any one mode of rationality over the others or seek to reduce the terms of any one indispensable mode to the others. It is just such a project of hierarchization or reductionism which is likely afoot when those who prioritize instrumentality like to distinguish "it" from interpretation, or propose that "it" can be socioculturally biased or, somehow, "not" in some enormously fraught sense.

Martin proposes that: Nuclear physics can be used to power cities or blow them up. That doesn't change the truths of nuclear physics.

But certainly our understanding of these differences does indeed change at least some "truths" of nuclear physics, if only (at the very least) because people's attitudes to blowing up cities (or, as it happens, recommendations that we "power" them in pointlessly dangerous and poisonous ways even if better, renewable alternatives are available for such purposes) will inspire programs of funding, regulation, publication, education, and research that will nudge scientists in different directions than they otherwise would with the consequence that the candidates for belief that they propose and which subsequently will pass justificatory muster will differ from one another.

But quite apart from all that, the actual thrust of my argument in the original post that inspired Martin's marvelous interventions was less to discuss the social, cultural, and political articulation of scientific and justificatory practices at the general level that has preoccupied this particular, and very rewarding, series of exchanges, but just to insist that technoscientific progress is articulated by such factors. I daresay he would probably agree with that point even if he doesn't particularly like my insistently historicized and pragmatic characterization of justified scientific belief. But if I had focused on just that aspect, I wouldn't have had occasion to delve into these other wonderfully interesting topics!

It's Not Just Bush: The Republican Candidates for President Don't Care About Black People Either

U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Col., was the sole Republican candidate to address yesterday's NAACP GOP Presidential Candidate Forum, although all nine GOP candidates were invited. Tancredo looks a bit lost and forlorn, like a child who has lost track of his Daddy's hand. Look at him, surrounded by unoccupied lecterns, each one as bald as an admonitory finger, each one with a placard declaring the name of the GOP candidate who would have stood behind it had he only cared enough to show up to address a significant constituency of the citizens he would presume to lead.

Libertopian? No New York For You

At heart really is the knee-jerk libertarian reaction against government infringement on some nebulous concept of "liberty." Drop me in the middle of the desert and I am truly free, though it's not really the kind of freedom I am interested in.

If you want a place like Manhattan to exist you have to accept the masssive government that is a necessary condition for such a place. All of those people and buildings piled on top of each other requires a rather invasive and elaborate regulatory structure, as well as substantial government provision of public services. One can cosmetically "privatize" some of those services, a process which in practice involves expanding the local patronage machine, but that doesn't change the fact that the government is basically paying the bill. You need the kind of collective action which only government, or some equivalent with a different name, can provide.

Today's Random Wilde

The people who love only once in their lives are really the shallow people. What they call their loyalty, and their fidelity, I call either the lethargy of custom or their lack of imagination. Faithfulness is to the emotional life what consistency is to the life of the intellect -- simply a confession of failure.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Politics of Apoliticism (With a General Digression into the Ethics and Politics of Democracy)

Updated and adapted, from the Comments.

Technoprogressive Friend of Blog Nato Welch comments on this passage from a recent post:
Notice that I am proposing here not only that technocentric apoliticism and antipoliticism is actually a politics, but more specifically, that this highly political "apoliticism" will tend structurally to conduce always to the benefit of conservative and reactionary politics.

"This is a point that's new to me, and I am keen to get a real thorough grasp of the argument… I could not help hearing a rather disturbing echo of 'Either you're with us, or against us' that I can't say sits very well. How would you respond to that similarity?"

Who gets to be the "us" and who gets to be the "them" in this echo you are hearing?

In the passage you are quoting above I was just trying to make the point (probably clumsily) that literally every technoscientific and technodevelopmental outcome is historically specific, arriving on the scene through historically specific articulations (via disputation, social struggle, vicissitudes in matters of funding, and regulation, serendipities in the lab, eddies in communication, fashion, education, and so on) all of which are in some measure accidental and any of which could easily have been otherwise. These outcomes settle -- to the extent that they manage the feat -- into institutional, factual, normative, customary formations that are quite likely, however natural(ized) they seem for now, to become otherwise in the future through the very same sorts of articulative forces, as these incessantly sweep a world shared by free, intelligent, creative, expressive, provocative, problem-solving peers.

