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So I’m a little stuck, and I like to think out loud here, so here I go. Because it’s here, I’d love to hear what you think about my thinking. I’ve been ruminating on this for a few days now and I’m not quite ready to conclude.

In Homo Sacer, Agamben describes the concentration camp as the most perfect implementation of biopower in human history, which, of course, implies that it is the outcome of any biopolitical environment, whether we are talking about totalitarian dictatorship or a liberal democratic welfare state. If this is what we face when we are facing down biopolitics, it’s clear that we need to break the cycle. The problem is, of course, that Agamben effectively proves that all politics have been biopolitics since the beginning of recorded Western history. In light of that, how do we “solve” the problem of biopolitics?

I’ve been thinking about this a little obsessively because the issue has become deeply personal. I don’t want to offer some kind of sophistic solution. I’d really like to — at least — point in a direction that might be fruitful for further investigation, or gesture at what I think might lead to politics beyond biopolitics. In thinking about the biopolitical situation, I couldn’t help but go back to Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto,” because she writes of biopolitics: “Michel Foucault’s biopolitics is a flaccid premonition of cyborg politics, a very open field.” [Emphasis mine.]

What could this mean? Is the cyborg a product of the concentration camp? Another possibility that has crossed my mind is — the cyborg is both a product of the technology required by the concentration camp, and produced by the concentration camp. Which would mean that the cyborg springs from the same source, and grows alongside, the concentration camp.

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There is a fine line, in critiquing the institutions you thrive on, between nihilism and the injunction to think about them in radically different ways, especially when your critique is as far-reaching as Giorgio Agamben’s in Homo Sacer. I had an argument recently about whether or not Agamben’s book is political — I think it is. In fact, it seems absurd to say that he argues against politics entirely. He explicitly writes:

The idea of an inner solidarity between democracy and totalitarianism…is obviously not…a historiographical claim, which would authorize the liquidation and leveling of the enormous differences that characterize their history and their rivalry. Yet this idea must nevertheless be strongly maintained on a historico-philosophical level, since it alone will allow us to orient ourselves in relation to the new realities and unforseen convergences of the end of the millenium. This idea alone will make it possible to clear the way for the new politics, which remains largely to be invented.

Which is to say, of course, that Agamben knows he doesn’t have the answers, but rather that he thinks the answers are in the offing if we engage his analysis of the underlying ideological overlaps between liberal democracy and the totalitarian state. He is not implying that we should be apolitical (in fact, this should be an injunction to be political, just not the kind of political that is average or expected). His text is, I think, deeply political.

The implications of bowing to a nihilism that might grow out of the shared basis of both democracy and totalitarianism — that is, the nihilism that grows out of the realization that biopolitics underpins virtually all the politics of recorded Western history — are grave. If we accept this nihilism, we damn ourselves to the future we are building for ourselves in security checkpoints, terror warning levels, and even the refusal of a nationalized health care plan. We accept that there will be the kind of genocidal mass killing, ruthless dictatorship, and tactical abduction of political prisoners in the 21st century, as there has been in the 20th. These are all instruments of biopolitical control, but in order to solve the impasse between security and freedom, health and economy, debate and stability, Agamben writes that we must think beyond biopolitics.

To say that Agamben’s critique of biopolitics is a critique of political life is entirely absurd. This week (spring break!) I am going to explore the idea of political life beyond biopolitics, because I believe it is not only possible to think a politics that rejects biopolitics, it is also ultimately essential. Oh, and I also want to prove a point.

Yesterday I re-read Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” [PDF hosted by AAAARG.ORG]. The first time I read it was when I was starting to think about what it means to be post-gender, but I have to say that this re-reading was so much richer and full of interesting stuff than that first reading could ever have been. My context has been strengthened and my own thinking has become more sophisticated, as well.

One of the things that means a lot more to me now is Haraway’s concept of the cyborg as a being who does not strive toward totality of theory, or ultimate all-encompassing explanation. Something I have struggled with has been this demand placed on me, especially as a public face of trans advocacy, to come up with some nugget or essence of what it is to be a transgender person. I guess there isn’t a kernel that some fundamental “trans-ness” can be boiled down to.

And maybe that is part of what resonates so strongly with me about this anti-imperialist critique of feminism. Unlike other critiques of feminism I have read, Haraway identifies a very particular characteristic of most feminisms (and most -isms, really), especially of the radical variety. Haraway writes

The feminist dream of a common language, like all dreams for a perfectly true language, of perfectly faithful naming of experience, is a totalizing and imperialist one. In that sense, dialectics too is a dream language, longing to resolve contradiction.

