Confusion of Terms

January 28, 2010

From Andrew Sullivan’s blog:

I was sitting watching the SOTU tonight, and it finally hit me – the man is a compassionate conservative. A real one. He is what Bush told us he was. He is an utterly, deeply serious man who is willing to stand in front of the country and take his share of the blame. I miss that in a leader.

I don’t know anything about this commenter. (Sullivan was quoting a reader who chimed in.) Still, it is refreshing to see people who actually have a grasp of what terms mean and their historicity. I was asleep during the President’s State of the Union address last night, and I wasn’t expecting much anyway. What was he going to tell me? “Sorry, I don’t have the guts to lay down the law to the House, and the Senate is a dysfunctional mess.” I read the text of his speech this morning when I woke up and I was struck at his scolding-parent tone. Thank goodness for it. If there’s one thing I can agree with the Tea Partyers on it is this: the politicians are concerned about themselves, and not about “public service.” (Just to be clear, that the ONLY thing I agree with the Tea Partyers on.)

I admire the President’s commitment to calm, rational debate. America is a news environment in which deliberately poisonous terms like “fascist” “socialist” “communist” are thrown around with little care for what the words actually mean. They sound bad, and that’s all people care about. I’ve said it before; I’d like the President a lot more if he were a socialist. The man and his policies simply cannot be construed as such; I suggest that those who scream otherwise have a poor grasp of history. It disappoints me that people I know, educated people, get confused about this. I can only conclude that they’ve been co-opted by the voices that shout loudest. President Obama refuses to be that voice, and I appreciate that. I’m pessimistic that the approach will win the day, though.

Writing About Good Things

January 26, 2010

In the past few years some of the best acting has come from actors inhabiting a dark place. Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood; Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men; Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. I love a good, dark film; they strike me as much truer to life than the typical romantic comedy/feel-good story. I think feel good stories and romantic comedies face a bit of a handicap when trying to get us to suspend disbelief, though. I hope I take nothing away from those three actors when I say it is easier to play a bad person convincingly than it is to be genuinely good, and this is why, I think, we end up hailing those performances. It is so much easier to tap into that dark place inside ourselves and unleash a convincing portrayal of that darkness than it is to play a truly good person and have that come off convincingly.

I’m reminded of (nerd alert) Star Wars, when Luke asks Yoda if the Dark Side of the Force is stronger. “No, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.” Anger, rage, evil… it’s just easier to do, easier to pull off.

I think this ends up being true of writing, as well. It is difficult to write a happy story without it coming across saccharine. My mom noticed the other day that I tend to write my longest posts about things I’m angry about, and that most of my posts end up being about things that upset me. When I write about things I like the posts are embarrassingly short. A few weeks ago I endorsed M.I.A.’s Arular, and gave a review of it that was about five sentences long. Hardly enough to do the album justice. Even this post is going to end up being nowhere near as long as some of my other, more incendiary topics.

Later this week, or perhaps next week, I’ll put some posts up about some music I’ve been listening to lately that I’ve really liked. Something good to write about.

Seasons For Art

January 22, 2010

I spent a lot of today getting increasingly angrier about… things, and one thing I tried to do to combat that was listening to some music. I’m a bit obsessive about my music, and I have an extensive collection on my computer; 6730 songs right now. One thing I like to do is listen to albums all the way through to get a feel for how the songs hold together as a unit. That hit single may be great in isolation, but how does it hold up surrounded by other material? Of course there’s a degree of separation here; as a rule, I’m not a fan of Blur. I cannot deny, however, that Song 2 is an incredible sugar rush of pop perfection. WOOHOO! indeed. I’m actively not a fan of Britney Spears, but I found myself– like my friend Steve– strangely enamored of the song “Womanizer.” Can’t help it, folks. A good song is a good song.

One way that I account for these ordering tendencies of mine is to make extensive use of the iTunes star ratings. On the one hand, these are ridiculous; how can art be rendered into “stars”? On the other, glancing at an album’s averaged star rating gives me an idea of how I like a particular set of songs in their entirety, whilst also letting me see which ones are standouts and which drag the set down. Since migrating my music over to my current computer I’ve had to go back through and re-rank all of my music. When you’ve got twenty and a half days of music and also listen to a lot of podcasts that takes a while. Today I got around to listening to an album that I remembered liking a whole lot before and eagerly anticipating revisiting.

And I was disappointed this time around.

I don’t think this is the fault of the artist, Leigh Nash. I’m struck, rather, at how blatantly subjective my own appraisal of music– and art in general, I suspect– must be. See, Nash’s songs on this album are sappy, head-over-heels-in-love songs, written while Nash was married. Given that she and her husband have now gotten divorced, I suspect she sees these songs differently as well. When I first got this album I, too, was twitterpated, and my love of the songs was duly influenced. I loved this album– Blue on Blue, for the record. Now? Only the slightly melancholy “Along the Wall” jumps out at me as an excellent track. The others? Merely competent.

