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Witchy Witchy Woman: Witch Hunts and Capitalism

I came across mention of Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch in Adam Kotsko’s The Prince of this World, and was taken with the notion that the character of the devil and the character of the witch can be understood through a genealogical method that shows how these characters were invoked, who was empowered by them, who invoked them and who was accused of these things. The question for Federici (as for Kotsko) is not was this person really a witch or a devil, but how did accusing someone of being a witch achieve certain ends in certain contexts?  Federici argues that the accusation of being a witch was used to strip women of power during the transition to capitalism from feudalism, a process which was necessary for the success of capitalism.

Against the view that the persecution of witches was the last gasp of the superstition that accompanied feudalism, Federici argues that the charge of witchcraft was used to limit women’s power and to control the reproduction of labor so necessary for the success of capitalism.  This persecution involved a steady indoctrination of the threat of witches and the characteristics of witches, a process which produced the notion of the strong independent woman as a supernatural threatening force antagonistic to the interests of even working class men.  Federici argues that the targets of witchcraft were not crimes but previously accepted practices and individuals that needed to be eliminated for capitalism to become possible and to thrive.  Evidence of this is that those who were accused were poor peasant women and those who accused them were wealthy members of the community, often their employers or their landlords.

Federici offers evidence that in the transition to capitalism, women lose economic, social and political power, rather than, as many people commonly suppose, that capitalism is a necessary stage toward the liberation for women. She argues that prior to the process of enclosure that privatized common lands women helped the family develop independence from the lord through their work on the common land.  The transition to capital takes the common land away and thus takes this power away.  Federici argues that enclosure made it more difficult for women to support themselves and to consider production in terms of use.  This process was resisted by women (Montpollier revolt in 1645, Cordoba in 1652) who needed then to be controlled and to have their power reduced for capitalism to become possible.  Read more

Freedom, Fate, and Being Human: From Aeschylus to Marzano-Lesnevich

In her book The Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich employs the legal concept of proximate cause to consider the extent to which the things that have happened to us dictate who we are and what we will do.  Marzano-Lesnevich joins an investigation into a murder and the life of the murderer who was a child molester to her own memoir of growing up in a family in which she was molested by her grandfather.  At 18, she confronts her grandfather about what he had done to her as a child.  He responds that he too was abused as a child.  So, she wonders, is there no escape from this cycle?  Worse, is there no holding to account if the proximate cause continues to recede?

The troubles of the house of Atreus do not begin when Agamemnon sacrifices Iphigenia.  Agamemnon’s grandfather, Pelops, was served in a stew to the gods by his father and rescued by Demeter.  And his father, Atreus, serves up his brother Thyestes’s kids to Thyestes and only one son – Aegisthus — survives.  Aegisthus is the man that Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, is having an affair with when Agamemnon returns from battle and the man who helps Clytemnestra kill Agamemnon in the bathtub to exact revenge for killing Iphigenia.  Aeschylus writes a final part to this story to address the question of how there can be freedom from what has gone before.  On Aeschylus’ telling, justice is the break of the bloodletting cycle of revenge.  Each actor in the family up until the intervention of Athena into this story has been constrained to seek revenge by what has befallen them or what has gone before them.  Athena introduces freedom into the story by justifying Orestes and refusing the Furies drive to exact revenge on him.  But this freedom for Orestes comes at the real cost of Clytemnestra’s murder going unpunished.  On the calculus of Orestes’ familial responsibility, he must exact revenge for his father’s death, but this revenge will also require its own revenge.  Athena frees Orestes not by ending that familial responsibility, which he does fulfill, but by allowing Orestes not to be held responsible for fulfilling that responsibility. Read more

Exploring Indiana: McCormick’s Creek State Park

I just returned from a weekend camping at McCormick’s Creek State Park in Owen County, Indiana.  The first night was likely the hottest and most humid night of the summer.  The second night it rained and thundered.  It was likely the weekend with the worst weather of the summer.  Still, we had a good time.  This trip was the first time we went camping in Indiana, and so first time at McCormick’s Creek.  I wished I had had some of this information before going and was surprised that I couldn’t find some of this online.

