Derrida And Beauvoir On The ‘Powerless,’ ‘Not Bothersome’ Intellectual

In ‘The Ends of Man,’ (from After Philosophy: End or Transformation?, eds. Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman, and Thomas McCarthy, MIT Press, 1987, pp. 129), Jacques Derrida writes:

It would be illusory to believe that political innocence has been restored and evil complicities undone when opposition to them can be expressed in the country itself, not only through the voices of its citizens but also through those of foreign citizens, and that henceforth diversities, i.e., oppositions, may freely and discursively relate to one another. That a declaration of opposition to some official policy  is authorized, and authorized by the authorities, also means, precisely to that extent, that the declaration does not upset the given border, is not bothersome.

As I had noted here a while ago, some writers–political dissidents by design or accident–find out just how talented they are precisely because the powers that be find them ‘bothersome’ and act accordingly to reduce such disturbances. The rest of us have to chug along, our peace and quiet ensured by our mediocrity, by  our inability to stir the hornets’ nest. Insofar as the freedoms of expression are made available by the powerful, they are carefully circumscribed by the troubles they generate. Insecure, anxious regimes lash out blindly and often stupidly, stirring up the depths, roiling the waters; the secure, the assured, the carefully propped up, the ideologically protected, they do not need to act with such haste and panic. They may grandly, with regal authority, with a wave of an outstretched hand, permit the parades of loud and visible disobedience and dissidence to march on, knowing they can and will do little harm. More to the point, such indulgence grants them the air of enlightenment, one to be carefully cultivated by future displays of ersatz concern for civil liberties.

On a related note, at one point in  The Mandarins (WW Norton, New York, 1954; 1999, Simone de Beauvoir (or, rather her alter-ego, Anne Dubreuilh) thinks the following about her American character Lewis Brogan (in real life, Nelson Algren):

All in all, he was practically in the same position as Robert [Dubreuilh] and Henri [Perron], but he reconciled himself to it with a calm bordering on the exotic. Writing, speaking on the radio and occasionally at meetings to denounce some abuse or other satisfied him fully. Yes, I had once been told that here [in America] intellectuals could live in security because they knew they were completely powerless.

That caustic summary of the relationship between the American intellectual and the political systems which pay host to him or her is tinged with a characteristic French disdain for most things American–and perhaps a personally inflected bite as well in Beauvoir’s case–but Beauvoir’s remark is still perspicuous. The ‘critical’ American intellectual is simply not, because of his or her location in culture and its ‘business,’ placed to make dramatic or radical changes in the polity. The ‘real’ cultural, political, and financial power is wielded elsewhere; its face is most dramatically visible when the critical intellectual does dare to make an actually threatening move or two. The fate of whistleblowers reminds us of this grim fact quite frequently.

The Lost Art Of Navigation And The Making Of New Selves

Giving, and following, driving directions was an art. A cartographic communication, conveyed and conducted by spoken description, verbal transcription, and subsequent decipherment. You asked for a route to a destination, and your partner in navigation issued a list of waypoints, landmarks, and driving instructions; you wrote these down (or bravely, committed them to memory); then, as you drove, you compared those descriptions with actual, physical reality, checking to see if a useful correspondence obtained; then, ideally, you glided ‘home.’ A successful navigation was occasion for celebration by both direction-giver and direction-follower; hermeneutical encounters like theirs deserved no less; before, there was the unknown space, forbidding and inscrutable; afterwards, there was a destination, magically clarified, made visible, and arrived at.   There were evaluative scales here to be found: some were better at giving directions than others, their sequence of instructions clear and concise, explicit specifications expertly balanced by exclusion of superfluous, confusing detail; not all were equally proficient at following directions, some mental compasses were easily confused by turns and intersections, some drivers’ equanimity was easily disturbed by difficult traffic and a missed exit or two. (Reading and making maps, of course, has always been a honorable and valuable skill in our civilizations.)

Which reminds us that driving while trying to navigate was often stressful and sometimes even dangerous (sudden attempts to take an exit or avoid taking one cause crashes all the time.) The anxiety of the lost driver has a peculiar phenomenological quality all its own, enhanced in terrifying ways by the addition of bad neighborhoods, fractious family members, darkness, hostile drivers in traffic. And so, Global Positioning System (GPS) navigators–with their pinpoint, precise, routes colorfully, explicitly marked out–were always destined to find a grateful and receptive following. An interactive, dynamic, realistic, updated in real-time map is a Good Thing, even if the voices in which it issued its commands and directions were sometimes a little too brusque or persistent.

