In which: the Business School Visits My Coworking Space.

I’ve been working very satisfactorily and productively these last few months at a coworking space in downtown Ann Arbor called Workantile. It’s great.

A few days ago, we were visited by a professor and some sort of graduate student from Michigan’s Graduate School of Business. Coworking is a fashionable topic among MBA types, as it’s closely associated with Bay Area startup culture, “innovation,” etc.

But this is Ann Arbor. I’m not the only academic who works here — split pretty evenly between the humanities and the social sciences. And while the people who run the space gamely spoke to the representatives of the business school, a few of the rest of us took it as an opportunity to reflect on differences in research culture between professional schools and the rest of the university. One former archaeologist with a PhD from an anthropology department, wryly asked them if they’d filled out the paperwork to perform research on human subjects. They didn’t know what he was talking about. They are not us.

My reflection was to note my own strange transformation in the eyes of these scholars of work as soon as I crossed State Street, the main dividing line between UM’s central campus and downtown Ann Arbor. Were I a graduate student at Michigan, doing precisely the same work over in Angell Hall or the Grad Library, not only would I not have cheap access to good coffee, I would also not be doing interesting work in the eyes of the business school. God knows the academy isn’t a model they would have any interest in whatsoever.

Yes, there are all manner of project managers and software engineers clicking away on laptops, but you’ll occasionally find a stack of blue books on a desk, too. Lawyers are doing Westlaw searches, but I’m bouncing packets through UC’s VPN to search ECCO and Project Muse, tracking down citations. Perhaps one lesson here, which I feel may not be getting picked up, is about how laptop computers have create an undifferentiated aesthetic of ‘work.’ Coworking is about the materiality of ‘immaterial’ labor, in which we recognize that the alleged ‘immateriality’ of this labor would be better named its ‘plasticity.’

But man, that exposed brick.

On due process

A friend tweeted a resolution not to vote for President in 2012; I’ll avoid citation to save him from the trolls. His concerns center around Obama’s embrace of the targeted killing of terror suspects without any suitable juridical process. These concerns are reasonable. I think — I hope — that history will look back at the events of the last ten years with a shudder. It’s undoubtedly grim.

I do not at all want to diminish his concerns; indeed, the purpose of this blog post is mostly to share the analogy that was the fruit of a meditation on those concerns, which I think any reasonable person would share. But I should make clear where I stand from the outset. My position is that it is irresponsible for “beautiful soul” reasons to act as though a vote is to be an expression of one’s own personal political beliefs. That’s the sort of thing I did as an eighteen year-old. A vote is a much more Hegelian expression of one’s dissolution into the polity, an oscillation across the divide from quality to quantity and back. It’s not about you. Not at all.

It’s not even about “choice.” To hear all these lefties critique electoral politics as consumerism, as the adoption of a subjective attitude centered on choice, and then propose instead that we counter that by not voting: …well, I’ll be blunt. That’s a precritical stance. So much for the fucking dialectic, right? Presupposing for the moment that we all accept that the space of the political is deeper and broader than the sphere of the electoral, how, exactly, has the withheld vote carried these non-voting lefties past the impasse of choice? What great emancipatory possibilities do you see from your new critical standpoint sulking in the corner?

(Seriously, though: if you see some, let me know. Until then, I’m planning to vote.)

It makes me mourn the state of critical theory education in this country. With that rant out of the way, though, I want to turn to the analogy that prompted this post.

In California and likely elsewhere, there is a well-documented relationship between the parole board and the Governor. The Governor has the ability to overturn the recommendations of the board as to which prisoners should be freed. In principle, this means that an elected representative of the people has a say on these important decisions. But in practice, this produces a situation in which extremely few prisoners are ever paroled. The governor, more directly accountable to the voters, is necessarily more risk averse than s/he probably should be: Schwarzenegger got a lot of attention for overturning something like eighty percent of the parole board’s recommendations. If a paroled criminal were to commit a serious crime, well, you can already hear the attack ads, can’t you?

Now, the thing is this: California paroles a number of criminals routinely, upon release. These peoples’ recidivism rate is high, around 70 percent. But those whom the parole board has examined and reviewed? Their recidivism rates are quite low, around 1 percent. Right?

