On Continued Beginnings

Last month I graduated from the University of Maryland and went from being Malcolm, a senior politics and English major, to Malcolm, who does nothing. I’ve moved back to California and started looking for my first post-university job-job. One part of pre-employment that I’m looking forward to is having more time to write, but 24 Percent no longer feels like the right place. I’m at a very different point in my thought than I was when I made 24, and I felt the need for a new look and feel. The result is my new blog, destructural.

I picked the new name for a number of reasons. The term comes from destructural video, “An art movement of video and moving image artists who aestheticize the exploration of medium specific flaws which perpetrate themselves as visual and/or audible glitches in their work.” I ran into artist and student John McAndrew’s blog the other day, and the idea appealed to me, even beyond the video context. Working from glitches and aporias in a system, seeing them as sites from which to work rather than flaws to be painted over, is what I always try to do in my writing.

It also works nicely with a story from my first foray into (para-)academia at the Beneath The University, The Commonsconference at (near?) the University of Minnesota last April. My friend Max and my co-presentation involved a rhetorically aggressive reading of parts of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Commonwealth, especially the section about the need to destroy ourselves as we exist within current social relations. For the rest of the conference, Max and I were the crazy guys who wanted to destroy stuff, incensing at least one attendee who wanted to know why we weren’t talking about making stuff instead. One of the other presenters decided to refer to me and Max collectively as “destruction.” The conference was a surreal experience, but also some of the most fun I had in college. As I look forward to graduate school, I better get used to navigating those kinds of spaces, but hopefully this title\ will serve as a reminder of how I came in thinking.

Also, “destructural” is a goofy theory-jargon neologism. And I’m into that stuff. But it is certainly self-consciously goofy.

Luckily, wordpress has it set up so that you can import your old content into your new blog, so 24 Percent lives on, but changed. I’ll leave the Hegelian interpretation to someone else, but I think of this switch as both a continuation and a beginning.

The organizing principle for the content hasn’t really changed, I’ll still be writing about whatever I feel like. It will probably skew toward student power, ultra-left political theory, as well as Marxist readings of literature, films, and other art, but I honestly don’t know what I’ll be writing about in six months. I’ve also added a “readings” page that has .pdf’s and links to pieces I think people would enjoy/find useful. Please feel encouraged to send suggestions.

Meant to Be Broken: Control Society and Crosswalks

Think of the road-crossing; as described in the sign in the picture, there are three standard symbols for pedestrians. Unlike the three light colors in the traffic signs for vehicles, the crossing signs come with behaviors. A yellow light can mean “slow down” or “speed up” depending on the context, since the color is describing something that will happen – the light’s imminent change to red – rather than prescribing a single pattern of action. In the picture on the left, the first two symbols come with instructions for pedestrians: the walking figure means you ought “start crossing” while the blinking hand means you ought not “start crossing” but should continue if you have already entered the crosswalk. The third however, the solid hand, does not prescribe behavior, but proscribes a state of existence, “pedestrians should not be in crosswalk.” The incongruous language is necessary because the behavioral instructions of the solid hand are no different than those of the blinking hand. After all, pedestrians do not freeze in place when the lights of the hand stop blinking, nor would the State want them to. Rather, walkers cross more quickly, leaving the street so as not to continue to violate the injunction not to be in the crosswalk while the hand does not blink. Also to avoid getting hit by cars. That’s important too.

If it has nothing to add instructively, why the division between the blinking and non-blinking hands? If pedestrians followed the rules, only two symbols would be necessary: one for when it’s okay to start crossing and one for when it’s not. Of course, we know that pedestrians rarely if ever follow the stated instructions for street crossings. If we arrive at the corner just as the hand starts blinking, or if the street seems easy to cross in the time before the solid hand of banishment emerges, then we cross. Pedestrians and the State have a different idea of how long it will take to cross streets, and there aren’t enough cops in the world to make sure people stick to the stated rules. In the actually existing crosswalk, the third term is very useful. The blinking hand serves as the equivalent of a yellow light: pedestrians walk quickly or stop based on the context. The three-term logic is based on the premise that we will not follow the instructions as stated. These rules are literally made to be broken.

The crossing light is a tool for the State management of behavior, whether this involves adherence to the actual rules or not. In this case, people’s behavior can be better managed by creating a system of rules that will be broken, but broken in ways built into the rules themselves. I’m sure there are far better examples of this phenomenon, but this one has always seemed particularly overt to me. The State lists the rules on street corners for god’s sake.

