Thursday, July 31, 2014

Rousseau on Language and Writing

The following is the Forward that was very kindly commissioned of me by my friend John for his latest book, Rousseau on Language and Writing.  It has been available for purchase for some months (you can find it on Amazon here) so this notice is more than a little late but, better late than never as they say.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau has always been a richly divisive thinker, the contradictions of his life almost displaying a split-personality. It is therefore fitting that this duality is mirrored by the essays gathered in this volume upon one of Rousseau’s lesser known works, the Essay on the Origin of Languages . Here Rousseau sought to argue, making wild and brilliant philological and sociological speculation along the way, that originally language developed in warm southern climes where it held a musical and emotional character that, with its migration to the north, would become more coldly rational and utilitarian. If we agree with this hypothesis, it may go a long way in explaining the decline of poetry from its period of greatest flowering in the antiquity of Greece, to its diminishment to the humble lyric of today. For Rousseau , ours is an age for the cold businessman’s prose of the account books not for the singing of epics.

It would be no stretch to claim that all of Rousseau’s work is one sustained attack upon inauthenticity in human relations. In this, the Essay on the Origin of Languages is just one small continuation of that project. We all wear masks, and language is just one more mask we wear to hide our true selves from one another. In the “linguistic turn” of twentieth century philosophy and the rise of the Analytic/ Continental divide , Rousseau was thus in a way prescient in reminding us that too often language can be as much a shield of self-protection as it is a means of conveying ideas. In a manner similar to C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures”, it becomes merely a tool of defense, where both parties talk past one another instead of genuinely engaging, as the recent commotion between Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek might suggest. In this, Professors Barry Stocker and John Bolender have rendered a service in helping to spur just such a dialogue. Bolender, writing from the Analytic perspective, and Stocker from the Continental, have produced essays from their respective domains, each in turn then has contributed a separate essay upon these two original interpretations.

Barry Stocker gives us an absorbing study pairing Rousseau with Jacques Derrida, exploring a deconstructed investigation of the Essay. With a subtle and nuanced analysis Stocker explains that, due to the indeterminacy of language that a flawless definition of concepts such a liberty and community can never be achieved but that political language must remain in constant discussion with its self . John Bolender asks how does emotion in language create solidarity in a community and, further, challenges the Chomskian view against oratory as a positive and perhaps necessary force for political cohesion, speculative insights that present an excellent example of philosophy’s ability to offer new lines of scientific research and inquiry.

The book as a whole is a wonderful demonstration of the limitless possibilities that a great philosopher can elicit even two-hundred years after his death, and the still greater possibilities for cross fertilization and experimentation across the, perhaps, artificial gap of the so called Analytic/ Continental divide. Regardless, if this volume does not achieve its hoped for aim and ignite similar attempts at such dialogue, it remains a unique and stimulating exchange upon a much under-appreciated work by one of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Selling Out or The Organic Capitalist

Update:  This essay was recently featured on the following blog:

The twentieth century Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci is rightly famous for his concept of the organic intellectual, a term he interpreted to mean an individual from the lower classes who would work to critique the dominant culture, or Hegemony, of a society that is influenced by the ruling class as an effective tool for social control.

I contend that there is a flip side to this coin. That, just as an intellectual may arise organically from the lower classes to critique the larger culture, there is also an organic mechanism of capital for neutralizing such threats. The observation is not unique, but so pernicious I felt it deserved to be brought out into the open and clarified.

At one end of the spectrum the potential organic intellectual accepts, while still young, the hegemonic propaganda that a college education is the best way out of poverty. Putting aside the problem of mounting student debt, there is the equally serious problem of the quality of education its self, a problem dealt with at great length by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in their book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. In order to be an effective critic certain skills are essential, such as critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing. The disadvantaged student is limited in her choices as to which university she may attend, and must often sacrifice quality for afford-ability. Those institutions which are most affordable very often score the lowest in imparting those valuable skills. In large part this is due to the increasing commercialization of higher education. To compete, schools are becoming viewed more as businesses that provide a product. To sell more product means pleasing the consumer, i.e. the student, or more often their parent's, who want an easy path for their child towards graduation.

One consequence of this process has been the slackening of rigor in courses, and the sense in the student body of entitlement to a degree, since that is what they are in effect paying for. Thus, those individuals who might have the most to say about the current system are effectively silenced without coercion or complaint. The organic intellectual is effectively stillborn because she was never exposed from the start to the proper atmosphere for critique. Nevertheless, in compensation, they will be given what, in capitalist terms, is called an “education”, typically in business or some technical proficiency in the medical or technological fields, and never look back with any sense of loss as they pick the low hanging fruit from capital's tree. In essence it is little more than vocational training with the pretension of a university degree.

The second progression for organically silencing dissent is far simpler, but not in the least less unsettling for that. It comes under the name of “selling out”, but its subtlety is such that the individual being sold has so completely appropriated the modes of capitalist thinking that the transaction is never even noticed to have taken place. It is truly an invisible hand at work with magical prestidigitation.