I think a similar effect is at work with respect to targeted killing. Now, I am not a pacifist. I don’t think it’s unimaginable that there could be a legitimate reason for a state to kill someone. Shit gets real out here on these streets: life is conflictual. Decent people see this as regrettable.

But it does not follow that the government should kill everyone we think might pose a threat to the United States. So we need to set up a decision-making process that errs on the side of letting people live. Presidents are too accountable to the bloodthirsty electorate to get these decisions right: like the governors of California, presidents have a structural impediment to doing a good job on that question. Presidents will get this wrong not because they are unaccountable, but because they are: they are accountable to the worst attributes and tendencies of the electorate.

And I don’t want to hear any guff about how democracy is incompatible with this sort of atrocity. An honest look at the American nineteenth century should disabuse any but the most blinkered of such a ludicrous notion. Executive summary: Andrew Jackson, the man who ‘democratized’ the Presidency, is also the man most responsible for the popular and genocidal Indian Removal Act. Representative democracy at work.

Obama, for me, has been an interesting test case. I see him as an intelligent, capable, decent man, who is sincerely trying to do the best he can. As an individual, he’s probably about as good as we’re ever likely to do under our current electoral arrangements. This is not to say he’s infallible: not at all. Rather, he’s a test of the system — it’s not the President, it’s the Presidency. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

In practical terms, then, this means that we need the Supreme Court to take this out of the Executive Branch’s hands; it’s not like President Hillary is going to do any better.

Between Romney and Obama, who’s more likely to nominate justices who will get this one right? Yeah. So vote.

On Zizek on Hedonism

[This is a comment I wrote for a thread at Crooked Timber about an essay of Slavoj Zizek’s on religion and ethics. I liked it, so I’m posting it here. Sorry, Slavoj: the font I chose for the blog doesn’t have a glyph for your Z-diacritics.]

Zizek does a thing, in my view, where he runs too quickly through “pleasure” in Lacan, blending together a few senses of the word that would be better held distinct. So I want to take a few minutes to parse out the consequences of this elision. While I’m mindful that defenses of this sort of thing are liable to fall on deaf ears in this venue, I actually and genuinely believe that there is something in this line of inquiry that could be extremely productive for a lot of the kinds of folks who hang around here.

“Pleasure” and “enjoyment” are terms of art in Lacanian psychoanalysis. As always in psychoanalysis, these have an interesting and complicated relationship to economic utility — e.g., Freud says in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” that the subject in the thrall of the pleasure principle is akin to the rational, calculating homo economicus, in that he’s willing to put off enjoyment for greater returns. But Lacan’s twist is in consideration of pleasure as a kind of Hegelian tendency that generates its own resistance — indeed generates subjectivity as this resistance. Illustratively, ‘jouissance’ first appears in the Lacanian corpus in the mid-50s in a discussion of the master-slave dialectic. The point, in that discussion, is that pleasure — which is to say, achieved pleasure, utility — is experienced as a kind of loss of subjective reality, akin to what happens to the master half-way through the master-slave dialectic. Pleasure is evanescent, like a subatomic particle produced in an accelerator. The productive position is that of the slave, for whom ‘jouissance’ is the famous self-impeding enjoyment that approaches but never really quite reaches pleasure, and in which the subject recognizes itself. This is Lacan’s take on the world of dissatisfaction and unhappiness in which we all actually live.

Now, by the seventies, there is a new formulation, “surplus enjoyment,” and opinions differ about how this should be understood. Does the new formulation register a new wrinkle in Lacan’s thought on the relationship of pleasure to utility, or is it just a clarification of the old jouissance, which already meets utility obliquely? It seems to me that jouissance is to be understood as enjoyment that misses pleasure, as it were, by perpetually falling short; while surplus enjoyment is “useless” pleasure, which misses satisfaction by simply being irrelevant to need. Cigarettes are jouissance: the smoker needs them, and yet the satisfaction that each smoke offers is fleeting — indeed, by indulging the addiction, it engenders the (artificial) need for the next. And indeed, we smoke (well, I don’t), at great cost to ourselves, in order to have small, frequent needs that we can actually mostly meet. In contrast, the paradigmatic example of surplus enjoyment is Coca-Cola — a wholly vacuous pleasure, which in the satisfaction of which, we recognize something in alterity that we desire. In a word, consumerism. You do something, and then you realize that you wanted it.