It isn’t actively bad. I’ve heard plenty of music that falls in this category. It’s just… fine, and I suspect that when I get another crush, my appreciation for this album will increase again. If you’re in love there’s no better set of songs that I can think of right now. If you’re not in love they sound… really naive.

What I’m most interested in, given this revelation, is how my reaction to other art has been influenced by my “seasons.” I know, for example, that during my “rebellious phase”– what a laugh… me, rebel?– I listened to louder, crunchier music. Not so much anymore. But let’s get away from music for a bit; I used to love Star Wars books. Like… really loved them. Read them like they were going out of style, which, of course, they were. Then I hit this “classics” phase. Contemporary fiction is crap, why bother. College pulled me out of that and plunged me into non-fiction. I think I went about three years without reading an entire work of fiction while I was an undergrad. Right now I’m in a Russian lit/theology phase, but I’ve got an itch to read up on economics and emancipatory non/fiction. Yipes. I’m not sure I can trace such distinct patterns in my movie-going, but I’m sure they’re there.

So here’s me asking for feedback. Have you noticed this yourself? What seasons have you gone through? Does it affect the way to return to works?

You owe it to yourself to pick up a Harper’s and read Scott Horton’s piece, The Guantanamo “Suicides.” If you can’t get a hard copy of it, here’s a convenient link to the article.

Dahlia Lithwick at Slate has something to say about this, and Andrew Sullivan’s blog has been exploding in outrage for this entire week.

What’s the take-away? American soldiers (apparently) tortured three men to death and then covered it up to make it look like a suicide while these men were under our custody in a US military prison.

As Lithwick asks, “Why aren’t we talking about this?”

I think it is because we, as a country, have become totally utilitarian in our thinking about morality. Even people who say they’re against torture aren’t coming out and making statements about how unacceptable this is. Why? Does the military in our country have this much power that an investigative journalist’s story can’t bring about real change? Thirty years ago a revelation like this would have meant a complete overhaul of the way the US treats its prisoners and public accounting for the atrocity.

Scratch that, thirty years ago the United States wouldn’t have done something like this.

We’re so caught up in keeping our place at the front of the world queue that anything is acceptable now, so long as it “protects America’s interests.” But to think that torturing people under our custody is in the American interest is an impoverished moral framework. It doesn’t matter that “the terrorists” might do the same to Americans. We’re supposed to be about rule of law, laws which said that we. don’t. torture. To think of novel legal definitions that put prisoners outside the scope of our laws is tantamount to breaking them in the first place.

Two of the men who were killed/killed themselves were set to be released. Because they had done nothing wrong. Instead of going home when the US released them the men did this,

According to the NCIS, each prisoner had fashioned a noose from torn sheets and T-shirts and tied it to the top of his cell’s eight-foot-high steel-mesh wall. Each prisoner was able somehow to bind his own hands, and, in at least one case, his own feet, then stuff more rags deep down into his own throat. We are then asked to believe that each prisoner, even as he was choking on those rags, climbed up on his washbasin, slipped his head through the noose, tightened it, and leapt from the washbasin to hang until he asphyxiated. The NCIS report also proposes that the three prisoners, who were held in non-adjoining cells, carried out each of these actions almost simultaneously.

Sound likely?

The United States elected the people who enacted the policies that enabled these things to happen. Lots of them are still sitting in Congress or are involved in lobbying or are even part of the President’s administration. This makes every. single. American. culpable.

We elected them. We caused this. We screwed up. We owe the world an apology.

Walking By

January 18, 2010

In the areas of Belfast I frequent there are quite a few beggars. I suspect this is no coincidence; I’m most in the busy areas of the city, and it makes sense that more of the poor would be in those areas. Still, it means that wherever I go in town the city’s disadvantaged are viscerally evident to me.

And every time I walk by.

It bothers me, but I have nothing to give. That’s no exaggeration, truly. I’ve got five pounds right now; that’s it until my money from the states comes through, which is in… I’m not quite sure. I’m running on a tight budget right now, and the truth is I can’t afford to give anything to the people who need it. But of course my poverty is relative, because if things really got desperate my parents, or maybe my grandparents, would be able to give me a little. Obviously the guy begging– every day– in front of Boojum doesn’t have that safety net. The people selling The Big Issue in front of the ATM at the Ulster Bank in front of the University probably don’t either.

What do I do?

When I was in Jackson, Megan told me that feeling uncomfortable about the situations you’re put in can be a huge step, but I really don’t like feeling uncomfortable. I feel like sitting down and talking with folks would just be patronizing, especially since I can’t actually give them anything concrete. “Hey, I won’t give you any money, but here’s ten minutes of my time. Isn’t that of worth to you?” I volunteer with EBM when I can, but most of the stuff I’ve done has been second tier type stuff. I’m never interacting with the needy, and fair play to EBM for that; I’m not staff, and I don’t have training.

