Tuesday, November 8, 2016

"Remember Lenin, who (be it said for all Popperian lovers of ‘falsification’) alloted to error a privileged role in the process of the rectification of knowledge, to the point where he conferred on it, with respect to scientific experiment and political practice, a kind of heuristic primacy over ‘truth’: how many times did he repeat that it is worse to blind yourself and keep silent about a defeat than to suffer it, that it is worse to close your eyes to an error than to commit it" - Louis Althusser, "Unfinished History"

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

"The best way to organise a state is easily discovered by considering the purpose of civil order, which is nothing other than peace and security of life. Therefore the best state is one where men live together in harmony and where the laws are preserved unbroken. For it is certain that rebellions, wars, and contempt for or violation of the laws are to be attributed not so much to the wickedness of subjects as to the faulty organisation of the state. Men are not born to be citizens, but are made so. Furthermore, men's natural passions are everywhere the same; so if wickedness is more prevalent and wrongdoing more frequent in one commonwealth than in another, one can be sure that this is because the former has not done enough to promote harmony and has not framed its laws with sufficient forethought, and thus it has not attained the full right of a commonwealth. For a civil order that has not removed the causes of rebellion and where the threat of war is never absent and the laws are frequently broken is little different from a state of Nature, where every man lives as he pleases with his life at risk." - Baruch Spinoza, Political Treatise

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Hipster Black Metal

"Commitment to art can suggest effeminacy as well as obedience to the values of the social system (e.g. succeeding in the higher reaches of education by doing what one is told to do in order to be held to have understood the history of the art tradition). To show, then, as part of one's commitment to art, a commitment to jazz music as it appears within what is the deep base of the whole social, jazz experience is to offset the slur of effeminate conformism. To be interested in 'hot jazz' is to be interested in what goes beyond the threshold of excess as comprehended by the most dashing, philistine trendies of the period. Larkin testifies to the fact that he, as an academically successful young man, was drawn to jazz music because of its 'bad reputation'." - Roger L. Taylor, Art an Enemy of the People

Sunday, October 2, 2016


Trump made another dumb joke and now we all have to read about it. The self-appointed referees of American politics have flooded the media with declarations that the Donald’s little hint that one of his supporters should shoot Hillary Clinton CROSSES THE LINE.

It’s galling to see another round of pearl clutching not about Trump’s delightful mix of racist authoritarianism and supply-side economics, which is basically standard Conservatism at this point, but rather at Trump’s carefully performed mannerisms and his supposed unfitness for office–as if the functioning of the various federal administrative bureaucracies depended on the continence and good will of the president. But if we grit our teeth and carefully examine the contents of these elite condemnations, we’ll see the profound self-deception and pathetic opportunism endemic to the leading personnel of the entrenched political class. 

Let’s take washed up ex-newsman Dan Rather, whose crie de couer against Trump has gone viral on Facebook and found its way into my eyes. He says Trump’s comments are “ “grave and unprecedented” andagainst the norms of American politics,” and he wants to make sure we know that they’re more than “just another outrageous moment in the campaign.”

But this is dumb. Joking about offing your opponents has a proud history in this country. Andrew Jackson famously said that his greatest regret about his presidency was that “I didn’t shoot Henry Clay and I didn’t hang John C. Calhoun.” Jackson isn’t as well regarded today as he was in the past, but he’s staying on the money and plenty of local Democratic parties still hold Jefferson-Jackson Day fundraisers. I guess we are all supposed to pretend that we never cracked the occasional assassination joke in the Bush administration?

Rather says that “a direct threat of violence against a political opponent” is unprecedented because we are a “a democratic republic governed by the rule of law.” That’s some real shit. American political order has always depended on a great deal of violence, including extra-legal violence, even compared to other capitalist societies. The American state is plenty violent against its internal enemies, but our benevolent overlords only seem to get worried about political violence when it threatens to touch a member of their club.

Euro-American civilization exists because colonial authorities depended on an armed population to defend and expand it. Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and their allies dispatched militias to rough up poor farmers protesting against the predatory debt collection and regressive taxation that centralized capital in the hands of major financiers at the country’s founding. Before the class compromises of World War II, employers used private militias to crush labor militancy. Woodrow Wilson rounded up and deported every red he could lay his hands on, and a few other people who looked like they might be reds. Do I really need to bring up COINTELPRO? You may also recall this country had a bit of a civil war.