David Brooks And The Myth of Concrete Reason

I’m not sure there’s a working writer more invested in the ideology of conservatism than David Brooks. I’m not talking about the gay-bashing cross-burning Conservatives who want to return to an imagined suburb in the 50’s, Brooks and his patron saint of crawling reform, Edmund Burke, are conservative in that they want things to change very very slowly. In his column today, Brooks uses the newsworthy occasion of a PhD dissertation at the University of Chicago on the Enlightenment to reframe the classic reform-or-revolution debate as two sides of the same dull 18th-century coin. He writes of the division between the French and the British/Scottish Enlightenments, the first devoted to shaping society in accordance with universal reason, no matter the costs, while the second focused on the limits of reason and human rationality. For Brooks, there is nothing outside the Enlightenment; rationality is an Enlightenment value, but so is irrationality.  His title is “Two Theories of Change” but it could have been “Only Two Theories of Change.” Toward the end of the column, Brooks remembers that he is not a philosophy professor – in case you were wondering about his credentials, he lays them out in the first sentence of the column: “When I was in college I took a course in the Enlightenment.” – and tries to piece together some lesson about contemporary American politics,

“Today, if you look around American politics you see self-described conservative radicals who seek to sweep away 100 years of history and return government to its preindustrial role. You see self-confident Democratic technocrats who have tremendous faith in the power of government officials to use reason to control and reorganize complex systems. You see polemicists of the left and right practicing a highly abstract and ideological Jacobin style of politics.”

Ah yes, the lure of false parallels. I imagine the esteemed author is here referencing Rand Paul and the Tea Party movement of which Paul has become the foot-choked mouth. On the Dem side, I can only assumer Brooks is writing at least partly about our cucumber-cool technocrat-in-chief and his administraton, but I have a hard time seeing the correspondence. President Obama is certainly a fan of reason and logic – notice how awkwardly Brooks has to structure that sentence so as not to write the absurd and revealing “faith in reason” –  but he has demonstrated no desire or even any willingness to radically alter anything. Banks nationalized? Nope. Single-payer health care? Obama’s never heard of it.  The president can’t even bring himself to get rid of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell with a well-reasoned stroke of his pen, instead opting for the snail’s pace change Brooks and Burke love. I don’t think you’re allowed to refer to any group as technocrats and Jacobins in the same paragraph, even if you have a column in the Times. The part that really gets me though is the use of “abstract” as a pejorative.

Brooks uses the word “abstract” two more times in the column, modifying “reason” and “plans,” and always negatively. I would give you a concrete example of what Brooks means by abstract reason or abstract plans, but he doesn’t give any himself. In a column in which he repeatedly condemns politicians and philosophers obsessed with abstract problems of justice, Brooks gives us not one concrete example of what the Hell he’s talking about. Since Brooks won’t deign to give an example, I’ll pick on Rand Paul some more because, let’s face it, that motherfucker is asking for it. Paul has a total reverence for private rights, such that he has recently argued that the Civil Rights Act was an overreach by the government and the market should have been allowed to desegregate private firms on its own. This is certainly a tone-deaf position from an electoral standpoint, but is it any more abstract that the reverse?

The Civil Rights Act provides a number of protections for minorities in America, both in the “public” and “private” spheres. (Note the scare quotes. Perhaps the best thing to come out of Paul’s candidacy – besides the lulz – is some questioning  of this division.) But policy is always abstract since it deals with collective subjects (e.g. citizens, blacks, gays) as such. In fact, there’s a name for concrete policy-making, and it’s not allowed in this country. The idea that people should be treated equally regardless of race both under the law and at the lunch counter is no less abstract in terms of its reason than Rand’s position. Hard core libertarians  may be more concerned with abstract policy impactslike the violation of sacred property rights – than the concrete suffering individual blacks faced during Jim Crow, but that’s not what Brooks condemns. The workaround Brooks is attempting to posit is a non-ideological pragmatism that handles political questions one at a time, looking for and implementing the most practical policy. Sorry Dave, no dice.

Unfortunately all my books are on their way to California at the moment, or I’d go find the lines in Gramsci’s The Modern Prince about the ideology of pragmatism. However, it’s not hard to see how pragmatism is ideological: it describes a consistent way of seeing the world and acting within it. Brooks summarizes Burke,

“If you try to re-engineer society on the basis of abstract plans, Burke argued, you’ll end up causing all sorts of fresh difficulties, because the social organism is more complicated than you can possibly know. We could never get things right from scratch.”

