Author Archive

He sees when you are sleeping; he knows when you’re awake

December 5, 2016

Since it is the season, I’m re-posting a piece on the Elf on a Shelf:

I guess in retrospect, this almost seems too obvious of a connection. You should read the whole article (Elf on a Shelf as training children to live with panopticism), but here’s one excerpt:

Elf on the Shelf presents a unique (and prescriptive) form of play that blurs the distinction between play time and real life. Children who participate in play with The Elf on the Shelf doll have to contend with rules at all times during the day: they may not touch the doll, and they must accept that the doll watches them at all times with the purpose of reporting to Santa Claus. This is different from more conventional play with dolls, where children create play-worlds born of their imagination, moving dolls and determining interactions with other people and other dolls. Rather, the hands-off “play” demanded by the elf is limited to finding (but not touching!) The Elf on the Shelf every morning, and acquiescing to surveillance during waking hours under the elf’s watchful eye. The Elf on the Shelf controls all parameters of play, who can do and touch what, and ultimately attempts to dictate the child’s behavior outside of time used for play.

Advertisements

MLK and Malcolm X Readings

October 11, 2016

You can find a transcript of Malcolm X’s speech here. However, I also recommend that you listen to an audio version of it, which I’ve posted below:

Please note that the audio recording here diverges from the transcript I linked to above (this is because he gave the speech to different audiences and varied the presentation somewhat; the content is basically the same). I do recommend listening to the audio. Listening to the audio, I think, gives a bit of the flavor of Malcolm X’s rhetoric and the audience’s response to it. This, in turn, provides a bit more insight into why Malcolm X was such a frightening figure to white folks at the time.

Anyway, you can find Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” here. This version of the text has some annotations and explanations at the bottom of the letter. You can read them if you’d like but they are not explicitly required (which is to say, there won’t be quiz questions on the annotations unless I talk about them directly in class).

Link for the “Communist Manifesto”

September 17, 2016

Hi all. For next week, we’re reading the “Communist Manifesto.” You can find the text here.

On the Jewish Question (a link and some notes)

September 10, 2016

You can find a link to a version of Marx’s essay here.

This is a tricky essay. One of its difficulties is that Marx is writing about controversies that you may not know much about, which means he’s referencing people (Bruno Bauer) and ideas (“political emancipation”) that may seem opaque. So the purpose of this post is to introduce some of the background to Marx’s essay and some of its terminology.

Marx is writing the essay in the early 1840s. This is a few decades after the French Revolution and Napoleon’s conquest of Germany, and just a few years before the revolutions of 1848. Europe, especially Germany (though it’s not a unified state yet) and France is rapidly modernizing. Specifically, we are seeing rapid changes in social organization related to the growth of industrial capitalism, urbanization. Along with these changes, there is the emergence of an increasingly radicalized industrial laboring class (what Marx will call the proletariat), which in turn, is connected to the emergence of modern political ideologies: broadly speaking, it is in this era that we can first identify the emergence of a political left, along with the emergence of liberalism and conservatism.

It is this last set of changes that is most immediately relevant in this essay. If you go back and read the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,” what you see is the articulation of a set of universal human rights. This becomes a key idea for the emerging political left. The idea is that humans will become free (emancipated) insofar as their universal and equal rights are fully recognized by the political state. What this means, then, is that things like religious or ethnic differences should no longer matter politically: The fact that someone is Jew, for instance, should not be a reason to deny him equal rights (the gendered pronoun “him” in the previous sentence is quite deliberate; with some exceptions, the notion of equal rights for women was not yet a major issue).

At any rate, this is a major and ongoing political conflict during this era. Most European governments, especially Prussia (which is Marx’s immediate concern), did not recognize or acknowledge universal human rights. The Prussian state was officially Christian, and so it recognized different rights and privileges for different religions; those on the political left argued and agitated against this. So that’s where Marx’s essay comes in; he’s active in leftist politics, and he’s responding to Bruno Bauer.