I suspect this is just something I won’t get an answer to, and I’ll just feel like something’s wrong.

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Click through the link here.

That meandering blue line is the sliver of Belfast I know. If you zoom out some, you’ll notice how small it is compared to the size of the city itself. I’ve hardly spent any time in the northern parts of the city, or out in the western districts. In fact, really… I pretty much just stay in the middle.


I walk everywhere or use a bike. In fact, you could lop off pretty much everything on the east side of the river if I wasn’t borrowing Harriet’s bike right now, because it would just be way too far for me to go with any sort of regularity. It gives me appreciation for the wonder that the automobile is.

Seriously. I mean, it puts all sorts of crappy stuff into the air, but being limited to where I can get with my own propulsion has made me identify with that hoary old kernel from middle school. “Most people in history never went more than seven miles from their home.” Or something like that.

I can believe it.

There’s a different side to this, though. We really love being “more connected,” whatever that means. Because of the internet I heard about the latest dumb thing that Pat Robertson said mere minutes after he said it! I knew about the tragedy in Haiti nearly instantly. I didn’t hear about the bomb that exploded underneath a Belfast police officer’s car until my dad emailed me about it, though. Why? Because unless I read it on one of my online news sources or the Guardian– which is the only paper over here I read with any regularity– I don’t hear about it. Dissident Republicans aren’t newsworthy in the face of parsing Harry Reid’s “negro dialect” comments, apparently.

I wonder if cars do the same thing. If I had a car I could venture down to Dublin with ease; make a trip to Derry; wander on down to Cork where my family came from. I don’t think I’d have as good a feel for the middle of Belfast as I have, though.

Is this the tradeoff?

I’ve started picking up the Irish Independent when I’m in Common Grounds in order to better keep up with the news on the island better. But even this betrays locality to some extent. Dissident Republicans tried to blow up a police officer. What’s on the front pages everywhere right now? Iris Robinson’s affair.

Oh, 2010.

In the twentieth century a school of social science theory came to prominence by criticizing the status quo in the philosophy of social science. Spearheaded by the Frankfurt School theorists, Adorno, Marcuse, and Horkheimer, this movement advocated for what became known as critical theory. Their rejection of social science based on the principles of natural science caused is centered on the idea that the tools of natural science or not suited to the study of human behavior and society. The methods used to study subjects are tools, and the critical theorists simply wanted people to use the proper tool when studying humans. Much of the theory of social science when the first critical theorists proposed their ideas was centered around Enlightenment ideals of objectivity and knowledge. Contrary to this the early critical theorists pointed out that the “myths” which early enlightenment thinkers dismissed as irrational were in fact just as rational within their contexts as any of the schemes that the Enlightenment thinkers came up with, and the Enlightenment schemas of the world were no less “mythic” than those that were criticized and dismissed.

One of the strongest criticisms of critical theory is that the emphasis on individual perspective and interpretation it demands engenders a sort of inherent conservatism. This is a strong accusation to be directed towards an initially neo-Marxist philosophical movement, and critical theorists since have tried to demonstrate how a critical encounter with a different culture could be self-transformative. In exploring this I will lay out the skeleton of critical theory and the ways in which its proponents have talked about self-transformation, and then I will discuss how societies and individuals can become transformed in a critical encounter using Bhiku Parekh’s writings on multiculturalism and Peter Rollins’ writings on religious thought in a post-Enlightenment setting. In light of the accusation that anti-positivism and critical theory are conservative, the examples of Rollins and Parekh suggest that in abandoning grand social engineering, critical theory seeks to inaugurate change within the observer– both a more modest and ultimately radical aim.

One of the things that distinguishes social science and social life from natural science is the difference between concepts. In social science concepts, to some degree at least, constitute the thing being studied, while in natural science concepts are merely descriptors and explanatory of the thing studied. This complicates the interpretation of meaning in the study of social science, because in order to understand a thing’s meaning then one must understand the role it plays in the system it is part of. In studying and truly understanding a concept, a social scientist must plumb all the dimensions of the concept and in so doing can hardly come out of the encounter unchanged. This is a point that the critical theorists press home. “A fundamental assumption of critical theory is that every form of social order entails some forms of domination and that the critical-emancipatory inter underlies the struggles to change those relations of domination-subordination.” This assumption presages much of Michel Foucault’s subsequent work, which built upon the foundations laid here.

As stated above, the critical theorists think that the aims and methodologies of natural science are good and useful in their proper context– natural science. For a long time social scientists preached empiricism and experimental rigor, but they rarely practiced their religion, as it were. “But when it comes to social science, Habermas thought that both the ‘technical’ interest in control and the ‘practical’ interest in understanding are properly subordinate to an ‘emancipatory’ interest in liberation.” Habermas thinks that positivism has its place in the natural world, interpretivism in history and anthropology, but critical theory is most useful in the social sciences. Social sciences are supposed to do three things: Understand situations and the distortions therein, explore the forces that cause those distortions, and help show that the distortions can be overcome. In best practice this pursuit of understanding would also apply to the forces and distortions working upon the scientist as well. Critical theory sees such programs as the pedagogy of the oppressed, liberation theology, feminism, and dependency theories as reflecting its aims.

