a new context for the communal production, appropriation and distribution of critical knowledge

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Through A Glass Darkly

A few days ago, at a table, where ymM was also sitting, I dared to argue... it was a small gathering of four of us after having watched Cuaron's recent "Children of Men"; we were, you know, chatting on film and philosophy (how the latter shall be handled in the former), strangely lost somewhere around the discussion on the decadent environment in Turkey... Anyway, there, under these utterly hollow circumstances, in front of everybody, I dared to argue that Bergman is, to put it politely, not as important as people usually consider him to be.

Of course, it was just for the sake of provocation but the whole thing failed. No one at the table took me seriously, and the chat went on. Monsieur F., sipping his cold white wine, explained us why Turkey will soon turn into South Africa. Mobs will shot "blacks" on streets. We did not oppose, it was too late and too mellow, and too hot.

After two days, Bergman died. I cannot imagine a more terrible position that a self-proclaimed cinephile can put himself into.

But there is more.

After years of deferral, resistance to the urge of swallowing his filmography wildly, I had finally given up, the day before this small gathering, I watched "Smiles of a Summer Night" after breakfast, "Wild Strawberries" in the afternoon, with tea and biscuits, and finally "Seventh Seal", as it deserves, just before midnight. When I went to bed, completely baffled, it was different, i was able to say to Salkim. Dreyer, Tarkovsky, something; but different. Then during the weekend, we watched "Through a Glass Darkly" and "Winter Light" (the first two films of his famous trilogy; "Silence" which I haven't seen yet, is the last part). He was still alive then and we were falling in love with him. And he died.


Two personal reasons why I finally decided to "go back" to Bergman --you always have this bizarre "feeling", even if you haven't seen one minute of his films before, that you have to know his films if you want to think seriously on cinema-- were his constant engagement with the question of God (not "existing" yet always somewhere there) and that he chose the life of solitary artist, on a small island off coast of Sweden (Faro, which I believe he discovered for "Through a Glass Darkly").

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

humiliating work and the law

i'm trying to think through some issues raised by wilson v. monarch paper co., 939 f.2d 1138 (5th cir. 1991) and similar cases. in this case, a jury found, and the court system upheld on appeal, that the vice president of a company was entitled to millions of dollars in compensation for intentional infliction of emotional distress after being demoted to warehouse janitor. this raises many questions and thoughts that i'd like to explore on an ongoing basis. for now i'll put things in point form, since my thoughts are scattered.

- intentional infliction of emotional distress is not an easy kind of case to win, because the standards for abuse are pretty high. in wilson, the required standard was that the offending conduct (i.e. demoting wilson to janitor) be so outrageous that civilized society should not tolerate it.

- how widespread is the attitude that it is humiliating to be a janitor? do janitors think so? if not, are they simply in denial, or was the jury wrong?

- or is it a situation where the jury believed that the humiliation is not a general social fact but is particular to the former vice president, either because of his idiosyncratic personal beliefs or because of the beliefs prevalent in his social class? it seems unlikely that a jury would find IIED and a judge would uphold it based on beliefs particular to an individual or class, unless it is a class belief shared by the judge and the majority of the jury. not to mention the appellate panel of judges that upheld the finding.

- just what is it, anyway, that makes it humiliating for someone to be a janitor? are the factors purely social or is there something innate to humans that makes such work inherently humiliating?

- if, as i assume, the humiliation of being a janitor is entirely or primarily a social fact, why is such a social fact constructed? and why is a remedy for this humiliation offered in the narrow circumstances of executive demotion, but not in the broader setting of a society that assigns some people humiliating jobs on a career basis? in other words, how does the view that civilized society cannot tolerate the demotion of an executive to janitor reconcile with the fact that the same (presumably) civilized society assigns many people to be career janitors? what does this tell us about the relationship between law and society?

- all this assumes that what the jury found to be humiliating was the job itself, not, say, the fact that the person was forcibly transferred from one job to another, or the fact that someone was removed from a lucrative job. this seems to be borne out: we can safely assume that no jury would find emotional distress for someone who was transferred from janitor to VP, if the judge even allowed the case to proceed to a jury; and the law makes it perfectly permissible to fire a high-level employee for no good reason - certainly it's not considered outrageous conduct.