Given this historical specificity and given this contingency, it stands to reason that when technocrats or Superlative Technology enthusiasts, or even, sometimes, common or garden variety scientists and their self-appointed "champions" claim to have risen "above the political fray" or propose otherwise that they have assumed an "apolitical" vantage, through their "scientificity", from which to assess some desired technodevelopmental outcome -- actual, historical, or conjectural -- that the apoliticism or even anti-politicism associated (usually loudly, often triumphally, poor dears) with this gesture is an entirely rhetorical production.

That "apoliticism" in short always has, to be sure, a politics.

Now, the gesture of disavowing political considerations in the name of an "instrumentality," "physicality," or "neutrality" that goes on to do conspicuously political work is a gesture that can serve literally any political end. (This may be the force of the intervention you're making, Nato?)

However, I do think we can note that even if anyone, of any political persuasion, any "us" to any "them," can, in principle, opportunistically take up this sort of falsifying political protestation to apoliticism, it is also true that this is a gesture that will conduce especially to the benefit of conservative-elitist over progressive-democratic politics.

The reason I say this is found in the sentences that follow the one you quoted above: "[T]he essence of democratic politics is the embrace of the ongoing contestation of desired outcomes by the diverse stakeholders of public decisions, while the essence of conservative politics is to remove outcomes from contention whenever this threatens incumbent interests."

This tells you quite a lot about my perspective on politics. Forgive me if what remains of this response takes us into abstruse theoretical considerations that may be a bit perpendicular to your initial concern here. It seems to me that ultimately I cannot answer your question without saying a bit about where I am coming from at a more theoretical level.

I make an incessant point in my thinking and writing of distinguishing instrumental, moral, ethical, esthetic, and political beliefs from one another, distinguishing the different ends they facilitate and the different warrants that render them reasonable and so on. But it's also true that, like everybody else, part of my own project of coherent narrative self-creation (this is part of what I tend to identify with the esthetic dimension of our normative lives), involves efforts to weave these different modes of reasonable description and belief-ascription into an edifying and harmonious pattern, however idiosyncratic it may be.

Now, I am moved to advocate for social justice, for non-violence, for education, and for the amelioration of unwanted suffering on the basis of what amount to moral and esthetic (a word I use where many others would use the word "religious") considerations. These considerations, then, provide a personal moral and esthetic rationale for my democratic politics. I think that this is surely true for most champions of democratic politics.

But from a political perspective, properly so called, fairness, security, satisfaction, and the rest are primarily means to the end of ensuring to the best widest deepest extent possible that people have a say in the public decisions that affect them. Fairness, security, satisfaction inculcate the stake and amplify the say of democratic peers, that is to say, they bolster the scene of informed, nonduressed consent on which democratic contestation relies for its continued play through history.

The gesture of apoliticism seems to me to conduce to conservatism as a basic structural matter, since it tends to function to withdraw from contestation some settled outcome or what are taken to be a desired outcome's constitutive supports. Although this is a tactic that can be taken up opportunistically by particular "progressive" campaigns as easily as by "conservative" ones, in principle, the politics of the gesture itself are structurally conservative, in that they express a politics of depoliticization. And such depoliticization always props up the status quo in some measure, as repoliticization always threatens to undermine it by exposing and expressing its contingency.

Democratic-Progressives would be foolish indeed to make recourse to such a strategy of depoliticization with any regularity (if ever), else they will find themselves duped by incumbent interests in no time at all. Indeed, if we broaden the terms of this gesture, we find ourselves soon enough on the familiar territory of the mechanism of "selling out."