Let’s talk about that civil war, actually. Dan Rather quotes Lincoln’s plea “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” Of course, Lincoln sort of changed his tune when he built the largest army ever seen on the continent, oversaw the invention of modern total war, vastly expanded the repressive power of the federal state to crack down on political opponents, ordered American cities burned to the ground, and executed one of the most massive expropriations of private property ever anywhere in history. And he is one of our national heroes for doing that, because sometimes we really are enemies. Four years after the speech Rather quotes, Lincoln was less convinced of the necessity of averting conflict:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’
But Dan Rather does not regard the judgements of the Lord as true and righteous altogether, and he really gives away the game with a final bit of foolery: “It was the eve of the Civil War and sadly [Lincoln’s] call for sanity, cohesion and peace was met with horrific violence that almost left our precious Union asunder. We cannot let that happen again.”

Actually, the civil war was probably the best thing that ever happened to the USA. The southern slaveocracy was not going to submit peacefully to the dissolution of their social system. They refused any consideration of compensated emancipation, and besides no one was going to pay for it anyway. Half of the advocates of abolition wanted to expel black people from the country. But the war destroyed the material foundations of slavery, weakening local repressive powers and allowing American slaves to walk off the plantations in what W.E.B. DuBois called a successful general strike to smash slavery. The Union was forced to put guns in black hands on an unprecedented scale. Rather than gradual, compensated emancipation and deportation, the civil war brought about black citizenship in a social revolution that took a great deal of counterrevolutionary bloodshed to roll back.

If there’s something to regret about our civil war, it’s that the subsequent military occupation of the defeated Confederacy wasn’t longer and more repressive. But for the Dan Rathers of this world the emancipation of four million human beings from a life of being sold on an auction block, beaten, raped and worked to death was small consolation for the sundering of “our precious Union.” The stability of our political system is more important than human freedom, specifically the freedom of those other humans.

I never understand Trump’s appeal more than when I hear these decadent elite mediocrities lecturing us about him because hey, America is already great and we shouldn’t be so extreme. This finger waving from media flunkies who deserve to get punched in the face allows Trump, an asshole billionaire heir who steals from everyone he meets, to seem like a rebel who’s sticking it to the man. One gets the sense that what elites fear most about Trump then is that he’ll usher in an age of mass mobilization and upset the order of things.

It’s not a bad thing to hate your enemies, and anyone who claims that American politics are a genteel conversation is a craven bullshitter. Lincoln understood that history sometimes puts you in a situation where a fight is inevitable and you need to fight to win. We are not in an era where moderation and compromise are going to get much done and win popular support. Trump profits from the lack of viable alternatives to the rotating official elites who keep bumbling from crisis to crisis, although he wants to replace them with even more reactionary, incompetent goons.

But since the leading sections of the ruling class are obviously headed for crisis (economic, ecological, military, you name it) and the far right is on the march, maybe we need to worry less about preventing the next civil war and more about finishing the last one. - Ray Valentine, "Rather, Trump, Fail"

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

And tears and sighs and groans

"To read for one's own overthrow is an unusual strategy. It differs equally from the rejection of a text as mistaken or immoral and from the assimilation of a text as compatible with one's own being. Reading like a loser means assimilating a text in such a way that it is incompatible with one's self.

"The interpretative challenge presented by the doctrine of predestination is in important respects similar to the one Nietzsche offers his readers. The underlying presupposition of both is that many are called, and few are chosen. One might suppose that the majority of those faced with the doctrine would deduce that they are more likely to be among the many than the few. But, just as almost all of Nietzsche's readers identify themselves as being among the few who are honest, strong and courageous, so generations of Christians have discovered themselves to be among the few who are 'called'. The alternative, although seemingly logical, was so rare as to be considered pathological. People were not expected to survive in this state. [...]

"Reading like losers, we may respond very differently to the claims Nietzsche makes on behalf of himself and his readers. Rather than reading for victory with Nietzsche, or even reading for victory against Nietzsche by identifying with the slave morality, we read for victory against ourselves, making ourselves the victims of the text. Doing so does not involve treating the text with scepticism or suspicion. In order to read like a loser you have to accept the argument, but turn its consequences against yourself. So, rather than thinking of ourselves as dynamite, or questioning Nietzsche's extravagant claim, we will immediately think (as we might if someone said this to us in real life) that there might be an explosion; that we might get hurt; that we are too close to someone who could harm us. Reading like losers will make us feel powerless and vulnerable.