Who was Bruno Bauer and what was his position? Bauer was a fellow leftist (in the language of contemporary American political theory, we would call him a political liberal), and he is essentially advocating for a position that is quite familiar to Americans: The Prussian state needs to give up its “particularistic” character as a Christian state (i.e., it needs to become neutral vis-a-vis religion), and the members of the state, in turn, need to give up their particularistic religions and instead become secular (“universal”) citizens. Instead of thinking of themselves as Lutherans, Catholics, or Jews, the members of the Prussian state should think of themselves as citizens. This, in any case, is effectively what the U.S. has done. We have no state religion and all citizens are treated equally (they are, at least in theory, given the same rights and status). And though there are ongoing conflicts about the role of religion in public life, there is widespread comfort with the idea that different religions should not be singled out for special rights or privileges.

What is Marx’s response to this? Well, you’ll need to read the essay. But I can articulate the general idea: Marx wants to reveal the limits of Bauer’s vision of emancipation (what Marx calls “political emancipation”). Marx is very much in favor of providing universal human rights, but he also argues that such a provision is not sufficient. According to Marx, the position Bauer adopts would be progress, but it also enables a new mode of domination to proceed, and in particular, it enables the kind of domination we see at work in Steinbeck’s story from the Grapes of Wrath.

So the crucial thing to keep in mind is that Marx is not interested in the “Jewish question” as it is usually defined; in the debates of his day (and in the current day, to some extent), the question was whether the Jews should be treated as equal citizens. Marx is shifting the question: He’s not asking whether the Jews (or women, or non-whites, or any other group excluded from equal treatment) should be treated equally; he’s asking instead whether equal treatment under the law is in fact the same thing as genuine human freedom. And his answer, in short, is “no.” Marx is therefore posing a radical challenge to standard liberal positions; liberals tend to argue that more or less all forms of domination or injustice can be remedied by providing equal rights to all, by including those previously excluded into the circle of legal rights. Marx, by contrast, is arguing that there needs to be a much more radical transformation.

To conclude, then, let me provide a brief glossary of some of Marx’s key terms in this essay.

Political emancipation: political emancipation refers, in essence, to Bauer’s position. Differences between people (say, their religion, economic status, or “noble blood”) are no longer legally recognized or enforced by the state. All citizens are granted equal rights (both things like property rights and the equal right to participate in politics).

The universal state (sometimes referred to as the state as such): The political state is a form of political community in which the citizens have achieved political emancipation.

Civil society: this is the realm of social relations that occur independently of the state, and typically, the family as well. In this essay, Marx treats these relations as primarily economic; it is the realm of “free labor” (i.e., the ability for the laborer to sell his/her labor power to whomever can purchase it) or the free exchange of commodities in general.

Welcome, and the links for Friday’s readings

August 31, 2016

Welcome to the Eastman students taking the Concept of Power in the autumn of 2016. This blog will serve several functions. It will disseminate information to students in the course regarding class assignments; it will serve as a platform students can use to write about course-related materials (often as they connect to the goings-on in contemporary politics); and it will serve as an occasional platform that I’ll use to spout off comment on topics of interest to me.

For Friday, we begin our discussions with excerpts of Hobbes’ famous text, Leviathan. You can find the text online here. Specifically, we’ll be reading chapter 17-18 and 21. These chapters all focus on the nature and powers of the sovereign. We will also discuss the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,” which can be found here.

In both cases, our interest is in the conceptions of power at work in these documents. We’re less interested in, say, the question of whether we think Hobbes’s sovereign is too powerful, or whether the “Declaration” has articulated the proper set of rights. Rather, what we want to think about is how the authors of these documents characterize the nature and functioning of power in society, what sorts of issues these characterizations highlight, and what sorts of issues such characterizations might obscure.

The panopticon in the work of Marquez

December 20, 2014

We have a late addition to the blog! See here.

