In her recent book Crowds and Party, Jodi 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)
Over the last six weeks, I’ve been on the medical check-up tour. I visited my general practitioner’s office, my gynecologist, my eye doctor and my dermatologist. I’ve given my family medical history many times. In the last visit, at the dermatologist, I realized when I had to check none of the boxes they were concerned with, that family-wise, I was in pretty good health standing. On the contemporary view of American politics, this situation should make me shrug my shoulders at H.B. 1313, which passed out of committee late last week, which would allow employers to penalize employees who decline genetic testing. While such testing might lead to higher insurance rates for employees who have certain genetic dispositions for illness, people like me might have little reason to refuse such testing (except that it’s a gross invasion of privacy). Read more
You may have heard–Mike Pence used private email servers and was hacked. Jeff Sessions may have lied to Congress about conversations with Russia. He may have called for impeachment against those who lie in an official capacity during the Clinton impeachment proceedings. And while he has recused himself from investigations into Russian tampering with US elections, very few people think he will be impeached. Democrats have responded by calling “hypocrite!” See Paul Begala, Bill O’Reilly for goodness sake, Salon who points out the racial hypocrisy of the “law and order” Attorney General, the list goes on. Read more
Two things happened to me today. A colleague intimated to me that reading Plato is impractical. Someone on social media told me I was failing my purposes for not thinking reasonable argument was the right approach to defeating Trump. I don’t want to single out these particular instances, because they are now commonplace. The first claim seems to be that the things we think about are too theoretical–too far removed from the world–to change the world. The second is that we are not sufficiently removed from ‘doing something,’ too physically involved in changing things, to engage in rational discourse. Neither of those points were presented to me as claims that I thought I could reasonably engage in a way that would make a difference.
It is not without some pleasure and amusement then that I reread Ed Kazarian’s post from over the weekend on how Plato himself stages the question of whether trolls should be engaged and to what extent reason can sufficiently address the political question of what is to be done. Kazarian draws a distinction between political and philosophical speech, noting that political speech is not about attempts to produce knowledge or belief, but it presupposes these in the effort to “assemble, organize, mobilize, direct, assert, claim, assent, give notice, etc., or alternately, to decompose, block, interrupt, deny, withhold, refuse, etc.” Let’s grant that this remains the case–that political speech can presuppose a generally shared knowledge or belief–and that those who believe whatever Trump says or whatever FoxNews says are few, and that most people accept what they hear on the 6 o’clock news or from CNN, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. We begin speaking about what we should do because we share a sense of the facts on the ground. Read more
In November, right before the election, I wrote about how the rule of law depends on believing in the rule of law. The belief in the rule of law can also be extended to belief in customs and practices. I remember when I was a teenager and I first called into question the way people did things. I was on a date and this guy tried to kiss me at the end of the night and I felt like he was just doing that because that was what you were supposed to do at the end of the date, and I did the back-off duck and didn’t let him kiss me. I explained this to my dad by saying, I don’t like to do things just because people expect you to do them. I believe my dad told me a little kissing never hurt anyone. I may have explained herpes to him. Read more
I keep finding myself saying, surely someone with real power is going to do something to stop this. The most recent ‘this’ has been customs agents failure to abide by a court injunction preventing the executive order banning immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries. My expectation that surely someone who can make a difference will is a combination of my own sense of helplessness and my genuine if misguided view that people in positions of power are invested in the success of governmental institutions and processes. Read more
During primary season last year, I became pretty convinced of the view that political debate cannot stand or fall on the strategy of calling out contradictions. Yet as I noted around that time, some entire projects are based on contradictions. Socrates describes his efforts to encourage reflection in his interlocutors as a project of calling out the contradiction between what they say they are committed to and how they live. He has to assume that people don’t want to be at odds with themselves.
Yesterday the President signed an executive order that bars refugees and citizens of seven Muslim countries. He explained the move with reference to the 9/11 attackers. As Michael D. Shear and Helene Cooper at the New York Times write:
Most of the 19 hijackers on the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pa., were from Saudi Arabia. The rest were from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon. None of those countries are on Mr. Trump’s visa ban list.
Here we seem to have a contradiction between the case the President is making for why this executive order is justified, and the reality that the order does not apply to any of the countries that would make this explanation have any legitimacy. I only want to suggest that this contradiction itself is a symptom, which Emanuela Bianchi in The Feminine Symptom says “discloses dysfunction, but also as a sign, points beyond itself, telling us to look elsewhere for its cause.” The contradictions tell us this is not the cause, look elsewhere. I believe this is true for this executive order, for the one about a border wall, and for arguments against abortion, among many other contradictions. The contradictions are not failures of thought or an unwillingness to be consistent, lack of concern for getting ones logos or account in line with her bios or way of living. The contradictions signal that something else is going on: not concern for protecting borders, but xenophobia, not concern for the terrorism, but Islamophobia, coupled with an investment in protecting business interests (thus leaving off the countries where Trump has such interests), not concern for human life, but patriarchy and misogyny.
Socrates gets a bad name for being the guy who is always trying to point out the ways people are contradictory as if his whole ethical approach is “gotchya” journalism. But what if instead Socrates aims to let the symptom appear, acting not only as the midwife, but the doctor? It is still probably the case that people will not be convinced to think otherwise because the contradiction in their position has been articulated. But I don’t think that means we should ignore the contradictions and cease pointing them out, but instead take them as a signal that something else is indeed going on.
Two days ago Terry Gross had journalist Evan Osnos on Fresh Air discussing a new phenomenon of super rich people in the tech industry making plans for the failure of the government, of the food supply, of the electrical grid, of our world as we know it. Osnos has an article in the current issue of The New Yorker on the same topic. He tells the story of a guy who decided to get laser surgery so that he wouldn’t be dependent on contacts or glasses when “we have trouble,” because the supply lines might dry up. That same guy bought some motorcycles, guns and ammo and a bunch of food so that he could get out of town and have some supplies when things go bad. Read more
About 81% of self-identified evangelicals voted for Trump. My parents voted for Trump. Many of my relatives voted for Trump. And many of them voted for him because they are single-issue voters on anti-abortion issues. People vote with a focus on abortion access on the left, too. In her contribution to Liza Featherstone’s edited collection False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Clinton, Maureen Tkacik argues that Democrats also want to keep the abortion as an issue alive even though it could have been put to rest by making medical abortions more accessible. That didn’t happen because the same pharmaceutical companies that support Democratic candidates made the pill so expensive that the pill cocktail for a medical abortion costs $600, which in some cases is more than a surgical abortion costs. If abortion was cheaper, something that could be done in your local doctor’s office, and most often done at 8-10 weeks, it’d become less of a political divider. But it would also do less to get people to the polls for both Republicans and Democrats. Then they’d really need to make a case to people that their programs are good for us. Read more
“The crowd is not a community. It doesn’t rely on traditions. It doesn’t have a history. The crowd is not held together by unstated norms or an obscene supplement that extends beyond its own immediacy (although crowd images and symbols clearly shape the reception and circulation of crowd events). Rather, the crowd is a temporary collective being. It holds itself together affectively via imitation, contagion, suggestion, and sense of its own invincibility. 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.” Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party Read more