"The net result, of course, is that reading Nietzsche will become far less pleasurable. When we read that 'Those who are from the outset victims, downtrodden, broken - they are the ones, the weakest are the ones who most undermine life', we will think primarily of ourselves. Rather than being an exhilarating vision of the limitless possibilities of human emancipation, Nietzsche's texts will continually remind us of our own weakness and mediocrity, and our irremediable exclusion from the life of joy and careless laughter that is possible only for those who are healthier and more powerful." - Malcolm Bull, Anti-Nietzsche

Friday, September 2, 2016


"Imagine someone has seen a flower and seeing this flower has left the person with a passive affect - joy in the flower's beauty. This affect might be so positioned in the mental mechanism as to move the person toward the flower to pick it. The person is conscious of the flower's beauty and conscious of the desire to move to pick it. Indeed, he will likely also be conscious of his picking it, and so on.

"Now let us ask this person why he picked the flower. He may be unconscious of the fact that his joy in the flower's beauty is what moved him. He might think of his idea of the flower's beauty as merely a passive representation of beauty and not an affect capable of causing him to move. In reflecting on his mind, he sees the representation of the flower's beauty, attended by a desire to pick it, followed by the motion to pick the flower. He does not see that the representation, being an affect, caused the subsequent motion.

"The affectivity account [of consciousness] can explain this phenomenon perfectly. The idea of the flower, by itself, does not cause the motion - that is, the fact that this idea moves him is not merely a feature of the essence of this idea. Instead, the idea moves him to act - that is, it becomes an affect of desire - in virtue of the causal relations it bears to the other constituents of the mental mechanism. As the idea exercises its power, it has a certain effect on the conatus that has a parallel effect in the body that results in a motion toward the flower. But these causal relations between the idea and the affect of desire are not themselves affects and thus not the objects of conscious awareness. That is, we might be aware of our judgment of beauty and we might also be aware of our desire to pick the flower, followed by our motion toward the flower to pick it. But we might not be aware that the idea is an affect, and that this affect causes the motion. In other words, we might conclude that nothing caused the desire apart from us; we might therefore conclude ourselves to have initiated the motion toward the flower. In short, Spinoza takes ideas and affects to interact in the mental mechanism in the mind in such a way as to cause human behavior, though he also asserts that our conscious awareness of the workings of this mechanism is often quite limited.

"Another way to conceive of this illusion of free will is in terms of explanation. Consider a passive desire I might have, say, to have a slice of pie. My desire for the pie is explained by its adequate or total cause. Let's say that the adequate cause of my desire for pie includes my hunger, the passive passion of love that arises in me when I view the pie, and the constitution of the pie in virtue of which it can cause this desirous love in me. The cause of this inadequate idea/passive affect thus includes modes outside of my mind and body; I am only a partial cause of this desire. If an idea in my mind is partially explained by ideas not present in my mind, then the idea in my mind is inadequate - I lack knowledge of some part of its cause. That is, were I to reflect on my desire for the pie, I could not offer a complete explanation for my desire; the ideas available to me could not adequately explain my movement toward it. Given the partial explanation available to me, I might not feel that the resultant desire has been necessitated; as far as I know, the cause does not require it.

"This is just how Spinoza distinguishes between our ideas of necessity and possibility. He says, 'I call the same singular things possible, insofar as, while we attend to the causes from which they must be produced, we do not know whether those causes are determined to produce them' (4def4). In the case of an inadequate idea or passive desire, we do not know the total cause of the mode of thought in question. Thus, from what we know of the cause, we do not know whether the effect is necessary, so we take it to be merely possible. Because we cannot know the total cause of a passive desire; we take it and the resulting action to be merely possible, which might lead us to conclude, falsely, that we have free will. This error is only possible when we do not have a conscious awareness of the adequate cause of our desire, i.e., the error is only possible in inadequacy and not when we act from adequate knowledge." - Eugene Marshall, The Spiritual Automaton: Spinoza's Science of the Mind

