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The Political Universe

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.

 

 

When you have read my posts regularly, you will have noticed that I tend to discuss (and read) more history books than you would perhaps expect in a philosophy blog. Today I will try to explain some of my reasons for this.

During my studies I also read ‘other’ books of course, because philosophy as such has no subject, or ‘everything’ is its subject. Philosophy is a way of thinking about things, but these things can range from the principles of mathematics to poetry, and all other thinkable subjects. Famous are writings from philosophers such as Bertrand Russell or Gottlob Frege on mathematics, and Heidegger and Gadamer on poetry, just to illustrate my remark. Of course there is also philosophy on philosophy, on its methods of reasoning and argumentation, on its history, and on its place in the whole range of human sciences.

My ‘subjects’ outside the works of philosophers and about philosophy itself have gone through different phases. After finishing my masters, for some years I read passionately in the field of theology, history of Christianity and bible studies. The philosophers I read in that time were Arendt, Levinas, Strasser and of course Spinoza. After finishing my PhD there was a phase that I read rather widely, in environmental studies, in philosophy of science, and, in philosophical methodology (so to speak), investigating the approaches of hermeneutics (Gadamer), deconstruction (Derrida) and pragmatism (first Mead and Cooley, later James). It was the time of my postdoc research. Later I moved to African philosophers like Mudimbe, Mbiti, and E. Eze, and read a lot of cultural anthropology on the side. The last few years I discovered, next to reading more of James and Derrida, more of Scheler and Foucault. And the ‘extra’ reading is nowadays very often in history, especially in ‘alternative’ views on the history of the US (not the one of the victors) and on WWII.

Why this route anyway? Just yesterday, when I started another book in the history of philosophy, on James, to be specific, the interesting study by Francesca Bologna called William James at the Boundaries. Philosophy, Science, and the Geography of Knowledge, I was fascinated by her introduction on the strange address James gave as president of the APA in 1906. The speech was about ‘The Energies of Man’. In this speech he described the benefits of yoga and drinking alcohol to enhance the human spirit, and cited popular works and works by thinkers on the verge or outside academia. Bologna provides good reasons for discarding the idea that James was losing his mind (as some philosophers present did), by showing that it was a deliberate and recurring strategy in his work to transgress boundaries. “James struggled to reconfigure the relationships between philosophy and the sciences, as well as professional and amateur discourses. Through these efforts […] James reinterpreted the nature of philosophy and science and, by doing so, proposed a new vision for the intellectual and social order of knowledge.” (Bologna, p. 4) When reading this, I realized that for many years, without knowing what I was doing, I had been following a similar course as James, in this respect: something in me always opposed itself to the pressures to keep to one discipline, and to specialize within that discipline – to discipline my curious mind, so to speak.

So now why the history? Let’s start IMG_3706with WW II. In other posts I have made clear that the world in which I grew up pushed me to read up on it: the world of the 60s and 70s of the last century, a world that wanted to move on, that drove itself crazy over Cold War stuff, and that actually consisted of an almost audible silence about matters nobody wanted to be remembered of. Every year now new material on that time still comes out. Some things were only researchable after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and some are only researchable now that certain individuals die, leaving archives, or because their power to silence others is gone. Just recently I came across an article about a collective of secret historians who wrote on the events in the Warsaw ghetto. Those writers, who knew they probably were not going to survive the hell they had landed up in, took it upon themselves to register things as they experienced them, for posterity. I was absolutely amazed and awed by their farsighted courage and mental strenght. And I realized that all over the world, projects like that must still be happening, even now, more or less in secret, more or less under the duress of oppression.

The powers that try to rule history, attempt to obscure it at the same time, for their own actions to be more effective. And that’s where the alternative histories of the US also come in, from that same stifled Cold War time I grew up in, where we were taught to think of the US as our saviours from Hitler, who brought us all the goods of modern life, washing machines, cigarettes, chocolate bars, and scientific management. There was nothing to be worried about anymore ever, as long as we stuck to our new big brother. Even as a child I felt that both things were unhealthy: not wanting to know about WW II, and not wanting to know about who our new protector was. I realized more and more over the years that there can be no good thinking, no good philosophy, without a wish to know history as it ‘really’ happened. Not that we can ever find ‘real’ history in an absolute sense. But we can at least get rid from the worst outgrowths of propaganda, by doing the real work of serious history. And if we are no historians ourselves, we should read all the painstakingly collected facts and carefully reconstructed structures of what happened and how it was transferred. It will clear our minds.