He knows when you’ve been sleeping; he knows when you’re awake

December 18, 2014

I guess in retrospect, this almost seems too obvious of a connection. You should read the whole article (Elf on a Shelf as training children to live with panopticism), but here’s one excerpt:

Elf on the Shelf presents a unique (and prescriptive) form of play that blurs the distinction between play time and real life. Children who participate in play with The Elf on the Shelf doll have to contend with rules at all times during the day: they may not touch the doll, and they must accept that the doll watches them at all times with the purpose of reporting to Santa Claus. This is different from more conventional play with dolls, where children create play-worlds born of their imagination, moving dolls and determining interactions with other people and other dolls. Rather, the hands-off “play” demanded by the elf is limited to finding (but not touching!) The Elf on the Shelf every morning, and acquiescing to surveillance during waking hours under the elf’s watchful eye. The Elf on the Shelf controls all parameters of play, who can do and touch what, and ultimately attempts to dictate the child’s behavior outside of time used for play.

The miracle of the ordinary

November 11, 2014

It has become something of an ongoing joke in class that I have a tendency to emphasize how bleak everything is. I suppose it’s true. One can hardly spend large amounts of time studying the world of human affairs without becoming aware of the extraordinary levels stupidity, mendacity, and violence at work in how humans conduct themselves. Arendt was perhaps more aware of this than most of us; having lived through the rise of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, she knew quite well just how awful people–even supposedly civilized and moral ones–could be. Still, one of the things that is most interesting about her is that she insists not just on looking at the awfulness of human affairs squarely, but also insists on thinking about how to remain politically and morally responsible even in dark times.

Consider the following passage, which comes from her book, The Human Condition:

Without the disclosure of the agent in the act, action loses its specific character and becomes one achievement among others. It is then, indeed, no less a means to an end than making is a means to produce an object. This happens whenever human togetherness is lost, that is, when people are only for or against other people, as for instance in modern warfare, where men go into action and use means of violence in order to achieve certain objectives for their own side and against the enemy. In these instances, which of course have always existed, speech becomes indeed “mere talk,” simply one more means toward an end whether it serves to deceive the enemy or to dazzle everybody with propaganda (180).

As in all things with Arendt, there are a great many things going on in the passage (e.g., the reference to the “disclosure of the agent in the act” would take quite a while to explain; her claim, in short, is that it is through genuine action that we create/disclose who we are, as opposed to what we are); however, I want to highlight one core aspect, which is the interplay between the “miraculous” and the “ordinary” in this passage. Let us note first that, in the first sentence, Arendt is alluding to the idea that action is not just one achievement among others; to be sure, it can become this when “human togetherness is lost” (her example of this loss of togetherness–modern warfare–is interesting; on the one hand, the loss of togetherness is obvious in the sense that we are no longer together with the enemy, but even among “us”–the friends–this togetherness is lost. In becoming unified against “them,” plurality is lost. The space “in between” disappears as we become a unity).

Nevertheless, her language is quite clear: the “specific character” of action is to be something different from other achievements–different from, say, making a chair or cleaning the house. How is it different? Well, like violence, making a chair is instrumental; one does X, Y, and Z to achieve some specific end (the chair). Action, by contrast, has no pre-defined end; indeed, it is “open-ended,” in the sense that the meaning of my action depends upon how others receive and interpret my action (We can clearly see this in, for instance, in Jesus’s action to be crucified; the meaning of this action has clearly been interpreted and reinterpreted over the millennia. The action that inspired, say, the civil rights protesters was interpreted by Torquemada to support the persecution and torture of heretics. Whatever Jesus might have meant by his action, it is clear that he isn’t actually in control of how others respond to it). Action is connected to a form of speech that is not aimed at deception or dazzling with propaganda, but toward disclosing the actor, forming (or re-forming) a group, on creating something new in the social world.

Now, let us recall Arendt’s conception of power, which describes as an action in concert. Let us also note what makes this action in concert possible: in “On Violence,” Arendt notes that power (action in concert) derives its legitimacy from the “initial getting together rather than from any action that might follow.” In other places, for instance in her book On Revolution, Arendt makes it clear that this initial getting together is legitimate insofar as it is based on free and sincere promises. So we can say that legitimate power is a form of action in concert that arises on the basis of free and sincere promising. What is interesting here, however, is that promise-making is a rather ordinary activity. Action in concert–which as we see in the quoted paragraph above is extraordinary–is deeply connected to something rather everyday and mundane.

