Today a colleague tweeted this Spinoza quote from the Political Treatise:

“Those who take an oath by law will avoid perjury more if they swear by the welfare & freedom of the state instead of by God.”

It made me aware of why Spinoza’s habit of putting things in a conditional manner has always appealed to me so much. To my knowledge he is one of the few philosophers who does this so consistently. And not in order to be vague, but to be precise. Spinoza understood from experience what it was to live under repressive regimes – and he saw two main vehicles for oppression: religion and politics. The main insight from his TPT was that humanity cannot free itself (its mind, its heart) without adressing both institutions – in their entanglement. Both play on our animality – our sensitivity to danger – by promising safety. Politics promises safety of the body, religion safety of the soul. And either one of them may use the other’s reach over our vulnerabilities to intensify their own claim. This happens all the time: when states urge us to trust a certain religion over another – because the ‘strange’ religion threatens our safety. Or the other way round: when religions urge their believers to trust a certain state power – for it safeguards them from instability and chaos.

The entanglement between the two institutions may also lead to an imagined conflict between them. We see it in so-called ‘religious’ attempts to end state power (think IS) or in political movements that try to end the power of religion (all forms of strict secularism). Both movements are confused, for they fail to see that the boundaries between politics and religion are porous. Both overlap. They both play into our natural fear of bad things that might happen, and appeal to our natural hope that this can be solved. To free oneself, therefore, Spinoza held we should address religion and politics in their entanglement and mutual dependency. They can not be separated, but can work together in more and less destructive ways. Their connectedness would be most beneficial to a good life, Spinoza concluded, when religion – albeit in a purified form – would inform politics, and not the other way round. A good life he defined as a life in friendship with others, with freedom of mind and peace of heart. To attain this one should not have religions do political things (then politics would inform religion), but political power play should rather let itself be inspired by religious things, trying to promote justice and charity. This was at least the (contested) upshot of the interpretation I gave in my 1996 PhD thesis on the TPT.

The citation I read on twitter underlines the above. Spinoza was convinced that it was easier to keep true to one’s pledge of allegiance to freedom and welfare, than to one we make to God. God is just too much above human fallibility, one could say, as He is one and ultimately just. Freedom and welfare of the state is a relative thing, and we can more easily remain true to it. My reading of Spinoza was contested as it followed a long period of Hegelian and Marxist interpretations of his work (and combinations of them) – which all aimed to reconstruct it to be progressivist, and teleological. This led to a Spinoza who claims the telos of mankind’s efforts to be absolute freedom of religious oppression – embodied in true philosophy – the mental realization that frees us from irrational fetters.

Such interpretations however overlook how Spinoza did things with words: how he made any philosophical judgements conditional. In his Ethics he mostly uses the formula: ‘in so far as…’. Here, in the PT, he allows himself to be rethorical – without losing precision. Perjury is our condition, he says indirectly. We cannot be completely true to our better nature, to freedom, to friendship – we will always fail if we aim to be ‘good’. To make our failing as minute as possible, Spinoza warns us, we better aim not too high. Freedom and welfare of the state is very important, looking up to them can keep us from doing too bad things – trying to emulate God, however, is so far removed a goal that it will automatically make us fail – and fall into desparation as a consequence.

Being truly religious then, for Spinoza, meant to claim as little as possible about God. It would better show itself in living in accordance with the two main virtues: charity (love of one’s neighbor) and justice (treating others fairly). When we practice those, we do the utmost. Aiming higher is moral pride. However, despite the humility in his philosophy, he was a believer in the modern state, as being the best guardian of the good, free, and peaceful life. A then new political form he helped to carve out philosophically. Living in the 21st century the belief in the state as the guardian of shared and equally distributed wellbeing has tarnished, to say the least. The inescapable awareness we now have of the infinite potentialities of state violence and repression make Spinoza appear not morally humble enough. The modern state tramples justice and charity with ease, even while making its citizens believe they are righteous and good. But where can we find a hold, if we better not even pledge an oath on the freedom and welfare of the state? Where can we look to anchor morality?