So first, the primitive campsites are quite decent.  There are pretty regular water pumps around the loop.  The best sites seem to me to be the farthest ones on the outside of the ring, furthest south on the map (213, 214, 215, 218).  The sound carries through the ring pretty easily and quiet hours are not really enforced.  It was difficult for me to sleep because I could hear people talking late — like until 2 or later.  Sites from 190-202 are on the paved road and might be more exposed to noise from cars but seem more isolated from one another.  There is an outhouse on the top of the ring.  I read that there are showers at the electric sites, but I couldn’t see that on the map and didn’t go looking (there are showers at the pool, which you have to pay $3 to enter, but the entry fee lasts for the whole day and you can come and go).  Some sites do say that the bathrooms at the electric ring have showers, so I guess you could drive over. Read more

Power and the Pursuit of Justice

Corey Robin makes the case that we tend to associate virtue with  powerlessness and to see power as a vice, a position which leads us to suppose that to be good we must be without power and that, as he says, “strongmen are strong.”  I think he’s right, and I think this view of virtue as powerlessness follows from an association of power with self-interest that can be traced back to Plato.

As I argue in my last post, the problem of political nihilism is that it seeks power for its own sake, and justifies all power just by virtue of being power.  As Thrasymachus (and Judge Jeanine Pirro) argues, everyone knows you do what you do in order to get power and it is right as long as you can get away with it.  Socrates does not argue that power is bad, but that justice should have the power, rather than pure self-interest, which is divided against itself since lacking knowledge of what is good, one pursues only power.  I’ve long thought that Socrates makes an argument that is itself will-to-power–the power of the philosopher, a power legitimated by the positing of the good, which the philosopher pursues.  Seeking to set up the philosopher as the ruler, Socrates is subject to Thrasymachus’ complaint–he too seems to be acting and arguing for the sake of his own power, just as everyone does.

The difference between Socrates and Thrasymachus is that Socrates thinks that justice should have power, rather than any old person who can get the power.  This point leads to several difficulties.  The philosopher making this case in the cave that justice should rule rather than whoever achieves the rule has to appeal to those who just want power.  The philosopher does not even claim to have access to that justice–or at least there’s a case to be made that Socrates denying that he knows is distinguished from his fellow citizens only in his concern to pursue justice and to pursue the rule of justice rather than power alone.  He has to appeal to the desire of his fellow citizens for power in order to make the case that justice should be the ruling authority.  The lack of knowledge and the lack of desire for justice in his audience requires him to appeal to their desire for power in order to get them to desire justice.  Not being able to directly impute knowledge of justice, not least because Socrates does not have it, Socrates only posits the idea that there is such a thing, and that such a thing would be better for those who rule and those who are ruled.  Again and again, Socrates makes this case to Glaucon and Adiemantus who get on board with a depiction of a city some would call absurd because they think they will rule in this city because they think they can have such knowledge.  Socrates then uses the desire for power to motivate a desire for knowledge and for justice. Read more

Political Nihilism: The Trolley to Hell

This morning I read this in Brian Beutler’s latest piece at the New Republic:

“As someone who’s run for office five times, if the devil called me and said he wanted to set up a meeting to give me opposition research on my opponent,” Judge Jeanine Pirro, the maniacal Fox News host, said on Sunday. “I’d be on the first trolley to hell to get it. And any politician who tells you otherwise is a bald-faced liar.” She added that “there is no law that says a campaign cannot accept information from a foreign government.”

Pirro is referring to the meeting that Donald Trump, Jr. took with Russian nationals claiming to have information that would help his father win.  One of them was a former spy.  Beutler is making a case that our elections and politics require candidates to act above reproach so that not even an appearance of wrongdoing or interference can be seen in order to maintain the full faith and confidence of the American people in our election process.  But Pirro makes the case that politics is just about self-interest, everyone knows it, and everyone who supposes they would act otherwise is lying to themselves.

In March, I wrote here about similar problems in the ways that people were talking about healthcare in this country–as if the various penalties and difficulties don’t matter if you don’t think you will ever be subject to them.  But Pirro takes this notion even further and says, it isn’t blameworthy, it’s what anyone would do because we all know the point is to win.  There is no room here for other possible motivators–say the pursuit of justice or the good.   Read more

Scandal Mongering as Anti-Politics

Today brings news that the president shared classified secrets with Russia that had been given to the US by an ally that did not give permission to share such secrets.  My social media is lit up with people who hope that this scandal is the scandal that finally brings down the president.  This story requires us to believe and support the CIA, not unlike the last scandal, the firing of Comey, that required us to believe and support the FBI.  These scandals do not appear to do much to change the order of things, but to allow them to be more stable.