(I should clarify: we’re talking about subjective attitudes, not the commodities themselves. The point isn’t what smoking or Coca-Cola are really like; the point is that both are easier than solving any of our actual problems.)

Of course, Zizek knows all this — hell, I learned much of what I know of this stuff from his Sublime Object of Ideology. But sometimes, as in the linked piece on hedonism, I find he tries to have it both ways: to insist on the complexity of the psychoanalytic concept of enjoyment when it suits him, and fall back on a naïve utilitarian concept when it doesn’t. This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed him do this, usually in popular pieces where he is staying away from jargon. So, when we read that hedonists “dedicate their lives to the pursuit of pleasures…”, we need to ask Zizek to slow down and explain exactly what he means (which he likely does in the book) because on that question hinges the issue of the relationship of pleasure to super-ego, and super-ego to ethics.

I think this confusion is a product of the constraints imposed on Zizek by Lacan. At the end of the day, he wants to make an argument that squares with Lacan’s take on the ethical, but that’s a tricky thing to pull off. Getting off the wheel, going “beyond the pleasure principle,” for Lacan, does two things: it corresponds to a different sort of ego loss (as the subject moves from the world of desires to the world of the drives), and it is also the transcendental ground for the ethical act. Those keeping score at home will thus note that Lacanian ethics has nothing to do with super-ego or calculation. Rather — and here I’m speaking in Alain Badiou’s language — the ethical act, like a revolutionary act, cannot be fully comprehended within the preexisting situation. It’s always tinged with the irrational. What this highlights is how dangerous ethics is. It’s not for nothing that Lacan’s ethics is a reading of Antigone. Indeed, Kierkegaard’s “religious suspension of the ethical” is roughly congruent to Lacan’s “ethics.”

In this light, let’s take a look at another passage from the article.

Religious ideologists usually claim that, true or not, religion makes some otherwise bad people to do some good things. From today’s experience, however, one should rather stick to Steven Weinberg’s claim: while, without religion, good people would have been doing good things and bad people bad things, only religion can make good people do bad things.

I think there’s a Lacanian argument to be made there, but I’m not at all sure that it is the one Zizek is making, at least in the short form. The argument I would make instead is that just when it looks to us like we’re assuming control over our own ethical choices, just when we’ve killed God or whatever, we are blind to the way we’ve simply substituted poorly-examined conventional wisdom, institutional and individual self-interest and precritical morality for true ethical action.* True ethical action is, after all, terror: too unstable to really hang around.

*I think that’s what Zizek is doing with his reference to political correctness, but I’m straining the bounds of a charitable reading here.

Apples and Tomatoes; or, Mandatory blog about Mike Daisey day

You’ll all have heard by now that “This American Life” retracted a story they had aired featuring theatrical performer Mike Daisey, which related in one-man-show-monologue form his visit to an Apple, Inc. factory in Shenzhen, China. Twitter and the Web are aflame, largely with criticism for and mockery of Mr. Daisey, who states:

“Look. I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand behind the work,” Daisey said. “My mistake, the mistake I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism. And it’s not journalism. It’s theater.”

I think much of the criticism is misguided. Let me explain how I see this.

The journalism/theater distinction that Daisey invokes hangs on a more fundamental distinction between Capital-T Truth and empirical facts. Jacques Derrida has smart things to say about this in an essay called “Poetics and Politics of Witnessing,” from a volume called Sovereignties in Question. He says, in effect, that the truth to which we witness is a different kind of thing than the fact to which we demonstrate: witnessing makes a kind of value-laden claim beyond that which is attainable by fact. Facts, no matter how many, and no matter how undeniable, do not add up to testimony. Testimony has something extra. Daisey got caught trying to trade up from empirical fact to testimony, in order to access a more substantive ethical claim, the invocation of which might conjure something like responsibility in his listeners. In other words, he got caught counterfeiting that “something extra.”