- one conclusion that can be drawn is that in the eyes of the law, it is much better for a vice president to be fired than to be forced to choose between working as a janitor and quitting, which is always an option. can the conclusion also be drawn that it is better for people in general to not work at all than to work as a janitor? advocates of "welfare reform" suggest that it is more dignified to do any work than to do no work at all. but if this is true, why is it abusive to make a vice president choose between working as a janitor or quitting, but not abusive to simply fire him?

- one possible answer is that we believe in meritocracy: it is not unconscionable to have a society in which some people are forced to have humiliating jobs, because our society allows the individual some agency in determining his or her ultimate circumstances: people who are meritorious (by some definition that we need not look into right now) are rewarded with non-humiliating jobs, while those who are not meritorious must accept humiliating jobs. what is abusive is to improperly assign a meritorious person like wilson to a humiliating job.

- the problem with this is that it is very widely recognized that whatever role merit plays in determining one's job prospects, it is far from the only factor, and circumstances of birth are a major determinant of whether or not one will end up in a humiliating job. and while this fact is lamented among liberals, it is tolerated by them, while illiberals seem to have no problem with it. would such illiberals on a jury not have found for wilson? or is this further confirmation that reactionaries lack analytical and/or moral intelligence?

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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Health Care Reform Debate and Feminine Sexuation: Passage to the Act

(Dear reader, sorry for the delay in posting--this summer has been one long emotional roller coaster ride so far.)

Part 3 ofHealth Care and the Community Economy: Towards an Ethics of Surplus and Geography of Sufficiency.

Feminine Sexuation and Health Care Reform

So far we have learned what it is like to fail in relation to economic imperative—to fail to balance social reproduction and economic growth … My qualitative research alerted me that it is also possible to fail in relation to one’s ethical commitments.

One interview that stands out in this regard was with Dr. Norman Haug of Del Norte Colorado—driving force behind the creation of The Rio Grande Hospital. Del Norte is a remote town in South East Colorado with a mostly poor rural farming population and a seasonal tourism industry. Like a lot of poor rural communities access to health care was a real problem. Norman was able convince HUD to provide Del Norte with a loan type 242 that allowed for the construction of a critical care hospital to serve the local community. To obtain the grant he had to prove to HUD that the hospital was economically viable.

First Norman needed to raise a 1.5 million dollars in order to qualify for the loan—the first of its kind to be provided by HUD outside of the NY/NJ area. In addition to solicitations large and small the land for the hospital—valued at 400K--was also gifted by a land owner. To prove that the critical care hospital was viable one argument Norman made was that it would serve the tourists that came to the area for hunting and other excursions. The decisive point proved to be the hospitals designation as a critical care facility by Medicare.

This meant that Medicare—the insurance form for 70% of the patients—would reimburse the Rio Grande on a cost basis rather than according to capitated formularies—in the absence of this arrangement, the hospital would lose money. One of the rationales behind the critical care hospitals is that they provide care in sparsely populated areas that would otherwise fail to constitute a viable market.

This leads some to dismiss the Rio Grande as a state charity case but Norman disagrees on two counts: First, We would not argue for the centralization of police or educational services on the basis of market demand… nor should we argue for a centralization of medical services. Second, once transport and higher overhead in urban hospitals are figured into the equation—critical care facilities and rural hospitals are cost effective responses to definite need.

Situating the Rio Grande in the Diverse Economy

It is useful to situate the story of the Rio Grande hospital in the context of the diverse and community economy diagram, with its partial typology of economic difference in the dimensions of exchange, compensation and organization. For those of you familiar with A Post-Capitalist Politics, it will be unnecessary to go over the way in which this representation of the economy as a space of open-ended heterogeneity describes an actually existing diversity of forms of exchange, compensation, and economic organization (the dimension of class). The Rio-Grande is a state capitalist enterprise that exists to serve a particular constituency. While it has clearly been enabled by a generous state transfer from HUD and its designation as a critical care facility by Medicare, it’s also clear that it exists as a community asset because of the generosity of local citizens. In turn, it is a context in which Norman and the other physicians are able to generously serve the care needs of the local and transient population—including legal and illegal immigrants. (45% of care is free care) and the market of insured patients.