This fundamental questioning of the basis for questioning– the denial of the “innocent fact”– renders all cultures and societies foreign, even the researcher’s own. Ideology is “a set of ideas which serve the interest of a particular social class.” This implicates social scientists since they operate within ideologies, and it is thus natural that their ideologies would be self-reinforcing. People rarely have a good reason to undermine their own foundation, but this is precisely what critical theory asks of the researcher. A scholar who did not take time to take into account his or her own viewpoints can no longer be seen as totally honest after this critique. Uncovering the unconscious bias in human life allows for the scholar to approach matters with new eyes. The aim of critical social science is “self-conscious practice which liberates humans from ideologically frozen conceptions of the actual and the possible,” to attempt to convince people that they are in fact actors in their own world, not just parts of socio-economic machines.

Under the regime of critical theory meanings and actions are momentary expressions of changing culture. Knowledge is not neutral; it is always for something; even the pursuit of knowledge is not a neutral pursuit. In doing so critical theory attempts to allow for the possibility of numerous knowledges and forms of explanation. The study of famine is a perfect opportunity to interrogate the traditional ways of discussing phenomena and the biases undergirding these methods. Typically famine has been understood as a failure of something; all that was needed was to isolate that failure and remedy the situation. This treated famine as an entirely natural occurrence which could be ameliorated instrumentally. Unfortunately, this is not always the case; sometimes a famine is a roaring success. Food prices go up, and people move away making land cheap; often many millions die, allowing famine to be used as a convenient tool for eliminating opponents. Without interrogating the foundations, this sort of thing would stay hidden.

Making underlying truth claims visible is the driving force behind critical theory. Having done this researchers engage in a dialogue with their topics. Critical social science research asks researchers to consider the situation of people who maintain and participate in the very processes that oppress them: They make the things run, but have no individual control over the processes. Habermas thinks that meaning is constructed intersubjectively, rather than in isolation by a single person. By breaking down the previous assumption, a person can “unmask and criticize factors that block developmental processes.”

Critical social science is aware of its historicity as it attempts to describe its context. It participates in reconstruction of its own society and the societies around it in order to understand. It is precisely this awareness of context that allows a critical encounter to be transformative. By not passing judgement on a social phenomenon and instead attempting to understand the reasons for that phenomenon’s existence the research open him or herself up to transformation. This can only happen given what Habermas called an “ideal speech event.” These events are governed by a series of rules which can roughly be boiled down to “all potential participants to the discourse must have equal opportunity to use constative speech acts.” Every must be allowed to make a truth claim in good faith, so as to problematize all truth claims and to honestly engage with them. Stephen White goes into more specific detail:

1. “Each subject who is capable of speech and action is allowed to participate in discourses.”
2. a. “Each is allowed to call into question any proposal.”
b. “Each is allowed to introduce any proposal into the discourse.”
c. “Each is allowed to express his attitudes, wishes, and needs.”
3. “No speaker out to be hindered by compulsion– whether arising for inside the discourse or outside of it– from making use of the rights secure under [1 and 2]”

After these conditions have been satisfied and discourse has begun then a researcher can begin to act by creating “a program of education with the subjects that gives them new ways of seeing their situation” and “a theoretically grounded program of action which will change social conditions and will also engender new, less alienated understandings and needs.”

It is into this tradition that Peter Rollins steps with his work, exploring new (and sometimes simultaneously very old) philosophical frameworks for Christian belief in a post-Enlightenment landscape. Rollins’ articulation is of “Christianity as a religion without religion, that is, as a tradition that is always prepared to wrestle with itself, disagree with itself, and betray itself.” Rollins provocatively argues that a Christian must be willing to take on the role of Judas in order to stay true to the spirit of Christian faith; in much the same way, a critical theorist is called to examine and hold all things in tension and, I would argue, be willing to betray his or her tradition in order to ultimately uphold it. Later on in The Fidelity of Betrayal, Rollins begins to unpack the idea of the “Word,” and his formulation holds significant parallels to the truth regimes that critical theorists want examined. On the surface the “Word” and the truth regimes people operate under seem fairly uncomplex, demanding little; a closer look reveals the myriad complications and immense demands they place upon those under their rule. According to Rollins “The point then is not to engage in a hermeneutical approach that would seek to somehow expose the mind of God, but rather to embrace a radical hermeneutics (a reading that sets the text free from the idea of a single correct meaning) that seeks to ultimately move beyond the desire to reduce the text to descriptive statements, inviting instead an ongoing transforming dialogue with the text.” This embodies the rebuke of the “conservative” critique, while also reaffirming a refusal to be tied down to one restrictive meaning. This is the point of critical engagement. A Christian leader taking these ideas seriously might say things like, “I affirm this value of the Muslim people of Turkey because it is true, it is good, and it is a better way to live. It doesn’t matter where I find it, who speaks or lives it, or what they believe, I claim and affirm truth wherever I find it.”