But as has been obvious for a long time now, once you start offloading and outsourcing your navigation skills, you give them away for good. Dependency on the GPS is almost instantaneous and complete; very soon, you cannot drive anywhere without one. (Indeed, many cannot walk without one either.) The deskilling in this domain has been, like many others in which automation has found a dominant role, quite spectacular. Obviously, I speak from personal experience; I was only too happy to rely on GPS navigators when I drive, and now do not trust myself to follow even elementary verbal or written driving directions. I miss some of my old skills navigating skills, but I do not miss, even for a second, the anxiety, frustration, irritation, and desperation of feeling lost . An older set of experiences, an older part of me, is gone, melded and merged with a program, a console, an algorithm; the blessing is, expectedly, a mixed one. Over the years, I expect this process will continue; bits of me will be offloaded into an increasingly technologized environment, and a newer self will emerge.

Foucault On ‘Blackmail Serving To Limit The Exercise Of Criticism’

In ‘Questions of Method: An Interview with Michel Foucault‘ (from After Philosophy: End or Transformation?, eds. Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman, and Thomas McCarthy, MIT Press, 1987, pp. 114), Foucault responds to the question of whether his writings in Discipline and Punish had an ‘anaesthetizing effect’ on ‘social workers in prisons’:

Paralysis isn’t the same thing as anaesthesis…It’s insofar as there’s been an awakening to a whole  series of problems that the difficulty of doing anything comes to be felt….’what is to be done’ ought not to be determined from above by reformers, be they prophetic or legislative, but by a long work of comings and goings, of exchanges, reflections, trials, different analyses. If the social workers you are talking about don’t know which way to turn, this just goes to show they are looking, and hence not anaesthetized or sterilized at all….And it’s because of the need not to tie them down or immobilize them that there can be no question for me trying to tell them, “what is to be done.” If the questions posed by the social workers you spoke of are going to assume their full amplitude, the most important thing is not to bury them under the weight of prescriptive, prophetic discourse. The necessity of reform musn’t be allowed to become a form of blackmail serving to limit, reduce, or halt the exercise of criticism. Under no circumstances should one pay attention to those who tell you, “Don’t criticize, since you are not capable of carrying out reform.” That’s ministerial cabinet talk. Critique doesn’t have to the premises of a deduction that concludes: This then is what needs to be done. It should be an instrument for those who fight, those who resist and refuse what is. Its use should be in the processes of conflict and confrontation, essays in refusal. It doesn’t have to lay down the law for the law. It isn’t a stage in programming. It is a challenge directed to what is.

In the long and dishonorable list of Cliched Reactions to Political Protest and Critique, the kneejerk “but where is your positive theory?” must rank as among the worst. This form of ‘keep talking while I stick my fingers in my ears’ political theater serves several vital functions: most importantly, it instantiates and facilitates political paralysis even as it renders that accusation at the critic. As a piece of political ju-jitsu, despite being so bald-faced about its deceptions and disingenuousness, it has proved remarkably effective over the years: very little radical political critique can escape the charge of being ‘destructive’ in its formulations. But as Foucault points out, the ‘awakening’ it brings in its wake has to have its future direction determined, not on the basis of self-serving assessments of the critique, but by the opportunities it presents for further ‘conflict and confrontation,’ a process that has to be pitched at that level for long enough before anything will give. To cease and desist the critique in the face of the imperative to offer ‘positive theory,’ to smoothen its harsh edges, is to play the game of reaction, to succumb to ‘blackmail serving to limit…the exercise of criticism.’

 

On Not Participating In A Collective Mourning

It’s an odd business to not be participating in a collective mourning. By ‘collective,’ of course, I mean ‘seemingly widespread and ubiquitous within my social space.’ In this case, I’m referring to the mourning following the death of Prince last week. There are: musical tributes, personal testimonials, remembrances, markers in public spaces–all the manifestations of a collective outpouring of grief at the death of a man reckoned one of the music world’s most interesting and accomplished artists, a reconfigurer of musical tastes and sexual identities alike. But I have nothing to contribute to this celebration of his life; Prince’s death didn’t touch me the same way. For the simplest and best of reasons: his music didn’t.

I heard ‘When Doves Cry‘ and ‘Purple Rain‘ back in my high-school days; they were an interesting departure from the other offerings of the music world. A few years later, I heard ‘Sign o’ the Times‘ and quite liked it. (A lot; for I still remember where I was when I first heard the track play.) But that was about it. I never bought a Prince album, never played a Prince song on a jukebox in a pool hall or a bar, never bought tickets for, or attended a Prince concert. He simply did not feature on my musical radar. Indeed, from the sidelines, over the years, I watched with some bemusement as his star ascended in both the critical and commercial dimensions. A fan of Prince might say that I don’t get it. And that would be entirely right. I didn’t. And that’s perfectly fine. Not everyone did.

