Tag Archives: theory

How to end 2016

Book cover of Penguin Classics edition of Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

I am reading Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Technically I haven’t actually started reading it yet and have only finished reading the preface by Michel Foucault. Mostly I’m reading it because a lot of Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas were explored thematically in the Ghost in the Shell anime and I’d wanted to read it before actually watching the movies and shows. I think the book itself has been on my Amazon wishlist for eight years now.

It seems to be about using the schizophrenic’s break with (capitalist) society as a roadmap to how to live outside of capitalism and its inherently fascist tendencies. It’s kind of hard to read a theory book once one is no longer in academia as I’m no longer in the headspace to easily parse a translation of a densely written neo-Marxist monograph. That, and there are just too many options for amusement available to me.

Speaking of which, I’m also reading another – and more accessible – translated work known as The Devil is a Part-Timer series. It’s a bunch of Japanese light novels about the Devil being kicked out of his kingdom and escaping to modern Japan, where to make ends meet he has to work part-time at McDonald’s. It’s frequently hilarious.

I keep these books at home, though, and when I’m commuting I pull out my Kobo and read Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: Shadows of Self, which is set 300 years after the end of his Mistborn fantasy series. While the original trilogy was essentially a decently fresh take on a fantasy trope, being about a world where the destined hero failed and the land is ruled by the evil emperor, this series is kind of a fantasy Western about supernaturally powered lawmen and criminals playing their games in a mix of the Wild West and Victorian London.

I like it okay. Sanderson’s writing has definitely improved since his first book, Elantris, though it’s still not going to end up studied in creative writing classes. But the book is entertaining enough.

How to stuff a human corpse into a refrigerator

Homo sacer: a human being who exists solely to be brutalized and killed.

Girlfriend: in superhero comic books, a human being who exists solely to be brutalized and killed.

A realization that occurred to me when reading through fan reactions to the stunt announcement that Green Lantern is gay (but not the famous one, merely the second tier character that no one is familiar with).

The border and the bourgeois

I’m in the middle of reading a roundtable discussion between a bunch of anthropologists of Europe talking about the New Right in European politics.  It’s from 2003, so some of their stuff is out of date, but it’s still mostly spot on.  In the middle of their discussion, the panelists start talking about the hybridity and border-crossing stuff that’s been popular recently.  They discuss two discourses on the issues.  The first speaks of border-crossing in terms of leakiness, where miscegenation–whether cultural, biological, or economic–is threatening, while the second celebrates the hybridity and cultural enrichment found from mixing different cultures.

As Jonathan Friedman asserts, though, the discourse of fear is produced by people at the bottom and middle of a society, while the discourse of celebration comes mostly from the top:

JONATHAN:

I have it very clearly. Look, I’ve never found a working-class hybrid who celebrated his mixture. I’ve never found even an example of it in ethnographies. It’s always by interpretation. There is one very, very strong kind of discourse of hybrid that’s being produced at the top. And I have hundreds of examples of it. What I’m interested in is saying, ‘Okay, these things are located, they’re positioned. They’re interested discourses in the sense that there are interests behind them’. I’m not sure exactly what interests they are, but I think they’re pretty clear. And these have nothing to do with Left and Right. The people at the top are producing hybridity: I don’t want to classify them as Left or Right. But there is a long history of colonial hybrid discourse being reproduced at the top. I don’t want to be stuck in how I represent that. I don’t want to have to represent that saying that ‘this is good, and the other is bad’.

THOMAS [HYLLAND ERIKSEN]:

But I’d like to challenge that, Jonathan. You’re probably right, that the people who celebrate hybridity are, as it were, middle class, I mean, members of the chattering classes, basically. The Salman Rushdies and so on. But those are the people who always open their mouths about anything, so that’s neither here nor there. Christopher Lasch belongs to the same class himself, now doesn’t he? But if you look at the people who are uncomfortable, and who present the kind of leakage that Sarah mentioned, and who are anomalies, and who don’t fit in and so on, a lot of them would belong to the lower ranks of society. I mean, all the illegal immigrants who make New York go ’round, who New York is completely dependent on in order to survive as a city. And the Pakistanis in Norway who spend three months a year in Pakistan, and who, you know, bring women back and who have this traffic in marriage and so on.