In How (not) to Speak of God, Rollins uses the now familiar rabbit/duck image to illuminate the pervasiveness of interpretation. While it is possible to speak of the real world– and that perhaps we should never stop speaking of the real world– we must acknowledge our existence as interpretive beings, and other people’s existence as interpretive beings as well. Understanding of this existence on our parts will open us up to understanding differing interpretations which are no less “real” than our own. Perhaps the best thing that critical theory can teach its applicants is the idea of “knowledge plus,” a topic Rollins refers to. This is true knowledge, which is knowledge of a subject, plus acknowledgment that this knowing is pierced by unknowing. By acknowledging this, the engager is allowing room for growth and transformation in light of new illumination.

Rollins speaks of truth not as a “fact to be grasped, but an incoming to be undergone.” In this formulation a believer is supposed to seek truth and to let it transform him or her. Seeking after something is implicitly affirming that the thing exists. Seeking transformation is implicitly affirming that transformation is possible. Rollins illustrates this with a parable about a Princess who upon receiving a vast treasure from a poor street boy, throws the treasure away in a bid to understand the treasure the boy must possess in order to give such riches away nonchalantly. Here the evidence of transformation is already in existence, as shown by the princess’ willingness to seek the transformation in the first place.

If Rollins’ work on religion can be applied to individuals, and even social science researchers, then Bhiku Parekh’s work on multiculturalism occupies a similar space on a societal level. In “The Logic of Intercultural Evaluation” Parekh argues that if a minority value conflicts with a societal one, society owes it to minorities to examine the issue and see if it can be accommodated in any form. The work follows the contours of critical theory, rejecting a majority group’s claims to absolute correctness. The only way Parekh sees for cultural groups in contact with each other to live together peacefully is to interrogate their own beliefs and engage their opposite numbers in honest debate. In a reflection of Habermas’ “ideal speech event,” Parekh emphasizes that the sides must make positive arguments in favor of their positions and not negative arguments against their opposition.Adequate dialogue requires that minority spokespeople frame the question from the point of view of the majority, while the majority must seek to present its position from a perspective germane to the minority. In situations such society reflects upon itself. If a society is able to make honest reflection, why shouldn’t an individual citizen? Are societies not made up of citizens? If a society can make a change, that reflects a change in the minds of the citizenry.

This is the most radically insightful moment of the theory. Rather than attempting some sort of grand explication of all things ______ using power narratives, the canny theorist can make the focus of study a mundane, everyday thing. In negotiating these mundane realities– the everyday differences– together, cultures can come to a better understanding of themselves and of the world they inhabit. “In short, people may systematically misunderstand their own motives, wants, values, and actions, as well as the nature of their social order, and– given what we have about about the constitutive role of self-understandings in social life– these misunderstandings may underlie and sustain particular forms of social interaction.” As a social scientists comes to understand these misunderstood motives, wants, values, and actions the underlying forces working upon the scientist may come into clearer focus, and the world around the scientist may be changed.

Every two weeks or so I get to hear that anew. I know I’m going to spend the next hour or so absolutely enchanted, with my brain turning over new ideas, and marveling at what can be done to tell a story on the radio.

I think Planet Earth is the best thing humans have ever put on television. Radiolab is the radio equivalent for me. It is, hands down, the best thing I listen to.

The Celts used to talk about “thin places,” where the fabric of the universe was leaking through and a person could experience a small taste of the divine. This sounds so cheesy, but I experience thin places when I listen to Radiolab. Whatever, I get it; I’m talking about radio–no one should like radio this much. Shut up. Jad and Robert start unlocking the mystery and wonder behind the world; the things we sort of know about as a species that ultimately reveal just how much we have yet to learn. Sometimes I just have to pause the show and stop. Let it sink in. Say, “Whoa.” Rewind. Listen again. Let it wash over me.

Yes, they’re talking about science, but remember when you were a kid and science was fascinating? Not memorizing the periodic table. Not writing out taxonomies. Blowing up sodium. Setting things on fire. Building catapults. Freezing things in liquid nitrogen. Making your own volcano. You liked science then.

Jad and Robert will often “take you there,” but they refuse to give an answer. Questions are raised, evidence is explored, but the conclusions are up to you to make. They trust that you’re intelligent enough to do that.

I appreciate their trust.

The latest is on animals and emotion.