And I think this gets at something very important about what it means to me to be a transgender person — many cis people tend to read into my self-identification an attempt to resolve the apparently irreconcilable contradiction between man/woman, whereas I think putting the weight of such a reconciliation on an individual is basically harmful and sort of, well, imperialistic. It is the use of a differently (and intentionally) gendered body to negotiate a certain gendered social reality that has come to be thought of as oppressive.

I suppose ultimately what excites me the most is the idea of an ideological system that is content with its incompleteness, that being a cyborg or being post-gender (post-human) is about a kind of becoming as opposed to a being. It seems to me that this is about shifting lines of definition, not just of oneself but also of one’s society and social categories, regulations, and expectations.

In attempting to formulate a cyborg politics, Haraway asks, “what kind of politics could embrace partial, contradictory, permanently unclosed constructions of personal and collective selves and still be faithful, effective — and, ironically, socialist-feminist?” The rhetoric of both socialism and feminism don’t give room for incomplete, in-process identities. An in-process identity requires an affordance for what Haraway calls “polyvocality.” I think Haraway’s critique of Marxism and feminism is on point in ths way — and why feminist theorizing about transgender bodies and identities has a historical tendency to be screwed up. I don’t think that transgender selves or any semblance of totality.

On the contrary, I tend to think if there is anything at the core of trans-ness, it is a joyful expression of “permanently unclosed” identity if I’ve ever seen it. What feminist theorists get wrong about transgender selves and transgender bodies, then, is trying to squeeze a process (i.e., a temporal metaphor) into a spatial metaphor of categorization. I think this idea needs a little working out, especially since our understanding of time is spatially mediated, but the point is you cannot make a process or even a series of relations into a category because it is ongoing, open-ended, destabilized, and generative.

Trans people are the ultimate cyborgs. “Our” postmodern identities are predicated on an acceptance of the partiality of our perspectives and selves, even as a collective. I also think that in “our” constant contemplation and manipulation of language, “we” live Haraway’s “struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication.” She even goes so far as to say that this struggle is a subversion of “the structure of desire, the force imagined to generate language and gender, and so [subverts] the structure and modes of production of Western identity.” (emphasis mine)

What I’ve learned in the past year or so is that the struggle for postcolonial identity, transgender identity, and a complex conception of multiple overlapping identities is a matter of struggling against exactly that structure. Complex multiple identities — at play in both the theorization of the postcolonial self and the transgender self — make it impossible to theorize about a totality of people. Who, after all, are the “transgender people” of this world? Who are really the “subaltern”? Who do we intentionally or accidentally exclude by naming these things?

Haraway’s critique of feminism translates directly in this way to (my) transgender critique of feminism. Re-reading this in light of everything that I have learned in the past two or three years was a total joy. I am sure I will be revisiting many of these ideas soon, hopefully a bit more rigorously. Thanks for playing!

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about late capitalism as a form of political control, especially in unconventional environments. We talked on Sunday at brunch about how the sale of the experience and the sale of “individual identity” is a form of control peculiar to our day and age. There are a couple of disparate things I’ve been thinking about lately in regards to this.


I remember being in China two summers ago, a couple months before the Beijing Olympics, and wandering through the botanical gardens with my dad. We saw a young couple running through the gardens with their toddler-aged child. It was cute. The dad was laughing, taking pictures of the mom and the kid, wobbling around next to some flowers.

“People here look so happy,” he said. “They can buy clothes, food, cars, in the colors and styles they want. They can express themselves through the consumer goods they buy. Five, ten years ago this was not true.”

I remember talking to some other students at Peking University, who told me that people were content so long as they could have the material goods they thought of as part and parcel to the material wealth of the West. The right to assembly was not as important culturally as the right to a Chrysler 300.


What constantly weirds me out about the “green” movement is how consumption-oriented it is. I don’t mean that in the sense that it is concerned with our consumption, because obviously anybody concerned with the state of the environment should be worried about our consumption. What I am constantly struck by, and grossed out by, is the co-opting of the rhetoric of the “green” movement to sell products. New products. Products that are manufactured using traditional methods. Products that may or may not have any positive impact on our “carbon footprint” at all.