Thus the Rio Grande is “viable” because of the support that it receives and because its mandated purpose is to service a geographically finite need. There is, of course, a limit to Rio Grande’s capacity but it no longer needs to be read in relation to infinite demand and self-interested practitioners.

Lacan’s counter-posed feminine logic becomes relevant here. In this view there is no constitutive exception—all are subject to the law, and yet no one is completely subjected. In the world of feminine sexuated logic limits remain, including limits to care, but they are seen as provisional. Here “scarcity,” and the need for “economic growth,” no longer act as over-arching imperative. In my view, it is this move towards the relational possibilities (and constraints) of a feminine logic rather than the fixed miserly injunction of masculine logic that allows us to re-imagine the politics of health care reform in relation to sufficiency.

Feminine logic, as Copjec says, “obliges us to recognize the finitude of all phenomena, the fact that they are inescapably subject to the conditions of time and space and must therefore be encountered one by one, indefinitely, without the possibility of reaching an end, a point where all phenomena would be known. The status of the world is not infinite but indeterminate.”

Health care reform will continue to fail us, but we will fail to arrange and allocate care in relation to an ethical imperative rather than a miserly economistic imperative. We need a language of partial subjection in order to produce a politics of ethical possibility. A sufficient response to definite need is something that is intelligible in the spatio-temporality of needs encountered “one at a time.” Likewise, the range of existing assets, and the generosity of the community—and here I include the state as simply a part of community—needs to be encountered in their particularity also. While this indeterminate mobilization of social surplus, generosity and ethical commitment is what allows for the Rio Grande to succeed—the success of community health centers elsewhere would depend on the identification of definite resources (and constraints) that occur in any given area.

Fifty years ago people took the risk and they built these hospitals, we need to do it again. And we just need to get it done… Get the hospital built and let the person whose going to be here ten years from now worry about it. I mean that sounds callous but that’s what it amounts to. (Norman 2005)

Derrida taught us that an act can only be considered ethical when the outcome of the act is uncertain. What is clear from his statement here is that Norman truly is not clear what the outcome of his efforts will be but he is willing to act anyways. Perhaps Norman’s status as an ethical agent—his willingness to take the risk in order to “get it done”—allows us to see the typical mainstream approach to health care reform, as mired in a masculine sexuated logic of impossibility, as an imaginary solution whose elegance and inevitable failure leaves things exactly as they are. The imagined social harmony between the conservation of capital and the equitable allocation of care is never arrived at and this failure is symptomatic of a castrating approach to health care reform.

In contrast, Norman’s capacity to meet the needs of the immediate community, his adoption of the standard of a sufficient response in relation to definite pressing needs, is sustained not by the idea of a final/fantastic end point but a spirit akin to what Zizek describes as “enthusiastic resignation.” Through Norman we can come to see the difference between the failure to embody (the reconciliation of equitable health care allocation and continued economic growth) versus a failure in relation one’s ethical principles (to care and accept whatever comes as a result of this commitment).

How is that Norman came across this affective disposition, this willingness to pass to the act?

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Friday, July 27, 2007

labor unions in the U.S. fight for apartheid!

a recent story in the forward reports that leaders of american labor unions are stepping up to support israeli apartheid by undermining opposition to it by british unions.

many union leaders have signed on to a letter by the jewish labor committee bashing* the growing movement for anti-apartheid divestment, boycotts and sanctions by the british labor unions. these signatories unfortunately include ron gettelfinger, the head of my old union, the UAW. it also includes major unions like the AFL-CIO, right-wing unions like the IBEW and the teamsters, and some allegedly progressive unions like UNITE-HERE. notably absent are the SEIU and the left-wing unions such as UE, who tend not to join the frenzied mob when israel gets challenged.

my old local, by the way, UAW local 2322 in western mass, overwhelmingly - in fact, unanimously, if i recall correctly - approved a resolution to support divestment back in 2003. unfortunately, in the UAW the wishes of the rank-and-file bear little resemblance to what's expressed by the leadership.