What inspired me to ask these questions? It were reflections ignited by the announcement of one of my students, last week, that she wants to write her thesis on evil. During the first discussion we had on her chosen theme I started to wonder why philosophers’ writing on evil had always somehow irritated me. And the Spinoza quote made me understand: speaking of evil creates a fog. It is a conjuring act. It aims to exorcize the bad things we inevitably experience in this life, as well as the bad things we do to others. Using the word ‘evil’ helps us to abstract from real life, and to rise to a metaphysical realm where things promise to be clear and well-defined. Thus we conjure ourselves away from nature’s forces – which play through us, sensitive creatures, when we feel fear and hope. We hope to lose our fear, to be absolutely safe, which inevitable means we will have to bend reality – for safety is not here in this world (not even in the religious beliefs we can have in this world). Bending reality, we will inevitably harm what is in our way.

Perhaps we should loose the concept of ‘evil’, and realize that we just do bad things, as well as good things. Perhaps philosophy cannot even meaningfully define them – as it failed badly at earlier attempts. Wouldn’t we be more true to Spinoza’s caution by abstaining from swearing oaths at all? And would we, in our present times, not better give up belief in the state as the natural guardian of peace and welfare?

Perhaps we should not swear anymore. Nor speak of evil. But attempt to do the right thing on the most inconsiderable playing field. The field without flags. Without honor. Without deaths of honor over flags. In order to be ready for such a post-idealistic politics we should overcome just one thing: the fear of fear. And its denial. Fear is real. As well as bad things. Let’s not clothe them in the solemn, metaphysical concept of evil. It makes us too easily forget those who are hurt by them. The ones that we should mourn, as well as the ones we should – now – try to protect. Only by accepting that the bad things are always already happening, and that we are inevitably involved in them, can we avoid the false consciousness we create when condemning certain acts as ‘evil’. And avoid perjury a little more.

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After a long day I went to sit outside for a bit, and I watched the stars. Reflecting on the moment and on my life as it is now, a sentence came to my head: ‘I am just living my life and enjoying it.’ It was a humble thought, not a triumphant one. And then, this sentence of Derrida, which had vexed me for years ‘to learn to live, finally’ came to my head. I cite from the head now, but it is from his Specters of Marx, which I read for the first time about seven years ago. Upon my first read this book fascinated me, as it gave me so much new insights into the world we are living in right now. Published in its English version in 1994 (French 1993), the book foresightedly analyzes the post-Cold-War world, which was fresh and new back then, but of which we see the essential characteristics unroll more and more today.

All the same, the book contains long passages of which I could hardly makes sense, as Derrida always thinks along and against and through the many texts he read – of which many are unread by me. Even of Marx, whose name is in the title, I only have sketchy knowledge. For that reason, and out of the hope to understand more of the book, I proposed we would read and discuss it in depth in the postgraduate reading group I formed a few months ago. In my language (Dutch) we have a saying: ‘two know more than one’ – so seven would even know more. And they do. After three sessions (and having progressed unto page 33 of the book) I understand more than I did before. I see, among other things, how Heidegger and Marx dialogue in the thought of Derrida (Levinas always somewhere in the background) – or should I say in his writing? In the thought that springs up when reading his writing again.

We spoke also about this mysterious sentence – to learn to live, finally – we circled around it, but I still didn’t understand what these words, that reminded me rather of self-help literature (to learn to live, finally, in 7 steps – or something to that effect), were doing in a serious philosophical text. But now, looking at the stars, as the ancient philosophers must have been doing so much more than present day ones, I suddenly saw it: this sentence was Derrida’s answer and reference to Plato’s Phaedo, where Socrates teaches his pupils, when he is in prison and about to undergo capital punishment for spoiling the minds of the young, that philosophy is all about learning to die. In the mind of Plato learning to die becomes focusing on the eternal (the stars), the unchanging – to overcome the pain and anxieties of this here life. So suddenly I was present at the grand U-turn Derrida makes – we can still look at the stars, but they aren’t unchanging, as little as anything in our world. After pursuing the Platonic gaze for more than two thousand years, attempting to learn to die in vain, we better try to learn to live, finally.

And that was also what I was feeling myself – after more than half a century on this earth I have learnt to see that nothing is unchanging, not even for a moment. Large as well as minute changes surround me and work in me. Just a few weeks ago I returned to a place where I had been last almost forty years ago, and although I could remember ‘me’ being there, no cell in my body is still the same as then. The fragile structures of my body have somehow translated the memory over and over again, untill it is a faint imprint of the first experience. One cannot even say the memory captures the ‘same’ experience. Or that the ‘me’ remembering is the same.