In this instance, what amounts to the modern public intellectual for a large segment of the population, the entertainer or comedian, grows in increasing prominence their presence becoming more and more inescapable to the larger social consciousness. At this moment the individual becomes commodifiable. He or she is offered a platform were they may reach an even wider audience than ever before. However, along with this increased influence comes increased affluence. The entertainer has attained all that they desired, they can entertain and are paid increasingly well to do so. This nascent social critic began as a somewhat disinterested observer critiquing what he or she has seen. With increasing popularity however, they reached the point of commodification. Being absorbed by capital he begins to view capital's interests as his own. Whereas before he was an outsider looking in, now he is on the inside looking out, and in this natural non-coercive fashion capital thus nullifies the efficacy of dissenters who gain too much influence.

There are perhaps few better examples of this transition than Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. Stewart has repeatedly been called out for his half-hearted criticisms. His childishly naive dictum of “fairness” in giving both sides a serious hearing in his determination not to hurt feelings or ruffle feathers, has repeatedly given credibility to the worst excesses of the US government. This error of false equivalence was revealed no more tellingly than in the disastrous Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, which became a massive joke at the attendee's expense. A sad deflation of hopes from a man who was reported to have been an admirer of Eugene Debs.

Organic Capitalism is stealthy, the tools at its disposal almost limitless yet it can be overcome. With an improved standard of education and a higher education put within the grasp of even the most disadvantaged citizens, as well as the simple moral backbone to resist its temptations and see through its lies, such scenarios need not be an inevitability.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Gold Standard: A Philosophical Dialogue On the Nature of Poverty

Cast of Characters
Benjamin: A modern Socrates.
Pastor Fred: Pastor of the church which
has been robbed.
A street outside a church.