JONATHAN:

Yes, but what does this have to do with hybridities? You compare Gloria Anzaldúa, of border crossing ideology. She’s an author, and then there are hundreds of people who write about her, it’s an industry. It’s an industry of border crossing and of hybridity. But then in Lund we have people who have worked on illegal immigrants in California. Those immigrants are scared shitless of the border. There’s no celebration of hybridity, they haven’t got time for that. They’re not into those kinds of problems at all. They’re into very different kinds of issues. They’re trying to survive. Hybridity is a leisure issue.

—–

Well, take that Appadurai.  I already had bunches of stuff critiquing cosmopolitanism, but this roundtable discussion is certainly easier to read.  After this part the panelists went back to discussing the New Right in Europe.  Anyway, it’s certainly food for thought.

Reference:

”Anthropologists are talking’ about the new right in Europe’,
Ethnos, 68:4, 554 – 572

Summer Reading List

Over on Rough Theory, N. Pepperrell and I have been wallowing in our guilt over not being well-read enough (is anyone in academia ever satisfied by how much they know?).  Anyway, now seems like an opportune time to share my summer reading list.  These are the books I hope to read after I finish my thesis.  I know, I’m guilty of counting chickens before they’ve hatched, but I think it’s good to be optimisitic about the future.  I don’t list novels because I tend to consume them at a really high pace and I pretty much just read whatever catches my eye when I’m at the library, the bookstore, or spy something lying around the house.  Anyway, the books I want to read:

  1. Southeast Asia Over Three Generations: Essays Presented to Benedict R. O’G. Anderson.  I just bought this a couple of weeks ago and I’ll probably just skim it.
  2. Cultural Citizenship in Island Southeast Asia by Renato Rosaldo.  This one I bought a couple of months ago and I’ve also yet to read it.  I’ll probably just skim it too.
  3. Friction by Anna Tsing.  Something I got for myself Christmas 2005 which I actually have cracked open, but I’ve never really, you know, read it per se (more like randomly flipped through and lingered on occasional interesting bits).
  4. Europe and the People Without History by Eric Wolf.  Again, I’ve flipped through it, I’ve gotten the gist of it, but damned if I’ve ever actually read it through.  Another book from 2005.
  5. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity by Jurgen Habermass.  I’ve actually read the introduction but not much else beyond that.  It’s yet another two year old book that I still haven’t gotten around to reading.  Damn you, graduate school!  Why can I never have the time to read all these books?  Confession: Sometimes I’m tempted to shelve it beside Madness and Civilization just to see what will happen.
  6. A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.  I keep reading about this book in various articles and such so I figured I might as well see what it actually says.  One book review I read says that it builds upon the dynamic duo’s previous work, so does that mean I’ll have to read their other books before I get to this one?  I know I’ll probably have to read Capitalism and Schizophrenia at the very least.  I wonder, is that enough of a grounding to not feel lost?  I admit, I want to read D&G partly because the anime Ghost in the Shell: The Stand Alone Complex is apparently written by Deleuzians.  In one episode, a sentient robotic tank is seen reading a copy of Anti-Oedipus.  I’d really like to watch this series and get the Deleuzian references.

You know what?  This is more of a 2007 reading list, in which case I should have written this list in January.  The summer can’t be long enough for me to read all these meaty books.  Oh well, yet another reason for me to finish my thesis soon.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

For history-minded people who are also China watchers, it’s fascinating to see how China’s current drive towards accelerated industrialization resembles the historical trajectory of European industrialization.  There is, of course, the massive pile of Chinese migrant labourer bodies stacking up from various coal mine accidents, sweatshop fires, and worker riots.  All of this recalls “Western” experiences, and if you squint at the headlines in the right way you can even imagine you’re reading a news article from the 19th century.  The wealthier Chinese are even aware of this:

But an odd change has come about in some [Chinese] shoppers’ minds. As members of China’s business and political elite, they have come to believe that the world is a huge jungle of Darwinian competition, where connections and smarts mean everything, and quaint notions of fairness count for little.

I noticed this attitude on my most recent trip to China from the United States, where I moved nine years ago. So I asked a relative who lives rather comfortably to explain. “Is it fair that the household maids make 65 cents an hour while the well-connected real estate developers become millionaires or billionaires in just a few years?” I asked. He was caught off guard. After a few seconds of silence, he settled on an answer he had read in a popular magazine.