Everything is changing, but this is for Derrida not a trigger to go and look for eternity beyond this life – but, on the contrary, to take up responsibility: to see injustice in front of me, and try to invest myself to try to restore justice (a justice that has never been, in this world, but that attracts and commands us). Here is where Marx comes in – this thinker, he says, who is ‘mad enough’ to speak to a ghost. When we were discussing in our reading group I remembered Marx’ words about how philosophers ‘up till now’ have only understood the world, but that now it is also time to change it.  This incentive Derrida takes very seriously, where he sees Marx as the first thinker who turned philosophy around – from staring at the stars and wanting to escape life, to seeing even the stars as reminders that we are up to our knees in the endless open ended decision moments of this life, and that we should take up our responsibility to do something, even when we remain in the dark, finally, about the rightness or wrongness of our actions.

Do something, however, not arbitrarily – but under the gaze of the ghost that looks at us – the ghost (of Marx, of the dead, of the suffering who are not fully in this world, of those without civil rights, without papers, without birthright in the affluent societies) that horrifyingly shows us injustice every moment, and our involvement in it. Thus our uncertainty about right and wrong does not mean we can be unengaged, or that we can ever, even for a moment, be indifferent. Paradoxally, this ethical awareness, after the Marxian U-turn of philosophy, means that we are on the path to learn to live, finally. To learn to enjoy life – being part of it, not fleeing it, knowing we can do something, at every moment. Or just doing something, under the gaze of the ghost – without even knowing whether we really can.

 

I want to thank here my brilliant co-readers of Specters of Marx – you know who you are. You would obviously write a very different post about your reading experiences, were any of you to write a blog. This post just addressed one moment of looking at the stars, on one fine evening in August, by one of us, who realized her ‘me’ to be within this ever changing and changeable sphere which I might want to call life.

 

“How ‘to talk religion’? Of religion? Singularly of religion today? How dare we speak of it in the singular without fear and trembling, this very day?”

Derrida 2002. Acts of Religion, p. 42.

This Derrida quote was above the abstract I sent in for the 23rd ISAPS conference, recently held in Vienna. My paper was titled “Bantu Philosophy” and the problem of religion in intercultural philosophy today. Going by the comments and questions after presenting my paper, I think I succeeded to bring some fresh questions to the debates on Bantu Philosophy, the 1945 publication by Placide Tempels, a Franciscan missionary in what then was called the Belgian Congo. Tempels’ book, which first appeared in Dutch and was later translated to French and English, kicked off the many debates on the existence and nature of African philosophy. Is philosophy localized, or universal? Was his presentation of a culturalized ontology a well-meant first attempt at intercultural dialogue, or can it not be taken outside of the colonial context in which Tempels worked? Or could both be true? In my presentation I wanted to go into another matter: Tempels’ attempt to sketch a solution to the loss of religiosity in what he called the age of industrialization – in the colonialized part of Africa where he lived as well as in Europe.

Although he culturalized ontology, Tempels still spoke of religion in the singular – a thing which we nowadays find hard to do, according to Derrida. Now there is much talk of religions, in the plural: we speak of the dialogue of religions, or their confrontation. To talk of religion, in the singular – to ask whether there is any meaning in religion as such, seems an obsolete question. Especially in philosophy. This would imply, namely, to discuss religious anthropology in a transcultural manner: to ask what human beings share in terms of religious desire. Tempels now, did exactly that. For him, ‘Christian doctrine’ was about receiving as a reality ‘the strengthening of life’. For him religion was all about

‘the aspiration towards the strengthening of life, the raising of it, the taking of it into the supernatural, its participation in the constant intensification and internal growth of our life through union, living union, with God.’ (80)

This rather unusual wording of what he saw as the essence of Christian religiosity he derived from his construction of what he saw as ‘Bantu ontology’ – which would be an ontology of ‘vital force’. In his view the people he had come to live amongst in the Congo had understood life, human life, and life in general, as a continuous possibility of intensification or decrease in vital force. Cursing another is meant to decrease his vitality, blessing her or him does the oppositie. Tempels’ initial motive to investigate and describe what he saw as original Bantu culture had sprung from his observation that all missionary work in Africa had actually failed, as European culture was brought over to African peoples in its new, materialistic and spiritually empty version, while religious teachers had never tried to understand the soul of those they aimed to convert, and therefore had not really conversed with them.