We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that “green” marketing is anything but marketing. And the weird thing is that we’re willing to buy the experience of feeling like we’re making a difference in the world. We might each have our own reason for doing so, but we’re buying it. The selling of an experience, as opposed to an item, is something peculiar to late capitalism. I have been thinking about this since Zizek lectured here at the beginning of the semester.


Yesterday in my class we talked about the development of society and economy in Second Life, and what that means for our society and economy in our first lives. I think one of the things that always strikes me is how mad excited everyone gets about the economic opportunities and innovation that come along with Second Life growing as a kind of “3D internet,” as one of my students called it. Nobody is really discussing the way in which Second Life is actually run. (Which is the way the vast majority of virtual worlds are run, through an administrator oligarchy.)

Now I understand that some people will say, “Wait a minute, Cayden, Second Life isn’t about forming a government. After all, it’s run by a company that is interested in using its software to make money — and to enable people to connect, to create things, and to play.”

At the same time, in Second Life you can be anybody and do pretty much anything you want. Except liberate yourself. What’s easy to forget about it is that you’re being sold an experience in an ultimate way — people spend hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars on ethereal piles of pixels in order to have an experience in the game. You’re being sold a deeply consumeristic experience, no less. The main tabs on the Second Life website are “What Is Second Life?” “World Map” “Shopping” “Buy Land” “Community” “Help” and finally the join button, which emphasizes that joining is free. Which is funny. Considering two of the six main tabs are about spending money.


So what does all this mean? I think these three things are symptoms of a bigger issue. Something about how too much wealth begets complacency. Or that our priorities aren’t quite what they used to be, or rather that our priorities were never what we were made to think they were. And also something about capitalism as culture, not just as economic system.

The symptoms speak to an environment where economic freedom is mistaken for individual and political freedom. Think about it.

The excitingly convenient thing about my philosophy seminar is that all the readings are online. This week’s was section 5 of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Intergenerational Justice. This is my (somewhat lame) response. I’m going to invite comments, insights and critiques on all of these things I post here because two of them are going to be turned into actual papers, and I am not very well-versed in ethics. Go for it.

At the beginning of section 5.1, Meyer raises the question of intergenerational reparations owed to the victims of past injustices and/or their descendants. Here, he offers two different interpretations: either the descendants of victims of past injustices suffer additional harm in the present, or both the descendants of victims of past injustices and those past victims have suffered harm. Intuitively, I think there is another causal way of describing the ways in which currently living people can claim reparations for the injustices committed against their ancestors.

Suppose that Meyer’s example African-American descendant of slaves, Robert, can indeed trace his genealogy back to a group of people kidnapped from Africa and sold into slavery. Let us also suppose, as Meyer does, that we are only concerned with whether Robert has a claim against past agents of injustice, not whether he can legally demand reparations.

In note 47, Meyer mentions that we cannot use the diachronic notion of harm in Robert’s case. This is sensible because it assumes that Robert would have had a prior state of well being at the time his forebears were wronged. This doesn’t seem to make sense as Robert would not have existed in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. However, the subjunctive-historical notion of harm might allow direct descendants of slaves to claim compensation. He doesn’t explore this argument further.

To paraphrase Meyer, under the subjunctive-historical notion of harm, something at time t1 harms someone only if the cause makes the person to be worse off at time t2 than the person would have been at time t2 had the agent not been involved in the cause. While Meyer has a point in saying that it makes no sense to say that Robert is less well off now than if his forebears had not been kidnapped, there seems to be a more complex series of causal links here. I am skeptical about saying that there is a just cause for Robert to demand reparations for his forebears’ kidnappings, but intuitively it seems Robert is justified in demanding reparations for a series of events that began with the kidnapping and enslavement of Robert’s forebears.

Briefly, it makes sense to sketch a more complex picture of harmful events – Robert has a right to compensation due to a longstanding saga of wrongs. I suppose some of the same principles underlying the subjunctive-historical notion of harm can be used here. I was unable to locate Lyons’ 2004 paper that Meyers cites in his article, but in note 47 Meyers gestures at the idea that the injustices against African Americans are ongoing, or at the very least have persisted for generations.

So perhaps this is another kind of way to imagine intergenerational harm. It is possible that current generations can suffer from harm done to their forebears, but it might serve to better justify their claims to compensation if there is some way in which that harm is carried across previous generations. I think that this conception of intergenerational harm may run into issues of identity – what if, for example, the genealogy of harm is untraceable? (For that matter, why can certain people whose family has suffered longstanding historical injustice claim reparations and others not?) Why do we think the descendants of victims of injustice have claim to compensation at all?