Edkins and Foucault

January 10, 2010

Jenny Edkins’ article “The Local, The Global and the Troubling” sets out to question the very act of academic problem solving. Underpinning her assertions are Foucauldian assumptions about the nature of knowledge and the way knowledge is implemented. The title of her essay is a bit of a pun; it is nominally about The Troubles in Northern Ireland, but it also proposes to trouble the assumptions that many academicians make when approaching “problems” identifying “causes” and proposing “solutions.” She states as her thesis,

“I argue that the alternative in the case of violence in particular is to engage in intellectual activity that brings to light struggles hidden in detailed historical records or localized knowledges– an activity that Foucault calls genealogy– and emphasizes the necessity for a gradual remaking of the world, not through narrative accounts that regularize and normalize history in terms of cause and effect, but through a slow rebuilding, brick by brick.”

Edkins begins her critique by undermining the traditional method of academic theorizing, arguing that it is insufficient to actually explain events in history. “The idea that conflicts have causes, and that if we could understand what those causes were we could remove them and put an end to conflict, relfects a specifically modernist, Western, academic approach, where answers are sought in technical terms.” It may well be that in phrasing all things in terms of cause and effect academic literature has created a series of self-fulfilling prophesies. To Edkins, the traditional method is impoverished in its understanding as it by its very nature shuts itself off from considering all angles of a question. In discussing this point, Edkins uses the example of famine, a subject that academic writing has long been interested in discovering the “causes” of.

Foucault speaks of “truth regimes,” and this is what Edkins is drawing upon as she makes her arguments. In “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” Foucault says, “Origin lies at a place of irretrievable loss, the point where the truth of things corresponded to a truthful discourse, the site of a fleeting articulation that discourse has obscured and finally lost.” In deciding upon a way of explanation, a “truth regime,” an examiner necessarily closes his or herself off from other ways of explanation; in creating a truth regime all other possibilities are lost. These regimes arise out of historical events, and have not always been so, no matter how hard the proponents may insist to the contrary. Because of this fact Foucault takes it that “objective” knowledge of a subject is itself contingent upon a historical perspective. This is what Edkins is drawing upon when she makes her famine example. For a long time, scientists assumed that the problems must be simply environmental, and if humankind could mend those environmental factors the famine would cease. Over time, scientists came to understand that some famines were human caused, and the emphasis because focused upon reducing humanity’s drain upon the growing potential of the earth. In any case, these understandings of famine hinge upon the idea that something failed.

This is unconvincing in light of the fact that for some people a famine is a success. To see famine exclusively as a failure unnecessarily removes the color from the picture: While some people starve, others make out like bandits, profiting from increased prices. Sometimes famines are deliberate and genocidal, or they are engineered in order to make land grabs. To take famine down to the level of “cause” removes the politics from the event. Famines “happen because particular people take particular forms of action– when they could do otherwise.” It can be argued, then, that a famine is a product of the system identifying it, not a breakdown thereof, and it works exactly as desired. In striving to reconnect the political with the historical Edkins, and Foucault, are seeking to fill the picture out more fully.

Foucault thought that truth regimes were directly connected to power– which should not necessarily be seen as a bad thing. In the Western truth regime which most consideration of the Troubles is sited in, truth is scientific knowledge, the product of specific scientific methods. Because of this intimate connection with power, certain topics are off limits for questioning. Foucault uses the silence of French left intelligentsia on matters of interment in the face of the existence of the Gulag system as an example of exclusion of questions in truth regimes. According to Foucault “We are subjected to the production of truth through power and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth” making “the political question… truth itself.”

Furthermore, Foucault and Edkins see in the idea of cause and effect a narrative that does not exist in truth. In Foucault’s idea of genealogy, the roots of things, events are singular and unique; they do not fit into an explanatory narrative. In this view, a narrative history is nothing more than a superimposition of a nonexistent purpose upon contingent events in human history. Creating a narrative history for human events may as well be telling a story about the origin of oxygen in the atmosphere. In Madness and Civilization Foucault never attempts to explain the changes in Western attitudes towards insanity and internment; he merely observes that things change. He does, however, uncover the power interactions that made the changes possible. Instead it is in the interests of those in power to construct narratives that make their position seem justified. If history is best understood in terms of battle and struggle, then it makes sense to view events in human history as the interaction of power relations not grand narratives.

Edkins points out that “identifying something as a problem in the first place is already to take a particular stance in relation to it.” This is much the same as Foucault’s denunciation of narrative. In the context of the Troubles identifying the violence as a “problem” immediately sets a researcher down a certain academic path to follow prescribed academic patterns; it instantly cuts the researcher off from other paths of understanding. The search for cause and effect undermines itself, then, by closing the researcher off from understanding the full subtlety of the situation. Furthermore the taking of academic observation and applying it to the real world also assumes that there is a meaningful distinction between our thoughts and the world, between “thinking” and “reality.” Because Edkins bases her work around Foucault’s idea of truth regimes, which are contingent and temporary, the distinction is untenable for her. Thoughts constitute reality in this formulation, so by taking the “problem solving” stance, a researcher is limiting his or her reality.