And, last but not least, we should do the same with the so called ‘history of philosophy’, which, for the most part, is not history at all, but a construction to bring us under the impression that the Europeans, that is the Romans and the Greeks, and later the Enlightenment thinkers, imagined all things worthwhile. There are powerful powerstructures at work in that construction too. Peter Park, in his recent work Africa, Asia and the History of Philosophy. Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon, 1780-1830 has written a real historiography of how this powerstructure came to dominate the history of philosophy. Many others of course pushed in this direction by their own investigative work, among others a philosopher whom I discussed here before, Emmanuel Eze. Just the other day I watched the entire talk he delivered some years before his untimely death, which has been luckily recorded and publicized on youtube, and would recommend you, when you watch, to keep watching till the end of the second part, which makes clear why not reading outside the ‘official’ history of philosophy will not only makes the discipline remain stuck in old questions, but also deny itself many qualitative texts that it has never read or even known of which could help to rethink these questions and perhaps think up better answers than it did before.

 

 

It is more than twenty years ago that I first read Arendts Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil. Since that time I have regularly referred to the work in classes, and further pondered the consequences of her research into the role Adolf Eichmann played in the murder of millions of European Jews. What remained with me most was her view on the problematic side effects of bureIMG_3703aucracy. The positive goal of bureaucracy can be described as the equal treatment of citizens, and the efficient delivery of goods delivered by state and non-state organizations. Its negative side effect is that it offers the possibility for individuals to wash their hands from their complicity in malfunctioning and even evil procedures. Eichmann the bureaucrat, as he could be seen in the Jerusalem court after his capture in 1960, showed, according to Arendt, an incapacity to think, to put himself in someone else’s shoes, to see a human being as having a right to its own life.

When the political atmosphere in Europe became more xenophobic over the last ten years, and organizations simultaneously relied more and more on bureaucratic procedures to optimize their functioning, I read Arendt’s view on the banality of evil as offering a model to understand present times. I saw the disappearance of individual responsibility of managers and administrator, of teachers, police, scientists and doctors behind protocol as a moral danger for society.  I didn’t realize, however, that for evil to happen, it is not enough that someone with evil intent, or just a morally weak character, can hide behind procedures. Because a well-functioning bureacracy, with well-described responsibilities, and procedures for complaint, still contains obstacles to abuse, which protect the rights of individuals affected.

What the new historical research of Stangneth, which I am currently reading, shows, is that Eichmann and his complicits not just surfed on the possibilities of normal bureaucratic structures, but that, under the guise of being very well organized, Nazi rule actually internally destroyed certain essential elements of bureaucracy, especially official hierarchies of responsibility. I speak here of something different from what, in a recent post, I called ‘freedom to act’. Freedom to act essentially exists for every individual, in those pockets where bureaucratic and legal systems fail to reach. To put it simply: at all times any individual can try to go around the system, calling on an original freedom to act as a human being. What Stangneth shows to have happened in Nazi rule is something else: it is the selective taking more power than ‘the system’ allows by certain individuals, under the protection of the ‘highest power’, the ideological leader of the movement (the ‘Führer’), a highest power which promises its loyal servants to back them up by unlimited violence.

So this new study on Eichmann ‘before Jerusalem’ makes clear how Eichmann actually had much more power than he claimed to have had when he defended his actions in court. He did not have a high rank, but this was not very important in Nazi dealings. It was even beneficial, in order to carry out things that should remain hidden from the public. Being “on the Führer’s special mission”, Eichmann did not need to call on hierarchical responsibilities to get things done: ‘in a regime governed by relationships, only personal access to someone in power carried any real influence.’ (Stangneth, p. 40) Stangneth further analyzes many sources which were not available to Arendt (especially the so called Sassen interviews, held while Eichmann lived in Argentina), but also departs from a quite different anthropology. While for Arendt an evil person is one who lacks the potential to live the idea of Aristotelean practical reason, someone who goes along with a system that ignores humanity, for Stangneth an evil person is a responsible agent, who is perhaps not highly intelligent, but who shows talent in using a psychology of fear to rule others. ‘”Much more power… was attributed to me than I actually had”, Eichmann explained. And “this fear” of his presumed power meant that “everyone felt he was being watched.”‘ (Stangneth, p. 26)