Still, as this mourning continues, on my social media pages, in the various conversations I overhear, in the many tributes, I feel distinctly isolated. All around me, there is a ritual underway; an invitation to participate has been extended; and yet, I stand on the sidelines, unwilling and unable to acquiesce. I have not been ostracized; I have exiled myself. For my older indifference to the music is still present. I watch and listen to his supposedly memorable guitar solo on a performance of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ during the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and do not find it as compelling as the guitar work I have admired in the past; ’tis true, my receiver for Prince signals is not working and has been turned off for a while. I am beyond redemption. Perhaps the future will see me change my ways and join the fold of the faithful. Stranger conversions have been known to happen.

Of course, there is an irony present in my writing of this post. I began it by noting that I had not participated in the collective mourning for Prince’s death. But by putting these thoughts down here, by making note of my distance from his music, I have finally been compelled to step forward and throw my hat in the ring, even if only by way of explaining why I did not do so. Well played, Prince. RIP.

A Memorable Brawl, A Template For Fantasies Of Resistance

Despite a personal history that showcases an active interest–participatory, not just spectatorial–in the pugilistic arts of boxing, I’ve not been able to bring myself to become a fan of ‘mixed martial arts’ or ‘UFC’ or what have you. But that does not mean I cannot appreciate the skills of the martial arts. I did, after all, like many other schoolboys of my time, grow up adoring Bruce Lee, wishing I could attain even an infinitesimal fraction of his estimable coolness. And to this day, the most exhilarating brawl I’ve witnessed–pardon that celebratory adjective, but that’s how it felt at the time–featured a brilliant demonstration of precisely the kind of moves Lee specialized in. By a fellow schoolboy. And like any memorable event, it remains so because it quickly became assimilated into subconscious yearnings and aspirations.

Shortly after joining the ranks of fellow sufferers at my boarding school, I learned of my school’s enduring and bitter football (soccer) rivalry with a local school. Indeed, so pointed and edgy had this relationship become that by way of a prelude to a scheduled encounter at home, the student body was treated to a sonorous lecture by the headboy on the need for all spectators i.e., us, to be on their best behavior during the game. No abusive language; no yelling at the referee; and so on. I also learned, soon enough, that our last game with them had featured a brawl. Provocations were sure to ensue during this game; we were to take the high ground.

These warnings came to naught. The first twenty minutes of the game featured some hard, physical soccer with plenty of rough tackles and pushing and shoving, even as the referee–our physical education teacher–sought to maintain some control over the proceedings. From the sidelines we roared on these bruising encounters, thereby raising the temperature of all concerned.  It couldn’t last, and it didn’t.

Halfway through the first half, as our team launched a counterattack, only to see it foiled on the left flank. As our forward sought to regain control of the ball, he was pushed, hard, once again, by the opposing team’s full-back. He shoved back, and then astonishingly, we saw the full-back take a swing at him. What followed next remains unforgettable after all these years. Incredibly enough, our forward dropped into a crouching stance, his knees flexed, his arms raised: a fight was on. And then, with a quick spin, delivered a lighting roundhouse kick straight to the full-back’s face. As that worthy went down for the count, his team-mates rushed over to help. So did our team. In the next few seconds I saw the forward’s cousin–by a coincidence, playing on the team with him–come to his rescue by launching a flying kick at a miscreant approaching him from behind. And then, utter mayhem broke out, as a rolling melee developed, made only worse, by a full-fledged spectator invasion (which I did not join, realizing that was beyond the pale, and that brutal disciplinary action would follow.)

I was young and impressionable, a notoriously poor brawler, often incapable of resisting the depredations of schoolboys bigger and stronger than me. That demonstration of skill and strength was instantly memorable, and remains so after all these years. For one brief moment, suddenly, I, the perennial ninety-seven pound weakling, saw a fantasy made manifest: I would be pushed around, and I would fight back. In style. Years on, that fantasy hasn’t gone away; the tools of resistance have changed.

William H. Gass On The Dialectical Nature Of Love

In Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translations (Perseus Books, New York, 1999, pp. 13) William H. Gass writes:

During childhood, contradiction paves every avenue of feeling, and we grow up in bewilderment like a bird in a ballroom, with all that space and none meant for flying, a wide shining floor and nowhere to light. So out of the lies and confusions of every day the child constructs a way to cope, part of which will comprise a general manner of being in, and making love. Thus from the contrast between the official language of love and the unofficial facts of life is born a dream of what this pain, this passion, this obsession, this belief, this relation, ought to be.