For Edkins and Foucault, a key question is left unasked when cause and effect are sought: Who benefits? Foucault identified the ulterior disenfranchising use of prisons in modern society. Prisons end up denying a class of people a say in the political sphere. Felons cannot vote in the United States, for example, and criminals are exploited for fear purposes in political campaigning. To use a concrete example Mike Huckabee has been mentioned as a potential candidate for the Presidency in the United States. While he was governor of Alabama Huckabee pardoned a convicted criminal who recently killed several police officers. Already several of his potential opponents have used the specter of at-large criminals against Huckabee. The important thing to look for here is not what causes events, but what function do those events serve. Foucault locates the existence of crime as being a thing that society would tolerate, because an absence of crime would diminish the state’s ability to adequately monitor its population through surveillance.

Edkins is asking for the same attention to the genealogy of conflict; a close examination of the roots. Who profits? What interactions lie at the heart of conflict? What historical incidences have set the stage for the present? Edkins thinks that intellectuals have a unique way of answering these questions, if only they would attempt to do so. Because truth regimes are centered around scientific discourse and the institutions surrounding science, intellectuals occupy a particular space as a class. They also have a unique “connection to the way that the politics of truth works.” Since intellectuals are so close to the nub, they can influence these politics and the regimes underpinning them. They can only go so far as if they are seen to be dangerous to the regime, their critiques will be undermined. This cuts both ways, obviously, since an intellectual can also use that privileged space close to the truth regimes to reinforce the power structures and silence critique.

Foucault and Edkins want intellectuals to push the experiences of marginalized truths to the forefront of public consciousness. In her recalling of Foucault, Edkins thinks it is important to engage in the “recovery of the detail of events, detail which demonstrates that the outcome was hardly ever as inevitable as it might appear in retrospect and that struggles contain violence and illegality which are later disowned or suppressed.” In the writing of history, the oppressed have historically lost the opportunity to tell their story, and Foucault and Edkins want to recapture that lost voice. Scholars should even attend to the most marginalized of voices– the hyper-local, individual voices which do not in any way reflect the common feeling. These voices may be the most vociferously opposed, and in that sense derive their power from the volume of their opposition. The winner of historical battles may well have won, but the manner of that victory should be laid bare for all to see. This requires precise scholarship that leaves no stone unturned.

In discussing this hyper-local, marginalized favoring approach to genealogy, Edkins includes a quote from Susan Buck-Morss, writing on terrorism post 9-11:

“We co-exist immanently, within the same discursive space but without mutual comprehension, lacking the shared cultural apparatus necessary to sustain sociability. We are in the same boat pulling against each other and causing great harm to the material shell that sustains us. But there is no Archimedean point in space at which we could station ourselves while putting the globe in dry-dock for repairs– no option, then, except the slow and painstaking task of a radically open communication that does not presume that we already know where we stand.”

Further, “the incoherence, the ruins, the ruptures in the global terrain must remain visible.” She states this over and against milquetoast difference accommodation advocated by many seeking “human universality.” In doing so, Buck-Morss is saying that she, too, thinks that overarching stances– “problem,” “cause,” “effect”– are undesirable and damaging to real understanding.

As she relates these topics to life in Northern Ireland, Edkins proposes to “Trouble” the examinations of “conflict” by broadening the scope of what is considered. Looking for causes and solutions inscibes the event into a sphere of relevance, and excludes potentially salient factors– trauma, violence, testimony, forgiveness, etc. Anyway, when people attempt to make truth claims about the nature of conflict, they reveal more than anything else their own philosophical position. This is why Foucault, when talking about the ways that power can only be achieved through the creation of truth, leaves power and truth entangled rather than attempting to break them apart, because he wants us to see how fragile truth claims are. In light of this fragility, Edkins is proposing piece by piece remaking of the world. She uses a picture of the bombed out remnants of Berlin after the Second World War as an example. In the picture, women sift through the rubble of the city, cleaning off the bricks of ruined buildings one by one and stacking them to be reused. Edkins argues that only in this way can a society move on from trauma. No expedited recovery is possible; in fact a rushed implementation of a “solution” to a “problem” may in fact slow the healing process.

Another example used is that of the recovery effort in New York City after the attacks against the World Trade Center towers. Firefighters and volunteers meticulously sifted through wreckage, separating victim from rubble, and in so doing, naming and reclaiming the victims. In the name of normalcy, the city government attempted to bring in cranes to remove the wreckage to a landfill where it could be sorted through more efficiently. At one point a widow asked “Last week my husband was memorialized as a hero, this week he’s thought of as landfill?” Instead of a rushed return to “normalcy,” something the controlling powers want because it is in their interest, which may in fact slow the process of healing, Edkins wants societies in conflict to engage in “careful, sited listening,” the kind of hyper-local, neighborhood based peacemaking that can take generations to cement.