this wrongheaded approach by U.S. unions contrasts with their positions during the apartheid era in south africa, where unions worldwide took a stand against apartheid. it also contrasts with union attitudes in the rest of the world, even the english-speaking world. in britain, a number of unions have passed resolutions calling for private sanctions against israel, or for encouraging their branches to consider sanctions. in canada, a major public-sector union in ontario, CUPE, voted unanimously for sanctions.

and of course, south african trade unions, whose membership has directly experienced apartheid and remembers the solidarity of international unions, is far in the lead in opposing israeli apartheid. as willie madisha, president of COSATU, south africa's congress of trade unions, says:

As someone who lived in apartheid South Africa and who has visited Palestine I say with confidence that Israel is an apartheid state. ... workers and democrats of the world ... heeded our call when we struggled against apartheid. Boycotts, disinvestments, and sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa hastened our march to democracy. Why should it be different for Palestinians?

* otherwise normal people often go crazy when israeli racism is challenged. at some point i may tell the instructive story of the hysterical reaction to the umass divestment campaign, including by many people who are considered respectable and who consider themselves progressive.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

academy fights: round 2 to the fascists

this past june, professor norman finkelstein was denied tenure by depaul university thanks to a concerted effort by alan dershowitz. yesterday, the university of colorado fired tenured professor ward churchill thanks to an effort by the horowitz-ACTA crowd.

i remember long ago reading an essay by stephen king in which he instructed his readers how to act when they've heard of a case of censorship: to immediately get the censored material and read it. censorship usually targets interesting and relevant ideas. finkelstein and churchill have not been censored, but they have been punished for their political views by a system that is supposed to reward intellectual accomplishment and protect the academy from political intimidation. for the enemies of critical thought, actual censorship is not a viable short-term goal, so they are instead making inroads into a more manageable goal: distorting academic debate by intimidating faculty who are independent-minded and critical in tone.

in the case of finkelstein and churchill, i happen to have read extensively of both of their works, and i recommend them without reservation. they are two of the sharpest analytical minds that i've ever read, and they both write clearly and engagingly on important topics. it is partly for these reasons that they are being targeted by the enemies of intellect. for these reasons i suggest that the appropriate response to this particular attack on critical thinking is to read these authors.

neither decision was plausible on its merits. in finkelstein's case, there was no pretense of applying the universal standards for tenure - quality of teaching and research. he was denied tenure for his "tone". if this seems like a subjective non-standard, that's because it is. he was denied tenure because conservatives don't like what he writes, and because twice he's made the conservative intellectual establishment look very, very foolish. first as a graduate student, by exposing joan peters' anti-palestinian propaganda tome "from time immemorial" as a fraud; then by demonstrating the extraordinary stupidity and absence of merit in alan dershowitz's anti-palestinian book "the case for israel".in churchill's case, there was a pretense of applying a reasonable standard - he was accused of research misconduct. but the pretense is transparent. the president of the university who recommended his termination is a right-wing ideologue who belongs to ACTA, a highly ideological group, founded by lynne cheney and joe lieberman, dedicated to opposing critical thinking in the academy about history and politics. when it became public knowledge a few years ago that churchill had written a highly inflammatory essay about 9-11, the university president promised to subject churchill's writings to an extraordinary level of scrutiny, and convened a committee that did so. in a report that is itself subject to complaints of misconduct (but has not been investigated), the committee concluded that churchill had plagiarized and falsified information relating to native american history, though not in any scholarly writing. the faculty panel charged with making a recommendation recommended against dismissing prof. churchill. as prof. gary leupp has suggested, if "boards of regents in this country were to investigate and punish the falsification of Native American history by scholars, or if society in general were to investigate such falsification in the media, popular culture and political discourse, we’d all be in for a very time-consuming process resulting in a whole lot of people out of jobs." the president, however, overruled the faculty's recommendation and recommended dismissal to the university's board of regents, which rubber-stamped his recommendation 8-1, with no public debate.

these attacks on the academy can't be seen separately from the ascendancy of fascism generally, including the bush administration's war on civil liberties, the erosion of institutions and laws intended to protect us from centralized power, and the increasing concentration of wealth and centralization of power, in this country and worldwide. follow my recommendation, do yourself and the world a favor, and read finkelstein and churchill.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

dissertation title #36: David Lynch, or the Feminization of Alfred Hitchcock

the saint, as always, proves inspirational

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