I proposed on Inauguration Day that we ignore Trump the person and fight the political battles.  Today, after more than 100 days, I find many many people seem to want to fight Trump on the scandals, and not the political battles.  I get it.  It seems easier to shut him down by showing him to be ill-fit for the office.  But I think there is something characteristically liberal about that approach–liberal in the sense of concerned with procedure and the equal application of the law instead of justice and freedom for those who are oppressed.  This approach sidesteps the political work of having to show how every policy and new cancellation of rules hurts poor people, black people, immigrants, LGBT folks, women and the sick and disabled.  I worry that this approach makes it seem like the real scandal is the sharing of secrets instead of the moving of wealth to fewer and fewer people.  It makes it seem like the real scandal is a president who has no attention span instead of making the lives of more and more people precarious. Read more

S*Town is S*

People are really into the 7-episode podcast about Woodstock, Alabama from the producers of Serial and This American Life: S*Town.  I don’t like it.  I don’t like the reporter Brian Reed who thinks he is engaged with Americana, but is really just incredibly condescending.  I finally threw my hands up in frustration in Episode 5, when the colorful character, John B. McLemore, who gets Reed involved in the project, tells Reed that he knows what Reed really wanted to ask when Reed asks if McLemore felt like a friendship was a two-way street.  Reed says, “Do you think your guy’s friendship was more of a friendship or more of a paternal relationship?”  McLemore says, “What you wanted to say but you didn’t come out and say it is, is your guy’s relationship more of a friendship or more of a usership?”  Reed responds, “No, it wasn’t what I wanted to say.  It’s what you wanted to say, apparently.”

This exchange might capture everything I do not like about the podcast.  Reed is trying to be the nice thoughtful sympathizing reporter, and McLemore straight called him out and said, this was what you were really thinking, the thing that was not quite as nice.  First, the thing that McLemore asks is not even that different than what Reed asks, and McLemore seems to capture what is meant by “paternal relationship” well, so it is surprising that Reed resists.  I’m not sure how to interpret that resistance, but it felt like Reed was upset at not having the interview control he wanted to have.  Reed’s response came across as petty and inauthentic to me.  McLemore shared the basic sense that Reed has, why does he have to quibble with the language in an accusatory way?  Is he upset with what McLemore might be accusing him of thinking?  But he is thinking that.

The exchange is so painful to hear. Read more

Buying a House: The Lives of Things

It’s been awhile since I’ve blogged in this series.  We closed on our house on May 3 and moved in Memorial Day weekend 2016, so this is the first spring in the house.  I am on sabbatical, so this spring, I’ve been getting up every morning, making coffee, and sitting in the dining room, gazing out the front window.  In the transition from winter to spring, the front room has become the bright, green space that sold us on the house.

I’ve never been a “lives of things” kind of philosopher.  I mean, I work on concepts of nature and I think about the ways that concepts like nature can be border markers for who or what is relevant to political and ethical questions.  But the idea that things could have lives, that they could reveal themselves, that they could have ways of resisting and conceding is not a view to which I really give my credence.  And yet, the newness of the house in springtime is making me think about the lives of things.  It’s not a different house in the springtime–I mean, it’s the same materials–and yet, it really really is a different house.   Read more

The Political Subject and Identity Politics: Reading Dean’s Crowds and Party

In her recent book Crowds and PartyJodi Dean argues against the radical individualism that continues to characterize politics on the Left, recalling a scene from Occupy Wall Street in which efforts to organize break down because everyone is asked to make their own decision about what to do.  She argues convincingly that the subject of politics is produced as the individual in a way that serves a market-based economy.  On this account, expressions of political resistance can be commodified and monetized as free expression.  In service to that marketization of politics, politics and political discourse require the individual be produced as the fundamental unit of politics and political decision-making.  Political resistance breaks down because the individual remains privileged above the collective.