Now, through this new book, we can see how ambitious, to the point of megalomania, Eichmann was. Still, Stangneth’s analysis doesn’t fall back on the simple and dangerous idea that there are just certain evil persons who are to blame for the worst crimes of history. While restoring full responsibility to the criminal, she also maintains the importance, shown by thinkers like Arendt and Foucault, of scrutinizing structures of power to explain what happened. What is new, however, in her work, is that her analysis of how those structures work is more rich, more complex – dissecting the different workings of journalism, state violence, the psychology of fear, and the effects of symbolism on human thinking  – to provide a more real and a less naive understanding of how evil in the midst of ‘modern civilization’ can be organized and carried out. Like Raul Hilberg she follows the view, not of the victim, but of the perpetrator, to understand the workings of what was done.

As to Eichmann, she makes clear that he was a great actor, putting forward a different image of himself as circumstances required. What he did was make use of people’s unreflected ideas about humanity. Thus it could happen, Stangneth writes, that ‘even someone of average intelligence (Eichmann, AR) can induce a highly intelligent person (Arendt, AR) to defeat herself with her own weapon: her desire to see her expectations fulfilled.’ (Stangneth, p. xxv) Why this book fascinates, is, therefore, because it shows how a new kind of writing history is necessary for a philosophical understanding of humanity. A writing of history that investigates the psychological, moral, and cultural epistemic frameworks that guide common understanding – to prevent following them naively, and to make sure to count with the possibility that, apart from their already inherent distortions, they may also be used to consciously mislead. Such a historiography warns philosophical anthropology to not take its own idealism as its unreflected point of departure, but to scrutinize its own hopes, dreams, judgments, i.e. all of its normative frameworks, as a potential heel of Achilles.

Citations are taken from Regina Stangneth, Eichmann before Jerusalem. The unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer. London: Penguin Random House, 2014.

Another shooting of a US citizen by US police is raising heated discussion – this time an armed citizen, apparently, who according to the police returned fire when she was shot at. Korryn Gaines, the 23 year old who was killed, posted a video some time earlier about her being stopped in her car, while driving without license plates. I was intrigued by her calm and her consistent asking the officer about his Delegation of Authority Order, which I never heard about, and the officer had neither. I wanted to understand what this was about. Some quick reading brought the concept in connection with management theory, legal structures of authority, so called sovereign citizen movements, and the question of freedom and responsiblity – which I felt the need to research further. Now, almost all discussions over the shooting of Gaines are about factual questions: whether she was mentally impaired, whether she was a good mother or not, what about her life, her age, her gun, her boyfriend; and then again about the actions of the officers, could they have done this or that, were they afraid or out to kill her – and tend to overlook the political and anti-political structures she obviously worried about before her death.

So what structures are regulating the relations between citizens and governing powers generally, and how do freedom and responsibility play out in them? And especially when police officers are concerned, who are supposed to be delegated public servants of those powers. Obviously, after bad experiences with being detained and a hostile bureacracy Gaines had decided to not recognize the authority of the police over her life any more. She had given up on the idea that ‘the law’ was lawful, and working for the freedom of herself as a citizen. She explained in videos and in written texts her reasons for not trusting the police and for not complying to their orders, and expressed that she would rather be killed than to cooperate with a system that could kill her also when she would cooperate. On her car she had a card saying ‘Free Traveler’,  and an officer said she acted as a ‘Free Person’,  suggesting that to be a special political position, instead of a general human condition. So who has decided over whose life and in which framework?

Delegation of authority functions in non-official managerial as well as in official contexts, where governing bodies exert power over people. The basic idea it represents is that authority is something else than force/brute power/violence. Authority is recognized as legitimate power, and in political terms it is based on representation. Governmental structures in a democracy are supposed to represent the people, and those working on behalf of the authorities are supposed to legally represent those. This is to make sure that officials will not act out of personal motives, nor be blindly driven by any systemic forces that may be at play in those structures. In businesses or non-governmental organizations the idea is to make a difference between personal responsibility of workers to work for the aim of the organization, and the responsibility of those who are leading the organization to officially back up those people who have the function to take certain decisions. In the course of my life I have observed several times, those in higher management positions to let someone lower in the hierarchy carry out actions that might cause negative reactions without officially delegating them. So when the negative reactions come, their subordinates will carry the responsibility, and not they themselves, as they never ordered them to do this. This shows the importance, in matters concerning the life, health and happiness of individuals that authority is properly delegated, in order for agents to be held accountable for their actions.