Benjamin, taking an afternoon walk, encounters Pastor Fred
sitting head in hands outside his church in apparent
Are you alright Fred? You look awful.
I’m not surprised. Someone broke into the church last
night and stole the big screen TV from the community
I’m very sorry to hear that. However, if they needed
it that badly perhaps we should consider it an act of
desperation and forgive it as such.
Desperation!? How can a night time robbery, that was
obviously planned, be considered desperate? There is
plenty for those who know how to ask for it.
There is plenty enough that’s true. However, the way
it trickles down to those on the bottom is perhaps not
all that efficient.
It’s too efficient if you ask me. I pay enough in
taxes as it is, and those taxes pay to provide for the
Very true. And yet, even then it is hard to get by for
most. Only the smallest portion is allotted based on
what the government considers an acceptable standard of
living, while those who live with more than an
abundance are unwilling to part with even the smallest
That is only right, one should keep what one earns. Of
course we should give to the poor and needy, but not as
a legal obligation. It should come from the heart or
not at all.
This is well taken, and is a commendable ideal. How
would you implement it?
As it has always been done, through the church.
But Pastor, the churches already do this and yet
someone still felt compelled to steal your TV. If all
of their needs have been met, what may have motivated
their action’s?
Obviously the thieves were not content with what they
had been given. They were probably drug addicts.
How do you know they are drug addicts?
Well I don’t know, but it wouldn't surprise me.
Let us assume for the moment that they were not. Let
us assume that, like you they were angry.
What reasons would they have to be angry? I’m the one
who’s been robbed.
Perhaps it was the anger of frustration, the
frustration of a desire for luxuries they could no
longer afford with work being denied them.
That’s no excuse.
No, but it is not as easily dismissed. The addict we
assume cannot control himself, someone stealing sober
is acting out of more complicated motivations, or so at
least we can imagine. Is it not possible we jump to
the most convenient cliché to strengthen our own black
and white thinking?
Alright, just for the sake of argument, let’s assume
you’re right. It still doesn't change the fact that
they stole, and it still doesn't make it right.
I don’t claim a different set of reasons make it right,
only that the reasons may be more complicated than they
at first appear. Here, you once told me you were nearly
arrested for vagrancy. Tell me that story again.
I hardly see how that applies, but oh well. Some time
ago I was working late at the soup kitchen. While
preparing the food I managed to spill the larger half
of it on myself, soaking my clothes. I was forced to
change into some donated clothing that had seen better
And what happened when you left for home that night?
I was stopped on the street by two police officers who
thought I was homeless. They didn't believe me at
first, but I managed to explain the odd circumstances.
But while you were still under suspicion, how did you
As though I had been stripped of my dignity, as though
I were less then human.
And how does that relate to the thieves?
It may not relate at all. But it does offer another
plausible explanation.
That they had lost their dignity?
Perhaps not so much lost it as found it
unrecognized. Perhaps when one is assumed to be
something repeatedly, out of exasperation one decides
to give into expectation and act the person the world
desires to see.
And what sort of indignities might they have
encountered, as I believe that is what you are getting
Well, starting with the very churches you would have
dispense charity.
Do you mean to imply my church disrespects the poor!?
Certainly not. Your own church, I know, never turns a
man away, but there are those that do, or put
conditions upon God’s unlimited love. What happens
when the criteria for acceptability is not met? Where
then are the poor to go?
To Hell! Like the thieves who stole from my church.
Now Fred, I know you don’t mean that.
No I don’t. I’m just frustrated. It took months for
the congregation to save for that TV, now we must begin
all over again.
Yet, at least the loss is not irreplaceable. Your
congregation will recover quickly, whereas those who
stole from you have probably gained little to
compensate them for their effort by comparison.
You want to speak of effort, what of our effort’s? And
the efforts of everyone who works hard to earn a living
in the expected way? If a man cannot enjoy the fruits
of his brow then why bother collecting to begin with?
Perhaps the question is not why collect the fruits but
rather, need we collect so many? You and I have had
many talks about the history of the church. I’m sure
you remember our discussion of Luther. One of his
complaint’s against Rome was its acquisition of worldly
I can see what you’re doing Benjamin. You mean to
accuse my church of the same vice. Don’t my
parishioner’s deserve a nice sanctuary and pleasant
I’m not making an accusation, just raising a point you
may not have considered.
I am well aware of the debates in the early church you
are alluding to. But the church serves a function in
the community of spiritual uplift. A shabby looking
church is something few would want a part of, or have
confidence in.
True, you have a point, but let me propose a different
thought. A few moments ago you were willing to condemn
the thieves to Hell, correct?
Yes, but I was speaking out of anger.
Precisely, in anger. Nevertheless, I’m sure you would
agree that the soul of someone, such as a murderer for
instance, is deserving of Hell?
I would certainly say I believe murderers to be in Hell
if anyone is.
Why is that?
Isn't it obvious? Murder is a terrible crime.
So you would agree that murder is a very great sin?
Of course.
And murder is a sin deserving of eternal punishment?
I would think more so than any other.
And theft is not?
I do not feel so.
But why?
Do I need to explain such a thing? When you take a
human life you presume to act like God, who alone can
decide questions of life and death.
Yet, if you were less the forgiving fellow I know you
to be, you could easily make such a judgment feel
appropriate, and could perhaps understand if any one of
your parishioners with similar anger made the same
I suppose that would be understandable, yes. But what
do you mean by all this?
What is the difference between a soul such as the
murderer and the thieves who stole the TV?
The magnitude of the crime of course. Theft is not the
same thing as taking a life.
And what is theft?
The taking of that which does not belong to us.
Just so.
What point are you trying to make?
That theft and murder are two different crimes.
We already know this.
But the implication is still unspoken.
Which is?
That a dispassionate observer would not condemn the
thief to Hell, but for the murderer would.
So in my anger you are saying I made a rush to
judgment. Yes, I will admit it was un-Christian of me,
but we are all imperfect.
Quite so, and we forgive the imperfections in others
that we find in ourselves more readily.
You mean to say that I’m a thief as well because I do
not give enough.
No, merely to suggest that, just as the dispassionate
person would not send the thief to Hell for theft, that
we cannot feel that what is stolen is of equal worth to
the thief. To murder is to take a life, to steal is
merely to take what is not our own.
But the murderer too takes what is not his.
True, but I doubt you would equate a human life with an
object, even less with something so abstract as money.
Where are you going with all this?
I’m getting there, I just wish to be sure we have come
to the same place together. What we have discovered
seems can be stated thus: what is owned by us is not
us. That we view an act such as murder or rape
differently than mere theft.
But it could be argued just the opposite, that what we
own is an extension of ourselves. When a man has built
a fine house for himself, is it not a part of him, of
the image he projects to others?
But Pastor, would that not be the sin of pride?
Pridefulness is indeed a sin, but only in excess. A
little pride taken in our appearance and
accomplishment’s is natural, and even perhaps
That is true, but it is pride in excess that I am
referring to.
And what of our labor? (If you wish to be
abstract.) Is that not something we own as well?
The capacity for labor is something we do possess but
not all possess equally, nor is it equally valued by
all. Like a talent, we may possess it, but a talent
for making pleasant sounds is of little value in the
land of the deaf.
If someone is unable to find work that’s why government
programs exist, and that’s what I pay taxes for.
“Are there no prisons? Are there no
workhouses?” Forgive me Fred, I couldn't resist. Let
me take a different approach. What did we determine in
the relationship between theft and murder?
That murder was a more serious crime than theft.
So we agreed that not all crimes are of equal weight?
I believe so, yes.
And I think you would agree that the judgment of a
crime should be impartial, and free from the emotions
of anger and disgust?
Well then, if we have determined that the magnitude of
a crime, as well as the image of that crime distorted
through the haze of anger are things we must consider,
would you then defend the hoarding of wealth?
Not in excess.
Would you then acknowledge that, if one has acquired
enough wealth to feed, clothe, and house himself
adequately, any more than this would constitute a sin?
Depending on the circumstances.
And what are those?
I don’t know. I would have to take it case by case.
But Fred, if we've already determined that crimes such
as murder and theft can immediately be recognized for
what they are, and with what severity we might judge
them, why so picky with the sin of greed? Let’s call a
spade a spade.
It’s not so black and white as that. It’s...
Yes, it’s always complicated when it’s our own action’s
we are considering, funny how that is. The gold
standard is in the end the only standard, and a crime
becomes no crime at all if it’s big enough.