The model that Gass presents here for understanding how we construct our evaluative and operational apparatus of love is notable for its straightforwardly dialectical nature: the child learns to love and be loved and to expect love through a synthesis of the various opposing theses presented to him about the nature of love. It is through these endlessly revisable bringings together and reconciliations that the lover and his or her love emerges. This dialectical origin is reflected in love itself: it is painful and delightful; it is enlivening and deadening (the rest of the world may come alive through the reflected glory of the love, it may appear drab and colorless in contrast, and so on); it reminds us of our unique, individual subjectivities even as we lose ourselves in someone else; it may make us find reason to live, it may give us reason to die. Most of all, love turns out to be something we find resistant to facile reductive analyses, even as we elevate it to foundational principle in philosophies of life and living.

Gass’ model is relentlessly dialectic for the theses presented to the child about the nature of love find their origin, of course, in others similarly reared on such dialectical ‘confusions’; others who, in their own upbringing, confronted the same ‘contrast between the official language of love and the unofficial facts of life.’ Moreover, the child has only constructed a ‘dream’ with normative flavor; this dream itself, as noted, is ‘endlessly revisable,’ revisions forced upon it through these encounters with others’ dreams of what love ought to be.

The complex encounter of subjectivities that we call a ‘romantic human relationship’ poses such challenges for our understanding because of this collision: each lover brings to the meeting a lifetime’s worth of painfully constructed notions of love, one devised and drawn up without the consultation of their lover. These are not geared for smooth operation with those of others; they cannot be. As battle plans do not survive their first encounter with actual conflict, so do these notions not survive their first encounter with the ostensible subject and target and dispenser of love.

Note: Gass writes the above paragraph in transitioning from a description of Rilke‘s childhood and his relationship with his mother, to an accounting of his relationship with Lou Andreas-Salomé.

A Memento Of Fellow Travelers, Long Since Moved On

I have in my possession, one photograph of the only graduation (‘commencement’) ceremony I have ever attended–that for my first graduate degree, in ‘computer and information science.’ (I did not want to attend the ceremony, expecting it to be tedious in the extreme–it was–but I did want to send a keepsake back to my mother in India, to let her know that her saving and scrimping had paid off, that I had not, as I had once feared, completely lost the plot and crashed and burned out of this new venture.)

In it, I am flanked by two young men, both undergraduates, and yet, among my closest, if not closest, friends then.One of them, ‘M’ is grinning broadly at the camera, positively beaming, still clasping his textbooks tightly, holding them close to his chest–he had come to campus that day to attend classes, and then, on realizing it was my graduation, had decided to join me in my celebrations. The other, ‘J,’ is also smiling, but with a difference; he is impatient, he wants the photographer to hurry up and get on with it. It is freezing cold, and J’s usual skimpy leather jacket, good for showing wimps how real men dressed for the East Coast winter, is simply not up to the task of keeping him warm through repeated poses for a shot.

‘J’ and ‘M’ were both engineering students; the former studied civil engineering, the latter, computer engineering. They were both good students, serious about their work, driven and ambitious; they both looked ahead to life after school. We all worked as peer counselors, and we spent many of our non-working hours together in the school pub, diligently working through one pitcher of beer after another, a combination of activities which led to raised eyebrows and some snickers. (Our conversations had a political flavor to them; ‘M’ was a black radical; ‘J’ a patriotic anti-commie, I was still finding my political feet, finding many of my older political certainties rudely disturbed after arrival in the US.)

‘M’ was Haitian-American, ‘J’ is Cuban-American; we were black, brown, and white. We all spoke second languages; we all had anchors of one kind or the other in lands outside the US. We were an odd trio; some called us ‘The Three Musketeers,’  others ‘The Terrible Trio,’ some just called us Black-Brown-n-White. They were, along with another Cuban friend of mine, the first serious friends I made in America. Through them, I experienced a slice of life which would have been denied me if I had confined myself to the usual graduate student life: meals with roommates, seminars, working on campus labs etc. My grades suffered, I’m sure, thanks to these escapades, but I wouldn’t do things differently if I had to. They elevated what could have been a life confined to the daily, the mundane, the weekday, into something far more variegated; they helped me look under, over, and around the fairly conventional surface of an international graduate student’s life on my campus. (Which was, at the best of times, obsessed with merely getting through the day, the week, the semester; at its worst, you struggled against the persistent racism on campus.) They were a crucial component my introduction to life in America; my ‘American imagination,’ such as it is, was formed in conjunction and co-operation with them.

It would be the last photograph of the three of us together. No one died; but we all moved away and on. All of us, I think, have mementos and markers like this, reminding us of times and peoples gone by, stations and co-riders on this journey we are still undertaking.