In the end however Tempels made an unusual double hermeneutical move – to first interpret what his African interlocutors taught him in terms of a metaphysics of life force, and to secondly reinterpret in its terms the languishing catholic metaphysics of salvation. This made him take Christ as the enhancer of life force per se, and as the counterforce in an age which, he feared, was about to empty the human person (African and European alike) of its soul, seeing progress solely in terms of industrialization and economic expansion. This was not just a hermeneutical circular movement avant Gadamer, as it simultaneously upheld the neo-scholastic claim to metaphysical knowledge of ultimate divine reality. Thus Tempels culturalized and contextualized what was supposed to sustain and transcend the contingent phenomenal world.

In my presentation I asked whether we should see this in the light of his confused non-professional philosophy (Tempels just took the two years of philosophy required in the study for the priesthood), or whether in the end his work contains elements for an answer to Derrida’s question: how to speak of religion without fear and trembling. If it does, perhaps some light can be shed in the discourse which only speaks of religious difference, without seeing how religion should be analyzed in a contextualized manner – as intrinsically related to the political and economic struggles that disturb our present times.

If we follow that road we could see that any philosophical search for truth (post – cultural relativism) has to move through analyses of the political and the economical. In Tempels work we see the beginnings of such a move – where he relates religion (in the singular: be it Christianity or traditional African religiosity) to the historical situation of industrialization and colonization – a situation that advertizes itself as civilization, but Tempels doubts this. He tries the idea whether it might not be better in a sense for Europeans to let themselves be taught by those they allegedly came to civilize.

‘We get the impression that these masses want to rise from their alleged lowliness, clothing themselves in the knowledge of their own lore and in their conception of the world; and thus standing before and looking down upon the small group of Westerners […]” (73).

To state, as Mutombo Nkulu-N’Sengha does in his article in the Encyclopedia Brittanica , that Tempels remained bound to a colonial outlook because he saw Christianity as superior to traditonal African religion is too fast a conclusion to my view. His Christianity did not speak (as traditionally was done in European religious discourse) of salvation of the eternal soul, but of a continuous intensification and internal growth of life through union with God – which to my view is a Christianity which had been transformed through its contact and dialogue with ‘Bantu philosophy’ – with his observation that ‘there is to be found in the depths of the Bantu soul an aspiration, an irresistable allurement towards an infinite strengthening of life.’ (81) This is not just a reformulation of traditional Christian ‘talk of religion’ – it is quite another talk. Of religion, across cultural and theological difference, positioned over against what Tempels saw as the false progress of industrialization and the only materialistic ‘development’ through colonialism.

 

 

From ‘Abuse’ to ‘Zimmerman’: these words significantly delineate the index of The Man-Not, the recently published book by Texas based philosopher Dr Tommy J. Curry. I had long awaited Curry’s book, as I wondered about the theoretical frame which was apparently behind all his work, but not fully articulated in his published articles. Being no expert in the fields for which the book will be tagged by a librarian or bookseller: gender studies or critical race theory, it has been my search for relevance in philosophy, for truth over ideology, that made me follow Curry’s work several years ago. In this sense the book definitely fulfilled my expectations – also as to my special curiosity about how he builds his theory – on this I will focus in my reading review below.

This is a book that is very hard to summarize, as it contains so many studies in detail, that first might appear to be an anthology of research done over the years: from race in 19th century ethnology, through black writers’ experience of the effects of the prison-industrial complex, to white women raping black men under slavery, and supporting their lynching in a later period of history. It is a book I couldn’t put down once I got through the introduction (which situates it within present-day discussions of race and gender) – learning new things from each page, appreciating its creative style of writing as well as its conceptual clarity, despite the abundance of disciplinarily diverse works discussed in it.

I was intrigued by where (what looked like) so many case studies would lead me as a reader. Gradually the substructure (if that is the right word) of the book began to shine through. Or should I say: what the book does (as in ‘how to do things with words’). Or: what I, now, perceive of what it has the potential to do, for I am convinced that this is a book that will only gradually unfold many possible understandings/effects among its philosophical readers – and I wish it will get time to do so (as in a time and place where almost everything Curry states can be seen as controversial by so many potential readers, it might well be misunderstood and mischaracterized, as his work already has been earlier).