This is an ideological statement that forecloses possible interpretations of society and patterns of action. It is also profoundly abstract. Are all incarnations of the social too complicated to understand? Always? Without even looking at the individual situation? Pragmatism lacks the ability to be pragmatic about itself, to recognize a point at which “impractical” action is required, which makes it consistently counter-revolutionary. Brooks can only bring himself to retroactively support the American Revolution when he phrases it in terms of the maintenance of tradition.

The column’s conclusion (“The children of the British Enlightenment are in retreat. Yet there is the stubborn fact of human nature. The Scots were right, and the French were wrong. And out of that truth grows a style of change, a style that emphasizes modesty, gradualism and balance,”) is an exercise in hackery. Brooks posits “the stubborn fact of human nature” – an abstract idea by anyone’s measure – as if it weren’t one of the central questions in political philosophy. I’m honestly surprised he didn’t bother to capitalize “truth” in the final sentence. The argument is not ultimately with ideology or abstraction, it’s with those who don’t share Brooks’s particular milquetoast understanding of the world.

Tab Dump

Now that I am officially a college graduate, I can recommence blogging. I’ll put up a more substantial post later this week about something interesting, but for now I thought I’d go with the classic Tab Dump.

– Israel is, it turns out, not so sympathetic to a lot of progressive young Jews. Maybe it’s the apartheid thing? Ain’t been hip since ’94…
– So that’s Google’s cloud-music fix for the Chrome OS.
– And is Apple gentrifying the web with its app store? It makes for a cool metaphor either way.
– Here’s the audio from a panel discussion about “Who’s Afraid of Philosophy” and the Middlesex occupations with Alberto Toscano, Nina Power and others.

And for music to go along with all the words, “All Your Way,” low rock from the band Morphine

Don’t Call Me Ginger, Whitey

[Vimeo 11219730]

It’s been impossible to be a redhead and not get asked about M.I.A.’s short film. I’ve been told by at least a dozen friends that I had to see it and I wonder if this is how black people felt when Do The Right Thing was in theaters. Voyou Desoeuvre has an interesting analysis – there’ve been a lot of analyses of cultural studies darling Lady Gaga’s video for “Telephone” but I haven’t found many for “Born Free” – in which he sees redheads as insufficient metaphorically.

The video’s big “reveal,” that the state’s violence is directed at the redheaded, turns any possible shock into pure silliness. Now, I imagine someone will say that I’m missing the point here, that prejudice directed against redheads is really no more silly than prejudice directed against black people or Muslims, and that by showing us this, the film makes a serious point about the arbitrariness of racism. This is wrong: racism is indeed unfounded and constructed and arbitrary, but it is not silly … Worse, perhaps, the video ends up letting the actual racism and violence of the US state off the hook. The first half of the video presents us with a mystery: who are these police, and why are they raiding this building? The moment when we see the bus full of red-haired young men functions as an explanation, an explanation which immediately places us in an alternative reality in which the US features a number of signs of oppression that suggest places out side the US: Northern Ireland (murals) or Palestine (kids in keffiyehs throwing rocks). The problem is, that this, it seems to me, strongly suggests that we should see the first half of the video as also part of this alternative reality; but police raids of this sort are of course no “alternative” at all to actually existing US reality.

I think there’s a good point here about the dangers of viewing current forms of racial hierarchy as merely one arbitrary possibility. White supremacy is intertwined so intricately with American society and culture that to imagine that we could swap in another characteristic and everything else would remain the same is wrong. Forms of hierarchy and the oppressive social relations they engender are not self-contained; you can’t pull a single thread without undoing the whole tapestry. But I don’t agree that this is primarily what the “Born Free” video calls into question. M.I.A. did not write a science fiction novel in which she replaces an American oppressed minority group with redheads. Instead, I see the video instead as commenting on the way we react to State violence perpetrated against white bodies. The gruesome final scene in which the soldiers slaughter the fleeing redheads – thanks for the nightmares by the way, that cute kid whose head gets blown to pieces looks exactly like my cousin Oliver – isn’t shocking just for the violence. Newspapers have pictures of bloody Iraqi and Afghani children all the time, but it doesn’t provoke the same reaction. We’ve become so desensitized to images of soldiers, many wearing American flags on their shoulders, shooting at brown people that if this same video were shot with Arabs or Latin@s, people would find it an inartful work of propaganda. It wouldn’t even touch them.