To address the second question, at least, I think it is the case that repeated historical injustices may cause the current generation to suffer. Other individuals have not inherited a history of the same injustices, therefore putting them on unequal footing with the descendants of slaves, for example. These sorts of injustices may play out in preferential treatment due to bias, or economic shortcomings as a result of discriminatory practices, or even deprivation of life and property. Instead of isolating the injustice to the single event – when Robert’s forebears were kidnapped and sold into slavery – his claims to reparations are based on a series of events which have left him disadvantaged in comparison to others.

In order to construct a better case for reparations, it might be preferable to formulate a subjunctive-historical notion of harm that addresses persistent injustice.

I’m not going to pretend to be an expert here, but I kind of feel like I have something going on.  The other day in lecture, Proops pointed out that in order for Wittgenstein’s Tractatus to be the kind of self-imploding nonsense the new Tractarian school makes it out to be, it needs to be some kind of “seductive nonsense.”  His example of seductive nonsense would be: what if we asked what time it was on the sun?  Clearly, it doesn’t make any sense to ask what time it is on the sun, because the sun is what determines what time we have.  However, you might make an argument that it’s always noon on the sun, because the sun is always at its highest in a time zone where it is noon.

Granted, the absurd response is kind of a simplification (the sun can be seen in two time zones at once.  It’s 3.30 pm here, and it’s 2.30 pm in Chicago, and the sun can be generally said to be seen at both times of day).  I am not sure that the Tractatus needs to contain the kind of absurdity that, on its surface, seems to make some sort of sense in order to be self-imploding.

To me, the Tractatus doesn’t actually carry a clear argument.  Wittgenstein makes claims about what the world is like, but I don’t think he ever really argues for his assertions.  This is the first sign that the Tractatus is something other than a dry, codified system of looking at language

Moreover, I think that there is something remarkably seductive about the Tractatus on the surface.  There is something soothing in the reduction of “logical atomism” as Wittgenstein presents it.  Perhaps it is this meditative tone that is of greater importance than any kind of “seductive absurdity” contained in the work.

Again, I’m not claiming to be an expert, but I’m not entirely sure why “seductive absurdity” is a requirement.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.  Proops’s previous arguments against the new Tractarian school are a bit more convincing — especially that Wittgenstein later wrote and said repeatedly that he had made some fundamental mistakes of logic in the Tractatus.  I think I will be developing these ideas further over the semester break, and perhaps doing a little more research into Wittgenstein’s apparent change of heart about the content of  his book.

Today Laine and I had lunch with the fantastic Ian Proops.  I was sad to learn he will be leaving U-M for the University of Texas next year, but I guess I’m getting out of here, too.  (Had some good news about Brown, but I can get into that later.)  Being two philosophers of language and a linguist, we talked a lot about language.  In the course we’re taking with him, we’ve started talking about Russell’s theory of descriptions.

You can read more in-depth about the theory here, but Proops brought up an interesting point.  While Russell deals with definite descriptions that take the form “an F is G” and “the F is G,” the phrase “Joe the Plumber” seems to contain a similar definite description that doesn’t really fall into the traditional set of Russellian definite descriptions.  How might Russell deal with “Joe the Plumber”?

At first blush it seems to me that an epithet like “Joe the Plumber” or “Peter the Great” can be treated just like a definite description, but I’m unsure how you’d put “Joe the Plumber” into a form like “the F is G.”

I don’t really have the mental energy to do more work on this at the moment, but there it is.  If you have any ideas, let me know.  More on this later, I promise.

A distinctly appropriate pseudo-philosophical topic for blog consumption: what is it to build a framing system with the express purpose of destroying it upon consumption?  (Ian Proops had a funny byte about this last week — if you don’t know what to write about, write about Wittgenstein’s Ladder.)  At the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein writes:

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them.  (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) (6.54)

Meaning that: if you come to fully comprehend the framing system (Tractatus) then you have no further use for it.  More than not having a use for it, it would be offensive to your newly-developed sensibilities to keep it around.  (Is there a thing or two about examining framing systems that renders them worthless after an understanding is achieved?)

The New Yorker ran a fantastic article about the state of intellectual conservatism in China.  I was reminded of a conversation I had recently at a restaurant with my friend from Peking University, Yiyang.  We discussed the difference between political and theological conservatism, and what it means in the United States to be a liberal or a conservative.  What about in a philosophical sense?