Dean argues that crowds produce possibilities, heretofore unrecognized, for resisting the ways that everything from social media to marketing efforts demand that we be individuals.  Crowds are collectivities that are not yet communities.  Crowds have no shared history or shared norms.    I started reading this book right before the January Women’s Marches, and I was struck by the possibilities at work in this way of seeing the crowd:

Because the crowd is a collective being, it cannot be reduced to singularities.  On the contrary, the primary characteristic of a crowd is its operation as a force of its own, like an organism.  The crowd is more than an aggregate of individuals.  It is individuals changed through the torsion of their aggregation, the force aggregation exerts back on them to do together what is impossible alone. (9)

Read more

Imposter Syndrome and “Proper” Archives

I thought I was working on a book on Aristotle’s biology, but it turns out I’m working on a book on Aristotle’s metaphysics.  I am a little trepidatious about this turn.  On the one hand, I find this exciting.  I thought I was working on a project about Aristotle’s account of male and female and the implications of this account being much more fluid than we tend to treat it for his account of form and matter.  Ok, so that already was metaphysics, but I thought I was working mostly on biological texts.  I didn’t realize how much I was working directly on debates about form and matter in Aristotelian scholarship.  I am learning so much.  A constellation of concerns that I was already addressing in my first book on the concept of nature in Aristotle’s Politics and practical works has become much clearer to me.  I am also finding that I have something important to say.

On the other hand, when I was in graduate school, a professor said to me that I should really look for jobs in social and political philosophy because Aristotelian scholars would not let me say what I wanted to say about Aristotle.  Not just once did this professor say this to me, but regularly so that this notion has produced an anxiety that makes me obsessively concerned with establishing my position with copious footnotes that demonstrate my grasp of the field, and thus, situate my argument in terms of these arguments.  I’m beginning to think that this obsessive concern is not only crippling but part of a field’s interest in reproducing itself to reflect its current state.

I learned Aristotle outside of the analytic tradition of the history of philosophy.  It is only lately that I am becoming aware of the debates within that tradition, debates that I find helpful for situating my argument.  I do not find these debates to close off the possibility of my argument, but to organize a field in which I can situate myself.  I’ve previously discussed how figuring out some of the forty-year-old debates in the literature brought me some clarity on this project.  I was trained to read texts well and this training prepared me to learn how to teach myself.  But the imposter syndrome has me worrying that the sources I cite aren’t the right ones–I don’t personally know these people, I didn’t sit in their classes, I don’t know the background.  Even though they seem to lay out disputes between figures who are or who have been influential in the field, I worry that I have somehow found the obscure random article that I will cite–not of course, without also following some of those references to their source–and that citing these articles–the one that no one else knows of–will expose me as the scholarly fraud that I am.

I think review practices contribute to this problem.  Review practices that take issue with scholars failure to reference “their literature” are in some ways disputes over the archive.  The notion that one archive is the archive that we all share and that one must master in order to say something worthwhile requires that we all see the lineage of the questions in the same way.  Of course, I’ve found learning this literature useful and informative and exciting.  I feel like I’m putting myself through several graduate courses in writing this book, and I love that.  But I think this anxiety about referencing the “proper archive” follows from idiosyncratic review practices where we each want to see our own archive and literature reflected, and I’m convinced that Kate Norlock is right about making judgments about the general state of the literature in reviewing rather than on whether this or that text is referenced.  Of course, this point involves judgment because sometimes that particular text the author omits is the directly relevant one.

I see my anxiety as one of how one can learn the literature from the literature, which I think is an anxiety about how much secret occult-like knowledge exists behind the archive.  That anxiety itself is about how open the field can be to those who were not in some sense “raised in it.”

It has turned out that analytic Aristotelians are perfectly willing to engage my work on Aristotle’s biology.  Funny enough, some have even said to me, “you can’t say that,” as my professor in graduate school warned.  I’ve been interested in finding how engagements with literature that has established what can and cannot be said can go a considerable way to loosen the hold on what can be said.  Nonetheless, I think having the right references is often a way of signaling being “inside,” rather than signaling a worthy contribution, which is what we should be concerned to support.  But I wonder whether we can make judgments about a “worthy contribution” if that calculation is so rooted in having the same archive.  When the “inside” looks like just the way things should be, it is hard to judge the outside as something worthy rather than just wrong.  It returns us to the question of whether something is good because it is ours or it is good because it is right, and whether we can even judge whether it is right outside it being our own.  Indeed, it is to respond to such a question that the Greeks first invoked the notion of “nature.”  They weren’t right for doing so.  Lord knows the trouble that archive brought us.


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