This, I want to suggest, is not an error or a contradiction; rather, part of what Arendt is trying to do is to orient us toward a recognition of the extraordinary in ordinary life. When we look at the world from this point of view, we can see that ordinary practices–promise keeping, speaking, and so on–can take on heroic or extraordinary dimensions. Action and speech sustains the social fabric, or maintains political reality, often in the face of extraordinary pressures to undo or destroy it.

Let me try to illustrate what I mean: In her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt describes the remarkable case of a German sergeant, Anton Schmidt. Schmidt ended up providing significant material support to the Jewish underground resistance movement in Poland. His actions were eventually discovered, and he was executed by the Germans in the spring of 1942. Arendt’s discussion of Schmidt is, I think, quite telling. One of the arguments frequently made by Germans in the aftermath of the war is that they didn’t resist the Nazis because such resistance would have been useless. Not only, the argument goes, would it have failed to achieve any real changes, but the resistance most likely would simply have been fully forgotten: it is in the nature of totalitarian regimes not just to purge all resistance but consign it to oblivion–to make sure that all traces of resistance are forgotten. Arendt counters this argument in the following way:

It is true that totalitarian domination tried to establish these holes of oblivion into which all deeds, good and evil, would disappear, but just as the Nazis’ feverish attempts, from June 1942 on, to erase all traces of the massacres…were doomed to failure, so all efforts to let their opponents “disappear in silent anonymity” were in vain. The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story. Hence, nothing can ever be “practically useless,” at least, not in the long run. It would be of great practical usefulness for Germany today, not merely for her prestige abroad but for her sadly confused inner condition, if there were more such stories to be told. For the lesson of such stories is simple and within everybody’s grasp. Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places, but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation (pp. 232-233, emphasis in original).

Anton Schmidt’s actions were at once ordinary and extraordinary: nothing could be more ordinary and normal than helping another in need, in acting morally and with integrity; yet under conditions of terror, these ordinary acts become miraculous. Schmidt seemed to understand this. In his letters to his wife, he explained his actions by describing how he felt when he saw his fellow soldiers murdering children: “You know how it is with my soft heart. I could not think and had to help them.” And he added, “I only acted as a human being and desired doing harm to no one.” With these words we can see why Arendt thought that only goodness has any “depth,” that only goodness was interesting. In the face of overwhelming social pressure and violence, Schmidt remained true to the core moral principle, “thou shalt not kill,” and this adherence is truly remarkable and worth thinking about.

And this is why his actions were not (and are not) in vain. In acting in ways that disclosed his integrity, in acting to maintain the social fabric, in reproducing human togetherness, he in fact achieved something extraordinary. Indeed, he achieved perhaps even the greatest thing humans can achieve in this world: he made the world fit for human habitation; he reminded us, in other words, that humans are still free, that we can still act, and that we can always maintain our integrity and our responsibility.

This, it seems to me, cuts to the heart of Arendt’s preoccupations. She wants to understand how action, power, and politics–how human activity, in short–can make this world still a place worth living in. All times humans have lived have been “dark times,” we might say. The question, then, is how we can act in ways that provide some light in that darkness.

Bernie Sanders Channels his Inner Arendt

November 8, 2014

In the wake of the recent midterm elections, I thought I would share this interview with the Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders (Sanders characterizes himself as a socialist, but in this interview he channels the idea of participatory democracy). The interview is around 25 minutes long, though you can read the transcript if you’d prefer. One key moment in the interview is this:

BILL MOYERS: How do you make the Hillary wing of the Democratic Party pay attention to the power of a populist message unless you’re in the debates in 2016, when most of the public is paying attention to political messages?

BERNIE SANDERS: This has been my political experience. When you rally the grassroots of the country or the city or of your state, when people begin to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough. We want to do well by our kids. We want to protect the environment. We believe we should join the rest of the world in terms of having health care for all, single-payer health care for all, et cetera, et cetera.’

When people begin to move, the people on top will follow them. So, whether it’s Hillary or anybody else, what we have got to do is mobilize the American people in a way that we have not seen in recent history around a progressive agenda. Bill, every poll that I have seen, when they ask the American people, what is the most important issue that you’re concerned about? You know what they say? Jobs and the economy.