To state the answers to the questions before me simply:
What assumptions is the author making about how we are to acquire knowledge as opposed to opinions of social or political life? Edkins would say that knowledge is a historically seated phenomenon and must be treated as such. Knowledge cannot only be said to be that which is scientifically verifiable or accepted. In fact, the very academic posture of scientific verifiability leaves unaccounted for many other types of knowledge because in choosing to go down the scientific path it closes itself off from other ways of knowing. The typical ways of knowing are unconsciously cloaked in power politics and are just as contingent as other ways of knowing. Instead, Edkins would advocate going down the road that Foucault advocates, meticulously studying the power relationships behind history and explicitly searching out and giving voice to marginalized voices and ways of knowing.

What, for the author, is the underlying purpose of this research? The purpose is, as stated in her thesis, to “Trouble” the typical attitudes that academics take towards problem solving. Since the very stance of “problem,” “cause,” and “effect” is troublesome, Edkins wants to go further than this surface understanding and exhort her colleagues to look at the hidden side of conflicts and the power struggles and relationships that form them. She’s trying to assist in the demolishing of the narrative, homogenizing history, and instead move social sciences toward brick by brick rebuilding.

What position would the author adopt on the question as to how to assess the objectivity of a piece of research? “Objectivity” as a desirable attribute of research is itself a historically created and contingent attribute. Foucault and Edkins both think that the supposedly “objective” methods of science are, in fact, subjective historical creatures and should be treated as such. A scholar prejudiced towards “scientific” ways of knowing will find him or herself cut off from other vibrant ways of knowing about the world, to their detriment. Instead, the only way to be truly objective is to seek out as many voices as possible and giving them a change to tell their story.


January 5, 2010

I posted an article by David Brooks on my facebook page recently, the topic being the country’s inability to have honest conversations with itself about anything. Brooks’ specific topic was terrorism, and the reaction of the country, the intelligentsia, and the public to the underwear bomber. A salient quote:

Much of the criticism has been contemptuous and hysterical. Various experts have gathered bits of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s biography. Since they can string the facts together to accurately predict the past, they thunder, the intelligence services should have been able to connect the dots to predict the future.

People are calling for Janet Napolitano’s throat, accusing the President of wanting the United States to be attacked, alleging that the government actually wants citizens of the country to be unsafe.


This is the level of national discourse in the country?

There’s an ugly undercurrent of recrimination and hostility to our interactions nowadays, and it bothers me a lot. It starts with our leaders. Here’s Newt Gingrich in the wake of the Christmas Day bombing attempt. He says the government favors terrorists rights over American safety. Tell me, please, what this does other than score quick political points with people who already agree?

But don’t think it’s just the public faces who are part and parcel to this rancor. Maybe its people following the leader of their leaders, but check out some of these quotes from the comment section of the article:

Maybe when the next 24 terrorists with bombs bring down planes and killing THOUSANDS you liberal buffoons will get the point!

Because we didn’t interrogate this PRISONER OF WAR and gain valuable intelligence that might have led us to other bombers or enablers, WE ARE IN GREATER DANGER!

But better to lawyer the terrorist up and let hundreds or thousands of innocent people get killed…

The name-calling isn’t restricted to conservatives, though. So liberals, hold your smugness.

Looks like Newt Gingrich is competing with Dick Cheney for the empty minds of the Republican right. After all, they’re the same people who watch Fox News and who anoint GOP candidates via the primaries. Newt is a flawed candidate, given his philandering, ugly divorces and wretched treatment of his wives, and so he is now reduced to endearing himself to the same people who would reject him for his past sexual escapades by turning into a shrill wingnut. One wonders if there are any adults left within the GOP today.

Really? You’re going to bring up Newt’s infidelity? What on earth does that have to do with these comments? Empty minded Republicans?

With rhetoric like that, is it any surprise at all that dialogue in this country is basically at a standstill? But it’s not just political discourse. Extend it into any sphere; it holds true. I used to participate on several online message boards about topics I was interested in. Music, film, motorsport, public policy, architecture. A pretty broad swath of topics, and each time I have walked away because of the ridiculous amount of rancor demonstrated by participants. I got tired of mediating conflicts between other posters, and I got tired of personal attacks directed against me for having the temerity to disagree with people.

Luckily for me, my blog doesn’t get near enough traffic for me to have to put up with crappy discourse in my comments section, and rest assured were it ever to start I would moderate with extreme prejudice. There are several websites I frequent that don’t allow commenting on articles anymore, something that flies in the face of Web 2.0.

Thank Goodness.

This whole interactivity thing is overrated. Most people– myself included– don’t really have anything worth adding to an article, and it is a slap in the face to a writer who has spent time meticulously crafting an argument for an internet random to be able to take a decontextualized passage and savage it in the comments section.

Some want to blame this on the anonymity of internet culture, but remember Newt’s words above. This isn’t restricted to faceless trolls anymore. If the internet is contributing to the breakdown in discourse in the modern world, it is taking advantage of already existing cracks in our veneer. Sometimes it is enough to make me want to withdraw into a shell and stop reading anything about anything anymore.