(One is reminded of the story of the holocaust deniers using small factual discrepancies in the work of Elie Wiesel — who had apparently forgotten how many smokestacks there were at Auschwitz or some bullshit — to attempt to discredit him. Disturbing stuff.)

But, and this is important, whether or not Mike Daisey actually met the workers poisoned by n-hexane gas, there actually were such workers, and their poisoning, if not their meeting with Daisey, did in fact take place. The story is about them, not about him. If Daisey bent the story somewhat to make his piece more compelling, in order that he might bear witness for these workers to This American Life’s audience of hundreds of thousands, well, I agree that that is regrettable. His decision to punch it up, to “take a few shortcuts in his passion to be heard,” was a poor decision, and one which will probably, understandably, and — again — regrettably have the effect of undercutting what it was he sought to achieve. But a lot of things are regrettable. Also regrettable is how difficult it is to bring this sort of information to broad awareness. It can be hard to get a hearing for the unimaginable, but just as hard to get a hearing for that which everyone already knows. Also regrettable is how difficult it is to mobilize action on the basis of such information.

More regrettable still is that these sorts of labor-safety issues still exist.

Interestingly, few would — or should, anyway — dispute the basic significance of the piece, which is that our enjoyment of the fruit of the Foxconn factories in Shenzhen blinds us to the violence and exploitation carried on within. I like my iPhone and MacBook a lot, just like everyone else; it’s easy to forget, as you swipe lazily through, the way the tendrils of the supply chain tie you to those workers; the relationship you are willfully blinding yourself to as you read. As Marx would have it, you mistake a relationship between men (you and the worker) for a relationship between things ($499 for an iPad).

This experience is, I think, what the most interesting of Daisey’s falsifications is grasping toward: the injured worker who “strokes the screen” of an iPad “with his ruined hand,” and then says, through the translator, that “it’s a kind of magic.” The mystification of the commodity fetish even works on those who know better, even those who have themselves been most directly injured by the manufacturing process. Maybe especially them. I think that this counts as a genuine insight, but a more speculative insight which would not have possible in the same form had he stuck strictly to what he had literally seen.

That said, I still would have strongly preferred that he be more honest with his audience about what he had seen in China and what he merely thought about it. Daisey has thought about this a lot; his thoughts are nuanced and interesting in and of themselves, and should not require misrepresentation to be relevant. Sadly, though…

Many have pointed to the NYT series on Apple’s Chinese factories, but one connection I have not yet seen today is any link between those pieces — presumably legitimately journalistic; it is the Grey Lady — and Daisey’s more fictionalized account. If Daisey has stretched the facts in service of the Truth; the NYT piece has soft-pedaled the Truth in service of the facts. Apple gets the blame, in those pieces, because the story needs a boundary in order to be journalism: but they acknowledge, at moments, that almost all electronics are made by many of these same contractors, and under very similar conditions. The problem with the Times stories is that, in order to get space — “in their passion to be heard,” Mike Daisey might say — they choose a company to pick on, Apple, whose every move is newsworthy these days. Apple gets to be singled out from a whole NYSE of companies guilty of similar offenses, because there’s no way the story would top the “Most E-mailed List” if it were talking about LG or Samsung or Sony Ericsson.

In so doing, they deemphasize that very nearly everything we consume, with far too few exceptions, is the product of exploitative labor relations. The series would have trouble cohering as a work of journalism if it actually made the kind of broad indictment of the inhumanity of the workplace conditions in which so many billions of human beings labor that the actual state of the actual world requires. Not only in China, not only in the developing world: everywhere. There are practices in Florida Tomato fields, which have been linked to human trafficking and slavery, which make Shenzhen seem downright humane. Worker safety in extractive industries like mining has been a pervasive problem for centuries.

That the efforts of Daisey and the NYT journalists may have prompted Apple to allow independent examination of their contractors’ factories, even if there are questions about the particular group they’ve chosen, is a positive development. This sets an expectation, a standard of behavior, which should be brought to bear on all electronics firms; indeed, on all employers, in all fields. We cannot simply push the undesirable consequences of our goals halfway around the world in order to help us ignore them. Human dignity is valuable, too, even if its value is harder to quantify than a P/E ratio.