Once we ascend to this kind of meta-political level, though, it no longer is clear to me how "us" and "them" are meant to be functioning in your worries about my claim that apoliticism is structurally more conducive to conservative politics. If the "us" versus "them" is supposed to translate to something like "democrats" versus "anti-democrats" it seems to me part of the trouble is that most people will tend to be more democratic in some aspects of their lives than others, depending on what privileges they benefit from, what satisfactions they have come to imagine indispensable to the coherence of their narrative selfhood, and their awareness of conditions under which these privileges and satisfactions are secured and distributed. I daresay we all of us have democrats and anti-democrats within our own souls. Indeed, a recognition of what we ourselves are capable of when we feel insecure or ill-treated is probably a precondition for any reliable avowal of democratic over anti-democratic values. My point is, once we ascend to this level, I personally find it hard to figure out who "us" and "them" ultimately amount to.

It's not that I don't recognize that anti-democratic forces in the Republican Party in the USA, or among neoliberal and neoconservative and corporate-militarist partisans around the globe, have faces and names. Obviously I call them out here on Amor Mundi all the time.

My point is just to insist that the question of democratizing as against authoritarian politics is not properly exhaustively captured (or even well captured at all) in a tribalist evocation of "us" vs. "them." I strongly disagree, then, with thinkers like Carl Schmitt, who famously -- and my view absolutely falsely -- grounded his political philosophy in just such a friend-foe distinction. The indispensable satisfactions of membership (recognition, support, and so on) depend on the practices of identification and, crucially, of disidentification at the heart of moral life -- moral from mores, what Wilfred Sellars called "we-intentions." But with democratic politics we shift into the normative sphere of ethics, of formal judgments that solicit (even if they never achieve) universal assent. You might ask what is the point of distinguishing an ethical normativity the judgments of which, whatever their pretensions to universality, always look retroactively like judgments constrained by the parochial attitudes of their day. But, it seems to me, there is all the difference in the world between the end, the force, and the form of judgments that are defined by their exclusions (moral judgments generate communities constituted by the "theys" cast outside themselves) as against judgments that are defined by their aspiration to universal inclusion (ethical judgments generate a "scene" of deliberation to which all, in principle, may make recourse, the very notion of which depends on a prior understanding that not all who are reasonable enough to reason with are necessarily reasonable enough to identify with). Rights discourse, properly speaking, is an ethical rather than a moral discourse on my terms, for example.

Democracy is the idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them. This "should" is a destination at which you can arrive through many routes: a conception of human dignity connected to consent, public visibility, respect for some bundle of rights, pragmatic insights about ways to guard against social instability, to undermine corruption in authoritative institutions, to provide nonviolent alternatives for the legitimate settlement of disputes, to facilitate problem-solving collaboration, whatever. But once one arrives at the democratic vantage (in its modern Enlightenment cosmopolitan construal, certain not in its ancient more aristocratic and plutocratic construal), then one has found one's way to a decidedly ethical point of view, and not a moral one. (Although, once again, for most people their ethical democratic sensibility will express, or at any rate bolster, moral beliefs that they have -- my point is that we profoundly misunderstand democracy when we reduce or confine our understanding to the various moral cases that can be made for it.)

After all, even the "theys" who contingently oppose some particular democratizing campaign as advocated by some formation of "us's" will nonetheless quite properly be construed as participants in the broader contestation of which democracy literally consists in the here and now. Again, this perspective does not diminish the democrat's capacity to distinguish allies from foes, nor diminish her capacity to assess tendencies, attitudes, outcomes as democratizing or anti-democratizing. But the democrat in affirming democratization does have to assume what sometimes seems a peculiarly bifocal perspective, defending particular outcomes as the most democratizing on offer, while defending at once a radical openness to contestation for all outcomes as the living implementation of democratization in the here and now (even if, sometimes these two affirmations will frustrate one another somewhat). This means, when all is said and done, that the pleasures and powers and knowledges constitutive of and unique to political and ethical judgment and action are not, properly so-called, moral(izing) pleasures at all, at least not once one has assumed the democratic perspective. For democracy, the satisfactions of membership in an "us" versus a "them" are confined to private pleasures and subjected to public skepticism.