“Look at England, look at America,” he said. “The Industrial Revolution was very cruel. When the English capitalists needed land, sheep ate people.” (Chinese history books use the phrase “sheep ate people” to describe what happened in the 19th century, when tenant farmers in Britain were thrown off their land to starve so that sheep could graze and produce wool for new mills.)

“Since England and America went through that pain, shouldn’t we try to avoid the same pain, now that we have history as our guide?” I asked.

“If we want to proceed to a full market economy, some people have to make sacrifices,” my relative said solemnly. “To get to where we want to get, we must go through the ‘sheep eating people’ stage too.”

In other words, while most Chinese have privately dumped the economic prescriptions of Marx, two pillars of the way he saw the world have remained. First is the inexorable procession of history to a goal. The goal used to be the Communist utopia; now the destination is a market economy of material abundance.

Second, just as before, the welfare of some people must be sacrificed so the community can march toward its destiny. Many well-to-do Chinese readily endorse those views, so long as neither they nor their relatives are placed on the altar of history. In the end, Marx is used to justify ignoring the pain of the poor.

Certainly it’s a mealy-mouthed excuse for an excuse: It’s okay for Chinese to exploit their fellow human beings because the British did the same 150 years ago.  The British also forced the Chinese to buy British opium at gunpoint and cede Hong Kong in the Opium Wars, so my inner cynic wonders if the Chinese are also planning on doing the same thing to other countries.  Then again, the march of progress means that often the new capitalists are welcomed with open arms.

Of course, this pattern of worker abuse is not just a simple reiteration of Western history being played out by people with darker skin.  For example, no witches were ever burned in England because manufacturing jobs were scarce.  The present isn’t the past and the (cough, ahem) Third World isn’t the farcical Napoleon III to the First World’s l’Empereur, Marx’s witticism notwithstanding.

For one thing, while it may be tempting to think of all of this “stuff” as happening in foreign countries or in the past, the resurgence of Taylorism and “scientific management” (a discredited management philosophy organized around getting the most productivity out of workers and damn their health and comfort), the introduction of flexible labour and contingent work (in rural as well as in urban areas), the migration of capital and jobs, and the shrinking of the working class labour market in the “West” means that things are getting crappier where white people live too.  Some economists are even admitting this, despite the fact that most of them seem to be propagandists of global capitalism.

In fact, the globalist project has been so dismal in its rewards that it’s been traded in for straight-up nationalism in some quarters (e.g., the US, Russia, Pakistan, Japan, and so many other countries).  “Here we go again,” say the historians, though in this sequel the Indians sometimes fight off the cowboys successfully — note, though, that it’s not the absolutely downtrodden countries that are resisting successfully, but the ones that already have some power.  Lest anyone forget, remember also that the elites of those countries are hard at work exploiting their paisanos, so what we’re seeing is more like one group of elites fighting off another group of elites than the underdogs beating the five-time league champion.

All of these thoughts were triggered in me when I read about the recent fashionability of skin tanning among wealthier Chinese (via Boas Blog’s shoutout to Racialicious).  Note that light skin was previously the in-thing to have to signify one’s wealth since it’s a sign that one isn’t a common labourer working outdoors, just like in Britain before the Industrial Revolution and just like it is today in many developing countries (and let’s not forget that skin whitening creams are used by many black people in the US, UK, and the Caribbean, though they’re used for slightly different reasons than mere signifiers of wealth).  With the expansion of the airline industry, the drop in ticket prices thanks to cut-throat competition, and the greater number of vacationing middle class people created by industrialization, tanned skin has become a sign that the possessor has been to an expensive holiday overseas — again, like the way tanned skin became fashionable in Britain as a sign that the person has been to the Mediterranean, most likely during their Grand Tour of Europe, such holidaying becoming only possible by the building of railways to criss-cross the continent.

So there you have it: The more things change, the more they stay the same (barring the odd witch-burning and war on Islam here and there).

Paul Gilroy on Ali G

I really should stay up to date on my email.  There was an extended discussion of Borat on the Media Anthropology Network’s mailing list last November, and part of what came up was this article by Paul Gilroy analyzing Sacha Baron Cohen’s previous film, Ali G in Da House.  And there was a long discussion of Big Brother that just ended.  Dammit, this was all good stuff.  Okay, I’m definitely going to participate in the new e-seminar about Urban Larssen’s working paper, “Imagining a World of Free Expression in the Making: Romania and Global Media Development.”