Daisey was wrong to misrepresent what he knew and how he knew it. But the countervailing emphasis on a callow empiricism, divorced from any theoretical effort to actually understand what is happening in the world, is also wrong.


Geithner, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, offers us the following vignette:

My wife occasionally looks up from the newspaper with bewilderment while reading another story about people in the financial world or their lobbyists complaining about Wall Street reform or claiming they didn’t need the Troubled Asset Relief Program. She reminds me of the panicked calls she answered for me at home late at night or early in the morning in 2008 from the then-giants of our financial system.

His wife. Huh.

Why is she there?

Timothy Geithner, you see, is a real flesh-and-blood man, as the preceding hackneyed attempt at gesturing towards the attitudes of everyday Americans is supposed to remind us. His real flesh-and-blood wife, invoked prosopopeia-ically, is the only thing that keeps Geithner anchored to some approximation of Life on Earth.

(Apparently they went to Dartmouth together. That’s adorable.)

In a game with some friends on Twitter, I suggested and others contributed novelistic touches, to complete the gesture.

I especially like Neil’s imperceptible moaning. Nice touch.

Jokes aside, the Treasury is not a person. The Treasury can accuse no one of ingratitude, a slight which it is unable to feel, not being, you know, a person. If the Treasury were to have a wife, however, who really keeps it/him grounded, well, it would be possible to authorize a new kind of moral claim, one grounded on mores grounded in human sociability, from which institutions are ordinarily excluded, even those institutions with regulatory authority over those who treat them so shabbily. This is the obverse of the right-wing claim in which the government, like a household, should “tighten its belt” in hard times. That argument is pro-cyclical and stupid, of course, and I agree with Geithner’s argument for regulation. That said, it’s important to recognize that the two arguments share a rhetorical basis.

(A related note on the Treasury Secretary’s prose: His sentences are long and curiously comma-less, and they plod along breathlessly, as if Geithner no longer needs the register of speech. Seriously: try to read that passage aloud. The ‘or their lobbyists’ in the first sentence is just agony.)

Hitchens is “Complicated.”

A quick post: Much of the press on Christopher Hitchens’ passing has called him “complicated.” If you’ve read even a few of the pieces of opinion from the usual suspects, you get this (I like those pieces, BTW: recommended). We hear a lot about his courage, the clarity of his moral vision, the force of his prose, and then we hear about his alcoholism, his irritability, his misogyny: you see, he was a complicated man.

But does any of this amount to complexity? Leaving aside the man — it seems to me that prickly, high-functioning alcoholics whose views run to the misogynistic are actually and unfortunately a staple of our literary culture — was Hitchens’ work really so complicated?

While I haven’t read so much of his work to really say, my suspicion is that it was not. His humanitarianism could be quite admirable, but he loved to over-simplify complicated moral questions and press them into service as bludgeons. He was uninterested in detail and *often* wrong. The link in the embedded tweet above is to a John Barrell review of Hitchens’ book on Paine; he found it to be basically an extended string of solecisms. His take on religion can be most generously described as tedious (cf. Terry Eagleton); it cannot be described as complex. I have long suspected that his position on the Iraq War was self-serving: it was a good career move, c. 2003, to be, not quite but almost literally, the only intellectual in the world in favor of the invasion, a view he never gave over.

That’s contrarianism, not complexity.

My take is that “complicated” is a symptom: it refers less to Hitchens than to the form/content contradiction he posed to the intellectual class he leaves behind. Culturally, he was identifiable in broad strokes as one of ours, a late exemplar of that unicorn-rare entity (in American media, anyways) the public intellectual, but I have great difficulty recalling any of his positions that I have found even minimally interesting, let alone agreeable. He offered all of the downsides, the bluster and egotism of the real thing, with none of the actual thought-provoking substance. Hitchens papered over these cracks with a well-chosen word or a metrically-balanced phrase; we’re left with just a few ill-chosen words to do that work.