It interests me that Chinese intellectuals are so interested in Harvey Mansfield, in Leo Strauss.  It makes a great deal of sense to me that young Chinese, so enamored of the explosion in material wealth that is characteristic of China today, would see conservatism in an intellectual sense the reasonable alternative.  And I can see why the affluent lives of young, educated Chinese are such good tools to convince them that in this political moment, what really matters is national pride, because China is on the rise, and so long as China is on the rise, what does it really matter that the government is viewed by the West as oppressive?

As the New Yorker notes, it’s common practice to sidestep the Great Firewall.  In fact, it’s a little less like scaling the Berlin Wall than a rabbit digging under a garden fence.  In a matter of moments, through a wide variety of technological tools, you can get to the other side.  Young, educated Chinese don’t see the Great Firewall as a threat.  The government’s censorship program is malleable, as well.  Though there are notable exceptions, like the dissident blogger, Shi Tao, who was ‘betrayed’ by Yahoo to Chinese authorities and was sentenced to 10 years, the topic of direct and intentional censorship by the Chinese government hasn’t really come up in my circles.

Is lack of speech about free speech equivalent to free speech?  I certainly don’t think so, but the philosophy graduate student, Tang Jie, featured in the New Yorker essay says,

“We are always eager to get other information from different channels.” Then he added, “But when you are in a so-called free system you never think about whether you are brainwashed.”

Sure, it’s a good point, and I’d argue that Tang probably thinks more about his media intake than does the average American, though…that isn’t saying much, is it?  Life in this so-called repressive state sure doesn’t seem repressive from the inside, and not during daily life.  The importance the West places on things like freedom of the press and the social and political issues that sparked Tienanmen Square seem to be largely lost on my Chinese friends.  The question of the influence of intellectual conservatism on young Chinese is something that fascinates me — because it certainly has a pull on the way I see things, but I can’t deny the fact that I am avowedly a socialist.  I can’t help but find my Chinese peers’ indifference toward some of their government’s mismanagements mystifying and frightening, at turns.

It will be interesting to see what comes of the new political lines being drawn in China.  Mostly everyone I’ve talked to is dissatisfied with the government in some respect, but how will — and can — the liberals and the conservatives, who are both unhappy with the way the Party is managing things, come together to make a positive change?  After the economic prosperity, what are the priorities of China’s educated elite?

Now I like food as much as the next guy.  I mean, it keeps us alive, it’s delicious, and it carries great social significance.  The ceremonies we surround food with are generally pretty fun: this morning was Saramin’s annual spring brunch, and she made a fantastic spread of delicious things.  We ate a lot, and talked about things like the nonexistence of time, which is one of my favorites.  One dance department alum told me about a freaky neurological study that involved showing volunteers a series of images, and then isolating one to be shown at the end — it turns out there is a brain activity spike when the isolated image was viewed, but not at the end, rather, when the volunteers saw the image within the series.  (If anyone has any more information on this study, I’d love to see it.)

I digress.  Anyway I was enjoying my dinner of goat cheese and bread and thinking about how much time we spend in our lives considering food.  And consider the following: Peri probably reads as many food blogs as she does news blogs; and a Google search for “philosophy of food” turns up surprisingly many results.  Sink your teeth into this short article to start with.

To be perfectly fair, I think philosophy of food makes a lot of sense, especially now.  A lot of the points that are raised by Iggers in that article are pretty fair — food has become more important to human beings as a subject of thought.  Take the Slow Food movement, for example.  I can get on board with it, too, except for maybe the genetic engineering thing.  We’re spending more and more time thinking about the ethics and aesthetics of what we eat.

I’m not going to lie, I do think a lot about what I’m eating.  I tend to go out of my way for locally grown produce, dairy and meat, for example.  Moreover, in a culture so obsessed with body image (and as an individual particularly obsessed with body image) it’s hard not to think about what you eat on a daily basis, and what it might be doing to your body.

But in addition to ethics, I do think about food aesthetics a lot, too.  Peri and I actually have a vague kind of plan to go to New York City and eat at as many upscale and experimental restaurants as our budgets and itinerary allow.  I’m particularly intrigued by the practitioners of molecular gastronomy: a bunch of people who think very (maybe too) much about food.

Does anybody know anyone who’s done any work specifically on the philosophy of food?  I located this charmingly outdated website for a group of philosophers — aestheticists and ethicists, of course — specifically interested in philosophy of food.  Anything else out there I ought to check out?


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