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

"In her 1979 essay 'The Family: Love It or Leave It,' the late music and cultural critic Ellen Willis noted that the counterculture’s desire to replace the family with a system of collective child-rearing would have entailed 'a social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude.' It’s very difficult, in our deflated times, to re-create the counterculture’s confidence that such a 'social and psychic revolution' could not only happen, but was already in the process of unfolding. Like many of her generation, Willis’s life was shaped by first being swept up by these hopes, then seeing them gradually wither as the forces of reaction regained control of history. There’s probably no better account of the Sixties counterculture’s retreat from Promethean ambition into self-destruction, resignation, and pragmatism than Willis’s collection of essays Beginning To See The Light. The Sixties counterculture might now have been reduced to a series of 'iconic'—overfamiliar, endlessly circulated, dehistoricized—aesthetic relics, stripped of political content, but Willis’s work stands as a painful reminder of leftist failure. As Willis makes clear in her introduction to Beginning To See The Light, she frequently found herself at odds with what she experienced as the authoritarianism and statism of mainstream socialism. While the music she listened to spoke of freedom, socialism seemed to be about centralization and state control. The story of how the counterculture was co-opted by the neoliberal Right is now a familiar one, but the other side of this narrative is the Left’s incapacity to transform itself in the face of the new forms of desire to which the counterculture gave voice.

"The idea that the 'Sixties led to neoliberalism' is complicated by the emphasis on the challenge to the family. For it then becomes clear that the Right did not absorb countercultural currents and energies without remainder. The conversion of countercultural rebellion into consumer capitalist pleasures necessarily misses the counterculture’s ambition to do away with the institutions of bourgeois society: an ambition which, from the perspective of the new 'realism' that the Right has successfully imposed, looks naive and hopeless.

"The counterculture’s politics were anticapitalist, Willis argues, but this did not entail a straightforward rejection of everything produced in the capitalist field. Certainly, pleasure and individualism were important to what Willis characterizes as her 'quarrel with the left,' yet the desire to do away with the family could not be construed in these terms alone; it was inevitably also a matter of new and unprecedented forms of collective (but non-statist) organization. Willis’s 'polemic against standard leftist notions about advanced capitalism' rejected as at best only half-true the ideas 'that the consumer economy makes us slave to commodities, that the function of the mass media is to manipulate our fantasies, so we will equate fulfilment with buying the system’s commodities.' Popular culture—and music culture in particular—was a terrain of struggle rather than a dominion of capital. The relationship between aesthetic forms and politics was unstable and inchoate—culture didn’t just 'express' already existing political positions, it also anticipated a politics-to-come (which was also, too often, a politics that never actually arrived).

"Music culture’s role as one of the engines of cultural acceleration from the late ‘50s through to 2000 had to do with its capacity to synthesize diverse cultural energies, tropes, and forms, as much as any specific feature of music itself. From the late ‘50s onward, music culture became the zone where drugs, new technologies, (science) fictions, and social movements could combine to produce dreamings—suggestive glimmers of worlds radically different from the actually existing social order. (The rise of the Right’s 'realism' entailed not only the destruction of particular kinds of dreaming, but the very suppression of the dreaming function of popular culture itself.) For a moment, a space of autonomy opened up, right in the heart of commercial music, for musicians to explore and experiment. In this period, popular music culture was defined by a tension between the (usually) incompatible desires and imperatives of artists, audiences, and capital. Commodification was not the point at which this tension would always and inevitably be resolved in favour of capital; rather, commodities could themselves be the means by which rebellious currents could propagate: 'The mass media helped to spread rebellion, and the system obligingly marketed products that encouraged it, for the simple reason that there was money to be made from rebels who were also consumers. On one level the sixties revolt was an impressive illustration of Lenin’s remark that the capitalist will sell you the rope to hang him with.' This now looks rather quaintly optimistic, since, as we all know, it wasn’t the capitalist who ended up hanged. The marketing of rebellion became more about the triumph of marketing than of rebellion. The neoliberal Right’s coup consisted in individualizing the desires that the counterculture had opened up, then laying claim to the new libidinal terrain. The rise of the new Right was premised on the repudiation of the idea that life, work, and reproduction could be collectively transformed—now, capital would be the only agent of transformation. But the retreat of any serious challenge to the family is a reminder that the mood of reaction that has grown since the 1980s was not only about the restoration of some narrowly defined economic power: it was also about the return—at the level of ideology, if not necessarily of empirical fact—of social and cultural institutions that it had seemed possible to eliminate in the 1960s." - Mark Fisher, "'A social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude': Popular Culture's Interrupted Accelerationist Dreams"