When the State’s police extract the young redhead and bring him to the bus, the narrative is ill-defined. The cops are being assholes, clearly, but what are they after? A terrorist? Illegal immigrants? Jews? Even when the soldier/police have the man, the meaning is still illusive. This wouldn’t necessarily be the case if it had been a black man or an Arab, then the narrative writes itself. If the man had been a Palestinian wearing a keffiyeh, he becomes, by the narrative logic of the scene, a terrorist. His skin and clothes would be enough to fill in a story about why what was happening was happening. One redhead in isolation is generally a normal white person, not acquiring any larger symbolic representational value until juxtaposed with others. When the camera turns to the back of the bus, the narrative becomes instantly clear. The commonality that all of these boys share, the organizing principle for the group as such, is their hair color. The arbitrary commonality betrays the State’s arbitrary violence.The execution scene is a bit overdone, but the visual of American guns turned against white children is jarring. I see the red hair as a convenient narrative tool that gets the story quickly and comprehensibly to the real weight of the video: a scene of arbitrary State violence against white bodies. Think of the last time you saw a scene like that. Update: Thought of a couple. Coincidence that they’re both about the Irish?

Unfortunately, red hair is not quite the empty signifier M.I.A. might have hoped for. Desoeuvre worries that violence against red heads would be thought silly, linking to a tweet about “ginger kids getting blown up.” Is there another group that we could insert in the place of red heads that would yield the same fear? Is there any other group that could be rounded up and executed in a video, only to be laughed at by people who don’t have closets full of the latest in Klan-wear? Ever since the writers of South Park used redheads in a similar way, as a group marked by arbitrary difference used to stand in narratively for oppressed groups, no one can get over how funny it is to call us gingers or talk about how we don’t have souls or whatever. “Ginger” was routinely used as an diminutive on the comment threads for my Diamondback column, e.g. “He’s certainly entitled to his little, misguided, ginger opinion.” There are a lot of words that could take the place of “ginger” in that sentence without changing the tone, and they’re all othering terms. As a college kid (soon to be post-college kid), I don’t have to worry about it so much, but I’d imagine it got a lot harder to be a red-headed 5th grader. In post-modern America, the metaphor is prefigurative. How hungry we are for categories of limited difference that even the jokes will do.

Arizona to More Aggressively Enforce Law

A major sign of my political drift has been my inability to muster atypical indignation at the latest liberal outrages. Arizona’s new anti-immigration law, among many other provisions, allows police to profile based on the appearance of illegality (the fact that it’s hard to find the words to describe what people are being profiled based on is indicative of a whole bunch of shit) and requires cops to check immigration papers when they stop someone. The rest of the country is outraged at the Copper State’s willingness to embrace apartheid enforcement techniques. As SNL’s Seth Meyers noted, there’s not a World War II movie in which the Nazi’s don’t demand to see someone’s papers. Conservatives have done their best Cirque du Soleil impressions, artfully contorting themselves to describe how one could determine someone’s legal status on sight without the use of racial profiling – or less artfully in the case of California Congressman Brian Bilbray who suggested cops could tell by the illegals’ distinctive footwear. And yet, I’m not much angrier than normal. I’m not rushing out to join a boycott – a consumerist reduction of political activism if I’ve ever seen one. I see things basically as status quo.

I’m using the term “illegal” rather than the more acceptable “undocumented” not out of insensitivity, but to make a point. A provision of the new law makes it a state crime to be in Arizona without legal immigration papers. But we didn’t need a new law to tell us that being an illegal immigrant was against the law. The threat of deportation is constant because the life of the undocumented immigrant is illegal. To use another term is to disguise the State’s violence. The question I want to ask all the outraged liberals is if they really think the police in Arizona aren’t using racial profiling already. Also in the news this week was the revelation by Yale researchers that of the 376 traffic tickets issued by the East Haven, CT police, 210 were to Latino drivers, even though they only make up six percent of the population. I have a hard time believing that cops in Arizona are any different, and the first thing any officer does when they stop someone? Identification. The police don’t need the law to let them put these provisions into practice, the police are the law.

The new law is then a forced confrontation with the underlying logic of US immigration policy. Alain Badiou writes in an op-ed in Le Monde (translated for Nina Power’s Infinite Thought by Alberto Toscano) “The living proof that our societies are obviously in-human is today the foreign undocumented worker: he is the sign, immanent to our situation, that there is only one world.” Liberals don’t have a problem with borders or restricted immigration, they want a “humane” policy. Not a human policy, which is impossible, but the next best thing. “Humane,” the word we use to describe animal shelters. When confronted with the fundamental injustice of treating people differently under the law based on where they were born in relation to a set of arbitrary lines, the mask of the moral State slips and the naked pragmatic visage pokes through. The shrugged response that it would be impossible to just open the borders is a not-so-disguised rephrasing of “my opulence requires the existence of global underclass, and that’s a price I’m willing to pay.” No amount of “responsible” immigration reform will change this.