How come we are not investing heavily in rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure. $1 trillion invested in rebuilding roads, bridges, water systems, rail creates 13 million decent-paying jobs. You know what? The American people want us to do that. They want us to raise the minimum wage. So, you need a very strong agenda. You need a mechanism. And you’ve asked a hard question. Easier to say than to do, to rally people around that agenda. And once you do that, things will take care of itself.

BILL MOYERS: This is what Barack Obama did in 2008. He asked people to take over the Democratic Party, progressives and populists, everyday people that you describe in your speech out in Richmond. He asked those people to come in and, elect me and we’ll do just exactly what Bernie Sanders would do if he were president. Hasn’t happened.

BERNIE SANDERS: I have lot of respect for Barack Obama. But, his biggest mistake is that, after running a brilliant campaign in 2008, where millions of people in fact were galvanized, young people, people of color came out and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to make some real change.’ The day after the election he said, okay, thank you very much. Now I’m going to work inside the Beltway and we’re going to start negotiating with Republicans and all that stuff. The simple truth is, in my view, nothing gets done unless millions and millions of people will demand it. Politics is 365 days a year.

BILL MOYERS: Not just voting?

BERNIE SANDERS: Exactly. And anyone, you can have the best person in the world as president of the United States, that person will accomplish nothing unless millions of people are standing behind him or her. Just an example, Bill, everybody, all the young people in this country are worried about student debt. The fact that hundreds of thousands of young people can’t even afford to go to college.

You have a million people, a million young people marching on Washington saying, there’s a vote coming up. And if you vote the wrong way, we know who you are. We actually are paying attention. You aren’t going to get reelected. We will lower the cost of college substantially and deal with the student debt crisis. It will not happen. It will not happen unless millions of people are activated.

The Arendtian notion of power here is quite obvious. There is a tendency, he argues, for people to think that social change occurs primarily through passing laws or getting courts to recognize various rights. In contrast to this, Sanders claims that passing a law is often only the beginning of a political conflict, not its end. Consider the ACA (also known as “Obamacare”). The law as passed in 2010; since then, the Republican party has taken every step it can to get rid of it. They have tried to repeal it and to get the court system to declare it to be illegal. But they have also taken steps to make sure that its implementation is unsuccessful (for instance, states where Republicans have majorities have not enacted the insurance exchanges the law calls for, thus requiring the Federal government to set them up instead; similarly, many Republican-controlled states have refused federal money to extend Medicaid coverage to the poor). In other words, for better or for worse (I make no judgment here), the Republican party has mobilized its supporters to treat the passage of the ACA as the start of an ongoing political battle. Sanders, in effect, is arguing that the Democrats need to do the same thing. If you want more spending to improve infrastructure, create better health care, or increase support for education (thus reducing student loan debt), we cannot wait for political leaders to spontaneously decide to do so. There must instead be the organization and generation of public power.

Of course, the trouble here is that this kind of power cannot (by definition) be fostered or administered from above. Moreover, for various reasons, almost no one has any experience in organizing or developing such power. We don’t even know where to begin, and so we have no “taste” for action, its joys and its obstacles. In this respect, Sanders’ comments might (or might not) be inspiring, but they also seem peculiarly hollow, at least to me. People have been making the point Sanders is articulating here for decades, but it’s still not entirely clear what precisely one could do to foster the kind of action he’s calling for.

 

MLK and Malcolm X Readings

October 14, 2014

You can find a transcript of Malcolm X’s speech here. However, I also recommend that you listen to an audio version of it, which I’ve posted below:

Please note that the audio recording here diverges from the transcript I linked to above (this is because he gave the speech to different audiences and varied the presentation somewhat; the content is basically the same). I do recommend listening to the audio. Listening to the audio, I think, gives a bit of the flavor of Malcolm X’s rhetoric and the audience’s response to it. This, in turn, provides a bit more insight into why Malcolm X was such a frightening figure to white folks at the time.

Anyway, you can find Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” here. This version of the text has some annotations and explanations at the bottom of the letter. You can read them if you’d like but they are not explicitly required (which is to say, there won’t be quiz questions on the annotations unless I talk about them directly in class).