Anyway, slowly I started to understand that these were not case studies, and the book is no anthology. It is systematical and methodical to the core, forming theory from actual issues in the lives of black men and boys. First I was surprised why Curry would stress that he theorizes, where he opposes himself to essentializing racist theories – the point is: his kind of theory is different from the one we used to learn in university up till now. It is theory, maybe even a new kind of ontology – beyond constructivism, deconstructivism, and so many other critical ‘isms’ we have seen in the past decades. It doesn’t give a separate account, though, on its ‘method’ – a method designating a road to a subject – as it doesn’t approach a subject by means of a theory. Here we have, rather, theory being developed from its subject-matter: from lived experience.

The experience from which this theory/ontology grows is the experience of African American Black men and boys – experience reflecting the effects of ‘Western’ hegemonic attitudes that legitimized the enslavement and systematic abuse of people from the African continent and still sees their descendants as of lesser value than whites. Experience that might also be described as the historical resistance to being erased from humanity and to being (ab)used for the creation of a world that called itself ‘civilization’. As this ‘civilization’ has aimed to dominate the world, and for a long time succeeded in doing so, its localized (African American Black) criticism opens a window to a new universality, which we perhaps might call Black humanity (my words).

Curry consistently defends that philosophy should be based on facts, on data – historical and sociological. This doesn’t bring him to do ’empirically informed philosophy’, but to a complete turning around of what philosophy can do: liberating actual human beings by letting thought work for them instead of against them. Liberating them by blowing away the academic chaff his insistance on reality has exposed as creating so many ideological mirrors used to distort and crush the humanity of (especially) black men. After reading The Man-Not the ethical ideal of ‘humanity’ itself has disclosed itself as a tool of torture.

Along the way you will have to be ready to follow criticisms that relate so many normative ideas to each other – ideas about gender, patriarchy, (homo)sexuality, femininity, masculinity, class, race, emprisonment, morality, violence – to realize that they form the frameworks of a world that “is not a world for Black people at all.” (228) Despite the critical approach of the entire book, it would be misunderstanding it to read it as a negative book, that doesn’t bring anything constructive. On the contrary, I think, the book is one of the most positive possible, as it discards with what actually is negative already: the thought and practice that treats a certain group of human beings as ‘not real MEN’ (my paraphrase).

To conclude this reading review, I will gather here some quotations that struck me. They are not meant to represent the main line of reasoning of the author, but show some of the places which made me learn new things about race, science, history, ethical and political philosophy. It is a caleidoscope meant to give a taste of what there is to learn here, introduced in my own words. And if you want to hear more from the writer himself, you can watch an interview on the themes of the book.

Scholars should take their responsibility: “This America makes corpses of Black males. […] This death, however, is shunned, cast out of the halls of the university, and avoided at all cost by disciplines.” (1)

Philosophers in the past based themselves on scientific insights: “Hegel’s depiction of the Negro was not the rambling of a simple racist posing as a philosopher [but] […] reflected the most authoritative ethnological thinking of the nineteenth century.” (43)

How gender categories worked in old ethnology/anthropology: “Our present-day understandings simply reduce these ethnological distinctions and evolutionary beliefs to “political” beliefs and erroneous racist ideology, where in reality these were scientific doctrines accepted by both Black and white thinkers […] [:] the Black race was savage and did not have genders […] in relation to the white race the Negro was feminine.” (54)

DuBois opposed Bachofen’s idea that matriarchy was an earlier stage of civilization, instead presented it as the core of African ideas of a civilized world: “The Black Man’s Burden was deployed against the divine right of white men and women to rule non-European societies. It was an attack on the sexual order of white supremacy. Black men understood that the order of the white family, presumed to be the structure of civilization itself, was false.” (71)

On the ideological grounds of mass incarceration, exclusion and erasure of black men and boys from society: “Anti-Blackness creates a schema of social terror that substitutes the deviance white males occupy in society, their pathology, as the nature of Black males. […] The black male […] is raced and sexed peculiarly, configured as barbaric and savage, imagined to be a violent animal, not a human being.” (191)

Why ethics, producing distorted images of black males, “[…] relies on the perceptions and caricatures […] that appeal to whites’ self-assuring images of themselves […].” (185)

All of this leads to the conclusion that “Anti-ethics is necessary to demystify the present concept of MAN.” (186)

My first idea was to call this post “From ‘Abuse’ to ‘Zimmerman'” but on reflection I thought this would have created a more fatalistic image of the experience under discussion than Tommy J. Curry actually presents, ignoring the historical and actual resistance to dehumanization that breathes from every one of its pages.