Immigrants aren’t the only ones made illegal in our society; we speak of the “criminalization of poverty” as the way in which the poor are forced to commit what the law calls crimes in order to survive. Sudhir Venkatesh’s less famous book Off the Books: Underground Economies of The Urban Poor is a great description of the ways in which being alive and poor at the same time becomes a crime in America. Medical marijuana patients are frequently treated “inhumanely” by the authorities for dealing with their illnesses. American Apparel’s “Legalize Gay” shirts are premised on the (I think false) idea that the identity is tied directly to the institution of marriage, but homosexual acts were criminalized in parts of America until 2003. In all of these cases we have the criminalization of life processes: acquiring enough money to eat and afford shelter, treating disease, and consensual sexual acts. The ultimate American example is the figure of the illegal immigrant whose breathing on this side of a line is criminal. (The example par excellence remains the “bare life” prisoners of Auschwitz). We cannot allow the compelling slogan “No one is illegal” to distract us from the fact that many people are illegal.

For radicals, I think it remains our job to provide whatever support we can to anyone whose life is made illegal in Arizona and anywhere else, as well as to fight the structures that create the police in the first place. But even more so, I think it’s our job to honestly face the consequences of our own moral conclusions and never to shrug at injustice due to its immensity. We will have illegal immigrants as long as we have a closed border. I’ll leave it up to you to draw the appropriate conclusions after that, but the dominoes certainly don’t end there.

How Randy Cohen Is Like Cam’ron

The thing that impresses me most about Randy Cohen’s The Ethicist column in the NY Times Magazine is his willingness to tell the people who ask him for advice not to follow the rules or adhere to standard protocols. In this week’s column, Cohen had a boss who discovered his employee’s theft and wants to know whether or not to call the cops. He writes in response, “Calling the cops is something you may do but not something you must, and I do not think you should. It’s not a matter of calibrating this thief’s punishment; the criminal-justice system is simply too crude an instrument to gently accomplish what you admirably seek to do: protect others from harm.” Damn right.

The question here is whether society is made better or worse off by sending a non-violent offender through the justice system. The ethical decision is based on the amount of harm done, and with regard to the U.S. prison system, Cohen figures it does more harm than it prevents in this case. The logic by which he derives his answer is, however, broad. I don’t see any reason why this same logic couldn’t be applied to all but a very few crimes. Our ethicist does write that we have a duty to call the cops in the case of an imminent, serious threat to others, but he that’s the only example he gives. What is clear is that he doesn’t think the criminal justice system does anyone (prison guards?) much good, with any deterrent value heavily outweighed by the social cost of a system that knows only how to punish and not how to reform. If we go by Cohen’s “maximum protection with the minimal harm” standard, there are not a lot of situations I can imagine where calling the cops becomes the ethical thing to do.

In fact, I wonder if we don’t have an ethical obligation not to call the police when we consider the overwhelming harms of the penal system. If I were to drop a dime on some kids selling drugs, I wouldn’t be protecting the neighborhood or committing a morally neutral act. I would be putting young people at the mercy of a dehumanizing, arbitrary and cruel system without alleviating nearly enough misery to compensate ethically. Think of it this way: I would rather take a pretty bad beating than be charged with a crime, convicted, and sent to jail for a month. Not only because jail – at least from what I’ve seen in OZ – involves some beatings, but because a criminal record causes serious damage to someone’s life chances. I figure most people would probably agree with me in this calculation. In terms of pain or misery inflicted I can try and imagine some physical equivalent to going through the criminal justice system, and I imagine it would be pretty bad. Now weigh that against the harm reduction of sending someone to jail. In a situation where the crime is assault with a deadly weapon, I’m okay beating the equivalent of a jail sentence out of the assailant if it could save someone’s life. A drug dealer or a thief? The ethical math doesn’t seem to come out right on anything that does not involve a life in peril. The “He brought it on himself” line doesn’t work here, we always have the choice to not call the cops and we have to take that seriously as an ethical decision.

Cam’ron takes it one step further in the ultimate stop snitching statement:

Note: I don’t mention sexual assault because calling the cops in that situation is not my decision and I don’t pretend to know what being a rape victim is like. I’ve heard good arguments for either sides from both women and men and I’m curious what people think about that as a complicating factor.