In the case of Korryn Gaines, her request for a DOAO was an attempt to protect herself against what she perceived as unlawful actions of the police. The point here is not to determine whether she was legally right or wrong, the question is that what is lawful in the last resort depends on what human beings in a community together hold to be so. What is lawful can in principle always be questioned and put up for discussion. The law can also be ignored or obstructed publicly by individuals out of protest (as in civil disobedience, which is something else than ignoring or obstructing the law for criminal actions). So what is clear is that, not just in the US, but time and again in all modern nations, and especially in the US because of the deadly violence with which confrontations are so often played out, people question whether the police is there for the citizens or for something else. They question, whether they represent a real authority, which implies being officially delegated by democratically recognized officials to do certain things, or whether they act out of other drives. So did Korryn Gaines.

When our modern national states were first being formed, political philosophers tried to make the authority of their governmental bodies understandable by referring to the ‘state of nature’ which was to be understood as a war of each against all – a state which legality should overcome by ‘the people’ transferring their natural right to fend and fight for themselves to the sovereign state power. The state power again was to be exerted by the government and its derived institutions. Spinoza, one of the important thinkers of natural right and the state, warned that in things political, individual people are not just moved by reason, but also driven by irrational passions – which are to be understood as emotional motives which fail to see my own good in relation to the good of others. Passions can be narcissistic, therefore, as well as self-destructive. Or both at the same time. He made clear that for all its power, a state is a fragile thing, continuously in threat of being undermined by individuals (citizens or officials) who do not base their actions on reason, but on passions.

Since the 17th century political philosophy has found new frames to understand political reality. At work in this situation is also something which is described, a.o., by Foucault, and Weber: the system, the complex, the bureaucracy, and its potential to bring generally sane individuals to despair. The system actually undermines authority, as described above, and the responsibilty and accountability that goes along with it. It obstructs the process through which individuals legitimize (ideally) state power through democracy, and through which the authority of the governmental bodies in its turn delegates responsibility to lower officials. How does it do so? Not by replacing reason by passions, but by replacing the (Spinozistic) reason that relates my good to that of the others by a simulacrum – an objectified body of abstractions of real relations. Installing a dense thicket of stamps, identifications, papers, postal services, etcetera, it silently subdues personal responsibility and freedom. The thing with bureaucracy is that, if used correctly, it can protect people, because it regulates and documents everything without differentiation between the status of persons. But used falsely, it can cover up, and even facilitate crimes from governments to the people who live on the piece of earth they rule over. This can be done by denying them (full) citizenship, or by blurring lines of delegation of authority – if no clear order has been given for a certain act of violence, nobody can be held responsible afterwards. We all know cases of encrypted orders like ‘solve the problem’ instead of ‘expell/kill/fire/detain person x’.

In this setting it is clear that there is freedom to act – for perpetrators of evil as well as for those standing up for what’s right. The ‘law’ strictly speaking cannot (and neither can the laws of bureaucratic management) determine human actions like laws of nature determine the movement of natural bodies. People can, and even have to, step outside the rules, to act freely – so they are responsible for their actions, and free – this is not an extraordinary situation and doesn’t depend on any factual aspects – it is the political situation, in which we put all rules and laws up for discussion again. So freedom and responsibility can be appropriated in the voids of laws and rule driven systems. And it is done, all the time, although laws and rules obfuscate that. Police officers take the freedom in the void where they can interpret a person as a danger to themselves or others, and then again are within the law to shoot. And someone like Korryn Gaines takes her freedom deciding to drive without license plates, or to resist arrest, as an act of civil disobedience. The law should protect her life all the same, and here is a conflict within the law between the perceived safety of the officers and the safety of the person they want to arrest. It is one of the voids where people are free and responsible, all of them, so calling her a ‘free person’ is superfluous. Of course she was. And so were the officers who killed her. Every individual, even though living under laws and bureaucracies, remains responsible for what they do. The state of nature is never far away, and no state power should make us forget that.

 

 

I took care to try and analyze just one aspect of this case, to clarify the issue of authority and freedom. This analysis of course leaves many other questions out, that also should be asked. Questions of historical violence by white people against black people, questions of social injustice, questions of the situation in prisons, for men and for women, where sexual violence is very common. But those questions again touch the factual – they regard why someone acted the way they did. They provide the content of actual political questions. I just wanted to discuss the formal aspects of the place and role of the political and the anti-political regarding the freedom of persons to act in this case.