 

 

I guess that was my longest ‘silence’ ever between two blog posts. And even while there was so much happening in my philosophical life… Now I have to try to catch up a bit, before things will be too far in the past. In Momentum I wrote about experiencing new opportunities of collaboration and exchange on what matters to me in philosophy – and I mentioned one of them: an invitation to the philosophy department of the University of Essex. There, by mid-May me and Tübinger colleague Philipp Thomas, who has great experIMG_4297tise in teaching how to teach philosophy, were welcomed to spend some days for exchange with our Colchester colleagues in what our host, Matt Burch, had named a ‘pedagogy workshop’. A very apt title, as we gathered in different formats around pedagogy -explicitly on our common field: philosophy. We were kindly invited to observe teaching approaches in the newly formed summer program for bachelors students, to participate in a research activity on ‘race and gender’ theory, and to present our own views on philosophy pedagogy amidst an engaged group of Essex-colleagues.

I was invited to speak about ‘teaching philosophy interculturally’,  and my experiences with my new course on intercultural and African philosophy – designed for students in arts, communication and literature at my own university. I started by telling about ‘how I got here’. About my long standing interest in a dialogical approach in teaching, which I first used in the early nineties with the seminary students I taught for four years, being convinced that they should not just acquire knowledge of philosophy, but do so while also practising the art of exchange of ideas with each other and with me, their teacher. On top of that, I was not interested in promoting intellectual discussions only, but more so to create a safe space in which they could express personal commitments to values – so that these could be articulated, scrutinized, affirmed or critiqued – to be prepared, so to speak, for our present day situation of interculturality and pluralism. On the basis of this experience I was assigned the task, at the Free University Amsterdam, to transform service teaching (philosophy for non-philosophy students) from one-directional classical introductions into philosophy – into courses that were tailored to the programs in which they had to function, with more stress on active participation of the students. The actual transformation was of course coming from the teachers who designed and taught the courses – for earth sciences, biomedical sciences, and all the other fields. We involved pedagogy professionals from our teaching expertise center, who were developing a value-dialogue based method of academic teaching. The idea of this approach was that philosophy courses, more than before, would help students from all fields to develop their critical skills, not just intellectually, but alIMG_4310so concerning societal, personal and cultural matters. That was twenty years ago. And over the years, developing several dialogical approaches as a service teacher myself (as well as in the philosophy bachelor and master programs), I introduced more and more content into the courses from other places than the obvious European and American ones – teaching, for instance, on the links between diverse African philosophies of communality and individuality and American theories of the social self, or on Foucault’s work on the prison in comparison with that of Angela Davis, using Rwanda’s gacaca courts as an example of new experiments of doing justice in cases of violence on an extreme scale. I was finding my way experimentally, as I didn’t want to close myself in in new – alternative – schools that were already emerging here and there. I showed, in my presentation, how I always make a point of including photos of the philosophers from different continents on my powerpoints, to create an – also visually – inclusive space for the students to learn together.

While I perceived the philosophy department at the University of Essex to be very open to connecting the field to ‘real world issues’, and as having a much more diverse student population than my own department has – my experience teaching students from so different fields as dentistry, cultural anthropology and development studies, theology as well as organization and governance studies – fields which include much more diverse student populations (in many respects) than the discipline of philosophy -, had brought me to this point in time where I could share from what I learned. And I got so many helpful and stimulating questions and responses. It was a great learning experience, and has nourished my hopes to develop further plans for interculturalizing and decolonizing philosophy teaching, together with colleagues from different parts of the globe. I think it is time for philosophy departments to get into this – to think through in a critical manner the efforts for inclusivity and diversity other fields in academia also have made, and also to re-think philosophy’s own role in history – often too close for comfort to the racisms and colonialisms in which European politicians, kings and entrepreneurs, do-gooders as well as researchers, entangled themselves.

Postscript: this was only the first of at least three or four other subjects for blogposts that were waiting too long!

