Lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living

Build your own big Other

She took off her T-shirt, then her bra, then her skirt, and as she did she pulled the most incredible faces. She twirled around in her skimpy panties for a few seconds more and then, not knowing what else to do, began getting dressed again.

— Michel Houellebecq

A poster in Sproul Plaza says: 'Make Change. Act Now. Serve!' Read more↴

Learning to misread

Quentin Skinner rejects the idea of "understanding authors as they understood themselves," because how could we ever know? I never really paid much attention to how I read things when I was an undergraduate; rather, I picked up the strange form of telepathy practiced by analytic philosophers, where the text is merely some kind of mediating fetish object in the transfer of ideas from mind to mind (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Then I got beaten about the head by Quentin Skinner (figuratively; he’s actually a perfect gentleman, of course), and encouraged to think about how to read as it were self-consciously, paying attention to what it might mean that certain words and turns of phrase were chosen instead of others. But what I’d really like is to learn how to misread. Read more↴

Why would you read Arendt?

One of the disadvantages of studying political theory in the US is the fact that Hannah Arendt is, rather inexplicably, taken very seriously. I never felt the slightest encouragement to read her before I moved here, but now I have to read her, and I rather wish I didn’t. Perhaps I’m missing her vital insights, but I’m too put off by her asinine methodology. What do you do with someone who can write:

Each of them, and again none more than Marx, found himself in the grip of certain genuine contradictions. It seems to lie in the nature of this matter that the most obvious solution of these contradictions, or rather the most obvious reason why these great authors should have remained unaware of them is their equation of work with labor, so that labor is endowed by them with certain faculties which only work possesses. This equation always leads into patent absurdities.

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

So “patent absurdities” apparently follow from failing to respect a distinction Arendt invented about ten pages earlier, giving little justification of its validity and certainly no explanation as to why it might be relevant to Marx. I’m reminded of fundamentalist Christians, who insist that there is such a thing as a “literal” reading of the bible. This seems like an extraordinarily stupid faith in the fixed meaning of words, as if there is one set of concepts divorced from time and place, that Marx must have been working with the same concepts as Arendt. “The loneliness of the laborer qua laborer is usually overlooked…” Perhaps it’s not “overlooked”? Perhaps those who don’t think the laborer is “lonely” actually disagree with Arendt, and perhaps they disagree with her because she is wrong. Arendt seems incapable of thinking that someone might have a substantive disagreement with her; any divergence is explained by a failure to appreciate the timeless truths Arendt has so generously uncovered for us. This kind of narcissistic insulation from criticism is sometimes put forward as a fault of something called “Theory.” Unusually, this appears to actually apply in Arendt’s case (Arendt isn’t, as far as I know, generally considered part of the amorphous blob of Theory), along with other criticisms that get leveled at the same target: superficial engagements with texts; grand, content-free generalizations; a refusal to give reasons for any of her assertions. I’m a little shocked, actually; I can’t remember the last time I read a respected work which is as bad as The Human Condition.

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Thesis titles I won’t use

 The modern revolutionary Peking opera Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, carefully revised, perfected and polished to the last detail with our great leader Chairman Mao's loving care, now glitters with surpassing splendour. I’ve been thinking a bit about what I want to end up writing about; I’m having difficulty not scoring potential topics on the basis of how many Maoist poster titles I could work into the chapter titles. My current not-actually-going-to-use title is Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy: Action and Utopia in Post-enlightenment Political Thought. I’m trying to figure out how to work the utopian socialists, Marx, Agamben on dynamis, Butler and Mahmood on agency, maybe Lenin, maybe Spinoza, maybe Kant, into some kind of critical take on the centrality of action to most (particularly radical) political theory. I think it’s fair to say I need to figure out a way to restrict the range of my interests here.

Stop me before I psychoanalyze again

I’m writing a presentation on neo-liberalism for a class on development economics tomorrow, and I have just inserted a quote from Lacan. Is this wise, I wonder?