Like last year, in a team of five, we ‘deliver’ a philosophy course for a large group of governance and management students, called ‘philosophy of management and organisation’. Its main subjects – freedom and responsibility in organizations – are reflected upon by reading texts from thinkers such as Arendt, Weber and Berlin, which offer ample opportunity for discussion. The other day we (the team) were discussing a session on Panopticism by Foucault, a chapter from his famous book Discipline and Punish – the Birth of the Prison. This book does provide a historical analysis of how the modern penitentiary system has arisen – in its earliest forms in the eighteenth century, but this seems just a pretext for proposing to search for the anonymous techniques of power that are at work in typically modern societies. While they are democratic, promote free trade, and garuantee personal liberties, below the surface there are ‘invisible’ networks of power. Networks, or systems, that streamline the energies that arise from the growing masses of people in modern societies. The explosively multiplied members of the human species are suppressed, led and dominated in modern times not like their premodern counterparts by visible and violent force, represented in the body of the king, but by ever so many subtle signposts that direct their lives.

The development of modern power systems can thus be seen to endanger politics as such, as the free public exchange of views and ideologies. Power systems proliferate on their own, so to speak, and gobble up what Arendt has called action: free dialogue to make decisions about shared life. Two main principles are at work in the modern power systems, we read in the Panopticum chapter: discipline and exclusion. In other metaphors: training and purification. What has to be prevented are uncontrollable situations that result from the pure fact that numbers of people are growing, and that they tend to live in ever closer contact in large agglomorations. Foucault points to the historical fact that the large and deadly epidemics that plagued Europe gave rise to the first attempts to purify and train societies in systematic ways, introducing the idea of quarantaine, of regulating movement, hygienic procedures, etcetera:

“Behind the disciplinary mechanisms can be read the haunting memory of ‘contagions’, of the plague, of rebellions, crimes, vagabondage, desertions, people who appear and disappear, live and die in disorder.” (p. 198)

This sentence now struck me, and reminded me of another sentence, in Derrida’s Specters of Marx, and produced the following train of thought. Specters of Marx speaks, among so many other things, about ‘clandestine’ immigration – describing the undocumented as part of the – anonymous – ‘new international’: those who, across borders, crossing borders, undermine the powers that be. In Derrida’s sentence, we can recognize the same double strategy of normalization:

“One should not rush to make of the clandestine immigrant an illegal alien or, what always risks coming down to the same thing, to domesticate him.” (p. 219)

Making illegal, excluding, ‘purifying’ society of him, or domesticating, training or disciplining him. And these ‘run the risk’ of coming down to the same, says Derrida: both becoming mechanisms to stop the fear of the stranger, who is understood to ‘contaminate’ and ‘undermine’ the modern power systems. Systems that regulate modern mass societies. What modern citizens of the earth fear in the ‘people who appear and disappear’, without stamp of approval, without passport, health insurance or work permit – those who even ‘live and die in disorder’ – is the breakdown of orderly society – where we, inhabitants of the panopticum, content prisoners of modernity so to speak, are barred in by the securities we know. Those who do not live in them, but use them, who transgress their rules by their very living, making their living from those systems while disrespecting and disregarding them – they create the chaos that modernity fears and always again tries to supress.

Foucault and Derrida are often characterized as ‘postmodern’ thinkers. This means no more or less than that they seem to have been able to look beyond the boundaries of the modernist panopticum – describing what is at work in it. They were not utopians, sketching a new vision for societies, for utopias only make sense in the modernist belief in designed societies. So what have they done in their works? They have, to my view, tried to open the eyes of ‘the Romans’ that their world is coming to an end, so that they may be prepared for something else. What kind of something else? Disorganization and disease? Rebellion and violence? Not necessarily. Perhaps something that is modest and immodest at the same time: the coming of a public space, a space of action, of politics in the true sense of the word: exchanging views and… perhaps not ideologies, but rather experiences. Next to the violence and loud language of today I see people working to repair and transform spaces meant for dialogue and connection, recreate them from the waste of crumbling power systems so to speak. An uncertain undertaking, as the future is, as always, open.

Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish, The Birth of the Prison, Penguin Books, 1977 [French original, 1975]

Jacques Derrida Specters of Marx, The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, Routledge, 1994 [French original, 1993]